Archive for January, 2008

Happy Landings

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on January 30, 2008 by luckyjet

Offering an unsolicited landing critique on every flight is an American pastime. Maybe the critical process should be modified a little so everyone can be more realistic and seem smarter to the pilots.

An old adage says  “Any landing you can walk away from is a good one”.  Intuitively there is some truth to this since we occasionally hear about one in the news that is much uglier. Actually, any landing where you can use the airplane again is pretty good, use it again today even better, and take off again within the hour …great.

How should we judge a landing then? From the back of the airplane you can judge the landing fairly well once you know what to watch for.

First of all smooth landings on a wet runway do not count. There is little friction when touching down on a wet runway so even a moderate “thumper” seems nice.

The touch down point is the first important judgement criteria. Too short of a landing is bad. Really bad. As in “Dang, we nearly wrecked bad”.  Big airplanes have a nasty habit of being slow to respond in the event of a “sinking spell”.  This is why the touchdown aim point is about a thousand feet down the runway.  We  shouldn’t touch down “on the numbers”. This counts points big off even if the landing is really smooth.

Too long of a landing is always bad for obvious reasons. Way too long of a landing isn’t a landing at all since the airplane probably won’t be used again.

The brakes are the main thing that stop the airplane, when the wheels are in the air the brakes aren’t doing anything. Watch for the big white rectangle on the runway. When the wheels touch down at this point it COULD be a good landing if it is at the correct speed.  Side loads should be at a minimum and the transition to braking from thrust reverse should be smooth.

If the touch down is smooth too it was  really good.

Another criteria we judge is alignment.  If the airplane is all off to one side or the other points should be taken off.

If the runway is short and wet, or contaminated with snow the best landing might be a smack em whack em. This is my term for intentionally smacking the airplane on the ground, yanking the speedbrakes out while applying max braking and reverse thrust. Not a smooth landing at all but a very “good” one.

Some points should be counted off if a rough transition is made from thrust reverser use to braking. A steady firm deceleration id what we shoot for.

Please keep in mind that the landing is only a small (if important) part of the flight and a smooth touch down is not the most important part of the landing.

Smooth can even be bad. May all of yours be happy.


A Sign Of Progress

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on January 26, 2008 by luckyjet

An old aviation bumper sticker, truism, whatever:  A good pilot relies on his  judgement to avoid having to rely on his pilot skills to get him out of something bad judgement got him into.

 (style note: the masculine imparts the feminine and singular imparts the plural excepting when the forgoing  would change the meaning or implication of the statement. Notwithstanding the aforesaid, girls can be pilots too.)

In recent past my four year old grandson went with us on his first airline flight. His exponential cuteness and tiny airline uniform may have had a lot to do with the warm welcome he received. The crew had been reassigned to a different schedule and were pressed for time since this was about to result in an unscheduled airplane change.

The Captain took a full ten minutes out of a busy day to give him the full cockpit tour. He asked about forty questions a minute, flipped a lot of switches, and got to say “ladies and gentlemen” on the public address system. A fairly typical first time in the pilot seat experience for a little kid.

The coolest part was that by the next day he hadn’t mentioned that the Captain was a lady.  It just didn’t seem to be a noticeable part of the event for him. This, I think, marks a turning point for the industry.

Strange Doings At The Circle K

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on January 26, 2008 by luckyjet

Airline pilots have a little more time available to look around outside than most people do.  And we work in the sky. As a result we’re more likely to see unusual things  than most people are.  Thus, a lot of what we see isn’t really that unusual. There just aren’t many observers there to see it, except us.

Also we’re  in a position that requires us to at least not usually appear to be completely nuts. So a lot of what could be considered a UFO goes unreported.  At least for a while.

Don’t get me all wrong here, I think it would be hilarious if  there happened to be “creatures from another world”  whizzing around in violation of physical laws and FAA regulations.  It just ain’t likely.

Some things that are pretty neat are mirages, usually from temperature inversions. These are the same thing that causes a highway to shimmer like a lake in the summer time. A similiar rapid change in temperature and air density between two stable layers of air can bend light and cause a lensing effect.  

When the sun is at a low angle (near sunrise or sunset) things from over the visual horizon can sometimes be seen.  Stuff like this usually can’t be identified but it usually isn’t a flying object in the first place.

Another common source of UFO sightings is sunlight projecting a reflection from inside the cockpit onto the inside of the windscreen (pilot talk for windshield). This will usually look like little shiny formations of space ships that zip around at about a million miles an hour when you lean forward to get a better look.

It’s especially fun if your own tie-tack is the source of the reflection and the other pilot sees it too. Especially if you can keep him from saying anything stupid about it on the radio.

What about all the times people report something and the Air Force scrambles jets to intercept and chase something? First of all except for a brief period after 9-11 the Air Force would pretty much need to call somebody at home and ask them to come out to the airport and give chase.

And those guys really like to chase stuff, always have. Its what they would rather do than sit around on government furniture waiting for the Russians. So when they do get to go chase something it’s a lot like throwing a stick for a Labrador. Even if there is no stick.  

The recent UFO sightings in Texas are a hoot. If these are beings from another planet looking for examples of intelligent life it might a few more visits.

Happy Landings

Conjecture Is Never Cool

Posted in Uncategorized on January 18, 2008 by luckyjet

Any time there is an accident in the airline world the news media always has some exceptionally stupid comments, conjecture, moron experts, and eyewitness.

As a group airline pilots will never offer conjecture as to what happened or why. . . . not among others anyway.

The discussion process goes like this in the crew room:

Did you hear about British Airways? No, what happened?

They were on short approach to Heathrow and both motors quit. They smacked into the approach lights pretty hard and messed the airplane up but nobody was killed.

What happened? Birds?

Dunno, the Captain was on TV saying what a great job the F.O. did of not killing everybody. He has great hair, and a cool accent. Seems like if they took enough birds to tank both engines they would have known it. Even in a triple seven.

Maybe they ran it out of gas, or they ran the main tanks dry and the pumps unported.

Maybe it was just an auto-throttle wrestling match and they got so far behind the power curve they couldn’t recover … Hum, seems unlikely.

After a few days of this there might be something reported in the media that pretty well convinces just about every pilot in the industry what the cause was. The media hardly ever realizes this. After a few weeks a preliminary report is usually issued, after about a year the results of a thorough investigation will be released.

Anything else is strictly conjecture.

As professional pilots we need to believe two things: First, that we would never, ever, do anything through our actions, or inaction, so damn stupid as to allow or cause damage to an airplane or harm to our crew and passengers. Second, that we are all perfectly capable of  making mistakes with fatal consequence for ourselves and hundreds of others, both on our airplane and on the ground. 

It is this balance of  my firm belief that I am quite possibly the best living pilot on planet Earth, maybe ever, and a clear understanding of my potential for being a complete and total incompetent  that makes me an effective Captain and possibly the best pilot ever.

Oh, and hardly anybody that wrecks and lives is a hero. The heroes are the ones that don’t wreck, the ones that avert disaster, and the sort that risk personal injury to save others. A hero is a guy that stays with a F86 with a failed engine and crashes in a field instead of ejecting over a populated area.  A lucky hero is a guy that is so slick that a major malfunction results in a logbook entry, a delayed flight and no media coverage.

All that should be said so far is that they got the biggest piece of the airplane as close to the correct gate as possible, there were some unfortunate injuries and the airplane looks to be very badly damaged. Anything more would be conjecture.

More than 100 Americans were killed in traffic accidents today if it was an average day. 

Through The Looking Glass

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on January 15, 2008 by luckyjet


At least 40 percent of pilot compensation is visual. We see some weird and cool stuff on a fairly regular basis.  Most of it we understand, a lot of it we don’t.

The photo is taken from an angle that we don’t see from since I just held the camera up at the top of the winddow and blasted away in the general direction I thought the shadow would be. 

The little bracket looking things on the nose of the airplane are “vortex generators”. They  slow down airflow in certain spots in order to reduce wind noise, drag, or prevent sonic shock wave formation.

The image of an airplane coming the other direction is our own shadow projected on a cloud by the sun behind and above us.

What I don’t really understand is that these things always have a round bright spot with a full spectrum rainbow at the front of the shadow.  Maybe these are related to how a pin hole camera works.

If you are an expert wise in the ways of light and shadow please explain.

We call them Sun Dogs, as for why ….. I don’t know that either. 

Happy Landings

A Gathering Storm?

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on January 12, 2008 by luckyjet

Did I mention that the FAA, Airline Management, and the TSA are a pack of liars, cheats and thieves, every one? If this doesn’t sound familiar you should watch the movie Airplane!

The Fall and Summer of 1981 were typically hot but dryer than usual throughout Texas. Fewer rainy days with better flying weather should have made our job of flying cancelled checks around the Lone Star Republic much easier.

You may not have heard much about the guys that transport cancelled checks but their business is terribly time sensitive and they take it very, very seriously. 

All I had to do four days a week was fly from Houston to Austin to San Antonio back to Austin back to Houston, wait a while then fly to Victoria, Corpus Christi, and home to Houston before eleven thirty PM. Easy in good weather. The trip could be a booger when the weather was bad but we usually ran it right on time. About 8 hours flight time and a 12 hour duty day.

I was one of the first to notice that Austin had become difficult to fly in and out of. Even in good weather flights were being handled as though the visibility was low. There were delays. New “procedures”, new applications of old rules started being announced.  A new rudeness on the radio  made dealing with our valued industry co-workers at the Air Traffic Control facility more and more difficult.

Just dealing with these guys on a daily basis became a huge pain in the ass.  All over the country controllers were working under “unreasonable stress”. This became evident since they were more and more surly as time went by.  They wanted a raise, more time off, and better retirement.

Then the delay vectors started. Big turns would be assigned for no apparent reason. The only three airplanes in the area might be vectored so the slowest would be in front with the other two flying “S” turns behind him. Separation standards were applied so conservatively that every airplane could have been an Eighth Air Force flight of B-17s and there still wouldn’t have been a traffic conflict. The pilots generally just smoked more and shouted obscenities after each radio call.

When the controllers went out on strike we expected a nightmare. The company wasn’t even sure if we could keep flying since our work was so time critical. It was seen as the beginning of the end for us “little guys”.

The first day of the strike brought good weather to Texas. I took off for Austin with no hassle. On arrival there were no stupid turns, no rudeness, no attitude. Over to San Antonio and back was easier than it had been in more than a year. The entire day was like that. Efficient handling, a professional cheerful attitude, and a comitment to get the job done made our job easier to do than it had been in months.

The controllers were all fired by Ronald Reagan a few days later while he was playing the part of President of The United States of America.

After the big firing things were thrown together pretty well. There were delays, many small facilitys were closed, some had reduced hours of operation. Old procedures from the 1950s were still effective for places with no operating control tower. Overall safety worked out just fine. It would have been easier to be safe if all that hadn’t happened, but with some extra effort on the part of the pilots and remaining controllers it worked out just fine.

I am still impressed with how much easier it was to fly the day the strike started. The controllers had made our jobs dang near impossible. There is something about human nature that always causes people to do a worse job while negotiating to get more money. Seems backwards to me. There aren’t enough Air Traffic Controllers now for a lot of reasons. One of these is that there are so many administrative positions that don’t actually have anything to do with moving airplanes. 

I’m sure the controllers have some good points.  So long as they don’t make my life miserable I should support their efforts to get more of what they want for less than they want to give up. 

A few tough months at work because they are pissy might change my mind on that though. We’ll see how it goes this time.

Happy Landings.

We’re The Fugawi

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on January 7, 2008 by luckyjet

A Joe Walsh lyric from the early 70’s says “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t where you are”.  No longer true.

Modern airliners use a Flight Management Computer (FMC) to program a Flight Management System (FMS) which gets position information from Global Positioning System (GPS) and backs it up with a redundant Inertial Navigation System. This is a gross over-simplification but most of this is transparent to even the pilots so it doesn’t matter anyway.

We get a paper flight plan that is set up like a spread sheet. It shows all of the points along the way. We call them waypoints for some reason. Nobody knows.

So long as the paper flight plan agrees with the route stored in the FMC and the clearance that the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) reads to us over the radio or sends to us by Instant Message over the ACARS system (I can’t remember what ACARS stands for) then we execute the plan. This all happens while we are parked at the gate. It’s a lot less complicated than it sounds but it is really easy to screw up.

Position is updated again near the end of the runway just before takeoff in case a few feet of error was induced during the taxi out.

After takeoff we can navigate several different ways. The FMS system can be engaged with the autopilot and will fly to each programmed waypoint.

Pilots generally keep track of about where they are. There should always be an inverse relationship between altitude and positional “assuredness”. Meaning, the lower you are the more it matters where you are. Above ten thousand feet there just isn’t much terrain in the Continental United States to worry about. Navigation still matters but it usually isn’t critical in the precision sense, but getting lost will make your ass sure red. (This is probably something Bob said, I got it from somewhere)

On really long flights with several pages of waypoints and several turns along the way Air Traffic Control will often approve shortcuts that straighten out the route and shave off a few minutes of flying time.  This will take us several miles off of the planned route. Additional deviations to avoid severe weather can easily add up to more than a hundred miles from the original flight plan.

All this sums up to: Even if we do know what lake or even what State we are over chances are we don’t really care.  Just so long as our destination is at the end of the Magenta Line on the big moving map display and the fuel numbers add up right everything will be just fine. Unless of course, the Russians decide to shoot us down. But that is a different story.

Happy Landings.