Who’s Flying The Plane? Aircraft Left On Auto-Pilot As Pilots Nap Together

pilots cockpit airplane
Andrey Belenko, Flickr

Even though we’re all aware that auto-pilot is flying our aircraft the vast majority of our trip, it’s always reassuring to know that there’s a pilot sitting behind the controls, ready to spring into action in case something goes wrong. Even better, there are usually two pilots up in the cockpit prepared to take charge. So news that a packed airplane heading to the UK was left on auto-pilot as both pilots fell asleep is a little unsettling.

The British Civil Aviation Authority has revealed that the pilot and co-pilot flying an Airbus A330 on an unnamed airline had decided to take turns napping. However, at some point during the flight, one pilot woke from his nap to discover the other pilot was fast asleep. The pilots voluntarily reported the incident which happened in mid-August this year. It’s believed the pair had only gotten about five hours of sleep over the two nights prior to the flight.The incident has sparked debate over pilot fatigue and mandatory rest periods between flights. Proposed changes in Europe would actually mean pilots could go even longer before getting a break, and includes rules like allowing pilots to land a plane after having been awake for 22 hours. The UK pilot’s association, Balpa, is fighting the changes.

Where are all the travel guide apps for Android?

travel guide apps for AndroidNearly two years ago, I bought my first smartphone: the T-Mobile Android MyTouch*. I’m only occasionally jealous of my iPhone-carrying friends, as I find few travel guide apps for Android. Even after a move to Istanbul, I still use and rely upon it daily; Android‘s interface is fast and easy-to-use, and seamless use of Google applications like Gmail and Google Maps is part of the reason I bought it in the first place. Living in a foreign country means English-language books and magazines are expensive and hard-to-find, and like many travelers, I don’t want to carry bulky books around when I’m on the road. This leaves a perfect opportunity for mobile developers to provide real travel guide content and not just travel-booking apps, especially apps produced by reliable media sources with professional editorial. These days, every guidebook and travel magazine publisher is coming out with apps for the iPhone and now iPad, supplying users with content and directions on the go, but there are hardly any for Android.

So what’s available for mobile travelers from the top travel book and print sources? Better hope you’re running Apple OS…Guidebooks:

  • Fodor’s: Happy 75th Birthday Mr. Fodor, but we wish you had more than just five city guides for purchase (in London, New York, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco) and only for Apple.
  • Frommer’s: iPhone guides are available for ten major cities in the US, Europe and Asia, but nada for Android.
  • Lonely Planet: iPhone users are spoiled for choice: dozens of city guides, language phrasebooks, audio walking tours, and eBooks optimized for the iPad. Android users in 32 countries including the US are in luck: there’s a free Trippy app to organize itinerary items, as well as 25 “augmented reality” Compass city guides and 14 phrasebooks. NOTE: This article originally mentioned that the Compass guides were unavailable in the Android Market store, but they should work for most US users. I happen to be in a country where paid apps are not available and not shown in the Market.
  • LUXE City Guides: 20 cheeky city guides work for a variety of mobile phones, including iPhone and Blackberry, but none are compatible with my Android. Bonus: the apps come with free regular updates and maps that the paper guides don’t have.
  • Rick Steves: If you are headed to Europe, you can get audio guides for many big attractions and historic walks for iPhone, plus maps for the iPad. You can also download the audio files free for your computer, and props to Rick for mentioning that Android apps are at least in development.
  • Rough Guides: Here’s a new one: the Rough Guides app works for many phones but NOT the iPhone OR Android! It’s not as slick as some of the other guides (it’s a Java app) and you will use data to use it on the road, but it provides lots of info for many cities in Europe. You can also find a Rough Guides photo app on iTunes to view pictures from around the world with Google Maps and captions from Rough Guides.
  • Time Out: City travelers and residents might want to look at the apps from Time Out for 5 European cities and Buenos Aires, with Manchester and New York on the way. More cities are available for free on iTunes, search for Time Out on iTunes to see what’s available. iPhone only.
  • Wallpaper* City Guides: 10 of the design mag’s 80 city guides are for sale for iPhone for Europe, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles.

Print media:

  • Conde Nast Traveler: It makes sense for magazines to embrace the iPad, and CNT has free Apple apps specifically for Italy, cruises, and their annual Gold List of hotels and resorts. Blackberry users can download an etiquette guide, but Android users are snubbed.
  • National Geographic: As befitting any explorer, Nat Geo has a world atlas, national parks maps, and games featuring their amazing photography, all for iPhone. A special interactive edition of National Geographic Traveler is for sale on the iPad; you can also read it on your computer. Androids can download a quiz game and various wallpapers; and all mobile users can access a mobile-friendly version of their website at natgeomobile.com.
  • Outside: Adventure travelers can purchase and read full issues on the iPad, but no subscription option yet.
  • Travel + Leisure: The other big travel glossy also has an iPad app for special issues. Four issues have been released so far with one available now on iTunes (romantic getaways) but future editions will follow to be read on the app. Just in time for spring break and summer, they’ve also released a Travel + Leisure Family app with advice and articles specifically geared towards travel and families. The apps are both free but you’ll need an iPad – these are designed for tablets, not phones. You can also read full issues of T+L and their foodie cousin Food & Wine on Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color ereader; you can save per issue if you subscribe to the e-reader version.
  • USA Today Travel: Most major newspapers have mobile readers for all types of phones, but USA Today is the only one with their own travel-specific app. AutoPilot combines an array of cool travel booking capabilities and information with articles and blog post from the newspaper. Only iPhone users can enjoy free.

Two of our favorite magazines, Budget Travel and Afar, have no mobile apps yet but great online communities to tap into their extensive knowledge.

All in all, other than Lonely Planet’s Compass guides, a pretty weak showing for Android travelers. While iPhone has been around longer as a mobile platform that Android, they’ve lost the market share of users to the little green robot. As Android is available on a variety of phone manufacturers and providers, expect that number to continue to grow, along with the variety and depth of content for mobile and tablet users. Will the developers ever catch up or will travelers have to choose?

*Android has not endorsed this or paid me anything to write about them. But to show I’m not biased – Apple, feel free to send me a sample phone and I’ll test out the apps!

Photo courtesy Flickr user closari. Special thanks to Sean O’Neill, who blogs on Budget Travel and the new BBC Travel blog.

Plane Answers: What kind of math skills are needed to become a pilot?

Zach asks:

Hello First Officer Kent!

It has been my dream since early childhood to earn a private pilot’s certificate. For a number of reasons–both financial and otherwise–it is only now (pushing age 30) that I am able to seriously begin the process of choosing a flight school and creating a road map to the goal of earning the license (while I would love to work as an airline pilot, I am content to keep my less interesting day job and fly as a pure hobbyist).

The only potential barrier that I can envision is what I fear to be a lack of the necessary math acumen to be successful. I am simply intimidated by any math more complicated than very basic algebra, and while this is something that I believe I can overcome, I wonder how it will impact my ability to earn a private pilot’s certificate. How much and what type of math is necessary to know in order to reach this goal? Should I brush up on any particular area of mathematics before starting my flight training?

Hi Zach,

I have good news for you.

You’re not the first to ask me this question, so I imagine many others have this impression as well. Perhaps it’s fueled by a few math teachers who may use occupations like flying as a carrot to get their students to study more. But there isn’t anything even approaching basic algebra required to get your licenses, even up to the ATP level.

I was admittedly horrible at math and struggled with it all the way through college. Not a pretty sight. Since college, I haven’t even thought about algebraic equations. Frankly, the most complicated math I do today is figuring out the time for the crew rest periods when crossing the Atlantic with three pilots. Fortunately, there’s even an app for that.

That said, it was my ability to complete the required math courses that allowed me to get through college. And college has been necessary to land a job at a major airline. But that doesn’t seem to be your goal at this point.

Hope you do take up your dream!

Michael asks:

Kent,

I was talking with a pilot from a different airline than yours and he was saying that at his company they now prefer to use idle reverse thrust. I’m wondering why this would be (versus revving those bad boys up in max reverse)? Why not just leave the throttles at complete idle? Does reverse idle do much for deceleration versus complete idle?

Hi Michael,

Many airports, such as Manchester and London, are requiring idle reverse be used in the mornings due to noise restrictions. I actually prefer that, because passengers seem to enjoy the quiet, calm landings. Typically reverse thrust will shorten your landing distance by only 400 feet depending on the conditions.


Given plenty of runway, idle reverse landings are rather nice. But there are tradeoffs. Avoiding maximum reverse thrust does wear the brakes out faster. But there may be fuel and engine savings associated with idle reverse.

When the engines are at idle they actually produces a bit of thrust. So idle revers blocks that residual thrust and pushes it forward giving you some extra stopping power at no cost while in idle reverse.

Tom asks:

While I was looking at some Boeing posters of widebody aircraft in school–a 767/757 and up and I’ve noticed there are three autopilots. A left, center, and right. What is the point of three? Is it just for redundancy?


Hi Tom,

The three autopilots are used at the same time only on aircraft that are certified for autolands, which are used in extremely low visibility landings.


The autopilots are all selected just before shooting the approach and they become independent at 1500 feet, all the way to the ground. This way, if one electrical source is ever lost, the airplane can continue.

Other Boeings that don’t have autoland capability may still have three autopilots, but they aren’t selected at the same time. They’re just cycled through at the beginning of each flight so they see an even amount of use. So yes, on those aircraft they would be there solely for redundancy.


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. Twitter @veryjr

Gadling gear review – USA Today AutoPilot

The App Store is full of travel applications – I’ve got at least 40 of them on my iPhone, but many of them have a very specific purpose, and I’ll only need them once a month (or less). The new USA Today developed “AutoPilot” is one that has already seen more use than most others put together, and may even end up replacing my current favorite – TripIt.

AutoPilot is a Swiss Army Knife of travel applications. It offers the following features in one app:

  • TripIt itinerary integration
  • Flight tracker
  • Airport delay map
  • Airline/hotel contact database
  • Weather
  • Destination galleries (powered by Flickr)
  • Articles & experts (with USA Today content)

That first feature is pretty nice – you get a similar interface as found in the iPhone/iPod Touch TripIt application, with a couple of extra features thrown in (like the ability to email someone your itinerary).

To integrate with TripIt, you do a one-time authorization on a web page, which allows AutoPilot to access all your TripIt itineraries.

The flight tracker information shows up in your itinerary, but can also be searched using flight number, route or airport. The information delivers all you really need – departure (estimate), any delays, and arrival/departure gate information.

The airport status screen uses information delivered by FlightStats, and shows all known delays at US airports. Since this information comes directly from the FAA, it is usually quite accurate, and helps give a good idea how the rest of your day may look

I’ve included a brief gallery showing some of the various sections of this app. I’m loving the TripIt integration, and the extra content makes for a well designed application – a real “must have” for any traveling iPhone owner. Best of all, the application is free! You’ll find it in the App Store (iTunes link).

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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.