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Category: Chip Wright (page 1 of 13)

Some of the new normal

As I write this, we are five months plus into the COVID-19 saga. As you already know, it has had a devastating impact on a number of business sectors, with the airlines being among the hardest hit. In response to the virus as well as the concerns of the passengers, there have been some changes, and there is a chance that some of these—if not all—will become permanent changes.

First and foremost is the way the airplanes are cleaned. Prior to COVID, the concept of an electrostatic sprayer was totally foreign to travel. Now, it is quickly becoming commonplace. In addition, more deep cleaning is taking place when the planes aren’t flying. A recent change implemented for at least two airlines calls for running the auxiliary power unit (APU) on the ground more than was the previous practice. The aircraft all have HEPA filters, and the onboard air conditioning system can cycle the air from the whole plane in a matter of minutes. The conditioned air from the jetway isn’t HEPA-filtered, although that may well change in the future as well, especially as the fuel bills for the APUs mount.

Currently, employees are subjected to daily temperature checks, and some are even expected to take their own thermometers to work in order to self-administer daily temperature checks. Chances are that this practice will go away in time, but for now, it is part of the new normal.

Due to the severe decrease in flying, aircraft are being rotated in and out of storage. Airplanes are designed to fly, and sitting doesn’t do them any good. While it is possible to catch up on any lingering maintenance issues, flying is the best maintenance of all. Not every plane in every fleet will get used, but rotating them in and out of service can keep more of them flying and ease the transition back to normal operations as demand returns.

Food service has changed as well. There are no cooked meals or any meals that require personal handling such as salads or fruit. Currently, pre-packaged snacks are the only option for most passengers, and this isn’t likely to change until there is a reasonable degree of certainty that we have reached herd immunity or widespread use of a vaccine.

The most obvious change is the requirement to wear masks. Airline employees are currently expected and required to wear masks pretty much whenever they are in uniform or on the clock. This is both for the protection of the employee and those they interact with, as well as a way to encourage passengers to wear theirs. I’m sure the mask requirement will eventually ease, but I would not be surprised if there is a requirement to have a mask handy to use in case someone shows signs of illness, even if it’s just a cold. In addition to the masks, more and more plexiglass dividers are showing up, but those may or may not remain later.

The new normal in the future will likely consist of at least the enhanced cleanings, and possibly some changes in air filtration systems. All of this will be reflected in the price of tickets, but it will all be in the name of safety. This will be especially true as scientists and doctors get more and more data about the behavior of the coronavirus. All we can do is wait and see.

Special engine out procedures, Part 2

There is an old adage that says that being a single-engine pilot minimizes your decision making in an emergency, and there is some truth in that. If your only engine fails, you’re landing.

In a multiengine airplane, you may or may not have options. In a turbine-powered airplane, assuming you have properly loaded the plane and give due deference to published performance data, you will indeed have options. This is especially true on takeoff.

In the FAR Part 121 world that is the airlines, there are certain performance criteria that an airliner must be able to meet, and one of them is the ability to comply with the four segment climb in the event that an engine fails during the takeoff. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. A properly trained crew can lose the use of one engine, maintain control of the plane, and fly it off the ground safely and figure out where the best place to land will be.

Sometimes, though, terrain or obstacles (or both) preclude the straight-out departure. In this case, there needs to be an alternative procedure. The airlines and manufacturers work the engineers to produce viable options.

These are then tested in the simulator (and probably in a few cases in the real airplane). The procedures are then tweaked and validated and are published. However, they aren’t available in the public domain, because each procedure is ‘owned’ by the airline and/or the manufacturer. Jeppessen, which is the primary producer of aeronautical charts, publishes the procedures as “10-7” pages. And it’s possible that two companies flying the same airplane may have different procedures at the same airport.

Common airports for 10-7 pages, also known as special engine-out procedures, are Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Reno. Most of the time, the issue is terrain, but not always. In a few cases, like Washington National, there may be another issue. Departing Runway 1 at DCA, the issue is Prohibited Area 56 and the fact that a straight-out departure would put you square in the middle of the airspace that protects the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

But terrain is the most common driver of 10-7 development. When I was at the regionals, we had a 10-7 page for Reno that was incredibly complex. The only way to really fly it safely was to brief the first turn and the associated altitude, and then plan on having the nonflying pilot provide a progressive reading of the steps as the flying pilot attempted to fly. In a place like Reno or Vegas, the weather is almost always VFR, so you can plan to maintain visual separation from the rocks. But this isn’t always the case.

Here’s the rub: 10-7 pages are not something the tower is going to be familiar with, so if you have to fly a single-engine procedure, you’ll need to tell the tower that you’re going to be flying a company-specific procedure due to an engine failure. In a high-traffic area, this can get exciting. The best thing you can do is tell the tower to stand by, and do what you need to do to get to a safe altitude and a place where you can trouble-shoot and figure out your plan for getting back on the ground.

A couple of other notes about 10-7 pages: They are often used for a single-engine missed approach as well; and different fleets at airline X may well have different procedures. In fact, it’s possible that some fleets will need a 10-7 page, and others will not.

As a new airline pilot, you can expect an early introduction to 10-7 pages and how to brief them. You’ll also likely get a taste of at least one in the simulator. But, better to see it there for the first time than on the line!—Chip Wright

This is part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1 here.-–Ed. 

Special engine out procedures, Part 1

Every summer, it seems, there are days where the temperatures somewhere are hot enough that the media has reports that airplanes can’t take off. It is easy to scratch your head and ask how it is that an airliner can’t depart, even in a high density altitude environment. The most common place for this seems to be Phoenix.

Two things can drive this. The first is pretty simple: Hotter temps mean higher ground speeds for takeoff, and those speeds can mean that the speed limits for tires can be exceeded. Knowingly exceeding a limitation is never acceptable, and the result is usually a cancelled takeoff, or more likely, a reduced payload to reduce the speeds.

The second issue is performance once airborne. But it isn’t the all-engine performance that is the issue. It is single-engine performance, and more specifically, it is the single-engine performance that would be required when losing an engine at the worst possible time, which is right at the speed known as V1.

V1 is known as the takeoff decision speed, but more accurately, when the speed reaches V1, the crew is committed to taking off, with very rare exceptions (I know of one crew that aborted after V1 because the elevator was jammed). The FAA requires that manufacturers of FAR Part 25 certified airplanes be able to demonstrate that a takeoff can be safely continued after losing an engine at V1. They further define the climb segment as being four distinct segments, all of which have certain requirements: liftoff to 35 feet; 35 feet to 400 feet; an acceleration segment; and 400 feet to 1,500 hundred feet.

Further, all of this must be done while meeting certain climb gradient criteria without violating any of the TERPS parameters. One of the challenges comes with what can best be described as “non-standard” climbs. These can (and often are) be driven by obstacles or terrain in the departure path. This is especially true if an airport has been shoe-horned in or if the area around the field has been developed in such a way that it is no longer in compliance with FAA criteria.

When you learn to compute airline performance data, you aren’t all that concerned with all-engine performance. You are instead concerned with how to meet each of the four segments of climb. You may not know exactly where the TERPS concern is, but you know that something in the departure path is an issue, or that the runway is too short to accommodate the necessary acceleration after losing an engine at V1.

In my next post, I will discuss the work-around for some of these challenges, known as special engine out procedures. These procedures are essentially an alternate method of compliance that allow for the maximum possible payload (and revenue) without compromising safety. You don’t need to be Chuck Yeager to fly these safely, but you do need to thoroughly review and brief what the steps are, and be prepared for the unlikely to become your new reality.—Chip Wright

The humble O2 mask

Most passengers—especially frequent travelers—don’t pay much attention to the flight attendant safety briefings. That said, there is actually some good information being passed along, and as a potential professional pilot, it would be wise to start learning some of it yourself.

For instance, how much attention have you paid to the discussion about the oxygen masks falling from the ceiling? You might know that you need to put the mask on during a depressurization situation, but did you pay any attention to the particulars? If not, you should.

The oxygen that you will breathe during a depressurization actually isn’t on the airplane yet. It has to be produced, and guess who does that? You do.

Every jet uses some kind of a pressurization controller to maintain cabin altitude. If the cabin climbs above a certain setting (around 14,000 feet msl), the controller will (should) release the “rubber jungle” into the cabin. If the automatic system fails, the pilots can manually deploy the masks, but first they need feedback from the flight attendants that the masks didn’t fall. If there are a few units that don’t work, the flight attendants can use a tool to pop open the doors of the unit that is right over your seat.

Once the masks are out, there is a catch: Oxygen isn’t generated until you pull the mask toward you. You actually need to give it a little tug, because the hose is attached to a pin that needs to be tripped. When you give that mask a tug, the pin activates a chemical reaction that will then produce the oxygen that you will breathe. This is why you’re told that you should put on your mask first and make sure it’s activated. If the cabin depressurizes at a high altitude, there won’t be much time of useful consciousness, and if you can get your mask working, then you can help a child or someone next to you.

Once the canister is activated, it generates a tremendous amount of heat, so you don’t want to reach up and touch it. It can—and will likely—also produce a bit of a burning or foul odor. You don’t want to mistake that for a possible fire. It is instead a sign that the system is working as advertised. There may also be a bit of dust or smoke, both of which can generally be ignored.

What the flight attendants don’t tell you is this: The canisters only produce enough oxygen for around 12 minutes of breathing, though you may be able to get 15 minutes out of it. Worse, the oxygen is a continuous flow. It doesn’t matter how deeply or slowly you breathe. The good news with that is that if you (or a seatmate) pass out, air is available. The bad news is that if you pull down on two masks at once, you will still only have the 12 minutes of air to use. So, if you are in a row of three seats by yourself, you might have 36 to 45 minutes of air to use if you use them consecutively.

Why so little time? The assumption is that a depressurization at altitude is going to be followed by an immediate and rapid descent to (preferably) 10,000 feet. Since passenger jets are limited to 41,000 feet, the crew would be trying to lose 31,000 feet. In 12 minutes’ time, that works out to around 2,600 feet per minute, which should be very easy to do. Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario, because very few full jets can reach FL410.

So, next time you board, pay attention to the safety briefing. There are nuggets of information in there that really can save your life. And in this case, they will also be on a checkride if you are looking to fly professionally.—Chip Wright

Onboard fires

Considering that the two worst things that can happen on a passenger jet are a fire or a structural failure, fire detection and extinguishing are significant parts of airplane design and emergency equipment.

There are fire detection systems in the engine and APU compartments, as well as in the cargo bins and various locations in the cabin (think of the lavs). There are also overheat detectors in the wheel wells, but generally with no extinguishing capability.

There are also extinguishers on board. There is always a fire extinguisher in or near the flight deck for the crew. The cabin is also equipped with multiple extinguishers based on the number of people the plane can seat.

Two types of extinguishers generally are carried on board. The red canister that you might have in your home or see in your place of work or school is one of them, and it is equipped with Halon. Halon is the preferred option if the fire is electrical in nature, and it works by smothering the flame and depriving it of oxygen as quickly as possible. Because it is also compressed gas, it is cold, which helps to cool the temperature quickly around the source of the flame. The risk for the user is that, in a confined area, a chemical extinguisher may displace the oxygen you are breathing.

Water fire extinguishers are less prevalent, but they are only used for what are termed as Class A fires, such as paper or waste. For this reason, you can expect to see a water extinguisher near lavatories and/or galleys. Water might be able to put out a small electrical fire, but it also increases the risk of shock or electrocution, and considering that you might already be dealing with a compromised system, adding more risk to the equation doesn’t make sense.

In the age of rechargeable batteries used in phones, computers and tablets, fire awareness and extinguishing are even more important. There have been a number of onboard fires related to lithium batteries, and at least one cargo plane was lost to such a fire.

These fires burn extremely hot and are difficult, if not impossible, to control. As a result, airlines require that they be handled a certain way, and if a fire breaks out in a cabin because of a faulty battery, it is common to see some kind of thermal containment bag that is used to corral the offending device. The bag usually has a pair of heat-resistant gloves (think of a large oven mitt) that can be used to get the device in the bag. Once it is sealed inside, the hope is that the fire will burn out from a lack of oxygen. If a battery fire can be extinguished, it’s OK to douse it with liquids in order to smother it and get the temperature under control. In fact, it’s critical to keep an eye on the source, since the fire could reignite.

Fires are less of a threat than they used to be, which means when they do happen, they can totally catch everyone off guard. Learn what you can use to extinguish each type of fire, and know where the extinguishers are located and how to use them. Pay attention during training drills, and always be ready to put that training to use.—Chip Wright

Dear FAA

Dear FAA,

I am writing to you from the comfy confines of my pandemic-imposed quarantine-like shutdown, and like many Americans, I have gotten a fair number of things done around my house that needed doing or that I was told needed doing, or that I was told that I wanted to need to do. But I digress.

Doing these things made me realize that there are some housekeeping items that you should have addressed while airlines around the world were basically grounded. In fact, much of general aviation wasn’t flying much either, so you wasted a lot of good opportunity, which is almost as bad as wasting my tax dollars.

In the event that the world shuts down again, please consider using the following as a To Do list:

Clean the runways. Runways everywhere are covered with discarded rubber from tires, and these black patches are slicker than ice when they get wet. Speaking of ice, when that rubber gets snow and ice on it, slick doesn’t even begin to describe what one must deal with. The severe decrease in traffic is a great time to get the rubber cleaning equipment out of the garage and put it to use, so chop chop.

Fix the lights. There are, I’m guessing, millions of lights on and around airports. Runway lights, taxi way lights, approach lights, sign lights, and probably lights I’m not even aware of. Some of them I’m not aware of because they are burned out. I have yet to figure out when lights need to be fixed, but it must be some formula I don’t understand, because some are always (it seems) notam’ed out of service. With fewer airplanes to avoid, this would be a grand time to get all the lights working again. Even the Motel 6 leaves the lights on for people.

Paint! There is no better time than during an aviation-grounding pandemic to whip out some brushes and rollers and start painting taxi lines, runway stripes, lead-in lines, hold-short lines, taxiway markers, spot numbers and anything else that has paint in, on it, or with it. I’m going to cut you some slack on this one, because paint is hard to stay on top of, especially since it needs time to dry. It fades in the sun, gets scraped by plows, runover by vehicles large and small, and pounded by rain and even lightning. But, too many airports have too many lines that are too hard to see, especially at night and in the rain, and this really needs to be fixed, pronto.

This list could keep you busy for a while, so consider this a good starting point, but not necessarily an end point. Pilots everywhere will be grateful and less likely to get lost on one of your aerodromes.

Many thanks, and peace out,
Chip—Chip Wright

Bad overnights

It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, you have a layover that is just an awful experience. I’ve had a handful in the years since I started doing this.

Most of the time, it comes down to personal comfort. Air conditioning that doesn’t work isn’t all that uncommon, and in the summer, that can make for a long night as you try to sleep and not sweat like you’re camping in the Sahara.

Noise is another common issue, especially around raucous holidays like New Year’s or the Fourth of July. But it’s also an issue with everything from family reunions to weddings to a hotel full of kids in town for a sporting tournament. Loud arguments—or the opposite—in the room next door can also be an issue.

The one thing about noise, though, is the hotel will almost always do whatever they can to contain it or stop it. Crews are generally supposed to be placed in pre-designated places, such as the upper floors or the longest walk from the elevator, all in the hopes of keeping noise down. In my experience, the worst times for noise are when you need to go to bed much earlier than usual because of an early wake-up or a long day coming up. The hotel also knows that if noise is affecting one person, it’s probably affecting others (or will), and they won’t hesitate to call the police if necessary.

I’ve had two memorable experiences with middle-of-the-night fire alarms as well. One was in Raleigh-Durham in the summer, so at least it was comfortable outside. The hotel was one that often had a majority of its rooms used by crews from different airlines, and this was one of those nights. We were outside for well over an hour, from about 2:30 to 3:30 a.m., and all of us were upset. Some of us never got back to sleep. I can’t speak for the other carriers, but ours wound up with a number of fatigue calls that cancelled flights the next day because so many people hadn’t been able to get adequate rest.

The second one was in Buffalo in March, and the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament was going on. Several of the teams were in the hotel, and the rumor was that the alarm was pulled by a student from another school in hopes of affecting the games. This one also lasted about an hour.

One night that didn’t affect me so much did affect my crew as well as most of the hotel. It was the night of the time change in the spring, and the computer in the hotel that handled the wakeup calls malfunctioned, and phones all throughout the building began ringing in the middle of the night, and then an hour earlier than scheduled. I hadn’t checked my phone (this was in the pre-smart-phone era) before I went to bed, and it was just as well: It had been unplugged by a previous guest. Mine never rang, but when I got downstairs, my crew had been there an hour because they couldn’t sleep, and a dozen other guests were ready to tar and feather the poor guy working the desk. But I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Most of the time, sleep comes fairly easily, and occasionally you wake up with no idea where you are. But, as with any other job, bad nights are going to happen. It just feels worse when it happens on the road. That said, there’s always the next night’s hotel to catch up on your sleep.—Chip Wright

The smallest airplanes are getting bigger

When I first started to do any kind of regular travel, let alone fly for a living, turboprops were very common. Dash 8s, Brasilias, ATRs, Saab 340s, and the venerable Beech 1900 were ubiquitous in small towns all over America. Some of the flights were part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, and they were subsidized by Uncle Sam in order to provide some degree of air and mail service to the various Smallvilles of the USA.

Passengers, however, never did love the “puddle jumpers.” They were loud, they shook, they vibrated, and they were perceived to be less safe. After deregulation, small commuters sprouted and eventually began to work hand-in-glove with the jet drivers to produce the current hub-and-spoke system, while in some cases marketing a few flights on their own.

In the 1990s the concept of the regional jet gained steam, and while pundits and critics said it was doomed to failure—too few seats and too high an operating cost—the RJ revolutionized travel. The days of the turboprop were numbered, and by 9/11, with a spike in fuel prices and change in travel demand, the turboprop was on its last legs. Fifty-seaters dominated, because of comfort and speed, but those same high fuel costs became an issue for the RJs as well, and the real push for larger small jets began.

Nowadays, as we wade through the COVID-19 pandemic, the 50-seaters by Bombardier and Embraer are the airplanes facing demise. Some have been converted into corporate jets or cargo planes, but most are being sent to the desert. The CR7 and CR9 are now the Bombardier mainstays (the verdict is still out on the C-Series, since sold to Airbus and marketed as the A-220), while Embraer is making the most of its E-Jet series. Both have become major players, to the point that Boeing felt it necessary to buy a portion of Embraer and Airbus of Bombardier.

It’s interesting to see how the smallest airplanes have become bigger. Turboprops with 19 seats didn’t require a flight attendant, and they were cheap to operate. But jets offered far more opportunity and a better experience for the passenger at a premium price. The race now is to determine if there is a true market need for something in the 100-seat range, similar to the old DC-9s and early 737s. There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and airlines would rather fill  up an  airplane up and leave folks behind than fly even one empty seat.

(The same thing has also happened on the other end of the spectrum: The A-380 has proved to be a flop, and the 747 is being phased out of passenger service in favor of smaller, lower-cost twinjets like the 777 and 787.)

As the E-190 appears to be near the end of its run in the United States—American announced plans to park theirs, and jetBlue has been planning to do so for some time—the smallest mainline jets will be the 737-700/A-319 variants, which seat 120-137, depending on configuration. The gap between large RJs and small mainline jets will be either a target of opportunity or a bit of a no-man’s land as we move forward.

For pilots, it means that more and more will get their introduction to airline flying in some of the most sophisticated aircraft in the sky, and not in the old steam-gauge turboprops.—Chip Wright

Coronavirus recovery

In 25 years of airline flying, I’ve either been involved in or observed  several full or partial shutdowns of airlines or the industry as a whole.

In 2001, I was employed at Comair for the pilot strike, and the shutdown of the airline was an organized, four-day process as the company moved to get airplanes and crews in position before the pilots would stop flying. A few months later, we were part of the industrywide immediate cessation of operations when the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred.

The following year Comair also weathered a scheduling computer system crash over the Christmas holidays that was anything but orderly. In addition, I’ve watched strikes at other airlines take place, and I’ve seen the fallout of employee job actions, failed websites, and the grounding of fleets of airplanes at unexpected times.

All of these events led to the inevitable restart of operations of some sort, and in the case of 9/11, the spool-up was also followed by the near retirement of fleets of airplanes, mostly the venerable 727.

As we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are witnessing similar events. We can use these to get a bit of an idea of how the industry will begin the return to service. The closest comparable event is 9/11, and that isn’t even all that close in terms of the damage. Every airplane in the United States was grounded, but only for four days. The rest of the world continued to fly, and even though demand was diminished when flights resumed, it was better than it is now.

C-19 has stopped travel around the world. At one point, 16,000 of the world’s 24,000 airliners were parked at airports around the globe. Entire airlines were shut down or announced that they had or planned to go out of business. People stopped buying tickets, and fewer people flew in a month than normally fly on a single day. Flights in April and early May were averaging 10 or so people.

As in 2001, airlines began announcing  plans to eliminate entire fleets of airplanes. In the United States, Delta and American announced retirements of multiple fleets, to include the MD-88/90, A-330, 757, 777 and E-190, with rumors of the B-717 also being put to bed. Eliminating these airframes will reduce costs dramatically with respect to spare parts, fuel, training, and the occasional equipment swap. Carriers in other countries are planning to park the A-380, the world’s largest airplane, and one that never really found a niche.

In the last few days, there have been some signs of optimism. Ticket sales starting in July have begun to show some positive activity, and passengers are showing a bit more tolerance for close-to-the-neighbor seating in order to get where they need to go. United has quietly made plans to bring more than 60 airplanes out of storage for the July schedule, and Southwest is strategically adding flights as well. While all of the airlines have announced plans to emerge in the fall “at least” 30 percent smaller, it’s clear that they will take into account demand for travel as they add flights and try to bring the daily cash burn to at least zero.

As we move into the fall, everyone will be holding their collective breath on two fronts: How many employees might be furloughed, and how severe might a second wave of C-19 turn out to be? Furloughs are on everyone’s mind right now, and most recognize that the airlines will probably have no choice. But if demand continues to rise at a somewhat predictable pace, hopefully any time on the unemployment lines will be short. The larger issue is the unknown of the resurgence of the virus this fall and how people might react to it.

Some travel will be lost for good, and many leisure trips won’t be taken. But business travelers will continue to fly, and the airlines will adapt to the new demands and whatever cleaning procedures will be ongoing. Ticket prices will undoubtedly rise. More airplanes will come out of storage, but not all. An airline or two may fail, victim of too many dollars going out and not enough coming in. But in time, the system will work itself out. It always does.—Chip Wright

Preparing for the post-COVID job market

As the airlines begin to regroup to adapt to the new realities of a COVID-19 world, pilots who are trying to get into the industry must surely be confused and even discouraged, which is perfectly understandable.

But the world still needs airlines, and airlines still need pilots, and low-time pilots still need jobs. There is no sugar-coating the fact that low-time pilots will be delayed in getting that first job and those precious FAR 121 turbine hours. But those opportunities will come.

For now, you need to keep your applications up to date, current, and accurate. You also need to stay in touch with your network and follow up any rumors to cut through to the facts and truth of what is going on. Bad information is acidic, and it won’t do you any good at all. Seek out the truth, and keep your ears to the ground for opportunities and openings.

In the interim, fly as often as you can, and if you’re a CFI, look for any teaching opportunities that might arise. There may not be many, but it may not be as bad as you might think. You can also look for opportunities to take airplanes up for owners just to fly them, and if you can work a deal to get an airplane to fly on the cheap, this would be the time to build some hours and stay current.

What you can’t do is just give up. Even if you have to shift gears into other work for a while, you need to keep your sights on your goals and dreams and continue in the direction you have worked so hard for. The industry has been through upheaval before—nothing like this, to be sure—and it will eventually turn the corner. The strong will survive, and there may even be some new entrants if carriers fail and leave assets to reuse. But people and cargo are going to need to be moved.

Even if you’re outside of the industry, you can work on currency and maintaining a list of good contacts while staying abreast of what is going on. Once the economies around the world get a foothold, the return to growth is likely to be steady, if not quick. Nobody knows when that will happen.

But you do have the choice to be ready versus being left behind.—Chip Wright

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