Plane Answers: Who sets crew rest rules and are MD-80s safe?

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:

Are commercial airline pilots allowed to be flying for up to a maximum number of hours by FAA, or is this at the discretion of the airline they are flying for?

The FAA allows a two-pilot aircraft to be scheduled to fly for up to 8 hours. This is flight time only and doesn’t include any time waiting between flights or getting ready. The duty-day, or the time a pilot can be on duty is sixteen hours, but some airlines have rules, often negotiated by their unions for thirteen or fourteen hour days.

When an extra ‘relief’ pilot is added for a total of three pilots, the flight time can increase to a scheduled 12 hours with a total duty time of 18 hours.

Finally, if four pilots are aboard, the scheduled flight time can be up to 16 hours and the duty time up to 20 hours.

There are other rules designed to keep fatigue out of the cockpit; no more than six days on duty without a full day off, no more than 30 hours of flight time in a week (32 hours for international flights) and no more than 100 hours of flying a month (120 hours for international pilots).

One exception: The FAA has established different flight and duty time regulations for the state of Alaska.

Many of these regulations are likely to change in the next year. The FAA has announced plans to review these regulations and to update them as a result of new alertness studies and last year’s incident in Hawaii where both pilots fell asleep after flying a rather brutal schedule.

Joe asks:

Hi Kent,

I love your site and visit often. I have a question about the MD-80 series airplane. When I was a child, my Mom missed Northwest flight 255.

Her Physician was not so lucky. Ever since that incident, I have been terrified to fly on the MD-80 and have not flown on one! I realize they are very popular and have a fairly good safety record, but I prefer the Airbus 320/321, 737, 757 and the ultimate – 767 for my travels. How do you feel about the MD-80s? Are they a more difficult airplane to fly? I ask because I will be flying on an AA MD-80 in September and I’m very nervous about it. Keep up the Plane Answers! I love them!

PS – Took your advice after watching the DA20 video – After 31 years on this earth and 11 years of police work, I finally have saved the $ to chase that pilot’s license!
Wow, congratulations Joe. One of my primary flight instructors was a police officer, in fact. I’m sure you’re going to love flight training.

I flew the MD-80 for only a year, but I remember it to be a safe airplane that does well in a crosswind, has a reasonable approach speed and isn’t lacking in performance. The technology in other airplanes has improved and the MD-80 has been retrofitted with some of those same features such as GPS and an EFIS (electronic flight instrument system) display.

There isn’t a quieter airplane for those sitting in the front of an MD-80. In the descent, at less than 250 knots, it’s as if you’re flying a glider. It’s not very difficult to fly and it doesn’t rely on any fly-by-wire system for the flight controls.

The NW255 accident was caused by a failure of the pilots to conduct a before takeoff checklist that, among other things, assured the flaps and slats were extended. Contributing to the accident was a failed takeoff warning horn that had a tripped circuit breaker preventing it from working.

Today, we have a checklist (at American it’s a mechanical checklist that’s hard to miss, the importance of which is drilled into every aviator’s head from the beginning of their career. I realize how close to home, so to speak, this occurred for you, but I think you can feel safe on an MD-80. I’m even considering upgrading to it when I have the seniority for captain.

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: More takeoff and landing fears

A number of questions came in this week relating to takeoffs and landings, and a few issues that passengers worry about. So, we’ll continue on last week’s Takeoff and Landing theme.

Eric asks this timely question:

I would like to know what purpose the wing flaps play in take off and in landing?

With the recent Spanair accident in Madrid, some reporters focused on whether or not the MD-80’s flaps and slats were extended for takeoff.

These devices, moveable panels on the back and front of the wings respectively, are used only for takeoff and landing.

A jet’s wing is designed to be at it’s most efficient while at altitude and at it’s design cruise speed. This same wing isn’t capable of flying slow enough to takeoff or land on a conventional runway.

So flaps were designed for most airplanes to increase the lift a wing can carry at these slower speeds. When the flaps are extended, the wing is essentially converted from a high-speed wing to a slow-speed wing, depending on the flap setting used.

Flaps are gradually extended based on the speed of the airplane, with the first set of flaps on an airliner usually extended when the airplane is slower than 250 knots.

For takeoff, the optimum flap setting is based mostly on the runway length. Using just the right flap setting improves efficiency and performance once the airplane is in the air. Airlines have a system for calculating that flap setting either manually in the cockpit, or through a computer print out sent via ACARS.

On the MD-80, the leading edge slats are extended and the trailing edge flaps are ‘dialed in’ to the required setting.

Taking off without any flaps extended isn’t possible for most airliners without an exceedingly long runway, maximum power set and some very careful handling by the pilot. This is why there are multiple checks prior to take off to ensure the flaps are properly set.

There’s also a loud warning horn that sounds if the throttles are advanced with the flaps not in the proper configuration for take off. Checklists, however, will likely prevent the need for the horn.

The last accident where flaps weren’t set for takeoff was a Northwest flight 255 departing from Detroit in 1987, and this might be why there has been some initial focus on the flaps as a possible cause behind last week’s Spanair crash.

It’ll be interesting to hear what happened to the Spanair flight, so we can learn from the accident. The media is rarely held accountable for the mistakes made when speculating as to a reason for an accident.

I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on an MD-80. In fact, it’s listed as the second safest airplane flying.

Dave brings up a takeoff related question:

I’m curious, if you have a severe engine problem after liftoff that you can’t recover from or go around, what is the procedure for finding a place to put down. I understand if there is a nice plowed field ahead that’s great, but what if you are in a congested area?

All airliners are required to demonstrate that they can safely operate after an engine failure at liftoff.

I suppose it’s conceivable that a dual-engine failure could happen (on a twin-engine aircraft), so in that case, the only possibility would be to land straight ahead, doing everything you can to avoid any congested areas.

Finally, Sandra asks a three-part question:

I am what I describe as a nervous flyer… I am curious to know why does the prep for landing alway feels so, well ominous?

Lights dimmed, and unless this is just my imagination…there is just something so dooming…

Some airlines require the lights to be dimmed to improve a flight attendant’s ability to see outside when on the ground. Part of their job is to assess the situation on the ground if an engine fire or other such problem were to occur and an evacuation became necessary.

Interestingly, not all airlines have that procedure.

Also, the last time I flew southwest, on final approach, the wings seemed to be dipping from left to right, right to left.

And then I flew the same airline again, and that landing was so smooth–I actually had to look out of the window to see that we were on the ground.

Ahh, yes. You’ve noticed the differences in pilot technique. Some pilots do get into what we call ‘pilot-induced oscillations,’ which are a bit annoying. You’ve had experiences with a bus driver or cab driver who wasn’t very smooth before, I’m sure. Well, you’ve just found the pilot equivalent of that driver.

What amount is attributable to the skill of the pilot, and how good a pilot is, with respect to landings??

Landings are a bit like golf. (Although I don’t play, I just had to take a swing at that analogy-no pun)

You can really feel like you have the landings perfected in a particular airplane, and then, sure enough, you can’t get a good one for weeks at a time. It’s kind of rare though to have an earth shatteringly hard landing after you’ve been flying a particular airplane for more than 6 months.

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 Friday’s Plane Answers feature.