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Author: Chip Wright (page 2 of 33)

Special airports

A recent conversation with a non-aviating friend of mine brought up a reminder about certain airports not being of the every day, run-of-the-mill variety. The question was whether or not my airline could just fly any plane into any airport with any pilot on any given day (assuming proper runway length, et cetera).The answer is no.

Every carrier and many corporate flight departments have certain airports that require specific training or operating procedures. At my former carrier, these were called Special Airports. Back in the day of printed approach charts, these airports came with color print charts with photographs, several pages of notes, and a slew of other information that described why they were special. Most of the time, the goal was simply to call attention to an airport that might pose certain challenges based on geography.

For example, KAVP (Scranton-Wilkes Barre) is built right next to a hill in a valley, and the localizer is offset for terrain avoidance. The winds can make this approach challenging. KAVL (Ashville) is another airport in a valley with significant surrounding terrain and some wicked winds and wind shear. KROA (Roanoke) is a bit of all of this, with short runways to boot.

At my current airline, on my current equipment, KAVL is considered special for a different reason: The runway is much narrower than the ones we normally use, so the potential for adverse yaw during an engine failure means that, under certain weight conditions, the rudder may not have enough authority to keep the plane on the runway should an engine quit. The solution is to make sure that the aircraft meets certain minimum weights prior to takeoff. The easy way to do this with a light passenger load is to add some fuel.

Almost every airline that flies into Vail, Colorado, has training procedures that require the first officer to fly in with a captain who has already been there, and the captain usually has to fly there for the first time under the supervision of a check airman. Further, if the captain has not been there in a certain window of time, he or she will again need to go under the supervision of a check airman. Some carriers have a few airports that require a captain to go in with a check airman every so many months no matter what.

Bogota, Colombia, is another airport that is problematic. The terrain is intimidating, and as a result weather deviations are limited. So are diversion options. Throw in the fact that a lot of arrivals come in after dark, and you have bad weather, high terrain, fatigue, and communication challenges all rolled up into one.

Back in the United States, another airport that fit the Special category, even for a turboprop, was Key West. It’s a short runway (4,800 feet), but plenty long for a turboprop. However, the challenge is the extremely close proximity of NAS Key West off the east end, which could lead to some interesting traffic conflicts. It’s also built with no spare room on either end of the runway if you have an overrun. Last, but not least, it can be both windy and wet. Frequent rains in the summer often leave puddles on the runway. Needless to say, flying a jet into Key West is a different level of challenge.

Special airports are not always so obvious. And they’re not always problematic. However, the require your attention and respect. Read up on the notes when you haven’t been there in a while. And remember, just because it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you doesn’t mean that it can’t become a very big deal very quickly if you’re not careful.—Chip Wright

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How long does it take?

Pilots who are new to a company and an airplane can at times feel like they will never “get it.”

The first shot out of the firehose is information. Lots and lots of information, about everything from the company to the managers to how to get a mistake on your ID badge fixed. Then there is airplane training, which is information on steroids. There are memory item checklists and limitations to memorize, some of which feel silly or seem to have no reason (and often don’t).

Next is the simulator, where everything goes from being an abstract, academic concern to a practical one, as you try to tie up all the pieces you’ve been given so far. Callouts, flows, crew resource management…it’s a lot to master, and there never seems to be enough time to do so. Worse still, you don’t realize how narrow the scope of flying is in the sim until it’s over. Most of the time is spent flying approaches and learning how to use the flight management system (FMS), while also figuring out how to keep the blue side up during an engine failure. In fact, in sim training, you actually get very little time experiencing what the airplane flies like when everything is working. You also get almost no exposure to the cruise portion of your flight.

Simulators are great for a lot of things, but they are terrible for mastering the art of a visual approach, because the graphics, as good as they are, still lack a certain amount of depth perception. The sims also usually do a poor job of replicating terrain-induced winds and turbulence on an approach. At some point you will begin to feel a little bit cocky about how you’re doing, because you will have mastered (or come close to) this narrow field of flying in a very controlled environment.

It’s only after you get on the line and have to really and truly put it all together in an airplane with passengers and other distractions that you finally have to master the art of not crashing and flying with some degree of grace. Generally speaking, it takes around 100 hours in an airplane to get your first new level of comfort, and it takes around 500 to begin to feel less apprehension in challenging weather conditions. With larger airplanes that fly longer legs and do fewer takeoffs and landings, it may take more. Getting the hang of hand-flying and performing smooth visual approaches is a sign of comfort, and a big boost to your confidence. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen with practice and repetition. You’ll also learn from your mistakes, of which there will be many at first.

But there comes a time where sitting in your seat feels like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. And that’s a great day when it comes.—Chip Wright

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Is the pandemic over?

It’s the question we all want the answer to: Is the pandemic over? In short, no, it isn’t. But things are definitely trending in the right direction.

Unless you have been buried under a rock of late, you’ve no doubt heard that mask mandates are being eased, and travel is suddenly becoming more popular. With that popularity comes certain expenses for the consumer. Rental car companies were forced to sell off large chunks of their fleets last year in order to survive the travel downturn. The result now is that renting a car has become so difficult that some have resorted to renting U-Haul trucks.

Hotels are also filling up. I was trying to arrange for some out-of-town travel recently to New England, and the first four or five hotels I looked at were sold out. The rooms that were left were noticeably more expensive than even a few months ago.

What does all of this mean for pilots and wannabe pilots? In a word: recovery. Or hiring. Take your pick. Americans are setting on a pile of hoarded cash, and Americans have never seen a dollar that they can’t spend. Travel demand has soared as families look to make up for lost vacations and visits with family members they were forced to isolate from while waiting for a vaccine.

This has meant a mad scramble for the airlines. Thousands of parked airplanes have to be brought out storage and brought up to (safety) snuff. Network schedule plans have to be rewritten, and tens of thousands of pilots have to be re-trained, or re- re-trained. This is all taking place at a furious pace, and at the lower end of the list, it means pilots are being hired much sooner than we had dared hope.

As I write this, Europe is in the process of updating its travel restrictions and guidance for vaccinated and tested passengers, and it will undoubtedly mean a flood of people buying tickets and travel plans at a rapid pace. As delightful as this is for the carriers, it will lead to a long game of playing catch-up. For aspiring pilots, it will be a grand opportunity to move into the ranks and start your careers. While the regional marketplace has undergone some seismic shifts of late, it still represents the best avenue to get your foot in the door and begin navigating the industry.

The more new hires there are, the better the news and the bigger the plans. Because replacement pilots must be in place first, more new hires mean airlines plan to bring more planes back into service and resume more service than they had announced. A lower volume of hiring generally means a more cautious approach.

If you’ve been waiting to get in the flight deck, this is the time to stop waiting and get started. The economic recovery is likely to be fairly robust, if unpredictable and a bit rocky. But now is the time to give the aviation gig a go.—Chip Wright 

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Getting ready for class

When you get the call for a new hire class, it’s quite a thrill. But it can also leave you scrambling to get ready to check out of the real world for six to eight weeks.

Getting ready for class is similar to getting ready for your interview. The first thing you need to do is a document check. Your new carrier will  want you to have a current passport with an expiration date at least six months away. You may have to pay for expedited handling, but if you’re close to that window, just get it done.

Next up is your medical. Just about every airline requires all pilots, including first officers, to maintain a first class medical. If yours is going to expire in the next two-three months, consider biting the bullet and getting it renewed early, especially if you don’t want to have to run the risk of getting an appointment with a new doctor in a new city right away. If you decide to wait, be prepared to buy a ticket to get home to your regular doctor if the training schedule gets fouled up.

Your CFI certificate. If you’re coming up on a renewal for your CFI, try to knock that out of the way as well. Even if you have no intention of teaching again, think about how hard you worked to get your flight instructor certificate. You may end up wanting to teach just to work with some favorite clientele, or you may want to pick up some pocket change. And, heaven forbid, if you should have a problem with training and need to go back to teaching, you’ll need it. Additionally, you don’t want to rule out going into the training department at an airline, which is totally different than what you’re used to. Finally, doing a FIRC is time-consuming, and once you are finished with training, the last thing you’ll want to do is sit in front of your computer and bang out all those hours of clicking “next.”

Your driver’s license and pilot certificate. This sounds so simple, but you’re required to notify the FAA when you change addresses, and if your driver’s license is close to expiration, you want to get that renewed as well, especially if there is any chance you’ll be renting a car. If you’ve been bouncing around from one place to another looking for a place to live, you’ll need a mailing address for your new company. And, because you’re going into training, you may well have an event or a ride observed by the FAA. Matching addresses on your certificate, medical, and driver’s license saves some potential embarrassment.

Doctor’s appointments. These may be dictated by your current insurance situation, but you’ll want to use whatever time you can to knock out a basic physical, a trip to the dentist,  and your optometrist if you wear glasses. Once class starts, you will be too busy to be bothered, and a cavity or some other unexpected malady is not something you want to mess with in a new-to-you city.

Packing. You’ll want to have clothes enough to wear for at least a week to 10 days between loads of laundry. The company may or may not require you to have certain equipment at certain points in the training (such as headsets), and you’ll want to take stack of blank flashcards, a notebook, laptop, and spare phone chargers. If you’re driving to class, take a printer. Yes, a printer. It’s amazing how convenient it is when you can print something in your hotel room when you least expect to need to do so. If you’re flying to training, skip the printer, but find out what is involved in using the one in the hotel business center. You may need it for everything from printing out benefits information to getting a hard copy of the fuel system diagrams.

Getting the call for class is both exciting and stressful. But with a little bit of foresight, you can maximize the excitement and minimize the stress. It’s a long slog through the grind of indoc, systems, and the sim, let alone your first flights on the line, but it’s worth it. Don’t make plans to spend time with friends or family or a love interest. You’ll be pretty consumed, and you owe it to yourself, your employer, and your future passengers to totally devote yourself to training. There will be plenty of time to play hard later.—Chip Wright

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Behind the scenes

Like any other industry, aviation has a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that the average Joe isn’t aware of.

In fact, often people within that industry may not be aware of some of it either. After all, how often do you go to a restaurant and think about all the stuff that goes on in the kitchen before you get your food? Someone has to know how much of what to order, and someone has to determine how much of each food to make ahead of time based on demand and popularity.

The airlines work the same way. As you read this, the calendar will be indicating summer. And not just any summer, either, but the first summer after the strangest summer any of us can remember, along with a weird winter that didn’t seem to want to end. Many airlines already have a small team of people working on next winter’s operations. Deicing fluid needs to be ordered well in advance, with supplies adjusted based on expected fleet plans at each airport/hub, training manuals for all affected work groups need to be updated and harmonized, and equipment needs to be maintained, replaced, and repaired. Just getting the manuals updated is time consuming, because at some airports the work is contracted out to a company that handles multiple airlines, so everything has to be written as simply as possible.

Deicing equipment only gets used a few times a year, so functionality checks start early in order to find issues that result from leaving stuff sitting around for months on end. The folks who train the trainers also need to be brought up to speed early so that the training pipeline gets started, staffing can be adjusted, and schedules accommodated.

Another big behind-the-scenes area is the long-term scheduling of flights. Every airline calls it something different, but it’s basically the same: where will we be going, and with which airplanes, in 12 to 24 months. The three big seasonal peaks are Thanksgiving, which is easy (in the relative scheme) to plan on; spring break; and summer vacation, specifically the month of July.

My airline is constantly putting out communications about the next one or two summers, because those busy months drive the training schedule for pilots, and to a lesser degree, flight attendants. Big events factor in as well. For instance, last year, the Olympics were supposed to be a major focus point. COVID changed that, and this year the Games may be held with no crowds. Next year, the World Cup is on the docket, but it’s too soon to say how COVID may or may not affect that event, and that doesn’t take into account which teams may or may not qualify.

Maintenance is another never-ending cycle of planning and contingencies. Airplanes are subjected to some form of light maintenance every day or so, but they also need to be scheduled for “heavy” inspections based on the manufacturer recommendations. These checks pull the airplanes out of service for a few months at a time, and they are scheduled a year or more in advance. A majority of these events take place outside the United States, especially for wide-bodies. That is yet another variable that needs to be accounted for.

There are also unexpected events, like the grounding of the 737 MAX, which was down for two years, got released to fly, and then was partially grounded again. Airlines can accommodate some of these curveballs, but too often the only resort is to cancel flights and issue refunds.

Just like a restaurant that has to plan for a big social event, the airlines have to constantly tweak their plans, and often there are a lot of partners involved and a lot of unexpected ripples that have to be dealt with in the process. It’s part of what makes aviation such a dynamic, exciting industry: There is never a dull or a still moment. But there is always something that needs to be done.—Chip Wright

Sports charters

As we move into spring and summer, the airlines are heading into some of the busiest charter work that they do: basketball tournaments and Major League Baseball. Charters are not the money-makers that they used to be, but they still turn a guaranteed profit for the airlines, and they are an important part of the business model.

College basketball can be among the most challenging, because it is so unpredictable. Nobody knows when a team is going to be eliminated or move on to the next round, so the schedule has to take that into account. Usually, when traveling by charter, the schedule is built to take in the best possible option, which is that the team in question will make the next round. If they lose, then they usually have to sit around for a day or two or three in order to return home on schedule.

If the team is lucky, the contract with the airline can include the flexibility to leave early if they lose, but this is entirely dependent on the airline and its ability to have a crew and an airplane in position, to say nothing of the catering that must be done according to the terms of the contract. Catering and food are a big part of these arrangements, so don’t underestimate their importance.

Baseball is much easier to predict, because the schedule is laid out in advance. That said, baseball charters can be demanding, difficult work because of the hours. Most charters (of any sport) include three total flights at a minimum: one to get the airplane into position, one to actually fly the team, and one to get the airplane back into the regular schedule. The fee charged covers all three, plus whatever crew-related expenses there will be. Most baseball (and football) teams negotiate with a single carrier, and they often use different-sized airplanes based on the trip, with long flights usually requiring a bigger airplane.

For the crew, the job begins with getting the airplane into position, usually by flying it empty to the pick-up point. This is the easy part, and also the most important. It’s also where the problems usually start, because if a game goes late—or really late—it messes up the schedule.

Let’s say a baseball game goes 12 or 13 innings—not common, but not unheard of. That can easily add an hour or more to the schedule. The standard post-game order of events doesn’t change: showers, press obligations, packing, et cetera. The team loads up on buses and heads to the airport. The airplane can be loaded fairly quickly, but being late is being late.

Since most games are played at night, the flight is usually a red-eye of sorts, so the big battle is fighting fatigue. But the job isn’t done. Dropping the team off is usually even quicker than loading them up. However, because charters usually start and stop at FBOs or company hangers, that means the airplane may have to be cleaned or fueled before it can go to the gate. Or, worse, it may have to be flown empty to another city to work a flight. As a pilot who has done these three-flights-in-a-night adventures, I’m here to tell you that the last ones aren’t a lot of fun.

More than once, I finished a basketball charter pulling into the gate as the crew working the first flight of the day was showing up. It was a mad dash to get the airplane ready to go as we slogged off to a hotel or grabbed a seat in the cabin to go home, another baseball team or university (hopefully) grateful to us for a job well done.—Chip Wright

Sterile cockpit

A headline of late was of a pilot in the San Jose, California, area going on a rant that was broadcast on the radio. This is not the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last. The usual culprit is a stuck mic switch.

The FAA has announced an investigation into the incident, and it’s safe to say that if the guilty individual is found, there will be some kind of disciplinary action and/or a fine.

Aside from sounding unprofessional, the transmission apparently took place below 10,000 feet, when an airline crew is supposed to be honoring sterile cockpit procedures. The FAA says pilots are supposed to limit conversation only to flight-related discussion below 10,000 feet. Considering that a number of accidents have been attributed to violation of sterile cockpit—to say nothing of other incidents—the FAA is going to wield its power.

Most modern transport-category radios have an auto-shutoff feature that will shut down transmissions after a certain amount of time. This incident is the reason why—not so much because of what was said, but because a stuck mic can create a safety issue if other pilots or controllers can’t transmit and receive over the stuck mic.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, because the other pilot will be in the crosshairs as well for what appears to be a lack of effort to bring the conversation back to the appropriate topics.

It would be naïve to say that sterile cockpit violations don’t happen every day. They do, but that doesn’t excuse it. We all need to be aware of where we are and what we are saying, and anytime we are using a radio panel, we need to make sure that what is meant to stay in the cockpit actually does. It’s easy to miss it when your mic continues to stay hot, but a subtle indicator is the change in your own voice in your ear when you’re using the radio versus the intercom. But that’s the problem: It’s a subtle change, and all too easy to miss. Some radios also have a transmission symbol or indicator, such as a “T” or a “TX” that appears on the screen. Some … but not all.

This incident needs to be a reminder of the need to honor the sterile cockpit. It’s easy to get complacent, but it certainly isn’t impossible to comply. In fact, some pilots I’ve flown with have personally requested that anything below 18,000 feet be considered sterile, the rationale being that even the teens can have a lot of traffic and opportunities for missed radio calls. While that isn’t a necessary step, it’s not an unreasonable one either.

In general aviation, the rules are much more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with your own conditions that might be “sterile.” It could be an altitude or within so many miles of an airport, or some other definition that you feel will reduce the risk of an ATC mistake or error. Whatever you decided to use, just remember that whatever you say may not only be recorded, but broadcast live on the internet, and the FAA may want to discuss it.—Chip Wright

Some bright spots

As the pandemic appears to be winding down, travel is showing some signs of recovery. Flights for spring break saw some of the highest load factors seen since early 2020, and Americans are itching to avoid another summer of being stuck at home.

Several airlines, including a couple of majors, are showing signs of growth and pilot hiring. United recently announced point-to-point service for several Midwestern cities that are not typically a part of its core hub-and-spoke system. This is a significant departure (pun very much intended) for a company that is so focused on maximizing the hub part of the hub-and-spoke.

Other carriers have also been quietly making adjustments to their schedules as well, and a cursory examination of the announcements shows what was long predicted: Leisure travel is expected to rebound first.

Here’s the best part of the good news, though: Much of this added flying is being done on regional aircraft. That makes sense, because a smaller airplane allows an airline to “right-size” the airframe for the market, which in this case, is relying on zero connecting passengers. If the smaller airplanes fill up, the option always exists to bring in something bigger later or on a seasonal basis. From a pilot perspective, it means more block hours of flying, which means more jobs. Endeavor, a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta, has begun training new-hire pilots, and is expecting to hire as many as 400 before the end of the year. Spirit and United are also expected to see a net growth in pilot jobs.

This is a stark turnaround from where we were a year ago, when pilots at the majors were sweating out the possibility of a furlough. Fortunately, three significant government bail-out bills have kept the airlines afloat and allowed for some creative solutions to be crafted to minimize any lost jobs. It appears to have worked as advertised. Early separation packages got some senior folks to retire, some retraining costs were saved or totally avoided, and the ability to rebound was kept in place. On my last couple of trips, the airways and radio frequencies were jammed, and it was a great sense of normalcy in a year that has had anything but.

Pilots who are interested in stepping up to the regionals or higher need to be updating applications regularly and touching base with contacts at various carriers. Job fairs are likely to be virtual, if they occur at all. But if they do, that face time with a recruiter will be more important than ever before.

Because it stands to reason that many countries will require a vaccine to enter, getting vaccinated should be a priority for anyone looking to get into the travel industry, and pilots will be at the top of that list. The Biden administration is pushing to broaden the ability for everyone to get a shot by May 1, so if you can get one, don’t wait. The airlines have not specifically come out and said that they will require a vaccine, but at least one as hinted that it may, and they may all require future job applicants to have one. There is no point in delaying what feels like the inevitable, especially if it has the double bonus of both protecting you and gaining a leg up on future employment.

What was threatening to be a long period of recessionary activity is now showing signs of hope and recovery. While nothing is ever guaranteed, the signs are positive, and that’s far more than we could have dared hoped for a year ago.—Chip Wright

The beginning of the beginning of the end

As we enter the second year of the pandemic, there are signs of an ever-so-slow return to normalcy. In the last couple of months, airports are showing more signs of activity, from more crowded terminals to more flights arriving and departing. Airlines are cycling more airplanes in and out of storage, and more importantly, they are bringing some out of storage for good. At three U.S. based carriers—United, Southwest, and American—the Boeing 737 MAX has returned to service.

The three big federal payroll protection program (PPP) grants and loans have gone a long way to help stabilize the industry. Employees who were going to be furloughed are being kept on the payroll. Pilots are being kept current, and those who can afford to take some unpaid time off are being given an opportunity to do so. (Two of these PPP blocks have already been signed into law; the third is currently headed toward the Senate, where it is likely to pass.)

Now that the U.S. FDA has approved a third vaccine, we can pick up the steady march toward herd immunity in the United States while also sending extra supply to other nations that need it. This is critical for helping achieve a return toward normal levels of trade, travel, and tourism. It will take some time for the global economy to rebound, but once that recovery gains traction, it should be a steady improvement. Time will tell.

In the aviation sector, this is all great news. Few industries are as capital-intensive as the airlines with as few direct sources of revenue. A number of airlines have already failed, and more may well follow. But the best news is that several airlines that were talking about having to furlough are now actively spooling up their hiring processes.

During the pandemic, agreements were made with various unions to offer early retirement packages to employees, including pilots, and it now looks like there will be a faster recovery in some sectors than originally anticipated. Leisure travel will recover first, and maybe even fastest, as folks look to get away from home after feeling trapped for so long. Florida is open, except for cruises, and flights to and from the state are full and—for now—usually cheap.

Business travel will take longer to recover, but that might also make it more predictable and easier to manage. The international business community will take longer to return as nations slowly lift their travel restrictions and the vaccines begin to reach more and more people. That said, trade shows, meetings, et cetera, that were postponed or canceled will slowly be returned to the calendar, and advance tickets will be sought, bought, and sold.

All signs point to the beginning of the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with a nation and a globe full of people desperate to return to a more normal, familiar life. If this is indeed the case, the airlines have weathered an incredibly difficult path—one that would not have been possible without federal aid, but still they will have succeeded.

It’s too soon to say if the pilot shortages of 2018 to 2020 will return, or will be as severe, but I think it is safe to say that those who want to find a career in aviation will have the opportunities to do so far sooner than we might have thought even a few months ago, and that is indeed welcome news.—Chip Wright

UAL 328

On February 20, after the news of United flight 328 hit the airwaves, my phone began blowing up with people wanting to know if I was flying the airplane (no) or if I was on it (again, no).

In case you’ve been living under a rock or just consumed with the Kim Kardashian-Kanye West divorce, 328 is the Boeing 777 that departed Denver for Honolulu, only to sustain an uncontained engine failure shortly after departure. The crew declared an emergency and coordinated with air traffic control to return to Denver, touching down roughly 30 minutes after departure.

It’s understandable that folks want to know what happened, especially given the unusual pictures of debris that landed on yards in residential areas (the true miracle in this is that nobody was hurt on the ground). I have several theories about what might have happened, and all are realistically possible, but they might also all be totally wrong. One person on Facebook pointed out what appears to be damage to one of the fan blades on the engine, but it remains to be seen if the damage caused the explosion, or if the explosion caused the damage.

What I can tell you is that it will take months, if not a year, for the NTSB to come up with a probable cause. Until they do, it isn’t fair to anyone—the pilots, the airline, Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, the FAA, or any others that come to mind—to  pretend to know what did or didn’t happen, especially in a public forum such as this.

But I will say this: Events like the one on 328 are what we train for. We spend countless hours in classrooms and simulators discussing the myriad ways that normal operations can quickly go “abnormal” or “non-normal.” We brainstorm, we talk, we share, and when we get in the simulator, we get to practice dozens of possible scenarios in which a worst-case event is inflicted upon us. Some of them are hopelessly complex and borderline unsurvivable. Some are based on events that have happened in real life.

When we first start training in a new airplane or with a new company, we often make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes “red screen,”  which is the simulator version for a crash. But then we do it again. And again. And again. And for good measure, we do it yet again. Eventually, certain actions become ingrained; certain processes become second nature; and we tame the beast of unpredictability and the unknown. Our confidence in the equipment and ourselves grows. When training is complete, they trust us to let you, the flying public, to put your trust in us without reservation. And when training is complete, we continue to learn, to talk, to share what ifs. We do this every year.

I saw the word “scary” a lot. And I’m sure that the passengers were terrified, especially those that could see the engine doing things it shouldn’t do. As for the crew, my guess is that after a moment of unprintable words and an adrenaline rush, they immediately focused on what needed to be done.

First, fly the airplane. Identify for certain which engine is compromised, and to what extent.

Second, navigate. This flight was headed west, so terrain clearance over the Rockies was probably an early concern. The weather was good, which helped.

Third, communicate, first with each other, and then with ATC. Once an agreement was made on what the issue was, the appropriate checklist needs to be executed. One pilot likely took over the flying and radio, while the other handled the checklists.

Time was on their side. They were at a safe altitude, and there was no inclement weather to complicate the return to the airport. They had plenty of fuel. From what we know so far, the other engine was operating normally, and this is key: The second engine really and truly is a spare, and it really and truly can get a fully loaded airplane safely to an alternate airport. This is just as true over the Lower 48 as it would be had the issue occurred over the Pacific or the North or South Pole.

A far more dangerous scenario, and one we practice ad nauseum in training, would have been an engine failure on the takeoff roll, just before rotation (we call this a V1 cut). At that point, they would have been committed to getting a wounded bird airborne, navigating the transition from barely ground-bound as the wings generate lift, to airborne but with reduced power, which is one of the worst things a pilot can experience.

Losing an engine at altitude? I’ve dealt with this twice, and I’ll take that option over the engine failure on takeoff every time.

Kudos to the crew for a job well done. Years of training, expertise, and experience were put to use. We’ll get the answers about what happened in time, and our system will be better for it.-–Chip Wright

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