April 19, 2016

Windshear: Lessons Learned

Delta Air Lines Flight 191 left Fort Lauderdale, Florida bound for the Dallas - Fort Worth International Airport on August 2, 1985. The Lockheed L-1011, carrying 152 passengers and 11 crew members, encountered a microburst during the final moments of the flight and crashed short of what was then Runway 17L (Now Runway 17C). The crash killed 136 people onboard the aircraft and the driver of a car that was struck while driving on Highway 114 just north of the airport. I was a 17-year-old kid at the time, backpacking through the backcountry of Colorado on the day of the accident. 2 days passed before I heard about what happened and it would be another 2 days before I learned that my father, a DFW based L-1011 First Officer at the time, was not involved.

The National Transportation Safety Board cited the lack of specific training, policies, and procedures for avoiding and escaping low-altitude windshear, as well as the lack of onboard microburst detection equipment as major causes. The radar equipment onboard most airliners at the time was capable of detecting rain showers and thunderstorms, but it was unable to detect windshear.

Today, windshear and microbursts are a part of every airline pilot’s initial and recurrent training. Also, ground based warning systems are installed at major airports around the world and even the aircraft themselves are capable of predicting windshear and microburst events before they are encountered.

Fast forward 31 years…

ACARS weather report from another flight.
Nearing the top of descent, I was the pilot flying as we neared the end of a 5-hour flight from Panama City, Panama to Dallas, Texas. The sun had long since dipped below the horizon and the night was dark. With an undercast below and no moon above, the only visible light outside the cockpit came from the glow of city lights from beneath the clouds and an occasional pop of lightning from storms that were well past our destination, but that appeared much closer. The Captain ripped a weather report off the ACARS printer and read the important details aloud. Everything on the report was basically in-line with the forecasted weather conditions except for the wind, which was stronger than expected, blowing from 310 degrees at 12 knots gusting to 26 knots.

Red Flag… 

Runways 35R, 35C, and 36L were in use for arriving aircraft. The runway heading for all three runways is 356 degrees, which, taking the gusts into account, translated to approximately a 20 knot crosswind. The airport has 2 additional runways that were almost directly aligned with the wind, but, for various reasons, those runways are rarely used except when crosswinds are out of limits for landing and departing aircraft. That certainly wasn’t the case on this flight, but it wasn’t the 20 knot crosswind that raised the red flag, it was the 14 knot gust. The maximum demonstrated crosswind of our Boeing 737-800 is 33 knots, well above the 20 knots reported at the airport, but the 14 knot gust foreshadowed a turbulent approach.

I gave my standard approach briefing to the Captain and set up for a visual approach with a flaps 30 landing. Coming in from the southeast, we would most likely be assigned Runway 35C; but, our gate was on the west side of the airport and I was feeling optimistic, so we set up for Runway 36L. I wasn’t overly concerned about the wind. It had been a long day and I had assumed my late night arrival would end with an easy, smooth air approach and landing, but that was really the extent of my concern. Even so, the turbulent conditions ahead must have been on my mind as I ended my brief by saying, “If we don’t like what we see, we’ll go-around and reevaluate.” “Sounds good to me,” said the Captain.

I turned the radar on as we passed through 20,000 feet. It was clear that we would enter the cloud tops soon and I have learned (the hard way, I might add) that you should always have the radar on when you don’t have a clear view of what lies ahead. There weren’t any returns indicated on the radar, so we pressed on and got a much smoother ride through the clouds than I expected. As we descended through the bases of the clouds at approximately 10,000 feet, I could tell I wasn’t going to need the radar and turned it off. 

After descending another couple thousand feet, I told the Captain that I had the runway in sight and he relayed this information to the approach controller. We were vectored onto the localizer for Runway 36L, informed of traffic ahead, and cleared for a visual approach. The ride had deteriorated at this point, and as I intercepted the glideslope, the airspeed was fluctuating by 8 to 10 knots. The air was quite a bit rougher than I expected it would be and the airplane was bouncing around enough that I had trouble focusing on the instruments. I did my best to bracket the airspeed between too fast and too slow.

When instructed to do so, the Captain switched over to the tower frequency just in time to hear the aircraft ahead, a Bombardier CRJ700, announce that he was going around. No explanation…just going around. I was a little task saturated at that moment, and considering the fact that I may have missed something, I voiced the thought as it entered my mind: “They’re going around? Did they say why?” Maybe the pilot was uncomfortable with the crosswind. Maybe he was unstable on the approach. Could it be a mechanical problem? That was wishful thinking. Maybe it was windshear. This situation was beginning to feel like a “what would you do now” question in an airline interview. 

What would you do now?

As I write this, I remember the 1999 job interview hosted by my current employer. They had me in a tiny room, just big enough for three chairs and a small table. I sat across from two pilots, a Captain and a First Officer, both line pilots at the airline. I was surprisingly comfortable in my grey suit and red tie, and I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the questions they had to ask. I was well prepared and specifically remember thinking that the interview was going well. It would have been much easier to explain the correct course of action for my current situation while sitting in that interview than it was to process and act on the same information in the heat of battle. But that’s exactly why windshear escape maneuvers are an important part of every recurrent training cycle.

Thanks in part to the lessons learned from Delta 191, my 737 is equipped with a windshear detection system. Activation of this system is automatic and invisible to me as the pilot. Even with the weather radar system turned off, windshear detection is automatically activated as I descend through 2,300 feet above the touchdown zone. Additional WARNINGS and CAUTIONS are enabled as I passed through 1,200 feet. The system scanned the airspace ahead and would issue a windshear WARNING if a windshear event was detected within .25 NM of the longitudinal axis of the aircraft and within 30 degrees of the aircraft heading. A windshear CAUTION would be generated if a windshear event was detected within 30 degrees of the aircraft heading and less than 3 NM from the aircraft.

Automation in the cockpit is a fantastic thing that I’ve learned to trust and appreciate, but there’s also some old fashioned pilotage at work. If the windshear detection system sounded an alarm, we would certainly execute a missed approach. However, in addition to an aircraft alerted windshear, there is a specific list of uncontrolled changes from normal, steady state flight conditions that would necessitate a go-around.

An uncommanded:
  •  1 dot displacement from the glide slope
  • 5 degrees change in pitch attitude
  •  15 knot change in indicated airspeed
  • 500 fpm change in vertical speed
  • Unusual thrust lever positions for a significant period of time

These metrics are so ingrained in my thought process that it wasn’t necessary for me to list them, one by one, in my head as I flew the approach. The air was turbulent and the airplane was bouncing around enough that we were close to meeting several, if not all, of those conditions from the time we intercepted the glide slope. 

It bears mentioning that rough approaches aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Large airspeed fluctuations and rough air is common, especially at certain times of the year, at certain airports, and when flying in and around certain weather patterns. The ride was uncomfortable and I was working hard to keep the airplane under control; but, other than the unexplained go-around ahead, I still didn’t see a valid excuse to abandon the approach. Flashing back to my 1999 interview one more time, my answer hadn’t changed: I’d continue the approach. 

Predictive Windshear

At about 500 feet above the ground, the aircraft sounded the alert. “Go around! Windshear ahead!” I called out the standard litany I’d practiced so many times in the simulator, “Go around, flaps 15, positive rate, gear up.” 

We didn’t actually fly through the windshear. That’s an important distinction because it determined how I executed the go-around. If we had flown through an actual windshear, standard procedure would have dictated a few very important differences from a normal go-around. These differences are designed to emphasize the severity of the situation and maximize aircraft performance. First of all, I would have announced “escape” instead of “go-around” so that we were all on the same page regarding the procedure that we were performing. Then, I would have simultaneously disconnected the autopilot and autothrottle, pushed the TO/GA switch, and “aggressively” applied full thrust. Also, I would have rolled the wings level to get as much lift as possible working the correct direction and I would have pulled the nose of the aircraft up to an initial pitch attitude of 15 degrees. Changing the aircraft’s configuration (For example, raising the landing gear or retracting the flaps) is prohibited until the windshear event is over, but it is vitally important to ensure that the speed brakes are retracted.

Our go-around, and the one from the CRJ ahead of us on the approach, were the only two that occurred.  There was a Boeing 737 on the approach behind us that elected to continue and landed without incident. By the time we came around for another attempt at the approach, 5 other aircraft had successfully flown the approach. It was just as bumpy the second time around, but I managed to squeak out an especially smooth landing. I’ve always believed that there’s a little bit of luck involved with any good landing, especially when the conditions are poor. Besides, as the old saying goes, I’d rather be lucky than good.

As we taxied off the runway, I transferred control to the Captain and began my after landing duties. I noticed my hands were shaking a little, as they do sometimes when my adrenaline really gets pumping. The Captain asked me if I had noticed the windshear depicted on the radar screen at the time of the windshear warning. I had not. As I mentioned before, even with the radar system turned off, the windshear alerting system had begun to scan the airspace in front of the aircraft automatically. It’s something the system does on every takeoff and landing regardless of the anticipated conditions.

Even with the weather radar turned off, the windshear system automatically activated and displayed the location of the windshear. Apparently, when it popped up on the display, the windshear was slightly ahead and to the left of our track. We flew right past and probably a little above it as we executed the go-around. I had my hands full of airplane as I was struggling to see and make sense of fluctuations in airspeed, altitude, and attitude. This was a procedure I rarely perform outside of the simulator-training environment. I don't believe my course of action would have been different if I had seen the windshear on the display, but this was definitely one of those times that justifies having two pilots in the cockpit. I was task saturated and missed something potentially important. Fortunately, the Captain saw the windshear and would have shared that information if he had deemed it relevant.

The event we avoided that night was, almost certainly, nowhere near as severe as the conditions encountered by the pilots of Delta 191. But it is a reminder that many of the rules, regulations, procedures, and safety equipment that we rely on today have often come about as a direct result of the lessons we learn from past mistakes and lives lost.

Special thanks to my friend and editor, Ryan @theAviationGeek

February 12, 2016

I can get down or slow down...I can’t do both

Coasting out over the Gulf of Mexico with the lights of Houston, Texas slowly disappearing over my shoulder, I watched the last sliver of a waning moon sink toward the horizon. Such a small amount of the moon remained, that it did nothing to illuminate the sky or anything that lie below. The stars, which seemed unusually dim that night, merged with a sea of lights from drilling rigs below. The surface of the water was indistinguishable from the sky.  Looking out of the window at what I knew was water below, I could have just as easily been upside down, looking up at the stars.

The Captain and I were less than an hour into our third leg of the day. We had been scheduled at almost 13 hours on duty with nearly 9 hours of actual flying. We were tired. The sound of the wind rushing around the cockpit windows, the “buzz saw” drone of our CFM56 engines, and the black night ahead were having a very real effect on my ability to keep both eyes open. The Captain and I exchanged knowing looks; and, in an effort to stay alert, we turned up the cockpit lights, requested a couple fresh cups of coffee, and began to focus on the descent and approach into Cancun, Mexico.

The weather in Cancun was about what you might expect at a tropical beach destination in January: Warm temperatures, clear skies, unobstructed visibility, and light winds blowing out of the north (a slight tailwind for the preferred Runway, 12L). On occasion, I will request a straight in approach and accept a light tailwind in order to expedite our arrival; however, pilots generally prefer to land into the wind.  By doing so, it reduces the necessary ground speed at touchdown and shortens the distance needed to land and stop the aircraft. It’s a good practice and increases the safety margin. The Air Traffic Controllers in Cancun prefer to use Runway 12L for arrivals and Runway 12R for departures. As long as the wind didn't exceed aircraft limitations, the Captain and I were willing, able, and happy to shave a few minutes off of an already long day. 

In contrast to the light wind conditions on the ground, the wind at 39,000 feet was blowing out of the north at just over 140 knots and was forecasted to remain unusually strong throughout our descent. These winds would certainly have to be taken into consideration when determining how much distance would be needed to get down. 

The Flight Management Computer (FMC) on a modern airliner is a capable machine that provides a plethora of information to the pilot; however, the FMC is a computer, and computers are fallible. The old adage, “bad information in, bad information out” is always on my mind when deciding how much trust to place in the FMC. Unless manually imputed into the FMC by the pilots, the FMC doesn’t know the wind conditions at any altitude other than the one currently occupied by the aircraft. The flight plan provided to me by my airline includes forecasted wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure changes at various altitudes along our planned route…information that I had already entered into the FMC.

Getting down

In case you’re wondering what we’re doing up so high in the first place, jet aircraft fly at high altitudes because the high, thin air allows us to fly faster and burn less fuel. But determining how to get an airplane from 39,000 feet down to the runway might sound a little like a word problem fit for high school math class. An airplane is flying along at 39,000 feet at a true airspeed of 465 knots. The wind is blowing from 360 degrees at 140 knots, the temperature is standard plus 10, and the pressure altitude is 29.68 at the surface. When does the pilot need to start down in order to touchdown on the runway at 150 knots? Flight Management Computers do a lot of the brain work for the pilot; but remember, computers are fallible and can't be implicitly trusted. 

Wind, temperature, and ride report from one of my recent flights.

Complicated math problems aside, I have two simple, commonly used rules of thumb to quickly confirm information provided by the FMC. First, I multiply the amount of altitude to lose by 3 to yield the miles needed to descend. I will add 1 mile for every 10 knots of airspeed I need to lose and add or subtract, as needed, to account for the wind. Second, if I can tell I won't be at 10,000 feet and 250 knots by the time I reach 30 flying miles from the airport, I will need to extend the speed brakes or come up with another plan. You could certainly make more precise computations, but these rules of thumb are effective for a quick check of the information provided by the FMC.

Radio Flyer wagon...I had one just like it!

We’ve already gone from a complicated math problem to a general rule of thumb; but, allow me to simplify things a little further. It may be a ridiculous over simplification, but getting down from cruise altitude in a jet airliner is a little like rolling down a hill in a toy wagon. When I was a kid, I had a red Radio Flyer wagon, and was a pro at finding the biggest hills in the neighborhood to race down. Picture it in your head. You crawl into your Radio Flyer at the top of a hill, nudge yourself over the top, and pull your hands and feet into the wagon. With the same wagon, the same kid, and the same hill, the wagon will travel at about the same speed each time. If you want to travel faster, find a steeper hill. If you’re a wimpy little kid and want to go slower, then pick a smaller hill. But once you’ve committed to a hill, the only way to slow down is to drag your feet.

As silly as it may sound, descending a jet airplane works in much the same way. If the pilot allows the FMC to calculate the Top Of Descent (TOD) and begins his descent at the most optimal point, the aircraft will descend with the engines at idle; and, the speed at which the airplane comes down the hill will be determined by the steepness of the hill. 

Choosing a hill

The pilot has two primary options when choosing a descent speed. He may choose a specific speed for the descent; or, he can allow the FMC to determine the most optimal speed, based on a number of predetermined factors. Either way, it's the speed that determines the rate of descent (or the steepness of the hill, so to speak). If the pilot wants to descend at Mach .78 and transition to 290 knots (SOP at my airline), then the airplane might descend at a little more than 2,000 feet per minute. If he wants to descend at 310 knots, the airplane will start down later (moving the TOD closer to the destination) and descend at a slightly faster rate in order to attain the desired speed. This would be the steeper hill. On the other hand, if the pilot wants to descend at 280 knots, the airplane will start down sooner (moving the TOD farther away from the destination), and descend at a slower rate. This would be the smaller hill. 

As long as the wind is fairly close to the forecasted conditions and the airplane's descent speed matches the plan, the airplane should fly a near perfect descent. Perfect, meaning the airplane will descend at the speed you planned and arrive at the appropriate point at the desired speed and altitude. Unfortunately, the wind is frequently different than planned and air traffic controllers have a nasty habit of changing the descent speed after you've already started down. All of your careful planning is thrown out the window. The perfect descent is rare. 

Most pilots take a lot of pride, not only in what they do, but how they do it. It isn’t enough to get the airplane down and in a position to execute a safe landing. We want to accomplish all of this as smoothly, efficiently, and safely as possible. These are important words to pilots: Smooth. Efficient. Safe. The obvious objective is to get the airplane down and slowed down in time to land, and to do so in a manner that doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of the chief pilot or the FAA. But there’s a lot more to it than that. We want to do it with finesse.  

Too High

We don’t want to come in too high. Doing so requires the use of speed brakes, or the early extension of the flaps. In extreme cases, the landing gear may even be extended to induce as much extra drag as possible. All of these techniques increase noise and induce turbulence in otherwise smooth air, and would definitely result in a deduction of points if this was some sort of competition…which it most certainly is. In addition, if the airplane comes in too high for the pilot to compensate, the approach could result in a go-around...and in a pilot's mind, a go-around earns a failing grade. 

This is a discussion for another day, but while the pilot may be a little embarrassed by a go-around, whether self-induced or not, in the eyes of most airlines and the FAA, a go-around is considered a successful termination to an approach. The pilot was able to recognize that the approach was not going to be "stable" and/or was not going to end with a safe landing, and chose to go around and try it again. Job well done. 

Most airlines insist on what they call a stable approach. This requires the airplane to be on speed, on glide path, properly configured for landing, and with the engines stabilized at approach thrust by the time the airplane descends through 1,000 feet above the touchdown zone altitude. “Stable” is defined by each airline; and, each airline may define it in slightly different terms, but the result is the same. A safe landing is statistically more probable after a stable approach, and a go-around is, arguably, an admission that we made a mistake that put the airplane in a bad position. All this makes us look bad and wastes fuel, so we carefully plan our descents to make sure that this doesn’t happen. 

Too Low

It’s much easier to compensate for getting down too soon than coming in too high. Getting down too soon almost never results in a go-around, but it does mean droning along at low altitude for an extended period of time needlessly wasting fuel. Of course, being fuel efficient is important for economic and environmental reasons, but to be perfectly honest, I preserve fuel for purely selfish reasons. Every pound of fuel I save is a pound of fuel to burn on those days when things don't go as planned. I save fuel to increase the safety margin, not the profit margin.

Back to Cancun 

After a short time in Houston Oceanic airspace, we crossed into Mexican airspace and made radio contact with Merida Center. At this position, we were able to communicate with Air Traffic Control but are unable to be seen by their radar. In my short time doing this type of flying, I've realized that Saturday is a popular day to go to the beach. Not only are the airplanes full, but there are more of them. We frequently see lengthy departure delays, speed restrictions, and vectors for spacing on the arrivals. As soon as Merida had us on their radar, we started to get big vectors off of our planned course. "Turn left heading 090. In two minutes fly direct URTEL."  This was a big turn off course…the first of many.

Each time that we turned off course, the exactly location of the Top Of Descent (TOD) became fuzzy until we got back on course. The FMS needs to be going directly to some point on the flight plan before it’s able to give accurate time, fuel, and descent predictions. As we approached the TOD, the Captain radioed Merida Center and asked for a lower altitude. We were told to "descend via the MOBAN2A arrival, cross VITAR at 4,000 feet, expect Runway 12L."  

That was the exact clearance I am accustomed to hearing and was also the arrival, runway, and altitude that I had already programmed into the FMC. I love it when a plan comes together! But then, about 2,000 feet into the descent, Merida instructed us to slow to 280 knots. I had planned on descending at 290, and they wanted 280...not a huge difference, but the change in speed effectively changed the grade of the hill. Just like rolling downhill in my wagon, the only way to slow down after starting down the hill was to drag my foot on the ground. Unable to do that, I did the next best thing and extended the speed brakes to slow the airplane while attempting to comply with the 4,000 foot crossing restriction at VITAR. 

As I mentioned before, the 10 knot difference in assigned speed wasn't that big of a deal; and, I could tell I was still going to make the altitude restriction. However, I wouldn't be able to compensate for what came next. Merida handed us off to Cancun Approach, who cut the corner on the arrival and slowed us to 250 knots, then 240, and then all the way back to 220 knots. The controller had effectively assigned me to roll down a very shallow hill, but I had expected a steep one. 

I can get down or I can slow down. I can't do both 

The words “I can get down or slow down” are commonly used by pilots, and the meaning is clear, but I think they are also words often used in an accusatory tone. As if to say, "you screwed this up and now you want me to fix it? Do you understand basic physics? I can get this thing down or I can slow it down. I cannot do both!" Of course, the controllers are doing their best to separate, sequence, and funnel multiple airplanes in an ever changing and dynamic environment, and they’re adapting as quickly as they can. I do wish they would try harder to assign descent speeds before we reach the Top Of Descent.

The key is advance notice…and that goes both ways. The pilots need as much notice as possible that slower than normal speeds will be required in the descent, and the controller needs to know as early as possible that you won’t be able comply. Overflying a navigational fix off altitude or speed, without advising ATC, is a very good way to get “violated.” Generally, the controller will either give you an off course vector to help you make the crossing restrictions, or will tell you to comply with the speed or altitude first and to do your best on the other. In our case, Cancun Approach advised us that he needed the speed first and to do our best on the altitude. Which we did. 

I was high at every fix on the arrival. But, it all came together on about a 10 mile final to the runway. I intercepted the Runway 12L ILS glide slope at an airspeed slow enough to stow the speed brakes and configure for landing. It was a lot of work getting down, and even though the air was smooth, the buffeting from the constant use of speed brakes had not resulted in a very pleasant ride for the passengers, much less the flight attendants as they attempted to clean up the cabin and prepare for landing. I felt a little redeemed after making a smooth touchdown on the runway, and I didn't hear a single complaint about the rough descent from the passengers as they deplaned. Sometimes it seems as if the landing is the only thing anyone remembers.


Special thanks to my friend and editor, Ryan. @theAviationGeek "Alaska grown Air Traffic Controller and total ."

December 15, 2015

Left Behind by the On-Time Machine

I could see the bright glow of the clock though my eyelids; and, in frustration, I placed a pillow in front of the darn thing at some point during the night. I may have cursed at it under my breath as well, but that's really between me and the clock. Knowing the time wouldn't change anything and being conscious enough to interpret the clock would only decrease the chance that I might actually fall back to sleep. I’ve learned to resist the temptation to look.

Now, wide awake and well past scheduled departure, the clock was mocking me again. Scribbled on a piece of paper next the bed was a reminder that I needed to be downstairs, ready to leave the hotel at 8am. I marked through that number hours earlier and made note of the new time…about an hour late. That time was crossed out too. Departure time for my first flight of the day had slipped a total of 8 times before I finally left the room, clad in blue polyester.

The current plan, not that I was holding my breath, was to land in Miami, Florida around 9pm, spend the night, and deadhead home the next morning…but, I had a better idea. As long as the schedule didn’t change again, I should have just enough time to catch the last flight home. It was my daughter's 18th birthday and I’d make every effort to see her before the day was over.

Once at the gate in Miami, I gathered my belongings and did my best impression of a speed-walker past the 20 or so gates that stood between me and my flight home.  On the way, I contacted crew scheduling to get permission to deviate from my schedule, all the while hoping the gate agent was in a giving mood. She wasn’t. I arrived at the gate 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, which is cutting it way too close for my liking.  I knew my chances were not good, but still…it was worth a try. Technically, our company requires me to be at the gate no later than 15 minutes prior to departure in order to gain access to the jumpseat. I had a shot.

I could feel the burn in my calves as I approached the gate, arriving just in time to see the jet bridge move away from the aircraft.  About a minute later, the agent emerged and started to shake her head "no" before I had a chance to plead my case.

It was barely less than 15 minutes before the flight was scheduled to depart. Company policy dictates that the aircraft door must be closed 10 minutes prior to departure and, in my mind, there was plenty of time to get me onboard and still meet that metric. All of the cargo doors were open and there were still several carts full of luggage to load. This was the last flight of the day. It was my daughter's 18th birthday!  I really hoped that last one would tug at the gate agent’s heartstrings, but no luck.

The reality is that I was not a paying customer, and I did arrive late...not to mention the fact that leaving me behind cost the company nothing outside of a hotel room and an employee with a sour attitude. As I walked away, I couldn’t help wonder about the true cost of the many paying customers left behind every day in the all-important quest to leave on-time.

A Dose of Reality

I’d like to get one thing out of the way before I continue. The published departure time is not the time at which the jetbridge door is closed. Departure time is not the time at which the aircraft door is closed either. I often have a similar conversation with my fellow crew members regarding hotel departure time, commonly referred to as “van time.” Van time is the time the van leaves the hotel, not the time you waltz off the elevator looking for a hot cup of coffee. The same rule applies at the airport. Departure time is the time that you and your belongings are onboard and the aircraft actually leaves the gate.  Gate Departure Time, as defined by the Department of Transportation (DOT), is the time at which “the pilot releases the aircraft parking brake after passengers have loaded and aircraft doors have been closed.” Clearly, in order for a flight to leave “on-time” in the eyes of the DOT, the jetbridge and aircraft door must be closed before the flight is actually scheduled to leave. 

With all of this in mind, most airlines close the jetbridge door 10 minutes before they actually plan for the flight to leave. It appears as though many people out there don’t understand this. From my vantage point in the cockpit, I see them saunter up to the gate a couple minutes before departure and throw a fit when they’re told their flight has already left. Yes, the plane is still sitting there, but you’ve missed it.

If I was in charge, every airline would provide passengers with the time at which it plans to close the jetbridge door and only publish the Gate Departure Time to the DOT. Everything in the airport would refer to the time the door would be closed. Only the DOT would be concerned with Gate Departure Time. Maybe that’s too complicated, but it would prevent a lot of tears and heartache.

As it stands, closing the door 10 minutes prior gives the gate agent enough time to close the aircraft door, allows the pilots time to finish last minute checklists and request clearance to push away from the gate, and allows the ground crew time to begin pushing the aircraft before the flight is counted as late.

What I’ve described here is basically common knowledge; however, what you may not realize, is just how important departing on-time is to the airlines.

The Big Picture

Like any other industry, the airlines want to make money. They’ll make more money by attracting more customers, they’ll attract more customers if they make more people happy, and they’ll make more people happy if they depart and arrive on-time. Isn’t capitalism great?  

The problem, as I see it, is that the gate agent is only looking at a small part of a significantly bigger picture. Not only that, but they’re heavily influenced by the clock. I conducted an informal poll of gate agents from three major US airlines during the month of October. All indicated substantial pressure, from above, to get flights out on-time. Some airlines reward employees financially for beating the competition’s on-time stats while others resort to threats of job action for tardy flights. One agent told me he was specifically told that he would be fired if he allowed another flight to leave late. That particular agent closed the door on one of my flights a full 20 minutes before departure. Fully aware that he was leaving a passenger behind. I had to make a few threats of my own, but we didn’t leave anyone behind and still pushed back a few minutes early.

There are times when it’s appropriate to allow a flight to leave late. If someone was paying attention to the big picture, an educated decision could be made as to whether the flight should be held for late passengers. What comprises the big picture? Frankly, a lot. Is there another aircraft on the ground waiting for the gate you’re occupying? If so, departing late could cause a connecting passenger on that flight to misconnect. Are the pilots or flight attendants running out of duty day? If so, a delayed departure could easily result in a cancelled flight. Many airports have a curfew for landing. Allowing a flight to one of those destinations to leave late could result in a diversion if the flight arrives too late to land.

On the other hand, if winds are favorable, a flight could potentially leave late and still arrive early. Earlier this month, I flew from Dallas to Boston on a flight that was originally scheduled to take 3 hours and 25 minutes. Before leaving the gate, due to stronger than normal forecasted winds aloft, we knew that we would land in Boston well ahead of schedule. With this in mind, the Captain decided to wait for a handful of late connecting passengers that would have otherwise spent the night in Dallas had we left without them. That decision saved the airline the cost of several hotel rooms and created a significant amount of goodwill with the passengers. We paid attention to the big picture and the airline took a hit for the late departure. Personally, I think it was worth it - we arrived in Boston 15 minutes early.

The obvious answer is to hire good, smart people and train them to think about the big picture. Give them access to the information they need to make wise decisions and allow them to do the job they were hired to do. Maybe I’m giving people too much credit, but I think, given the opportunity, tools, information, and training they need, most people would make an intelligent and informed decision that was best for all involved. Certainly there would be missteps, but the end result would be an improvement for the average airline passenger.
It’s All About Me

Maybe it sounds like I’ve argued in favor of that Miami gate agent leaving me behind? I don’t think so. She works for a company that threatens her with job action if flights leave late and rewards her monetarily if they leave on-time. I suppose this is done with good intentions; however, the end result is a workforce unable, unwilling, and ill-equipped to make decisions in the best interest of the company and its paying customers.

As for me, I sat in the gate area for 15 minutes that night watching the ground crew load luggage and prepare for departure. It would have taken 5 minutes, at most, to open the door and let me on; but the agent, afraid for her job, was unwilling to take that chance.

I suggest getting to the airport early. Otherwise, the on-time machine may leave you behind.

October 29, 2015

If it’s good for the airline, then it must be bad for the pilot.

[This is a “p.s.” of sorts to my last post. Click HERE if you’d like to read it for reference.]

If you’re following my daily travels on Twitter, then you know that I still occupy the right seat of a Boeing 737 and that I’ve recently started flying to mostly international destinations. I have a standing bid in place to fly the Boeing 777 or 787, whichever comes up first, and decided to dip my toe into the shallow end of the international pool. Except in rare situations, the 737 doesn’t have the legs to make it across “the pond,” however, we do fly it all over Latin America, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and a few destinations in South America. The timing of this move was intentional. I wanted to attend the international school offered by my airline and hoped to eliminate some of the newness of international flying before jumping in with both feet on larger, longer range equipment. 

However, I may have made a slight miscalculation. I made the transition at the first of September hoping to enjoy warmer temperatures and a winter on the beach while domestic pilots battled another snowmageddon. That may still be the case, but what I didn’t know, is that September is the single wettest month of the year for many of the cities in this region. The storms have been fierce. One of which, that parked itself over the island of Jamaica, resulted in my first international divert. Here’s what happened:

Let’s make a deal.

I was scheduled to fly a relatively uninteresting three day trip that signed in late on day one and ended around midnight on day three. Then, on the day before departure, the company called me at home with what they described as “a deal.” It’s a commonly held belief among pilots that if it’s good for the airline, then it must be bad for the pilot. What can I say? We’ve learned from experience.  But every now and then, a truly good deal comes around that benefits us both. You see, the company was short of pilots who were legal and available to fly the early morning departures on the following day. Apparently, they were all out of reserves and scrambling to cover the morning schedule. 

Desperate for bodies, the company agreed to remove me from my three day trip (and pay me for it) if I’d fly a three leg, one day turn. Sounded good to me! The plan was to leave Dallas early in the morning on a flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica. After about an hour in Jamaica, we would fly to Miami and I’d deadhead home in time for dinner. What could possibly go wrong? 

The airline I work for provides positive space confirmed tickets to pilots deadheading to cover revenue flights. With a full airplane waiting to get from point A to point B, the airline is willing to bump a paying passenger to staff a flight.  But when the same pilot is deadheading home at the end of a trip…well…no one except the pilot really cares if he gets home and the airline will bump him from the flight if there aren’t any available seats. That was the danger. I knew it, but getting three days of pay for one day’s work was worth the risk.

Storms on the horizon.

Early the next day, we took off from Dallas on a beautiful, unseasonably cool Texas morning. The air was smooth, the skies were clear, and everything seemed right in the world. I know that sounds a little melodramatic, but there’s something about climbing in crisp morning air with my hands on the controls and the warm sun on my face that just feels right. It’s one of those things I’ll dream about some day when I’m an old retired guy chasing my wife around the house.

The first half of the flight was entirely uneventful.  Now on a southerly heading, the bright sun shifted out of my eyes and onto the Captain’s lap. That was fine with me and I removed my “sun in the face” gear - ball cap, sun glasses and window shade. We passed a little east of Houston and went “feet wet” near Sabine Pass, leaving Texas behind with the Gulf of Mexico below. A short time later, the Captain, who was working the radios, checked in with Houston Oceanic for a short flight through non-radar airspace. A little more than half way to Montego Bay, we were back in radar contact and speaking to Merida Center, located on the Yukatan Peninsula, before the first sign of trouble appeared on the horizon.

More fuel, please.

I checked the radar and satellite images before departure and was happy to see the absence of any convective activity. There was a small chance of storms in the forecast, both along the latter portions of our route and in Montego Bay, so we had extra fuel onboard for enroute deviations and a possible divert to nearby Kingston. 

For me, as a relative international newbie, the possibility of diverting to Kingston added a new level of complexity. Domestically, there’s almost always a long list of possible diversion airports. Can’t get into Miami? No problem. Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm, Ft. Meyers, Tampa, and Orlando are all close by. They’re also served by my airline and it’s definitely nice to have your own personnel, a place to park, and a standing agreement with the fuel vendor. Conversely, when you’re flying to an island, alternate airports are often scarce and a significant distance from where you really wanted to land. That’s all fine as long as you’re prepared.

There are three things in aviation that are of no use to a pilot. Altitude above you, runway behind you, and fuel in the fuel truck. It’s also been said, that the only time more fuel is a bad thing, is when you’re on fire. As thunderstorms began to build on the horizon, the Captain and I turned on the weather radar and began to consider our options, thankful that we had a little extra fuel to burn.

We were abeam the western tip of Cuba before we made our first deviation for enroute thunderstorms. Most of the significant weather was below our altitude and we easily made it around the tops of everything else with small deviations to the left and right of course. When you’re actively deviating around storms, you need the radar to be on a relatively small scale, getting increasingly smaller as you approach a storm. It’s also important to take a look ahead every now and then to make sure you aren’t boxing yourself into a canyon of storms without a safe way through. As we cleared what I thought was the last thunderstorm, I set the radar scale to 320 miles. Montego Bay was just barely on the screen at that range and it was completely covered up by red radar returns.

Storm or island?

It’s unusual to see a strong radar return from that distance. There were bright white cloud tops on the horizon, but I still held on to the hope that what I was seeing on the radar display was just the island, and not a storm. Since we don’t get radar returns off the surface of the water, land masses sticking up out of the water often have the appearance of a storm on the radar screen. When you’re painting a land mass on the radar, it doesn’t take much positive tilt to clear the screen of the return, but the closer we got to the airport, the clearer it became that we had a problem.

An example of radar mapping. With the radar beam tilted down, the only visible returns are from the land mass ahead. Recognize the southern tip of Florida?

As we started our descent, I decided to level off at an altitude above some of the smaller build-ups and asked for a holding pattern north of the island while we decided on a course of action. The airport appeared to be completely engulfed by the storm, but another airline ahead of us on the arrival decided to go in for a look. That flight made it all the way to the missed approach point, reported heavy rain and “at least moderate turbulence,” but never saw the runway. The Captain and I immediately agreed that we had no interest in attempting the approach.

This is where the whole island thing complicated an already complex situation. We planned for this eventuality and had enough fuel to hold for about 30 minutes, but the storms were building and some were headed for Kingston, our one and only alternate. If we waited, the skies might clear over Montego Bay. On the other hand, the storm might intensify and spread far enough to the east that landing at Kingston would no longer be an option. You’ve probably connected the dots here, but if we exhausted our holding fuel and couldn’t land at Montego Bay or Kingston, then we wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to another island. I’m no Sully - and I had no desire to recreate his “Miracle on the Hudson” landing down in the Caribbean. The situation forced our hand a bit, but we decided on the more cautious approach and headed for Kingston while we still could.

“There are no problems in Jamaica - only situations.”

Generally speaking, we were well received in Kingston. The storms hadn’t reached the airport yet and we had no trouble landing. We weren’t exactly sure where to park, but our station personnel took good care of us, providing a gate, catering needs, fuel, and all the paperwork we needed for the short flight back to Montego Bay. All was good until a representative from the Jamaican Health Ministry arrived. 

Now keep in mind that we were supposed to land in JAMAICA, and diverted to another airport in JAMAICA. It’s not like the country wasn’t expecting us. We were about to fly a short distance across the island and drop all these people in the same country, but the health ministry acted like we were trying to unload 160 people infected with the Bubonic Plague. Each passenger had to be inspected. We were required to sign documents indicating that none of the passengers were ill and the health ministry sprayed some unknown mist throughout the cabin before we could leave. The whole thing was very strange.

I would describe the passengers on this flight as young, college types. They were playful and in good spirits, most wearing shorts and flip-flops, obviously ready for the beach. Two hours later, that’s exactly where they were. The weather at Montego Bay never improved to what I would call “beach worthy,” but did improve enough for us leave Kingston and make a safe landing in Montego Bay. Thankfully, there was no sign of the Jamaican Health Ministry when we arrived.

P.S. Remember that part about not wanting to deadhead home at the end of a trip? I was originally scheduled to deadhead home on the second to last flight to Dallas. This was a fact not lost on me as we diverted to Kingston earlier in the day. As a matter of fact, while politely arguing with the Jamaican Health Ministry, I made peace with the idea of having Cuban food and a cold beer in Miami that night. We finally made it to Miami with 35 minutes to spare before the last flight home – and I still had to make it through customs. 

Thankfully for me, Montego Bay wasn’t the only place with nasty weather that day. Earlier storms in Miami delayed the operation there and my flight was delayed. I arrived just before they closed the door and took the last available seat on the plane.