Posts Tagged ‘checklist’

Crew transition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

When I first began my career as an airline pilot, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I knew I would be flying—a lot—and I knew that I would be traveling—a lot. But beyond that, I really didn’t know what the job would be like. I knew there would be an autopilot, and I was pretty stoked about that. I knew I’d be wearing a uniform, and while many pilots can’t stand wearing the hat, it never bothered me.

But the one thing that I was relatively unprepared for was the crew concept. I’d had a bit of experience with it thanks to my previous job, which included using an airplane to photo-map the state’s farmland. We also did some atmospheric sampling work, but the “crew” on those flights were nonpilots. The photo-mapping projects, on the other hand, were a true team effort, and while it could be done with two pilots, it was really a three-person job. But, it wasn’t the same kind of crew that you’d find in an airline cockpit.

The transition to a crew environment wasn’t all that hard. What was hard was realizing how much help I really had, and how little I had to do for myself. For instance, in my previous job, the pilot flying did everything flying-related except talk on the radio. That was handled by the yahoo sitting in the other seat (usually one of my bosses, who were among the finest yahoos I ever knew, except for when they were flying together).

In the crew world, the pilot flying flies…and that’s pretty much all he or she does. The gear, flaps, radio, checklists, and almost anything else you can think of are done by what we used to call the nonflying pilot, but whom we now refer to as the “pilot monitoring.” I still call them “the yahoo sitting next to me.” After all these years, why worry now about political correctness?

It took me a while to get used to not working the gear or flaps, especially since, in the Brasilia, the gear handle was in front of my left knee, and the flap handle was right next to the same knee. I also had to learn just how much I was allowed to ask for. If I wanted the radar on, all I had to do was ask. If I wanted the power set at a certain setting, all I had to do was ask. I did have to work my own HSI, and I got to control my nav radio if I was quick enough to beat the captain to it…which wasn’t often.

There were, of course, other duties that came with the territory, such as calling the company on the radio prior to every arrival and after every departure. Talking to a dispatcher was new as well, but it was a Part 135 operation at the time, so we pilots were still more involved in flight planning, though nowhere near to the degree that I had been. I knew more about the route of my first dual cross-country than I have about any airline trip I’ve flown, and I wish it wasn’t so, but short turn times force you to rely on a dispatcher more than you ever would have thought. Besides, trying to follow a sectional from the flight levels or at high speeds would be a challenge.

But it was that transition to a total crew environment that really opened my eyes. I was the low man on the totem pole, and I had to learn how to work with (and sometimes get along with) a captain and a flight attendant. Neither was hard, but it was a period of adaptation that is now effortless, and, I now realize, much better and safer than much of what I’d done before.

There are always going to be stories of cockpit dictators, and occasionally even a story about a fist-fight or some kind of ugly confrontation between two people who simply can’t get along. But those are rare. Airlines do a great job of training crews to work together, and while you won’t walk away from every trip with a new BFF, you won’t always have a new mortal enemy either.

Unless, of course, you insist on doing everything yourself, which will not only aggravate the person next to you, but will also make you extremely busy. Plus, you will be branded as the next yahoo.—Chip Wright

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

The many ways of doing the same things

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Pilots are odd creatures. We all learn the same basic fundamentals of flying, and we all learn the same set of FARs. We also learn in the same basic set of airplanes: single-engine Cessnas, Pipers, and more recently, Diamonds and Cirruses. But fly with two pilots from a specific group, and the odds are that they will do a lot of things differently. Some may use the checklist diligently, some not at all. Some will always use flaps on takeoff, some won’t. They may use different speeds in the pattern. Yet, we all manage to take off and land safely most of the time.

The airlines and corporate departments counter this by coming up with a rigid set of protocols that allow two pilots who have never even met before to know exactly what to expect from each other when flying together for the first time. The system really is quite extraordinary.

What is truly amazing, though, is to watch two airlines operate a similar airplane in such wildly different fashions. I’ve flown on the jumpseat of the 737 for more than one airline, and while I didn’t pick up on all the subtleties and nuances, I definitely could see some differences. I really notice it when sitting on the jumpseat of another airline’s CRJ, which is what I fly.

Single engine taxi is a common strategy airlines use to save fuel. My company only does single engine taxi on the right engine because the right engine will provide enough hydraulic pressure to all the brakes without a configuration change. Others will alternate engines, and simply use the hydraulic pumps to pressurize the brakes. Neither is more right or wrong than the other. Our system eliminates a potential human error, and the other ensures even run time on the engines, which saves money.

Checklist philosophy is a major difference. My company requires that every checklist be verbalized by at least one crewmember, if not both. That way, in the event of an accident, the CVR will confirm whether the checklist was completed. Other carriers only verbalize certain checklists that are designated as “challenge and response.” There are pros and cons to both methods.

Sometimes, you see items on a checklist that make you say, “Really? Why is that on there?” Somewhere in the management structure is a person or persons whose background provides a reason. Or maybe they just don’t like the way something looks on a screen, so they create a checklist item to clear it. It happens.

More carriers are coming up with ways to deal with cell phones being left on. I never thought I’d see the day. The truth is that we should probably all have that. More than once mine has started vibrating on takeoff or landing…even at 10,000 feet. Oops.
Carriers will also use different flap extension speeds based on their own experience with flap issues that may be related to aerodynamic pressures caused by high speeds. Sometimes crews are mandated by their carrier to have the gear down at a certain point. We even use different maneuvering airspeeds. A carrier that has a lot of low time, new-hire pilots or a lot of turnover will build in more conservatism than a more stable or experienced company.

The biggest problem with checklists is complacency, and the best way to deal with that—in my opinion—is to change them just a little bit every six months or so in an effort to prevent relying them on memory alone. Just don’t count on anybody else using the checklist in the same way.—By Chip Wright