Monday, May 11, 2015

Fuel Pushing

#4 of my series Behind the Cockpit Door

It sounds like a weird notion, Fuel Pushing, but it’s my description of the pressure that can be placed upon the Captain from other airline personnel, be it a dispatcher, a load planner, a gate agent or a supervisor to take less fuel on a particular flight to allow more passengers to be boarded. 
Jet fuel is, after all, weight (at 6.7 pounds per gallon).  If the fuel load is reduced by 1000 pounds (149 Gallons) that’s equal to the weight of 5 or 6 more passengers who can be accommodated on the flight.  Getting passengers from point A to point B, is the name of the game in the airline business, hence the occasional overwhelming push to get the pilot to agree to less fuel which means filling more seats on the airplane, particularly if it’s the last flight of the day and the airline may have to bump passengers and pay the expense of their overnight stay.
As a new captain it’s easy to be caught up in the desire to “help out” while losing sight of the most important issue of all, safety.  Early in my captain career, I found myself the victim of extreme fuel pushing on a winter flight from Boston to Denver where we had very strong headwinds requiring more fuel than normal to make the trip.  Like every captain, I had developed my own personal minimums (which I’ll talk about in another blog) and it was tough to withstand the pressure from so many pleadings to just reduce the fuel by another 1000 pounds, please. 
My argument went something like this:  “It’s not my fault that the airplane doesn’t have the ability to carry all the passengers you want to take AND the fuel I feel we need to safely make this length of flight. I’ll be happy to make a fuel stop (which, if properly planned and coordinated, can be done with as little as 20 minutes of extra time), but I’m not taking less fuel given the strong headwinds and forecast arrival fuel on the flight plan with the current fuel load.”  After being approached by just one more “pusher” (out of a total of 4 or 5 various airline personnel) I thought to myself, “now what part of NO don’t you understand?”

Friday, April 17, 2015

Good Timing is Important

#3 of My Series: Behind the Cockpit Door

My work and life mantra of being proactive and giving people the tools they need to do their job has been uppermost in my mind on every one of my flights in my 27 years of flying as a Captain. Learning when to open my mouth to be proactive soon became the third tenant of my now 3-part personal philosophy:  Be Proactive, Provide the Tools, and Timing is Crucial.  I abbreviate it as PTT or (be) Proactive, (give ‘em the proper) Tools, and Timing (is crucial). 

Using PTT one day on a round trip flight from Houston to Orlando, I decided to take action when I saw we would be late leaving Houston and suspected that would likely snowball into a late arrival back into Houston on the return flight.  I figured I could forward my request to the dispatcher early for extra fuel to fly faster than normal on the return trip in order to make up for lost time and hopefully get the airplane back on schedule when it returned to Houston.

It was a good proactive plan, but, as I was to later learn, bad timing on my part.  As I talked to my dispatcher for the outbound flight and asked him to forward a request for more fuel on the return flight, I didn’t account for the possibility that there might be a dispatcher shift change or that my message could easily get garbled or possibly lost.  Happy to finally get on board our late-arriving airplane, we began our preparations for the delayed outbound flight.  We were making good progress through our checklist until we got to the item called “Flight Plan.”   The First Officer (co-pilot) said, “Captain, there’s something strange here. Our uplinked computer flight plan is wrong, very wrong!”  I took one look at it and realized my error.  I was looking at the return flight plan FROM Orlando to Houston, not the one we needed to fly TO Orlando!

In his desire to help fulfill my “proactive request” the dispatcher had sent us the wrong flight plan data, causing us an unnecessary delay and a flurry of corrective activity at a time when we were already late and chomping at the bit to get moving.  It took us another ten minutes to request a new (correct) flight plan which was the only way practical way to delete the wrong flight plan.  Several cell calls to the dispatcher later, I realized that the real problem was my desire to plan ahead into an area where the wrong timing on my part could easily result in some unwanted and delay-producing results.   

Had I kept my mouth shut and waited until we were airborne, THEN made my request via our single-finger typing system used for sending airborne messages, I could have save everyone a whole lot of hassle. So now I’ve modified my “Timing is Crucial” to include a footnote:  Give ‘em what they need WHEN they need it. Too much info at the wrong time is as bad as no info at all!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Correct Fuel Loading Crucial

#2 of My Series: Behind the Cockpit Door

In my last blog we talked about having too much fuel…now let’s discuss what happens when you’ve put it in the wrong place…

Just when you think you’re comfortable and have the fuel you need, things can get tricky.  You may think that figuring out how much fuel you need is all you have to worry about, but that still leaves the big concern of making sure the airplane gets fueled with that amount, and finally, is it in the right place? 
I learned my lesson one morning departing Houston for Los Angeles with what appeared to be plenty of fuel for the planned flight.  Our gauges in the Boeing 757 have a digital totalizer which is what I looked at to confirm that we did, indeed, have the required fuel, 37.5 (or 37,500 pounds). Thinking all was well, I went back to checking the rest of my instruments and reviewing the weather for the planned flight.  Once the main cabin door was closed, we began our before pushback checklist which starts with the item “Fuel.”  Looking more closely at the 4 gauges (one for each wing tank, one for the center and one giving the total of all three gauges), I saw my error. 

The total quantity of 37.5 was fine, but the location of the fuel was not.  Proper procedures call for filling the wings to capacity first, then putting the remaining fuel in the center tank.  This had not been done correctly and I’d failed to notice the problem: the fuel in the center tank needed to be moved to fill the wings until they were full; only then could the rest of the fuel be put into the center tank. 

We could not depart the gate in this condition, so I now called Maintenance, asked them to send a fuel truck and a mechanic who could make the transfer using special valves installed in the fueling panel under the right wing.

I also had to explain the delay to the passengers since we would not be pushing back from the gate until the fuel transfer was complete.  Embarrassed, but following my “honesty is the best policy” motto, I explained the situation and told them I expected the delay to be minimal.  As a matter of fact, because we were delayed in leaving the gate and missed the morning westbound flight rush hour, we actually got out to the runway a bit sooner than some of the other airplanes who had been ready to leave at the same time. 

Since we were able to take our delay at the gate rather than on the tarmac (a term, by the way, which pilots rarely use...they say, instead, ramp or taxiway, depending on where we are located) we avoided the tedious stop-and-go process and taxied directly to the departure runway where we were cleared for takeoff without delay.  It was a nice reward after feeling chagrined at my dumb mistake and a good reminder that it always pays to read the gauges carefully, not just look at them in haste.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fuel: How much is enough?

#1 of My Series: Behind the Cockpit Door

“You never can have too much fuel, unless you are on fire.”  That’s what pilots jokingly tell each other until they realize that there’s a point at which having more fuel goes from being a good thing to being a big problem.  

Returning to my Boeing 757-300 in Las Vegas one day after checking our flight plan for the return trip to Houston, I was approached by a terrified fueler who confessed to me that he had confused my airplane with the one parked at the gate next door which was headed for Newark, NY.  Horrified at having put almost 3 extra hours of fuel in my plane, he explained that the flight to Newark always parked at this gate and it was his mistake in not reading carefully the ship number painted on the nose gear door before he started to fuel the airplane to be sure he had the correct airplane.  

Now it would be a critical issue as to whether we could make the flight without having to defuel the airplane since we had both a maximum takeoff weight (which was no problem on this relatively short flight), but more importantly, a maximum landing weight concern.

You might think that fueling an airliner for an upcoming flight is akin to refueling your car but precise fuel planning and then verifying that the airplane has the fuel on board (FOB) which you requested is another crucial concern and is definitely at the top of every pilot’s critical preflight list. 

When considering fuel for a flight, pilots thoughts range from do I have enough fuel, to will I have to fight with the dispatcher (sitting in his comfy office many miles away) for extra fuel, to am I Iegal to begin or continue the flight, to do they have enough time to get me all the fuel I will need, to will the airplane actually be heavier than planned and burn more than the forecast fuel or possibly need to land overweight (which will require a time-consuming inspection at the destination)? All these issues influence how much fuel is actually boarded for any particular flight. In this case, the key word was one small digit. The fueler had put the fuel load for ship 868 on ship 861 and created a real problem.

Landing overweight has many ramifications, not the least of which are required inspections, decreased tire and landing gear life as well as expensive schedule delays for all involved.  We did fly that flight with the fuel load as wrongly boarded, spending the full flight time carefully calculating how to burn up as much fuel as possible in order not to land overweight. We had to decline any short cuts or expeditious vectors that ATC kindly offered us, explaining that we may have been in the fuel-saving mode yesterday, but today it was a case of needing to burn the excess before reaching Houston to prevent a possible overweight landing.

Having had a career filled mostly with the opposite problem (not enough fuel on board, rather than too much), it was eye-opening to see how the reverse problem could also consume much of one’s focus on what should have been a routine flight.