Sleeping Pilots? Let’s all take a Deep Breath…

October 24, 2009 § 4 Comments

Just five more minutes, Mom!

Just five more minutes, Mom!

Okay, I’ve finally heard enough crap on the radio about what people THINK happened to the North West (aka: Delta) flight that missed MSP the other day. I have thirty five years flying, twenty seven of them as an airline pilot (including around 20,000 hours in transport jets) and will try to help you out with some opinionated facts.

Let’s all get our panties out of a knot and take a deep breath. We have had more than enough ignorance and hype about the thing. Let’s talk reality.

First, given their work hours and life styles, it should come as a shock to nobody that airline pilots take naps while flying. They just aren’t supposed to do it at the same time. The way you do it is ask the other guy or girl if they mind you taking a little snooze. After you make sure that they are going to watch things and stay awake, you push your seat back (so you won’t inadvertently kick a rudder pedal) put your head back and cut zees. There is no federal aviation regulation saying the “pilot not sleeping” must put on an oxygen mask. That would be stupid, because having a reg like that would mean that the FAA admits we take naps.

Second, there is no alarm that tells you the plane missed its destination. That would also be stupid because having an alarm like that presupposes that all pilots in a crew would be asleep. Having said that, new generation, long-range jets like the Boeing 777 do have a crew alert system. If the crew doesn’t move any switch in the cockpit for a pre-determined amount of time the airplane starts giving them louder and louder “crew alerts” until they key a mike or push a button. This was designed into very long range airliners.

The aircraft radios would only be heard if you had the volume up, so ATC calling every ten seconds does you no good if everything is muted. Ditto for other aircraft trying to call you. There is an ACARS system (automatic crew alert) that is designed to transfer data, but the alert for that is a very quiet “ding-dong”. This is because you get so many ACARS messages during a normal flight that if it were noisy it would drive you nuts. There is a printer but it runs fairly silently and is out of direct view of the pilots. So, a WAKE UP sign would be pointless.

Airliner crews are required to maintain contact with their airline via a radio and to keep them from having to listen all the time there is a system called SELCAL. (pronounced “cell-call”). It flashes a light and has a slightly louder chime to alert the crew. In noisy cockpits, this is also pretty hard to hear.

It is very unusual that the crew was out of contact with ATC for over an hour. Normally, if things are quiet for more than a few minutes, pilots get on the frequency and ask ATC: “still there?” to make sure they haven’t missed a frequency change. Personally, I think these guys either really were arguing or both were asleep. Even without communication with ATC they normally would have noticed they hadn’t started down yet for MSP.

The Flight Attendants? Should they have called? Nope.

The flight was only 150 miles past MSP when ATC finally got its attention. That translates into 15 to 18 minutes assuming a normal cruise of around 485 knots. A delay that short would not even get the FA’s attention unless the pilots had forgotten to turn on the fasten seatbelt light.

Here is what would happen with the automation if both pilots were asleep or arguing or just clueless. When programming the FMS (flight management system) prior to flight many pilots don’t put in the arrival procedure, they just put in the destination airport and plan to program the arrival and approach later when they get closer. If the jet flew in cruise with the autopilot on past MSP the FMS would have dropped out of VNAV/LNAV (vertical nav/lateral nav) into Altitude Hold and Heading Hold. The plane would simply keep flying straight and level off of the last heading the FMS gave it until the fuel ran out.

Basically, the pilots probably had the volume down and were either asleep, arguing really loudly or very very stupid.

Given our history with 911 and such I am surprised that the didn’t scramble the fighters sooner, assuming they ever did. You can bet your ass that if they were anywhere near a politician (ie: Washington) they would have been shot down.

Another Day Ends at my Imaginary Airfield

October 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

It has been a nice day for hanging out at the grass strip — even if it is an imaginary one. We got our last cutting of hay off of the runway a few weeks ago and the cool weather has made the grass go dormant for another winter. No more mowing.

My dog is laying up against the side of the hangar, soaking up what sun there is to soak while anticipating her upcoming dinner that is always served in a 1986 dodge D150 hubcap under the Waco which is right next to the Tiger Moth.

The sun is setting behind red and orange hued trees that only have a week or two left to hang onto their leaves. They too will become dormant as will most of my fair-weather flying for another year.  The time is coming when the days get shorter, nights get colder and my aviation time will be made up mostly of repairing RC models, giving safety seminars and FIRCS and trading lies with old co-pilots.

Good winter flying is great but rare and the clear snow-covered days are paid for by the dark, wet and dreary ones.

Oh well — if I still smoked, or for that matter, drank, I would be enjoying a Winston and a bourbon before pushing my chair back into the hangar and closing the doors for the night.

Now that my only vices are sloth, ignorance and television I shuffle back into the hangar’s office and wonder what is on the tube tonight.                          

Balloon Boy Boffo!

October 16, 2009 § 1 Comment

CNN has once again proven that it is the National Enquirer of television news. Six year olds have figured out their ways and can get themselves an entire day of free publicity just for the asking.

Wow — Now all I have to do is get somebody to have sex with George Clooney in our club’s Aeronca Chief and I can promote my new book, Fly Like You Mean It!

whackadoos foil-heads and puppet masters — pilots I have known

October 6, 2009 § Leave a comment

            If you put any group of pilots together for any period of time you are bound to end up with some great stories about the weird characters they have flown with. Flying is dynamic in nature. There are very few areas of human endeavor more fluid, fast and frenetic than aviation and it often attracts weird people. All of you out there know what I am talking about.

            Pilots can literally go from “zero to six hundred” in a few minutes. We can traverse oceans, mountain ranges and deserts with ease. We can also, with equal speed and ease, screw things up to the point that people and equipment gets hurt or destroyed.

            You would think that the so-called “awesome responsibility” of carrying people through the air at high rates of speed in highly technical and complicated machinery would make us a paranoid bunch of anal-retentive jerks. It could be imagined by the public that we all wear huge wristwatches, carry around our licenses even when we know we aren’t flying and say things like “roger that” or “say again” when people ask us simple, non-flying questions.

            Stress related misbehavior is not an imaginary condition for some pilots. People respond to stress and responsibility in a variety of ways and for some pilots, being in charge of such a dynamic enterprise as flying makes them a little crazy.

            Most pilots would never talk about the responsibility of carrying people (sometimes large groups of people) through the skies in all kinds of weather. They usually come up with glib sayings like: “well, I always get to the scene of the accident first” if asked about the dangers of flight.

            I personally think that airline pilots and general aviation pilots have about the same amount of stress. While it is true that when I flew airliners I often carried more than two hundred people at a time, it is also true that general aviation pilots usually carry their families – which, in my opinion, is the highest in-flight stress of all.

Protection from Radiation and Handballs

            When I was a “co-king” on the DC-9, I flew with a captain who always wore a baseball cap when he was flying. That doesn’t sound too weird until I add that the hat was lined with aluminum foil to, in his words, “block the gamma rays.” Other than his fear of radiation that could penetrate planets with relative ease but was stymied by cooking foil, he was a good pilot and operated a safe and competent cockpit.

            When I was an engineer on the 727, we had a captain in our base who always wore gloves when he flew. Not just regular or even flying gloves, which would be weird enough – he wore handball gloves. You know – the ones that have padded palms and no coverings for the fingers?

            He would make a great show of putting them on and looked like a demented Italian sports car driver in the way he would pull them on like a latter-day O.J. Simpson testing the fit for a rapt jury.

            I would like to say that like “captain gamma ray” he was harmless and a good stick, but unfortunately, he was a jerk and pretty much a bad pilot. Oh yeah… he also had a habit of irritating and alienating the flight attendant crew, which meant that my job of flight engineer now included apologizing to everybody constantly about his behavior.


Thank God for Human Factors Training

            These two examples of the wacky side of piloting were guys I was flying with during those heady years before cockpit resource management was in existence and morphed into the human factors religion it is today. When you flew with an eccentric captain you adapted to him and didn’t report him to management unless you were convinced he was going to kill passengers and bend airplanes.

            Eccentric captains begin their career as eccentric copilots and flight engineers, but their behavior before they become aircraft commanders is curtailed by career concerns. First, the captain you are flying with if you are acting strange could simply tell you to knock it off. If you didn’t stop doing what he didn’t like he could have you thrown off of the trip. I have seen this done a few times and actually had to do it once when I was a captain. You literally beach a crewmember at the next stop where he or she can be replaced by a reserve pilot.

            Getting thrown off of a trip is the nuclear option and can be a career killer. There is nothing an eccentric copilot or engineer needs less than the attention of management to their antics.

            Because of this, most pilots wait until they attain the freedom of being pilot in command before they foil their first hat, put on their first pair of flying hand-ball gloves, or bring their first puppet on board.

            That’s right – I said puppet.

            We actually had a captain who brought “Freddie” (short for “Freddie the Fox”) with him on every trip. This pilot was so socially inhibited that he would have Freddie ask the rest of the crew for things. I am not making this up. I have seen Freddie in action. Imagine how impressed I was as a young flight engineer when on the very first leg, Freddie looked across the pedestal at the copilot and said: “gear up”.

            By know those of you who know me or have at least read some of my stuff may be wondering what kind of craziness I bought to my airline cockpits when I was a capain.

            I always resorted to humor. Mostly gallows humor, but I almost always had a wisecrack handy for any occasion. Under normal conditions, I drove my crews crazy with my off the wall comments, my self-centered activities, my newspaper reading and my constant search on the ADF for just the right oldies AM music station. I cared deeply about safety and doing a good job, but I showed my care by pretending I didn’t care. This, I think, would make almost any civilized society consider me mentally damaged.

Unusual circumstances, abnormals and emergencies were an entirely different matter for me. The best way to tell if I was truly worried about something when we were flying was a sudden lack of humor on my part. Scary stuff made me quiet, not hilarious.

Since every pilot has to be a little bit crazy to think that they can climb into a complicated machine that can literally fly through the air at high rates of speed, we have to assume that in the sense of having an inflated ego, we all are mentally flawed at least a little.

Problems arise in flying when pilots go one step beyond being a little crazy and begin to do really outlandish things. How do you draw the line between a pilot who laughs maniacally during a normal landing after he makes that same FAA bashing joke for the millionth time into the voice recorder from the guy who has literally gone around the bend and will fly you into the next building because he suddenly thinks it is the wrong color?

I hate to say this, but it is up to the rest of us pilots to police our own. We are the ones who have to recognize crazy when we see it. We are also the ones who have to recognize stupid when we see that, but stupid is a subject for an entire other column, if not a book.

We can’t count on the FAA to weed out the nut-jobs. The FAA has it totally backwards when it comes to mental health. They outlaw even the mildest anti-depression drug and won’t allow you to take medication along those lines if you want even a third class medical. On the other hand, they have no method to recognize the people who aren’t taking medication but are successful at hiding their depression or other mental health problems from the AME for thirty minutes every three years.

In other words, getting treatment for what little mental confusion or craziness you have is totally forbidden. You are being encouraged to hide your mental small mental problems from the Feds just long enough to allow them to flower into full-blown big mental problems.

Maybe the FAA will eventually change its tune. It wasn’t that long ago that pilots routinely hid their cardiac and high-blood pressure symptoms because high blood pressure medications were disallowed. 

For now though we pilots are the first and last line of defense for the flying public when it comes to our behavior and the mental attitude of other pilots we know. So, if the next time you see me heading out to the airplane wearing a tin foil hat, some cool gloves and looking all serious and stuff you might want to stop me and recommend that I go lie down somewhere.   

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