Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Airport Sleuths: Each and Every One of Us

Over my long and checkered airport-using career, I’ve had many occasions to grumble about the poor state of repair at airports I’ve visited from pavement markings to taxiway signs to wandering loose objects (1 steer, 1 saw horse) on the tarmac. Rather than just complain, I’ve made it a habit to be proactive and DO something about it.
The famous comment by JFK at his inaugural speech in 1961 ( “Ask not what your country can do for you but rather ask what you can do for your country”)  set me to thinking about how we, as vitally interested users of our airports could give something back to that real estate we call an airport which supports our passion for flight.  If you think about it, keeping our airports in good conditions is vitally important to all of us.
My oldest memory goes to my night checkout in July of 1969 with my first instructor, Tom Treadwell, at the Gnoss Field (KDVO). Amazingly, my logbook shows no night flights until after I got my private license, but we did an hour’s worth of practice that night, at the Santa Rosa Air Center (O01) an old Navy base airport with no lights, just moonlight.  Chalk up one good memory of having an experienced instructor on board who knew the terrain, making sure my landing light worked and a bright moon-lit night to keep me oriented.  I quickly began to appreciate the value of runway lights and those who maintained them. 
Several months later, I returned to this airport and while talking to the FBO, we heard a local pilot report something like “teeth on the runway” which made no sense. Asking him to “say again,” we got a better explanation:  “Beef on the hoof!” he yelled, and then followed up with “Cattle on the runway!”  Figuring that the mix of cows and airplanes was a recipe for disaster, we sprang into action, called the Airport Manager who I assume located the cow’s owners for a quick round-up. Remembering the night landings I’d made there a few months before, I’d decided to cool my plans for landing there after dark…moon or no moon.
Later, while running my own weekend ground school, I happened to land at Salina, Kansas one night in my N35 Bonanza, trying to beat the approaching thunderstorm.  My partner, a very experienced pilot, had often barked at me for not landing exactly on the centerline. Tonight I was dead on…and thus avoided disaster.   As we rolled out on runway 35, something flashed by me out the pilot’s window which was scary enough to make me taxi back (the runway was 12,300’ long) to take a better look.  To my horror I saw a wooden saw horse now just 20 feet or so left of centerline, used to block off an adjacent closed taxiway, which had been blown out onto the active runway. Had I done my usual “slightly left of centerline” landing…I’d have hit it with my left wing. I quickly reported it to the FSS (where I actually spent that night sleeping in a large armchair, awaiting the passage of that line of thunder bumpers) who issued a NOTAM on the spot.   That memory has served me well for many years, keeping most all of my touchdowns on the centerline, just in case.
As my airline career progressed, I found myself reporting more and more “hazards to aviating,” many of them noticed while sitting in line waiting for take-off.  SFO was particularly prone to quick growing weeds at the approach end of 1R. The signage for the split that n Taxiway Alpha makes into A1 and A2 was sometimes impossible to see due to the grasses fluttering in the breeze, covering the bank of taxi signs.  LAX was another spot where we’d often be asked to hold short of Sierra while taxiing east on Bravo.  One day I noticed there was no “S” marking on B, but only over on the adjacent Charlie taxiway.  On both occasions I gave ground control a heads up when the frequency chatter calmed down enough to explain the problem.
I often fly to KMRY and occasionally land on 28R.  The subsequent taxi often takes me down the centerfield taxiway and on one trip the tower told me to: “Hold short of taxiway Juliet on Bravo” before crossing 28L.  I was westbound and unfortunately the sign for “Juliet” for not visible to an airplane taxiing West as I was, only for those who were eastbound, assumedly heading for the approach ends of 28L or 28R.  Figuring it was important to know just where I was, I taxied just past the intersection, turned the airplane around in a half circle and looked to see if it was indeed Juliet.  Figuring us little guys should have good signage (since we were probably the only ones who ever came Westbound on that piece of concrete), I called the tower and later the Airport Manager to tell them “Juliet” needed another sign on the Westbound side to assist us in seeing just where we were.
You’ve no doubt got many memories of situations you’ve encountered, and hopefully you’ve called and/or written up your share of NASA reports (now renamed ASRS reports at www.asrs.arc.nasa.gov) when you’ve encountered a dangerous situation. The good news is we now have even more resources to help us report problems at our local airports, including www.airnav.com where you can quickly find out who’s responsible for the maintaince of your favorite landing sites. 
Please help the rest of us and be proactive when it comes to reporting situations that need attention. If it’s an issue that needs help from more than what may be available at your local level,  contact Cal Pilots (www.calpilots.org) with as much information as possible ( who, what, where, and when as well as the contact info – yours and theirs) so we can help make sure that the issue gets proper attention. 
Sleuth on, ye California Aviators…we need your eyes, ears, fingers and voice to make sure our airports are there to enjoy for many years to come.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Safety is a Working Heater (or easily assessible warm clothing!)

I’ve always thought of myself as “flying prepared.”  I’ve got an extra warm jacket, bottled water, blankets and various other types of survival gear in the back of my airplane, plus I’m superstitious about flying in clothing that wouldn’t’ serve me well at a crash site (shorts, sandals, etc.).  

So it was with nary a second thought that I took off one December day for an hour and a half flight from Santa Barbara to Oakland. Climbing up through 5500 feet MSL, I decided that it was time for some heat from my Baron’s nose-mounted Janitrol heater.To fire up the heater (and I mean fire up, as it’s a small gas heater that has its own Hobbs meter to ensure proper inspections are performed in a timely manner),  you first push the cabin air lever “in” half way to be sure there’s air for combustion. Then, switch on the heater so it can mix the air with the fuel and begin its smelly process of warming the cabin.  However, the lever MUST be at least half way pushed in to allow enough air for combustion.  No air, no heat. 

I began the process of turning on the heater by trying to push the air lever all the way in (forward)…and trying to push the air lever…and then realizing that the air lever was stuck and no amount of pushing (either 1-handed, 2-handed or by using my shoe to bang on it) was going to move that frozen lever inwards.   Since that air lever controls the flow of outside air into the cabin, I had been flying  for the past few months with the air lever mostly “off” (pulled out) to regulate the cabin temperature, not needing the heater and preferring instead to just stop the cold air inflow by closing off that infamous lever which was now stuck in the “no air” position.

Fortunately, I had a blanket at hand, but only a thin one that just barely did a sufficient job of keeping my lower extremities warm.  My upper body was now beginning to chill as the OAT plunged toward +5C at 8500 feet.  Thinking about my jacket in the aft baggage, I quickly discarded any thought to trying to get to it and instead put my freezing hands inside the soft lined bag I use to hold my headset. Bagged hands are no substitute for warm gloves, believe me.

I asked ATC for a descent to 4500 MSL as soon as the MEA (minimum enroute altitude) would permit, hoping the temperature would increase as I got to a lower altitude, but no such luck.  It was still around +7C as the cold front was just arriving in the area, turning our balmy weather into a very chilly and windy Friday afternoon.  Landing at OAK, I made a beeline for the FBO where I could park, retrieve my sweater, jacket and gloves to warm up my frozen parts.  

Safety wise, I now realize how much of my time I was spent during the flight worrying about my overly-chilled body.  Thinking back, it’s obvious that the infamous air lever needs to go on my cabin preflight checklist, if only to move it in and out before each flight to ensure it functions properly when I need it. As for warm clothing, having it close at hand, ever if you never use it, is the best insurance possible, to avoid the possibility of an inflight diversion or frost bitten body parts.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Bingo Fuel: You are Always on My Mind

#6 of my series Behind the Cockpit Door

If you’re a pilot, you’ve probably heard the term “Bingo Fuel” but may not know how much it’s “always on my mind.”  The term refers to what concerns all pilots, especially those of us who are rationed or carry other than full tanks of fuel.  Many passengers don’t realize that airlines almost NEVER fill their fuel tanks…they take what they need plus reserves and contingency fuel to get them to their destination.  That way, there’s more weight allowed for passengers and cargo.

Bingo fuel is a number, and a sacred one, that I’d write in the margin of my flight plans to indicate how low the fuel could go before I HAD to land or proceed to the alternate airport. I always had in mind my personal minimum fuel that needed to be on board as the wheels touched down at (hopefully) the destination.  Adding to that how much I needed to get to that touchdown spot from the holding pattern gave me that “bingo fuel” number which was carved in stone during the trip planning stage, when the heat of the battle was nowhere to be seen. The difference between the FOD or fuel over destination, calculated by the dispatcher as he prepared our computerized flight plan, and the bingo number I wrote down was how long we could “hang around” or delay until I felt we HAD to leave holding and head for our landing site.   

One afternoon as we departed LAX for IAH (Houston Intercontinental Airport), a trip of some 1275 nm or approximately 3 hours flying time, that difference really got my attention. We were scheduled to arrive in the IAH area with 18.0 (18,000) lbs of fuel.  My bingo fuel was 9.0 (9,000) and so there was a lots to spare…  Usually we need to add fuel, so having extra meant that something was going on which required a call to the dispatcher.  “What’s up” I inquired as I was glad to have the extra fuel, but wondered what was so bad as to cause him to give us almost an hour and a half of holding time? “Unforecast thunderstorms in the area, moving slowing ENE,” he told me.  Ah, the dreaded afternoon thunder bumpers that were the mainstay of Texas spring and summer weather. 

With that information in hand, I’d still kept my Bingo Fuel at 9.0 (6.0 @ touchdown + 3.0 to get there from holding) and looked carefully at the two alternate airports I’d had in my pocket as escape plans: Austin and San Antonio. Our flight into IAH would pass directly between them, so I had some options for landing spots if the bad weather persisted (as it was known to do) and hung around, possibly closing IAH as a destination.

We entered the holding pattern at 32,000 feet, waiting for the airport to reopen. As we moved down in the stack of airplanes awaiting clearance to proceed to IAH, the chatter became less and less as more airplanes reached their bingo fuel number and left for their alternate airport.  We kept a close eye on the fuel gauges, watching our fuel on board decrease from 18.0 pounds down to 17, 16, 15, now 14. I began to be less certain that we had enough to wait it out. We’d be down to 9.0 shortly and would have to leave the holding pattern and go to our alternate.  Finally, like a cliffhanger mystery, just as we’re about to yell “Uncle!” the controller said “You’re cleared to the IAH airport, descent and maintain 10,000 feet, you’re number 1 for the approach.” What had seemed like an excessive fuel load back in LAX 4 hours earlier had now saved us from an expensive diversion allowing us to be the first in line to land when the airport reopened.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Personal Fuel Minimums

#5 of my series Behind the Cockpit Door

Everybody’s got their own personal fuel minimums, but as a new captain it’s sometimes hard to figure out just what that number should be for a specific flight on a specific day for a given city pair, particularly if it’s a new destination for you or you’ve not flown there  in the recent past.

For many years I avoided flying into Newark (EWR) as we were constantly cursed with the dreaded “OPEC One” arrival: a low altitude, circuitous routing that seemed to take forever as New York Approach had to vector airliners arriving from the south and southwest to a position North of the airport in order to make a southerly landing.  Just when you could see the airport, they would vector you away from the field and start a long lazy circle that seemed to be an endless chain of follow-the-leader.  Flying at 6000 feet for most of the route, you watched your fuel gauges decrease from a comfortable margin as the Jet A was consumed at a great rate, probably 2-3 times the rate we burn at the higher cruise altitudes.

Adding extra fuel for landings at EWR was part of my insurance policy, particularly if they were landing to the South and I knew my arrival route would have me flying that OPEC One procedure.  My biggest concern was to land with enough fuel to keep my heart rate normal in case of an unexpected go-around, an airport closure or some other unforeseen anomaly.  Consequently, the first thing I always looked at on the flight plan was FOD or fuel over destination. 

If the weather was bad and I had an alternate airport listed (and the fuel to get there, make an approach or 2 as well as extra holding fuel) I would normally rest easier, knowing the dispatcher was required to put on extra fuel required by FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations). I just needed to check the holding fuel to make sure we had enough “hang around” time before we called “bingo” and headed off to the specified alternate airport, or chose a different more weather-friendly one.  

It was almost contradictory how having a cloudy weather forecast at the destination could  actually be a relief.  That way I didn’t have to think about all the possible problems which could occur on a nice clear day, when the azure blue sky can produce a rather false sense of security. Instead, the regulations dictated lots of extra fuel and I could easily justify adding more if I thought it necessary with my reasoning that the more time we had to hold, the more likely we were to get the passengers to exactly where they wanted to go.