Archive for March, 2008

Light Management Duties

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff, Uncategorized on March 28, 2008 by luckyjet

Most of what we do as pilots is just a structured set up for two people working in a confined space for several hours a day to avoid choking one another.

A fair amount of the Captain’s efforts are related to keeping the interior cockpit lighting just right for the task at hand and managing the exterior lights.  It doesn’t sound like much but the proper illumination level for all the instrument clusters and panels makes it much easier to see outside. Seeing outside is kind of a big deal, especially at low altitude where there could be unreported traffic. It also helps set the proper mood for the dramatic music we always hear in our heads.

The instrument panel lights on the First Officer’s side of the cockpit have several independant brightness controls. These are not directly controlled by the Captain but they are part of the “light show”.

There are hundreds of things first Officers are supposed to know that are not part of the training. This is, for the most part,  stuff your Dad or Uncle should have told you when you were a little kid. That is, of course, if you were raised in a family that has airline running all through it.

Some of the unwritten rules are as follows:

Do not run your main panel lights much brighter than the Captains.

If a single instrument on your side tends to be brighter than the rest then dim all of them. If you need more light ask the Captain,  “Mind if I turn these up a little?” Turn things back down for the approach and landing without being asked. This might make the Captain think you have the good sense to look outside.

If you must use the overhead map light then turn it off when you are finished. It should always  be turned on while dim then eased up to a setting you can use.

Your personal worth as a human being is often directly judged by a combination of how much of your approach chart data you can remember without turning that damn light back on and the suspicion that you have forgotten something.  The Captain already knows you have forgotten something.

You can only hope to be the brightest thing on your side of the cockpit when the lights are managed correctly.  Since you will screw up the temperature at least get the light levels on your side right.

If the Captain has to tell you multiple hundreds of times to turn the goddam map light off you might suck to fly with. That is not good.

Walk through the terminal with the Captain. Not in front of him. He shouldn’t walk ahead of you either unless he is a dick.

Always ask if there is any more trash to be thrown away before you take the cockpit trash bag out. “Hey, you got any more trash to throw away?” 

This stuff ain’t hard. Be considerate of your valued coworkers.

Happy Landings.


Where Does THAT go?

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff, Uncategorized on March 22, 2008 by luckyjet

A little boy about five came to the front of the airplane and after a little encouragement from his mom asked “Where does the stuff go?”  What stuff, little man? “The poop, where does the poop go? In the sky? Does the poop go in the sky?” He turned and left in a fit of giggles before either of us could answer him.  Of course he did. Poop is probably one of the funniest things on the planet. Poop falling from the sky is an order of magnitude funnier.

A very long time ago when airliners were not pressurized you could actually see the ground through the “semi-flushing” toilet. There was no tank or anything, the poo n’ stuff just sailed right out there. That was a simpler time and the country was less populated. Most people were too busy barfing to really worry about it much.

Then came the days of giant pressurized airliners. This arrangement started in the  1940’s before jets. The new modern design brought the first “holding tanks”.  There was usually a tank for each toilet that could be emptied from the outside. Flushed with “blue water”, that was recycled from the tank with each flush,  these really didn’t change much for about 50 years or so. The water didn’t stay so blue for very long.

Current “next generation” jets generally have a common tank for multiple toilets. A combination of clean water and compressed air whisk all the poo n’ stuff away with a startling ka-whoosh. For some reason people still pee all over the floor.

Then what? In theory upon arrival our valued co-workers responsible for this sort of thing hook up a “lavatory service cart” to empty the tank.  Others “mop” the lavatory, which is a nice word for spread the pee around so it is thinner. I think it is great that this is about the only example of the word “lavatory” in common usage of American English.  

A little research would probably show that one of the airlines started using the word after WW II and it caught on since it sounds a lot better than shit-house and has fewer letters. 

The “Lav Cart” is then carted away to an approved location where it is connected to a sewer and dumped out in an approved and non-gross manner. They never seem to do anything at all with the mops that have been in airline use since 1937.

What could possibly go wrong?

In the old days an innocent person could have been smacked with an intact turd from a passing plane. This is one of the very few examples of the airline industry taking advantage of an available technology before the worst case scenario played out. If there was ever a documented turd strike it was hushed up since there appears to be no record of such an incident.

There have however been some tragic poo n’ stuff events in spite of the modern improved system since the  “just let one fly” days. This is why we have the “next generation” system.

Jets (as you know if you are a regular reader) fly at high altitude where the air is thin, smooth and cold.  About fifty degrees below zero. A small leak from the filler connection of a poo n’ stuff holding tank can result in a sizable chunk of poo n’ stuff ice forming on the outside of the plane.  These things can easily weigh thirty or forty pounds.

When the airplane descends to warmer air the giant frozen poo n’ stuff  ball becomes detached and hurtles to the ground usually coming apart or falling harmlessly to earth in an unpopulated area.

There was a family having breakfast one morning as a  jet airliner flew over on approach to a nearby international airport. An enormous frozen blue poo n’ stuff ball crashed through their roof and exploded in the center of the kitchen.

As I recall there were no injuries reported but I’ll bet they got to stay home from school.

Happy Landings. 


I think this is a bug on the window but it could be . . . . . .

How Do You Remember What All That Does?

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on March 18, 2008 by luckyjet

First of all there is a full set of  flight instruments for each pilot. The really critical flight instruments have at least one additional “back-up” instrument for use in the event all power to the main ones is lost. This makes the front panel look twice as complicated as necessary. Each major system has switches, most we don’t normally use much.

Practically everything else was installed as a result of a nasty accident. The FAA equipment requirements are historically reactionary and the airlines are historically cheap. Instead of shopping for new equipment like a 17 year old at a car stereo shop with a stolen credit card the airlines are mostly interested in reliability and economy. 

We remember how the systems of the airplane work in much the same way you remember how to operate your house.

If all  the switches for your house and all the appliances were located in a hall closet it would look impressive too. People might say things like “How the hell do you know what all the switches do?” It’s easy.

This is the toaster dark-light control, this is the bread ejector lever.  Over here we have the extra rinse cycle next to the garbage disposal on / off switch and the garage door opener.  This is the door bell and this row here is for the DVD-VCR-DVR for CNN, NBC, MTV, CBS, TNN and AC.  Flip this switch to here and you get a big eyed grumpy ex-prosecutor, flip this one and we can cool off the house in the summer.

Once in a while we forget a switch, once in a while you leave the garage open all night or your keys in the door.  People do stuff like that. 

This is why most of the important stuff has a big orange light that comes on when it isn’t working.

Red lights are usually r e a l powerful stuff. Fire warnings, parking brakes, and such. 

Blue lights are for things that are generally not always needed but are on and working fine for now just in case anybody cares. Bright blue lights are for things that you tried to turn on but haven’t quite come all the way on yet and might be stuck if you don’t notice the light is still bright and could result in an orange light later.  Or worse yet, a lot of orange lights.

For the most part we are required to know how to “work” something as opposed to “how it works”. It is more important to know the difference between the blender and the washer than it is to know how fast the RPM of the blender is. 

Just like your home it is important to be able to find important things in the dark. A basic understanding of what to do in an emergency is also kind of a big deal for us.

Did you know you are supposed to stay near the floor and crawl out like crazy in the event of a house fire?

 What should you do in the event of an impending home invasion when you have forgotten to bring your guns to the dinner table?

Safety preparation and training is probably just as important for the home as it is for anywhere. I try to be over-prepared for everything we can think of that could go weird when you fly. Please take a little time and prepare for things that will probably never happen at home.

Happy Landings

Truth about Turbulence

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2008 by luckyjet

Turbulence comes in several varieties since it is caused by different things.  The  vast majority of the time the severity of turbulence is not reported clearly.

My Dad, C.V. explained it like this: If you are really good at it you can usually drink coffee in light turbulence. Not always, but usually. If the ride isn’t smooth but it is still easy to drink coffee just report it as almost smooth. Unless you go to work for Delta …. then just complain all the time.

It is impossible to drink coffee in moderate turbulence. You can try but you’ll end up wearing some of it.

In severe turbulence you forget that you even had coffee.

Severe, or worse than severe, will hurt people that are even wearing seat belts and can damage the airplane. The coffee doesn’t enter into it. This almost never happens.

There are other descriptions, codes, number systems, etc, but these work pretty well. Different airlines have different methods of warning their pilots about rough air that has been reported or forecast. None of these is perfect since many of the things that cause rough air are invisible, and there isn’t always somebody if front of us to report what is out there.

Low Altitude Bumps: This is caused by uneven heating of the Earth’s surface by the sun’s energy. Thermal currents which are pretty much just wind blowing up or down instead of sideways jostle the airplane up and down as it goes along.  This uncomfortable nonsense usually stops at the altitude where the cloud bases are.

Strong surface winds interacting with the ground also make it rough down low.

These types of rough air are predictable. If it is hot or windy and you are going to land or take off it is going to be rough. This is rarely worse than light to moderate and isn’t dangerous. Prolonged flight when it is rough like this will probably start a barfing contest. These are great fun.

Even experienced fliers often think this is what we are talking about when we ask everyone to stay seated. Not true.

The reason we want you to wear a seat belt is to keep you from breaking your neck if you hit the ceiling at sixty miles an hour. This sort of turbulence almost never happens but when it does bad things happen. The airplane will be just fine, there is no need to worry about it coming apart or anything interesting like that. It is the contents of the airplane we are concerned with.

I know a lot of our valued passengers are anxious about flying in any kind of weather, good  or bad. The majority of the time when the passengers are all having a freak fit the guys in the front still have their feet up looking outside.

When there is information available to the pilots we can usually tell what is coming. Often it is more of an art than a science so buckle up while I explain the weird part.

A very long time ago toward the end of World War II airplanes started to get lost. Very lost. As in “we ended up 800 miles from the destination” lost. The Japanese already knew about it but this is how we discovered the high altitude winds called the Jet Stream.

The Jet Stream is a relatively small “river” of fast moving air that circles the globe at high altitude from West to East in the northern hemisphere. In winter months the Jet Stream can be found relatively low and farther south than in summer. This is why you can always expect a strong tailwind from Los Angeles to New York in the winter.

The jet stream can be as much as 200 knots. Imagine a garden hose of high velocity water. Imagine putting the garden hose in a big fish tank. Imagine you are a fish. This is how the jet stream creates “clear air” turbulence.

We know that the Jet Stream is near the Tropopause. This is the boundary between the unstable low altitude Troposphere where most of the weather resides and the relatively stable Stratosphere where the air is thin, cold, and usually smooth. We can watch the outside air temperature and find the Tropopause. Sometimes it makes sense to stay in it if the tailwind is good enough.

Another type of high altitude turbulence is the “Mountain Wave”. This is caused by a dramatic interaction between strong surface wind and mountains.  It doesn’t seem like mountains would be big enough to make a difference but they do when the wind is really strong. A two mile high mountain can easily create turbulence that causes problems ten miles high. This is common when crossing the Rocky Mountains  or the Sierra Nevada.

Now you know as much as most pilots remember about rough air.

What should you do if you are up and around and the air gets rough?

If possible hook your feet under that railing beneath a seat, and put your hands up to hold against an overhead bin. Try to keep your knees and elbows bent slightly instead of locked stiff.  If you are standing in a galley area (you aren’t welcome there), (even if you are tolerated), try to hang on but beware of the galley doors flying open and creating sharp corners.

Please keep your seat belt loosely fastened while you are seated ……….. this is why.

People Watching 101

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2008 by luckyjet

Airports have got to be one of the top three best places to watch people.  Here we have a near perfect cross-section of society. It seems to me that they would eventually get where they are going and stay there, but they never do.

Some of the highlights of three hours of crowd observing today while waiting for the airplane to show up:

The enormous guy leaning back against a railing in a chair made for a little kid eating pizza with both hands. Some things are self explanatory.

The two guys, both with that blue communication thing stuck in their head, standing near each other. They were both using that LOUD VOICE that cell phone people use sometimes but there was evidently cross-talk since they kept giving each other a “what-the-fuck” look. I would love to know what they are thinking. Maybe the person on the other end og the conversation is responding to what the other guy said. What could ever go wrong with that?

A mom with her daughter about thirteen. The mom is dressed exactly like a 1981 street hooker, the daughter is dressed like a street hooker from the future.  This is fairly common but the mom seems to be making it a point to give everybody that looks at her daughter a nasty look. I would love to know what she is thinking.

A mom walking by carrying all of the stuff while her eleven year old son bitches, moans, and whines. He is fixated on her, and bitching and moaning, not watching where he is going. I don’t think she did it on purpose but she walked kind of close to a big column in the terminal. The kid smacked in to it. HA. I think I might have psychically willed this to happen.

Two airline employees walk by complaining about a valued co-worker in a loud voice, I’ll bet they do this all the time, every day.

An Indian guy with a turban on his head gets great looks from about everybody. I would love to know what they are thinking.

A cop with an enormous belly in front of his otherwise height / weight proportional self drops his cop radio and says fuck. I’d love to know if he realized he said it.

A girl with a lot of piercings and tatoos and a lot of herself showing checks herself out in a reflection of a window. I’m thinking that she is thinking “yes,this is exactly what I was going for”.  That must feel good.

Did you notice the guy in the pilot uniform sitting around for hours typing on a laptop?  If you wonder what he is thinking he is probably wondering what you are thinking.

One Of Those Landings

Posted in Airplanes n Stuff on March 10, 2008 by luckyjet

People never remember the stuff that impresses pilots. I guess they don’t notice it.

The descent  took more planning than usual due to mountainous terrain, high winds and convective weather in the area.  It didn’t pay extra though.

There was a bit of a “set to” with approach control when I needed a course deviation for weather and the controller said in kind of a pissy voice “I don’t show any weather at your 12 o’clock” My response was something about us having radar AND windows both of which require the turn we are making now. So the turn was approved after the fact but we were moved back in the line-up. It didn’t piss me off at all, not even a little bit, I’m surprised I even remember it.  There isn’t room in the cockpit to throw a fit anyway.

 What would have been four mile right hand traffic pattern turned into an eight mile left handed wifferdill back across the approach course and eventually to the runway. That’s ok. Really. Even though it didn’t pay extra. It does not piss me off. Not a bit.

There was a lot of headwind so I delayed landing gear extension until late in the approach to save fuel. This also makes the approach quiet for not only those on the ground but also our valued passengers. 

Even with the wind changing by about thirty knots from a thousand feet to the surface the visual approach was flown within three or fours knots of target speed all the way down. That’s no big deal, we just do it that way now.  If we don’t the airplane will rat us out to management via satellite datalink before we even land.

Somewhere about four feet above touchdown everything tried to turn to shit. This is an aviation term meaning an unexpected decrease of aircraft threshold energy resulting in a rapidly increasing sink rate,  ie. about to crash.

Small abrupt windshear events cause this sort of thing and other than messing up what would have been an ordinary landing are no big deal. Usually.

Most often when this happens a pilot will raise the nose in order to arrest the sink rate. Since the wheels of a swept wing airplane are way behind the center of gravity this “rotates” the landing gear into the cement with considerable velocity. The sink rate of the airplane might actually decrease but the wheels will Spank the ground. This is generally perceived as a “bad” landing.

So, what makes this memorable for me is that instead of the intuitive yank back on the yoke, or even just a little positive back pressure, or a flinch that would have smacked the wheels down I actually saved it through clever use of the 727 Roll-On.

The roll-on is one of those techniques that is actually a category of maneuvers. All of which are performed below 3 feet of altitude with various results. There is the roll-on, the modified roll-on, the hoy-yah, and others. Landing a large jet is a lot like surfing in this regard. A lot of times you might not know what trick you just did unless somebody else gives it a name.

The 727 roll-on gets it’s name from the Boeing 727 which has all three of it’s engines above the center of gravity and the wheels way behind the C.G. If you can manage to get the 727 about 5 feet high and just goose the thrust a little while pushing the nose down a good landing usually is the result.

The landing that resulted today was truly something to be recorded. There was no perceptible difference between the part where we were flying and the part where we weren’t. Exactly at the touchdown target zone  the wheels began to brush, then carress the runway. Gently the roundness of the tires meshed with the raised  areas between the grains of concrete and friction started to take place. The wheels spun up to the speed of the airplane gradually instead of suddenly and the struts began to accept the weight of the airplane gracefully as it was smoothly offered by the wings in  little increments. I made some smart ass remark like “I think the number three tire is a little out of round” to the First Officer as I turned off of the runway half way down.

This was one of those landings that happens maybe once a year for me and I fly a lot. I also generally make smooth landings but this was different. This was a combination of physics, art, skill, and blind stumbling luck. It was mine though, the best one of the year so far and nobody said a damn word about it. Not a single wow, oh my, or kiss my ass, from anybody on the airplane. That doesn’t piss me off any either. Not even a little.