Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Flash from the Past

I’ve tried, but I can’t resist. Many friends and relatives have asked me for comment about ‘The Miracle on the Hudson’, US Airways Flight 1549, which on January 15th went for a bath after striking a flock of Canada Geese on climbout from New York City’s LaGuardia airport.

Everything about this accident was remarkable. I say accident because even though no lives were lost, the aircraft was significantly damaged. The Captain AND First Officer essentially saved many lives. The Flight Attendants did their most important job superbly. The Police, Fire, and commercial ferry boats responded immediately and in an excellent manner. Bravo! To everyone involved. It feels great to witness a real life episode seemingly straight out of a prime time drama.

The Co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, was flying the plane, and said he saw the geese ahead just before they hit. The Captain, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger looked up and ducked (ha ha get it) with his hands up.

If he saw them, why didn’t he maneuver the jet to avoid them? It would’ve been an abrupt change in attitude, and may not have made a difference, but may have been worth trying. However, after thinking about it a little, when we see birds it’s usually too late to maneuver much. Most times they’re already trying to get out of our way. And the way geese and ducks fly in V-formation flocks, they’re probably less likely to scatter away in all directions like a busted covey of quail do. They just follow their wingman, who follows his wingman, and so on. Two dangers with waterfowl are that (1) if you hit one, you’ll likely hit many, because of their line abreast, same altitude formation, and (2) mass times velocity = very damaging momentum.

The big honkers, weighing 12 pounds apiece, sacrificed their lives while being shredded by the Airbus A320’s engines. In return, the engines sacrificed their flight giving thrust and were broken by the birds. The plane quickly became a quiet glider, as you can see it encircled in the picture above.

Captain Sullenberger took over the controls immediately and delegated First Officer Skiles to run the emergency checklists, probably primarily because Jeff Skiles had only 35 hours flight time in the Airbus A320. He had been at US Airways for 23 years, but had just transitioned to the A320. Neither engine could be restarted. Just three and a half minutes later they were in the drink. ‘Sully’ first considered turning back 180 degrees to LaGuardia, then thought about Teterboro airport in New Jersey, southwest of their position north of Manhattan. Very soon his experience and judgment made it clear that the best option was a ditching in the freezing and fast flowing Hudson River.

A link to a good, although grainy dockside security camera video of the actual aircraft splashing down is here.

This is another link to a longer video which shows the landing and the downriver travel and rescue.

For even more detail, this link gives much information.

It all happened so fast that Emergency preparations on board had to be rushed. In spite of that, everything turned out wonderfully for the 155 souls on board.

Because Co-Pilot Skiles couldn’t complete the three page checklist in time, the ‘ditch switch’, a pushbutton switch in the flight deck which closes valves and doors below the waterline to improve the aircraft’s buoyancy, wasn’t selected until after splashdown.

An anxious passenger just trying to help opened one of the rear cabin doors a crack, something you’re not to do in a water ditching. Cold water rushed in but the plane stayed level enough, long enough for the passengers to walk on water, so it seemed. Many of them walked from the wing right on to a rescue boat.

Have I ever hit a bird or birds in flight? Yes, and no. Small birds only, on takeoff or landing usually. Half a dozen times I’ve found brown, black, and red paint smudges on my plane. No engine or windscreen hits have occurred yet, thank goodness. They can be loud and can crack the glass or worse.

I’ve experienced a few close calls over my time sharing the sky with the birds though. I was a Captain of the ‘mighty’ Beechcraft 1900D ‘Airliner’, a 19 seat twin turboprop. It had two advantages: a ‘stand up cabin’ tall enough inside to walk down the aisle, and every seat was both a window and an aisle. Disadvantages: no autopilot, no lavatory, no Flight Attendant, no coffee, and no security or comfort, for the Pilot or the peeps.

One cold night in the fall of 2001 we were descending through multiple cloud layers for a visual approach into Williston, a small town in northwestern North Dakota. We were just below the lowest layer about 3,000 feet above the ground, looking for the green and white airport beacon. I had the landing lights on, and we were still hitting a few bits of scud, scattered pieces of cloud below the main layer. It was like getting cotton candy thrown at your face at the drive in movie.

Shapes, right above us, six of them suddenly, were there and gone in an instant. ‘Holy s___! What was that? They were shaped liked birds. What else could they be but birds. Big birds too, honkers. They were too big to be anything else. Ok, we didn’t hit them, didn’t even see them coming. There were right above us and gone, in a flash. We’re ok, time to go land the plane. If the landing lights hadn’t been on we would’ve missed seeing them completely, oblivious to the danger now known. What if there are others? Go land the plane, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.’

This night, and for US 1549, everything turned out just fine. But it doesn’t always. Life has it’s unexpected, tragic moments, which cause all of us to doubt and question God, and the fairness, or unfairness rather, of it all. The Almighty wants us to depend on him when either happens.

From Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." And from I Corinthians 2:9: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him."

I don't know if 'Sully', Jeff, or any others of his crew are Christians, but in any case, he was the right pilot in the right place at the right time. Why do I think the outcome of this emergency was made to order, ordained from on high for Captain Chesley Sullenberger and crew? You know, most airline pilots go their entire careers without having a serious emergency, much less a dual engine failure, close to terra firma. Let’s look at his biography:

Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, III is a captain for a major U.S. airline with over 40 years of flying experience. A former U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter pilot, he has served as an instructor and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) safety chairman, accident investigator and national technical committee member. He has participated in several USAF and NTSB accident investigations. His ALPA safety work led to the development of a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular. Working with NASA scientists, he coauthored a paper on error inducing contexts in aviation. He was instrumental in the development and implementation of the Crew Resource Management (CRM) course used at his airline and has taught the course to hundreds of his colleagues. Sully is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy (B.S.), Purdue University (M.S.) and the University of Northern Colorado (M.A.). And he is a trained glider instructor pilot.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Majestic Vector

January 20, 2009:

As I write this, I'm watching President Obama and the First Lady dance at one of the many Inauguration Balls. I was in DC this morning and had finished a trip last night. Why on earth did I not go to the National Mall to personally experience this historic occasion? I have many excuses: I'm trying to battle a cold, this was my fifth day gone, I missed my Wife and girls, it was 25 degrees in DC, etc. I got up early, and arrived home at noon. I've been listening, watching (TV in a warm house), and thinking all day about the direction our country has been heading in the past, and will be heading in the future.

It all reminds me of a flight I had recently, from Huntsville, Alabama (HSV) to Washington, DC (DCA) in the late afternoon. We were in smooth cruising flight at 31,000 feet, headed east, with the autopilot on and the lowered sun at our backs, it's light painting the fuzzy cloud deck beneath us a pale yellow shade with hints of brown in the cracks and crevices of the breaks in the undercast below us. God, this is beautiful, I think (to God), observing even more than this, the contrast of the clear blue sky to the features below my First Officer and I.

The 'even more' is something that she can't see, and I won't tell her about; we're working again, and I've got the jet descending down to 22,000 feet. Absorbed in the experience, I drink it in, because we'll be penetrating the clouds soon, and my mind has reminded me to ask her to please turn the seat belt sign back on and talk to the peeps.

A vector is something, anything, which has a a direction and a velocity. At this moment, ours is particularly striking. The sun is actually behind us a little to the right, and I'm transfixed by the shadow of our contrail on the cloud deck we'll penetrate in a minute. My eyes, more by experience than instinct, follow our contrail forward to find our shadow, the jet's shadow, the tip of our spear, the tip of our vector. Anticipation builds quickly in this instant.

Shannon wrote a great post about 'Sun Dogs' a few days ago. This is the pilot's version. I used to call them Sun Dogs too but have since learned what I marvelled at is a 'Pilot's Halo'. (I don't know what the scientific term is, and this slang has nothing to do with pilots being Holy!) At the tip of the contrail is our jets shadow, enveloped and surrounded by a beautiful rainbow colored halo. As we lose altitude and close the distance to the clouds, our shadow and the halo gets larger and larger. I've seen this before but not in such distinctive fashion. As my spirit resonates at the culmination of nature's production of our display, we meet ourselves, larger than life, and see the full effect of our speed as we slice into the clouds.

After descending more, down to 22,000 feet, we've now been in the lamp shade for a couple minutes. This one isn't very bright, it's actually gray. I say 'in the lamp shade' because in conditions like this there are no breaks, no edges, no color changes, no definition, and no turbulence, it's perfectly smooth. Thus we have no sensation of speed or direction. Are we going anywhere at all? A glance at the MFD (Multi-Function Display) shows our TAS (True airspeed) is 438, our GS (ground speed) is 551, so we have a tailwind of 113. The aircraft is navigating dead center on our programmed flight route. But from the look out the window, we might as well be going backwards. Pilots learn to trust the instruments, as we are now.

January 21, 2009:

Our country has been on it's own majestic vector since it's beginning. It hasn't been an easy or perfect journey, but a blessed and beautiful one. And now, 146 years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and 40 years after Martin Luther King's assassination, our nation has reached another signpost of progress. We have freely elected the first black American President, something I, like many others, was skeptical of occuring anytime soon. Congratulations President Obama!

You may or may not have voted for him, but he deserves your support, regardless. Some say he is popular just because he's black, and that he lacks experience for the office. I say otherwise: investigate his life, education, and experience. He was a professor of Constitutional law who has spoken out against the moral and ethical breaches the former administration consistently committed. He ran an amazing campaign which showcased his political skill and leadership ability. Obama's stances on social issues of personal morality might be disagreeable to you, as they are to me, but I believe he has shown that he is on the Biblical side of other fundamental moral, ethical, and human rights issues. Who better to lead our nation out of the cloud we are in than a leader such as this man?

There are many opinions on why we're in this cloud and don't know where or how fast we're going. Some say we've been in it for a while, that we've lost our moral compass and have been heading the wrong way for a long time now. Others believe things were going great, that the economic crisis we are in is the fruition of the recent greed, materialism and consumerism that that our society has permitted to go on. Still others want to point the blame at the previous administration and the 'ends justify the means' philosophy it operated on. They are all right.

Regardless of the reasons, we are in it, big time. But Barrack doesn't seem to be into spreading blame, he's into making change. I Hope he can do it, let's give him a chance. He's not the Saviour though, he's our new President.

Let's trust the instruments, knowing that God's sovereignty is still in effect. He's still 'got the whole world in his hands', as the children's choir just sang at the National Cathedral prayer breakfast. If, after four years, President Obama, with our cooperation, is unable to implement the change and hope he's promised, we can vote him out of office for someone else. In any case, after celebrating Obama's Inauguration I feel assured that our country will continue onto it's destined journey.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Flying the CAT 1

It's been a few days since my last post, and my conscience (or is it my ego?) has been bugging me to get back at it. I've got a lot of personal introspective writing to do in the next week for a church discipleship group I'm in, so I thought I'd write a fun piece about something we get to occasionally do in my job. It's also serious, demanding, and pretty satisfying as a pilot.

This posting's title doesn't signify Air Force One flying a first family cat around. CAT I actually means Category I, referring to a type of instrument approach we do, an 'ILS'. ILS stands for Instrument Landing System, and on a Cat I ILS (there are Cat I, II, and III) we can fly an approach down to the runway with visibility as low 1/2 mile or 1800 feet, if the runway has the proper approach lighting. There are no legal cloud ceiling minimums for us to fly an ILS, although the standard minimums published on the approach procedure maps (plates) is a 200 foot ceiling (the altitude above ground where the clouds start).

The ILS has been around now for about 50 years or more, and it's a reliable system. Flying down through the clouds, mist, rain, and snow to breakout of the clouds with the runway right in front of you is pretty neat, but it can be pretty challenging, depending on the weather and the quality of equipment your aircraft has. The ILS is a precision approach system, the horizontal guidance corridor (localizer) is 3 degrees wide, the vertical guidance corridor (glideslope) is 1.4 degrees thick. In a jet, a hand flown, 'raw data' approach to minimums is difficult, rare, unwise, and could be dangerous if not flown precisely. Some pilots say 'real men' will hand fly an ILS down to minimums, in truth 'professional men' will use the autopilot and flight director. More about that later.

The ILS has a few components, but the two main parts are the localizer and the glide slope. Both are ground based, VHF radio (Very High Frequency) navigation signals. Both transmit at a frequency a little above the FM radio range. The localizer is transmitted from an antenna aligned with the runway, while the glideslope transmitted from an antenna right next to the runway, 1,000 feet after it's beginning (this is our intended landing point). Each runway which has an ILS has a specific frequency for it. We tune that frequency and our flight display screens will show two needles: (1) a vertical needle, the localizer, which shows the aircraft's horizontal position in relation to the extended runway centerline; and (2) The glideslope, a horizontal needle which shows the aircraft's vertical position in relation to a 3 degree approach down to the end of the runway. When the aircraft is centered on the localizer and glideslope courses, it looks like the cross hairs of a rifle scope.

In mid December, on one of my many BNA overnights, Nashville was reporting a nice 200 foot overcast cloud deck with 1/2 mile visibility and mist, and the winds were calm. Nashville approach told us to expect the ILS 2Left. The following is a link to the approach procedure: It was my FO's turn to fly, and he was ready for the opportunity. At the regionals, many newer CA's tend to take the more difficult approaches, and I think he appreciated that I showed confidence in him. We got setup for the runway (oriented basically to land to the north on the most western runway) with our radios and settings. Then he briefed the approach, and the missed approach, a prescribed climbout procedure for each approach, in case we didn't see the approach lights or runway at the minimum height permitted (DA, Decision Altitude). In this approach the DA is 799 MSL (altitude above mean sea level), and 200 above the runway. Actually, we can descend down to 100 feet above the runway without seeing the runway, if we have the approach lights in sight at the DA. If we don't have the runway in sight at 100 we have to go around as well. Clear as a cloud layer?

It was pretty above the undercast, the glow of the city lighting the clouds. Many times there are layers of clouds and you don't have defined cloud tops as we had this evening. BNA approach gave us the final vector and approach clearance as 'Chris' slowed and had me configure our RJ with flaps and landing gear.

We have quite a bit of teamwork in flying an ILS. Narrative from this point is our standard call outs as follows: ATC, PF (Pilot flying, Chris), PNF (guess):

ATC: 350 heading to intercept, 4 miles to DIKINS, cleared ILS 2 Left, contact tower 118.6.
PNF: (repeat that back).

PF: Nashville tower, __ __ ILS 2 Left.
ATC: ___ ___ cleared to land runway 2 Left.

PF: localizer alive
PNF: localizer alive.

PF: Set missed approach altitude 4,000.
PNF: 4,000 set.

PF: glideslope alive
PNF: glideslope alive.

PF: Gear down, landing checklist
PNF: (repeat).

PF: Flaps 30, 160 (speed)
PNF: (repeat).

PF: Flaps 45, Vref plus 5.
PNF: Flaps 45, 142.

PNF: Landing gear?
PF: Down, 3 green.
PNF: Down, 3 green. Flaps set 45, indicating 45, landing checklist complete.

PNF: 1,000 to minimums (at 1,799 ft per the approach plate)

PNF: 500 to minimums (1,300)

PNF: 100 to minimums

PNF: minimums, approach lights in sight
PF: continuing.
(immediately thereafter) PNF: runway in sight
PF: landing

All this happened in just over two minutes. At 150 knots, 2.5 miles per a minute, it goes by fast, but also because we're busy. We train to fly ILS approaches to minimums in the simulator quite a bit, even with one engine failed. In real life I fly an ILS to minimums only half a dozen times a year it seems, so it always seems special, and it's always important to get it right. It's exciting too, the anticipation builds as we get closer to landing, as does my heartrate. Are we really going to breakout this close to the ground and land as expected, or will we 'go missed', climb out and try again or enter a holding pattern and wait for the weather to improve? It's easy to let yourself tense up when flying an ILS, especially if you're hand flying one, the trick is to be relaxed but responsive and ready to land, or go missed if needed. You see, that's why they call it a Decision Altitude.

Frequently, the transition from instrument flight to visual flight, based on what you see outside, can be tricky. Chris made a very nice landing moments later. We had no depth perception at all, but he made a nice tire chirping, nose up touch down and smooth roll out. Yea, we had broken out of the clouds and now saw the runway, but because it was illuminated by the very bright edge lights and touchdown zone lighting (two columns of lights in the runway surface showing the preferred area to land on), neither of us could actually see the runway itself. They keep the lights on brightly so you can see it through the mist and fog. This is where experience and skill came into use. The jet has a radio altimeter which calls out audibly the height above the runway, it counts down 50, 40, and so on down to 10 feet. At the 10 call I said 'pitch looks good' (a non-standard call out, but it sounded good), referring to our pitch attitude on the attitude indicator and from the view of the runway. You don't want to land this plane (or any plane) with the nose too flat. I don't think Chris needed the help though, with basically the same pitch angle, we touched down shortly afterwards.

And that was basically our recent ILS 'down to the nuts' as they say (pilot lockeroom slang). I've had a few that were really close, seeing the runway right at 100 feet. You taxi in slowly because of the fog, with your fingers and feet all tingly after those. Technology is great, but our plane is far behind state of the art. There are jets that will automatically land, brake, and use thrust reverse, all you have to do is watch (with baited breath); they require minimum 600 feet visibility I think. Others have figher jet like heads up displays (HUD's) which show an artificial picture of the runway in front of the windshield, this enables almost auto-land like minimums. Here is a link to a you tube video of a foreign 737 crew doing an auto-land CAT III approach in CAT I weather conditions, very much like what we experienced at Nashville this night:

About that autopilot too: if you have technology, why not use it? A better measure of a man, as far as being a pilot goes, is along these lines: How do you manage risk, make decisions, lead others, exercise good judgement, and be in command? Successfully hand flying an ILS down to minimums without an autopilot or flight director (a flight director shows the pitch and bank attitude the auto pilot would fly if it was engaged) shows a great level of skill of the pilot, but not a great level of judgement. One of the risks of hand flying a raw data approach is that the plane won't be aligned properly with the runway at the DA, consequently that would make a landing attempt unsafe, and a missed approach more likely.

On the other hand, we pilots like to think that we can still hand fly an approach, 'if we had to'. It is difficult to do so in this jet, it takes a smooth and responsive hand, and a quick and rythmic instrument scan to fly a good raw data approach, it's intensive work! Much easier to monitor the plane and autopilot, and let it do the hard work.

Our company has standards for flying approaches. They prefer that anytime the weather is less that a 1,000 ft ceiling or 3 miles visibility that we use the autopilot and flight director. I try to abide by that requirement; my personal preferences are almost that: 1,500 and 5 - raw data, 1,000 and 3 - flight director, 500 and less than 3 - autopilot.

I'll probably fly a couple more 'tight' ILS approaches before the winter is finished, and I'm bound to have a couple this spring. We can get some nice fog in CLT, and a few other places. When the weather adds a heavy rain, winter precipitation (snow, freezing drizzle etc.), and/or a crosswind to a low ceiling and visibility, then we really start having fun. Well, you know what I mean, right? Comes with the territory, as they say.

I'm blessed to be able to do what I do, to have a wife and family who support me, and to have parents and relatives who helped me get here. Till next time . . .