Archive for May, 2012

Losing an engine in cruise

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Recently, a Delta flight made minor headlines when an engine failed during cruise, and the flight was forced to divert to Phoenix. The mainstream media and much of the flying public seem to think that such an event is met with a rising crescendo of music and heroes saving the day, followed by a commercial break.

In the real world, this is rarely the case, especially in a jet.

The reality is that losing an engine in cruise is just not that big of a deal in an airliner, be it a turboprop or a jet. The design criteria are such that, on takeoff, the airplane has a reserve of 100 percent power; that is, it can lose an engine during the takeoff roll and still safely continue the takeoff while clearing all obstacles in the departure path. It will then be able to return and land. It stands to reason that shutting down an engine in cruise is less of a problem.

A spontaneous engine failure with a turbine engine in cruise is truly rare. More common is a need to shut down an engine as a precaution. The crew might get a message saying that a bleed air system has developed a leak, or vibration is exceeding allowable tolerances, or oil pressure is declining. In a jet, the crew will work the shutdown through the checklist, and it is possible that nobody on board would even know about it–though they may feel a bit of a yaw. On a turboprop, it will be unmistakable, as the airplane will not only yaw, but the passengers on the affected side will see the propeller stop propelling; that’s pretty hard to hide.

I’ve only had to shut down an engine once in my career, and because it was a turboprop, the captain decided we should brief the flight attendant and make an announcement to the passengers first. That became my job. Afterward, we shut the engine down and continued to our destination, which was also the closest, most suitable airport. I’ve also been on one airplane as a passenger when the crew had to shut the engine down. In the cabin, we never knew it as it was so smooth, until the captain came on the public address system and told us what had happened.

The obvious question is what about altitude? It is clearly no big deal when over flat terrain. In the mountains, it is a different story. The crew will have available the information needed to determine the single-engine ceiling for the day based on weight, temperature, and altitude. If terrain is an issue, the flight planning process should have already taken that into account by choosing a route that allows the crew to descend to its new maximum altitude while turning away from the terrain or joining a safer airway before leveling off. Each airframe manufacturer and each airline may do things slightly differently, but the goal is the same: put the crew in the safest possible position to make a safe emergency single-engine landing.

Cue the music…—By Chip Wright

A flat start

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

A good pilot is always learning.  Here’s what I learned a few weeks ago: If you don’t  fly for two weeks, and you don’t visit your airplane within that two weeks, you could find this the next time you want to go flying:

Flatter than the proverbial pancake, the tire’s sidewall most likely had been compromised, and so the folks at Landmark Aviation removed the tire, installed a spare (a spare tire for airplanes! Who knew?) and a brace for the wing, and prepped a new tire and tube. They had it installed and ready go to within about 90 minutes of my discovery.

On the grand scale of airplane maintenance, this is minor. It went flat at my homedrome, and it didn’t blow on a takeoff or landing roll. The repair was quick because Landmark had the tire in stock. I was able to go flying in a couple hours. The winds had picked up by then, which was a minor annoyance, but not a compelling reason to cancel the flight.

But you can bet your next tire change that I will not let two weeks–or even one week–go by without checking on my airplane and giving it a once-over. After all, it’s tough enough to get the stars aligned so that your schedule, the weather, and airplane availability work in your favor. Why stack the odds against yourself? —Jill W. Tallman

A common interview question about drinking

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

I’ve mentioned the issue of the occasional pilot getting into trouble for drinking on this blog before. But this time, I’d like to get a bit of feedback from our readers, many of whom are presumably considering a career as a professional pilot.

Here is the scenario: The FAA requires that a pilot not have alcohol for eight hours prior to flying (“8 hours, bottle to throttle”). Most airlines have a more restrictive rule, usually requiring at least 12 hours. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that you are a first officer with an airline, on an overnight. You have a morning report of 6 a.m. in the hotel lobby for the ride to the airport; the flight departs at 7 a.m. You’ve been in XYZ city since noon the day before, and you and your captain each go do your own thing for the day.

Situation A: You come back to the hotel at 8 p.m. and see your captain in the bar having what is clearly not his first drink.

Situation B: Here is a twist, one to muddy the waters a bit. Again, you and the captain head off in different directions after arriving at the hotel. You return that evening and go to bed, not having seen hide nor hair of anyone else from your crew. The next morning, you watch the captain come out of the elevator, and it is clear that not only has he been drinking, but he is also either suffering a pretty good hangover or may even still be a bit tipsy. Now what do you do?

Pick your scenario, and give us all a chance to see how you would react. If the feedback is plentiful, I will do another post in a week or so, and I will also throw in my own opinions on how to handle both of these situations.

These are two very common interview questions, and while the circumstances are rare to see in real life, they have been known to happen. Airlines want to know how you would handle a similar incident should you find yourself in either predicament.

Have at it!–Chip Wright

What I miss about GA

Monday, May 21st, 2012

I recently did a flight from DTW to Kalamazoo (AZO). We had some time on the ground to kill, and our gate’s location gave us a great view of the approach end of Runway 17. Several airplanes were doing pattern work, including a Cessna 172 (with a horribly ugly paint scheme, I might add), a Piper Cherokee, and one or two others. A couple were flown by students, as evidenced by the hesitant radio transmissions and the near-misses of nosewheel-first landings. Others were likely someone out just practicing, taking advantage of the clear sky and summer-like March weather.

My first officer and I began chatting about how nice it would be to trade places for a day with these pilots.

The truth is, I can’t tell you how much I miss general aviation flying. I don’t get to do it nearly as much as I would like because of the cost, and when it comes to travel, you can’t beat the free flight benefits of the airline.

But I miss everything about GA—getting dirty on a preflight, being able to turn the radio off, tracing my flight on a sectional (not easy at 400 knots true while in the flight levels), or just taking the airplane around the patch one more time because I didn’t like my landing. If I tried that at my day job, I’d have more than a little explaining to do. They might even deduct the cost of the extra fuel from my paycheck. And I especially miss doing primary flight instruction. I’ve long maintained that if I could make the same income as an instructor as I do now, I’d trade my uniform for shorts in a heartbeat.

On occasion, we will see a 172 or a Cherokee on our TCAS that is flying at or below 1,000 feet just sightseeing or slowly going from place to place, or maybe even nowhere in particular. Once in a while we see those airplanes doing ground reference maneuvers or lazy 8s. It’s hard not to think about how far my own career has come watching somebody else go through those maneuvers that I too had to master.

If you are pursuing a professional career, take the time to enjoy the steps along the way, and if you can pull it off, stay involved in your GA roots. You will miss it more than you ever will imagine. I fly whenever I can, and I keep my CFI certificate active; I worked way too hard to ever let it expire.

There may be a thing or two about GA that I don’t miss—the broken orange juice cans in the Cessnas, not having a weather radar, bouncy fuel gauges, and I’d like to have an autopilot—but the benefits way outweigh the cons. I think I’d like more than anything to be able to fly a cross-country and substitute my iPod for ATC…just once.—By Chip Wright

The May “Since You Asked” poll: Preflighting

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

In the May issue of Flight Training, we asked digital subscribers a very particular question: “If you preflight an airplane the night before a planned flight, do you:

a. Conduct a thorough preflight the next morning as well. You never know what could have happened over night.

b. Conduct a streamlined version of the preflight, focusing on only certain things.

c. Kick the tires and light the fires; I’m good to go.”

The question was pretty directed because it was inspired by a particular set of circumstances put to Rod Machado in the May “Since You Asked” column. Specifically, K.L. wanted to know what Rod thought of this situation:

“I met someone who was preflighting his airplane the night before he was to take a trip. He was the sole owner, and the airplane was hangared. He indicated he would do a quick walkaround in the morning, but he felt taking his time the night before would result in a more thorough preflight and nothing significant would happen overnight. So the question must be asked: Do preflights have an expiration date (time)? How long is a preflight good for?”

First, let’s look at our responses to the digital poll. A whopping 87 percent of respondents said they’d conduct a thorough preflight the next morning. Just 13 percent said they’d conduct a streamlined version of the preflight, and no one–not one person–confessed to the notion of kicking the tires and lighting the fires.

When you consider that our readership is aimed at primary student pilots, many of whom rent aircraft that sits outside and unattended, it stands to reason that they would prefer to do a preflight both the night before and the morning of the planned flight. This is your last chance to check everything before you go hurtling into the air, so why waste the opportunity?

Then again, 13 percent said they’d be comfortable with conducting a streamlined version of the preflight on the morning of the flight. This could represent our readers who own aircraft and are reasonably confident that nothing will have happened to their aircraft over the eight, 10, or 12 hours preceding the flight.

And here’s what Rod told K.L.: Preflights do have an unofficial expiration time that’s based more on common sense than a timepiece. “If the airplane is secured in a hangar,  then it’s entirely reasonable to do a thorough and detailed preflight the night before departure and a less-detailed inspection the morning of the flight. This is based on the assumption that the hangar is completely secure.

“On the other hand, if the airplane is out in the open, it is unreasonable to assume that something or someone can’t adversely affeected the airplane’s airworthiness overnight. Therefore, the next morning’s flight should be preflighted by an equally thorough preflight.”

In the year I had access to a hangar for my 1964 Piper Cherokee 140, I never preflighted the airplane the night before a flight with the intention of saving time and doing a quickie the next morning. It never even occurred to me to do something like that. I know myself too well. Any tasks that take place after 6 p.m. aren’t going to be ones that involve operating an aircraft or checking its airworthiness. I prefer to leave enough time in the morning to do a thorough, unhurried preflight, when my brain is sharpest.–Jill W. Tallman

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.

The only thing faster than the airplane is information

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

It is amazing the contrasts in government efficiency–or the lack thereof–that exist every day. For instance, the FAA has spent billions to get the NextGen ATC system off the ground, and for all of that, we still have NowGen and YesterGen. Likewise, as my AME likes to say, the pilots are flying in 2012, but the FAA is practicing medicine in 1960-something. On the other end of the spectrum is the IRS. Get their attention, and you will be hearing about it immediately. They don’t mess around.

But, for all of the bad FAA jokes (my favorite: I’m from the FAA and I’m not happy until you’re not happy), the feds are by and large good people who do the best they can with the tools they have been given, which means they aren’t any different than you and me. I recently got a reminder that when they need to do something fast, they can.

I recently had an encounter with severe turbulence while climbing out of Baltimore. It was a short encounter, and not all that unexpected because of the weather. But, as with any encounter so severe, it got my intention. So, being the dutiful air-person and practitioner of air-person-ship that I am, I reported it to ATC.

The Washington Center controller asked a flurry of questions, and I responded with a flurry of information: altitude, exact location, a description of what happened. Every other airplane on the frequency immediately wanted to know where it was, and they requested deviations away from my little find.

The controller began by asking all flights climbing and descending in our area for ride reports. All the flights were in 737s or bigger, and they all reported “moderate” or “heavy moderate,” and you could hear the bounces in their voices. This made sense, because the CRJ that I fly has short, skinny wings, and it does not absorb turbulence very well at all. What would be severe to us might very well not be to something bigger; of course, the reverse applies as well.

What was so impressive was how quickly the word got out. On every frequency that I used for the balance of our flight to Cincinnati, the controller was issuing the pilot report about our encounter. On the first frequency change, as we were checking in, he was reading the news to everyone in his sector. I told him that we were the reporting aircraft, and he had a couple of follow-up questions, mostly pertaining to the accuracy of his information. It was spot on. It was quick, accurate, and given the proper sense of urgency.

When we landed, I called a friend of mine used to fly for us. He now flies for Southwest and was getting ready to commute to work from Providence, R.I. I told him to be ready for a bumpy ride, and relayed our experience. When he arrived in Baltimore, he called me back and said that the ride into BWI on the 737 flight he took was “737 moderate, and borderline RJ severe. That was a good call, and I’m glad I wasn’t there.”

I wish I hadn’t been either, but I’m glad that the FAA has the means to disseminate that kind of critical information as quickly as it did. Of course, these are the folks who got thousands of airplanes on the ground on September 11, 2001, in record time, so they deserve credit where credit is due.—By Chip Wright

Moms, flying, and flying moms

Thursday, May 10th, 2012
Mother’s Day is coming up. I don’t know how many readers had supportive moms when they were learning to fly, but if you did, be thankful. She probably had to deal with some fear and anxiety whenever you were 5,500 feet in the air with no parachute.
Director of eMedia Alyssa Miller (left) and her mom, Pam Miller

As a parent of two teenagers, I vividly recall those days when my daughter was learning to drive. I put as much of it on my husband as I could, but eventually I had to climb into the right seat with her. I’d have to clench my hands together, else I’d be twisting my fingers into knots, and she would see that from the corner of her eye and know what I was communicating to her. When she began driving by herself, I’d curl up in my armchair and pray.

Now imagine a parent whose child is learning to operate a vehicle that not only moves in three axes, but also can’t be pulled over to the side of the road if something happens. It’s a wonder any teenager gets to take flying lessons!
Senior Editor Dave Hirschman and his mom, Wilma Melville

Those who do largely seem to come from flying families. Their moms and dads are as familiar with flying as the rest of us are with driving cars. Their parents understand the safety issues behind operating an airplane; they know about limiting risk. They know what it means when an aircraft stalls, and they recognize that little airplanes do not fall out of the sky if the engine stops. They know that pilots train for emergencies and practice for those situations a lot.

 But your mom–if she is not already a pilot or a right-seater–might not know these things. Why not teach her sometime? Tell her what you would tell anybody who is not a pilot: that flying has risks, but you are learning how to manage those risks. Tell her that accident statistics show that when you’re flying with a flight instructor, you’re much less likely to be involved in an accident. (The 2010 Nall Report will back you up.) Tell her you want to be the safest pilot that ever was.

It might not keep Mom from curling up into a ball whenever you’re in the air, but it might help her to understand a bit more about your passion for flying. And who knows, when the time comes and you have your pilot certificate, she might be willing to take a flight with you and find out for herself what all the fuss is about. And that will be a great day indeed.–Jill W. Tallman

Evaluation by the Administrator

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

I was recently in the simulator helping out with some training, and I had an epiphany of sorts. You may have noticed when you read the FARs that in all too many instances is the phrase (or something similar) “will be evaluated by the Administrator, or his designee.”

In short, this means that the head cheese of the FAA is supposed to personally evaluate or test just about everything in the aviation universe. To do so would be a monumental and impossible task, even if the Administrator did nothing else. So, by law, the Administrator can have designees do the work. That way, the Administrator can spend his or her time Administrating.

I’ve explained in previous posts how some of this works with regard to check airmen/-women/-persons at the airlines. I have the honor, privilege, and responsibility of fulfilling this role as a line check airman at my company.

What struck me this week was the level of respect and integrity that this process really does engender. On my first day in the sim, I was flying as a captain for a first officer who was undergoing some training in the right seat. The sim instructor was a friend of mine who is quite a bit junior to both of us. The session went well, and when necessary, Joe asked to see the FO re-fly a maneuver that could have been done better the first time. He did, and when the session was over we all went our separate ways.

The next day, Joe was working with two very senior (and in this case, much older) captains who were being brought back to the training department after having flown the line for awhile. One of them was also being qualified for the first time in our 700/900 variant, and he was wrapping up his training by being officially qualified in the right seat. He won’t fly the line in that capacity—he won’t fly the line in the left seat of the 700/900 either—but he needed to be qualified nonetheless.

I happened to be in the break room with all of them, shooting the breeze and talking shop while waiting for my own session to start. What struck me was the way the tone of the conversation changed when one of the “students” asked a question about the lesson plan for the day. All three of them immediately fell into a very professional mode and demeanor, and Joe was accorded the same respect and decorum that the Administrator himself would have garnered.

Here were two fellows who had at least 10 years of seniority—one had close to 20—on Joe’s time at the company. They were older. Out on the line—heck, it had happened just a few minutes before—Joe would have been the subject of some good-natured kidding and ribbing as an FO or as the baby chick in the henhouse. But at the drop of a hat, when the talk turned serious, he was recognized as the man in charge. He had the ability and the authority to stop the training process in its tracks if necessary or if warranted by poor performance. In my own sim session the day before, he could have grounded me, even though the event had nothing to do with me.

I’ve seen this kind of thing a thousand times in the past, but I never really appreciated it as I was watching it happen. For some reason, it caught my attention this time. I left the room before they had finished their discussion, but I didn’t need to be there to see how it would end. And I knew that once in the box, all three would be professional, cordial, and respectful of one another.

This sort of interaction goes on every day, and it is a testament to the success of the system that allows—forces—the FAA to place a great deal of authority and autonomy in the hands of its field representatives.

Pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, doctors, and dozens of others treat their burdens and responsibilities with great care, and exercise the extreme limits of their duties with restraint and when circumstances require. They don’t do it because they have an axe to grind or a seniority number to gain or vendetta to exact. In fact, in cases where two people simply can’t get along, they will often agree to seek another evaluator to avoid allegations of a conflict of interest.

This system works, and we should all be grateful that it does.—By Chip Wright

Savor the moment

Friday, May 4th, 2012

If someone tells me they just soloed, or completed a cross-country, or finished the checkride, I’m happy for that person–and I say so. I congratulate him or her and ask for details of the event. (I really do want to hear all the gory details. It reminds me of my student days and keeps me humble.)

If someone says she just soloed, what you won’t hear me say is, “That’s great–when’s the cross-country?” Or, if she completed her checkride, “Way to go! Now on to the instrument rating.”

Whenever we achieve a goal in our flying, we need to take at least a couple moments to savor that accomplishment. From the day you walk into a flight school to schedule an introductory ride to the moment your designated pilot examiner signs your new temporary certificate, you’re on a journey that is rigorous and challenging. It will be incredibly rewarding, too–especially if we realize what we’ve achieved.

Take the solo, for example. You just flew an airplane all by yourself–something only about 628,000 other people in the United States have done. And if you’re 16 years old and soloing, consider that you’re likely flying an airplane at an age when your friends are driving a car. (On second thought, don’t remind your parents of that.)

That’s why we celebrate a solo with a cut shirt-tail. It’s why some of us still ask for a signature in the logbook at the airport on our solo cross-country–even though we’re not required to do that any more. It’s why AOPA’s MyFlightTraining website shares photos of milestones and “attaboys”. Those tangible expressions of our accomplishments bolster us and keep us going on what can seem like a very long road to the ultimate prize: our ticket.

So if you’re a student pilot, keep up the good work! Tell me about your milestones (Twitter: @jtallman1959) because I love to hear about them. Oh, and… congratulations!–Jill W. Tallman