Friday, January 23, 2015

The First Clues from AirAsia 8501 are Emerging

Now that both the digital flight data recorder (DFDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) from AirAsia 8501 have been recovered from the Java Sea, a picture of the fate of the aircraft is starting to emerge. 

The Airbus A320 with 162 passengers and crew was enroute from Indonesia to Singapore when it went missing in an area of heavy thunderstorms over the Java Sea. Just prior to the disappearance of the aircraft, a request was made for a climb which was denied by air traffic control.

Two pieces of information which have been obtained from the recorders are that the aircraft climbed at a rapid rate and that multiple alarms were sounding in the cockpit including a stall warning. At this point it is still too early to speculate exactly what happened to the aircraft but some pieces of the puzzle are available.

Data from the DFDR indicate that the aircraft at some point was climbing at a rate of 6000 feet per minute (FPM) which is considered excessive. This is generally true, especially for a fully loaded aircraft at altitude. A modern transport aircraft actually can achieve such a climb rate under normal circumstances when it is lightweight and closer to the ground, but certainly couldn't sustain such a climb rate without quickly bleeding off airspeed.

The question yet to be answered is whether the climb was initiated by the pilot as an emergency measure to avoid a looming storm cell, or rather caused by the aircraft inadvertently entering a storm and being buffeted by the strong updrafts in the cell. Or perhaps it was a combination of both storm action and pilot input.

A rapid climb for whatever reason appears to have caused the loss of airspeed to a point below the stall speed for the aircraft, which would explain the stall warning being heard on the CVR.

Investigators will need to correlate the position of the aircraft at that time with radar and satellite imagery to determine if the aircraft was actually in a storm cell. Acceleration data from the DFDR will also help determine if the aircraft was experiencing high G forces or severe turbulence which would indicate whether it had entered a storm cell. I don't know if the DFDR on the A320 records imagery from the aircraft's airborne radar, but if it does it will be helpful.

Climb or Turn?

If the rapid climb was initiated by the pilot, another question that needs to be asked is why did he choose to climb as opposed to turning to avoid the storm? 

A common misconception among the public concerning storms is that aircraft can simply climb over them. There is some truth to this. As with most things in aviation, the answer to this question is it depends. Storms come in many shapes and sizes and smaller ones can be topped. The biggest ones however can easily exceed 40,000 ft and should be deviated around and not over.

Even should a storm not exceed the altitude capability of an airliner, (about 41,000 ft for most) it's not a good idea to try to top the larger ones as turbulence can exist well above the actual storm cell. Larger storms with strong updrafts can even eject hail out of the top which can then travel for many miles. Hail will ruin your day.

Presumably, the captain of 8501 knew all this. One possible scenario might have been if they had been searching for a hole in the storms to fly through which then closed in front of them, or they flew into a radar shadow and were confronted with an unseen storm. In this case choices are limited.

The turn radius of an airliner at altitude can be five miles or more depending on speed. If the crew needed to immediately avoid a storm cell but were too close, climbing is the only option. You may not top the storm but it might be less turbulent higher up. Ideally, this is a situation to be avoided by early planning for storm avoidance.

What is a Stall Anyway?

I'm going a bit down the rabbit hole here but please bear with me.

Airplanes can fly through the application of fluid dynamic principles first discovered by Daniel Bernoulli and enshrined in his Bernoulli Principle:

\tfrac12 \rho u^2 + P = \text{constant}  

For the math-phobic, this equation means that as the velocity of a fluid increases, its pressure decreases. As applied to an airplane wing, the air (a fluid) travelling over the top of the wing must travel faster than the air travelling beneath. The faster moving air above the wing then has a lower pressure than the slower moving air beneath and hence lift is generated.

There is one caveat to this process and it's a biggie. Lift is only generated when the airflow over the top of the wing remains laminar meaning smooth. Should the airflow become turbulent, the relationship no longer exists and lift is destroyed. This is known as boundary layer separation and is the technical definition of a stall.

A stall will happen when the airflow over the wing is too slow to generate enough lift to support the weight of the aircraft. When this happens the boundary layer separates, the laminar flow is disrupted by turbulent flow, lift is destroyed and the airplane drops like a stone.

You may have noticed tiny fins and tabs attached to the top of the wing on an airliner. They are there to facilitate laminar flow. Look for them next time.

This means that all airplanes have a minimum speed below which they cannot fly and stay airborne. And as you might suspect this airspeed, called stall speed or Vs, is dependent on aircraft weight. (It is also dependent on many other things such as the width and length of the wing and even the smoothness of the paint, which is why we deice for even a coating of frost.)

It sounds scary but it really isn't. Stalls need not be feared but they should be respected. Once in a stall, every pilot should know how to get out of it. The first step is recognition. A stall may feel very similar to turbulence but a glance at the airspeed indicator will be an immediate tell.

The next step is to simply reestablish laminar airflow over the wing by lowering the nose and trading some altitude for some airspeed while helping with added thrust. Low altitude stalls are the most dangerous as there may be no altitude to trade with. Empty bank account as it were. In this case airspeed must be regained through thrust alone. (In thrust we trust!)

All airline pilots routinely practice stall recovery in the simulator and as an instructor pilot I personally stalled or had my students stall and recover a real airplane on a daily basis for years. It's a basic aviation skill.

Making the Tradeoff

So getting back to AirAsia, why would the pilot climb at such a high rate of vertical speed knowing that there was a possibility of stalling the aircraft? He was possibly trading his available energy for altitude in hopes of avoiding a storm cell.

A major component of flying airplanes is what is known as energy management. This means being aware of and managing the aircraft's mix of potential and kinetic energy. Anyone who has ever ridden a roller coaster or perhaps played with Hotwheels cars and track will understand.

As a roller coaster tops the first big hill, kinetic energy is low (in speed) yet the potential energy stored (in height above the ground) is high. This situation is reversed at the bottom of the hill with high speed thrills and then reversed again at the top of the next hill.

Trading speed for altitude can also be done in an aircraft. Only unlike a roller coaster, an airplane has to maintain a speed above stall speed to stay airborne. The energy available to trade is expressed in the difference between current airspeed and stall speed.

This type of energy tradeoff is also done routinely in airline operations. Say for instance we're cruising along at 280 kts and are given instructions to climb. Air traffic control may also ask for an expedited climb for converging traffic or some similar reason. 

Advancing the engines to climb thrust and climbing at 280 kts is the normal climb profile, but by also pulling the nose up somewhat more and letting the speed bleed off to say 250 kts, the airplane will climb quite smartly, trading the energy in that extra 30 knots of airspeed for a higher vertical velocity. Then once level, you accelerate back to your original 280 kts in level flight.

Be Careful When Slow

If an assumption is made that the captain climbed rapidly by trading his airspeed for altitude but then unsuccessfully avoided a storm cell, the situation might be potentially worse than entering the storm with lots of airspeed. Once available airspeed is traded for altitude, the aircraft is closer to stalling and the gusts found inside a storm can easily cause the airspeed to fall below stall speed.

Once stalled, control of the aircraft can also be compromised by gusts preventing a successful stall recovery. In the case of Air France 447, the pilots never recognized that they were in a stalled condition and never applied the correct recovery procedures.

What happened in the AirAsia cockpit is as yet unknown or unrevealed, and the situation may well have been unrecoverable by any method. Concern for the families of the deceased and other political considerations may impact the timing and method of the release of more information.

Hopefully further analysis of the DFDR and CVR will eventually reveal the actual events surrounding the fate of QZ8501.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thunderstorms in Action

Here's a cool little video showing Atlanta Intl arrival radar tracks with some thunderstorms passing through the area.

Notice how the aircraft at first deviate around the storms followed by going into holding for a while.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Pilot Shortage: Solved!

Automation may just mean less competition on the layover!

I jest with the title of this post, but only slightly. Automation is here, and in the future, jobs will be either heavily involved with automation or simply replaced by it.

This trend will present some new social problems concerning what to do with all the displaced workers as explained in this video. It's also the reason that efforts to increase the minimum wage will simultaneously succeed and fail at the same time: Those workers who remain will make more. The rest will make nothing.

The piloting profession is ripe for change due to automation. The pilot shortage is real and projected growth rates for the world's airlines far outstrip the projected numbers of pilots being produced. The replacement of pilots with automation is a long term goal of many stakeholders in commercial aviation.

This won't happen today or tomorrow, but it will happen eventually. Boeing's technology cycle runs about 15 to 20 years. The first generation of aircraft automation was introduced in the late 1970s followed by the 777 and 737NG technology introduced in the late 90s. The latest technology cycle for aircraft automation is the newly released 787 to be closely followed by the 737 Max aircraft.

Both of these new technology aircraft still need at least two pilots to be flown so we won't see single pilot airliners until at least the next technology cycle in perhaps 15 years from now at a minimum, but probably many more years than that.

But they're working on it.

In an article in C4ISR, a company called Aurora Flight Sciences has been contracted by DARPA to investigate the feasibility of an automated copilot:

C4ISR&Networks, January 12, 2015 
Aurora Flight Sciences has been awarded a $6 million DARPA contract to develop cockpit automation. 
The contract, for Phase I of DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) program, calls for Aurora to develop "an automated assistant capable of operating an aircraft from takeoff to landing, automatically executing the necessary flight and mission activities, checklists and procedures at the correct phases of flight while detecting and responding to contingencies," said a company news release. "At the same time, the human pilot would be continuously informed through an intuitive interface of which actions the automation is executing, and take back control if so desired." 
Aurora is collaborating with the National Robotics Engineering Center and Duke Engineering Research Institute. "The ability to reassign cockpit roles, allowing humans to perform tasks best suited to humans and automation to perform tasks best suited to automation, represents a potential paradigm shift compared to how flight operations are currently conducted," said Jessica Duda, Aurora's ALIAS program manager. "One of our key challenges is to develop a system that creates trust between the pilot and the automated assistant."

I am actually gratified to read in this article a recognition that future automation should find things for humans to do that they actually can do.

Today's deployment of automation is the worst of all possible worlds as bored pilots are expected to sit on their hands and watch the machine fly the airplane but be ready to jump in and save the day should the machine screw up.

This model is not working. Rusty, bored and distracted pilots are uniquely unqualified to monitor the performance of machines which nearly never screw up but when they do, do so in a big way.

Using the currently flawed model, we should expect to see more accidents such as the Air France crash into the Atlantic by confused pilots and crashes like the Asiana accident in San Francisco made by pilots who weren't competent to fly a simple approach in clear weather, but rather relied heavily on the automation to stay safe.

Automation is here to stay, and overall, that's a good thing. Like any new technology, it needs to be carefully deployed for the maximum benefit and should enhance human capabilities rather than replace them as the current technology attempts to do (poorly).

Sunday, January 11, 2015


One of the black boxes from Air Asia 8501 has been found. It should be a just a short while until the other recorder is found which will give a complete picture of the fate of the aircraft should they yield good information.

My speculation is that the aircraft wandered into a thunderstorm which then either compromised the structure of the aircraft, or placed the aircraft in a position from which the pilots could not recover before hitting the water. A stall scenario similar to the Air France crash over the Atlantic may have occurred.

It should only be a short while until more is known.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Sometimes Chicken, Sometimes Feathers

As I've mentioned before, I am what is known in airline parlance as a commuter. This doesn't mean that I drive to work, it means that I live in a different city than where I work. It also means that getting to and from work involves a plane ride. I guess it's a little like having to take public transportation because that's actually what it is. It's the waiting at a bus stop for a bus that doesn't come that can be a drag.

The Thousand Yard Stare

Being a commuter and subjecting yourself to the vicissitudes of commercial aviation on a weekly basis necessitates that a certain zen-like attitude be maintained. Any business person who travels on a frequent basis knows exactly what I mean. From parking at the airport to the TSA and surly gate agents who seem to relish keeping you off the plane, it's a miracle that anyone flies at all.

God bless those that do, though, because they're the source of my livelihood.

And I've probably got it a little easier in some respects than the paying customer even if I'm not assured a seat at all. Nearly a decade after 9/11, the TSA finally recognized that crew members aren't really the enemy and have instituted a trusted traveller program for airline crews. This makes security screening a little easier to take.

And in some cases I get to pre board the aircraft if I will be riding in the cockpit. Otherwise I have to board at the end of the line. Even then, knowing that most passengers always head to the back to find the by now non-existent aisle seat, I take the first middle seat I can find which is usually near the front.

But overall, the entire process is somewhat dehumanizing and tedious. The term "thousand yard stare", used by shell shocked soldiers applies when commuting. It's a defense mechanism used to shield your psyche from the inevitable realization that while you got off of work at 3pm, you may not get home until 9pm or perhaps not at all.

No, You Can't Go Home

This was my experience last week.

Finishing a three day trip with a scheduled arrival at my domicile of 1610, I knew making my commute flight home which was scheduled for 1600 was a long shot, but Chicago almost always comes through for me in delaying flights so I thought I had a fighting chance.

We were coming in from the west with a significant tail wind and I wasn't being stingy with the throttles either hoping to arrive ahead of schedule to increase my odds. My F/O was taking a later flight home and agreed to babysit the jet so I could punch out and run for my flight.

Even air traffic control seemed to be on board asking us to "maintain maximum forward" for traffic. Gladly, we said.

Then the plan changed. We were told to slow to 250 and to turn 20 degrees to the right. This is the equivalent of slowing to 55 and then to get off the freeway onto a surface street. Not helping. And this was done several hundred miles out.

Apparently we were to be sequenced behind a Citation. The Cessna Citation, affectionately known as the "Slow-tation" is the slowest business jet in the air. The joke goes that it has bird protection screens installed...on the exhaust to keep birds from flying into the back of the engine. The new Citations are much faster but too many of the old ones still clog up the skies.

This Flight Has Been Cancelled

Eventually arriving, I noticed several jets waiting for takeoff and correctly guessed that one of them was the one I was trying to catch. Oh well. I'll just hang out in the pilot lounge, maybe do some online training and get some dinner before catching the next one at 1850. 

As I listed for the flight, the computer screen said the flight was unavailable. It had been cancelled. OK, I guess I'll get the rest of my training done, get some dinner and catch the 2000 jet to be home by perhaps 2200. Getting home at 10pm after a 4am wakeup is not ideal, but at least I'll be home.

No such luck. As I was clicking through the online training screens on the lounge computer, my phone beeped again. A text message from the airline mentioned a cancelled flight. I thought it must be a repeat message but no, the last flight home was cancelled. Great. Another night in the crashpad.

Well, I was thinking that if I have to do the time, I might as well do the crime and go fly. And sure enough, due to all the cancellations there was some open flying for the next morning. One trip in particular had a late morning show and flew one leg to San Antonio and then deadheaded home. 

I'd fly that leg, get released from the deadhead and be on a plane home in a few hours after that. I'd get home only a few hours later the next day with a decent paycheck to show for the effort. Seniority has its privileges and I got the assignment.

The temperature dipped that night to negative five degrees which probably had something to do with all the cancellations but it made for a chilly hike to the crash pad. On the bright side, when the weather is really awful, I don't worry so much about meeting one of the more vibrant denizens of South Chicago looking for forced charity, so there's that.

More Sand in the Gears

The flight to Texas was uneventful and I was released from having to deadhead back to Chicago, which by then was in a snowstorm, so all was looking good. Then an announcement was made that the flight attendants working the flight were delayed a half hour. No prob. Time for a salad.

We boarded, taxied, and then sat. The anti-skid braking system had a problem which meant a gate return. It also meant that that airplane wouldn't be flying anytime soon. That system almost never breaks but when it does, it isn't a quick fix. My concern now was whether this flight would be cancelled.

Luckily it wasn't cancelled but we did have to wait two more hours for another flight to arrive from Phoenix. Only then would I be allowed to go home. Finally airborne, I arrived home at about 10pm, a day after getting off work.

While I don't necessarily believe in karma, considering that the day before Christmas eve I made my commute flight after an international arrival with 15 minutes on the ground I figured that I was due for a little trouble getting home. The universe is in balance once again.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Debris Found from AirAsia 8501

Floating debris has been found near the site of where the aircraft was last seen on radar. The water has been reported as a relatively shallow 10-30 meters which should aid in the recovery of the flight recorders.

Recovery of the flight data recorder should give a comprehensive picture of what happened to the aircraft and whether the problem was weather related. Reports also describe the debris field as relatively tight possibly indicating the aircraft was intact on impact as opposed to an inflight breakup.

Monday, December 29, 2014

AirAsia 8501

AirAsia 8501, an Airbus A320 aircraft with 162 souls on board disappeared Sunday morning over the Java Sea while enroute from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore in heavy weather. As of yet there has been no wreckage found nor any signals from the aircraft's emergency locator beacon. The last transmission from the aircraft was a request for a left course deviation and a climb from 32,000 feet to 38,000 feet with weather avoidance given as the reason.

The climb request was denied by air traffic control due to traffic conflicts. There were heavy thunderstorms in the area which are normally associated with the tropical weather in the region. Radar contact was lost with the aircraft several minutes after the denied request.

While it is too early and not enough is known about the fate of the aircraft, a few clarifications about flight near thunderstorms may be helpful.

Don't Mess with Mother Nature

Thunderstorms are dangerous things and can grow to heights above which all commercial planes are unable to climb. Flight through a thunderstorm is also extremely hazardous as the gusts, rain, and turbulence inside can easily bring down any aircraft flying today, including fighters. You simply do not penetrate a thunderstorm.

It may then seem unconscionable that air traffic control (ATC) denied the climb request. What must be remembered though is that the function of air traffic control is not weather avoidance but rather traffic separation. Weather avoidance is the primary duty of the pilot. Most ATC radars are not even equipped to show weather data.

Should a situation arise where a turn away from a large cell needs to be made immediately and ATC denies the request, pilots always retain what is called emergency authority to keep their aircraft free of hazards. In such a case, turning the aircraft away from a storm is always the safest course and should be done while advising ATC of your actions.

The best course of action is to plan your weather avoidance actions as early as possible. Airborne radar has a useable range out to several hundred miles to search for holes in the weather. Should there be no apparent safe passage through the weather, a turnback or diversion to another airport is always possible. As I said earlier, you don't fool around with thunderstorms.

Springtime and summer are the worst seasons for thunderstorms in North America and at times I've seen solid lines of storms stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes. Flying around these storms can take you hundreds of miles off course, even into Mexico or Canada to avoid them.

Stay Out of the Shadows

One of the shortfalls of airborne radar is that it can't see "through" especially thick storms to let you know what is on the other side. The danger is flying towards what you believe is a "hole" in a line of weather only to find a larger cell behind the first one that wasn't apparent. The area behind a thick cell might look clear but isn't. For this reason, pilots are warned to never fly into or towards a radar "shadow" or area behind a strong return.

Modern digital radars now display warning icons on the screen when a shadow is apparent but in the recent past the antenna had to be pointed at the ground to discern shadows. If there were no "ground returns" or reflections from the ground behind the cell, you knew it was a shadow.

Life Inside a Storm

Ok, so what happens if you really screw up and end up inside a thunderstorm? Nothing good. For starters, the ride is going to be really rough. The severe turbulence found inside a thunderstorm means that everything that is not locked, bolted or strapped down is going to fly. This includes carts, lap children and most likely all the luggage in the overhead bins as the doors will pop open. So there will be injuries and chaos.

The structure of the aircraft may also be in peril. A simple rudder reversal on an Airbus taking off from JFK back in 2001 caused the whole vertical stabilizer (tail) to break off. Forces inside a thunderstorm will be stronger and may cause engines to depart the wing and wings to depart the aircraft. Never good.

But let's assume the engines and wings stay on the aircraft. The next danger is the huge amount of rain that the engines will swallow. Jet engines have a fire burning in the hot section and if enough water gets poured into the engine, the fire will be put out. We call this a flameout. And like trying to restart a campfire in the rain, it won't easily relight.

So now you're a glider in severe turbulence looking for a place to land in heavy rain and wind with limited instruments. This situation is generally one pilots wish to avoid so we are well incentivized to stay out of thunderstorms.

So What Happened?

Getting back to the fate of AirAsia 8501, the Java Sea where the aircraft was last seen on radar is nowhere as large an area as the Indian Ocean where the Malaysian 777 disappeared. Also, the aircraft was in radar contact which really narrows the potential search area.

So while weather may have played a part in the disappearance, it is just too early to know.

As it happens, I've flown on AirAsia. I put my family on an AirAsia flight from Bangkok to Phuket on a vacation a few years back. I found the airline to be modern, professional and a delightful experience.

While our prayers go out to the families who have loved ones on the aircraft, we hope to know more in the near future.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Bad Day at Work

As I mentioned in a recent post, an old pilot saying cautions that it's better to die than to look bad. What you see here comes under the heading of looking bad. Hit another airplane while taxiing and you are probably set up for one of the worst days of your professional career. And most of the pain will be self inflicted.

Of course there will be pain inflicted by your chief pilot, your crew and passengers and probably also the FAA, but you will be the one leading the charge to your own auto-da-fé. For in the piloting world, there is simply no excuse for taxiing your airplane into another solid object. And you know this.

I still recall a flight instructor from my distant past making the point that there is really no such thing as a taxi accident. There are only "taxi-on-purposes" for while you are on the ground, you really only have one job: don't hit anything. And stay on the pavement. Okay, two.

And there are lots of things out there that are going to try to get in your way. There are baggage carts, tugs, provisioning trucks, jetways, and of course other airplanes. Most tug drivers are reincarnated kamikaze pilots as they will gladly cut in front of a taxiing airliner with hardly a glance.

Some things such as light poles aren't even trying to get in your way but occasionally make you aware of their presence. One was recently clipped off in Denver, but one of the more memorable events I recall was an encounter between a C-5 military transport and a misplaced light pole on a new taxiway in Oklahoma.

Yes you read that correctly. The contractor who painted the lines on the taxiway was different than the contractor who installed the lighting, and neglected to measure the distance between the centerline of the taxiway and the pole. The first poor schmuck to taxi into the area, while solidly on centerline where he was supposed to be, hit the pole. The pilot of course was blamed and summarily shot.

I myself recently had a close encounter while parking a jet. As you pull up to the parking spot, you will see the jetway pass by your left field of view but you must watch and obey the marshaller, the guy with the wands. This particular time, I noticed the jetway go past but he kept motioning me forward. It turns out he was parking me on a painted spot designated for a larger airplane. Had I kept going forward, my left engine would have contacted the jetway. Luckily I stopped before we bent any metal. Trust no one.

Another good one was when an AWACS aircraft, a Boeing 707, was found to have some damage on its wingtip upon return from an overseas deployment. A worldwide search finally found some matching damage on a hangar at Yokota AB outside Tokyo.

A buddy of mine back in the 312th Airlift Squadron had an even closer encounter while taxiing his C-5 out of parking on Okinawa. In what might be described as either extraordinarily good or bad luck, his wingtip just barely grazed the nose of another parked C-5 resulting in only a paint transfer. That was some fancy driving. He was let off lightly with only the loss of one or two fingers as punishment.

It's Not That Hard

You may now be thinking that pilots are either extremely careless or that taxiing is harder than it looks. While neither of these is particularly true, taxiing is one of those human endeavors which while deceptively easy, can brook no error. None.

Think of it like parallel parking where there can be absolutely no contact between your car and other cars nor can your tires hit the curb. There will be a point where you think you're probably ok but not really sure so you back another inch and feel the slight lurch as your bumper hits the car behind. You could've gotten out of the car to walk back and look but you didn't.

That is the temptation when your wing looks really close to something but you can't really tell. The problem is there are no bumpers or curb feelers on airplanes. Any contact means probably tens of thousands of dollars of repairs, cancelled flights and headaches.

Unless your wing is obviously clear of other objects, it isn't. Humans are just bad judges of distance between two far objects. And while other pilots may wish to take chances while passing, you'll want to protect yourself from the careless. I learned this lesson on one of my very first trips as a captain.

A Close Encounter

Way back in the mists of time, a very young and green captain operating one of his first left seat trips from San Francisco to Phoenix happened to have an older and wisened pilot in his jumpseat. This fellow was an American but was flying for an overseas airline at the time. Upon landing in Phoenix, we were taxiing into our gate when there appeared a plane heading the opposite direction.

That plane had been given instructions to wait for us to turn into our gate and then to pass behind us to the outer taxiway. This guy however didn't want to wait and kept coming hoping to squeeze around us. It was at this point I heard my jumpseater say, "Captain, set your brake."

I did.

The other plane passed uneventfully, though how close was anyone's guess. My guest explained that had he hit us, there would be no question as to who had hit whom as the flight data recorder would show my parking brake as set. It's a lesson I've never forgotten.

Friday, December 19, 2014

This Job Can Kill You!

Elsewhere in the news this week I found an article in the Telegraph which breathlessly states that about an hour in a cockpit at altitude will expose a pilot to the equivalent UV radiation he would get from lying on a tanning bed for 20 minutes.

So here's to tanning. It didn't seem to hurt George Hamilton's career much and the ladies seem to like the look, so there's that.

Well there's always something that's going to kill you, isn't there? If it's not melanoma from sun exposure, it'll probably be some other exotic cancer which will be the result of increased radiation experienced in the upper reaches of the atmosphere where there's less protection. Or perhaps years of breathing the ozone prevalent in the stratosphere will take you out. I thought that stuff was going away, though.

I've always thought that my largest risks for extinction came from a combination of driving to the airport, walking to my crash pad in the hood, or most likely decades of eating airport and hotel food. I'm well into the heart attack years and several times a year I hear about some poor schmuck at the airline waking up dead from a bad ticker. One guy recently went out in his commuter hotel in the ghetto, poor bastard.

It's almost enough to make one want to drive over to the gym. Luckily, cooler heads usually prevail.

I operate on the theory that God only issues so many heartbeats, and only a fool would run through them more quickly than necessary. The joke goes that I want to go out like old Joe, peacefully asleep and not screaming in panic like his passengers.

If by now you've noticed a certain macabre insouciance in this essay, that's because it's intentionally there. It also was a great opportunity to use the word insouciance which doesn't happen every day. Who said the French never gave us anything but stinky cheese?

Better to Die than to Look Bad

The piloting profession can kill you and not just through the deleterious effects of the lifestyle. I've personally known perhaps four pilots who have died in airplane crashes over the years, both military and civilian. It's accepted as an occupational hazard.

It's also the source of much of the romance and lore that surrounds aviation. The enduring image of the intrepid aviator sporting oil spattered goggles, leather helmet and silk scarf (used to wipe the goggles) flying off in his Sopwith Camel to do battle with the Hun was more than just the inspiration for Snoopy comics. There was a very real and good chance that he wasn't coming back.

Pilots are proud and supposed to be unflappable under pressure. Displaying a lack of composure to other pilots in particular is always to be avoided. One old aphorism from the fighter world advises that it's better to die than to sound bad on the radio.

And it's not that pilot's don't get scared. They do. Letting it take control though is the most unforgivable of sins. Viet Nam F-4 pilots would start their day with the routine of "Get up, throw up, go up" and they weren't throwing up because the food was bad.

The cocky bravado found just under the surface of all pilots is part defense mechanism but also part of a necessary self confidence. For when the poop really hits the prop, which still happens with routine regularity, no one is going to save your little pink backside except you. You're on your own.

Airplane catch on fire? Get it down now or die. Lose pressurization? You've got six seconds to get the mask on or it's nap time. For everybody. Even one of the newest most magnificent super jumbo Airbus A380s nearly fell apart recently almost killing 440 passengers and 29 crew. Skillful piloting and good decisions saved the day.

I'm always amused when passengers getting off the airplane call up to the cockpit and shout "thanks for the safe flight" or something similar. As if they weren't on the airplane I'd have been much more careless. Here's a little secret: I fly with care primarily to keep myself safely away from the deadly embrace of terra firma, at least until it's time to land. But also to stay out of the chief pilot's office.

We make jokes about the guys who "bought the farm". Even the bar at Randolph AFB where I went through pilot instructor training was named the "Augur Inn", a reference to crashing. Somewhere in the pilot psych, survivors subconsciously believe that they've lasted this long because they were doing it right, and the guys that didn't, weren't. This is sometimes silly because some crashes are completely out of the control of the pilots.

This bothers us. We don't like to believe that we are the subject of a random fate over which we have no control. Fate can cause bad things to happen, but through strength of will, expertise and yes, luck we hope to prevail. I'm borrowing a riff here from Ernest Gann's Fate is the Hunter, one of the best books ever written about flying. The thrill is in the hunt itself.

But in the end something is going to get you, and who wants to look at an untanned corpse at the viewing?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Would You Get on a Plane With No Pilots?

Or how about one with only one pilot? Sooner or later, you may not have the choice. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, (subscription required) it was revealed that NASA has commissioned a study to be conducted by Rockwell Collins to explore the feasibility of single pilot airliners:

Facing potential shortages of airline pilots and dramatic advances in automation, industry and government researchers have begun the most serious look yet at the idea of enabling jetliners to be flown by a single pilot. 
All large commercial jets for passenger and cargo service world-wide now fly with at least two pilots in the cockpit. A new study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Rockwell Collins Inc. will focus on the provocative idea that co-pilots could remain on the ground, remotely assisting solo aviators on the flight deck during the busiest parts of flights, said John Borghese, Rockwell’s vice president of its Advanced Technology Center.

Actually, it wouldn't be quite fair to call the remaining human being on a single place airliner a pilot at all, for his required skill set would almost certainly not include the "stick and rudder" skills of today's pilots. The remaining person would be a systems manager, overseeing the computers which would do the actual flying.

There are actually very good reasons why you would not want a very bored and very rusty pilot just sitting up in the cockpit waiting for something to go wrong so he could grab the controls to save the day.

For starters, humans are uniquely unqualified and unsuited to sit around to watch and monitor machines. Most humans have an attention span of perhaps 20 minutes before the mind starts to wander. This type of arrangement is quite nearly the reverse of the ideal human-machine interface.

If you'd like to try this out for yourself, simply sit in the laundry room and watch your clothes washer closely to make sure it doesn't skip a cycle. It's not likely to happen, but if it does and you miss it, you and all your passengers die. No falling asleep! (Washers are probably slightly more reliable than current aircraft automation, but the analogy holds.)

Secondly, piloting, or "stick and rudder" skills take years to acquire and need to be maintained with routine practice. Neither of these conditions will be available in the cockpits of the future. Heck, they are hardly even available today! We are currently coasting on a slowly draining reservoir of pilot skills attained in the years before automation became pervasive.

Children of the Magenta Line

Pilots entering the profession today get rudimentary training before graduating to their first commuter airline job which will be in a glass cockpit with automation. These "children of the magenta line" (a reference to the electronic magenta line on the course display) will never develop the piloting skills their forbears recognized as their stock and trade.

This concept of in-flight computer system operators was demonstrated succinctly last year by the crash in San Francisco of an Asiana 777 on a clear and calm day. The "pilots" aboard that aircraft had many thousands of hours of flight time safely operating jumbo aircraft across the ocean with many hundreds of passengers. Unfortunately, they didn't know how to actually "fly" the plane when they needed to and they'd been doing it that way for years.

The big mistake made by the managers at Asiana was of getting ahead of the current state of the art. The automation deployed on the current generation of commercial aircraft is good, but it was never designed to be all encompassing. That is, on occasion a pilot may actually still be needed to fly the airplane the way the Wright brothers did.

Crossing the Bridge Safely

Now please don't misunderstand me. I am no Luddite arguing against the eventual denouement of my profession. The piloting profession as it been constituted since Kitty Hawk is in decline and no amount of feather-bedding will change that. And this is most likely a good thing.

Commercial air travel is now safer than it has ever been and has levels of safety which are probably rivalled only by the elevator. Automation has played a large part in this. But like the elevator, the nature of commercial aviation is going to change and drastically so.

The question is not where the profession is headed, but rather how to safely get there. As automation becomes more robust, the need for piloting skills will diminish on a gradual level. The challenge will be how to bridge this ebbing of piloting skills with the gradual increase in the capabilities of automation until such time that pilots are not needed nor desired. 

The proposed study by Rockwell Collins is much less ambitious in its objectives seeking only to explore the feasibility of single pilot operations while a second pilot would be at the ready on the ground to assist if needed:

Under the concept the researchers are studying, aviators on the ground could be assigned to assist solo cockpit pilots on multiple flights, virtually co-piloting during the busiest times through crowded airspace, approach-and-landing maneuvers, or if something goes wrong. “It’s a reasonably new area” to study how the notion may apply to large jets, according to Parimal Kopardekar, the program’s manager based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in northern California. When pilots need a midair rest or bathroom break, those on the ground even may “need to baby-sit the vehicle,” he said. 
Such a dramatic shift won’t happen any time soon, and there is virtual consensus that reduced crews for passenger planes won’t be considered until they are introduced first in the cargo arena. That is unlikely to gain traction much before the end of the next decade, according to experts and airline officials. 
Jets today are designed to have two pilots behind the controls, and retrofitting existing aircraft “may be too expensive and may be too difficult” to obtain regulatory approval, according to NASA’s Mr. Kopardekar. Industry officials say all-new aircraft would be needed with cockpits designed from the start with a single pilot in mind.

It is an open secret that Fred Smith, FedEx founder and CEO has at the top of his bucket list the firing of at least half, if not all his pilots. And there is little doubt that the first single piloted commercial aircraft will be a freighter. Other than that, it is highly unlikely that there will be any single piloted commercial aircraft for at least the next few decades.

Boeing's latest generation technology, the 787 Dreamliner and the forthcoming 737 Max aircraft have all been designed for two pilots as have the latest offerings from Airbus. Given the average technology cycle of about 20 years between major upgrades, only the aircraft introduced to replace these new generation aircraft are likely to be designed for single pilot operations. So while the change may take a few decades, most experts view it as inevitable.

Also necessary for this change will be a wholesale cultural shift in public opinion towards automation. This shift is already underway. A century ago, it might have been unthinkable for any man on the street to consider getting on a train that didn't have an engineer. Now we routinely board completely automated trains taking us to our airline gates.

Likewise, luxury cars are already coming equipped with automatic lane-keeping alert and sudden stop warning systems. Google's driverless cars are already combing the countryside, recording all they see for Google maps. When cars which can parallel park themselves become ubiquitous, a skill many drivers never master, highly automated aircraft overseen by a systems engineer will not seem so far fetched.