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.

Plane Answers: A closer look at technology in the Northwest overflight

I’ve had a few questions come in concerning the rather egregious error made by the Northwest pilots last week. I hesitated to discuss the incidents, since there’s absolutely no defending what they did.

But when my own sister Kim, asks:

“I would love to hear your opinion as to what the NWA Pilots were really doing when they “missed” MSP.”

Well, for you, Kimmie, I just can’t say no.

It’s the topic of the week among pilots.

Speculation has been rampant, but the NTSB and FAA released some preliminary information from the pilots that has all but squashed any speculation on what exactly they were doing. The more pressing question has been, “How could it happen?”

The conversation among pilots so far has ended with claims of dismay. How did they disconnect from flying enough to lose that kind of situational awareness?

By coming clean and explaining their story, the pilots admitted to something essentially no better than falling asleep; something that took their attention from flying the airplane. And they sought to set the record straight, confess and explain what diverted their attention; I can appreciate that.

As a result, the FAA has immediately revoked their certificates.

Most notable in their story was the fact that they had their laptops out inflight. Many airlines encourage the use of laptops to access an electronic version of their flight manuals. These “EFBs” are more useful than their paper counterparts because of the quick searching capabilities a laptop offers. However, it’s my understanding that Delta and Northwest don’t use any EFB on board their aircraft. Regardless, the pilots admitted that they were discussing new scheduling procedures that were to take effect with their laptops, something that’s prohibited even at airlines that use Class I (laptop) EFBs.
According to the NTSB, the co-pilot was more familiar with the new bidding system, called preferential bidding, which involves choosing the types of trips and the day and time of departures in a general sense instead of simply picking a month of flying from the company constructed bid sheet.

Preferential bidding takes some time to get used to, and the pilots who figure it out early are likely to enjoy an advantage for a few months over those who don’t. The co-pilot was simply trying to get the captain up to speed, and this apparently was enough of a distraction to cause the crew to lose contact with ATC for well over an hour.

Missed signs

Media reports have suggested that the pilots missed repeated calls from the company and that ‘bells and chimes’ were sounded as the company and ATC desperately tried to contact the flight.

Those descriptions aren’t entirely accurate. When the company tried to contact the pilots via ACARS there wasn’t actually a chime associated with the message. There was simply a 1/4 inch tall notice on one of the forward displays on the instrument panel that a message has been received. There was no AOL style “You’ve got mail!” chime. Some airplanes also print any message automatically on a small and rather quiet printer.

Losing contact with air traffic control is something that can happen to any pilot. A missed radio call is followed up by another call or two before the center switches to the 121.5 emergency frequency that pilots monitor on a second radio. If both attempts fail, ATC will then call another aircraft of the same airline to have them relay a message through ACARS for the airplane to re-establish contact on whatever frequency is in use.

If no contact is made, the chatter on the radio suddenly stops, so instead of hearing bells, chimes and calls, the Northwest pilots likely heard nothing at all. Similar to parents of toddlers, pilots should recognize this ominous silence as a possible problem.

They could have received a VHF SELCAL, a tone loud enough to make you jump out of your seat if activated by ATC. However, I suspect it wasn’t used in this case, since it was a similar flight attendant call that eventually led to the discovery of the gross error.

On a related side note, a small number of the airplanes I fly do have a chime sound that activates when an ACARS message is sent. But that chime is identical to the flight attendant chime, the route uplink chime, the winds uplink chime, the HF SELCAL Chime, etc… In the future, ATC instructions sent via CPDLC will even use this same chime. It becomes easier to disregard or miss those particular chimes when they’re constantly being used to announce other unimportant or nuisance notices.

The Boeing engineer in charge of designing this system explained to me years ago that humans were unable to differentiate the meaning of more than five different sounds, so they elected to keep those chimes the same and rely on an added cue such as a light or message that tells the pilots what the chime represents.

Will it happen again?

Congress is already talking about measures to restrict laptops in the cockpit. These rules were already in place, and may serve only to remove the official uses of a computer, requiring pilots who currently use a Class I EFB to go back to carrying nearly twenty pounds of books in their kitbags again; a move that still won’t prevent some pilot from pulling out a laptop to check their schedule.

I’ll leave you with a look at the Class II EFB that Virgin America uses on their flights. Eliminating these tools would be a step backward for the industry.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: What preparation does a pilot do prior to a flight?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

John asks:

Hey, I was wondering what pilots do before a flight. How much time before a flight do you need to be at the airport and other than flight planning and aircraft inspection, what do you do? Do you inspect the airplane then come back to the terminal and grab a bite to eat? Do you file your flight plan then hangout in the boarding area if (for example) the plane you’re flying hasn’t arrived yet?

We’re required to ‘sign in’ at least an hour before the flight. We stop in operations (an office with computers and a bunch of mailboxes) to check for any revisions to our manuals, print out depictions of weather along our route of flight as well as the paperwork required for the leg. If we have any revisions, we’ll do them. A few revisions can involve changing out a few hundred pages in our manuals, so it’s helpful to show up a bit earlier to work in that case.

Once both pilots are ready, we’ll go through security and then to the gate. Occasionally the inbound flight may be late or passengers are still deplaning, in which case there’s really nothing else to do than to wait around, just as the passengers are doing.

Assuming the airplane is at the gate, the captain will talk to the flight attendants about anything that might be unusual for the flight, including the ride reports, any cabin items that might be inoperative such as an oven or coffee maker, and then he may grab a coffee in the terminal before setting up his side of the cockpit.

The co-pilot does the walk-around, looks at the tire pressures and condition, checks the status of the oxygen bottles for the cockpit, inspects the wear on the brakes to see if they’re within tolerances, looks over the engine fan blades for any nicks and eyes the entire airplane for fuel, oil or hydraulic leaks.

Inside, either pilot will program the flight plan into a computer much like a GPS, set a few markers or ‘bugs’ on the airspeed indicator denoting the speed at which we’ll decide to continue the takeoff or stop on the runway if we have an engine failure or fire, as well as the point at which we’ll rotate the airplane during a normal takeoff, pulling the nose up to lift off the ground.

Both pilots test their oxygen masks, and the co-pilot will look over the other emergency equipment and inspect all the electrical circuit breakers to be sure they’re in place. Engine fire detections systems are tested which results in a bell sound that you may have heard while boarding the airplane on the first flight of the day.

We then initialize a second computer called the ACARS which essentially allows us to ‘text message’ our company to receives weather reports, our flight plan, records the time we push back, take off, land and arrive at the gate and automatically sends some of this information to the company. The ACARS also allows us to receive a print out of our ATC clearance. It’s a handy device, and many of us are would rather have an engine fail than lose this little box. Well, almost.

If we have a jumpseater-a pilot from our company or another airline or an FAA inspector-riding in the cockpit with us, we’ll brief them on the use of oxygen masks, life preserver locations and the use of emergency exits (such as the cockpit windows).

Flight attendants arrive at the airport an hour early as well, and they also ‘build their nest’ in the galley just as we do in the cockpit for the hour prior to the flight. They check their emergency equipment, over wing and door slides and raft pressures in addition to organizing their catering.

Interestingly, this period before a flight is never included in our hourly pay. Crew member pay is calculated only for the time the airplane has pushed back from the gate to the moment it has arrived at the destination gate, or ‘block time’ so named for the wooden chocks or ‘blocks’ put between the wheels to keep them from rolling while the airplane is parked at the gate.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Turbulence causing aircraft to break apart and London holding patterns.

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Tai asks:

Hi Kent,

I’m an avid reader of both your blog and Plane Answers and plan to pursue a career in aviation.

I generally keep an eye out in my news feeds for airline/aircraft related stories and came across a CNN article about an Air France A330 which was lost over the Atlantic. Officials are saying that the crash could have occurred as the plane encountered extremely heavy turbulence.

Is it possible for turbulence to be severe enough to actually cause a plane to come down, or would there likely be other factors or problems with the aircraft? Also, if there is turbulence that strong, wouldn’t the captain reroute the flight around it?

I’m often questioned about the dangers posed by turbulence and I’ve explained in the past that modern airliners are engineered to handle the worst case scenarios. But there are absolutely situations, such as extremely large thunderstorms that could cause structural damage to an aircraft.

It’s a big part of why airlines, and pilots specifically, are so concerned about accurate weather reports, good radar technology, flight planning and operating procedures that keep us away from thunderstorms.

Our manual even specifies a 20 nautical mile distance to be flown around thunderstorms. But don’t confuse every cumulous cloud as having the potential of a thunderstorm.

One of the few examples of an airliner being brought down due to turbulence that I’m aware of hits rather close to home for me. In the late 1960s the airline my grandpa had started 40 years earlier purchased a competing airline.

Just weeks after that purchase, one of the recently acquired airplanes, a Fokker F-27s broke up in-flight near Illiamna mountain after an encounter with severe-to-extreme turbulence.

It was the worst accident by far over the 60-year run of the company. So while I’d love to say turbulence could never cause an accident in a modern airliner, I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility today.

But I’m not so sure that’s what happened to Air France 447. In fact, by definition aircraft accidents are usually the result of something rather unanticipated. So I don’t buy any speculation by the analysts at this point, even with the small clues the ACARS maintenance status messages give us. This is the stage of an investigation where nothing is ruled out.

Jackie asks:

Hi Kent!

What a great service you do here. I have read through numerous posts and it has surely helped calm some of my fears of flying.

A few months ago, I was on a BA flight from PRG to LHR and about 30 minutes outside of London, the captain came on to tell us that due to heavy traffic volume, we were to be placed in a racetrack holding pattern. This holding pattern lasted about half an hour before we began our final descent to LHR. As someone who is a very nervous flyer, anything out of the ordinary makes me very on edge. I’ve flown a great deal, but this was my first experience with a holding pattern. I guess I have been fortunate!

My question is: Just how common are racetrack holding patterns? Are some airports (such as LHR) more notorious for holding planes in that way? Also, I was curious as to whether there is any type of “hierarchy” for exiting the holding pattern? I mean, is it truly first-in, first out? Or since we were in a smaller plane (737 or A320) for the short hop from Prague, would preference be given to the heavies coming from the USA and such?

One final question, when we were in the holding pattern, and in the midst of a turn, the plane quickly jolted/banked to the side in which we were turning and then quickly jolted to the extreme other side as if the pilot quickly corrected this. He then came over the speaker to say that we had hit an air pocket. Does that sound right? Is there any danger in “hitting air pockets” while in a holding pattern turn? I do remember we were pulled out of the pattern to land soon after that experience.

Hi Jackie,

Holding while on the arrival portion of a flight is probably more common in London than any other place I’ve flown. I’d estimate that half the time I have flown into London involved a hold, usually for only one to three turns.

The priority is based on first in, first out. So you may start holding at 16,000 feet and be given lower as the airplanes below you clear out. Finally, at perhaps 11,000 feet, you’d be the next one in line and could then start the rest of the approach.

You almost certainly came across another airplane’s wake. You can think of these currents that are generated by aircraft much in the same way a boat creates a wake as it plows through the water.

In your case, there was probably an airplane holding at the same altitude that had been cleared lower and your flight began holding at that level as well. The wakes usually descend as time goes on, which can be an issue when holding below another aircraft.

Since the holding patterns drawn and flown by the airplane’s computer known as an FMS (flight management system) is so precise when coupled to GPS technology, it’s no surprise that you happened to come along another airplane’s wake.

Generally, they’re startling, but they don’t threaten the safety of airliners.

Coincidently I have a video that shows a flight we did last year as we were about to enter the London holding pattern over “OCK” or the Ockham VOR which is a specific point we navigate to near the town of Guildford. Notice the holding pattern drawn by our computers for our airplane to follow.

In the third to last scene, you can see the airplanes on the screen that we can view in the cockpit. And the final scene shows us selecting a lower altitude before I put the camera away.

Thanks for the great question.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for nex
t Monday’s
Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.

Plane Answers: Frost on the wings and non-flying pilot duties

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Paul asks:

Can a plane take off with frost on it or does it have to be de-iced ?

In the U.S., the FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulation 121.629 (c) says:

(b) No person may take off an aircraft when frost, ice, or snow is
adhering to the wings, control surfaces, propellers, engine inlets, or
other critical surfaces of the aircraft. Takeoffs with frost
under the wing in the area of the fuel tanks may be authorized by the

While there may be cases where some frost is allowed on the fuselage or even the bottom side of a wing, any frost, snow or ice on the wings and tail must be de-iced before takeoff.

De-icing technology has advanced significantly in the past 20 years with the increased use of newer anti-ice fluids. Previously we would de-ice with what’s called ‘type-1’ fluid, which removed the ice and snow from an airplane, but didn’t protect the wing from any further snow accumulation.

After de-icing, we have what’s called a holdover time. If we weren’t off the ground within the time specified in the holdover charts, we would have to have the wing inspected to ensure that snow isn’t accumulating or we’d have to be de-iced again. It wasn’t uncommon for a flight to make a couple of unsuccessful attempts at taxiing for takeoff within the holdover time.

Today we use a two-step process when it’s snowing outside. We still de-ice with type-1 fluid, either at the gate or after we push back and then our de-ice crew will apply a type-IV fluid, which has anti-ice properties.

You may have seen a wing with the thick green fluid on top. As snow continues to fall, this fluid can prevent any accumulation on the wing for well over an hour, depending on the conditions. This is a huge improvement to the type-1 holdover times which were as short as 10 minutes.

Unfortunately this two-part process takes at least 30 minutes to complete, depending on the amount of snow on the wings. I’ve had it take well over an hour, in fact. And that doesn’t include waiting for the other airplanes to finish before the de-ice crew can start on our aircraft.

Airlines are incredibly conservative about de-icing. Because of some high profile accidents that occurred in the early ’80s, we understandably still get many concerned questions from nervous passengers about the process.


Tom asks:

Hey Kent,

In a lot of your Paris trip posts you mention “non-flying duties.” What are these non-flying duties? How long do some of these take and do you have any paperwork to fill out after a flight like a police officer does at the end of his day? Or do you just fly and land and once your trip is done go home?

I may have been talking about non-flying duties as they relate to a pilot who’s not the flying pilot on a particular flight. Since the captain and co-pilot swap ‘legs’ allowing one pilot to fly the trip over and the other to fly back, the pilot not flying handles most of the non-flying duties.

This mainly involves communicating with ATC, but it also includes bringing the landing gear and flaps up and down and a few specific tasks such as setting the target altitude and headings when the other pilot is hand-flying.

The non-flying pilot usually pulls up weather and types any messages to the company via the ACARS unit as well.

After we arrive at our home base, it’s just a matter of saying goodbye to the passengers and the rest of the crew, jumping on the employee bus and driving home.

One of the best parts of the job is the lack of homework, with one exception; we change out hundreds of pages in our Jeppesen approach plates and aircraft operating manuals between trips. These packaged updates take about twenty minutes each, and we tend to get four to eight a month.

I personally have the added non-flying duty of writing about some of the more interesting trips, and sharing photos and video with you, although I’ve been running a few weeks behind in these Cockpit Chronicles posts.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers