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.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

New Look

I've updated my blog template to make this blog a little easier to read. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Trouble in Automation Paradise

Holman Jenkins who writes the Business World column for the Wall Street Journal often uses his column to write about aviation issues. I suspect he may be a frustrated pilot, but he usually gets it right which is rare in journalism today.

In his latest column, he addresses the problems with the gradual replacement of humans by automation in systems previously controlled directly by humans. Specifically, the problem which is now showing up in aviation is that as reliance on automation increases and the scope of direct human involvement necessarily decreases, human competence will suffer.

In simpler language, sitting and watching the machine fly the airplane all day makes a pilot rusty.

The recent Asiana crash in San Francisco is an example of over-reliance on automation allowing skills to atrophy though I'd argue that the skills were never there to begin with:

Critics now insist Boeing should have included an alert or automatic override in case pilots might fly the plane into the ground using the tools Boeing gave them. That's a cop-out. The chief pilot later claimed "it was very difficult to perform a visual approach with a heavy airplane," according to the NTSB, which would seem to indicate the real problem: The crew was nonplused, perhaps nearly panicked, at the prospect of having to maintain a proper glidepath without help from the airport's sophisticated landing aid. 
Diligent annotators of this column will recall Captain Malcolm Scott from nearly a decade ago, who criticized a British Airways decision to ban manual thrust control (which Asiana's pilots should have employed to maintain the plane's airspeed) by its Airbus pilots. Flying skills would atrophy, he warned, suggesting that the industry's implicit goal was to remove the human factor from the cockpit altogether.

The question in the future design of aircraft automation is not where we'd like to go, completely automated aircraft control, but how do we get there? A straight line extrapolation of a diminishing role for real pilots doing real hands-on flying appears to be unwise. A rusty pilot thrown cold into a situation needing precise aircraft control such as when the automation unexpectedly fails is a recipe for disaster, let alone flying a routine visual approach as Asiana demonstrated.

If airlines are going to employ human pilots in any fashion who may be expected at some point to actually fly the airplane, they are going to have to be kept in practice by actually flying. This will mean requirements for regular and routine manual control of the aircraft. This is not the case today.

At such time that automation systems are robust enough to conclude that manual control of the aircraft will never be needed, pilots will be replaced by system operators who are not expected to have or maintain flying skills as none will be foreseeably needed. This point may be further in the future than many automation advocates envision.

While this problem of atrophying flying skills is not new and has been addressed in various aviation fora, I personally thought the problem was mostly confined third world carriers lacking a reservoir of experienced aviators upon which to draw as does Europe and the US. I have recently been disabused of this notion by several alarming events at a large domestic airline.

Several incidences of sub-optimal handling of airplanes on go-arounds were relayed to us during our latest training event. These events resulted in the aircraft being well out of accepted parameters for attitude, altitude, and airspeed resulting in a potentially hazardous outcome. While all the events resolved without incident, I had personally never heard of such gross mishandling of an aircraft by one of my fellow US aviators. Go-arounds, while requiring proper attention, are not difficult to accomplish.

Why now would problems be showing up in go-arounds? The answer may lie in this carrier's automation policies and equipment. Boeing makes an autopilot capable of fully flying an approach and should the need arise, to fly a perfect go-around while never being disengaged or requiring manual control of the aircraft.

For whatever reason, this particular airline chose to configure their system to have the autopilot dump full manual control into the pilot's hands right at the time the decision to go around is made. Choosing to go-around disconnects the autopilot just when the aircraft is at its lowest point in the approach at its slowest speed. Assuming the arrival and approach were flown using automation as is normal policy, being given a handful of airplane just when the pilot was expecting to land seems to me to be the wrong time for this to happen.

What actually happened on these incidents is known only to the safety investigators (and the pilots) but it does seem interesting that highly qualified aviators are making rookie mistakes like this just as automation becomes more pervasive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Mighty C-5: A Story

I came across this video of a C-5 transport aircraft in a public affairs video making the rounds on YouTube. It's interesting because the airplane is from Travis AFB, my old base in northern Cali. I've even flown this particular aircraft on more than a few occasions. It sports tail number 60016, affectionately known as "Balls One Six", a B model aircraft if I remember correctly.

The flight takes off from Travis and then heads north over lake Berryessa, our old water ski lake. Lots of memories there. It then passes over Mt Lassen and on to the coast to fly past Mendocino and Pt. Reyes. The flight finishes as the plane passes over Vacaville and the fields of the central valley to land on runway 21R back at Travis. 

About midway through the flight is a demonstration of anti-missile flares. These are to be fired if an on-board system detects a missile launch. The heat in the flares is supposed to distract the heat-seeking missile into following them and not the heat from the aircraft engines. Smart engineers, though, can program the latest missiles to distinguish between the heat signatures of flares and that of the engines rendering the flares useless. Or if a radar guided missile is fired, there is no defense. 

The flare display does look pretty cool though, and it's been said in certain aviation circles that it's better to die than to look bad. Here's to looking good.

Notably in view on final approach is the Vacaville Sanitary Landfill, otherwise known as the dump. Besides having taken loads of refuse there, the dump is haven for thousands of seagulls and other birds. I'm guessing that the base, there since WWII, predates the dump. Birds and planes are uneasy partners in the sky and thousands of them nesting at a dump under final approach seems unwise though I never personally hit one.

After a few minutes of this video, boredom will probably set in for those not familiar with or emotionally attached to this airplane. After all it doesn't really do any tricks like a fighter. The real trick to this airplane though is its size. One of the largest aircraft ever built, it can carry objects as large as the M-1 battle tank weighing in at about 150,000 lbs or the Navy's DSRV rescue submarine clocking in at about 200,000 lbs.

I've carried both of those things and it is the loading and unloading that really boggles the imagination. Imagine a snake eating a bullfrog. You don't think it'll fit, but it does.

Flying the C-5

Flying Fred (our informal name for the C-5) was a real kick simply because it's so stinking big. Imagine driving a machine around that weighs nearly 3/4 of a million pounds. Those guys driving the gargantuan digging machines in strip mines might have a similar feeling but they're moving at several miles per hour while we were scooting around at .78 Mach.

The C-5 was a very forgiving aircraft to fly with it's relatively light wing loading and 25 degree wing sweep. A three axis stabilization system kept the airplane from wallowing around, and 24 main landing gear tires make setting this beast down gently a breeze.

For years, the Air Force wouldn't let pilots fresh out of pilot training be assigned to the aircraft for their first assignment. Only more seasoned second assignment pilots could get that job. The first pilot to get the C-5 right out of school was Frank P, who eventually became our commander at the 312th Airlift Squadron (USAF Reserve). Frank went on to do well in the USAF pinning on two stars as a general before retiring. American Airlines was probably wondering if he'd ever come back to fly for them.

The old girl did refuse, though, to be taken for granted and would take her revenge if not treated right. With a normal landing weight in the 600,000 lb range, quick adjustments on short final were not an option. Like an ocean liner, this aircraft does not turn on a dime and should a landing not be setting up just right, the best option was a go-around rather than wrestling with a lot of momentum 50 feet above the ground.

With the main landing gear hundreds of feet behind and below your seat, being the slightest bit low on approach could have disastrous results as several unlucky aviators discovered over the years. On at least two occasions, one in Oklahoma, and one on a remote island in the Aleutians, the aircraft landed just short of the runway and had a landing gear or two ripped from the fuselage. The Oklahoma accident resulted in the smash country hit "I lost my bogie in Muskogee"

Keeping Her in the Air

Systems-wise the aircraft was a plumbing nightmare. With four separate hydraulic systems, two APUs, both forward and aft opening cargo doors, six landing gear, 28 tires and brakes, optical and nitrogen fire detection and suppression systems, and checklists with titles like "Emergency Bogie Rotation (Normal Hydraulic Pressure Not Available)", keeping the beast in the air could be a real chore at times should things go wrong. Which they routinely did.

There was, however, only one "bold face" or emergency action item that was needed to be committed to memory for any system problem. That was to swing around in your seat and say "Engineer?"

Luckily, the airplane was crammed with redundancies and while it broke a lot, one could always hope that it would break in a place near a beach or at least a place with good per diem. We could even occasionally decide where the airplane would break by deciding when and where to enter the "defect" into the logbook thereby requiring a maintenance response. For some inexplicable reason, Hickam AB (Hawaii) probably saw more than its share of maintenance issues from transient aircraft.

General Honeybadger, Phil (the Thrill) and the Trip to Hell

One of my favorite stories is how we drug a beleaguered bird down to Australia and back. Well almost back. It was the wing commander's "finis" or last flight in the C-5 before retiring. The scheduler dangled the word "Aussie" in front of me as bait to take the trip somehow neglecting to mention that the general, his vice commander, a colonel, and an instructor, Lieutenant Colonel Phil (the Thrill) B. would be the crew. That made me, the major, the bag boy.

The plane started falling apart right away. The general, a bona-fide hero having won the medal of honor for valor in Viet Nam, was a real horses' ass. Winning that medal  back in the 70s made his career, guaranteeing him a star, and was also his last action of any significance. He took the landing in Pago Pago and hammered the jet onto the runway so hard that it was a small miracle that the oxygen masks didn't drop. I suspected that they'd been permanently sealed into their containers. Nice landing, sir. Must've been a gust!

So then the rear gear, which are supposed to caster during a turn wouldn't function properly. General Honeybadger didn't care. He just wrenched that thing around for a 180 on the runway as it was bucking like a bronco, the aft gear protesting over being drug sideways.

Next, a fuel gauge quit. No prob. Just watch the matching gauge on the other wing for a good estimate of the tank quantity. We get to Aussie-land and the general announces that he wants to go on with just Phil and himself to the next destination inland and back. So being left in Sydney, the colonel, a Delta captain and a decent sort, an engineer, and I take the general's car and go on a walkabout (okay, driveabout) to an interior national park. One of the perks of travelling with a general: you get a car.

Many hours after their scheduled departure time, we hear the unmistakable growl of Freddy's TF-39 motors as they climbed out of Richmond RAAF base near Sydney. Freddy apparently didn't like the general either.

Phil "Breaks" the Jet

The remainder of the trip was uneventful until we got back to Hickam AB in Hawaii. It was here that Phil decided that the airplane was "broken". OK, fair enough. Being in the Air Force Reserve means that most of us have airline jobs and fly for the Reserves a few times a month on days off. Phil, on the other hand, had no airline job and hence his only source of income was working part time for the Reserves. So by parking the airplane in Hawaii, Phil got to play golf in Honolulu on the government's dime until the jet is "fixed".

Now a few words about Phil. Think of a guy who is about maybe 55 but looks 75, single, smokes, drives a 1978 powder blue F-150 pickup and spends his spare time at the Moose lodge. I had nothing against him as he'd never been a wanker to me. He just personified old and broken down. And flying Freddy around for the reserves was as far as I could tell about all he had going on.

I honestly didn't have a problem with this situation. We would routinely piss away hundreds of thousands of dollars just filling the C-5 up with gas, so I couldn't begrudge the guy the few hundreds of dollars in per diem he might make playing golf. The general and the colonel, both very Busy and Important people with Important things to do, caught the next flight home and so it was just me and Phil left with our broken airplane. Our enlisted engineers and load masters were also happy to hang.

Stranded in Paradise

As was I. We managed to get assigned quarters off base which meant the Outrigger Reef on Waikiki beach. If you ever go, be sure not to miss the wet T-shirt contest held Sunday afternoons but also be aware that the pros always show up to win the pot. It's rigged.

So there we are, hanging in Waikiki, babysitting a broken jet with nothing to do. Phil hit the golf course and was not to be seen again. I, surveying the desolation of Hawaii in summer, spent a little time on the beach, a little time shopping, saw a movie and then spied a bike rental store. What a great idea. Rent a bike and tour the island.

They had a great selection which made it difficult to choose, but I soon picked out a cherry little Fatboy, put on a helmet and I was off. Oahu on a Harley. It was awesome. I rode the entire circumference of the island to include the not so pretty parts on the leeward side of the island where the workers live.

After a few days of entertaining myself, I began thinking about how I was going to get home. I knew that the jet wouldn't be fixed anytime soon. The particular defect that Phil had written up was the fuel gauge. This meant that a fuel cell team would be needed. None were at Hickam, so they'd have to be flown out from Travis. That took time.

Once the fuel cell team arrived, they'd have to drain the tank (and they are big), repair the fuel sending unit while wearing oxygen because of fumes, re-seal the unit, and then wait several days while the sealant cured. All guaranteed to take a week or more. We'd been in Hawaii for two or three days and I knew all this and assumed that Phil knew it too. I also had to get home to go to work. Real work. My job at the airline.

Really Stranded in Paradise

Being a reservist airline pilot means going to work at the base on days off from the airline. A traditional reservist might just work one weekend a month but when you are in a flying squadron, all the requirements that a full time active duty pilot has to maintain are also fulfilled by reserve pilots. This generally means about 8 to 15 days a month depending on the type aircraft flown. Most of this time can be fit into days off but on occasion, such as a 7 day Australia trip, airline flying has to be given up.

Public law mandates that civilian employers have to give reservists time off for military duty but of course don't have to pay them. I had dropped one airline trip to go on this Australia trip and while I do get paid by the military, it is less than airline pay so it does cost money. This is fine as flying the C-5 was a reward in and of itself and for a nominally good cause.

So I had already lost about 25% of my monthly pay and if I stayed any further in Hawaii, dropping another trip would be another quarter of my paycheck gone or half for the month. Look, I'm as patriotic as the next guy but contributing half my check to subsidize Phil's golf vacation was pushing my limit. So not being able to reach Phil (I had no cell phone in 1998) I simply left a message on his hotel phone and headed for Hickam to catch a ride home on another passing airplane.

Once at Hickam base operations, I located the crew of the jet I was jumping on, introduced myself to the aircraft commander and prepared to get home. Then an urgent message was relayed to me from the command post. Under no circumstances was Major Graves to get on any airplane leaving Hawaii. It was from Phil who would soon earn his moniker the "thrill". 

Frank Punts

Phil was annoyed that I had attempted to leave without contacting him. I refrained from reminding him that had he not broken the jet to play golf in Hawaii that we'd be home and besides, I did attempt to contact him. Nonetheless, I was not to leave until the jet was fixed which I knew would be a week or more. Arguing was futile so I got a room on base and called my commander, Frank, the wunderkind mentioned above.

Frank's a good guy but he's also a company guy. And by company guy, I mean in the tank for the Reserves. That's fine, but as a well known biblical figure once said, you cannot serve two masters. My thinking is that my livelihood and paycheck come from the airline. Being in the Air Force Reserve is a part time gig knowing that if called, it becomes a full time gig. That's the deal. I tried not to confuse the two, taking the time off when necessary, but also careful not to bite the hand that paid my mortgage.

I've never understood the sycophants, yes-men, empire builders, fast-burners, and climbers who resign from the active duty, join the Reserves, and then treat their Reserve job as their primary career while forcing their civilian employer under force of law to keep them around while they take massive amounts of time off. It doesn't make sense. Why didn't such people just stay on active duty?

So I call Frank and he tells me that if he lets me come home, he'll lose credibility with the enlisted when they want to come home but are needed. Never mind that they were all happily ensconced on the beach getting paid more than their civilian jobs. Well, other enlisted then. I said it'd be our little secret. No joy. I mentioned that I had to be at work Monday (this was Friday) but to no avail. He then made me a deal to let me come home Monday if the jet wasn't fixed. I knew it wouldn't be but decided to cut my losses, called the airline and gave up another quarter of my pay. For God and Country. Tool.

Fred Finally Makes It Home

All the following week, I called the command post at Travis to inquire whether our jet had made it home. It didn't get home until the following week. A gin-soaked Phil was probably camped at the 9th hole for most of that week but I sincerely hope he improved his handicap.

As for me, I was pretty hot about it all but decided that I wasn't going to let Phil nor Frank determine the trajectory of my Reserve career. I retired from the Reserves in 2002 after 21 years in the Air Force, Frank as I mentioned went on to impress his bosses in Iraq and get a couple of stars for his effort, while for all I know Phil can still be found driving his powder blue F-150 to the Moose lodge for the Saturday night pasta special.



Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Homeward Bound

The New Pilot Rest Regulations Are Making Me Tired

One thing that can be counted on as surely as death and taxes is the unintended consequences of good intentions. I firmly believe in the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, and an excellent example of this is now on glorious display in the new FAA rest rules for pilots.

As I've mentioned in posts here and here, the decades old rules for determining the rest and duty requirements for airline pilots were recently updated. For years on the most wanted list for aviation safety improvements, the new Part 117 rules, as they're known (named for their subsection in the Code of Federal Regulations), replaced a much simpler set of rules known as the "30 in 7" rule. I say much simpler because 30 in 7 meant just that: 30 flight hours in 7 calendar days. It also included two other easily remembered rules, 100 hours in a month and 1000 hours in a year. Easy to remember, easy to apply.

The new rules as befitting any product of bureaucratic sausage making multiple stakeholder input, now involve complicated charts and tables instead of easy to remember time limits. Also included are rolling windows of 168 hours and 672 hours needed to calculate both flight hour limits and "FDP" or flight duty period limits. This as opposed to just using a week or month as in the old rules. The charts and tables reference your report time translated from where you actually are into your home or "domicile" time, your projected and past duty time, your projected and past flight time and your projected number of flight segments. In short, it's a minefield.

Calculating whether or not you are legally tired per the new rules is guaranteed to put you to sleep as you need to fill out a complicated spreadsheet to figure it all out. This is of course impossible to do as you're pre-flighting your aircraft and checking the weather. The company, realizing this, has installed a convenient software tool you can use right after you wrestle the gate agent away from their computer used to scan boarding passes. Good luck.

The other big change in the rules is that if your schedule was legal when you started your day, you were legal to finish your day regardless of delays (up to a point). The new rules don't allow for such rare occurrences as airport delays, and should a pilot be projected to exceed a time limit due to a departure delay,  he must taxi back to the gate and shut down regardless of how actually tired he may feel.

Remember that any time a pilot really feels fatigued for any reason, all airlines have a no fault fatigue policy whereby the pilot gets replaced and pay protected.

But the last and best unintended consequence of the new rules is that because they give the airline less flexibility to cover the schedule, more pilots have had to have been hired and the schedules that are being written work longer days than I've seen in 24 years. One compromise made in crafting the new rules was to allow an increase in flight time from 8 to 9 hours.

I had one of those days yesterday. Starting out in LAX, we were to fly to Atlanta,  New Orleans and then Chicago. The day was planned for 8:35 of flight time to be done in a duty day of 10:50. When we got to Atlanta, the airport was briefly closed due to a storm which required holding and several runway changes before landing.

Like a freeway jam that persists after an accident is cleared, we were delayed getting airborne again as we waited in the conga line for takeoff for about 45 minutes. These two delays put us within striking distance of our 9 hour flight time limitation.

Upon powering up my cell phone in New Orleans, I got a message from scheduling requesting a call to discuss our time limits. We had flown 6:50 up to that point which left 2:10 hrs left while our flight to Chicago was planned at 2:05. This left us with only 5 minutes of slop before we'd be mandated to strand 143 passengers in New Orleans because the government said we were tired. We both felt fine.

So we blast off and immediately get a reroute due to thunderstorms along the Mississippi valley. No big problem as it only added about 5 minutes additional flying time. I was properly incentivized to be on time as my commute flight home left only an hour after our scheduled arrival and we were late.

In another small favor from the aviation gods, the airport was turned around to allow for a straight-in approach shaving a few precious minutes. Then as per usual when running for a commute flight, our gate was occupied.

This is the cosmic pimp. You might run on time for the whole trip but have to hold out for a gate when it's your own commute home. It's even better if you have to hold out for your own commuter flight, especially if it's the last one of the night.

Then a miracle happened.

We were assigned another nearby open gate. This almost never happens. Moving hundreds of people to a new gate to board usually results in mass chaos and so is rarely done. But I didn't ask twice and drove the beast to the new parking spot having to wait for surprised ramp workers not expecting a jet to appear.

Were phone calls made by our dispatch? There's no way to know but it's certainly plausible.

Then after shutdown, it took several minutes to get an agent to bring the jetway up. In the meantime, the door is still closed meaning our automatic time reporting system is still logging time.

Finally the door gets popped, the ACARS system logs us "in" and what does our accumulated block time read? 2:10 which made our total time for the day right at 9:00. It was the longest amount of flight time I've ever logged in one day in commercial aviation. Another minute would have meant a report to the FAA.

So all's well but you, dear reader, are probably wondering if pilots are now less tired as a result of the new rules. I wouldn't bet on it. During certain irregular operations the 10 hour minimum rest rule (an increase over the previous 8) will help but overall I didn't see a problem that needed fixing.

One change that is for certain is that your flight is now more likely to be cancelled during delays due to your pilot becoming illegal under the new rules regardless of his desire to fly you.

As for me, I never sleep well in hotel rooms so little has changed.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Pilot's Perspective

The other day the wife and I decided we'd like to host a 4th of July party in our back yard. We have a nice yard and pool and thought many of the neighbors, especially those without pools would like to come by for some cool malted beverage and smoked beast.

I made up some invites and sent them out to folks on our block via email. Nearly all came back with regrets. Everyone was going to be at the beach, an 8 hour drive from here. It seems the thing to do in Tennessee on July 4th is to get out of Tennessee. I guess this is understandable considering how hot it gets but here's where I part company with my "civilian" neighbors.

I honestly think I'd rather have my teeth drilled than to go somewhere like the beach on a holiday weekend. Trying to get on an airplane on such a weekend just gives me the tin foil on your fillings willies. Thank God for people who want to do it, but I'll pass on the crowds, TSA cavity searches, middle seats, lines, and over priced everything.

If going anywhere these days, I'd much prefer a road trip but 16 hours of road for a weekend trip is pushing my diminishing returns limits.

Look, travel is fun, but weekend travel when the rest of the world is trying to do the same thing seems to be defeating the whole point.

This is the perspective of someone who travels for a living. No thanks.