Posts Tagged ‘FARs’

Can the first officer cancel the flight?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

When it comes to air travel, one of the great misconceptions is the belief that a pilot will make a conscious decision to call up his company and just cancel a flight because of something that he decides makes it unsafe to fly. It almost never happens this way.

airline dispatcher femaleAt the airlines, there are two parties who are responsible for a flight. The first is the captain (“pilot in command”), and the other is the dispatcher. The final authority is clearly left to the captain. The federal aviation regulations make that abundantly clear, and every airline does as well. However, at the airlines a dispatcher is equally responsible for the flight, as it is the dispatcher who actually puts together the flight plan, plans the route, and computes the fuel required. The dispatcher usually begins working on a flight anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes before departure. The captain may well be still asleep, or inbound on another flight, or on the way to work.

When circumstances begin to conspire against operating the flight according to the usual parameters, it becomes a team effort to figure out what the alternative is going to be. The dispatcher usually has a bigger-picture view than the captain, because he or she has access to more sources of weather (even though smartphone technology is rapidly changing that), and because the dispatcher also has at hand the planned maintenance schedule for the airplane. Further, as stated above, the dispatcher may have more information about minimum equipment list (MEL) issues than the captain does. The MEL will dictate items on the airplane that can be inoperative during regular operations, and if there is a performance penalty, it will stipulate that as well. For example, most jets are only allowed to operate at 25,000 feet if one of the air-conditioning packs is deferred. This is a fairly low altitude for jets, and it means a higher fuel burn, which could affect range and payload. It may also make it difficult to avoid certain weather.

When weather or mechanical issues can affect a flight, the captain and the dispatcher will frequently work together to come up with an acceptable Plan B. This is important because both are required to sign the flight release, and it includes a statement that the flight may be conducted safely as planned.

But what about the first officer (FO)? How much say-so does the second-in-command have? At times, it may be more than you think.

While the captain is the one who technically holds all the cards and is the only pilot required to sign the release, there are times when an FO can influence the outcome. Weather is an obvious example. If the FO feels that the weather is just too risky, he can say that he isn’t willing to take it. He may be able to speak first hand, such as if he just flew through said weather.

Mechanical issues can crop up as well. Maybe the FO has found something on the walk-around that she knows isn’t right. She can refuse to go anywhere until a mechanic has a chance to offer a second opinion. I know of a fellow who once refused to fly a flight because his seat was broken….and when I say broken, it was as though the seat’s support unit had a hole the size of a toilet seat in it. When he sat down, it was painful on his back and his legs. To his great surprise, the broken part was deferrable (the fact that it was deferrable is a testament to how rarely it broke), and the mechanics wanted to avoid the 30-minute delay that would ensue if they changed out the seat.

The mechanics left the decision to the captain, who in turn left it to the FO. After all, he was the one who had to sit on the seat for a two-hour flight. The mechanics made a vague threat to call the chief pilot, and the FO responded by handing the mechanic his phone; the mechanics backed down, and the seat was eventually changed.

It turned out that one of the issues was that cockpit seats on this airplane are well north of $10,000, so spares are not often kept. The mechanics were forced to take one out of an airplane that was an operational spare, meaning that the spare airplane was now out of service.

Had the issue been pressed, the FO would have been well within his rights to refuse the seat, and the flight likely would have cancelled.

It’s rare that a pilot directly makes the call of, “I’m cancelling the flight.” But it can happen, and it does happen. And yes, the FO can make that call, and he can do so by simply walking off the airplane. As long as it is a well-defined and safety-related reason, he should have nothing to worry about.—By Chip Wright

Student or teacher: Which is harder?

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

So which is harder: learning to fly, or teaching people how to fly? I’ve been on both ends of that spectrum, and looking back, it’s hard to say.

There are a lot of things in life we have to learn, some which we don’t see the immediate value in or have an interest in, such as learning rote math facts or the difference between verbs, adverbs, and dangling participles. Other things that we learn are the result of optional endeavors, such as learning to play an instrument, painting, and flying. Those optional endeavors are not necessarily easy to learn, but because we choose to do them, they are either fun to learn, or “easier” to learn, because we are motivated to learn them.

Let’s face it. Some parts of learning to fly are easy, and some parts are downright hard. Learning the FARs is rote memorization, and much of it is common-sense stuff: Don’t fly too low over houses and highways; stay out of clouds; and get a good weather briefing. All of these are pretty simple.

Other stuff is much more work-intensive and more difficult to learn, landings being the most obvious one that comes to mind. Everyone has more trouble learning to land than anything else because you simply can’t replicate the same approach (or even the same control inputs and hand-eye reactions) on each attempt. That’s also one of many variables that make teaching landings so challenging.

Every student has certain maneuvers they struggle with more than others. I recall one who was absolutely terrified of steep turns, but had no trouble with stalls and slow flight. Another—a teenager, no less—had so much trouble learning to taxi that we spent an hour one day just following yellow lines and working on using his feet to turn. Talking on the radio comes naturally for some, but creates stage fright for others.

As a student, it’s possible that you will complete your certificate and possibly never take another organized lesson again outside of a flight review.

The CFI, on the other hand, must master not only the private syllabus, but also those of the commercial certificate and the instrument rating. Further, the CFI must also be able to fly and teach these maneuvers all from the right seat, which can be a challenge.

Learning the various maneuvers is one thing, but being able to break down all the material into bite-sized chunks that students can digest is something else. We’ve all had instructors who were better than others, whether it was because of patience or the ability to convey the subject in terms that student can understand. Having had it both ways, I think that learning to fly is more difficult, only because you are getting your initial exposure to so much. You need to learn the terminology, the acronyms, the skills, and so much more. Teaching flying forces you to slow everything down, but at least you already have (or should have) a basic grasp of the material.

Of course, it would be more accurate to say that one of the bigger challenges is learning how to teach people how to fly. Unfortunately, the first several students become the guinea pigs, and the airplane becomes the lab.

What are your thoughts?—Chip Wright

Which comes first: flying or ground school?

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

It’s a classic aviation topic of discussion: Do you start with ground school or flying lessons?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Back in the day, pilots-to-be overwhelmingly sat in a classroom and learned the academic side of flying the same way they learned algebra, English, and history. Courses would run several weeks depending on how many days a week it met, and most students were flying concurrently. Nowadays, so many pilots engage in the self-paced home-study courses that it’s probably difficult to find a traditional ground school.

The advantage of starting with flying right away is that you have a much easier time keeping up your enthusiasm, and besides, flying is fun, so why not do it? The truth is that you can do both at the same time, but you need to learn how to do it efficiently and effectively.

The home-study courses available today are a far cry from what was available even 10 years ago, and they are light years ahead of where they were 20 years ago. Jeppesen used to charge a king’s ransom for a series of video tapes that accompanied the private pilot curriculum. Now, online classes and DVDs have replaced VHS, which means you can go right where you want to study, and better yet, it’s all interactive, which keeps you more engaged. The video quality is better as well. And Jepp being Jepp, they still charge a king’s ransom, but the Kings are still doing their thing as well.

There are some areas of study you should start with right away. Aerodynamics, the FARs, and weather are topics that you can’t get a jump on fast enough. Most people are more weather savvy today, thanks to the Weather Channel and the Internet, but aviation weather is still information intensive, so getting a leg up on it early is always a good idea.

But a few areas of study call for caution when it comes to getting too far ahead of where your training is. You should spend a lot of time reading, watching, and studying all of the maneuvers. However, don’t jump into trying to understand all of navigation until you are ready to do your cross-country flying. In more modern aircraft, you may already have a bit of proficiency with the GPS since you use it all the time. In older airplanes, it may just be you and your VOR indicators. I am a firm believer that you will be a better pilot—you’ll certainly be more knowledgeable—if you can do everything the old-fashioned way, and that includes using a manual E6B. After all, it doesn’t ever need to have batteries replaced. As for the panel-mount GPS, a good instructor will take the time to show you all the ins and outs you need to know as you need to know them.

When getting ready for your knowledge test, don’t do it by just memorizing all of the answers. Make sure that you understand the theory and the concepts discussed in each question. Be able to answer them using what you know, especially weight and balance and navigation questions. Some of them are indeed rote memorization (the FARs), but make sure you really know the material and know where to find it!

Learning all that you need to know can seem daunting, but if you break it down into chunks, it is much more manageable. Yes, you can fly before you open a book, but if you combine the two, you will have more effective learning and have a more enjoyable training experience.—By Chip Wright

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

ASAP

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Aviation, if you haven’t noticed, is loaded with abbreviations and acronyms. There are FARs, the AIM, MAPs (not to be confused with maps), ILSs, and DHs, METARS, TAFs, and NOTAMS. Airspace used to have TRSAs, ARSAS, and TCAs…and I haven’t even mentioned NASA, which speaks acronym-ese. Speaking of NASA, all pilots are able to participate in the ASRS program, which brings me to ASAP.

ASAP stands for Aviation Action Safety Program, and it is commonly in use at Part 121 air carriers. At first glance, it appears to be just like the ASRS program, and it is…sort of. Like the ASRS, pilots and other participating employees can self-disclose when they make a mistake. For example, if a pilot taxis two feet over the hold-short line for a runway, he is guilty of a committing a runway incursion. Now, it is possible that the controller never saw it because of the vantage point of the tower. It’s also possible that no other aircraft was affected.

But the pilot still made a mistake and inadvertently violated a federal aviation regulation. Worse, it’s an area in which the FAA has been aggressive in the last few years to change pilot behavior because the safety ramifications and some accidents.

With ASAP, the pilot is able to fill out a form (usually online) and explain what happened, and if possible, why. In this case, it might be something simple (“I just screwed up.”) or it might be a previously unknown safety issue (“The paint was difficult to see, especially at night,” or “The flashing lights were not working”). The report then goes to a central data base where it is reviewed by a committee.

The committee can be called any number of things, but what’s important is who is on it. At unionized carriers (which is almost all of them), the committee consists of a representative from the FAA, the airline’s safety department, and the safety committee of the union. You typically won’t see chief pilots or anybody who can impose discipline on the pilots. The reason is that the program is built on trust and confidentiality.

Once the report is opened by the committee, they discuss it in detail, and decide how to act on it. If, in the above case, they agree that the incursion was simply inadvertent, they may close the report. Or, if they suspect something else may have been involved, such as fatigue or poor judgment, they may call one or both pilots in for questioning to see what might be done to prevent similar problems in the future. If the problem is poor paint or broken lights or a bad airport diagram, then the information is forwarded to the appropriate people as quickly as possible.

The only time a pilot can face discipline is if the committee agrees that the pilot deliberately violated a FAR or exercised poor judgment, or if the infraction was reported from someone other than the pilot (the assumption then is that the pilot may have gotten caught anyway, even without participation in the ASAP program). Acknowledging that you crossed a hold-short line because you were discussing impact of artificial turf on the lifetime batting stats of career designated hitters is bound to get you not only called in, but also may lead to a Letter of Warning from the FAA.

The overwhelming number of reports in ASAP files fall under “Oops!” banner, but many go deeper than that. Pilots can also report on any aspect of their company or FAA operation that they feel needs to be addressed. Examples run the gamut: Poorly designed approach and arrival procedures have been flushed out; better operational practices have been developed; charting errors have been corrected more quickly; and most importantly, better training has occurred because of the ASAP umbrella. ASAP is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s a tool that is used by the airline, the FAA, and the pilot community to maintain the highest level of safety.

There is much more to the program than what I have described, and it goes beyond pilots. Mechanics, dispatchers, and flight attendants can also craft ASAP programs, and the air traffic controllers also have their own. There have been a few instances when ASAP programs have been shut down by a participating group, and when that happens it almost always comes down to the suspicion that the necessary level of trust has been breached. Airlines and labor don’t always get along, but with ASAP, the level of trust is high, and the real beneficiary is not the participants, but the traveling public.—By Chip Wright