If I could make this stuff up, I’d become a novelist. Seriously.
Captain Morgan Fischer, a pilot with Ryanair, decided to try out the type of stunt for which his boss, Michael O’Leary, is famous. And, he learned what happens when you tangle with a master media whore.
Apparently implying that O’Leary is a moron, Fischer took public issue with the company CEO’s notion that a co-pilot could be swapped out with a flight attendant. So, he suggested that O’Leary be replaced with someone from that pool of employees, specifically a “probationary cabin crew member currently earning €13,200 a year.”
I’m starting to believe that O’Leary is thin-skinned.
After taking a potshot at the Ryanair top dog, any hope Captain Morgan had of landing someplace warm was dashed. Rather, according to the Guardian, he “was offered a transfer to Kaunas in Lithuania after Ryanair announced the closure of operations in Marseille, where the pilot is based.”
Keep in mind that Fischer, an American, is “embroiled in a contractual dispute with the airline and, according to Ryanair, did not submit a request for a reassignment destination.” Unlike the other pilots in his situation, he won’t be able to score a new spot in a place like Spain, Portugal or Italy.
There’s a bit of extra significance here, because “Kaunas is considered Siberia for Ryanair pilots.” That only leaves one question: is Ryanair considered Siberia for pilots at other airlines?
The uproar over TSA body scanners and pat-downs has hit every corner of the aviation world, from passengers to pilots. The vocal consensus, at least, is that nobody likes them, even though 64 percent of Americans support the practice and 70 percent don’t expect it to impact their travel. A friend of mine, flying today, tweeted that he made it through security at New York’s JFK airport in a mere nine minutes.
Nonetheless, flight crews have voiced vehement opposition to the scans, with one pilot becoming an overnight celebrity by refusing to submit himself to that or a pat-down. We all have to do it, though, so this has left me to ponder … what’s the big deal?
I’ve been particularly intrigued by the attitude of pilots toward body scanners. At first blush, it struck me as a privileged perspective: the top dogs on the plane felt as though they shouldn’t have to be subjected to the same scrutiny as the rest of us. Patrick Smith, resident pilot at Salon.com, wrote of the recent TSA change over crew scrutiny, in which “airline pilots will no longer be subject to the backscatter body scanners and invasive pat-downs at TSA airport checkpoints”:
For pilots like myself this is good news, though at least for the time being we remain subject to the rest of the checkpoint inspection, including the X-raying of luggage and the metal detector walk-through. Eventually, we are told, the implementation of so-called CrewPASS will allow us to skirt the checkpoint more or less entirely.
Not everybody agrees that air crews deserve this special treatment. That’s not an unreasonable point of view, and I don’t disagree with it, necessarily. As security experts like Bruce Schneier point out, if you are going to screen at all, it is important to screen everybody, lest the system become overly complicated and prone to exploitable loopholes.
This made me wonder, what is the risk associated with not screening pilots as intensively? The only scenario that came to mind involved a terrorist incident. As I let my mind race, I constructed a hypothetical situation in which terrorists got on board a plane, took control and asked for demands of some sort – i.e., they wanted more than to cause death and destruction. In this situation, I suspected, counter-terrorist teams, such as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D, also known as “Delta Force”), would be called into play.
My thinking continued: if a pilot hadn’t been scanned, he could have brought a weapon … which could have been taken from him by terrorists. Would the special forces teams want to know if a pilot had been scanned?
As I continued through my hypothetical exercise, I could hear my platoon sergeant’s voice from close to 15 years ago, drilling me from across time: “Actions on the objective,” he used to say, “always spend most of your time rehearsing actions on the objective.”
You have to admit this about military training, it really sticks with you!
So, my first thought was whether, while rehearsing actions on the objective, the special forces teams would want to know every last detail of what was on the plane. My training falls far, far short of that, and my efforts to reach someone from 1st SFOD-D didn’t pan out (unsurprisingly).
I laid out my hypothetical for Shipley: during mission planning, would the operators want to know if the pilots had been scanned, at least to have a better sense of whether they’d carried any weapons on the plane?
The answer, quite simply, is that it wouldn’t be an immediate concern. I spoke with Shipley by phone today, and he said that whether the pilots had been scanned “would be a very distant ‘what if’.” He explained of the special forces teams, “They’d want to know who they [i.e., the crew] are,” as well as background on how long they’d been flying and any other information related to the incident. Also, Shipley said the teams would want to know if there was an air marshal on the flight. The role of body scans, however, would not be a major factor in planning or rehearsing an operation.
“There are some pretty good people in charge of those planes,” Shipley noted, “good bunch of guys and gals.”
Does it suck that someone else gets to go through security faster and more easily than you do? Yeah, it feels like an injustice. But, let’s be realistic: there really isn’t much at stake here aside from a sense of fairness. Let’s e smart about this, though. The airline industry – and the air travel experience – is fraught with inefficiency. If we can make the operation a little smoother by giving the crew an easier time of getting to work, let’s just bite the bullet on this issue.
Fortunately, there aren’t many babies born on planes. Run the numbers on this one: it just doesn’t happen much. One would assume that rules around flying later in pregnancy have helped, but it turns out that these requirements really boil down to an honor system that leaves the carriers virtually powerless.
Of course, most pregnant women pay attention to the rules (or guidelines, in practicality), which is why there aren’t more kids named after flight attendants and pilots. The last four or five weeks of pregnancy are usually off-limits for the expecting. Some procedures are used to screen out passengers who probably shouldn’t be allowed to board, but they rarely stand up to the will of someone who doesn’t want to get caught.
[E]ven when gate attendants question how pregnant a passenger is, they usually have no choice but to let the woman fly if she says she has not reached the airline’s cutoff date and is showing no sign of physical distress, said Dr. Fanancy Anzalone, president-elect of the Aerospace Medical Association in Alexandria, Va.
“The rules now are based on honesty and (the idea) that a pregnant mom is going to protect her unborn,” Anzalone said.
The airlines can’t do much when they suspect a pregnant passenger shouldn’t board. They can bring in medical personnel to make the call and “determine whether she has the necessary medical documentation and is fit to fly,” Anzalone explained to the Associated Press. Once in the sky, the best that can happen is a bit of extra attention from the cabin crew and maybe a doctor or nurse among the passengers.
When it comes to looking for with-child passengers, there is an obvious risk of embarrassment … what happens when good intentions cause airline employees to question the obese non-pregnant? When it happens next, it’s my sincere hope that you’ll read about it here.
It’s a long flight from Amsterdam to the New York City/Newark area. I’ve done it. I get antsy and bored. I bring lots of stuff to do. Anything that could make the time pass a little faster would make it onto my list … and that includes putting a few cocktails back.
Of course, I’m not the guy flying the plane.
A Delta pilot was arrested and fined for being drunk, allegedly, when getting ready to fly from Amsterdam to Newark.The (alleged) culprit hasn’t been identified yet, but the Associated Press reports that he’s 52 years old (translation: old enough to know better) and is from Woodbury, NJ.
What Delta has to say on the subject, according to ABC News, is that Flight 35 was “cancelled out of concern that a crew member appeared to be unfit for duty.”
Okay, it isn’t not true …
Here’s a little more from the airline, via ABC News:
“Local Amsterdam authorities have met with the crew member to begin their investigation and we are cooperating fully, while simultaneously launching our own internal investigation,” Delta said in a statement. “The crew member has been suspended pending the outcome of these investigations. Impacted passengers have been reaccomodated on other flights.”
Delta claims to have one of the “strictest” alcohol policies in the airline industry, telling pilots not to show up for work with any alcohol in their bodies. It sounds severe: I have a glass of wine while I’m working from time to time … but I’m only a blogger. Lives are not at stake.
The pilot blew a 0.023 percent result, which puts him a bit over the legal limit in the Netherlands. This cost him $900 in fines, but he was set free. One does hope that Delta isn’t finished with him yet.
On the season finale of the TV show 30 Rock, Alex Baldwin says to a pilot, played by Matt Damon:
“You’re a pilot, huh. I should pick your brain. I’m developing a daytime talk show with Sully Sullenberger.”
“Yeah, I met that guy. He’s not that great.” Matt Damon, the pilot, says.
“You know what a great pilot would have done? Not hit the birds. That’s what I do every day, not hit the birds. Where’s my ticket to the Grammy’s?”
For U.S. readers, Hulu has a free clip of the exchange.
After I wiped the tears from my eyes from laughing so hard, I realized Captain Damon had a point. In fact, avoiding birds has been a big part of my job for the past two months.
While so much attention is focused on the migratory birds in New York and even Boston, the pterodactyl sized birds of Caracas, Venezuela and Panama City, Panama were appearing far too often. I began to notice a trend. On nearly every arrival and on most departures I flew during the two months of flying down there from Boston and through Miami, we had seen these large turkey vultures and, in Panama City we even had pelicans cross our flight path.
Not Hitting the Birds
Every pilot has had, or at least will see, a few bird strikes in their career. Typically they involve small birds that merely splatter on the windshield or radome without leaving much of a mark. I do feel sympathy for the little creatures with which we share the sky. They were certainly here first, and I’m sure an airliner approaching at five times their own speed has to come as a surprise and significant annoyance to them. There’s just no avoiding these smaller birds.
Small Bird Strike in Barbados
But when it comes to the larger birds, what I jokingly refer to as pterodactyls, we can occasionally see them as much as ten seconds prior to impact. When they’re no longer moving left or right, or up or down across our screen, and instead start out as a little dot on the windshield that rapidly grows in size, you know you’re on track for a possible impact.
We were determined to have a smooth, event-free arrival into Panama City on this trip after the controller confusion fiasco I talked about last week. And it should have been; the weather was looking good, the more senior weekday controllers were sharp and there wasn’t a bump in the air. Surely this would be an uneventful flight.
As is common, to change things up a bit, it was my turn to fly the leg from Miami to Panama City, Panama. Once again, the weather was advertised as 2000 feet scattered and 10 kilometers, exactly the same weather we had on the last trip. During the next five trips to PTY, the reported weather never changed, but the actual weather certainly did.
This time, ATC vectored us out a bit further, and perhaps because they were more senior controllers working the weekday shift, their English seemed much better.
While at a flap setting of 25 and just as I was ready to call for the final flap setting of 30 degrees, Dave said, “There’s a bird.”
I had been looking down at my speed and altitude, to ensure I was fully configured by the 1,000 foot requirement. (See the previous Cockpit Chronicles about FOQA.)
I looked up to see another pterodactyl directly in our flight path. It was flying at first, and then it must have noticed the massive jet bearing down on it, since it began to almost freeze in the air and flail its wings in a very cartoon-like fashion.
I instinctively pulled back on the yoke, not abruptly but with some urgency and managed to clear the spasmodic turkey vulture by just a few feet. We got the last of the flaps out at 1,100 feet and landed without incident.
I wondered if the flight attendants and passengers felt the adjustment to our flight path.
“Did you notice anything on final?” I asked one of our South American based flight attendants.
“Yes!” She said. “What was that?”
So much for no one noticing. Apparently she had been collecting last minute cups and glasses and was actually standing in the aisle at 1,000 feet, a fact that scared me a bit, since it’s usually safe to assume the flight attendants have completed their duties by that point.
Once again at the debrief dinner with Dave, we discussed the approach. He thought it may have been better to continue on the path and hope the bird could maneuver out of the way.
“Worst cast scenario, you hit him. But the impact at 150 knots is much less than at 250.” He speculated.
Dave had a point. We’ve all seen pictures of some nasty bird strikes in the past, but most of the significant ones were while the airplane was climbing and had already accelerated to 250 knots, our speed limit below 10,000 feet.
We had some close calls on takeoff the following week, and so we decided to take Dave’s theory on speed and put it to use.
The “European Climb”
When climbing out of any European airport, we’re required to maintain a slower speed, approximately 20 knots faster than the speed at which we lifted off the ground until 3,000 feet above the airport elevation. We’re still using the same power setting-exchanging the extra speed for a quicker climb.
Since most birds fly below 3,000 feet, why not limit our speed while operating around these areas prone to large numbers of pterodactyls? We could reduce the impact forces since high school physics taught me (or was it drivers education?) that twice the speed results in four times the damage.
The next day, we had a plan. We would fly the European-style climb, which would get us up and away from the ground quicker, and also limit our speed to just 160 knots. A quick crunching of numbers told us that this would be 58% of the energy that we’d have at 250 knots.
On came the weather radar as well, since there has been speculation that birds can actually hear or sense the radar on an airplane and that it may help prevent bird strikes. It couldn’t hurt, I figured.
Sure enough, while climbing through 2,200 feet, we encountered two of the turkey vultures we had seen the day before. This time they passed 20 feet above us and to the right.
I continued to use the European climb technique when flying from Caracas, Venezuela and San Pedro Sula, Honduras over the next few months. It’s a technique that seems to make sense and I hope it’s adopted at airports with significant bird populations.
Much attention has been given to the rounding up of geese in the New York area to limit the exposure to birds. I suspect this is a rather futile measure, but I understand the need to do something to reduce the exposure. The steeper angled, slower speed climb that Dave came up with just might be one way to accomplish that goal.
Just as I was finishing this post, I saw the story reported two days earlier that a garbage dump had been approved for construction just 2,206 feet from the approach end of runway 31 in LaGuardia. And where there’s garbage, there are birds, generally. But Harry Szarpanski, deputy commissioner at New York City’s Sanitation Department, explains in the report that the new design will prevent any smells and trash from escaping the facility. We’ll see.
Even at the slower speeds that airplanes operate close to the airport, birds can still cause problems, as seen in this riveting video by Simon Lowe of a bird strike and subsequent engine fire on a Boeing 757 taking off at the Manchester airport in England.
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.