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: How common are go-arounds and how can I sit in the jumpseat?

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!

Jason asks:

Hi Kent,

I enjoy your articles, keep up the good work.

I travel frequently for business and also drive past a major international airport every day on my way to and from work.

The other day while passing the airport I saw a plane abort the landing, pull up the gear and go around. It reminded me of a similar experience I had flying a few years ago, as well as several aborted take-offs I have had!

So I was wondering, how common an event are they? And what is the most common cause for an aborted landing?

Thanks Jason.

Aborted landings, or ‘missed-approaches’ as we call them in the states, are somewhat common. When I flew the 737-800, I was amused by the number of missed approaches we had to fly. Since the airplane was rather fast on final approach, controllers who sequenced us in behind slower airplanes with less than three miles were often surprised to see how much faster the airplane was than the older 737s. If we came within 2 1/2 miles on final, a go-around would often be called for by ATC. This happened five times in the three years I flew the 737.

This hasn’t been an issue at all in the 757 I’m currently flying.

We occasionally have to go-around when an airplane hasn’t cleared the runway, or hasn’t taken off yet as we’re descending through a few hundred feet.

Also, if we don’t see the runway on an instrument approach that’s not being flown as a Category III autoland approach, we’ll have to go around and try it again or fly to our alternate airport.

Finally, if we just happen to be too fast or too high or both, a missed approach is called for. The FAA has been very concerned with unstabilized approaches, and now that we have a reporting system that records and sends all the parameters associated with the black box aboard the airplane to the company, pilots are encouraged to go-around if the airplane isn’t on speed and on the glide path with the final flaps selected by 1000 feet above the ground.

At our company, we have a ‘no-fault’ go-around policy. If it doesn’t look right, it’s much smarter to come back and give it another try. No one at the company will question the decision to go-around in that case.

Aborted takeoffs are much more rare. I’ve yet to experience one in the past 19 years of commercial flying, other than in the simulator during recurrent training.

Dwight asks:

Hi I’m not a pilot yet but I’m going to be attending the Delta Connection Academy this July. I was wondering what do you have to do to get the “Jumpseat” and can regular people request the jumpseat.

And a second question: After the pilots arrive at the gate and shut down the plane what does he/she do after leaving the plane? Do they go to another flight if he/se has one or do they usually just go home?

There are two types of jumpseats on an airplane. The flight attendant jumpseats, which are reserved for flight attendants generally, or the cockpit jumpseat. Neither jumpseat is available to the public, though.

Other pilots are afforded the opportunity to ride in the cockpit jumpseat for free when trying to get to or from work or when traveling somewhere for pleasure. There are a number of layers of security, especially after 9/11, which verify that the pilot really is employed by the company they say they are. The jumpseat is also available to FAA inspectors who regularly ride in the cockpit to check up on an airlines compliance with procedures.

After you finish your Delta Connection training and you’re on the line, you’ll find yourself in plenty of jumpseats, I’m sure. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to share the view from the pointy end on Cockpit Chronicles and through the photos and video on my site.

At the end of a flight, a pilot will either race off to catch another flight departing at a different gate, or they’ll go to the hotel before continuing their trip the next morning or, if it happens to be the end of their trip, they’ll go home.

Often times, home isn’t at the city where they’re based, and the pilot will have to ride on a jumpseat or in the cabin home to the city where they live. A good percentage of pilots commute to all parts of the country. I have friends who have commuted from Anchorage to Chicago, New York or Miami, in fact.

Personally, I prefer to live within an hour driving distance from my home base of Boston.

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.