Tag: CRJ

Is the 50-seater done?

When the CRJ came on the scene in 1993, it revolutionized air travel. With a 50-seat jet, airlines were able to overcome the high per-seat-mile operating costs and make money because of the appeal of being in a jet versus the previous turboprops that had dominated the market for so long.

Derisively referred to as “puddle jumpers,” turboprops had a limited range of around 400 nautical miles. To stretch much beyond that was to risk schedule disruptions becasue of alternate fuel requirements, as well as reduced loads. The RJ changed that. While payloads could still be limited in some cases, the standard range of operations increased dramatically, while offering passengers a faster, more comfortable ride.

Recently, the FAA increased the standard weights of passengers from 170 pounds (this includes a bag) in the summer/175 in the winter to 190 and 195 pounds respectively. There has also been an increase in the allowed weight for personal items.

What does all of this mean? In short, it could be the death knell for the current fleet of 50-seat RJs. The increase in weight for passengers is going to take a bite out of the allowable payload. In a recent email from my local union folks, the payloads on 50-seaters are said to max out at 48 passengers. Some may even be limited to 47. For the airlines, this is going to be a problem. The RJs were already relatively expensive to operate, and this will only make it worse. The other major challenge is going to be finding a way to continue to serve certain markets that cannot sustain service from larger jets.

There have been efforts to bring the larger turboprops back, most notably the Dash-8 Q400 from Bombardier. However, it hasn’t worked on the scale needed. The passengers have voted with their wallets and opted for competitors that had a jet, which they view as safer and more reliable, not to mention more comfortable. There is also a perception that turboprop pilots are not as well-trained or as experienced.

The 50-seaters are definitely long in the tooth, and larger numbers have been parked or turned into beer cans. Unfortunately, that trend is likely to continue. There is currently no movement afoot to introduce a new model to the North American market, which means that the 70-90-seaters will be the airplanes filling that niche. Airlines are currently trying out a 50-seat variant of the CRJ-700 by taking out some seats and adding first-class service and different seating classes in coach. Only time will tell if this is going to be a long-term answer.

It’s possible that there won’t be another 50-seat jet introduced, and that some communities will indeed see a decrease in, or even a loss of, service. If so, that would be a shame. It will also be a shame to see a workhorse airplane no longer in the skies.-–Chip Wright 

Practice your crashes

I was recently watching a Discovery Channel special about a group of scientists and pilots who decided to crash a Boeing 727 in the Mexican desert in order to better understand what affects survivability versus fatalities in a real-world crash. (Click here for video clips from “Curiosity: Inside a Plane Crash.”—Ed.)

If you get an opportunity to see the show, you should. It made me think of a couple things. First, you can get a 727 for a relatively paltry sum (they paid $425,000 for theirs). Second, it makes me wonder how many people are familiar with the crash landing procedures in their airplanes–specifically jets.

During the experiment, cameras were installed in the cockpit in order to film the crash from that point of view. During the last part of the descent, a female voice can be heard saying, “Falling….falling.” It’s clearly a voice that is tied into either a radar altimeter or a ground proximity warning system (GPWS, pronounced “JIP-WIZ”), and it is this voice that got me pondering thought number two.

Modern aircraft have all kinds of bells and whistles that start making noises under specific circumstances. In this case, it was because the 727 was forced, via remote control, into a descent that was nearly three times the norm, like what might happen if a crew fell asleep. On the CRJ that I flew for Comair, there were a number of warnings that came on at low altitude if certain conditions were not met. They included general terrain or obstacle warnings, gear problems, flap settings, descent rate warnings, and wind-shear warnings.

All of these could be cancelled if the crew—especially the first officer (FO)—knew how. The overrides were primarily intended to help a crew cancel a nuisance message that shouldn’t otherwise be on. The volume level of the warnings is not adjustable. They have one setting: rock-concert-loud. (You know, that whole sleeping-pilot thing.) Unfortunately, any other communication is virtually impossible, so there are switch-lights that can be pushed to cancel the audible warnings. Unfortunately again, the switch is nuclear: It kills everything.

But in an impending crash, that’s good. Most airlines don’t practice full-blown crashes in the sim. However, because I have a morbid sense of humor and a never-ending curiosity, I did it several times. Scenarios that might drive the use of such a checklist could include a total failure of the gear system, loss of fuel, loss of engine power and/or total electric power (think: lightning strike), even an inflight collision with another plane or some of the geese that Sullenburger missed. The crash-landing checklist is several pages long, and I wanted to be familiar enough with it that I could get to the nuts-and-bolts of it quickly if I needed it.

Getting rid of extraneous noise is a major part of minimizing workload when trying to crash-land with a minimal rate of damage and a maximum chance of survival.
If you ever get a chance to do a total crash scenario in a sim, you should, especially with the gear up and in various flap configurations. The airplane does not fly the same, and the speed and control response will vary from what you are used to. Besides, in a worse-case scenario, you want to at least be able to say, “I’ve done this before.” In a safe environment, of course!—Chip Wright

You cancelled for WHAT?!

In 15 plus years and well more than 11,000 thousand hours of airline flying, I have seen my share of cancelled flights. It hasn’t been many, and most of them have been for mechanical issues. A few have been for weather, and even those are usually based on the forecast, since that is what our flight planning is based on.

I can probably count on one hand the number of flights that were outright cancelled because of you-don’t-want-to-fly-through-that-on-the-way-to-your-desination-weather. Even when weather enroute is severe, the first choice is to fly around it, within reason. In fact, while flights have been cancelled because of weather forecasts, I’ve probably had just as many weather cancellations because my ship did not arrive thanks to weather-related diversions.

If I had to guess a percentage of my flights that have cancelled, it’s probably well under 2 percent. Still, for someone that has flown more than 10,000 flights, that’s 200 potential cancellations. Most of those are predictable. The company—and make no mistake, they make the ultimate decision, though the pilot in command can drive the decision—has cancelled for items such as broken fuel valves, malfunctioning starters, flat tires, cracked windshields, or landing gear that won’t retract. For most items, the airplane can be ferried under a ferry permit to a point of repair. I’m here to tell you that flying a jet with the gear down and locked sounds like you’re riding a freight train.

But there have been a few that sound so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe the problem isn’t made up. The most unusual one is a broken cargo door, specifically one that won’t open. This rarely happens, and fortunately, when it does, it’s usually when the bin is already empty. On the CRJ, it is possible to access the bin by disassembling a portion of the aft bulkhead, but it is a time-consuming process and one that is not entered into (sorry about the pun) lightly. But even that may not make the door work. All it does is allow someone to (finally) empty the bags that are back there.

There is not necessarily a safety issue with this, but no airline—not even Spirit—is going to try operate by not taking bags. Passengers would rightfully go out of their minds, and by the end of the day, Congress would be writing a Don’t Forget Our Bags Bill. It would be a customer service and logistical nightmare. Further, on some aircraft, like the CRJ, flying with an empty bin does pose some weight and balance issues. We would not be able to fly full, because the aircraft tends to be nose heavy. You need something in the back. With no bags, we’d be limited in the number of passengers we could carry based on the amount of fuel on board.

Other weird cancellations I’ve had or seen: broken windshield wipers (both the wiper itself, as well as the motor); flooding toilets (a sanitation issue); missing placards (seriously); missing or expired first aid kits; low oxygen pressure for the crew’s emergency oxygen system (this is a real pain, as it cannot be serviced with passengers on board because of the explosive properties of pressurized oxygen, especially during transfer); and airports that have run out of fuel or deicing fluid.

Non-mechanical situations crop up as well. Pilots and flight attendants have had to come off of a trip unexpectedly for illness or family emergencies. Both have happened to me. Crew members occasionally time-out for their work day, sometimes per a collective bargaining agreement, and sometimes per the federal aviation regulations. In both instances, you have a tired person you don’t want flying your flight. Most of these are for unexpected weather events that lead to delays that lead to cancellations. The Passenger Bill of Rights law also causes a lot of preemptive cancellations. There have been stories in the news of airlines having to cancel flights because of intoxicated pilots or flight attendants (or both). Fortunately, none of those has involved my company.

But even humans can be part of the you-cancelled-for-WHAT equation: Crews have been in accidents in hotel vans with injuries; I know of one that was mugged; one pilot had his company credentials and part of his uniform stolen from his hotel room; ground personnel have been known to use the emergency lights to light the cabin during overnight servicing–and left the lights on and burned out the batteries, thus cancelling the morning flight they tried so hard to ensure would be ready to go on time.

One of our crews, years ago, had to call in sick as a group from severe food poisoning received from a local restaurant. They had eaten different entrees, but all had the salad, and all paid the price. A first officer who came to us from another regional had a story of a captain who quit on the spot at an outstation, walking off the airplane and out to the front of the airport, where his wife was waiting for him. On the yoke was a note he left while the FO was doing the walk-around: I QUIT.

But at least he’s alive to talk about it. Other crew members have died on overnights or on the flight deck. For some things, there is simply no back-up plan, certainly not one that is cost justifiable. Some of these stories are wild, but I’ll spare you the details out of respect for their families.

But having to explain that you can’t open a door…or that a sticker is missing…or that you can’t go to Canada because the passport of one of the pilots was stolen…or because the airport printer doesn’t work…sometimes you’re just better off making up something that sounds believable.—Chip Wright

The only thing faster than the airplane is information

It is amazing the contrasts in government efficiency–or the lack thereof–that exist every day. For instance, the FAA has spent billions to get the NextGen ATC system off the ground, and for all of that, we still have NowGen and YesterGen. Likewise, as my AME likes to say, the pilots are flying in 2012, but the FAA is practicing medicine in 1960-something. On the other end of the spectrum is the IRS. Get their attention, and you will be hearing about it immediately. They don’t mess around.

But, for all of the bad FAA jokes (my favorite: I’m from the FAA and I’m not happy until you’re not happy), the feds are by and large good people who do the best they can with the tools they have been given, which means they aren’t any different than you and me. I recently got a reminder that when they need to do something fast, they can.

I recently had an encounter with severe turbulence while climbing out of Baltimore. It was a short encounter, and not all that unexpected because of the weather. But, as with any encounter so severe, it got my intention. So, being the dutiful air-person and practitioner of air-person-ship that I am, I reported it to ATC.

The Washington Center controller asked a flurry of questions, and I responded with a flurry of information: altitude, exact location, a description of what happened. Every other airplane on the frequency immediately wanted to know where it was, and they requested deviations away from my little find.

The controller began by asking all flights climbing and descending in our area for ride reports. All the flights were in 737s or bigger, and they all reported “moderate” or “heavy moderate,” and you could hear the bounces in their voices. This made sense, because the CRJ that I fly has short, skinny wings, and it does not absorb turbulence very well at all. What would be severe to us might very well not be to something bigger; of course, the reverse applies as well.

What was so impressive was how quickly the word got out. On every frequency that I used for the balance of our flight to Cincinnati, the controller was issuing the pilot report about our encounter. On the first frequency change, as we were checking in, he was reading the news to everyone in his sector. I told him that we were the reporting aircraft, and he had a couple of follow-up questions, mostly pertaining to the accuracy of his information. It was spot on. It was quick, accurate, and given the proper sense of urgency.

When we landed, I called a friend of mine used to fly for us. He now flies for Southwest and was getting ready to commute to work from Providence, R.I. I told him to be ready for a bumpy ride, and relayed our experience. When he arrived in Baltimore, he called me back and said that the ride into BWI on the 737 flight he took was “737 moderate, and borderline RJ severe. That was a good call, and I’m glad I wasn’t there.”

I wish I hadn’t been either, but I’m glad that the FAA has the means to disseminate that kind of critical information as quickly as it did. Of course, these are the folks who got thousands of airplanes on the ground on September 11, 2001, in record time, so they deserve credit where credit is due.—By Chip Wright

The many ways of doing the same things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your most common emergencies?

It’s an unusual question, but it isn’t. And I’m sure that somewhere, someone actually keeps track of this sort of stuff. It just doesn’t happen to be me. I’ve been asked this several times, and the question came to mind the other day when I had to declare an emergency.

First of all, one has to define what an emergency is. My company manual says that a flight emergency is “any situation, such as a malfunction of the aircraft, that requires immediate decision and action for the safety of flight…[and] requires special procedures to be taken beyond those normally utilized in flight operations.” Note that none of this includes various other emergencies, such as medical emergencies. Basically, what it says, is that…well, it’s so clearly written that it’s pretty obvious what it says.

Still, there is room for interpretation. For instance, we would all probably agree that an issue with a failed elevator would constitute an emergency, which would justify declaring the same. What about a flap failure—specifically, one in which the flaps simply failed to deploy? This was a not-uncommon issue on the CRJ for several years. If flaps fail to move, is that really an emergency? It depends on your definition. Some operations will dictate that if a flight control of any form is involved, then it is an emergency, no matter how minor or severe the situation. The no-flap landing speed on the CRJ is 172 knots indicated. The max groundspeed for the tires is 182 knots. If this scenario were to occur at a high- elevation landing, those two numbers could wind up eyeball-to-eyeball with each other. Besides, 172 knots on final is fast–real fast. Almost 200-miles-an-hour fast. That’s approaching space-shuttle-on-final fast.

But when it comes to “common” emergencies, I’m not sure that there really is a one-sized-fits-all approach. At least, there doesn’t appear to be one for me. I’ve had the flap failure. I’ve had gear issues (this, to me, is the ideal emergency if there is one). I once had a hydraulic failure that forced a diversion. One flight required an engine to be shut down because of improper maintenance done on the airplane after a bird strike the day before. My most recent one was a spoiler that did an uncommanded deployment in flight. An uncontrollable fuel transfer system once caused two emergencies in one day. I used to joke that the tower would just declare an emergency on my behalf every time I took off.

As you can see, there really isn’t a pattern, and that is a testament to how well airplanes are designed and built these days. The redundancy alone is a lifesaver. In fact, sometimes, a redundant system can save the day automatically, and the crew doesn’t even know there was a problem until the airplane says, “Hey, I had this issue, but chill, because I already fixed it.” If I had to pin down the most common issue, it wouldn’t be the airplane. It would the carbon-based units being transported on said airplane. Medical emergencies take place every day. In fact, at least three times a week, I hear a crew calling either ATC or the company about a passenger having a problem.

Of those, my own unscientific analysis seems to indicate that losing consciousness or having what appears to be a heart attack or a stroke top the list. I don’t know this, of course, but I hear an awful lot of discussion about those symptoms (it’s pretty hard to misdiagnose someone as passed out when they are out cold). Some of these get interesting too. Seizures can be dangerous not just for the victim, but also for those around them. They can be messy as well (use your imagination). Ladies going into labor get everyone’s attention. Guess how I know that?

Some emergencies you can practice for, and some you can’t. Some you shouldn’t just because it isn’t very safe to do so. But in your own mind, you should have a definition that suits your equipment and your experience. Should you find yourself within the bounds of that definition, then declare an emergency. As for the rumored “mountains” of paperwork? There is no such thing. ATC may ask for your contact info, but nobody is going to fault you, and nobody is going to be having you filling out piles of forms in triplicate or even in double-icate. Honestly, it’s no big deal. As a matter of fact, if an emergency situation clears itself (say your landing gear had a gremlin, but then acted normally and went to the commanded position), you can “undeclare” your emergency. If you want to, you can fill out a NASA ASRS form, but you are not required to fill anything out, so long as the airplane is not damaged.

Just don’t do what one crew did, and declare an emergency because the FMS/GPS quit and they didn’t think about navigating from VOR to VOR. I won’t say which airline it was for, but yes, it did happen. Once.—Chip Wright