Plane Answers: Do jets have keys, my first airline flight and overwing exits

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!

Lee asks:

Hi Kent –

Two items, please…

Silly question here, but I’ve always wondered, does a typical jetliner have “keys”? You know, like you have keys to the car. And is the same true for a 757 or 767, whatever?

Believe it or not, Lee, they do have keys, but only for the cockpit door. Fortunately they’re standardized, so we only need to carry one key. For security reasons, this key doesn’t open our ‘bank-vault’ style door inflight.

Also, do you remember your first REAL solo? You know, when they handed you the “keys” (maybe) and said, “you’re the man today.”

And not in some Cessna or tree-topper. When you got that big break after you were hired by one of the big name commercial airlines. You were behind the wheel of your first big jetliner taxiing across the field and made that final turn only to see a mile of runway in front of you knowing it was up to you to get 50 tons of flying brick in the air.

What’d all that feel like?

Since airliners are flown as a crew with two or three pilots, for me, it never really felt like my first solo flight did. There’s just nothing to compare to that experience; it’s one that I’ll always remember.

I do remember just a few things from my first flight in an airliner. It took two hours to taxi our 727 out of Newark airport and I was amazed that any airline could make money with such long takeoff delays. Fortunately, I’ve never had as long of a taxi since.

But really, I can’t recall anything else on my first flight at a major airline probably because it really wasn’t entirely different from flying a smaller aircraft. It was exciting at the time, and I’m sure I was awash in the new procedures I had just learned, but I can’t say flying a 12,000 pound airplane is that much less exhilarating than flying a 500,000 pound aircraft. The same is especially true when transitioning from, say a 737 to a 777.

Oh, I do remember that there was no hotel room for me that night in Indianapolis, so I slept in the hotel’s conference room instead. But the flight itself was a blur.

Patrick wonders:

On the little card that shows what to do in case of an emergency the little pictures show the little cartoon guy putting the door on the seat. Wouldn’t this get in the way? Why not just chuck it out the opening?

I wondered about that as well. Some aircraft have two over wing exits next to each other, so it may be preferable to place the door on the seat (I would use the one behind or in front of the exit row) rather than risk hitting someone who is already standing on the wing outside.

Also, keep in mind that it’s more common to have those over wing exits used in an evacuation that may or may not have resulted in any damage to the airplane. I’m sure those doors are hugely expensive in that case.

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: A heavy question

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!

Ken asks:

I hope this is the appropriate place to ask this question.

Why do some aircraft identify themselves as “heavy” on the radio? Does this refer to its size or load? Why is it important to so identify?

Thanks Ken,

It’s the perfect place to ask, actually. The “heavy” designator is attached to aircraft that weigh over 255,000 pounds in the U.S. This term informs the controllers to add spacing between heavy aircraft and non-heavy types since the heavier aircraft create their own turbulence which can be rather dangerous to smaller airplanes spaced too closely.

A vortex is generated from the wingtips of high gross-weight airplanes and is known as ‘wake turbulence.’

It has become a bit more confusing for air traffic controllers lately, since some 757s have been modified to allow for a heavier gross weight takeoff. These 255,500 pound gross weight capable airplanes are now full fledged ‘heavy’ aircraft with spacing requirements that are the same as a 747..

I had no idea just how complicated the spacing criteria could be until I posed the question to Dayron Fernandez who works at the Miami tower.

Read on to hear Dayron explain just what is involved for an air traffic controller when dealing with the different types of aircraft:
Required radar separation minima is 3nm for all IFR [instrument flight rules] aircraft in a terminal environment. In other words, say, with Miami Approach.

In the center environment [en route] it is 5nm for all IFR aircraft. Since the Centers have everyone separated by 5nm, wake turbulence doesn’t apply and so they don’t use the “heavy” designator behind the call sign in the U.S.

In the terminal area, we can use a reduced separation because our radars sweep faster, and since the separation is down to 3nm, wake turbulence rules apply. So here they are:

  • Any IFR (non-heavy) aircraft behind a Heavy : 5nm
  • Heavy IFR behind Heavy IFR : 4nm
  • Any large or heavy IFR aircraft behind a B757: 4nm
  • Any Small IFR (PA28, SW4 etc) behind B757: 4nm
  • Any IFR behind any other IFR aircraft: 3nm

The increased separation applies only to those aircraft following Heavy or B757 aircraft.

And just when it couldn’t get any more complex, because the effects of wake increase as airplanes fly slower and the AOA [angle of attack] increases:

  • Small landing behind a Heavy: 6nm
  • Small landing behind a B757: 5nm
  • Small landing behind a Large: 4nm

As you are aware, for departures we use 2 minutes behind heavy or even the non-heavy 757s OR we can use radar separation. For the latter, what counts is that the wake separation exists at the time the trailing aircraft becomes airborne. (i.e. 5nm) For both landing and departing traffic we must issue cautionary advisories to aircraft departing/ arriving behind any heavy or any 757.

The FAA weight cutoff for a heavy is 255k. However, ICAO uses 300k. Thus the increased gross weight of some of the B757s brings it above 255,000 pounds but sits below ICAO’s standard.

So we now have to wonder which 757 we’re dealing with. And what’s more, since we now file flight plans in ICAO format, and they don’t recognize that weight class as heavy, pilots/dispatchers can’t file these larger 757s as heavies, so we manually have to make that change in our host computers for every H/B757 flight.

Paris Air Show 2009: New 787 Dreamliner window shade technology

If you’ve been following the development of the Boeing 787, you may have heard about the electronic shades on their extra-large passenger windows.

So far, we’ve had to imagine how effective this technology would be, knowing it would be over a year before the first revenue flight of the Dreamliner.

Luckily, we managed to find the PPG Industries booth at the Paris Air Show, and scored a demonstration of this signature feature of the 787 known as Alteos Interactive Windows.

We’ve all been on airliners with plastic shades that frequently become stuck between the interior panel above the window. Sitting in that seat can be torturous on a sunny day. Not to mention the scratches they produce on the plexiglass inner pane.

Boeing and the airlines have found that these mechanical window shades represent an added maintenance cost, and for that reason, these reliable electronic shades will be a standard feature on all Boeing 787s and possibly other airliners in the future.

Passengers will be able to control the windows through five different settings, which take about a minute and a half to go from full dark to fully bright, at least on the version we saw. While this delay is a limitation of the design, the gradual transition could be a nice feature for passengers sleeping nearby.

Mark A. Cancilla, Director of Commercial Transparencies at PPG gave us a demonstration:

Flight attendants will have some control over the cabin as well. During a movie or as the sun begins to rise after a transatlantic flight, they’ll be able to lower the brightest setting without eliminating the view for someone who would rather look outside. And catching one of those sunrises can be more entertaining than an old sitcom episode you’ve seen three times that month anyway.

For some reason, I had imagined the darkest setting wouldn’t be dark enough, but I was thrilled to discover that PPG had designed a system that would allow as little as just .1% of the light to come through. Boeing has chosen a range of 70% transparency down to .1% for the Dreamliner over the five available steps.

The technology for these windows originally came from the automotive industry. In fact, you may have it in your car. The auto-dimming rear view mirror found in newer cars is the same technology behind these shades.

But will this technology make it into the pointy-end of the airplane or will pilots continue to resort to newspapers and safety briefing cards to shade themselves from the sun? We learned a bit about the 787’s cockpit windows and the new technology they’ll be using as well.

Check out the rest of Gadling’s Paris Air Show coverage.


Plane Answers: “Chit-chat” did NOT doom Colgan flight 3407

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!

Allow me to invoke some commentary in lieu of today’s usual Plane Answers post.

So much has been written about the Colgan Dash 8 accident in Buffalo, NY. As I’ve written before in a “Pilots are either Heroes or Villains” post, I am a reluctant commenter during accident investigations. But the NTSB has released a tremendous amount of information already and I feel the need to shed some light on what the Colgan pilots may have been dealing with before the tragic accident.

We’ve heard that the captain reacted incorrectly by pulling up instead of pushing forward, that he didn’t have much experience in the Dash 8 Q400, that he and the first officer were discussing non-essential topics during the sterile period and that the captain had flunked a number of checkrides while learning to fly. We also heard about their long commute before work and the lack of sleep each pilot had before the trip.

But how much did these facts play a part in the accident? We’ll never know exactly what each pilot was thinking, but when you combine the transcripts with the NTSB recreation, a picture emerges that’s a little more complicated than what’s being reported.

According to the transcripts, the flight from Newark was completely normal until the start of the approach. Checklists were accomplished, altimeters were set, approach briefings were done. There was a fair amount of conversation, but this was mainly while above 10,000 feet. There may have been discussions with their company about where the aircraft would park after landing, but it’s hard for me to determine if this was before or after they flew below 10,000 feet.

The press latched on to the ‘chit-chat’ these pilots were having before the accident. The cockpit voice recorder was installed years ago as a safety device, but it’s sadly being used to satisfy the morbid curiosity of the public. Do we really need to hear the conversations that took place on the ground in Newark before this flight?

Much of that talking while approaching Buffalo revolved around icing and their prior experience in ice. In the last four minutes before the captain asked for the gear to be put down, there was only a single, three-sentence statement made by the captain in response to the co-pilot’s concern with her lack of icing experience.

The Approach

After that, nothing was said for the next two minutes, until the chain of events that would cause this accident would begin.
“Gear down.” The captain called.

The co-pilot responded by lowering the gear and pushing two knobs called condition levers forward. Just two seconds later, the approach controller told her to contact the tower. The co-pilot immediately looked down to change to the tower frequency, while acknowledging the controller. After she had spun some dials to enter the tower frequency in the VHF control panel, she looked at the gear handle to call out that it had extended completely-that it was now down and locked.

Two seconds later, the captain called for the flaps to be lowered to 15 degrees. Before even having a chance to look up and check on the flight’s progress she needed to move the flap handle from 5 to 15 degrees.

In the 22 seconds that it took for the co-pilot to put the gear down, push the condition levers forward, change the frequency, verify the landing gear position and select flaps 15, the airplane had slowed from 180 knots to 133 knots and the stall warning system activated.

She was relying on the captain to fly the airplane or, in this case, monitor the autopilot, while she performed her non-flying pilot duties. Every pilot has been in this situation before, where rapid-fire actions can take the non-flying pilot’s attention away. But usually being out of the loop for twenty seconds isn’t enough to cause a problem. Up to this point, she had done everything right.

Now let’s think about what the captain may have been dealing with:

He was in level flight at 2,300 feet with the flaps set to five degrees. He may have been tired, and so he likely felt like letting the autopilot take care of intercepting the final approach course. The autopilot was holding the altitude and heading and since the Dash 8 Q400 doesn’t have any autothrottles, he was manually setting the power to the proper setting to maintain a speed of about 180 knots.

At one point, the speed picked up to 186 knots. He pulled the power back slightly to let it settle at 180 knots which took about 6 seconds.

A few seconds later he called for the gear to come down. The co-pilot brought the gear down and pushed the condition levers forward. The condition levers essentially control the pitch of the propellors. Pushing them forward drives the prop blades to a finer pitch, resulting in a higher prop RPM, but also more drag. These levers are procedurally moved forward so maximum thrust is available in the case of a missed approach. So putting the gear down and the condition levers are two actions that will result in a significant amount of drag.

But somehow, the captain was distracted. He had just pulled the power back prior to calling for the gear to come down. He didn’t touch the throttles for the next 27 seconds, which means there was no way he had glanced at his airspeed for that half-minute. He could have been checking to see if there was any more ice accumulating or glancing at his approach plate.

The point is, he had become distracted and the co-pilot was out of the loop while she accomplished her required duties. The motion of the gear coming down and the condition levers coming forward meant that there was little time to react with the throttles.

This wasn’t the first time a pilot failed to notice a loss of airspeed while on approach. In fact, less than two weeks later another accident occurred while flying an approach on autopilot. Turkish flight 1951 which crashed short of the runway in Amsterdam was equipped with an autothrottle system, but it had failed at 1950 feet, when it reduced the power to idle slowly without the crew noticing.

In an age when the flying public seeks comfort by thinking airplanes just land themselves, it appears that a reliance on automation may have led to two separate accidents in the month of February alone. Autopilot use is generally encouraged by many airlines as a way to reduce a pilot’s workload.

But I’m certain that if the autopilot had been off in either accident, the pilots would have found it difficult to maintain altitude as the airplane slowed, which would have made it immediately obvious that more power was needed.

In both of these cases the autopilot masked this, making it easier to become distracted.

The Stall

When the stick shaker activated on Colgan flight 3407, the autopilot turned off automatically. Somehow the captain let the nose of the airplane reach nearly 30 degrees, and even though he correctly responded with full power, it wasn’t going to prevent the continued loss of airspeed as long as he had the nose pointed up between 20 and 30 degrees.

The co-pilot had been thinking about ice for the last half of the trip because of the build-up she had seen earlier, and this might have been going through her mind as she heard the stick shaker activate at the exact moment she was moving the flap handle from 5 degrees to 15. She very well may have associated her flap selection with the stick shaker, and if a movement in the flight controls results in something going wrong, I could see most pilots tempted to move the flap handle back where it was before the problem began (in this case, back up).

This is exactly what she did, which made the recovery much more difficult for the captain, since an extra 20 or 25 knots would be needed to fly at the reduced flap settings. Bringing the flaps up is also a recovery technique in high-wing turboprops that encounter enough ice to stall the tail. So this may be further proof that she was convinced tail-icing was their problem.

The captain may have also thought tail icing was his problem and the reason the nose wanted to drop, completely misreading what the ‘stick pusher’ was trying to tell him. Reports have indicated that the captain had watched the NASA video on tailplane icing recoveries during training just a few months earlier. This is a video which will definitely leave a lasting impression on any pilot.

Considering the lack of sleep both pilots had, it’s easy to come up with a scenario where a misdiagnosis of the problem–deciding between a tailplane stall or traditional stall–led to the accident.

The Aftermath

Non-essential chatter wasn’t a factor in this accident since the pilots had been quiet for more than two minutes prior to the airplane slowing. The NTSB will likely look at the training these pilots had received and how fatigue may have played a role in the accident.

It’s been verified that a lack of sleep can be equivalent to drinking while on the job, so the NTSB will likely factor this into their final report. And perhaps some attention will be given to the audible alerts pilots receive with specific attention given to how accurately they’re interpreted and how long the reaction time is with various warnings.

The airplane manufacturers may determine that a warning prior to the stick shaker is warranted. A “caution, too slow!” warning may be all that’s needed.

But first, training and procedures need to be considered to avoid this scenario. A great deal of time is spent during recurrent training on FAA mandated scenarios and emergencies that become repetitive. A program that introduces an even wider range of failures and scenarios in the simulator might be a better way to prepare pilots.

The NTSB will also likely criticize the turnover that has resulted from commuter airlines that see themselves as a stepping stone to the majors. An airline that decides $16,000 a year is an acceptable salary for a pilot might have to rethink their strategy as the flying public recognizes the need to continue to attract the best pilots possible.

This accident could become a catalyst for a number of changes that have been needed for a while. Proper crew rest, adequate training, and upgraded safety warnings could be around the corner. Let’s hope so.

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.