Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Summer of Profits for Airlines but of Discontent for Labor

Second quarter earnings reports are out and there's quite a bit of good news for airlines. This latest earnings season has the big four airlines swimming in black ink. On the other hand, airline labor groups are not quite feeling the love they feel they deserve. Delta's pilots just voted down a tentative agreement for a new contract while Southwest's flight attendants also voted down their recently reached tentative agreement. So what's going on?

Well, lets first take a look at the haul that the airlines brought in this past quarter. United weighed in with an all time record profit of $1.2 billion and this was on reduced revenue. Southwest, the smallest of the "big four", increased their profit 31% to a record $608 million. American Airlines pocketed a record $1.7 billion, while Delta brought home a healthy $1.49 billion on $10.71 billion of revenue.

These airlines are so hip deep in cash that they don't know what to do with it all. The airlines have been under the gun to not flood the market with capacity which in the past has always ended up in brutal fare wars and bankruptcies. Since expansion is mostly off the table, returning the loot to investors through stock buybacks is the order of the day.

American bought back over $700 million last quarter and has announced further buybacks of  $2 billion through 2016. United is just finishing a $1 billion buyback ahead of schedule and is embarking on a further $3 billion buyback through 2017. Southwest recently completed a $430 million buyback and is accelerating plans to buy $500 million more.

First Time Rejection for Delta's Pilots

Yes, times are flush for airlines but airline labor groups are now angling for a larger piece of that pie. As mentioned above, Delta's pilots recently voted down their tentative agreement with the carrier. This was the first time that the pilots at Delta had ever defeated a proposed contract. Chief among the complaints were reductions in profit sharing, changes in sick leave policy and a wish to be made whole after a decade of stagnation at the carrier, especially in light of record profits.

Southwest's flight attendants also voted down their tentative agreement in a lopsided 87% negative vote. The issues centered mostly around work rules which would increase the maximum duty day to 12 hours and minimum work rules which would affect vacation pay. Southwest is still in negotiations with its pilots who recently formed a strike committee and also its baggage loaders.

The pilots at American and USAir voted last January to approve their new contract with the newly combined carrier. This agreement included hefty pay raises over and above post 9/11 concession wages, but they are still looking for improvements. From the APA website:

APA will now focus on further engagement with American Airlines management to address ongoing shortcomings in our contract. Our total compensation will still trail industry-leader Delta, while work rules affecting our pilots’ quality of life need meaningful improvement. There’s a lot of work remaining to achieve the industry-leading contract our pilots deserve.

United's pilots likewise approved their merger contract back in 2013 which included pay increases over bankruptcy contract wages dating from the early 2000's. While the United pilot's contract doesn't become amendable until 2017, rest assured that they will be targeting "industry leading" wages.

Will There Be a Strike?

Unlike most unionized labor forces in the country, airline labor groups and their collective bargaining agreements are regulated under a very old law known as the Railway Labor Act (RLA). The RLA, passed in 1926, doesn't allow for labor contracts to "expire" but for them to become "amendable". This means that on the amendable date, the labor agreement in force just continues until a new agreement is reached. The animus behind this law is that it was viewed that a shutdown of the railways was too economically harmful and therefore work stoppages must be avoided at all cost.

There is a very specific series of events that must occur before any strike can occur under the RLA. The first step is mediation followed by a declared impasse. Once an impasse is declared, a 30 day cooling off period must be observed and only then may a labor group or company engage in "self help" which means a lockout or a strike. No current disputes are even close to any of this happening. So no, it is highly unlikely that there will be any airline strike. Keep in mind that there is always quite a bit of posturing by both labor groups and management in these affairs.

What Next?

The Kabuki dance between labor unions and management will continue. Agreements will eventually be reached and everyone will get on with their jobs. It's Great Circle of Life stuff.

As far as the specific pilot contracts are concerned, my belief is that airline managements will eventually have to open their checkbooks to attract a dwindling number of new pilots to replace the tsunami of retiring pilots. Regional pilots looking for their first major carrier jobs are in the catbird seat, and have the luxury of choosing the major airline with the best pay and best prospects for a quick upgrade to captain. 

As captain upgrade is driven by retirements (and growth, which is not happening), looking for the airline with the best upgrade prospects means finding the airline with the most retirements. Currently all three of the largest major airlines, American, United and Delta have huge numbers of upcoming retirements. Replacing these pilots will drive wage demands. Southwest, which has a relatively young pilot force, and hence upgrade times topping 15 years, may have a specific challenge attracting new talent.

I don't personally get too excited about union politics as things always seem to have a way of sorting themselves out.

MH370 Found?

MH370 found?

No, but an airplane part and a suitcase have washed up near Madagascar. The part will be tested to determine if it came from the Malaysian jet. If it's determined that the part is from MH370 it won't be of much help finding the rest of the wreckage. Ocean currents are quite random and will provide little help as to where to look other than the places already being searched.

The theories that will be put to rest if the part is genuine are the conspiracy theories positing that the aircraft was hijacked and flown to a secret base somewhere. My opinion is that the captain committed murder-suicide with his own airplane for political and other reasons.

Stay tuned.

Airline Laser Attacks Spike

In a series of incidents last week, twelve aircraft, 11 airliners and a Coast Guard aircraft were hit with lasers in the New York area. Furthermore, 23 other aircraft across the nation on the same night reported laser attacks.

While there were no injuries, as I detailed in a post a few weeks ago, commercially available lasers have the ability to injure and completely blind humans in less time than it takes to blink or to look away from the laser.

My personal feeling is that it is simply a matter of time until the laser attackers up their game to some industrial strength lasers to cause some real mayhem.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Airliner With Only Three Minutes of Fuel Told It Can't Land!

A breathlessly told story in the Daily Mail screamed the above headline to tell of an airliner nearly running out of fuel while being told tough beans by the controller. It's dramatic and scary and also has the added benefit of having very little in common with reality. (More on that later). The one thing it does do, and probably quite well, is to gather clicks. And that means eyeballs and ad revenue. So I naturally chose the same title for this post while also calling them out.

You might think that most people involved with aviation would have an interest in demystifying the subject to help calm the nerves of the flying public. That of course could not be further from the truth, with the above mentioned story as prima facie evidence. We pilots, I must admit, also like to be associated with a frisson of danger and a whiff of derring-do. It assuages our fragile egos and also doesn't hurt during contract negotiations, but we certainly don't go out of our way to scare folks.

Your 'umble narrator has even been accused of spreading discomfort towards flying though this blog. (Thanks, Mom!) (jk) My aim in writing about flying is to merely throw open the hood to explain some of the workings not seen by the public and to thereby hopefully soothe the savage flying beast. As with any human endeavour, there is perhaps some inevitable sausage making going on in aviation that reluctant flyers may not care to see. But rest assured dear reader, commercial aviation is an extremely safe and robust mode of travel. If my scribblings convey the opposite, I apologize.

Though the topic has been covered ad infinitum to ad nauseum, flying in a commercial airliner is probably second only to travelling in an elevator in terms of safety. And of course we all climb willingly into our automobiles which kill tens of thousands annually, but at least we're in control! Quoting safety statistics, though, seems to have little effect on the visceral fear felt by some. John Madden, the NFL broadcaster, famously refused to fly and instead rode his bus all over the country to call games.

For those without million dollar contracts and custom buses who still need to travel, there are plenty of programs aimed at helping scared flyers. (Programs, by the way, which probably provide a decent paycheck for the proprietors). And though most pilots are gracious and understanding when fearful customers stop by to say hello (as they're encouraged to do), I am personally perplexed as to how allegedly functioning adults can allow their feelings to gain such purchase so as to refute overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary regarding airline safety. That one I leave to the shrinks.

Bingo Fuel

Ok, as promised, back to the story. An Allegiant MD-80 was delayed for about an hour before departing Vegas for Fargo, ND. The delay put the aircraft in conflict with a Blue Angels practice which had been previously scheduled. Being a clear day, the Allegiant plane probably had only it's required reserve fuel on board which contrary to the article was not 3 minutes but rather 45.

The term bingo is used to denote a decision point. In this context the pilot meant that he had three minutes of loiter time before diverting, not running out of fuel. Of course the tower would absolutely let the plane land for a declared fuel emergency. That's a legal definition. Declaring an emergency will always get an aircraft priority. The controller simply needed to hear that declaration before interrupting a scheduled event.

Who screwed up here? The pilot for being unaware of the field closure which would have been listed in the "notices to airmen" or "Notams" which every pilot is required to reference before departure.

The morons who write these stories as clickbait may (but probably don't) know better, but writing what really happened would spoil a great headline.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

KLM Video Demonstrates the Hazards of Crosswind Landings

A very dramatic video of a KLM B-777 landing at Schiphol in strong crosswinds has been recently going viral on the interwebs. While the video is certainly hair-raising to most casual viewers, there are a number of things going on here that can help to explain events that can go wrong during a crosswind landing.

The aircraft in the video is a Boeing 777-300 which is the stretched version of the older 777-200. This model aircraft weighs in at 370,000 lbs empty and has a max landing weight of 554,000 lbs, so we know that this particular airplane weighed in somewhere between these two numbers, more likely towards the higher number. This means that there's a lot of weight being thrown around.

The video starts with the aircraft perhaps a mile or so from the runway established in what's known as a "crab". In this scenario, the fuselage of the aircraft is "windmilled" into the wind. What this means is that the heading of the aircraft is not the same as the ground track the aircraft is following. 

The easiest way to understand this might be to think of paddling across a moving river in a canoe. In order to reach a point directly across the river, one must "aim" the canoe at a point upstream to counter the current. Where the canoe is pointed is its "heading" and where it is actually going is its ground track. The two are not the same in a cross current (or wind).

To you math geeks (and you know who you are) this is simply the sum of the two velocity vectors of the aircraft and the wind. 

Flying an aircraft in a crab is a standard and routine method of counteracting a crosswind on final. The problem that arises is that the aircraft cannot be landed while it is in a crab. The reason for this is that the landing gear are by design aligned with the aircraft fuselage. This means that when the wheels touch down in a crab, there will be instant skidding and dragging of the wheels across the pavement.

To use another analogy, think of a stunt car doing a jump but while airborne twisting sideways. When it touches down, there will be a huge lateral force on the tires as they'd rather roll straight and not sideways. The car may even roll over. The same forces work on the airplane and put tremendous side loads on the landing gear. The landing gear for nearly all airliners are not built for such loads and could potentially collapse if landed in too much of a crab.

Wing Low

The proper technique to land an airliner in a crosswind, then, is to make sure that the aircraft heading and hence the landing gear are aligned in the same direction as the runway before touchdown. This is done with the rudder. As the aircraft will be naturally windmilled into the wind and not aligned with the runway, downwind rudder must be applied to align the two.

That means that if the crosswind is from the right, as in this video, left rudder must be applied. When this is done, however, the aircraft will then begin to be blown downwind. To counteract this tendency, aileron is then used to lower a wing into the wind which keeps the drift at bay. This technique, known as "wing low", is how most airliners must land in a crosswind.

In this video, you'll see a number of airplanes landing at Dusseldorf in a strong crosswind. Some do a better job than others of both killing the drift and aligning the aircraft with the runway at touchdown.

Ok, getting back to the KLM video, we can see that starting at about 13 seconds in, the pilot starts to apply left rudder to align the aircraft heading with the runway. It is especially pronounced at about 28 seconds that the rudder has almost full deflection to the left.

As the aircraft continues into the flare, we see lateral rolling which becomes more pronounced until just before touchdown when a large wing drop occurs. What is happening here is that as the aircraft gets down to tree and building level, the wind becomes very unpredictable. Trees and buildings can cause a significant amount of gusting which must be quickly countered. Unfortunately, there is really no way to predict where and when the gusts will occur.

Beware the PIO

While the pilot is making a heroic effort to counter each gust, there are circumstances where the situation can be made inadvertently worse by the pilot himself. This is what's known as a "pilot induced oscillation" or PIO, and it can cause real trouble if it's not recognized and corrected.

The pilot-airplane unit is together what is known as a feedback control loop or system. In such a system, an initial input is made, the results are observed or "fed back", and from those results further inputs can be made. Again for you geeks out there (and you still know who you are) the system might be depicted as such:

where the controller and measurement boxes are the pilot, the system is the aircraft and the disturbances are the wind gusts.

Such a system should be stable with the feedback serving to dampen out the effects of the disturbances (or gusts in this case). In certain circumstances, however, this is not what happens. A pilot may "over control" when making a correction causing a deviation in the opposite direction. The tendency after that is to put in an even larger correction back the other way causing an even larger deviation again. The root cause of these oscillations is the delay between the control input and the reaction of the airplane. 

If not caught and corrected, a PIO can and has resulted in aircraft damage and crashes. This video shows a PIO in an F-16 flown by a test pilot so you can see that it can happen to nearly anyone.

In geek speak, what has happened is the "gain" is too high on the feedback loop and the system becomes unstable. The solution? In most cases, just letting go of the stick will allow the airplane's natural stability to reassert itself.

Rockin' and a Rollin'

So again getting back to the video, what appears to me to be happening is that the aircraft is hit with several gusts resulting in a PIO around the longitudinal axis, or the axis running from the nose to the tail. The pilot appears to be overcorrecting to each wing dip by making successively larger aileron inputs resulting in the rockin' and rollin' on short final.

The largest danger inherent in lateral excursions or wing dips near the ground is the possibility of dragging an engine pod or wingtip. This is obviously a less than optimum outcome and could result in aircraft damage ranging from scraped metal as a minimum all the way up to a cartwheel and hull loss otherwise known as a crash.

In this case, the dampening force that eventually quelled the PIO was the runway itself. It is difficult to determine if a go-around would have been the best course of action as a video can exaggerate the actual attitude of the aircraft. Apparently KLM management, to their credit, are backing up their pilots in this event.

Landing in strong weather always entails a measure of risk above a calm and clear day. The particular challenge for pilots in such weather is not so much knowing how to fly in it as much as knowing when to abandon an approach that has gone south.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Have you ever been on a flight where everything just seems to be going wrong before takeoff? You think you’re going and then you’re not. There’s a problem. Then the problem is fixed and you're going again. Then there’s another problem and you’re not going. And it goes on like this for a while until either you end up finally going hours late or the flight is cancelled.

As frustrating as such a scenario is for you, it’s equally if not more so for the crew. Even though it may not always seem that way, no one wants to get you where you are going more than the crew on your airplane. In most cases, the cause for the problem is out of their hands but they are the ones left trying to make it all come together while not running afoul of the myriad rules thrown in the way.

Let me tell you a story about what happened recently to a friend of mine at another airline while trying to get the job done amidst a raft of problems. He’d like to stay anonymous for obvious reasons so let’s just call him Rob Joe. The trip started out somewhere in the Midwest and was scheduled to pass through LaGuardia and then Atlanta before finishing in Chicago. Both LaGuardia and Atlanta are known for delays so Joe was hopeful that the day would go smoothly, but realistic in his expectation that it would not. He was not disappointed.

La Guardia is Another Word for Hell

LaGuardia is a hopelessly congested airport.  Even though it is slot controlled, meaning that there are restrictions on how many airplanes are allowed to land, someone must have paid someone off so that on any given day a line of 30 or more airplanes waiting to take off is the usual order of business. This day was no different. A departure rate of one takeoff every two minutes meant an hour delay from pushback to takeoff.

Well there was no worry because such delays have already been baked into the cake with a padded schedule and extra fuel on board for the wait. But, as the company had planned the flight for only a 30 minute delay, the actual hour that it took put them 30 minutes behind.

The arrival into Atlanta was busy but uneventful. Rain showers had been predicted but held off. The flight to Chicago was the last leg of the day and so far it looked like the flight might be only slightly delayed due to LaGuardia. Pushing back with a full airplane,  Joe elected to taxi out on one engine to save some fuel. The second one would be started a few minutes prior to takeoff.

Here’s where it started getting weird. There is an uphill grade on the taxiway leading to Atlanta’s runway 26 Left, the takeoff runway that day. There’s also a restriction on the maximum thrust allowed during single engine taxi so as not to blow anything over with jet blast. Unfortunately, that setting was too low to get the full airplane up the slope so Joe directed his copilot to start the other engine.

Just then, another airplane reported that they had hit a bird on takeoff, suspected some engine damage, and were returning to the airport. This meant that the runway was shut down until ground operations could send someone out in a truck to inspect the runway for bird or airplane parts. This meant more delay and with two engines now running it might mean a return to the gate to get more fuel if the delay was extensive. So Joe shut an engine down again to wait.

It Won't Start

After about a half hour and the removal of bird remains, the runway was opened and the conga line started moving again. As he approached the runway, Joe again asked for the second engine to be started. His copilot dutifully turned the switch…and nothing happened. The engine wouldn’t start. It wouldn’t even turn over. They checked for popped circuit breakers and rechecked that the engine was receiving starter air which it was. Everything was in order but it just wasn’t happening.

This meant a gate return. On the taxi trip back in they tried it one more time and of course it turned right over, but after any anomaly like that, a mechanic needs to inspect the engine. The mechanic was waiting at the gate and had a good idea that the pneumatic start valve was sticking, which it was. When Joe asked how long for the repair, to his surprise the mechanic said 10 or 15 minutes.

And he was right. It only took a very short time to fix the motor. In the meantime, though, the air-conditioning had to be off while the mechanics worked on the air system. The poor passengers were cooking in the Georgia summer heat. Ground air was hooked up but it was no match for the Southern cooking they were experiencing.

A New Problem

Soon enough, though, the plane was fixed and they were ready to go. Except for one new problem. The pilots were about to go illegal. With their original day scheduled at about 8 hours of flying, the delays had taken them close to going over 9 hours of actual flying or “block” time.

New rest regulations passed by Congress in the wake of a regional airline crash a few years ago now mandated maximum flight hours regardless of either how the pilots felt or any delay status. Under the old rules, pilots could finish a trip if the trip had been planned to be under the limit but exceeded them due to delays. Legal to start meant legal to finish. The new rules now allowed for no exceptions regardless of how the pilots felt. And they felt fine but it didn't matter.

Given the amount of time they already had on the clock, they were allowed exactly 19 minutes to get airborne or by law they'd have to taxi back to the gate. A truly tall order in Atlanta. Well they pushed back and taxied out to find only a few airplanes in front of them. But as luck would have it, another airplane had a problem and needed to go back to the gate. This caused more delay. As the clock clicked through 17 and then 18 minutes, the other plane cleared the runway. As Joe taxied over the runway threshold, the clock showed 19 minutes. It looked like they'd make it. Or so they thought.

You Are in Violation

Well they did take off and flew uneventfully up to Chicago. Upon landing, though, there was a phone message waiting for Joe to call scheduling. The scheduler informed him that he had taken 20 and not 19 minutes to takeoff and was therefore in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations. A criminal. This made him subject to enforcement action by the FAA, and the airline. That meant potential investigations, lawyers, and fines.

See, the onboard clock doesn't log the airplane airborne until the wheels leave the ground and the weight on wheels switch is triggered. It must've clicked over to 20 minutes sometime during the takeoff roll.

The scheduler advised Joe and his copilot to fill out a special safety form which under certain circumstances can provide immunity from punitive actions. The idea is that people won't be forthcoming with safety information if they are under threat of prosecution. So that's what they did. As of this writing, they haven't heard anything back and may be in the clear, but won't be sure for some time. The wheels of justice turn slowly but inevitably.

A Cynic is Born

If you've ever wondered why airline employees might seem just a bit grumpy at times, perhaps this little tale will help you to understand. Those who lean forward to make it all work can at times end up walking into a propeller as reward for their efforts. Should that happen too many times, you might find people who don't lean so far the next time around.

Joe and his copilot discussed calling it quits before going but just thought that the poor folks in back had had enough. The copilot even lived in Atlanta and therefore had extra incentive to call it a day. Heck, Atlanta is a crew base for Joe's airline so they would've been easily replaced...after another two hour delay getting reserves to the airport.

Well it all ended happily (I think), and 139 good folks got to their homes and/or meetings or weddings, or wherever they were going albeit a few hours late. That's what it's really all about.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The End of the Commuter Airlines?

In an interesting development, Delta Airlines recently announced the purchase of 20 Embraer E190 100 seat aircraft to be flown by Delta mainline pilots. This is significant because it represents a departure from the business model of 100 seat or fewer aircraft being flown by outsourced regional airlines at significantly reduced wages compared to mainline aircraft.

This deal is contingent on the Delta pilots' union ratifying the latest labor agreement which establishes pay rates for the smaller aircraft. Historically flown by regional carriers such as Skywest and Comair under the livery of Delta Connection, Delta mainline pilots will now operate these aircraft along with the smallish Boeing 717 aircraft which were acquired from Southwest after their merger with AirTran.

The existence of the current regional airline industry has always been dependent on two things: cheap gas and labor. Starting with the introduction of the first small commuter jets like the Bombardier CRJ-200 50 seat aircraft in the mid 90s, the business model was to use the speed and range of the new jets to bypass a nearby hub to feed passengers directly into a distant hub.

A number of factors prevented this vision from being fully implemented but regional jets (RJs) did become a fixture of the airline industry serving smaller airports which might not have enough traffic to support larger narrow body jets like the Airbus A319 or Boeing 737. Typically, regional airlines would sign long term fixed rate agreements with their sponsor airline. All they had to do then was to lower their own costs to make more money.

Primarily hiring young pilots wishing to build hours, regional airline wages for aircrew are a fraction of those in the main line carriers. Relatively cheap prices for fuel in the '90s and '00s also helped to keep this business model afloat even though on a seat-mile basis RJs are more expensive to operate than larger aircraft having many more seats to generate revenue.

Over time the 50 seaters gave way to larger and more economical 70 to 90 seat aircraft in the late '00s. But it appears as if a perfect storm of both high fuel prices and a pilot shortage may be signalling the end of the RJ era.

Large numbers of Vietnam era pilots are retiring from the mainline carriers. These pilots are being replaced with pilots being hired from regional carriers, but new rules recently instituted by the FAA have raised an extremely high bar for aspiring pilots to get the hours required to be hired at the regionals. The result has been reduced service and even the abandonment of some routes by regionals for lack of pilots. The upshot is that wages will rise for the few pilots that remain in a tug of war between carriers.

Delta may have realized that as long as the benefits of having cheap labor around aren't available, there may be no reason to outsource their operation to a regional airline. They'd certainly have more control over service levels and product quality if the operation was kept in house.

This may be what is happening. If the other legacy airlines follow suit, the game may be up for the regional airline model. As always in this business...stay tuned!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Runway Collision Barely Averted in Chicago

On June 16th, two airliners with very similar call signs both started their takeoff roll towards one another on intersecting runways. Delta flight 1328 and Southwest flight 3828 were both lined up awaiting takeoff when the tower controller cleared the Southwest flight to go. The Delta flight erroneously took the clearance meant for the other airplane and also started its takeoff run. An alert tower controller saw what had happened and directed both aircraft to abort their takeoffs which they did. There was no collision.

This is a classic case of mis-hearing an instruction on the radio meant for another aircraft. Listening for your call sign on the radio can be nearly impossible when the frequency is busy. Sometimes you'll only hear perhaps the last digit or two of your call sign. Clearly, that method fails in a case like this when there are such similar call signs. The pilots of both aircraft had been previously advised that another airplane with a similar call sign was on the frequency which they both acknowledged.

Errors such as confusing a heading assignment for an altitude assignment, mistaking an altitude assignment such as "two-four-zero" for "three-four-zero", or mishearing a frequency assignment are legion in aviation today. It's easy to do and all pilots have made such errors. Those that say otherwise are not being honest. The vast majority of such errors are caught by either another pilot or controller and have little ill effect. But the potential for mayhem is always there.

One of the greatest tragedies in commercial aviation, the runway collision in Tenerife between two 747s resulting in 583 deaths, was due in part to radio miscommunication. There have been many suggested remedies over the years but none were practical enough to use. That could be changing with the introduction of digital data link technology.

A new system called CPDLC (controller pilot data link communication) may eventually replace some if not all spoken radio chatter between pilots and controllers. Already in use on some oceanic routes, an onboard data link allows pilots and controllers to relay instructions through satellite communications. Bringing this system to domestic operations could do much to alleviate missed and erroneous clearances.

One ongoing concern about the movement towards datalink communications has been concern over the loss of the "party line" effect. When an instruction is given to one aircraft, all other planes on the frequency hear the instruction which helps pilots to build a mental model of where other airplanes are and what they will be doing. The concern is that with digital communications between just one pilot to the controller over the datalink, other pilots won't for instance know that an airplane has been cleared to land on the runway they might be sitting on awaiting takeoff.

There could certainly be work arounds and other methods for ensuring the benefits of shared information through a common frequency are not lost with the implementation of datalink communication. Most likely, high altitude airspace will be the first place for the deployment of datalinks followed by approach and tower controllers as bugs are worked out.

If the very common problem of misheard audio communications is solved by use of datalink, a large source of errors dating back to the earliest days of aviation may finally be stanched.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Boeing 787 Takeoff? Meh.

Hey, don't get me wrong, the 787 is one beautiful machine and I'm sure the takeoff was very very impressive, but it's really nothing too special. Pretty much any airliner flying today could make a similar display.

One reason that this takeoff video looked impressive is that it was shot from a helicopter with a telephoto lens. The lens makes everything in the distance appear to be foreshortened, which means that the vertical aspect in the shot is emphasized by the magnification of the lens.

The other reason is that the airplane is doing something that is normally never done. It's what pilots call a maximum performance takeoff. And other than places like Orange County, California, it's never seen. Even the takeoffs from Orange County will be less dramatic because those planes have people, luggage and fuel aboard and the pilots are still limited to 20° climb angle. The 787 demo had no passengers, no luggage, and very little fuel. And it was flown by Boeing test pilots.

Judging by how many shares of this video are showing up on Twitter and Facebook, people must be thinking that the 787 is one badass airplane: the airline equivalent of a '69 GTO with the 428 under the hood. That would be a misperception.

The 787, like all airliners, was designed to make money. The engines that Boeing hangs under their airplanes' wings are only big enough to be able to do two things. One is to be able to lift a full plane, carrying enough fuel to cross an ocean off the ground in less than about a mile of takeoff roll. The other is to keep the beast airborne for a few hours with only one engine working should the other one quit.

Any thrust in excess of the amount needed for the above jobs would mean excess weight, and be a waste of fuel and of course money. Remember, this thing has to make money. In fact the whole reason for the existence of this video is to stir up interest for a huge sales event, the Paris Airshow.

One of the largest aerospace trade shows in the world, the Paris Airshow is where corporate poobahs meet to show off their wares and to sign sales orders for billions of dollars on everything aviation related. Who would like to guess how many cases of Dom will be on hand?

And for anyone who has any experience with trade shows or sales and marketing, you know that the decision making depends on way more than mere green eyeshade concerns like acquisition or operating costs. There's also that certain je ne sais quoi which will add just the right amount of pizazz to close the sale. At aviation trade shows, that means airborne displays. Hence the Paris Airshow.

Of course the ne plus ultra of airshow extravaganzas was way back in 1955 when Tex Johnston rolled the prototype 707 at an airshow in front of the world's aviation executives. When called into the office by CEO Bill Allen and asked what he was doing, Johnston simply replied "selling airplanes".

I will bid adieu to this post with a pointer to an equally dramatic takeoff video of a 70s era military DC-10 at an airshow.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Laser Threat to Airliners is Real (and Growing)

The laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) was invented in 1960 and since then has become a technology which is indispensable for modern life. Unfortunately, pranksters shining lasers at airplanes are a growing threat to air safety using them to cause flash blindness and distraction. The FAA started tracking laser attacks against aircraft in 2005 counting about 200. Since then the attacks have escalated in both number and intensity to nearly 4000 reported in 2014. I've personally been lased at least a couple of times.

Properly used, lasers are essential in applications ranging from communications to navigation, manufacturing, lithography, bar code scanners, and of course entertainment. Most commercial airliners even employ ring laser gyros which are used for stabilization and navigation. I recall using a laser to measure the speed of light in my freshman physics class back in 1977 . We modulated the beam and shot it down to the roof of the cafeteria and back to the engineering building measuring the lag in the returning signal to divide into the distance. Little did I know how new or expensive laboratory lasers were back then.

Well as you know, lasers have become quite a bit cheaper since then and pen sized and smaller laser pointers are everywhere. The red dot of a laser pointer could just as easily be coming from a teacher giving a lecture as from cops aiming weapons at a perp. So of course as day follows night, knuckleheads will come up with ways to become a nuisance with their new toys.

One of the first nuisance applications of laser pointers was at sports matches. Flashing a laser pointer in the eyes of the opposing team player was a great way to distract or perhaps momentarily flash blind someone preparing to score. Laser pointers are now banned at most sporting and entertainment venues. Having their fun spoiled there, miscreants then turned their lasers skyward towards airplanes. The problem is that being more than just being a nuisance, flash blinding a pilot on approach can have a potentially bad outcome.

One problem is that the lasers being used are becoming more powerful. They can not only momentarily distract, but can cause long lasting flash blindness and even permanent retinal damage and burns. And this damage can happen with just a few seconds or less of exposure. High power lasers are readily available through internet sales and present a growing threat.

This Isn't Really That New

Way back in the 1980s it was the Russians who first used lasers against aircraft. It was during the cold war that the Soviets would stuff ships disguised as fishing trawlers with all sorts of intelligence gathering gear to spy on US military assets. The Navy would then monitor and sometimes harass these "intel trawlers" with P-3 and other patrol planes. Standard cold war cat and mouse game so far. No one got hurt.

Then in 1987, it was reported that a US military aircraft, a WC-135, had been "illuminated" with a laser from a Soviet trawler blinding the pilot. Had the other pilot not been momentarily looking down, both pilots would have been blinded. This was only one of many attacks by the Soviets against US aircraft. A subsequent accord signed in 1989 banned the use of military lasers against aircraft but the Russians were back at it in 1997 with another laser attack against a Canadian helicopter in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Vancouver.

Nuisance or Danger

So it's obvious that the Russians were using high power lasers that caused permanent eye damage in the pilots and others who were hit. The helicopter pilot and observer in the 1997 incident were permanently grounded with confirmed laser burns to their eyes. Since that time, laser illumination of commercial aircraft has exploded. Only it isn't a foreign military causing all the trouble now but rather homegrown pranksters looking for cheap thrills mostly. Lasers of course have differing power levels and hence ability to blind. Let's take a look at the various types and power levels available to the public.

The FDA regulates the sales of lasers in the US. They are classified by color, power rating, and their ability to cause damage to the eyes and skin. Laser pointers rated as Class 1 or 2 are considered mostly harmless. The power ratings are in the 1 to 5 milliwatt range. Class 2 lasers cannot harm the eyes in less than the human blink or look away response of one quarter second. Class 3 lasers can injure the eye even through reflections and must be used with eye protection. Class 4 lasers are high powered lasers which can burn both eyes and skin. 

The commercially available laser I mentioned above is sold to the public as a class 4 laser with a 2000mW (2 watt) power rating. And I'll admit that while it looks totally badass in a Darth Vader lightsaber kind of way, I can't think of why anyone would need one. Still, for under $300, why not? Just don't aim it at an airplane. That's a felony. This one, by the way, is not available for sale in the US (but is in Canada and Mexico).

Distance is also a factor in laser attacks. Laser pointers rated at 5mW can make it difficult to see out an aircraft window at 1000 ft slant distance but their brightness falls off quickly, remaining visible but not producing flash blindness beyond about 4000 ft. It should be noted that laser pointers are generally not considered capable of causing eye injury but only temporary flash blindness and distraction. One factor that helps the situation is that it is difficult to keep a handheld laser trained on a moving aircraft which means shorter bursts of light in the cockpit.

It is of course the laser radiation reaching the eye which will cause damage and this is measured in microwatts per square centimeter. The type of eye injury a more powerful laser can cause is dependent on its frequency or color and this is due to the light absorption properties of differing parts of the eye. Some lasers burn the retina while others cloud the cornea and lens. And this damage can happen faster than the blink response for powerful lasers. The most dangerous lasers are those producing infrared or ultraviolet light which can damage the eyes but don't initiate a blink response due to the beam not being visible. The Soviets were alleged to have been using these.

 A safe distance known as the nominal ocular hazard distance or NOHD, describes the distance at which the maximum personal exposure or MPE is achieved. Beyond the NOHD, a laser is generally considered safe if not deliberately stared at. Class 1 and 2 lasers have no NOHD but Class 3 and 4 lasers have an NOHD measured in kilometers...more than enough distance to seriously injure the eyesight of pilots flying overhead. And this has happened recently.

So What's Being Done?

Shining a laser at an aircraft is already a federal crime currently punishable by five years in prison, but in a separate law, interference with the operation of an aircraft carries a penalty of up to 20 years according to the FBI. A man was sentenced to a 14 year term last year for shining a laser at a police helicopter in Fresno. The hefty term was considered a breakthrough which will serve to telegraph the seriousness of this crime. The FBI is also offering a $10,000 reward for information on laser criminals. This should do quite a bit to help nab perps as well.

The difficult part of catching laser criminals is the ease with which a laser can be shot and then quickly put back into a pocket. Many of the current convictions have arisen from laser attacks against police helicopters which of course have assets on the ground to find and arrest attackers. But with only 141 arrests and 87 convictions since 2004, this crime is easy to commit with impunity. Ongoing education efforts will also help to spread the word that lasers are not toys.

Other than counting on concerned citizens actually seeing and reporting lasing incidents, or police helicopters which can pinpoint laser attacks, it appears that not much else can be done. Technology may change that. High resolution airborne cameras may be a possible solution. Dubbed "persistent surveillance" and used in Iraq to spot IED planters, a camera that is always watching the area around an airport might be able to pinpoint the origin of a laser attack and then perhaps even record the movement of the perp back to his house. Perhaps the cameras could be mounted on the bellies of aircraft themselves.

My Incident

I was flying an arrival into Philadelphia from the west a year or so ago and was at perhaps 4000 feet being vectored to final for runway 26R. Over North Philadelphia I noticed a green laser being shone at the airplane from a city street. Being several miles away, the light was not very bright but was very noticeable standing out from the orange streetlights and traffic. After maybe 15 seconds the flashing stopped and we continued on uneventfully. We did notify approach control and filed the appropriate reports. Of course there was no way to even begin to tell what exact street location the laser was fired from.

And that was it. We weren't contacted by any law enforcement agency and left it at that. Perhaps the reports are becoming so ubiquitous that follow-up is not necessary.

I'll close with this one thought. The vast majority of these events are most certainly low-lifes or pranksters but I'm willing to bet that there are some folks out there intent on doing real damage with powerful lasers. Perhaps stationing two or more attackers to hit a plane from multiple angles with powerful lasers is a potential terrorist ploy. Nothing would surprise me these days.