Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Do Airlines Want from Trump (And Can He Deliver)?

President Trump meets airline executives asking for relief
Trump meets airline executives (AP photo)

As you've likely heard, the White House called a meeting last week with several airline CEOs to discuss policy initiatives. The meeting was attended by the CEOs of Delta, United, and Southwest, three of the four largest US airlines. Missing was American Airlines CEO Doug Parker who had a scheduling conflict. Also in attendance were the CEOs of Alaska and JetBlue airlines along with the president of Airlines for America, a trade group.

The airlines' requests to Trump were the usual requests for three things: a privatized air traffic control system, a lighter tax burden, and a lighter regulatory burden. It's a fairly unremarkable list with these three being perennials on the airline wish list. The question is what is the President in a position to offer and how likely is Congress to go along with these initiatives. Let's take a look at each one.

Air Traffic Control

The airlines have been after this policy initiative for quite some time. In their view, red tape and bureaucracy significantly slow the deployment of new technologies which would serve to raise the efficiency of the national airspace system (NAS). New technologies promised by programs such as NextGen have suffered cost overruns and deployment delays resulting in extra costs for airlines.

Airlines complain that they have purchased and deployed the technology needed for the upgrades to the NAS but foot dragging and cost overruns at the FAA mean the promise of these new technologies remains unfilled. Airlines estimate that inefficiencies, delays, and cancellations cost upwards of $30 billion annually.

As a user, I can vouch for this view. The airplanes that I fly have been equipped with Required Navigational Performance (RNP) approach capabilities for perhaps five years and yet RNP approaches, which promise more efficient airspace use are almost nonexistent. And for those airports which do have a RNP approaches installed, controllers are extremely reluctant to assign them, usually giving such clearances late at night or only assigning the final approach segment which confers no advantage over traditional approaches.

The same is true for a technology known as CPDLC, which is a data link directly to controllers. We use this equipment only for obtaining our preflight clearance, not for inflight use as designed. So the critique that the FAA is not holding up its side of the modernization bargain is indeed accurate.

Trump expressed sympathy with the CEOs about the snail's pace of modernization but the important question is whether Congress can deliver as air traffic control privatization can only be accomplished through legislation. Bud Shuster, the current chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is on board, stating in a recent opinion piece that the Aviation Innovation Reform and Reauthorization Act will be used as a vehicle for change.

The Senate, which passed an 18 month FAA funding reauthorization last April, is less enthusiastic about reform efforts. What remains to be seen now is whether the Senate will act on reform knowing that any bill which includes reform is likely to be signed by the President.


Airlines have long complained and with some justification, that they are overtaxed. Airlines have become something of a cash cow for the federal government with the federal tax rate on airlines being higher than that of so-called sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol. Sin taxes, of course, are designed to reduce the demand for those products.

Industry trade group Airlines for America states that the total tax burden on airlines has increased over 400% in the last two decades from $3.7 billion in 1990 to over $16 billion in 2016. Some of these taxes were imposed in the wake of 9/11 to pay for the increased security costs of operating the TSA.

Here again, the President has limited ability to unilaterally provide relief as most of the taxes on airlines are determined by Congress. One possible policy prescription might be to raise the passenger facility charge which pays for individual airport improvements, while concurrently reducing broad based airline taxes such as the passenger ticket tax and the segment tax. The latter taxes go to fund the Airport and Airway trust fund which airlines complain is fully funded and yet not used by Congress to pay for airport improvements.


Airlines complain that while the industry was officially deregulated decades ago, they are still highly regulated by unnecessary rules which negatively impact the ability of airlines to profitably grow and create jobs. The President does have some latitude in this realm to determine the pace and style of enforcement of regulation and did promise the airline chiefs that he was sympathetic to their cause and would work to provide regulatory relief.

Other issues which are on the minds of airline leadership but were not addressed in the meeting include the recently approved permission given to Norwegian Airlines to operate flights by their subsidiary known as NAI to the US from Europe. Industry and labor leaders have criticized the Obama administration for giving their approval to what they believe is an unfair application of the Open Skies Agreement. Their complaint stems from NAI's incorporation in Ireland which is they believe will be used to circumvent Norwegian labor laws.

In a recent White House briefing, however, Press Secretary Sean Spicer mentioned that foreign airlines like Norwegian will be providing US jobs by basing ground and flight crews in the US as well as through their purchase of Boeing aircraft. Thus, it seems unlikely at this point that Trump will reverse the Obama administration's approval of NAI's application to serve the US.

Also not discussed in the meeting was the complaint by some US airlines about the so-called Mid East Three (ME3) airlines and their alleged abuse of the Open Skies Agreement. The complaint against the ME3 concerns the alleged subsidies that these airlines receive from their respective governments which give the ME3 an unfair competitive advantage.

In Conclusion

While President Trump was sympathetic to the complaints brought to him by the airline chiefs, his range of options is limited without the help of legislation from Congress. ATC privatization is a highly polarizing topic and may be difficult to achieve without at least a few Democratic senators joining the effort which seems unlikely. Tax and regulatory reform may have better chances for passage with a sympathetic administration leading the charge.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Is It Time for Air Traffic Control to be Finally Fixed?

US Air Traffic Control badly needs modernization

Air Traffic Control to be fixed? Fixed how, you might ask. The answer is to be separated from the FAA. Notice that I did not use the word "privatize" in the title. There's a reason for that. For one, the word privatize has become a pejorative and hackles immediately go up whenever the word is used in relation to a government entity. Secondly, the word doesn't accurately describe the changes that should be implemented to make our Air Traffic Control (ATC) system more efficient, less costly, and yes, safer.

The idea of separating the FAA's air traffic control system into a separate entity comes up every few years and seems to get batted about by the usual suspects making the usual arguments and then put away until the next putative reformer brings the subject up again. That may indeed be the case with our new administration and Congress, but somehow I feel that this time may be different.

And make no mistake, there are some very entrenched interests who like things just the way they are. Much of this sentiment is simply fear that when a large change is made, certain constituencies will lose out at the expense of others. These are valid concerns and should be addressed to allay fears and reassure all parties that the result will be beneficial, or at least neutral in cost to all players. But so far, 87 countries worldwide have already separated their air traffic control services from government to include Canada, New Zealand and Australia, none of them particularly bastions of unfettered capitalism. It's time we did as well.

The Advantages

There is no natural order in the universe that states US Air Traffic Control services must be organized under the FAA. The idea that ATC services are too safety sensitive to not be under direct government control falls flat. After all, the airplanes which are themselves being controlled are built, flown, and maintained largely by private individuals or privately owned corporations.

We allow private corporations to build and operate nuclear power stations, railroads, harbors, power grids, and now even space programs. All these operations are still closely regulated by their respective government regulatory agencies as would any separate ATC entity, but many organizational and financial advantages would accrue to a private or government owned ATC corporation.

Placing ATC operations into a corporation separate from a federal agency will allow for a much needed agility in the modernization of our air traffic infrastructure. The FAA has been trying for decades to modernize its ATC services and has succeeded only in spending billions of taxpayer dollars with little to show. Programs with names like the Advanced Automation System and NextGen instituted by laws such as AIR-21 and Vision 100 have proven efficient only in their ability to squander oceans of money.

Having ATC services in a separate organization funded by user fees would allow more predictability in budgeting rather than having managers expending resources on political concerns such as sequestration and appropriations. Separating an operational organization from a regulatory agency is also a better management model which helps prevent regulatory capture by operational concerns. Having access to private capital markets would assist in the finance of long term infrastructure as opposed to the current method of political salesmanship.

The Roadblocks

In virtually every attempt at modernization, political considerations inevitably make any progress difficult or impossible to achieve. Questions about who would end up funding the new ATC organization have made each of the players skeptical of a major overhaul. Each of the major users of our ATC system want to make sure that they don't pay more under any reorganization. And considering that each group feels that other groups aren't paying their fair share, reform has been difficult.

The FAA is funded mainly through excise taxes on things like passenger tickets and fuel and not through usage fees. The airlines, which purchase the lion's share of fuel and carry the most passengers therefore paying the most excise tax, feel that general aviation (GA) and business aviation users consume more ATC services than they pay for. They would like to see the funding mechanism converted into a user fee structure. GA users, who are more numerous and generally well heeled and politically active, resist these efforts through the activities of groups like the Airplane Owners and Pilot's Association (AOPA). Business aviation users fall somewhere in the middle of these two groups but are generally opposed to ATC separation from the FAA for fear that the airlines would dominate such an organization.

Labor Concerns

Any new ATC entity will have to address the concerns of all these groups but must also deal with the concerns of controllers themselves who will feel threatened by any move away from the government umbrella of federal wage rules and federal pensions. Their concerns are valid in that any new ATC entity would certainly employ efficiencies and invest in automation systems which could eventually reduce the numbers of controllers needed to operate the system. 

Controllers' unions must be reassured that their members will not suffer financial penalties in the short term. They must also realize, however, that like pilots, their jobs are ripe for the application of automation and that controller ranks will be reduced over time regardless of who is writing their paychecks. Other operational efficiencies can only help their cause by reducing overall costs.

In Conclusion

An ATC system which is separate from a stodgy and politically reactive agency such as the FAA will have a more stable and reliable source of funding allowing capital improvements to be made without the usual red tape. Badly needed modernization will result in a safer national airspace system due to the deployment of the latest technologies available in the most expeditious manner possible.

A separate agency free of political interference will also be more amenable to fostering a customer centric culture which can then concentrate on a primary goal of service and avoids conflicts of interest with the FAA's primary regulatory functions. Lastly, representation of all major users and labor in the governance of a new and separate ATC organization would ensure that all interested parties have a seat at the table while avoiding the political paralysis of the current system.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How to Survive Your Airline Flight: The Captain's Guide to Staying Sane

Tips to improve your airline flight
Glamour defined

Many decades ago, travel by air was considered amazing. And glamorous. Fast forward into the eleventh decade of passenger air travel and it is still amazing, but not quite so glamorous. That is unless you are riding first class on an Emirates A380 from Dubai to London. And if you can afford the price of the first class suite on that airplane, you aren't wasting your time reading airline blogs on the Internet. You have more important things to do such as restructuring a corporation or perhaps closing an important arms deal.

For the rest of us, though, air travel has become annoying, mundane, irksome, and maddening. I know this because it's my livelihood. But not only do I get to look back on the wretched refuse as that wonderful bulletproof carbon-kevlar cockpit door swings closed with a heartwarming thump, but as a commuter, I have the dubious honor of sampling the product myself at least several times weekly. And trust me, dear reader, when I say to you that I look forward with relish to the day that I will never again have to set foot as a passenger on a commercial airliner.

I exaggerate, but only slightly, for I believe that the average airline passenger will agree that the modern airline experience is something to be simply gotten through, as opposed to enjoyed as it was in times not too distantly removed. Luckily, though, there are things that airline victims er, customers can do to make their flight at least tolerable, if not actually enjoyable. The Captain is on the case and herewith presents his indispensible guide on how to survive your airline flight!

Before You Go, Choose Wisely

You've done your best to avoid going at all, but your boss wants you at that conference in Atlanta, or your spouse's sister is getting married and there's no face-saving way to decline the wedding invitation. So you're going. Next, you'll have to book your flight. This will be an exercise in contrast. You must contrast the amount of pain you're willing to inflict upon your wallet versus the pain that you're willing to inflict upon your soul by going cheap. 

If you've got the scratch to go first or business class, then we're probably done here. All the major US airlines are roughly equivalent in their first class service, and you'll have a nice wide leather seat away from the hoi polloi. Remember, though, it's bad form to show up to the meeting or rehearsal dinner drunk from airplane wine no matter how much it might be needed. Good luck.

If first class is too dear, your next best choice in class of service is a product called "Economy Plus" as United calls it. American calls their product "Premium Economy", and Delta's is Delta Comfort+. This class is pretty much what just plain old "economy" used to be called before the seat pitches were jammed together to force a few more sardines into the can. You'll get an economy seat, but the seat pitch will be suitable for a normal human being for which of course you'll pay extra for the privilege of being able to feel your toes after landing.

Your next cheaper option will be plain 'ol economy and at this point you may want to consider letting price guide your decision with a few caveats. Make sure to check the airlines' baggage policy to avoid unpleasant surprise charges on your arrival at the airport. Most airlines have "unbundled" their services and will stick you with bag charges if you're not careful. They've done this to avoid paying excise taxes on this new "service" as those taxes are only levied on the ticket price itself. Smart for them, expensive for you. The Captain's advice: choose carefully how you like your pain, financial or in dignity.

How Basic Can You Get?

There is still yet another class of service that has started to appear at the top of your Expedia listing known as Basic Economy, better described as "steerage" class. This will be a rock bottom fare for a rock bottom experience. You'll board last, won't get to have any choice in seat assignment, and even a bag in the overhead bin will cost extra. This service was introduced to counter the competitive threat from the new ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.

How basic are they? Well, no one who has flown on Spirit has ever been known to book a second flight as the service is so abysmal. Their low fares, however, ensure that the airline will remain full until such time that all Americans have flown on them once, at which time they'll declare bankruptcy, rename themselves, repaint the airplanes, and start again. The Captain's advice: just don't.

Does the Type of Airplane Matter?

Is the Pope Catholic? Yes, actually, quite a bit. This may not be well known, but as far as narrowbody aircraft go, the fuselage of the Airbus family of jets (319, 320, 321) is seven inches wider than the Boeing family (737s, 757). This may be because the 737 was based upon the 1950s era designed 707. Crushed velour warm up suits and big gulps hadn't been invented yet back then and the population was somewhat less rotund than that of today. In any case, you'll have a bit more breathing room in the back of an Airbus than a Boeing narrowbody aircraft.

If you happen to find yourself on a commuter aircraft, please accept our condolences, though the situation is improving. The first generation of commuter jets with their toy seating and miniscule overhead bins will require serious contortions from anyone even slightly above average size and weight. A new generation of aircraft from both Embraer and Bombardier known respectively as the "E" and "C" class aircraft promise much more reasonably sized accommodations due to larger fuselage size. 

There are dozens of seat configurations on dozens of different airplanes and it is never a bad idea to consult a travel website to find out the unique bulkhead or emergency exit seats which might offer more room. This can vary across airline, model, and even sub-model of aircraft (-300 vs -700). The Captain's advice: know your airplane and caveat emptor.

The Gear You'll Need

What you bring along to entertain yourself in flight is largely up to you though I do recommend some essential pieces of gear which should always accompany you on any flight. My first "do not leave home without it" piece is a good over-the-ear set of noise cancelling headphones. Why? Because toddlers and infants. And chatty neighbors.

You may consider yourself lucky, but eventually your luck will run out and a screaming infant will be well within earshot. Look, I love babies as much as anyone, but I raised my four and got that box checked. And it never helps to throw shade at a harried mom dealing with a squawling child (especially if you're married to her). The pressure changes in an airplane can make babies' ears hurt. But what you can do is to remove yourself from the situation in an auditory fashion by slipping your headset on and cranking up the Rush. Don't worry, the baby will be just fine, and so will you.

My second recommendation is a generous supply of alcohol wipes. The ones individually wrapped seem to stay moist the longest. Why? Because an airplane is a flying Petri dish. Every solid surface on an aircraft is touched by hundreds of people on a daily basis. And they all have colds and just sneezed into their hands before using the tray in front of you. And it's gross but trays occasionally get used as changing tables. Not gonna lie. The Captain's advice: wipe everything, trust nothing.

Game Day

So you've bought your ticket, checked in online the night before, and are approaching security. Should you find yourself in an airport with the choice of several security checkpoints which serve the same secure area, my advice is to locate the one closest to the Southwest gates...and then go to the other one. It is guaranteed to be less crowded. This goes even if you happen to be flying Southwest. They are a volume producer and you'll get through more quickly.

Let's assume that you've survived the tender mercies of the friendly yet efficient TSA agents and are now looking for your gate. A fun thing to do here is to stand with your back to the airport monitors and then flag down someone in uniform. Show them your document and ask them which gate to go to. Always a barrel of laughs.

A word of caution is advised when looking for something to eat in the airport. An old adage stated that the best eateries along the highway were the ones which had a lot of trucks in the parking lot, the idea being that the pros knew the good places to eat. The same is not necessarily true in an airport. The place with most of the crew members standing in line most likely has the largest employee discount, which, of course, you won't get. It might also be good, but there's no guarantee. The Captain's advice: bring a sandwich.

The Boarding Process

The late comedian George Carlin once based an entire sketch on the silliness of gate boarding announcements, especially asking why it is announced as a "process". Why doesn't the gate agent simply announce we will now begin "boarding" versus "the boarding process"? I've been doing this for 26 years now and I haven't got a clue. Just one of those things. The agents themselves probably don't know either.

Now if you have an assigned seat, you simply wait your turn and you get in line. If, however, you are flying on one of the several airlines without assigned seating, there is a very definite strategy you should follow. It is very helpful for you to have done your homework and checked in online as early as possible to get the best pole position. It also helps to know how many seats are on the airplane you are boarding.

Knowing some human behaviour traits helps as well. Most everyone wants to avoid the dreaded center seat, but they also value being near the front which allows an earlier escape after landing. If you're lucky enough to be in first boarding group, then bully for you! But if you're in the second, or even third group, there's hope.

Window and Aisle: Front to Back, Center: Back to Front

As the plane fills up, the window and aisle seats will fill from front to back, and people will continue to move aft looking for one of those window or aisle seats. Eventually they will run out and there will be a "bounce back" as passengers now resigned to a center seat move back forward. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to grab a center seat in the first few rows that everyone has passed up.

Yes, you have to suck up a center seat, but the advantages are that you are near the front, and you get to pick some relatively skinny and/or cute people to cozy next to. This technique is also useful to avoid toddlers. The Captain's advice: NEVER choose a seat in front of a row with toddlers. They will kick your seat. You've been warned.

What to Order

You've successfully gotten airborne and are watching a movie on your device when James or Suzy comes by to ask for your order. Unless you're completely parched, or the flight is longer than an hour, my advice is to pass. Remember that to many flight attendants, sick days are never to be used when they are actually sick. Those are to be saved for special occasions such as Bonnaroo or the playoffs. In other words, be wary of the people handling your food and drink. Perhaps I'm just a germophobe, but I've flown with some pretty sick flight attendants who just soldier on.

Well, dear reader, I've hopefully given you some useful information to make your next flight more enjoyable, or at least less painful. Remember that, as Louis CK put it in a comedy piece, you are partaking in the miracle of human flight sitting in a chair in the sky. Just who knew that experiencing a miracle could send otherwise normal people into a spittle flecked rage?

Oh, and always wear shoes to the lav. My wife once saw Cate Blanchett go into the bathroom on a 777 in bare feet. Ewww.



Sunday, January 22, 2017

Approach, We Need to Divert

Being a good pilot means always having a backup plan. I don't care if you are a VFR-only pilot on an afternoon outing or pushing back in a twin aisle airliner for an overseas leg. The very nature of aviation means that things will never go exactly as you planned, and sometimes not even close to how you planned. 

This means you need a backup plan. What happens if you have a mechanical? How will you react if it happens on takeoff? What if you don't break out on the approach? How about if your alternate weather goes down enroute? All these questions should be in the back of your mind before and during your flight. Then, should something happen that you didn't anticipate, reacting to it is a simple matter of implementing your backup plan rather than having to take the time to come up with a new plan.

LaGuardia to Midway

We were scheduled for the first day of a three day trip to fly a round trip from Chicago's Midway Airport to New York's LaGuardia and then back east to Newark's Liberty Airport for the overnight. The trip from Chicago to New York had been uneventful and we even landed early due to a strong tailwind of about 100 knots.

The departure weather at LaGuardia was VFR and we departed at about 1705 local (2205Z) without much delay at all, which was especially good for any New York airport. The forecast for Midway, issued at 1729Z was IFR with low ceilings and visibilities forecast:

TAF KMDW 161729Z 1618/1718 10006KT 1SM -SHRA BR OVC004 FM170100 10012KT 1SM SHRA BR OVC003 TEMPO 1703/1705 1/2SM TSRA FG OVC003CB FM170600 VRB03KT3/4SM -RADZ BR OVC003 TEMPO 1706/1710 1/2SM FG FM171300 24010KT 2SM BR VCSHOVC005 FM171600 27008KT P6SM VCSH OVC006=

A quick translation of this forecast shows that the visibility was forecast to be one mile with rain showers and a ceiling of 400 ft for our arrival. 

Even though there was a "TEMPO"  or "temporary conditions" line in the forecast for 1/2 mile visibilities, this was not due to happen until 0300Z on the 17th, or a few hours after our arrival. Chicago is six hours behind Zulu (GMT) time which means Zulu midnight is at 6:00 PM in Chicago. We were, however, still required to have an alternate, and had Louisville (SDF) declared on our release.

Midway has five runways forming a cross pattern but only two strips of pavement are suitable for air carrier operations, 31C/13C and 22L/04R. They were landing runway 4R for our arrival. That runway is served by an ILS with minimums of 5000 ft. or 1 mile. 

The METAR, or current observation for our arrival showed a 300 ft. ceiling with a visibility of 6000 ft. Piece of cake, we thought. The decision altitude (DA) for our runway was 250 ft. height above touchdown (HAT) and the visibility was a good 2000 ft. above what we needed. 

METAR KMDW 162253Z 09006KT 1SM R31C/P6000FT -RA BR OVC003 02/02 A3005 RMK AO2 SLP184 P0001 T00220017=

This translates as prevailing visibility of one mile with a specific runway visibility of 6000 ft and a ceiling of 300 feet.

My first officer was flying the approach and was highly experienced, so I had no reservations about letting him fly this approach. So as we were being vectored to final, we heard approach mention that the visibility was being reported as 4500 ft. I then said that we needed 5000 ft. to begin the approach after which approach quickly revised the report. We were alerted though to expect an approach right to minimums.

The next thing we heard after switching to tower was the aircraft in front of us announcing a go-around. Now we really knew that it would be close. An old technique of mine is to run my chair forward so as to be able to see over the nose. If we could pick up approach or runway lights, we'd be cleared to descend for landing and doing this helps. One small problem is that runway 4R at Midway has no approach lights, only runway end identifier lights and a precision approach path indicator (PAPI). Great.

Go Around!

Well, we got down to minimums and I announced "minimums". There was nothing in sight at all. My first officer announced "go-around", hit the takeoff/go around (TOGA) button, pushed the throttles up, and around we went. Here is where it got busy.

We get the airplane away from the ground, cleaned up and on a downwind vector and then we have some decisions to make. Is the weather persistently bad or was that just a passing cloud? Do we have gas for another try? Is my declared alternate the best choice and what's the weather there?

Right away I saw that the first question was moot because we didn't have enough gas for another try. I had just under 8000 lbs., and the burn to my alternate, Louisville, was about 3000 lbs., enough to get us there comfortably, but none to try again. So on downwind we told approach that we needed to divert. They gave us a climb and handed us off to center. Center gave us a vector direct to Louisville, which was VFR.

Louisville may seem like a rather distant alternate, but there was most likely some method to their madness when dispatch filed this flight plan. When a busy hub airport like Midway goes below minimums, chaos breaks out everywhere. Dozens of airplanes might be looking for alternates at the same time. One of the closest and most obvious alternates is Indianapolis, but they can be quickly overwhelmed with diverting airplanes in a short amount of time. So dispatch tries to spread out the pain of multiple diversions to other airports depending on the weather. Tonight Louisville and Milwaukee drew the short straws.

Get In Line

The approach and landing in Louisville were normal. We were then directed to an unused runway where we sat until there was a gate available. All the gates were full and there was one airplane in line in front of us, so we waited for about an hour until we could park. The agent already had our paperwork for the trip back to Chicago. The weather had come up some and should’ve been good for our return. Midway was now landing on runway 31C which had a 4000 ft. minimum visibility as well.

We signed the release, got our gas, and pushed back. The flight back to Chicago was also uneventful, at least until we got to minimums on the ILS to 31C. It was now my leg. We briefed and flew the approach pretty much the same way we had a few hours earlier. When my first officer says "minimums", I didn't see anything. I thought "here we go again". Just as I start to push the throttles up for our second go-around of the evening, I saw the runway. I pulled the throttles back and we landed well within the landing zone and taxied to the gate.

Pulled (and Paid)

All in a day's work, right? Now we’ve got maybe 30 minutes to find some dinner and to get the airplane turned around for our delayed, but final leg of the evening to Newark. As I step out into the jet way, I see a pilot friend of mine. I ask him if he's deadheading to Newark but he says no, he's working the flight. I said that can't be because I'm working the flight. A quick check of the paperwork shows that indeed, he is flying the next leg. So I go back to the cockpit to gather my gear and then check the computer when I'm back in the terminal.

Sure enough, I've been tagged by Part 117, our new flight time regulation. With all the excitement, I've racked up seven hours and eighteen minutes of block time. With the Newark leg forecast to be about two hours, this put me over the maximum flight hours by about 20 minutes, hence I was illegal to operate the flight. Scheduling was nice enough to find me a hotel room in Chicago thus saving me a rain-soaked trek to my crash pad. It is honestly the little things that count.

Be Ready

The next day I am rerouted to a different city than my originally planned trip but it pays the same so there's no harm. All in all, it was just another routine divert and reposition. And the reason that I use the word "routine" is because I was ready for the weather to go down. Diverting is a headache, sure, but at no point was I "uncomfortable" with how things were happening.

We were both well trained and prepared, and were flying a well-functioning and reliable airplane. Things won't always go how you might have planned, but that is never any reason to be caught by surprise.

Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included flying the T-37 primary trainer, the KC-135 Stratotanker, and the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft for worldwide operations. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at He also writes

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Then There Was the Time I Saw a C-5 Do the Splits

C-5 Galaxy does the splits
The airplane and the landing gear wanted to go different directions.

The C-5 Galaxy is a magnificent airplane. I flew this amazing machine for over a decade and many thousands of hours between the years of 1991 and 2003 while a member of the 312th Airlift Squadron at Travis AFB near San Francisco. And while the airplane has some amazing capabilities, she would occasionally break in really creative ways. What follows is the story of one of those times.

The grandiosity of this airplane is difficult to convey in both word and picture; she must be seen in person to be fully believed. I still recall my first flight aboard a C-5 as a student at Altus AFB. It was difficult to get my head around the thought that the thing actually moved when we taxied out of parking, let alone flew. And yet fly she did.

She was a pleasure to fly. One of the design engineers at Lockheed must have at some point taken his father's Cadillac Brougham out for a joyride because that is an apt description of her ride. She was big, but with full time three axis flight augmentation, she was lighter on the controls than a 737. She was equally agile on the ground with the ability to execute a 180 degree turn on a 150 foot wide runway (using 147 feet, according to the flight manual). This fun fact ties in to our story.

The Elegance of Simplicity Never Applied to the C-5

The size of this aircraft presented many new and unique challenges to her builders, the Lockheed Corporation. As an aside, the Boeing Corporation, losers of the original competition to build the CX-HLS heavy lifter back in the sixties, went on to use the resources gathered for that project to build the 747. Lockheed, the winner of the contract, was faced with the problem of creating a drive on drive off airlifter with a footprint capable of operations on soft field forward operating locations.

The solution was to employ four main landing gear accommodating six tires each for a total of 24 main landing gear tires. A four tire nose gear brought the total to 28. Spreading the maximum 840,000 lb. weight of the aircraft over 28 tires was expected to allow operations on fields having less weight bearing capacity or thinner pavement. It wouldn't break up the concrete or sink into the mud. C-5s even land on ice in Antarctica due to this soft footprint.

The four landing gear however, arranged in a tandem, or two by two, presented another problem: turning. Getting the airplane turned around in as short a radius as possible meant that the gear would scrub furiously in the turn. Anyone who's ever pulled a tandem wheel trailer around a tight corner has experienced this. The solution is the same as that used on those large carts at your local big box store. Just make the rear wheels caster or turn.

So that is how the airplane was designed. When going into a turn, the pilot in the left seat would throw a switch on the center console which released hydraulic pressure from the rear main gear allowing them to caster like a shopping cart wheel. When steering out of a turn, he or she would then return the switch which would apply pressure to drive the gear back into alignment. The copilot was charged with keeping an eye on gauges indicating the caster angle to ensure the gear were powering back to their aligned position when coming out of the turn. Rube Goldberg would have been proud.

The Ghost in This Machine is Named Murphy

The date was July 8, 1999 and the place was Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. We were on a WestPac "channel" mission. That meant a routine five or six day jaunt around the Pacific Rim moving opportunistic cargo and household baggage from reassigned military families. The purpose of this type of mission was ostensibly for training, so what was carried was not of real import. Many times, in fact, there might be a FedEx or UPS plane shadowing our route carrying stuff that was actually important. The C-5 was voluminous, but alas not too reliable as we shall see.

Though I don't recall exact numbers, we probably had a cabin load of perhaps 150,000 lbs. and a fuel load of perhaps 225,000 lbs. for a takeoff gross weight of about 750,000 lbs. Our destination was Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska, a distance of 4400 miles, so we were somewhat heavy. It was an entirely routine mission planned for perhaps eight or nine hours depending on the winds.

I was in the jump seat for takeoff as we were an augmented crew with three pilots. Being augmented meant that our crew duty day could be stretched to 24 hours if need be. Engine start was normal as was taxi out of parking down the parallel taxiway. It was on the turn from the parallel taxiway and onto the hammerhead that we encountered a bit of bother.

As per normal, when the pilot started the turn, he reached over and flipped the red guarded caster power-back switch to the caster position and stated "caster" on the interphone. And as we came out of the turn, the pilot returned the switch to its original position which should have driven the gear back into alignment.

This didn't happen. Coming out of the turn, the airplane chugged a little bit and came to a halt. What this normally meant was that one of the gear lagged a bit while powering back to the center position. And sure enough, that is what the right rear gear indicator showed. It was out of alignment by perhaps 20 degrees.

This meant that the gear did not automatically return to alignment. The approved fix was to roll the airplane forward a bit while the copilot manually commanded the gear to center using the manual power-back switches. The airplane had to be moving for this to work. So that's what we did...or tried to do.

At first the airplane wouldn't move, so the only solution which presented itself was to add more power. A lot more power. The pilot pushed up the throttles further and eventually the airplane did move, but not willingly. She was bucking like a bronco and the errant gear was still not moving to center.

After about as much of this as we could stand, we stopped the airplane and deplaned one of our engineers to take a look. What we heard next on the interphone told us that something was amiss. "Holy $#!%...You have GOT to see this!!" or something to that effect. It was at this point that we realized that we were probably not going to go flying that day.

How Did It Get Like That?

The engines were shut down, maintenance was called, and I climbed down the two stories from the cockpit to take a look myself. What I saw amazed me and reinforced my belief that Lockheed built one tough airplane.

The reason the airplane didn't want to roll was not because the gear had failed to return to center. It had. But it hadn't stopped at the center position. A failure of the caster power-back valve allowed the gear to not only center from the left but to keep on going in the opposite direction to the right. The airplane was trying to roll straight ahead but the right rear gear wanted to go right and was being drug. There were thick black rubber marks trailing behind as it was drug at a sideways angle while supporting over 100,000 lbs. of weight.

But the most remarkable sight was that of the gear strut. This piece of metal which supports the six tire gear truck is perhaps several feet in diameter, and it was bent at a very unmistakable angle away from its partner on the front gear. I was amazed that the supporting structure had even held together as it must have been under thousands of pounds of sideways pressure. It seemed a sure bet that some sort of internal damage must have occurred.

Well, the maintenance guys disagreed. Apparently this was no big deal, at least from a structural point of view. The fix was even easier. The C-5 has the capability to "kneel" down which means it can be lowered on its struts so vehicles can drive on and off. What is even more convenient is that each individual gear truck can be "kneeled" by itself meaning that it will lift off the ground while the other three main gear support the aircraft. Very handy for tire changes.

So the maintenance guys merely kneeled the errant gear as the entire airplane creaked and groaned while coming back into alignment. The bad valve was replaced, and the next day we were on our way back home with the added bonus of an extra day on beautiful tropical Okinawa, and an extra day of per diem to boot!

The author in front of the stricken plane.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Captain's Authority, Captain's Responsibility

airline captains' authority has eroded
Should he run the entire show?

A recent incident on a JetBlue airplane where former Senator Al D'Amato was removed from the flight after causing a disturbance got me thinking about captain's authority. In this incident, some passengers needed to be relocated due to a weight and balance issue. When some of the passengers refused, Senator D'Amato apparently started a ruckus and blamed the captain stating "the captain needs to grow some balls", according to another passenger.

My first thought upon hearing this story was wondering why the captain allowed himself to become involved in a passenger dispute in the first place. That's almost always a no-win situation. Then I thought that Al D'amato is in his late 70s and probably still entertains the quaint notion that airline captains actually run the show.

In one sense they still do, but it is an extremely narrow writ. Federal regulations give airline captains absolute authority over everyone on a commercial airliner but only as it pertains to the safe conduct of the flight after departure. As the flight was still parked at the gate, the captain had no legal authority to order anyone to do anything, and my guess is that JetBlue policy states that pilots are not charged with moving customers. That is a customer service issue to be handled by customer service specialists.

And in case there is any doubt about that, pilots who still have old school ideas about injecting themselves into customer disputes can quickly find themselves with a few weeks of unpaid leave. I've seen it happen time and again. That, unfortunately, is the new reality of today's airline operations. Cost a guy a half a month's pay and he should eventually get the idea.

My guess is that the pilot was attempting to persuade some customers to voluntarily move, but I find it highly unlikely that he was empowered by JetBlue to order anyone to move. And I of course don't blame passengers who took the effort to get to the airport early to get in the first boarding group now being asked to sit in the back of the bus.

So what are your thoughts? Should we return to the old school days where pilots actually did run the whole show, or should they just stick to the mechanics of flying the plane as they are expected to today?

Thursday, January 05, 2017

I Feel Ok, But I Still Called in Sick

Flight doctors keep pilots flying
A visit to the flight doc might prevent this 

To be fair, I really do have a bit of a cold. It started the day before my trip with some sneezing and a headache. It's really nothing most workers would consider staying home for. A daytime Theraflu has got me feeling almost fine, but I still didn't go to work. Instead, I called scheduling to get myself pulled off my trip and replaced. Now I've got some extra time to write a blog post. Am I lazy or is this a good call?

You Don't Want Me Flying Your Plane

Though it may sound like I'm milking the system, trust me when I say that you do not want me anywhere near your airplane for a number of reasons. The first, obviously, is that I'm not 100%. Flying places enough physiological stress on a body as it is. Disrupted circadian rhythms, fatigue, dodgy airport food, and dehydration from hours in dry airplane air can all contribute to a degradation of the alertness which is needed to operate an airliner.

Throw in additional stressors such as congestion, or a headache and effectiveness in the cockpit can drop precipitously. My experience has been that no matter how you feel while sitting in your kitchen, you will always feel worse on an airplane, medically speaking. A bit of an itchy nose is guaranteed to become a non-stop sneezing fit on the airplane. So if I'm feeling a bit off at home, I don't go in. 

Almost as important as the underlying illness, the drugs taken to combat the symptoms of a cold or flu are themselves disqualifying for operating a commercial airliner. The FAA does not publish a list of medicines which pilots are allowed to take while operating an airliner, but would rather have each individual pilot with a medical complaint be evaluated by a doctor. Then a determination should be made as to whether the pilot should be flying with that medication. Some common ones are approved, while others are not.

For simple ailments such as a cold or the flu, pilots are expected to remove themselves from flying until they feel fit to fly. As far as the over the counter drugs for a cold are concerned, the FAA recommends a wait of five times the recommended dosing interval. This means that if the directions suggest a certain dose of say every six hours, a pilot should wait five times that, or 30 hours before operating an aircraft.

Pilots and Doctors: An Uneasy Relationship

All pilots, whether civilian or military, need the approval of a doctor to be able to fly. But because doctors can ground pilots, this means that pilots are never too comfortable around doctors. Airline copilots or first officers in the US are required to get an annual FAA Class II medical exam. Captains and international pilots need to have an FAA Class I medical exam every six months. All airline pilots require a Class I medical after age 60 and an electrocardiogram is required annually after age 40. 

The idea here is to catch any sort of medical problem before it manifests itself while the pilot is behind the controls. If something should be found that is disqualifying, such as say complete color blindness, there isn't much that a pilot can do. For many other ailments, however, a pilot can appeal their case to the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine for the issuance of a waiver, otherwise known as a Special Issuance.

In this case, a pilot would be able to continue to fly using a "Statement of Demonstrated Ability" which means that whatever ailment they have is considered to be static or non progressive. In plain speak this means it is not getting worse nor affecting the ability to fly.

The unease which pilots have around doctors stems from the perception of misaligned incentives. If something during a flight physical is found to be in a grey area, the pilot will naturally want to keep flying, while the doctor would rather err on the side of keeping the pilot grounded. There is good reason for this as the doctor could be held responsible for missing something which causes trouble later. Here's the text from the FAA's guide for aviation medical examiners (AMEs):

The consequences of a negligent or wrongful certification, which would permit an unqualified person to take the controls of an aircraft, can be serious for the public, for the Government, and for the Examiner. If the examination is cursory and the Examiner fails to find a disqualifying defect that should have been discovered in the course of a thorough and careful examination, a safety hazard may be created and the Examiner may bear the responsibility for the results of such action.

So of course this makes pilots naturally wary about reporting every little ache and pain during their flight physical. They don't want to lose their livelihood for what they might perceive as overreach on the part of an overly cautious doctor. Pilots also tend toward stoicism as a general rule, so keeping quite about a random ache, especially when it might ground them, suits them just fine.

A Flight Doc and a Real Doc

Most aviation medical examiners, or flight docs, do not work for the FAA. They are usually physicians in private practice who have volunteered and are designated and trained by the FAA to perform flight physicals. It seems to be a somewhat lucrative practice as the physical itself usually takes about a half hour with about ten minutes of that time actually being spent with the doctor. The cost is around $150 cash as many AMEs do not take insurance. I even know of some AMEs who have shut their general medicine practices and now perform only FAA physicals.

Of course it is now generally recognized that avoiding the doctor is not really a good long term health care strategy. Pilots (begrudgingly) accept this as well, but rather than confessing all their health issues to their AME, they engage another or "real" doctor to check things that aren't included in the FAA medical exam. This might include things like a prostate exam or perhaps a closer look at a discolored mole. 

Truth be told, the AMEs I've seen over the years have never seemed too thrilled to have these sorts of ancillary medical issues raised in an FAA examination. The idea is to check the things on the FAA list, collect their fee, and usher in the next pilot. They get it. Should a complaint which is ancillary to the flight physical be investigated and found to be nothing by the non-FAA doc, all the paperwork of having to deal with the FAA bureaucracy is also conveniently avoided. In fact, in the competition between AMEs, the word quickly gets out on the street about which docs just check the essentials and which ones are "tougher".

So do I mean to suggest that pilots or flight docs are somehow "cheating" the system? Absolutely not. Should a serious issue be found by a non-FAA doc, pilots are legally obligated to inform their AMEs of all medical care other than routine physicals, so even the FAA recognizes that their own exams are not all encompassing. It is the false alarms and paperwork that are being bypassed.

Went Peacefully

There's an old aviation joke that goes: "When it's my turn to go, I want to go out peacefully in my sleep like ol' Joe...not screaming in terror like his passengers".

Yes, macabre, but there have been a number of times that a pilot has died at the controls. The latest incident happened just over a year ago when the 57 year old captain of an American A-320 died while enroute from Phoenix to Boston. The pilot had had bypass surgery years earlier and likely suffered a heart attack even though he had been flying for years after the surgery. The first officer landed the plane without incident.

Keep 'em Flying

So even though there exists some measure of disaffection between pilots and doctors, I believe the system functions well to ensure that only healthy pilots are at the controls. For those pilots who end up with serious health issues such as heart problems, or cancer, the bureaucratic wheels at the FAA can turn slowly, but they do eventually turn and many pilots who have suffered these types of problems can get back into the cockpit once their problems have resolved. 

Flying airplanes demands complete attention from alert and healthy pilots. With all the negative physiological stresses on members of this profession, having someone keep an eye on the pilot's health while he or she keeps an eye on your airplane maintains the high integrity and safety of today's aviation system.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Don't Depend on the Kicker to Win the Game

LaMia 2933
If it routinely comes down to the kicker to win, the team has failed.

Last month I wrote about the crash of LaMia 2933 which resulted from fuel starvation. Post crash investigation revealed that the flight was planned beyond the range limits for the aircraft and no provisions were made for required reserve fuel. Thus, after encountering a slight delay for another aircraft, the LaMia airliner ran out of fuel and crashed killing 71 of the 77 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft.

Much opprobrium has (rightly) been placed upon the heads of the pilots who planned the trip to exceed the capabilities of the aircraft they were flying, but I'd like to take a closer look at the circumstances of the situation to try to understand why the pilots would make such a foolish mistake. It certainly wasn't made in a vacuum.

Cinderella Story

The trip was a charter flight for the staff and players of the Brazilian Chapecoense futbol squad along with some journalists to the Copa Sudamericana Finals in Medellín. They were scheduled to play against Atlético Nacional the day after their arrival in Medellin.

Chapecoense was the first Brazilian football team to make it to the final of the Copa Sudamericana finals in three years. Representing a city of about 200,000 in the state of Santa Catarina, Chapecoense had bested more highly favored teams to represent Brazil in the finals match. Thus, there was intense interest in the match including a significant amount of national pride.

Chapecoense had wished to charter LaMia to transport the team directly from Sao Paolo to Medellin but were prevented from doing so by international regulations. Any charter aircraft flying between Brazil and Colombia would have to be registered in one of those countries. LaMia, however was a Bolivian registered operator, so provisions were made to fly the team on a Bolivian commercial airline to Santa Cruz in Bolivia before transferring to LaMia for the leg to Medellin.

A delayed departure from Santa Cruz meant that a planned refueling stop in the Bolivian city of Cobija was not available as that airport closed at sunset due to lack of runway lighting. The LaMia pilot then filed a flight plan showing a refueling stop in Bogota, but did not make that stop as Bogota is just slightly closer than Medellin. A stop there for fuel would have raised awkward questions about inadequate fuel planning. Another possible refueling stop was available in Iquitos, Peru, but would involve a two hour notification for customs and prior permission to enter Peruvian airspace from the DGAC (Bolivia's Civil Aviation Authority).

A Roll of the Dice

We must remember that the captain of that doomed airliner did not get up that morning with any idea that his actions would end up killing himself and his passengers. His essential error was that of what safety experts call "expectation bias". Simply put, the human brain has an expectation that things will work out in the future as they have in the past. The result of succumbing to expectation bias is that it effectively masks the underlying risk of one's actions.

In the back of our minds all pilots "know" that the risk of screwing up badly is an untimely meeting with the grim reaper. Pilots are famous for making macabre jokes about death even as aviation has grown safer. But with such sentiments being always present throughout a career in aviation, it becomes ever easier to believe that bad stuff only happens to the other guy who got unlucky. The fact that any particular pilot is around to reflect on the demise of compatriots can actually reinforce the belief that he or she is doing it right.

Now contrast that omnipresent but dull sense of risk of a crash with the very clear and present fear of the consequences had these pilots not gotten the beloved Chapecoense football team to their championship match. The pilots likely thought that cancelling the flight was not an option as the match was scheduled for the next day. The captain, and the airline of which he was part owner, would have suffered tremendous enmity and a loss of future business when it was learned that they were the cause for the team to miss their game or to arrive without the needed rest to play the next day.

There is little doubt that the captain knew that fuel was going to be tight, but he conflated the risk of running out of fuel with the risk of not getting the team to the game. He rolled the dice without understanding how many chips were on the table.

The question is, how does one person get put into the position of making a decision between an uncomfortable outcome that is certain to happen (if the flight cancels) and a deadly outcome that might or might not happen (if the plane runs out of fuel)? Had the plane not run out of fuel 10 miles from the airport, no one would have been any the wiser.

Depending on the Kicker

Any organization depends on cooperation between individual team members to be successful. Success or failure should not, however, be dependent on the actions of one person. Like any complex machine, an organization must have redundancies for critical functions. Too much stress on a critical link in any chain guarantees eventual failure. If winning the game always depends on the kicker, the team has failed.

The captain of LaMia 2933 should not have been in the position to be able to trade safety for financial gain. This crash was due not only to a bad decision made by the captain, but also to the organization which allowed one actor to be pressured to make such a decision. So how should an organization insulate itself from this type of single point failure?

Culture of Safety

First, in any industrial setting, cultivating a "culture of safety" is paramount to a successful operation. What this means is that safety of the operation is first and foremost. This culture must be internalized by everyone from senior management to entry level and temporary employees.

Successfully installing such a culture is hard work and will not be accomplished through mere platitudes or safety posters hung in the workplace. There will need to be honest organizational support for safety initiatives and a reassurance from the C-Suite on down that the goals for a safe operation are embraced. This will include a robust safety reporting system and employees who are empowered to implement correctives for identified deficiencies.

Secondly, individual employees should not be put in a position of having to choose between a competing set of values. In the case of airline operations, the people in charge of financial results are probably the wrong people to be making operational decisions that impinge on safety. The bottom line must obviously be watched, but if an operation cannot be done safely, then it probably shouldn't be done at all. Management tools such as pay protection for line employees when operations are cancelled can help in the effort to make sure the correct decisions get made.

The Choice is Yours

Whether you find yourself as a manager or operator, you must understand that humans respond to incentives. Wrongly aligned incentives will eventually manifest themselves by coming back to bite the unwary. Is your organization optimized to be as safe as it can be? How will you know if it isn't?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Crash That Made Your Airplane Safer

Terrain is now displayed on primary flight displays
Enhanced GPWS display showing terrain (in green)

Any airplane crash is a tragedy, but in the investigation following a crash, it is always hoped that something can be learned which will aid in the prevention of a future crash. Commercial aviation is now one of the safest modes of transportation available, but it has only become this way through dogged investigation of aircraft accidents and the application of lessons learned. Such was the case of American 965.

On December 20, 1995, American 965, a 757-200, crashed in the mountains of Colombia while enroute to Cali. 151 passengers and eight crew were killed while five passengers survived the impact. The investigation into the crash concluded that the primary cause was a navigational error made by the flight crew resulting in terrain impact.

There were, however, some unique aspects of this accident which highlighted contributing factors. One of these was found to be several errors in the aircraft's navigational computer database which led the crew astray.  Also unique to this accident investigation was the method in which investigators were able to reconstruct the events which led to the crash. As it happened, one of the 757's flight navigation computers was found in the wreckage with its internal battery and volatile memory still intact. 

This allowed investigators to reconstruct electronically what the aircrew saw as they were descending through the mountainous terrain that night in Colombia. This finding revealed the true cause of the errors that were made by the flight crew which had until then eluded investigators. And this, in turn, directed investigators to the errors in the onboard database.

Increasing reliance on automation meant that aircrews were becoming more dependent on onboard electronic systems used for navigation rather than on the printed paper charts and radio beacons which had been the mainstay of airborne navigation since the dawn of aviation. Uncritical trust in this system, however, turned out to be deadly.

The aftermath of this crash resulted in new safety systems that are now installed on virtually all commercial airliners to aid in terrain avoidance as well as new procedures to be used with automated aircraft navigation systems.

Let's take a closer look at the causes of this accident and some of the changes resulting from the investigation.

Where is it Taking Us?

Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport, which serves Cali, lies in a valley with mountainous terrain rising to over 12,000 ft on either side of the north-south running Cauca Valley. The arrival path of AA965 had the aircraft descending through this valley to pass over the airport and then reverse course to land to the north.

At some point though, the controller, who had no operable radar due to terrorist activity, offered the crew a straight-in approach to land to the south on the north-south runway. The crew accepted this clearance but were now high on profile without the turn around to lose the excess altitude. Thus they were expediting their descent with the aircraft's speed brakes being extended.

There was also some confusion in the instructions given to the crew by air traffic control with the aircrew finally asking to proceed directly to a radio beacon near the airport. This beacon, really just a radio transmitter, was named "Rozo NDB". It is here where a database error and a lack of situational awareness caused problems.

The paper charts which the crew was using listed the Rozo beacon by its identifier as the letter "R". That meant that typing that identifier into the computer should have caused the aircraft to fly to the Rozo beacon straight down the valley. The database installed in the aircraft, however, had an error and differed from the paper charts the crew was using, The identifier of the Rozo beacon in the electronic database was "ROZO" and not the letter "R" as the crew believed.

Thus when the crew typed in "R", the aircraft turned left towards another beacon located 130 miles to the east in Bogota named "Romeo". This beacon actually did have its identifier listed as "R" in the electronic database. This turn to the east took the aircraft directly into the mountains on the east side of the Cauca Valley.

Maintain Situational Awareness

If the above description is confusing for you to read, imagine what was going through the minds of those pilots as they tried to sort out where they were and why their airplane was mysteriously turning when it should've been going straight south to the runway. It took the crew about a minute to sort out that the airplane shouldn't be turning and another minute to start a turn back to safety. But even though they eventually got terrain warnings and had started an emergency climb, they had descended too far into the mountains and hit a ridge at an elevation of about 8900 ft.

One of the prime directives of aviation, drilled into all pilots from the beginning of their careers, is to maintain situational awareness. This means knowing what is going on around you at all times. It is a fundamental skill in aviation. This crew was set up by a database error, but should have had an idea that any turn off their course down the valley was ill advised. They should also have known that they had descended below the altitude of the mountains bordering the valley.

One of the luxuries that US based airlines enjoy is a first rate air traffic control system which is unparalleled in not only maintaining traffic separation, which is their main objective, but also in providing terrain avoidance. They're so good at it in fact, that it is easy for pilots to become complacent about the need to always be vigilant about terrain if for no other reason than they (and their passengers) will suffer the consequences of any such complacency.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for many countries without the superb infrastructure found in most first world countries. While most controllers are excellent at what they do, the Colombian controller had no radar with which to warn American 965 that they were in danger. It is the pilot's sole responsibility to maintain awareness of any terrain clearance problems.

Not in Vain

The story does not end here. The fallout from this accident was wide ranging. The database error which led the pilots to make a wrong turn into the mountains prompted a thorough review of the navigational databases which are used by commercial aircraft, including safeguards to ensure that the information printed on charts matches that in navigational databases. Flight crew procedures were also changed to ensure that a "common sense" check of any computer commands were made before those commands were executed in the navigation computers.

It also became apparent that faster and more capable computers coupled with GPS receivers would be able to provide a whole new level of protection against controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). Ever since the crash of Eastern Airlines 401 into the Florida everglades in 1972, commercial aircraft have had a system installed that is known as the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS). Pronounced "jip whiz", this system warns pilots of approaching terrain through a downward looking radio altimeter. 

GPWS is the source of the electronically generated "PULL UP" command you may have heard in movies or when the system is tested at the gate. The limitation of this system is that there is no way to reliably warn pilots of very rapidly rising terrain as the system can only look straight down at what is directly below the airplane. In fact, the GPWS system on American 965 did warn the pilots of danger but not until it was too late.

Enhanced GPWS

A new system called Enhanced GPWS has since been designed to use a database of all the terrain an aircraft is expected to encounter either regionally or globally. When coupled with GPS location, this system can give pilots enough warning to avoid any possible terrain conflicts well in advance of encountering any high terrain. It generates a terrain map on the primary flight display. This display looks somewhat like an old fashioned topographic map but terrain is displayed in green, yellow, or red depending on the height of the terrain in relation to aircraft altitude.

The system is proactive and will also generate cautions and warnings based on the current aircraft trajectory and any terrain that may be a danger. Pilots are warned well in advance of any projected terrain encounters. The system finally gives pilots real time feedback on exactly where they are in relation to high terrain, a problem which has always plagued aviation.

Aviation is safer now than at any time in history but this is no accident. Many accidents are caused by carelessness or complacency on the part of crews or maintainers, but occasionally something is learned that materially affects the safety of the entire industry. American Airlines 965 was a tragedy for everyone aboard that fated airliner as well as for their friends and families, but at least in this one case, real changes were made which will make a recurrence of this accident much less likely.

The next airplane trip you take will also be safer because of lessons learned from the crash of American 965.

Addendum: Counterfeit Parts and Aircraft Design

Two other issues were brought to light in the aftermath of American 965. One that was highlighted was the existence of an international network of counterfeit aircraft parts as some of the parts from the wreckage began to show up on the black market. Aircraft parts are built to exacting and expensive standards, so an incentive exists for unscrupulous actors to sell counterfeit and stolen parts. Parts with serial numbers from AA 965 did make their way into this network.

A second issue was that of cockpit design. When the pilots realized that they were near the terrain, they initiated an emergency climb, but neglected to retract the speedbrakes which they had been using to descend. Because the aircraft hit the ridge only a few hundred feet below the summit, speculation was made as to whether the speed brakes should automatically retract when the throttles are pushed up and whether doing so would have saved the aircraft. Some aircraft have this feature while others do not, but highlighting the issue should make pilots aware of the potential problem.

Friday, December 02, 2016

How Does an Airliner Run Out of Fuel?

LaMia 2933 ran out of fuel

While the investigation into the crash of the LaMia RJ-85 airliner in Columbia is still ongoing, it is becoming apparent that the aircraft ran out of fuel. Investigators at the crash site noted that there was no post-crash fire or fuel spillage. Other evidence suggesting fuel starvation is that photos of the fan blades on the engines appear to show them to be mostly intact. A spinning engine often throws its blades upon impact suggesting that the engines were not operating.

Other significant factors affecting this flight were the length of the leg, an arrival delay imposed due to another emergency aircraft, and the status of the pilot as a part owner of the charter airline. Also of note is that the first officer was on her first flight as a commercial pilot.

How Much Fuel Did They Need?

Any airline will be subject to the regulations of the country in which they are based, but most countries' rules conform to guidelines published by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). ICAO rules state that any aircraft must have enough fuel to travel to its destination and any alternate airport plus an additional 45 minutes for reserve. The investigation will determine if the LaMia aircraft departed with sufficient fuel.

Remember, though, that winds aloft, weather, payload, and even temperature can affect the fuel range of any airplane. There is no hard and fast mileage number to apply. The investigation will need to reconstruct all the planning data that the LaMia pilots had.

Two Ways to Run Dry

The first and perhaps most common way to run out of gas is due to simple human error. This can result in an aircraft being mis-fueled or having an erroneous fuel reading due to a bad gauge. Call it inadvertent...when it gets quiet while still airborne, the pilots may be surprised the most. This can take multiple errors by fuelers, mechanics, or pilots who can be extremely inventive in finding ways to circumvent procedures designed to catch fuel errors, but it has been known to happen.

The second way to run out of fuel is to have a lapse of judgement, or what we in aviation call airmanship.

This Has Happened Before

Part of the essence of being a pilot in command of a commercial aircraft means internalizing the fact that 1) you're on your own and 2) that everyone aboard is depending on you. Of course you aren't literally on your own as you have resources such as your first officer, air traffic control, and dispatch, but no one will be there to hold your hand or pull your chestnuts out of the fire if things go wrong. The nature of the job means that you will be made, in some way or another, to own the decisions you make.

Keeping your eye on your fuel state is one of those "Aviation 101" things that every pilot gets pounded into them from day one. Running out of gas is something you just don't do if you're aware of the two precepts above. It is rare but it happens.

In 1978, a United Airlines DC-8 crashed outside of Portland, Oregon after running out of fuel. The pilots had become preoccupied with a bad gear indication and flew around until the fuel ran out. The engineer was not assertive enough to communicate the plane's dire fuel state to a distracted captain. As the engines quit, the captain implored the engineer to "keep them running". He forgot that it was his job to land before the fuel ran out.

Again in 1990, an Avianca Boeing 707 crashed after running out of fuel on approach to New York's JFK airport killing 74 passengers and crew. The cause was determined to be a language barrier and misunderstanding by the crew in communicating their fuel state to air traffic control. Specifically, air traffic controllers will not give priority handling to any aircraft unless the word "emergency" is used. The Avianca crew did not use that term and ran out of fuel after extensive traffic delays.

In both of these cases, the pilot in command failed to take appropriate actions to land before the fuel ran out. It really doesn't matter what air traffic control says or what state the landing gear are in. It would've been better to belly in or to disregard controller instructions than to crash. Making uncomfortable choices between two potentially unpleasant options is a big part of being a pilot.

Was This Careless Flying?

While the investigation is far from complete, a picture is beginning to emerge. LaMia, which only owned this one aircraft, was known to be one of the cheapest charter operators available for hire in the region. A takeoff delay also meant that a potential refueling stop was not available due to the closure of that field. It also turns out that the pilot in command was a part owner of the company who may have let financial concerns cloud his judgement. 

Lastly, his copilot, Sisy Arias, was on her first ever commercial flight as a pilot. This is important because in her very inexperienced state, she may not have been aware of the fuel situation nor was she likely to intervene even if she was.

There's an old aviation aphorism floating around which states that the definition of a superior pilot is one who uses their superior judgement (proper fuel planning) to avoid situations requiring their superior skill (doing a night dead-stick landing into mountainous terrain). 

Aviation is a profession that calls for strict adherence to unmalleable rules. Behaving recklessly is bad enough, if that is indeed what happened here, but the real tragedy is in betraying the trust of your passengers and crew.