Saturday, November 15, 2014

Flying While Bored

I addressed the implication of flight automation in the loss of Air France 447 last year when the voice and data recorders were recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean (in itself a small miracle). Now writer William Langewiesche explores the subject in a recent edition of Vanity Fair.

Langewiesche is very thorough and comes to many of the same conclusions about aircraft automation that are slowly being realized by industry experts and the FAA.

The problem of how this issue will be addressed is still an open question. This is especially poignant as automation becomes ever more pervasive. Last year's crash of an Asiana 777 at San Francisco highlighted the pitfalls of pilots who are not prepared to take over flying when the machines can't.

Humans are uniquely ill suited to sit on their hands and monitor the performance of machines. They need to be kept actively in the loop to stay engaged. And yet the machines aren't good enough to be left on their own.

Today's modern aircraft have the worst of both worlds: machines which are quite fallible, and bored, disengaged humans with a fading skill set who are expected to take over at a moment's notice, usually at a critical phase of flight.

Aviation Wisdom

The field of aviation is known for lots of homespun wisdom and gallows humor. The true nature of the business is that you can die if you don't do it right (and sometimes if you do). Here are a few of the more popular ones:

Courtesy Aviation Airborne

How to fly: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate (and in that order)

Thou shalt maintain thy airspeed, lest the ground reach up and smite thee.

Superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations requiring their superior skills.

The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.

In a twin-engine aircraft, the purpose of the second engine is to supply the pilot with enough power to fly to the scene of the crash.

When a prang seems inevitable, endeavor to strike the softest, cheapest object in the vicinity, as slowly and gently as possible. - Advice given to RAF pilots during W.W.II.

When in doubt, hold on to your altitude. No-one has ever collided with the sky.

Try to learn from the mistakes of others. You won't live long enough to make all of them yourself.

If God had meant man to fly, he'd have given him lots more money.

You've never been lost until you've been lost at Mach 3.

Airspeed, altitude or brains: Pick any two.

When a flight is proceeding incredibly well, something may be forgotten.

Just remember, if you crash because of weather, your funeral will be held on a sunny day. - Layton A. Bennett

Never fly the 'A' model of anything. - Ed Thompson

A pilot who doesn't have any fear probably isn't flying his plane to its maximum. - Jon McBride, astronaut

If you're faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible. - Bob Hoover

If an airplane is still in one piece, don't cheat on it; Ride the bastard down. - Ernest K. Gann, advice from the 'old pelican'

Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death I Shall Fear No Evil For I Am 80,000 Feet and Climbing. - Sign over the entrance to the SR-71 operating location on Kadena.

Never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than you. - Richard Herman, Jr., 'Firebreak'

There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime. - Sign over squadron ops desk at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ, 1970.

The three best things in life are a good landing, a good orgasm, and a good bowel movement. The night carrier landing is one of the few opportunities in life to experience all three at the same time.

Try to stay in the middle of the air. Do not go near the edges of it. The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space. It is much more difficult to fly there.

The three most common expressions in aviation are, "Why is it doing that?", "Where are we?" and "Oh Crap".

Weather forecasts are horoscopes with numbers.

A smooth landing is mostly luck; two in a row is all luck; three in a row is prevarication.

Helicopters are for the rich... or the enlisted.

I remember when sex was safe and flying was dangerous.

We have a perfect record in aviation: we never left one up there!

Flashlights are tubular metal containers kept in a flight bag for the purpose of storing dead batteries.

Flying the airplane is more important than radioing your plight to a person on the ground incapable of understanding it.

What is the similarity between air traffic controllers and pilots? If a pilot screws up, the pilot dies; If ATC screws up, the pilot dies.

If something hasn't broken on your helicopter, it's about to.

Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect. - Captain A. G. Lamplugh

In flying I have learned that carelessness and overconfidence are usually far more dangerous than deliberately accepted risks. - Wilbur Wright in a letter to his father, September 1900

The ultimate responsibility of the pilot is to fulfill the dreams of the countless millions of earthbound ancestors who could only stare skyward and wish.

If helicopters are so safe, how come there are no vintage / classic helicopter fly-ins?

A 'good' landing is one from which you can walk away. A 'great' landing is one after which they can use the aeroplane again.

Takeoff is optional. Landing is mandatory...

If you push the stick forward, the houses get bigger. If you pull the stick back, they get smaller. That is, unless you keep pulling the stick all the way back, then they get bigger again.

Flying isn't dangerous. Crashing is what's dangerous.

One of the most important skills that a pilot must develop is the skill to ignore those things that were designed by non-pilots to get the pilot's attention.

It's always better to be down on the ground wishing you were up in the air than up in the air wishing you were down on the ground.

The probability of survival is inversely proportional to the angle of arrival.

Stay out of clouds. Reliable sources report that mountains have been known to hide out in clouds.

You start with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

In the ongoing battle between objects made of aluminum going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground going zero miles per hour, the ground has yet to lose.

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

Keep looking around. There's always something you've missed.

Remember, gravity is not just a good idea, it's the law. And it's not subject to repeal.

There are old pilots and there are bold pilots. However, there are no old, bold pilots.

If you're ever faced with a forced landing at night, turn on the landing lights to see the landing area. If you don't like what you see, turn' em back off.

Always remember you fly an aeroplane with your head, not your hands.

You know you've landed with the wheels up when it takes full power to taxi to the ramp.

Things which do you no good in aviation: The sky above you. The runway behind you. The fuel still in the truck. Half a second ago. Approach plates in the car. The airspeed you don't have.

What's the difference between God and fighter pilots? God doesn't think he's a fighter pilot.

Trust your captain but keep your seat belt securely fastened.

An aircraft may disappoint a good pilot, but it won't surprise him.

There are only two things required to fly a modern airliner: a pilot and a dog. It's the pilot's job to feed the dog. It's the dog's job to bite the pilot if he touches anything in the cockpit.

Aviation is not so much a profession as it is a disease.

There are three simple rules for making a smooth landing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Passengers prefer old captains and young flight attendants.

The only thing worse than a captain who never flew as copilot is a copilot who once was a captain.

If the wings are traveling faster than the fuselage, it's probably a helicopter...

Any attempt to stretch fuel is guaranteed to increase head wind.

A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.

I know there's a lot of money in aviation because I put it there.

It's easy to make a small fortune in aviation. You just start off with a large fortune.

I'd rather be lucky than good.

The propeller is just a big fan in the front of the plane to keep the pilot cool. When it stops, pilots start to sweat.

Regards engine power: Lots is good, more is better, and too much is just enough.

A checkride ought to be like a skirt, short enough to be interesting but still be long enough to cover everything.

Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

It's better to be down here wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were down here.

Experience is a hard teacher. First comes the test, then the lesson.

In thrust I trust.

It is far better to arrive late in this world than early in the next.

You can land anywhere once.

I want to die like my grandfather did, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it ain't fixed, don't fly it.

Fuel in the tanks is limited. Gravity is forever.

Never trust a fuel gauge.

The worst day of flying still beats the best day of real work.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pilot Violated Rules Before Crash Landing

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal details some of the results of the NTSB investigation into the crash landing of a Southwest plane at LaGuardia airport last year.
NTSB documents indicate the captain violated company and industry safety standards, which require pilots to work as a team, and in all cases, they must declare their intentions before taking over controls or changing any flight-control settings.
But here's the interesting part:
The safety board also revealed that about three years earlier, the captain was ordered to undergo remedial company training for her leadership style. 
According to interviews released by the safety board, the move was prompted by repeated complaints from first officers about her alleged overbearing attitude in the cockpit. After the training, she returned to her regular flying schedule.
So Southwest apparently knew that this pilot had had problems previously. Now because of this incident, a much greater liability may have been incurred. No doubt that there will be some legal circling of the wagons here.

I don't think the problem of how to control rogue members of a profession is unique to aviation. Stories of rogue doctors or cops abound and create a tension among peers between correcting poor behavior and respect for a colleague. One of the problems is that discipline can only be meted out by management and not peers.

Though I don't know about Southwest, at most airlines, pilots can request to not fly with another particular pilot if they don't get along. The problem with this system is the pilot being avoided may never know that there might be a dozen or so other pilots who won't fly with them. Giving this feedback to pilots might help the difficult ones in a self assessment.

Or perhaps not.

Oft times the people who need feedback the most are the least receptive to it. Individual pilots know who to avoid, and the company knows who the high avoidance pilots are, but of course the flying public does not.

At least until their lawyers find out during discovery after an incident. There should probably be a better way.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the actual NTSB report.

Friday, November 07, 2014

So Why Do They Close the $%!# Door So Early?

Well the obvious answer to that question is so that the airplane doesn't leave late. But who cares when the airplane actually leaves the gate? Or takes off?

As far as a passenger is concerned, the only time that matters is the time the jetway door closes. Why, in the interest of customer service doesn't the airline publish that time? And why do all the airlines seem to use a random number generator to decide how far in advance of the "departure" time that the jetway door closes. Sometimes it's five minutes, sometimes ten, sometimes earlier if you're not checked in at the airport. 

(And don't get me started on the agents who seem to relish slamming the door on you. It's like some kind of weird fetish.)

Well, there actually is someone who is watching for when the aircraft actually leaves the gate. The US Department of Transportation keeps and publishes statistics on individual flight departure times. Any flight which leaves (or arrives) more than 15 minutes past the scheduled time published in the computer reservation system is considered "delayed", but all late departures no matter how small are tallied and available for comparison.

Departure and arrival times are logged automatically by sensors on the aircraft. It's not specifically when the door closes, but rather when the pilot releases the parking brake with all the doors closed. And there are quite a few things that have to happen before the brakes can be released.

In the back of the aircraft, the flight attendants have to make sure that all passengers are in their seats. Even though every passenger travelling through major airports like Denver, Dulles, Vegas and Sacramento travel on fast moving trains while standing, the FAA considers it dangerous to have passengers standing on an airplane during pushback. Go figure. Southwest even fought (and lost) a lawsuit against this restriction years ago.

The boarding agent is not even permitted to close the aircraft door until everyone is seated and all luggage is properly stowed. Only when that happens can the front door be legally closed.

When the back end of the aircraft is all set, the lead flight attendant will notify the pilots and close the cockpit door. Since 9/11 it is illegal to start the engines unless the cockpit door is closed and locked.

Up front the pilots are rather busy at this time as well. All airlines have slightly different procedures but are doing roughly the same things. Last minute checklists and takeoff data need to be taken care of and contact needs to be made with the ground crew who operate the pushback tug. The ground crew is also busy making sure all the cargo doors and other hatches are closed which are also verified by lights in the cockpit.

When all of that is done, radio contact needs to be made with ground control for pushback clearance. If there's an aircraft taxiing behind your parking spot or some other delay, you may need to sit at the gate waiting for a while for clearance.

The way most airlines pay their pilots is by flight hours. And flight hours are defined as the time between brake release at the origination and shutdown at the destination gate. So the captain, to an extent, gets to start the payclock by releasing brakes as soon as possible. 

Now there are some other details such as minimum pay rigs (rules) which mean a few minutes of released brakes hardly make a difference in pay. But if the gate agent asks me if I'd mind pushing off knowing I'm ground delayed, but she needs the gate for an inbound flight, I'm properly incentivized to agree. And everyone hates waiting for a gate after landing so I like to help them out as well.

But remember that releasing the brake is a necessary but not sufficient element of an early departure. If I release the brake but the door is still open, the clock doesn't start. (The airplane won't roll because it's connected to the tug by now). Of course, once the door is closed, no one else is coming aboard so I don't have the ability to wait for anyone. All I get to do is delay brake release for a few minutes if the agent is being a horse's rear end thereby giving him a delay just to pimp him. (No, not really. That would be unethical).

Economics Again

No the real reason the airlines like to leave early is the hypercompetitive nature of the airline business as expressed through product differentiation. And blame the internet too.

Airlines, like cellular carriers are in a unique position of having to sell nearly the exact same product as their competitors. All airlines fly to the same government run airports, through government controlled airspace and all their customers go through the same government run grope masquerading as security theater.

All commercial airliners are now built by one of only two global aircraft manufacturers whose products are difficult to tell apart except by airplane geeks. The weather and air traffic delays are generally the same no matter which airline you fly.

So like laundry detergent or cell service, airlines need to emphasize the differences in their products, of which there are precious few. While pricing can be a major selling point, increasing fuel costs act a great leveler. As the price of fuel eats an ever larger piece of the cost pie, individual efficiencies which competent airline managements bring to the table are diminished in the overall cost picture.

While the high costs of the remaining big three legacy carriers, United, American, and Delta were shed through the cycle of bankruptcies in the post 9/11 years, the costs of the low cost airlines have increased to where there's not a great deal of cost advantage for anyone. Spirit Airlines, as an outlier, has managed to keep its costs low, but the service is so spartan that it's not clear whether their model will scale.

Airlines have even tried to be clever by charging separately for bag fees and also by breaking out the government taxes and fees but the DOT has required that those taxes and security fees be added into the total price shown on their reservation sites.

Back to the DOT

Other metrics used to differentiate airline service are the statistics kept by the DOT.  Those are customer complaints, lost bags, and ontime performance. Think of those as RBIs or error stats for a baseball player. They make or break you. 

Southwest distinguished itself last year, and not in a good way, by rearranging their schedule to make better use of their airplanes. It didn't work and their ontime performance plunged to dead last in the industry lineup. Highly embarrassing to their marketing strategy of a being a no-frills yet dependable airline. They have since made amends.

It is the wide dissemination of airline performance statistics through the internet which has gotten airline managements focused like a laser on early departures. In the pre-internet days, only true travel geeks would hunt down these stats. Now everyone sees them with a mouse click. Gate and boarding agents themselves have been threatened with sanctions or even termination for having too many late departures to their credit. 

And as Vinnie, the gangster from Risky Business famously said, you never f--k wit a man's livelihood!

So could there be a solution to all this? Maybe, but it would require a universally adopted new standard of when "departure" actually happens. I totally get that even if the DOT and airlines were disposed to change this system why they'd be reluctant. The devil is always in the details and should the system be changed, there is little doubt that some clever MBAs up in the executive suite would be figuring out clever ways to game the system to their advantage.

So in the meantime, get to the gate early. Or drive.

Scarier Than Snakes: Sneezing on a Plane

In a new video and study conducted by the FAA Center of Excellence at Purdue University, particles from a sneezing passenger are modeled as they disperse in the cabin.

As we've mentioned before, the air coming from the airplane itself is most likely harmless. It's the next passenger over you need to worry about.

So cover your mouth already!

Saturday, November 01, 2014

An Old Soldier Finds a Home

What you're looking at is an historical aircraft. The aircraft that followed and were inspired by it's design changed the world of aviation. This is the Boeing Model 367-80. It was the prototype of the storied 707 which launched the jet age. From this aircraft came the jets that ended the age of propellers and introduced the world to modern jet travel. 

Other than marginal improvements in engine and avionics technology, getting on an airliner today will mean travelling at the same speeds, altitudes and comfort that were introduced with this aircraft.

This is also an aerobatic aircraft, though it was never intended as such. Early in the test phase of the aircraft, test pilot Tex Johnson rolled the aircraft in front of a group of industry big wigs. When called on the carpet and asked what he was doing, he simply replied "selling airplanes".

The 367-80 spawned two iconic aircraft: the B-707 for which Pan Am was the launch customer, and the Air Force's KC-135 Stratotanker. There's a story behind the inception of both aircraft.

The Flying Gas Station

The mid-50s were a time of incredible growth for both commercial and military aviation. During the height of the Cold War, great concern was given to being able to bomb the Soviet Union. The B-52 was the aircraft designed for this task but it couldn't do the job alone. It didn't have the range and needed to be refueled in air to make the journey.

The Air Force had a fleet of tanker aircraft which were based on the WWII era B-29 platform. This airplane, the KC-97, was too slow and small to effectively refuel the all jet B-52 which had to lower gear and flaps to fly as slow as needed. Curtis LeMay, architect of the air war against both Germany and Japan had become the commander in chief of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) which oversaw both missiles and bombers.

General LeMay wanted his all jet tanker fleet "yesterday". Boeing delivered the aircraft but Pratt and Whitney was unable to deliver the new technology TF-33 fan engines to power the aircraft on time. Unwilling to wait for Pratt to deliver the new engines, a decision was made to fit the new aircraft with an older technology J-57 "pure jet" engine which required water injection to achieve sufficient takeoff thrust.

Yes, you heard that right. Water was injected into the combustion chamber of the engine during takeoff. This resulted in a higher mass flow rate through the engine and more thrust. It also smoked like an old steel mill and rattled windows for miles.

Along with the water injected engines in the new tanker, designated KC-135, was the need for a water tank to feed the engines. Without room for the tank included in the design, a decision was made to remove one of the air conditioning units to make room. This made flying the airplane in summer a miserable experience as I can personally attest.

A last little bit of trivia involves the civilian designation of the aircraft. In case anyone was wondering why there was never a Boeing 717, there actually was. It was the civilian designation of the KC-135. If you ever happen to see one at an airshow, the original Boeing ID plate riveted to the crew entrance door will display Boeing Model 717. The airliners named as the Boeing 717 flying today are actually the last variant McDonnell Douglas MD-80 which were acquired by Boeing when they purchased Douglas but those are technically 717-200s.

The Jet Age Arrives

Concurrent with the end of WWII and the return of all our service men was the opening of a new age of possibility. With the American industrial base left intact, American manufacturing flooded the world with new cars, televisions, appliances, and airplanes. Tremendous advances in engine technology, driven in part by German research led the way for passenger jet aircraft to eventually displace propeller driven aircraft.

Pan American Airways, the airline which pioneered trans-Pacific air service using the Boeing Model 314 Clipper, was at the vanguard of the new jet age being the launch customer for the new Model 707. Juan Trippe, the Pan Am CEO, had wanted a larger fuselage width which could accommodate six across seating and also trans-Atlantic range. The resulting aircraft was both longer and with a larger wingspan than the original 367-80.

The new airplanes did, however, incorporate the new bypass fan engine design offered by Pratt and Whitney. Waiting for the upgraded engines meant that water injection was not needed. While the first flight of the KC-135 was in August, 1956, the first 707-100 did not fly until over a year later in December 1957 and commercial service did not begin until September 1958.

Through 1988 Boeing had delivered over 900 civilian and over 100 military 707s serving as passenger transport, presidential transport, early warning radar (E-3) and communications aircraft. A combination of new noise regulations and Boeing's reluctance to support a re-engining program so as not to hurt 757 sales meant that 707s were largely gone from commercial fleets by the end of the 1980s. They fly on as some military variants.

Consigned to the Desert

Model 367-80 reliably served as a test-bed for many new technology demonstrations but was finally retired in 1972 and donated to the Smithsonian. There was however no place to house the aircraft so it ended up in storage in Tucson, Arizona at AMARC, otherwise known as the boneyard.

Assigned to Williams AFB in Phoenix in the mid 80s, I drove down with some friends to Tucson to take a tour. Contrary to popular belief, the Air Force does not store all our used aircraft there in the desert indefinitely. Once a determination is made that the aircraft will not be entered back into service, they are chopped up and sold as scrap.

Except for a few.

The base maintains a "celebrity row" where a dozen or so famous planes remain. It was there back in 1987 that we found the Boeing Model 367-80. I pulled out some old photo albums and found some faded photos of that trip:

367-80 in the Boneyard circa 1987

In the mid 90s, Boeing reclaimed the aircraft from the desert, flew it to Washington where it was refurbished and it eventually found it's way to the Udvar-Hazy wing of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in DC.

I took these pictures on a visit to the museum during a layover last week. 367-80 is now polished to a gleam and sits among other proud representatives of a golden age of aviation now just a memory.

The last picture I leave you with is a lonely Fairchild T-46, cancelled as the replacement to the T-37 trainer we were flying at the time. Standing in front is some girl I was dating at the time.

The Last Fairchild Built Aircraft (and wifey)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Is the Air on My Plane Safe?

Like all technical questions involving complex interactions between humans, other humans, and complicated mechanical systems, the answer is solidly "it depends".

For starters, it depends on the definition of the word "safe". Humans are famously bad judges of risk as I observe on a nearly daily basis. Statistically, perhaps only elevators are a less risky form of transportation than commercial aviation. And yet watching ostensibly normally functioning people come close to losing their minds as they board an airplane gives one pause when giving odds on the likelihood of the continued existence of the species. But never mind.

Let's start with the basics of how airplane pressurization and air conditioning work. Then we'll talk about the resulting air quality in the cabin and the risk of disease transmission which has been on everyone's mind.

It's Just Like a Balloon

Think of the aircraft as a balloon with two holes in it. Air is being blown into one hole to try to inflate the balloon but simultaneously leaking out of the other. If the amount of air entering equals the amount leaving, the balloon grows neither larger nor smaller. In a nutshell, that is how aircraft pressurization works.

The air we breathe on this planet is made up of many gases with the primary ones being nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%) and argon (1%) along with many other gases making up the remaining bits. It is the partial pressure of oxygen which keeps you alive. As you climb higher into the atmosphere, that pressure drops. Most healthy humans can function normally up to an altitude of about 10,000 feet and above 14,000 feet cognitive function is impaired in most people.

Of course conditioned and trained people can go much higher with climbs up Everest at 35,000 feet being accomplished without oxygen. But for most people, going above 10,000 feet results in discomfort and light hypoxia. For this reason, aircraft cabins are always pressurized to an altitude below 10,000 feet.

Why not keep airplanes pressurized to sea level pressure? It's an engineering tradeoff. Most commercial aircraft are built to withstand a pressure differential of about 8 psi meaning the maximum difference between the air inside the plane and that outside is about 8 psi. This translates to a cabin altitude of about 8500 feet when the airplane is at it's maximum altitude of 40,000 feet. It could be built to withstand higher pressure (and some business jets are) but the cost and weight goes up greatly with thicker skin.

Now back to our balloon analogy. The air coming into the cabin is bled from the engines. Air enters the engine and travels through a series of compressor stages where most of it is used in combustion with the fuel. However some high pressure and temperature air is bled off and fed to a unit known as the air cycle machine. Using a linear flow model as opposed to a Carnot cycle used in your car's air conditioner, the air is then cooled and expanded before being fed into the cabin. Hot air from earlier stages in the process is mixed with cold air from the air cycle machine to attain a desired temperature.

On the back side of the plane is the second hole known as the outflow valve. This is where the pressure in the plane is controlled as there is a door which modulates open and closed to let air out at a rate to control the pressure inside the plane. For a given inflow rate, when the outflow valve closes, the pressure in the plane goes higher. A pressure relief valve keeps the "balloon" from bursting from over pressure in the case of a malfunction.

The inflow rate is modulated by automatic valves and is kept mostly constant while the outflow valve is controlled by a digital pressure controller. This provides for a gradual pressure climb and descent to match the pressure altitude of the landing airport which is set by the pilot. Were this not the case, the doors, which are essentially plugs, could not be opened at the destination if the aircraft was still pressurized. It's also why these doors can't be opened in flight. The air pressure keeps them closed with many hundreds of pounds of force.

Why Do My Sinuses Bother Me on an Airplane?

Well for one thing, the air in the stratosphere has almost zero moisture contained within it and as a result, the air coming into the cabin at altitude is also nearly zero percent humidity. This is why you will become quickly dehydrated on a long flight. Some business aircraft actually have humidifiers installed for comfort but these are not installed on commercial aircraft to my knowledge due to weight, cost, and corrosion considerations. Dry mucous membranes can also cause discomfort over long periods.

Pressure changes experienced on an aircraft are well known to cause discomfort. The reason for this is the construction of the human head. Aerospace travel was apparently not considered in its design. Put simply, air does not always flow freely into and out of the sinus cavities and ears of the mark-one mod-zero human. When the air pressure is changing outside of said human and congestion or some other problem prevents the air pressure from equalizing, pain often results.

This pain and discomfort most often manifests itself during descent as the pressure is increasing. During climb, air escapes more easily from sinuses but a "flapper" like effect makes increasing pressure more difficult to equalize resulting in sinus and ear blocks. They can be excruciatingly painful. Not flying with a cold is always a good idea but using a nasal inhalant such as Afrin can help greatly in the event of discomfort. It should not be used prophylactically though as there is a "bounce-back" effect and it can become habit-forming if used continuously.

Are the Pilots Turning Down the Oxygen?

Why yes. Yes they are up there wearing oxygen masks while turning the oxygen valve  to make passengers fall asleep and to also save money on oxygen tanks. And cackling wildly as they watch you turn slowly blue. Sometimes, though they need to take a break from that duty to monitor the chem-trail dispersal systems.

Seriously, though, per the laws of physics, the oxygen content of cabin air will decrease with cabin altitude. For customers who have hit it especially hard the night before or have health considerations, the resulting lack of oxygen may result in an extended nap or shortness of breath. My airline does not allow bottled oxygen to be brought on board by customers, but does allow battery powered oxygen concentrators. Checking ahead of time what the policies are is always helpful.

And no, there are no oxygen tanks in use during a normal flight. Your ability to remain conscious at altitude is a function of the cabin pressure. As long as it remains below about 10,000 feet, you'll stay awake and alive. There are oxygen tanks aboard but they are for crew use during emergencies. 

There aren't even any oxygen tanks hooked to the emergency oxygen masks that will drop if the cabin pressure rises above 14,000 feet. Those are actually connected to "oxygen generators" which is a fancy way of saying a chemical stew that "burns" when activated but gives off oxygen as a byproduct. A number of these oxygen generators which were improperly packed caught fire in the cargo hold and brought down a Valuejet MD-80 about 15 years ago. As installed in the aircraft overhead passenger service unit, the heat generated during use is harmless.

Should the "rubber jungle" ever fall down in your face, you will have about 12 minutes of oxygen mixed with ambient air to keep you awake while hopefully your pilot gets the airplane pressurization under control or gets below 10,000 feet. But remember that since the mask mixes oxygen with ambient air, it won't keep you from breathing smoke should a fire ever break out. 

Another favorite conspiracy theory is that pilots recirculate used air to be breathed again and save money. Well, this one is true. A certain amount of the air on most commercial aircraft is in fact recycled. A "recirc" fan recirculates a certain amount of air through a filter like the HVAC system in your house, car, and office. This results in higher humidity and less fuel consumption. And while 100% of the air from your home air conditioning system is recycled, the number is closer to 50% on an aircraft depending on the model.

But How Safe is it Really?

Again, it depends, but air quality on a modern commercial aircraft is probably about as safe as it can reasonably be. According to Boeing, passengers receive between 14 and 20 cubic feet of air per person per minute and this air is essentially particle free. Boeing claims that the HEPA filters used can remove particles as small as .3 microns which includes most microorganisms.

So while the air coming from the airplane is probably safe, it's that guy sitting next to you hacking up a lung you're probably worried about. And probably with good cause. It's not the airplane itself that is the problem, it's the proximity to sick people in the cabin with you.

Put several hundred people in any enclosed space be it airplane, elevator, or subway, and someone with an infectious airborne disease will probably transmit something to someone. But of all those transportation methods, the airplane probably has the freshest air source. Directing one of the overhead gasper air vents towards your face may have some effect in keeping ambient air particles out of your lungs but how much is unknown. And as I mentioned earlier, the air is probably fresher than your home or office. 

While the practice is more often seen in Asian countries than the US, wearing a mask can certainly cut down the risk of acquiring an airborne infection. But other than wearing a mask, there's probably little that you can do to reduce your risk of airborne infection other than staying off the plane altogether.

Is There Anything Else I Should Worry About?

The other and probably equally dangerous threat on an aircraft is the tray table. And also the armrest, and the lavatory. And probably your seat too.

All these things are public spaces and most likely contaminated with germs, fecal matter, and other gross stuff. Just consider the interior of the airplane as one giant Petri dish. It probably isn't a bad idea to carry a supply of anti-bacterial wipes and to wipe down your immediate area when you sit down. Use the anti-bacterial soap in the washroom and learn to unlock and open the door with your elbows.

I personally don't eat or drink on an aircraft either. The flight attendants are handling cash, credit cards, trash and empty cups all day from hundreds of people. Sure they wash their hands and wear gloves at times but is that diet Coke worth a few weeks of flu, or worse? And keep your hands away from your face.

Yes, but aren't the airplanes cleaned every night? Sure they are. We park and a crack crew of uniformed professionals are waiting to scrub down every bit of the aircraft to CDC approved standards using industry standard anti-microbial cleaning agents. Not.

No, the "cleaning crew" consists of minimum wage immigrant labor armed with a vacuum cleaner and a few rags. The plane is also tidied up between flights but not "cleaned".

So What Now?

Well I guess in the words of Dirty Harry, "Do ya feel lucky?" If you've got to go fly, then go fly. I'll be there because I have to be. 

Your odds of catching Ebola or Enterovirus are probably infinitesimal but increasing, due to the madness of our open borders policies inviting the third world and their diseases to our shores.

You are probably more likely to get something more common like the flu on an airplane but a few common sense steps as mentioned above should help. And voting. That will help as well.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Celestial Sightings (from 38,000 feet)

This Wednesday past there was a total lunar eclipse which was visible over most of the United States. This particular event started at about 0420 eastern time. As chance would have it, I was on an overnight in Tampa, with my first leg being to Houston over the Gulf of Mexico.

Having heard of it somewhere on the news the day prior, I was aware that it might be visible the next morning as we were scheduled to leave Tampa at 0650 to head west. The moon wasn't visible from my hotel room but was visible as I walked outside of the hotel to get on the van at 0550.

By the time we got to the airplane, about 0620, the moon was nearly fully occluded. It was being called the "blood moon" by some in the media though it didn't appear especially red to me. My guess is that for those watching it as the moon sets, it appears red for the same reason sunsets appear red. The light is refracted through the atmosphere and dust particles in a process called Rayleigh scattering.

Standing out on the provisioning truck, I attempted to get a photo of it but cell phone cameras are just not up to the task of capturing night sky objects. After dealing with a minor maintenance item of a balky cockpit display, we were on our way. As our customers were being entertained by a live satellite internet feed of the Cooking Channel, we had a somewhat more interesting show up front.

The timing and our course really couldn't have been more perfect. The sun was rising up behind us but we were travelling at a groundspeed of nearly 500 miles an hour away from it, so the shadow of the earth up into the atmosphere created a light and dark area ahead of us. We were also at 38,000 ft so the view was unimpeded by clouds.

The View From the Corner Office

While flying around in a jet all day affords a great view of the earth below, equally inspiring can be the view of celestial happenings. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of having a front row seat to all manner of astral events from comets to meteor showers to eclipses. 

Being above most of the atmosphere does afford the casual observer of the heavens a great view, but one must know what to look for...and where.

Some events are once in a lifetime occurrences such as the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet in the winter and spring of 1997. Becoming the second brightest object in the sky and being visible to the naked eye for nearly a year and a half, Hale-Bopp was spectacular from the airplane at night and nearly impossible to miss. And it won't be back for another couple of thousand years. 

I was flying up and down the California corridor quite a bit back then and depending on the direction we were flying, the comet was not always visible. The 737, as with most airliners, while having good forward visibility does not afford the best viewing for objects above or behind the aircraft. And in recent years, the small windows above the main wind screen, or the "eyebrow" windows, have been permanently removed and sealed with opaque panels as a cost savings measure.

Meteor showers can be quite striking from altitude and they are recurring events. The Leonids get their name from the constellation Leo, from which the meteors appear to originate. They are visible annually in November and are the remnants of a comet through which the Earth passes. The Perseids occur in August and appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus. While at their peak, a meteor shower appears as many bright streaks across the sky per minute.

The trick to seeing these cosmic light shows is of course to be flying on the night that the phenomena is visible, and then to be flying in the correct direction. The Perseids are visible in the northeast sector of the sky, so if you happen to be flying from say St. Louis to Phoenix that night, you won't see them. Most times this is just pure luck unless you are very careful when bidding your trips.

Chasing the Sun

The most prominent object in the sky, and often the bane of pilots is the sun. Dating back to WWII and before, the sun has been used by attacking fighter pilots to conceal their whereabouts from targeted aircraft and ground emplacements. Coming from the direction of the sun effectively blinded defenders until the attack was upon them.

And the sun is still up to its old tricks blinding pilots. Having an early morning go on an easterly course means that shortly after takeoff, the laminated cards with checklists and other reference data are securely in place nestled between the glare shield and the top of the windscreen. Maps are also handy for this function except that with the introduction of electronic flight bags, paper maps are going away and an iPad makes a lousy shade.

One might complain that blocking the forward view is hazardous due to not being able to see potential collision conflicts. This is true, but intruders are not visible anyway with the sun directly in your eyes and using the maps preserves your retinas for future use.

Takeoffs and landings into the sun can be a challenge as well. Landing on runway 25 in Las Vegas at sunset often finds that golden orb perched just above the runway of intended landing. One hand on the yoke and one held out in front to shield your eyes leaves you one hand short to control the throttles. Sometimes setting your seat higher or lower may work to shield your eyes but at other times you just suck it up and hope you're mostly on centerline for touchdown.

Once I had the opportunity to visit the Phoenix Sky Harbor Tower and asked the controllers why Phoenix always took off to the east in the morning and landed to the west in the afternoon. The winds in Phoenix are almost never a factor in determining the active runway so the decision was up to the tower controller. He told me with a straight face that it was to keep the sun out of the controllers' eyes. 

Great. Wouldn't want the guys sitting on terra firma to be blinded as opposed to the guys actually flying the plane.

While it's well known that most aircraft can't keep up with the sun as the earth spins, this isn't true in all cases. One of those times would be if you were in say an SR-71 supersonic aircraft travelling over about 1000 mph ground speed at the equator. Another is if you move further north to attempt this same feat in a slower aircraft.

Though the math is more complicated due to the rotational axis of the earth being 23 degrees off the vertical of the solar plane, the speed the surface of the earth rotates decreases as a function of the cosine of the angle of latitude. (This is also the genesis of the Coriolis effect which causes most of our weather and bathtub drain water to swirl)  Go far north enough, and your airplane can keep up with the sun, or at least give it a good run.

That means you might have the sun hanging in the middle of your wind screen for hours on end. Which once long ago we did. Leaving Anchorage for Yokota Air Base, Japan one afternoon in a C-5 had us taking off just as the sun was camped directly in our face. The C-5 is a large aircraft, with a very large windscreen. It probably took most of the maps in our worldwide kit to paper over the cockpit to keep the sun out. 

And there it hung in the windscreen for nearly eight hours until we started our descent into Japan. 

Stars, Planets, and Northern Lights

On moonless nights at altitude, the sky is an amazing tapestry of things most earthbound observers never see. The Milky Way is easily visible snaking across the sky with the dark areas such as the Great Rift also visible. Though modern aircraft navigate with GPS and inertial systems, the stars that ancient mariners used to navigate the seas are familiar friends for those who care to look. Orion, Cassiopeia, the Big and Little Dippers, the Pleiades, and many more are always there waiting for your next journey above the clouds.

When I started in this business several decades ago, some pilots were never without their handy printed night sky guide replete with glow in the dark print. Those have now been replaced by mobile phone apps which automatically orient themselves to your current location and time for an accurate sky depiction.

The planets can play tricks on unwary pilots around dawn or dusk. More than a few times I've overheard irate pilots insisting to air traffic control that they have converging traffic which the controller had failed to point out. This always gets the Venusians to laughing wildly. 

Occasionally we might see a single re-entry of a meteor or perhaps some space junk. It can look like a roman candle with many pieces flying off a main part. Once in broad daylight over New Mexico, we saw one of these and I almost caught myself ducking because it seemed as it was just over our position. Then the frequency lit up far and wide with pilots asking "Did you see that?" It apparently looked closer than it was.

My essay wouldn't be complete without a comment about man-made celestial objects. Though I never saw a shuttle launch, I've been told that they were visible for hundreds of miles in the air. Of the launches I have seen, they were both from California's Vandenberg AFB. One of them I saw while flying over Nevada several hundred miles away was very impressive. The other was from over Texas.

We were flying from San Antonio to El Paso and in the distant haze saw a light move from the horizon up into the sky above us. As usual, the frequency lit up with questions about what it was and where it was from. Most of us thought it must've been a launch from the White Sands Army Missile Range north of El Paso. The controller said "hold on, let me check." Then he came back, "not White Sands, Vandenberg." Nearly a thousand miles away.

We'll end our sky tour with the Northern Lights. Though my routes rarely go far north enough to be able to regularly see them, there have been a few occasions when I've seen their eerie green glow pulsating from the north. I once even saw them while on arrival into Chicago, much further south than is normal.

And though I've never seen a UFO, that certainly doesn't mean they're not out there. They have cloaking devices, you know.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Pilot Shortage Meets Econ 101

As the current pilot shortage worsens, two of the players, commuter airline managements and labor unions are turning up the rhetoric on what is actually happening and who is to blame. A recent article in Business Journals placed the blame squarely on "miserly airlines":

The nation's big airlines want you to know that there's a dreadful pilot shortage and they apologize profusely if their commuter-carrier partners cancel flights to your hometown airport due to the debilitating shortfall. 
The nation's big airlines don't want you to know that their commuter carriers, which operate half of all the nation's commercial flights, often pay pilots so little that it's often financially wiser to drive a truck or flip fast-food burgers than fly a plane.

And in addition, what the author of the article also doesn't want you to know it that he doesn't understand basic precepts of economics (which is kind of embarrassing being a financial reporter).

As we've explained previously, a not insignificant part of the commuter airline pilot's compensation is the flight hours he receives in the course of doing his job. Those highly coveted hours, like passes caught or RBIs for ball players, are the stock and trade of aspiring airline pilots. Without the minimum number of hours required, they cannot even apply to a major airline for a pilot job where the real money is.

In fact, were it not for the quest for flight hours, pilots would never even consider working for the admittedly low wages offered by the smaller cargo and commuter airlines. It is an unstated deal that young pilots stay with commuter airlines only until such time as the pilot gains enough hours to move up to a major airline.

The other half of the equation is that since commuter airline managements know their valued pilot employees have no intentions of making a career at their podunk airline, but are there only to gain hours, there is simply no point in paying any more than is necessary. A basic economic tenet of staying in business is to pay your employees only what it will take to retain them and no more. Not miserly, just common sense. It's not a charity.

Doing that is apparently also some sort of crime according to social justice warriors masquerading as online business 'zine reporters who conflate a profit making enterprise with a social cause.

Normally taking between six and ten years to gain the required hours to join a major airline, commuter airlines might be thought of as a minor league for the major airlines. You may have noticed that minor league baseball doesn't pay much either.

Commuter Airline Managements Have a Problem 

This gentleman's agreement of low wages in exchange for flight hours has now been put in jeopardy by several new government regulations mandating hugely higher hours requirements to even get a commuter pilot job. These flight hours must now be purchased and this raises the entry bar to many tens of thousands of dollars to get that still very low paying job. This effectively destroys the calculus young pilots count on to start their careers.

It also throws a wrench into the business plans of commuter airlines who now complain that they don't have enough pilots to fill their cockpits. Their sweet deal of paying pilots food-stamp qualifying wages is also coming to an end. Pilots will now be required by government regulations to purchase their own hours to qualify for any flying job, and will need to service their flight school loans with higher wages.

This whole process begs the question of why huge numbers of hours are needed to qualify for a major airline job anyway. Around the world there are countries without large commuter airline establishments from which to draw pilots, such as Japan. These countries have what are called ab-initio aviation programs which take a pilot from novice to the right seat of a major airline in about a year with only several hundred hours of intensive instruction.

The US military effectively operates such a program with it's undergraduate pilot training, placing pilots in their 20s with only several hundred hours experience into the cockpits of widebody airliners. If this is the future of US aviation, the commuter airline managements may well have a real problem on their hands. The future may be pilots taking out huge loans for ab-initio programs and leapfrogging commuter airlines straight to a major airline job.

So why don't the 'miserly' commuter airlines simply up the pay of their pilots to attract and retain them in sufficient numbers? It's simple: they can't (and expect to stay in business). Their economic models are built on the assumption of cheap pilot labor and their margins are so thin that increased pilot salaries make them into money losing operations at current fare levels.

So why don't they just raise prices to cover the higher salary costs? A trip back into the Econ 101 textbook reveals that for a demand elasticity curve which is not vertical, a higher price will result in less demand for a given product. In English this means that if the already high price of a commuter flight goes even higher, maybe it'd be easier to just watch the game on TV rather than fly to see it. Or perhaps the businessman doesn't have to attend the meeting in person but rather by Skype. (These are called substitute goods). People will fly less and the business will shrink or cease to exist.

And as airlines must sell their product in prepackaged amounts, (the number of seats on their aircraft), below a certain level of demand, service to a particular city becomes a money loser at any reasonable price. It is well known that smaller aircraft have higher per seat costs to operate, which only makes the problem tougher. Time to sell.

Labor Wakes up on Third Base (And Thinks They Hit a Triple)

Right on cue, labor groups have been crowing that the lack of pilots to staff commuter airlines is just desserts for stingy airlines due not to increased government regulation (which labor itself championed), but rather that managements have paid sub-par wages for too long and pilots just woke up one morning deciding not to take it anymore.

Alpa, the largest airline union, calls the shortage imaginary, instead choosing to call this a pay shortage. Well, semantics aside, if you one day go to the grocery and find that your customarily priced $3 bottle of orange juice suddenly jumped to $12, it is doubtful that your first impulse would be to think that gee, I've been paying too little all these years! No, you'd probably think that an early freeze caused a shortage which caused the price to jump.  

Labor is realizing that a shortage labor-supply mismatch may in fact work out in their favor. That is, in favor of pilots who already have an airline job. The new federal regulations, which quintupled the flight hours needed to get an entry level commercial pilot job, are what's known in economic terms as a barrier to entry

Barriers to entry are popular with already established members of a particular profession or business as they serve to limit competition and thereby drive up wages or profits. It's been said that the toughest part of becoming a doctor is getting into medical school and that the difficulty serves only to enhance doctor wages. In fact most professional credentialing has some element of this going on.

The taxi and car-for-hire business is being disrupted to great consternation by mobile-paged car services such as Uber and Lyft. They are being ferociously fought by taxi companies and the urban regulatory bodies which profit through control of outrageously priced medallions or licensing requirements.

So this is all well and good if you already have your airline job and are far enough up the list to avoid a furlough should your airline need to shrink to profitability. No where in any economic text book does it state that any particular service should exist and be generally available to the public at a reasonable price. The commuter airline business model may just find that given current fuel and increased labor costs, the service simply can't be provided as a mass commodity.

One need only think of the fledgling space taxi business. We have the technology to routinely fly passengers into space, but with only the occasional billionaire dilettante as a willing passenger, the demand for space plane pilots is small.

Commuter airlines may shrink into a boutique or air taxi operation for very wealth clients in the model of the current fractional ownership of private aircraft, at least for many smaller cities. That would mean the pilot shortage solves itself on the demand side with commuter pilots being furloughed or shrinkage of the industry through attrition.

The winner in all of this? Well, not the small city customer who, when he can even find a commuter flight, will pay through the nose. And certainly not aspiring pilots who will now need to borrow tens of thousands of dollars just to get their first job. And perhaps not even existing commuter pilots who find their companies shrinking due to decreased demand.

Who wins? Flight schools may see an uptick in students who now have to purchase (at about $120/hr) their experience. Probably lending institutions making loans to these aspiring pilots. And most certainly the politicians who get to claim that they "did something" for the aviation industry.