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Tag: Chip Wright (page 1 of 3)

Sim landings versus the airplane

Airline training is always conducted in a simulator these days because of costs and safety. Back in the day, training was done with a combination of simulator and in the airplane (prior to that, it was all done in the airplane). Sims are great procedures trainers, where much time can be saved in getting in the necessary repetition.

But one thing that simulators are not great trainers for is learning how to land. As good as the graphics are, sims don’t provide the necessary depth perception, though they have gotten magnitudes better over the years. Further, wind simulations for landings have never been very good, and so getting an accurate, realistic feel for the effects of various winds is difficult. I say this not only from my own experience of hundreds of hours of simulator time, but also from friends who are experienced sim instructors.

I’ve also seen this problem from flying with new-hire first officers who are inexperienced in the airplane. Believe it or not, the most difficult procedure to fly is the visual approach without reference to guidance from an approach source. Keep in mind that every airline wants you to use whatever approach aids are available, but there will be times when one isn’t available, and as a basic skill you need to be able to land strictly using the eyeballs.

The transition to the airplane is difficult for several reasons: It’s much bumpier (and the bumps are realistic) than the sim; the sounds are a bit different; and most of the time you won’t be the only airplane on the radio.

Engine response to thrust input may differ slightly from airplane to airplane, and unlike in the sim, you can’t always set a thrust setting and leave it there. Moreover, as I mentioned, the winds are vastly different. In the sim, when the winds are set, they are fairly universal. In other words, you won’t see a 15-knot tailwind at 3,000 feet that shifts around to a 10-knot headwind at touchdown. The effect of terrain is on wind in the sim is not there, and the gusts are virtually non-existent.—Chip Wright

Fuel planning

Like any other business, airlines are hawkish about keeping costs in line. The biggest expense for an airline is fuel. Recently, oil prices have climbed, and as a result, airlines predictably have begun to re-emphasize fuel-saving strategies that often are allowed to wane. Single-engine taxi operations, minimizing APU usage, and flying a cost-efficient flight plan are all common ways to stretch the company dollar.

Balancing the pilots’ needs with those of the bean-counters to save money is a never-ending source of tension. In general aviation, it is standard procedure to fill the tanks and go, no matter how short or how long the flight is. Preventing water condensation in the fuel is a common rationale for this, especially for an airplane that doesn’t fly every day.

But in a jet, topping of the tanks is almost never an option. Most of the time, this will cause a landing weight that exceeds the limit. Further, it’s very expensive. Roughly 3 percent of the fuel on a jet is used to carry the fuel on a jet, and that is a number that adds up. Dispatchers, who actually file the flight plans, will take into account the anticipated weather and regulatory needs and fuel the flight accordingly. Each airline has a different policy when it comes to planning fuel, but most will plan to land with the legal reserve plus a small cushion.

Further, every airline keeps extensive records on fuel burn. Historical burn data is tracked for each route, flight, time of day/month/year, individual aircraft, each engine, and even for each captain—and the accuracy of the data is uncanny. Analyzing this info allows an airline to keep fuel costs in check without comprising schedule integrity or safety.

One of the most common data points used is the frequency of a diversion based on the amount of extra fuel carried. For example, an airline knows that a given flight has a normal completion percentage of X. For every so many minutes of extra fuel, the completion percentage needle may move incrementally upward. At some point, no amount of extra fuel is going to make a statistical difference, but it will harm the bottom line. And, once that point is reached, the success of other flights (the connections) comes into play, because if one airplane diverts for weather, odds are that a whole bunch will divert.

For pilots, there is almost never too much fuel, but there does need to be an acceptance that you can’t save every flight, and sometimes a diversion is the best option for all involved. Over time, the cost of carrying extra fuel begins to exceed the potential savings. As a result, it is incumbent upon us to realize that we need to think of fuel in terms of extra minutes. How many extra minutes of fuel do I need or want, based on weather, anticipated routing delays, et cetera? What amount of fuel am I comfortable landing with at the destination? There is nothing wrong with adding some extra fuel, as long as it is done with the big picture in mind. Adding extra fuel for the sake of adding it is a waste and only hurts the bottom line, and it runs the risk of driving up ticket prices and chasing away your passengers.—Chip Wright

Reviewing cold weather operations

As summer comes to a close, it is worth remembering that in some places, colder weather will hit while the rest of the country stays warm. In the northern climes, the onset of fall means colder temperatures at night, and that means there is a distinct possibility of frost. This may mean deicing, even though you can still wear shorts in the afternoon.

Even though it is still hurricane season, this is a great time of the year to begin reviewing cold weather operations. Believe it or not, most airlines start planning for winter ops around the first of June. There is a lot of background work that needs to be done. Deicing trucks need to be tested and maintained. Fluid needs to be ordered and strategically placed (in some places, this is handled by the airport, but not always). Employees need to be trained, equipment needs to ordered—the list goes on, and everything starts with an honest review of what did and did not work well the last couple of seasons.

On the pilot front, most airlines issue flight manual updates in the fall, and these almost always include updates to deicing procedures. In 2017, many airlines began using a new liquid water equivalent (LWE) concept that takes into account multiple variables at one time. In the past, deicing ops were predicated mostly on precipitation intensity or type. LWE takes into account temperature, dew point, and humidity as well to more accurately predict the hold-over times that can be used while deicing. The result is longer holdover times without compromising safety, which minimizes the risk of re-deicing—a time-consuming, expensive process.

Updates will also consist of new procedures—will the flaps be up or down for deicing this year?—that might be specific to the fleet, the airline, or the airport. Pay attention, because we can easily forget the details, and sometimes the changes are significant and dramatic.

A review will also make it easier to find quickly the sections of the manual needed when something is out of the ordinary, such as an inoperative APU. A lot of the updates will be buried in the company-specific pages of the Jeppesen charts, and while most airlines do a good job of communicating these, inevitably something will get through the cracks.

I always make a point to review cold weather ops just after Labor Day. This year will be no different. It’s a great habit, and having done it now for almost 20 years, I’d feel naked if I didn’t. Ice can be deadly and dangerous, and it deserves respect. Company procedures need to be followed. As always, two heads are better than one, and a good captain appreciates a first officer who is on his or her game.—Chip Wright

You can’t make this stuff up

Part two of a three-part series. Read part one here. 

ATC wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway being advertised. While all of this was going on, the airport was effectively ground stopped, during which time the departures were shut down. The weather that had been north of the airport had circled around to the east and south, and a new set of cells was forming to the north.

My opportunities to commute home that night were quickly evaporating. With the extra time to kill, I began tracking my options on the company app, hoping the inbound flight that made up my flight would be late as well (airplane…crew…I didn’t care, as long as one was late and my flight was delayed enough for me to get on).

In the span of time that we were sitting there at the gate, the passengers were boarded because we wanted to be able to get off the gate in short order. With 12 years of captain experience, I knew this decision was fraught with peril. It can make one look like a genius, or it can be a disaster.

This one, unfortunately, was option B. We announced the delays, and before long we were on our fifth flight plan. I was ready to just delete everything on my iPad and be done with it, especially when the dispatcher told the captain we’d need substantially more fuel.

The new route had us taking off and flying west for almost 30 minutes, and then turning north and staying north, flying over Milwaukee and into Canada to join an arrival usually used by European inbounds. The flight time was scheduled to be 30 minutes longer, and because we needed an alternate, we needed an extra 5,000 pounds of fuel, which was going to take some time. It was clear that our route options were limited, and ATC and the company were both working to keep us north of a line of weather that extended from just east of Denver all the way to the East Coast.

In time, the passengers began to get jumpy, especially those who were going to miss international connections. One passenger wanted to get off to go find a place to smoke, and another wanted to get off to buy a cell phone charger. You can’t make this stuff up.

Others just wanted to get off, and several did…but then a few new ones from a later flight got on. This led to some confusion later with respect to getting our final passenger count and weights, which had to be accurate to determine our runway options, flap setting, and speeds. As a friend of mine would sarcastically say, “Good times.”

The captain muttered at some point, “I think I’ve lost control of this situation.” I could only laugh, especially since the app showed I could still, in theory, make my flight home. I knew that wasn’t likely, and I had basically given up hope. Knowing I had no chance took away the stress of trying to make it, but I missed my own bed.

To compound the problem, we were starving. We were scheduled to get a meal on the flight, and neither of us had gotten off to eat in Denver, because Murphy’s Law says that if we had, we would have missed a chance to leave. The stop-and-start nature of the efforts to get out of the gate also kept us from eating at the gate. To top it all off, we were facing some FAR 117 legality issues if we waited much longer.—Chip Wright

In the third part of this three-part series, Chip’s aircraft is number 30 for takeoff. Will the crew time out before they get off the ground? 

Sometimes you just can’t get a break

Part one of a three-part series

I often joke about certain things at work by saying that “This was not in the brochure!” People often imagine pilots on layovers sitting on a beach somewhere with an umbrella drink while they bask in the glow of their career and enjoy the scenery and the sun. And that does happen—but certainly not every day, and not for every pilot.

I recently had one of those “not in the brochure” days, and as a pilot who commutes, it took on even more meaning (and misery).

The day started easily enough, with a leg from San Diego to Denver, but getting into Denver was the beginning of the end of any kind of schedule. Storms in the area meant we had to hold for the better part of 20 minutes. Progress was measured by the descents in the holding pattern just east of the Rockies. Initially, we couldn’t get below 25,000 feet, but eventually we were brought down to the teens. For us, fuel wasn’t much of an issue, as our dispatcher had given us quite a bit of extra fuel in anticipation of the weather. Other crews, however, were beginning to talk about diverting. We kept updating the weather on our iPads to see what was going on not only near the field, but also on our anticipated route home.

We could see the weather moving on the radar as we flew circles, and it was moving fairly fast. However, a sizable area was affected, and I was already worried about our outbound flight to Newark. After all, I only had about an hour on the ground in Newark to catch my flight home, and hey, we all have priorities, especially with a week off coming up after having been home one night in the previous two weeks.

At long last, we began getting vectored to the final for Runway 8. Just north of the field, we got a visual on the weather. It was big, and it was ugly. That said, we could see a few places where we should be able to take off and get through the line before it closed up.

On the ground, the ramp had just opened up after a brief closure for lightening, another sure sign that we weren’t out of the woods. When we downloaded the flight plan, the route looked pretty straightforward: We’d go a bit north, and then beeline east to join the arrival. If only…

Soon enough, a message came over the ACARS (sort of an in-flight email/fax/texting device) telling us that we needed call clearance for a reroute. When I dialed in the frequency, it was jammed, so I patiently waited. I waited so long that I finished the USA Today crossword puzzle. Finally, I got a word in, and I got our new route, which I was immediately told was no longer any good.

Three out of the four departure gates were closed, and the one runway that ATC insisted on using was causing all kinds of problems for everyone. It was too warm to use because of Denver’s elevation and the tailwind. For reasons I still don’t understand, they wouldn’t change runways despite the fact that nobody could use the runway that was being advertised.—Chip Wright

In the second part of this three-part series, the weather gets worse and Chip wonders if they will get off the ground in time. 

Per diem

One of the less discussed, but still critically important, aspects of a career involving travel is the issue of food and expenses. In the working vernacular, this is shorthanded as per diem.

In nonflying occupations, employees get a certain per diem allowance each day, and it usually covers hotel and food expenses. At the end of a stint of travel, expense reports are submitted, and once they are verified by the accounting personnel, the employee is reimbursed.

The airlines do things a bit differently. Per diem is paid by the hour, starting with the official report time for the trip. It ends whenever the pilot is considered done with the trip, be it a one, two, three, or even 15-day assignment. So, if a pilot reports at noon on the first day of a trip and goes home on day four at noon, he will have logged 96 hours of what is called time away from base (TAFB). If his airline pays $2 an hour per diem, he’ll receive $192 in per diem expenses, which is intended to cover the cost of meals and incidental expenses; the company pays for the hotel directly.

At the majors, there is almost always a slightly higher rate for international trips to cover the higher cost of food in those locations. Per diem is usually paid on the second check of the following month, which allows the folks in payroll time to conduct due diligence on the record keeping.

Under the tax law, if a pilot flies a one-day trip, the per diem is taxable as regular income. If the trip has any overnights, the per diem is not considered taxable. For this reason, it’s common practice at the regionals for pilots and flight attendants to take a lot of their own food on trips, which allows them to pocket per diem as though it were extra income.

The downside to the way the airlines pay per diem is that the rate is always the same. That means that you’re getting the same allowance for dinner in an expensive city such as San Francisco as you’re getting in a less expensive town such as Cedar Rapids. Until the tax law changed this year, pilots and flight attendants could use the IRS meal and incidental expense (M&IE) tables to determine how much they were entitled to in each city, and their accountant or tax software would compute how much of the difference they were entitled to. Under the 2017 tax law, early interpretations are that this allowance has been eliminated, thus increasing the cost of eating on the road.

If the early interpretations of the tax law changes hold, it’s possible that per diem will paid and computed differently. Either way, as an employee, it’s up to you to verify that your per diem is paid to you properly, as well as understand how the rules apply to you and when.—Chip Wright

Getting adequate sleep

One of the best parts of flying for a living is seeing the country and the world while somebody else pays the bill. One of the hardest parts of flying for a living is ensuring that your sleep needs are met. Unfortunately, the two issues are tied together.

When flying domestic routes, the biggest issue with sleep usually pertains to the hotel. The air conditioning may not work to your satisfaction; the pillows may not be hard or soft enough; there may be noise outside your room or outside the building that makes it difficult to sleep. The all-time favorite is the middle-of-the-night fire alarm that keeps you out of your room for an extended period of time (this has happened to me twice).

Sometimes, sleep is difficult to come by because of the schedule. Everybody handles the schedule variations differently. I tend to wake up at the same time every day no matter what time I go to bed, which means that if I finish exceptionally late, I have a difficult time sleeping in. Others can sleep anywhere at any time (I do not care for these people!). For cargo pilots, the challenge is being able to sleep during daylight hours when your body is used to being awake, and then staying awake potentially all night to fly.

It’s said that you should just sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry, and there is some truth to this. Short naps, taken whenever the time permits, will help. Learning how to nap effectively can be an art, but ear plugs and sleep masks can do wonders. Putting a blanket or a sheet over your body to mimic your night-time sleep also helps “trick” the body, as does removing your shoes. If you’re in a hotel, going through your entire bed-time routine—brushing your teeth, adjusting the temperature, taking a shower—can go a long way to catching a good sleep. It also helps if you can allow for at least two hours, so that your body can go through an entire REM sleep cycle.

On those nights that you can’t sleep well, be honest about the reason why. There’s no question that sleeping in a different city every night is a challenge, but if the issue is the hotel, try to fix it. Noise is probably the most common issue, followed by climate control. Try to address the issues with the front desk, and if that doesn’t work, move on to the approved process your company has, which may require the use of a fatigue call. Calling in fatigued is not something done lightly, because of the potential cancellations, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done. The FAA takes fatigue seriously, and if the hotel is routinely one that causes problems, a few fatigue calls usually will generate a quick resolution. If the hotel is indeed the problem and you don’t say anything through approved channels to fix it, the problem won’t go away.

Sleep is a critical part of your health, and nobody knows better than you when you’ve had enough or are lacking. Listen to your body, learn the tricks of the trade, and don’t sacrifice your safety by short-changing your sleep.—Chip Wright

SWA 1380

As I write this, Southwest 1380 has already started to fade from much of the public memory. Much has been made about the way the crew responded to such an explosive event—explosive in more ways than one. Nobody ever really anticipates or expects to deal with an engine that blows up in flight, let alone one that also breaks a window and generates a sudden decompression of the cabin.

That said, there is training for something like this. Most airlines in the United States have transitioned to advanced qualification program (AQP) training. Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, part of AQP includes flying scenarios in the simulator that represent real flights between two regular cities, with some kind of a snafu thrown in for the crew to handle. Some scenarios will force a diversion, and some won’t; some are deliberately vague enough that some crews will divert and some will not.

Southwest recently put its crews through an event that included a catastrophic engine failure in cruise  United did the same with its 737 crews a couple of years ago). I don’t know if the scenario included the decompression, but an engine failure is handled almost the same way in either scenario. Like many transport jets, the 737 is designed to fly at or near the highest MEAs on one engine, and it will level off at 22,000 to 24,000 feet at maximum weight on one engine. Obviously, in the case of 1380, that kind of level-off wasn’t possible, but the initial response is the same: Get the airplane into a descent while maintaining a safe airspeed. With the decompression, the goal is to get down to 10,000 feet as quickly as possible so that passengers don’t need oxygen.

Every airplane will respond differently to an engine failure. A wing-mounted engine will cause substantial yaw—possibly a noticeably rolling motion that needs to be addressed fairly quickly. The crew of this flight likely needed a few seconds to register just what had happened—after all, in the sim, everybody already knows what’s coming, but this was real. The immediate response to the cabin pressure change would have been to don their oxygen masks while regaining control of the plane. That means turning off the autopilot (or silencing the disconnect alarm), setting power on the operating engine, and retrimming. This is the “aviate” part of aviate, navigate, communicate.

Every airline dictates who will do what during an emergency, and the final report from the NTSB will spell out how the crew determined who would fly and work the radios versus running the checklist. In this case, there were at least three non-normal checklists that needed to be completed: the engine fire/severe damage checklist, the decompression checklist, and the single-engine approach and landing checklist. The crew at some point also needed to make contact with the cabin crew to get an assessment of the extent of any injuries or damage in the cabin. They likely also asked the flight attendants what they could see out the window as well—and this all happened while dealing with a tremendous amount of noise thanks to the hole in the window.

In spite of the fatality on board, the crew appears to have handled this event as well as or better than expected. No doubt the relatively recent sim event brought a sense of familiarity with the situation, and their years of combined experience helped produce a successful outcome. Like many, I’m already curious to see what the final report will say; expect to see it sometime next winter or spring.—Chip Wright

Buddy passes

The buddy pass is one of the perks of working for an airline. It is just what it sounds like: a pass for a buddy to fly for a rock-bottom price. Virtually every airline offers them to employees, and at first glance, they sound great. You can take a friend or a family member on a trip and do so for a fraction of the price of a regular ticket. But, as with every airline ticket, there are catches.

The most important caveat is that a buddy pass is a space-available seat, meaning that your friend—or soon-to-be enemy—is only getting on if there is an empty seat and there isn’t a weight and balance restriction. In this day and age, with planes flying 80 to 90 percent full, an empty seat is hard to come by. I always tell people that the only thing a buddy pass guarantees is a positive space trip through security. That’s it.

That’s because, in terms of priority, buddy pass riders are listed behind revenue passengers; revenue passengers trying to change flights; employees being moved around by the company, employees that are non-revving; and, in some cases, retirees (a few airlines put retirees after pass riders). There is usually an exception in place if the pass rider is traveling with the employee, and that can be a significant advantage. Pass riders on their own truly are the last ones on the airplane.

Boarding last creates other issues along the way. The gate agents’ first concern is getting the flight out on time, and they’ve been known to leave some pass riders behind on occasion. Second, if you have a bag of any consequence, the overhead bins are likely to be full, and your rider may or may not be charged to check the bag, potentially increasing the cost of the trip.

Back in the day, pass riders had to rely on the employee to create the listing. Today, most airlines provide some avenue for a pass rider to look up loads and explore connecting options. As an employee, it’s up to you to make sure that the buddy can navigate the process without any help from you.

Buddy passes are charged based on either a zone formula (so much for traveling within a zone or a radius of a certain amount) or by charging so much a mile. And this is the rub, because it’s possible for the ticket price to climb to a point where the gap in price of a buddy pass and a positive-space ticket is close enough that a positive-space ticket will make more sense and provide the peace of mind of knowing you’re going to get on a flight.

Here’s an example: A friend of mine wanted a quote for a buddy pass to go to Australia. The first class rate (more on this below) for a round-trip ticket was $1,300, and around $700 for coach. But, there was a sale fare of $1,000 round trip, and my suggestion was to just buy a ticket, especially since it was such a long trip with few options. Speaking of paying for a buddy pass, most of them are payroll deductible, so make sure you get paid ahead of time, and settle up after the flight if the price varies.

But the biggest issue with buddy passes is making sure that everyone understands the rules (including you, as the sponsoring employee).
Unfortunately, too many people don’t seem to understand the limitations of flying stand-by.

In certain markets, giving someone a buddy pass is almost cruel (think Florida for spring break, or Hawaii any time). Flexibility is key, and the rules vary from one airline to another. For example, some airlines will allow you to list for a first-class seat, but they’ll put you in economy if that’s the only section with seats, and charge you accordingly. However, you may not be allowed to list for coach and then go to first class if a seat opens up there. This happens a lot on international flights, so pay attention to the rules for listing.

Dress code is important as well. United made the news about a year ago when a couple of pass riders were denied boarding because they were in violation of the dress code for pass riders. Most of these rules are available in a PDF format, so print them out for your buddies and also email them so that they can reference them as the get ready for the trip.

If your buddies don’t get on a flight, some systems will automatically roll them over to the next flight to that destination—but some won’t. The agent may manually do it for them—but they may not. It’s ultimately the buddy’s responsibility to figure that out.

Having flown for the airlines for more than 20 years now, I’ve learned that the best piece of advice I can give you about buddy passes is this: Don’t use them. Too many things can go wrong, and too often somebody says they “have to get there,” and that’s a sure-fire sign they need to buy a ticket. And too often the buddy doesn’t understand or respect the rules, and the person who gets in trouble is the employee.

The one exception I make is that I will give buddy passes to someone who used to work for an airline or has used them and is familiar with the process, the risks, and isn’t going to lose any sleep if they don’t make their flight.

If you insist on using buddy passes, be aware of the rules. And don’t say that I didn’t warn you.—Chip Wright

New drug tests

Drug testing is a fact of life at the airlines. You can count on being tested as a new hire, and then you’ll be subjected to random testing for the rest of your career. The FAA requires that 25 percent of pilots, chosen at random, get tested annually. The airline handles the details, or perhaps the testing company it contracts with to process the sample collections.

The standard profile calls for alcohol, marijuana, and several illegal recreational drugs. Recently, however, natural and synthetic opioids were added to the list. This is clearly in response to the national opioid epidemic, but it isn’t really a surprise. Used as intended, opioids such as Percocet, Oxycontin, et cetera, are extremely effective anti-pain medications used to treat various injuries or to ease recovery from some surgical procedures.

Unfortunately, these medicines are also extremely addictive, and as evidenced by the large number of deaths the last several years, they are too easy to acquire (in fact, NBC News did a segment showing how easy it was to order synthetic opioids online and have them shipped to your home). The FAA has added such testing not so much to catch pilots in the act, but as a deterrent. In my experience, most pilots are tested after they are finished flying. I’ve yet to see a test administered before a trip. It wouldn’t matter in the sense that it takes several days to get the results back, but if a pilot is tested before he or she flies and then comes up positive, it could create a public relations nightmare for the company.

If you’re ever prescribed one of these medications, you can minimize the risks of a positive test fairly easily. First, ask if something else might work just as effectively. If not, ask for the minimum number of pills that you might need, and then only take them when you absolutely need them. Second, ask detailed questions about how long you need to allow the remnants of the last dosage to leave your system. Whatever that time is, added another 48 hours before you return to work. Third, read the enclosed literature, or search the manufacturer’s website for more detailed information. Better yet, contact the manufacturer directly and ask them how long you need to wait to ensure a passed drug test.

If you’re flying internationally, you should also be aware that some countries have far more rigid rules with respect to the presence of alcohol. The United Kingdom is famous for this, and they’ve recently added some enhanced procedures to prevent pilots from flying under the influence. Keep this in mind if you plan to imbibe a bit while you’re on a trip.

There is very little leeway for flying with any hint of drugs in your system, and the rules can vary wildly from one country to the next. Play it safe, and if there is any chance you might have any in your system, ground yourself until you can be sure you’re completely clean.—Chip Wright

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