Cockpit Chronicles: A captain’s line check

Once every two years a captain is required to be observed by a check airman. And captains over sixty must be checked every six months.

I touched on the line check in the last Cockpit Chronicles, and I’ve had yet another trip with a check airman performing a line check, making it two in the last eight days. Both of the captains I was flying with were over sixty. As a result of the change in retirement age from sixty to sixty-five in 2007, a line check has been mandated every six months for those sixty and older.

I’ve spotted some of the items that check airman are looking for during these checks. Consider this a guide on how to make a check airman happy. I know my demographic here at Gadling will be thrilled to come across this information.

It’s important not to fly any differently when you’re not being checked. You won’t be able to fool these pilots by ‘stepping up your game’ only when they’re around. There are so many rules, procedures and techniques you’ll need to adhere to, that it’ll be obvious to the instructor that you haven’t been paying attention to your training if you try to ‘step up your game’ only when the management pilot is around.

The ‘Check Airman’

At my company, check airmen are captains that are chosen, usually by the base chief pilot, to fill the instructor positions. Some are exclusively ‘line’ check airman, who only perform line checks and the ‘initial operating experience’ for new pilots to the aircraft. Others are qualified to fly the line and also perform simulator checks.

What they want to see.

The following are some examples of what a pilot will be tested on during a six month or two-year line check.Licenses and medicals

The first thing they’re likely interested in seeing are a pilot’s license and medicals. They’re checking to see the medical hasn’t expired and that the license includes an ‘English Language’ endorsement. It may sound silly, but the international organization overseeing many of the rules governing air carriers worldwide, ICAO, requires all licenses to include this endorsement. If it’s not there, you can’t fly, no matter how eloquent a pilot is while trying to talk their way out of the problem.

Briefings

A check airman will be watching to see that a captain conducts a thorough briefing with the flight attendants regarding any security changes, the expected ride conditions and to re-iterate how an evacuation may be handled.

Procedures

In order for 10,000 pilots to fly well together, there has to be a set of procedures and call outs that everyone is familiar with, obviously. So check airmen pay particular attention to these procedures and will often comment if something is done differently. For example, if a pilot were to check the flight controls on the ramp instead of the taxiway, something may be said. Interestingly, in that example, other aircraft in our fleet allow for the flight controls to be checked on the ramp after the pushback crew has departed, so not everything is consistent from one fleet to the next.

Checklists

While it might seem to be nit-picking, check airmen will say something if the response to a checklist item is read back as “closed” when it should be “cutoff” instead. This can especially be an issue for pilots coming from a different brand of airplane that uses different terminology. Old habits are hard to break.

Efficiency

Check airmen are tasked with encouraging fuel saving techniques and they might make mention of this during a line check. Recently a comment was made to me when I opted to use the Econ mode of our FMS to set the climb speed since it was 298 knots, which was very close to the company’s procedure of using 300 knots at that weight. The check airman probably just wanted to be sure that I knew the speed usually set for a given weight. Interestingly, they rarely mention when a pilot brings the flaps out early when flying level at the minimum clean (no flaps) airspeed for twenty miles before starting the approach; a technique that could also save some serious dinosaurs.

PAs

Recently we’ve had some changes in the regulations regarding delays on international flights. You’re going to hear a lot more updates should a delay occur, and there are specific rules regarding just how often captains must update passengers, even if we don’t know the cause for the delay or how much longer we may have to wait. Since the penalties from the Department of Transportation, DOT, for non-compliance are steep, this will be an example of a new policy that will be checked as well.

Systems knowledge

Even though we go through an oral exam during our simulator check rides every nine months, check airmen will be looking for signs of weak areas in the knowledge of the systems of the airplane. These systems can include the hydraulics, electrical, flight controls, FMS computers, autopilot, fuel system, pneumatics and flight instruments among other things. But there’s no oral quizzing during line checks fortunately. The instructors are quick to say they’re just there to observe.

So while pilots rarely have management looking over their shoulders, they are checked often by check airmen.

These check rides usually result in something being learned and are a good way to ensure that every pilot is working in the most standardized way while flying the line. The vast majority of check airmen are helpful and friendly, although I can’t say that most pilots are truly happy to have them aboard. And knowing that fact probably makes the check airmen job all that more difficult.

As a first officer, I’m not eligible to work as a check airman and I’ve vowed to stay away from the job for the rest of my career. At our company, there really isn’t a significant pay premium to work as an instructor, and you give up most landings and opportunities to actually fly the airplane while you’re performing a line check or IOE training. And your schedule is often dictated by whatever the pilot you’re checking can hold. While I appreciate those who choose to step into these roles, I know my place in life is as a line pilot. There’s nothing better. Except perhaps as a line captain, but that will have to wait for a future Cockpit Chronicles.

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

Cockpit Chronicles: A ‘new’ pilot’s first trip on the line

To say it’s been a long time since we’ve seen any newly hired pilots at our airline is an understatement. Up until now, the junior most pilots have been here for more than ten years.

As I was riding in to work on the JFK Airtrain a few weeks ago, I looked up the crew list again on my phone. I was surprised to see that the co-pilot (I was the relief pilot this day) was listed as ‘open.’ That meant that crew scheduling was likely scrambling to find a pilot to cover the trip after someone must have called in sick.

When I arrived at operations, I found the captain giving directions over the phone to the other co-pilot to the employee parking lot, so we both assumed we’d be flying with someone new to the base. It hadn’t occurred to us that he may also be new to the airline.

Back in 1998 an agreement was signed that brought pilots over from the affiliated regional and gave them slots at the major airline. But the agreement required them to wait for two years before coming over, and when the downturn occurred after 2001, some of these pilots were withheld from the ‘mainline’ for the next decade.

Now that we’re recalling pilots from furlough at a pretty good clip, with hopefully all of them back to work early next year, some of the senior most captains from the regional airline are starting to come over again.

As I was setting up the cockpit for departure, the other co-pilot introduced himself and explained that he was one of these flow through pilots and had just finished training.Regardless of your experience level when you come to a new airline, there’s so much to learn-a new airplane, procedures, rules, checklist responses and computer entries-that it’s comparable to taking a drink from a fire hose.

Now imagine getting called out for a trip, being told that the airplane and passengers are waiting for you and not knowing who you’re flying with or anything about the city you’re going to. After twenty years of flying to Des Moines, you’d certainly be out of your comfort zone.

Because of the late notice, Dan (not his real name) showed up in the cockpit a minute or two before our scheduled departure time. I had prepared his side of the airplane as much as possible for him, something I would have done for anyone who happened to be running late. In this case, his late call wouldn’t be the reason for our late departure, since we were also waiting for a mechanic to fix a minor problem found during the preflight.

The biggest challenge of flying the 757 and 767, as opposed to pilots who fly a single type of airplane like the 777 or 737, are the different configurations of instruments and flight management systems (FMS) that we have. Dan had already flown a few trips with a check airman in the 757, 767-200 and 767-300, and had been exposed to the three different display layouts, two types of FMS (Flight Management System) computers and three different versions of the device we use to send text messages to the company called the ACARS.

Much of his time in simulator training was spent getting up to speed with our normal procedures, approaches and emergencies before flying with an instructor for his IOE, or Initial Operating Experience.

He had spent six weeks learning the intricacies of the hydraulics, electrical and pressurization systems, among many other things, so it’s normal not to be as familiar with the normal, day-to-day things that occur on ‘the line.’

Since this would be his first trip with line pilots, we were determined to make it enjoyable. We welcomed him aboard and tried to put him at ease. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had shown up in tears given his harried drive to the airport and short call out. But he handled it well and managed to joke about the situation.

I showed him my favorite trick to request the FMS flight plan information with a single push of a button and the captain went over some ACARS entries while offering to have Dan do the majority of the computer inputs if he wanted to get more comfortable.

He took everything in stride and frankly, it seemed like he had been here for years.

Midway through the flight, he shared with me a funny story about his first trip with an instructor. When the relief pilot came back after her nap, the captain told Dan to take his two hour break. So he stepped out of his seat and went into the cabin. Unsure of where to sit, he scanned business class, and noticed it was rather full. One seat was open, but it had a blanket neatly laid across it and a Bose headset sitting in the seat.

So he went back to coach and found a seat in the exit row and sat down. A few minutes later, one of the flight attendants approached him.

“What are you doing?” She asked.

“I’m taking a break.” He sheepishly responded.

“Do you know anyone back here?” She asked, puzzled.

“Uh, no.”

“Get back up there!” She said, motioning to the front of the airplane.

When you fly with people who have been doing the same thing for so long, it’s easy to forget what it was like to be new. The flight attendant was likely unaware that this was the first time Dan had ever taken a break on an airplane before, and he certainly had no idea where the designated crew rest seat was located.

For the record, in case you ever find yourself in this situation; it’s seat 2J on the 767.

What Dan lacked in crew rest etiquette was well made up in his ability on the radio. He handled the accents of the Spanish controllers very well, even after flying through the night. After a smooth approach and landing at Barcelona by the captain, it was time for a few hours of sleep at the hotel before we’d get out to see the city.

A week before, another co-pilot told me about a jazz-themed catamaran cruise in Barcelona, so I thought I’d drag along as many of the crew as possible. What better way for us to welcome the new guy, I thought.

It’s hard to say which was better; the weather or the sangria. As the jazz saxophone player moved about the boat, playing a new-age type of jazz, three of the flight attendants and I sat out at the front of the boat, while Dan and the captain were in the back steering the large catamaran across the Mediterranean for a few minutes at a time. Some layovers are just better than others and I knew that this one would probably be memorable for Dan.

The six of us had enjoyed some bread and cheese by the marina before setting out for an early dinner by Barcelona standards, where it’s not uncommon to eat at 10 p.m.

We went to La Fonda, which I’ve been told is a cooking school that serves as a restaurant, although I couldn’t find anything about the school online.

The dollar to euro exchange rate takes some getting used to and I explained to Dan that it’s easily possible to spend $50 a person on dinner at many of our destinations. La Fonda looks like you’d need to take out a loan to eat there, but it’s actually quite reasonable, with dishes running around €9 to €12. Most of us had the “Grilled salmon with honey and mustard crispy with avocado and tomato” at €9.55 or about $14.

On the flight home to New York, I figured we should mark the occasion. You have to understand that for the past ten years, we haven’t worked with any new employees at the airline. In fact, this was probably more of a monumental event for us than it was for Dan.

So we presented him with a menu full of well wishes from all of us on the flight. I jokingly asked if we should have each of the 220 passengers aboard sign it as well, before remembering that we did have a celebrity in business class.

Placido Domingo, one of the famous ‘Three Tenors’ was flying with us. Graciously he signed the front cover of Dan’s menu and congratulated him on his new position flying internationally.

I couldn’t think of a more poetic way to celebrate such a career change. Welcome aboard, Dan. We’re glad you could finally make it.

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

Cockpit Chronicles: One long date with Hurricane Irene

Plunk, plunk, plunk, went the water as it dripped from the ceiling into a trash can behind me.

“I’d just as soon call it quits here and go to a hotel.” the captain said, looking at the latest weather report for Santo Domingo and the radar picture of hurricane Irene which was just northwest of our destination. All of Puerto Rico, where we were contemplating our decision, had just been through the hurricane and much of the island was without power. In our 200 square foot operations room at the San Juan airport, water was leaking all around the room.

Plunk, plunk, plunk.

We had just flown down from New York heading to Santo Domingo (SDQ) on what was supposed to be a turn-a one day trip, just down and back-but prior to beginning the approach, we were sent a message from our dispatch telling us to divert to San Juan.

Another flight just six minutes ahead of us had just touched down after breaking out of the clouds shortly before the minimum height required to see the runway. They said it was just heavy rain on the approach.

There were four surprised pilots in our cockpit at that moment; the captain and myself, along with the relief co-pilot and a check airman who was giving a line check to the captain. All of us were in agreement that we needed to go to San Juan. Dispatch could have had information that we just weren’t privy to at the moment. The same policy applies (at our company) if any pilot had said ‘go-around’ during the approach, the flying-pilot is required to climb away from the ground and ask questions later. In this case, dispatch is very much part of our team. In this case, we didn’t have time to discuss the particulars with our dispatcher. We had to trust that they had information about the airport, terminal, gate, runway, or some other operational need to get us back to San Juan.

After working our way around the tail end of the hurricane, we were now faced with turning back and flying through the same turbulent weather on our way to San Juan. Fortunately fuel wasn’t a concern, since we had more than four hours available for our 45-minute flight to our alternate airport.

The climb out was just as bumpy as the arrival. Most of the time we were in the clear, but the chop would still be an issue for our passengers, who were probably nervous after we discontinued the approach into Santo Domingo.Approaching San Juan, we were faced with two runways, one of which had ILS approach that was inoperative, and the other had no runway lights. Fortunately it was daylight, but seeing that runway in the heavy rain could be a challenge.

As we intercepted the glide slope at 2,500 feet, which is done by joining a radio beam that goes from the runway threshold out along the centerline at a three degree angle for more than 10 miles, the airplane began to descend on the autopilot. The glideslope then seemed to bump up, causing the airplane to climb when it was supposed to be descending. After it settled down, we were now high, and we weren’t likely going to be able to ‘capture’ the glideslope in a way that would be stable.

As I’ve detailed in a previous Cockpit Chronicles, an approach that is no longer stable must be discontinued. We have a ‘no-fault’ go-around policy at the airline which is designed to remove any chance a pilot would want to continue an approach that doesn’t look right. The captain made the right choice and elected to intercept it again after going around.

“Go-around, leave the flaps at 5, positive rate, gear up.” The captain called out while flying the go-around manually.

“Tower, one-five three-eight is going around,” I told the tower as we climbed through 2,500 feet.

A go-around is a busy moment. And just as you’re going through the litany of calls and performing the actions required, ATC becomes interested in just why you’re going around.

“Roger fifteen thirty-eight, can you turn left to 360 degrees?” they ask, assuming we’re going around because of the weather.

The heading looked fine to me, and I glanced at the captain who was flying. “Sure.” He said busily performing the missed approach.

By this point, the 226 passengers on board were justifiably nervous. But neither go-around was caused by the weather conditions immediately in front of us, and at this point, we were too busy to give them an update or explanation for our second go-around of the flight.

Coming back for the second time, the captain elected to hand-fly the airplane in case another ‘bump’ of the glideslope occurred. With 100 feet to go before arriving at our decision altitude, the runway came into view. The relief pilot didn’t wait for the captain to call for the windshield wipers and reached up between us to turn them on. With all the fuel on board, we were heavy, and since the runway was likely covered in water, it was important to touch down early and stop quickly. The captain did just that, and as we turned around at the end of the runway to back-taxi to the exit taxiway, I felt spent.

On Cockpit Chronicles, I probably incorrectly give the impression that every flight is easy and routine. That’s the case far more often than not, but there are days where you earn every penny. Before we left on this trip, the captain had been talking about retiring as early as next week, and I have to think this flight made the decision easier.

Plunk, plunk, plunk.

“Captain, do you have an estimate on when you can go? I need to tell the passengers something,” the gate agent said while standing in the doorway of the office.

“Let me talk it over with these guys and I’ll let you know,” said the captain while motioning to his two first officers.

The agent closed the door and went back to the gate.


Our view of Hurricane Irene as it left the Dominican Republic

We talked about the weather in Santo Domingo and what the radar was depicting. SDQ was reporting good ceilings and visibility. The hurricane was a few hundred miles west of the airport, but we’d likely have a similar bumpy ride back. The radar depiction (shown above) looked far uglier than what was outside.

We talked to dispatch over the phone and they said planes were getting in to SDQ. Staying in San Juan would have been difficult anyway as there were likely no hotels available anyway, and the agent told us the power was out in much of the city.

“I’m good to go,” I said, while the relief pilot agreed enthusiastically.

“Ok, I’ll pull up the paperwork,” the captain replied.

Two passengers elected to stay in San Juan probably because of the long and eventful flight getting here and the ominous lightning off in the distance, and I can’t blame them if they were scared. But this was going to be an exceedingly safe flight as far as I was concerned.

The rest of the passengers were boarded again and we pushed back two and a half hours after we arrived. It was my turn to fly and while there were clouds along the route of flight, the ride wasn’t too bumpy. I was relieved to see the lights from the Santo Domingo airport nearly ten miles out.

The outbound passengers were glad to see us, and seemingly happy to get off the island after experiencing the effects of hurricane Irene. Little did they know the same hurricane would be arriving in New York just four days later.

Three pilots are on all flights that are scheduled to exceed 8 hours, and while ours was originally supposed to go over by just five minutes, I was glad to have the relief pilot on board after clocking in a challenging ten hours. The three of us all slept during our breaks in the back (the check airman, deciding that the captain had passed his check ride, elected to go back to New York on a direct flight from San Juan.)

While on my fifty-five minute break, I slipped into a deep dream-something that rarely happens during my crew rest period. But this time I dreamt about an oversized female dispatcher staring at a computer screen while picking up a phone.

And I think her name was Irene.

A postscript:

Unfortunately this isn’t my last rendezvous with hurricane Irene. I was scheduled to fly to Rome Saturday night but that trip from JFK has obviously been cancelled. So now I get to have a closer look at the hurricane, this time while on the ground in New York.

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

Cockpit Chronicles: There’s more behind the Air France 447 crash than pilot error

Recently a couple of pilots found themselves in a situation that was foreign and perplexing to them; a scenario the designers of the airplane hadn’t fully expected. They fought their way for 3 minutes and 30 seconds while trying to understand what was happening after a failure of one of the pitot static systems on their Airbus A330. At times the flying pilot’s inputs exacerbated the problem when he assumed they were flying too fast rather than too slow.

Because they hadn’t seen anything like this in the simulator, and the airplane was giving conflicting information, the recovery would have been all the more difficult.

Pilots are taught that an erroneous airspeed indicator can be countered by paying close attention to their pitch and power. It sounds so simple that many pilots wonder aloud, just how anyone in the situation could mess it up.

In the early morning hours of June 1st, 2009, the pilots of Air France flight 447 were working their way around thunderstorms while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in the widebody Airbus A330.

A faulty pitot tube created a situation where any changes in pressure resulted in fluctuations in the airspeed indicator. To understand how difficult it is to recognize this problem and then correct for it, let me use the following analogy:

Imagine you’re driving a car at night. You come down a hill and you feel the cruise control back off on the gas to prevent the car from going too fast. Just as you look down at your speed noticing that it is, in fact increasing, a siren and lights go off behind you. A police car has woken you up from your late night drive.

Instinctively you kick off the cruise control and apply the brakes. The speedometer indicates you’re still accelerating, so you press harder on the brakes. Your car has now decided that because you’re trying to slow so quickly, it will shut off the anti-skid braking system and allow you to use manual brakes. You then skid off the road and into a ditch.

Based on the released information about one of the most mysterious accidents in recent history, it appears the pilots of Air France 447 faced a set of circumstances similar to our driving example.When flying in turbulence, it’s important to watch your airspeed. Flying too fast will result in a situation called mach tuck, where the nose can slowly pitch over and the controls lose their effectiveness.

Flying too slow can result in a stall. Not an engine ‘stall’ as might be incorrectly reported by the press, but an aerodynamic stall where the wings aren’t developing enough lift, and an immediate increase in the airspeed is needed to recover. Here’s a tip for reporters. In aviation, the term ‘stall’ will never be used to describe engines that fail. Ever.

Up at altitude, the difference between flying too slow and too fast can be as little as 20 knots. It’s called the ‘coffin corner,’ a morbid term used to describe narrow band of airspeed that we need to maintain.

In this 767 example above, the airplane has a very safe margin between
too slow and too fast, as shown on the airspeed indicator on the left.

While working their way around clusters of cumulonimbus clouds in the inter-tropical convergence zone that night, our two first officers (the captain was in the back on his planned rest break) did their best to stay away from the weather.

A side note: whoever takes the second break is usually the pilot who made the takeoff and who will also make the landing. So the relief pilot (who’s a type-rated copilot) took over the flying related duties while the captain slept.

Back to the flight: During turbulence, maintaining that speed can be more difficult, much in the way it’s tough to hold the speed in a car going over hills. You may look down after studying the weather only to notice that the auto throttles aren’t holding the .80 mach speed you have selected and the airplane is now at mach .83 and accelerating. In a moment, the clacker goes off, indicating you’re now exceeding the normal cruise speed of the airplane, which certainly gets your attention, much like the sirens of the police car in our example.

In the case of Air France 447, the autopilot kicked off in response to the overspeed, and was followed by a warning Airbus calls a ‘cavalry charge’ sound which is designed to get your attention quickly. About 30 seconds later the auto throttles were turned off manually and the throttles were pulled back, but it takes an eternity to slow down such a slippery airplane, and it may have seemed to the flying pilot that he was still accelerating anyway. So he pulled the nose up, an effective way to slow down in a critical situation like this. (See last week’s post on the eight ways to slow a jet.)

Amazingly, as the airplane climbed from 35,000 feet to 38,000 feet the airspeed continued to increase, at least that’s what it looked like on the flying pilot’s side of the airplane. He must have been surprised then to hear the stall warning activate moments later, indicating that they were flying too slow.

The other pilot likely noticed the airspeed on his side was decreasing, and perhaps because he saw the difference between both airspeed indicators, he’s heard to say on the recording that “we’ve lost the speeds.”

They had slowed from 275 knots indicated to 60 knots, at which point the airplane went into a mode called ‘alternate law’ which meant the automatic protections that kept the airplane from stalling were removed.

To make matters worse, the stabilizer trim moved from 3 degrees to 13 degrees nose up, which meant the airplane may have needed almost full nose down inputs on the stick just to fly level.

And to further confuse and confound the pilots, it’s recently been reported that as the airplane slowed further, the stall warning stopped. When max power was applied and the nose was lowered at one point, the stall warning came back. This is opposite of what the pilots were looking for in a recovery.

The airplane ‘mushed’ in a 15 degree nose up attitude all the way to the water, at a rate of 11,000 feet per minute.

We occasionally train for unreliable airspeed indications, but it isn’t covered during every recurrent training period. Stall training is often limited to the low altitude variety, which is far less critical than one occurring at 35,000 feet. I’m certain training departments all over the world will soon be required to train for high altitude stall recoveries.

Since this will take some time to become a requirement, on a recent simulator session, I asked my instructor to give me a loss of airspeed scenario at altitude. I told him I’d prefer to have the failure at any random point during our four hours of simulator time that day.

When he eventually failed it, causing the airspeed to slowly increase, I immediately pulled the throttles back and raised the nose a bit. The non-flying pilot simply said ‘airspeed’ which I thought was obvious, as it appeared to me that the airplane was accelerating rapidly and I was doing my best to get it back under control.

But on his side, the airspeed was dropping rapidly. When he said “airspeed” he actually meant that the airspeed was slowing and that I needed to do something about it. I finally looked over at his side, and saw that his speed was actually decreasing while mine increased. This all occurred within ten to twenty seconds.

I immediately lowered the nose and told him that I suspected my airspeed indicator had malfunctioned. Since my indicator was useless, I offered the airplane to him.

It’s easy for pilots to harp that “pitch and power equals performance” but it’s not easy to ignore the instruments you’ve trusted for thousands of hours. For the pilots of Air France 447, the incorrect airspeed indications and confusing stall warning sounds that were caused by a failure of the pitot static system proved to be too much to handle.

Furthermore, the Airbus design reinforced ideas that counter everything a pilot is taught, Specifically, these pilots learned that pulling the stick full aft would not result in a stall when the airplane was operating under a condition known as “normal law.” Much of their careers had been flown in airplanes with this feature. That night, after the initial climb, they were operating under “alternate law” which allowed far greater changes to the flight envelope, and removed that protection.

I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their shoes.

Much of the focus of the accident in the press has been to blame the pilots for clearly stalling the plane. One strange headline read “Baby pilot at the controls of AF 447.

The ‘baby pilot’ was actually 32 years-old and had previously flown an A320 for 4 years and the A330/340 for just over a year. He had 2,936 hours of flight time with 807 hours in the A330/340.

The other copilot, at age 37 had 6,547 hours with 4,479 of them in the A330/340. Sadly, his wife was also on board the aircraft as a passenger.

And the 58 year-old captain, who came to the cockpit from his break halfway through the event had 11,000 hours of which 1,747 were in the A330/340.

I’ve said it before; in the eyes of the media, pilots are either heroes or villains depending on the outcome of the flight. These pilots faced challenges few of us have ever come across. Given the mechanical failures that started the chain of events, there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around. Events like these have a profound impact on our training and help prevent future accidents. And at least that is something we can be thankful for.

In case you’re interested in even more details, AvHerald has an excellent summary of the BEA preliminary Air France 447 accident report.

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

Cockpit Chronicles: Eight ways to slow a jet

One of my first posts on Cockpit Chronicles was an explanation on how to park a 757. At the risk of catering only to people who have recently acquired their own Boeing jets, I’d like to continue with another lesson.

The eight ways to slow a jet

When you’re driving your 5-speed manual transmission car and you exit an offramp, besides just taking your foot off the gas pedal, there are a couple of different ways that you can slow down. Most people probably put on the brakes, but you could also downshift as well.

In an airliner, there are four different ways inflight and four methods on the ground to slow a jet, and often these techniques can be used in conjunction.

Unlike turboprop airplanes, jets are rather difficult to slow down and require a bit of planning in advance to avoid burning too much fuel or ending up too high at the airport for landing.

So let’s start with our Boeing that’s at 33,000 feet. Pilots will use a rough “3 to 1″ guide when deciding when they’ll need to start down, adjusting for wind as needed.

To do that, take the 33,000 feet, drop the zeros and multiply it by three. 33 X 3 = 99 miles.

So, for a descent at idle thrust, the pilots will need to start down within 99 miles of the airport. Any later and they’ll be too high and need to add drag to get down, and any sooner and they may need to add power and level off for a while. Either way, more fuel is burned.

A side note: If the engines were to fail, our airplane would likely be able to make it to the runway if it were within that 99 mile point. It’s just going to take some perfect planning on the part of the pilots, as was the case with the Air Transat and Air Canada flights.

Since an airplane burns far less fuel at altitude, it’s best to stay up high until the airplane can descend, ideally at idle thrust, all the way to the final approach segment. That’s our goal, subject to air traffic control requiring something different.

It’s not uncommon, especially in the U.S., for air traffic controllers to leave you at altitude past your normal beginning of descent point. In this case, it’s going to take more than idle thrust to descend quickly enough.Speed Brakes

In this situation, we can use speed brakes, which are the panels on top of the wing that move up equally on both wings to increase the drag on an airplane and reduce the lift.

So they’re the best method to initially increase the rate of descent and/or slow the airplane.

Since there are usually no airspeed limitations when using speed brakes, they can be deployed anytime they’re needed.

Speedbrakes partially deployed on a 757

Flaps

The next method to slow an airplane involves using the flaps. These devices are panels that extend from the leading and trailing edges of the jet to change the shape of the wing to provide more lift. This allows a high-speed wing to quickly transform into a wing that can keep the jet in the air at much lower speeds.

In addition to creating more lift, flaps also create drag, and can slow a jet nicely. Unfortunately, we can’t begin to use the flaps until below 250 knots or so. Each step of the flaps has a different speed limit, above which too much stress will be placed on the flaps and a maintenance inspection would be necessary if that limit were exceeded.

We now have a program called FOQA, or Flight Operations Quality Assurance, that records the exact speed at which the flaps are deployed among many other parameters and sends a report to the company (see my personal experiences with FOQA here). Should the flap speed limits be exceeded, the airplane is taken out of service and given a thorough inspection, sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars in maintenance man-hours to accomplish, not to mention the revenue lost when an airplane isn’t flying.

So let’s say that we’re flying into Miami or Los Angeles which are two airports known for the ‘slam dunking’ that ATC occasionally needs on certain arrivals.

Imagine that you’re now at 230 knots with the first notch of flaps extended and you still aren’t descending at a high enough rate. What can you do? More flaps would add drag, but you’ll need to be below 220 knots before you can go to flaps 5. And you’d better not hit a gust or any turbulence that sends you above 220 with those flaps out.

Flap Handle

Landing Gear

So the next solution is the landing gear. This can be extended at any time you’re showing 270 knots or less of airspeed. They add a similar amount of drag as the spoilers, which are still extended in our scenario.

757 Landing Gear

Pull up, pull up!

Finally, as with any airplane, our 4th method to decelerate is pretty basic; lift the nose up which initially decreases our rate of descent. We adjust the descent to slow the aircraft to bring the flaps out on schedule.

Often times there are points along an arrival where we’ll need to be at a certain speed and altitude. These ‘crossing restrictions’ are very important to meet and add another challenge for the arrival.

White Knuckle Flyer?
Pull Up, Pull Up!

Fortunately we don’t have to rely only on the 3 to 1 calculation to properly meet these targets when planning our descent. We can plug in the speed and altitude we want when flying over a waypoint into the FMS, or Flight Management System, that will calculate the time we should start down, using a function called VNAV, or Vertical Navigation.

Slowing down after landing – Ground Spoilers

Finally when we touch down, ground spoilers will automatically deploy from the top of the wings. This is done by using the same handle which deploy the same panels as the speed brakes, but now a few extra panels that open even further than the speed brakes are included.

These panels not only give us added drag, but when deployed, they add weight to the wheels which dramatically increases the effectiveness of our second method of stopping, the brakes.

Brakes!

All airliner brakes have anti-skid protection and the option to use ‘autobrakes’ for landing. We can preset the brakes before landing to automatically activate soon after we touch down. There are five different levels to choose from, with ‘max auto’ the one to use on slick runways. The same setting on a dry runway would leave a nose print in the setback in front of you, however.

To manually operate the brakes, pressure is applied to the top of the rudder pedals with your toes which, if they were selected, will also kick off the autobrakes. We generally don’t manually apply brakes until we’re below 100 knots. Pilots can even control the right and left brakes independently by pressing the tops of the right or left rudder pedals.

Reverse thrust

The noisiest, and third most effective way to stop an airplane on the ground is to use reverse thrust. This is done by lifting some handles that are in front of the thrust levers (throttles) when they’re at idle. The farther we pull these handles, the more thrust is deflected forwards to slow the jet. If these devices are inoperative, or a specific airport has restrictions on their use during late night hours, only 400 to 600 extra feet are needed for landing.

As we slow through 80 knots, we’ll bring the reverse thrust to idle and coming through 60 knots we are advised to stow the reverse thrust sleeve completely.

Here is a video of the reversers in operation that I caught while mechanics were making adjustments.

All of these methods can be seen in this picture of the center console of a Boeing 757:

Aerodynamic braking

There’s actually a fourth method of slowing an airplane after landing, but it’s generally not effective in the airline world, and more often seen when watching the Space Shuttle land. Aerodynamic braking is when the nose wheel is held high off the ground to use the drag of the airplane as a way to slow down. It’s not really effective, and it delays our ability to use brakes (and reverse thrust on the MD-80) while the nose wheel is still off the ground.

Reflecting on takeoff

To taxi to the gate, the captain will use a combination of throttle and brakes to control the speed, which the FAA says shouldn’t exceed that of a person walking briskly. In reality, five to fifteen knots while taxiing is far more common.


So there you go. Oh, and congratulations on your recent jet acquisition. Or for those of you just worried about an Airport ’75 event occurring on your next flight, this could come in handy.

Either way, stay tuned for some more obscure airline flying tips!

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Talk to him on the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.