Cockpit Chronicles: FOQA kept these pilots out of trouble in Panama

I was excited, thrilled really, to fly with one of my favorite captains for five, 4-day trips over the next month and a half. If you had to work with just one captain for so many days in a row, it may as well have be someone you consider a close friend, and Dave fits that description. In fact, two years ago I wrote about my last trip to Panama City, Panama, and the captain on that flight just happened to be Dave.

But this time, on the first day of our trip to Panama we would soon be reminded just how busy flying an airplane can get down there.

First a little background is in order.

Usually we can pull up the latest weather at the airport we’re arriving at either via a print out from our ACARS or by listening to an automated voice report that’s available to us as far as two hundred miles away.

It’s always a good idea to pull up the conditions as soon as possible so you can prepare for the runway and approach that’s in use.

There are a number of options for aligning with the runway and descending low enough to see the airport. There’s the most common ILS approach, which can usually guide you to around 200 feet above the ground before a pilot has to see the runway, or a VOR approach which typically takes you down to 500 feet or the more recent GPS approaches which fall somewhere in between.

I couldn’t hear the ATIS until we were just 60 miles away from the airport for some reason. Surely a weak transmitter, I figured.

The cloud cover was reported at 2000 feet scattered with more than ten kilometers of visibility. A piece of cake, we decided. We’ll surely see the airport when we’re within about 20 miles and then fly visually to land to the south.

Controller Confusion

As it happened, the weather wasn’t exactly as advertised. It soon became clear that the Panama air traffic controllers were going to give us an approach to fly. They wanted us to fly nearly 60 miles south of the airport, before continuing back north of the airport and landing again to the south when we could see the runway.

We were following a ‘company’ 737 which was about ten miles ahead of us. “Company” is how air traffic control describes traffic from the same airline.

We asked if we could fly the GPS approach and land to the south, into the wind of course, which would be far less complicated. They initially agreed.
Our company 737 ahead of us was also equipped to fly a GPS approach, and they seemed to think this was a good idea as well, so they asked for the same. The weekend controllers in Panama seemed to have a hard time understanding the request, and told the 737 that they would have to fly well south of the airport as originally planned.

It was looking like this was going to be our fate as well, since it was unlikely the controllers would have two airplanes approaching from opposite directions. At this point, the 737 pilots wanted to know the current winds at the airport.

“Say your winds.” The pilot asked in the traditional fashion.

The Panama controller didn’t understand and asked him to repeat.

“What are the winds at the airport?” He repeated.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, sir.” The approach controller responded.

I gave a surprised look over to Dave. How could the controllers not have learned this key phrase. They should have even expected the question, since they were having the pilot approach from the south with a slight wind at the tail and then circle around to land into the wind. If the winds were light enough (less than 15 knots for the 737 and less than 10 knots for our 757), the whole circling maneuver could be eliminated and a straightforward ILS could be accomplished.

Dave and Kent

We try to keep things simple, both in our phraseology and our approach requests with ATC due to the difficulty in communicating in some Central and South American countries.

When it was our turn, we set up for the circling approach and briefed everything that would happen and what we should expect. This approach briefing is done by pilots after determining which approach is in use and the radios and instruments are set up for that specific approach.

But ATC had given us a change in the approaches to be flown three times, requiring a new briefing and set-up for each approach. Just as we were about to start down from 2,000 feet on what was known as a circling approach, the tower controller offered us our fourth change-the straight-in approach and landing.

Dave was flying and so I asked the controller what the winds were. Anything more than ten knots on our tail and we wouldn’t be able to accept the approach, even though it was a long, dry runway.

The tower controller began to tell us what the winds had been, and how they’d fluctuated, and what they now were. Unfortunately, in the timeit took for him to tell us about the winds, we were now too high to begin the approach. The airplane would no longer be stabilized for either approach, since he hadn’t cleared us for anything, and since we weren’t cleared to descend in time, we would no longer be ‘stable’ for the landing.

I turned to Dave and mentioned how late his clearance for the ILS was, and how we would be late in starting our descent.

“We won’t be stable.” I said after the controller offered us the approach choice.

Dave immediately agreed, and by the time the controller was done giving us his weather channel description of the winds, we announced we would have to go around and set up again for another approach. This would give us time to assess the winds, choose the right approach and then brief it. It would also prevent us from exceeding any parameter for a stabilized approach below 1,000 feet.

Dave accelerated and began the climb. I struggled to get a new heading and altitude from the controller, while responding to Dave’s rapid requests for the gear to be brought up, and the flaps retracted one notch at a time. There isn’t a time while flying that’s more busy or critical, and the difficulty in understanding the clearance was adding to the excitement.

Dave turned in the direction of the written missed approach direction, which is a safe bet, but not always what the controllers are asking for. I asked for the heading and altitude three times, each time not understanding what the controller was telling us. For a moment I gave up, and instead focused on what Dave needed to get established for the climb. The weather was good enough that I knew we were safe to fly the published missed approach.

Finally, when things calmed down I was able to ask ATC for just the heading. And then just the altitude. It turns out Dave was flying the missed approach procedure precisely as ATC had requested.


Each of our airplanes we fly is equipped with FOQA, pronounced ‘folk-wa’, or Flight Operations Quality Assurance, a monitoring system that records every parameter for every approach over a two-week period. So if we had been just two knots fast before we extended the flaps or we didn’t have them fully extended by 1,000 feet, or if we were high or fast, the captain would be called and asked to explain, with immunity for the most part, what caused this approach to be out of tolerances.

You may see more go-arounds as a result of FOQA, since pilots would rather not have to explain why they didn’t go around when faced with an approach that was outside of safe parameters.

FOQA has allowed the company to zero in on areas that need improvement through more training and to find ways to prevent the occurrences from happening again. The program was met with resistance initially, but we’ve come to learn that it seems to be improving safety instead of being used as a high tech method to penalize pilots.

We set up for the straight-in landing after the go-around, and the landing was made without incident. While taxiing in, the controller apologized for the late clearance and the many changes that were given.

Dave and I rehashed everything that happened on the arrival while eating dinner. We vowed to try for a much less exciting arrival the next time. As we waited for the bill to come, I mentioned my amazement at the size and amount of birds near the Caracas airport. Dave said that in his view, Panama City had far greater-both in numbers and size-birds. We would soon find out up close just how right he was. Check out next week’s post to hear about that.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out Plane Answers or follow him on Twitter @veryjr.