June 12, 2013

Where are we going now?

The story I'm about to tell happened to me personally, but a long time ago. I cannot and will not confirm the identity of the Captain or even the airline...my current employer is not my first.

We were approaching Los Angeles, California from the east with the Twentynine Palms (TNP) VOR dialed in to both navigation radios. The captain was flying the airplane at our assigned altitude, Flight Level 340, with the autopilot engaged, tracking an inbound course to TNP.  Most of the arrivals into the LA basin have since changed names, so it doesn't matter which one we were flying, but I had the Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR) attached to my yoke clip for easy access and was preparing for what I expected to be a normal landing in Long Beach.


I've been spoiled for many years now with the added assistance of GPS, but the aircraft we were flying that day was only equipped with basic navigation radios.  With the absence of GPS on the equipment list, the Captain was utilizing the "VOR track" function of the autopilot.  When tracking a VOR radial, the course becomes increasingly difficult to identify as you approach the station, and as you pass immediately over the station and what is commonly known as the "zone of confusion," instrument indications vary wildly causing the autopilot to make large, erratic and unnecessary turns.  As a result, many pilots, me included, utilize "heading select" until past the station and established on the outbound radial where the autopilot will again smoothly track the course.

Where are you going?

"Where are you going" is one of those questions a pilot never wants to be asked by an air traffic controller. Pilots are held to strict regulatory standards and could potentially face career threatening violations and fines for their errors. "Where are you going" suggests just such an error and will immediately get the attention of anyone listening.

As we approached the TNP VOR, the captain predictably selected "heading select" but caught me by surprise as he clicked off the autopilot and auto throttles and started to descend via the arrival...here's where things got strange.  As we passed the station, instead of making the left turn called for on the arrival procedure, the captain turned right, let go of the flight controls, picked up the PA and started to make his arrival announcement!

To this day, I haven't the slightest idea what he was thinking, but I reached up, took over the controls and began the left turn called for on the STAR. Unfortunately, we had traveled just far enough in the wrong direction to attract the attention of the controller who was just about to hand us off to approach. "Where are you guys going?"  I made up an excuse and explained that we were correcting back on course and the guy let it go.

As the Captain finished his announcement, I looked over at him with an intentional look that I would describe as a combination of confused and ticked off. "You realize the auto pilot is off, right?"  He acted like nothing unusual had occurred, stated "I got it," and resumed his flying duties. By this time, we were about to re-intercept the outbound radial of the VOR from which we were now receiving a usable signal. The VOR needle moved off the peg and I stated "course alive" in hopes that he would actually join the arrival this time.   But as the course got closer, I could tell he had no intention of making the turn. "Course alive" I said again.  "Here comes the course. We need to turn boss. There goes the course. Where are you going!?"

Where are you going now?

As if the first question from ATC wasn't bad enough, we were getting ready to get another. "Where are you going now?"  There was a hint of sarcasm in the controllers’s voice and I got the impression he was enjoying our folly. Sit down, grab some popcorn and enjoy the show!  We weren't in anyone's way or he wouldn't have been amused, I'm sure.

Since I didn't know where the Captain was going next or what he was thinking, I moved the heading select knob in the direction we needed to turn and forcefully asked him to get back on course. He looked terribly confused and a little irritated with the tone I was taking. I suppose I should mention that I was brand new with the company at this point. Fresh out of training with almost a year left on probation...and the captain would be filling out an evaluation of my performance. I was not getting on his good side...but that was the least of my concerns.

I noticed that the captain had the wrong outbound radial selected, made the correction and helped him with the intercept. He still looked confused and a little angry, but I wasn't exactly happy either. Then the inter-phone rang. I picked up and spoke briefly to one of the Flight Attendants, who told me the captain had just announced to everyone that we would be landing in Ontario in fifteen minutes. "Are we diverting?"  "Just a minute," I told her. I looked at the captain, smiled and said "hey, did you just tell everyone we were landing Ontario?"  "We ARE landing Ontario," he said. I told the flight attendant I would get back to her and hung up.

We had a minor argument...er...discussion about where we were landing. He honestly thought we were landing in Ontario and had been looking at an Ontario arrival procedure all along. It was surprisingly difficult to convince him that we were actually going to Long Beach. I retrieved a printed copy of our trip out of my pocket and showed him that Ontario was not on it, but that wasn't convincing enough. Only when I pointed to our flight plan and clearance were we finally on the same page.

The remainder of the flight went basically as planned, but I can honestly say I had never seen that before and haven't seen it since. I suppose there are two pilots in the cockpit for a reason.  I'm not immune from mistakes myself...just glad I was present to catch this one.


17 comments:

  1. Fascinating story! Thanks for sharing.

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  2. I say he needed to have an immediate company drug/blood/psych test after the landing of that flight. Maybe the less passengers know nowadays the better. Also being that you were right seated, I would also venture to say that you were the unofficial check CA as you were the one that had to step up to the plate in his place to ensure the flight's proper arrival procedures.

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  3. That is really scary. I do hope the company asked him where in his flight plan he deduced that Ontario was a better destination than LGB. I mean there's a huge new Bass Pro Shop there now...but really.

    How's life flying the 737?

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    1. I absolutely love the 737. It's been a steep learning curve...still surprises me how much there is to learn AFTER you get out on line. Very happy to have made the move.

      Bass Pro Shop? If I had known that, maybe I'd have let him land at ONT.

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  4. Holy Crap! I'd like to laugh, but it is not funny. Perhaps, um, DESTINATION needs to be included in the basoc pre-flight briefing? CRM at its best. Ouch. -C.

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  5. Wow! What was the aftermath to this one Brad?

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    1. No aftermath. We all make mistakes, but it's a good argument for having two pilots in the cockpit.

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  6. Great post. Remind me to tell you my "he went full scale deflection on an ILS and didn't think it was a big deal" story sometime.

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    1. I think I've heard that one...but I'd like to hear your version:)

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  7. Awesome post! Really enjoyed reading that one! I can't believe that happened to you, incredible really that something like that could happen.

    Glad nothing went wrong because of the mistake(s).... and that's why there should be two pilots in the cockpit. I'm not a huge fan of the idea of one pilot (as is being researched currently by Boeing and Airbus).

    Thanks again,
    -Swayne

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  8. Wow- that is a heck of s post Brad!! Thanks for sharing!!!

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  9. Thank God the Captain finally recognized you were right and he was wrong. What would you have done had you not convinced him?

    Kudos to you, by the way, for having the courage to correct a seasoned captain as a new FO.

    Thanks for sharing that story, but I'm curious what made you think about it? I suppose you've had some time to reflect on all the years you spent flying the Mad Dog.

    Todd

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    1. I'm glad I didn't have to find out the answer to that question. Honestly, it wasn't too hard to convince him. I had a printed copy of our schedule, flight plan and clearance. In hind sight...it's more amusing to me than anything else.

      It's just one of many stories tucked away in my head. Every pilot has a hundred of them. Mine will slip out here on APC every now and then.

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  10. Ever feel like you have a hundred great stories and can only share one? Based on your caveat at the beginning of your post, I'm sure you realize the sensitivities in these stories. Sometimes I wish I could just unleash them all... but, I understand how the material could be twisted by those who just don't understand.

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    1. You got that right. I have so many great stories that can't be told!

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  11. Great blog. As a regional captain who's jumpseated on the 737 a lot, I'm enjoying your description of the systems and procedures. I once had a captain, when I was FO, who refused to let me use speed brakes as the noise "scared the pax"! I was new, so we arrived high and fast at the airport (it was dead and at night), so I had to fly a giant B-52 pattern just to slow down and get down to land. This business is full of all kinds strange folks!

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  12. Great story! Great blog. Please, keep them coming!

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