Monday, June 22, 2009

Back at it

I am, after a long awaited family summer vacation to a warm (hot) place with an ocean and multiple swimming pools. All by ourselves too, just my wife and I and our two girls, Marissa (almost 9) and Maren (almost 5). I don't share too much about my family here yet, but we had such a good time that I'd like to.

We successfully and harrowingly non-revved on US Airways to RSW (Ft. Meyers, FL) and back. Sanibel and Captiva Island are long and narrow land strips just off Ft. Meyers in the Gulf of Mexico. We stayed at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island, a very nice place. A regular asked us just one thing with his guitar in hand at our swimming pool, next to our 'tennis villa' (condo): 'just don't tell anyone about this place'. Oops, too late now. Click here for my wife's great pictures and stories from her blog.

Major activities: Pool and ocean swimming, ray catching (the sun kind), chillin' and grillin', beach jogging, sunset watching, sea shell hunting, diet throwing, golf attempting, ocean kayaking, and relaxing in general. It's hard for me to relax in general, on vacation that is. Home between trips, I have no problem at all doing that, just ask Shannon. It took me a day or so to slow down on Captiva, but that's okay.

Some great quotes from this trip: Marissa, after trying her jumbo fried shrimp at the Island Cow on Sanibel Island: "This shrimp is amazing"; Maren, post-saltwater gulping experience: "Mommy, I think I'm allergic to ocean water"; Shannon, after eyeing 'cheesecake' under glass in Philadelphia International: "I might have to get some cheesecake"; Me, in response: "that's not cheesecake, that's quiche!" But she was under the effect of Dramamine, after all.

Good times were had and good memories made, kind of like airline flying on the good days, only better and more personal. Now, can I segway to tell you about my day of flying? Not very well, although they did have those on the Island, segway tours that is. The fam and I are too cool for that. Well, actually the girls are too young for that. D.C. eight years from now I suspect we'll succumb to it.

In any case, today was pretty easy, as far as RJ flying goes. The plan was three legs on a nice early summer day: DCA-GSP-PHL-BTV. GSP is Greer, SC, serving Greenville and Spartanburg, SC. I never know which city to say so I say all three. Burlington, Vermont, our overnight, has the Green Mountains, which I've blogged about before. PHL, well, everyone knows about PHL. But it has actually improved during this recession. The reduction in flights has decreased the delays, one of the short runways has been lengthened, and the ramp and gate vendor has been able to trim the 'deadwood' and hire workers who actually like to work and service our aircraft.

The jet was a little late, and then upon inspecting the plane a chord struck me. Exposed tire chord, in three places, on our right nosewheel tire, that is. Quickly, I started singing a different tune. (The music references are almost over.) Bear in mind that I can't sing very well: on our radio to operations: "Ops, we're delaying boarding, we have a maintenance delay, I'll call you back in 30". I called Maintenance and wrote up the tire for an inspection. My educated guess said they would change both of them, as the left tire had deep gouges as well, and they did. The sort of wear they showed could've been from placing too much load on the tires, as in turning too sharply, and exiting the runway too fast. You can't control the other guys though, just yourself.

About 45 minutes later I told ops our NASCAR tire change was complete, and we were ready to board. He, who on the radio sounded like a black immigrant who is friendly and speaks 'the Queen's english', didn't get my humor, understandably.

We took off into skies which had scattered, gray bottomed cumulus clouds attempting to shield grounded beings from the sun. Far below us, these classic poofy cotton balls accompanied us all the way to Greenville and up to Philadelphia. A 'bug wash', just like we ordered, was done within five minutes after setting the parking brake in PHL. They even sent the 'Blue man group' over to perform after we gave them short notice. With a third apology to the third group of peeps, a clean windshield, and a freshly serviced lavatory, we pushed back for Burlington.

I steered our CRJ's nose from pointing toward the west to pointing toward the east, raking the nose through more cumulus clouds. We punched a small one, had minor turbulence, then asked center if we could deviate or climb around the next one. Shaped like a pyramid, it resembled a Dora the Explorer type buildup. We could've made it through easy, but it wouldn't have been easy on the peeps. No 'vamonos', no we aren't going. 'We couldn't go through it, we had to go around it'. NY center thanked us for the request and Dora's cloud was used as a ski pylon.

No views of NYC were had this day either, smooth looking stratus clouds covered the area. Situational awareness of our navigation was completely by our MFD and FMS (Multi-function display, our 'moving map') and Flight Management System, the computer we program to 'drive' the autopilot.

Descending into BTV, the controller thought we would pick up the airport visually at 3,500 feet, which would permit him to give us clearance for a visual approach, but we weren't that confident. Apprehension set in, up to a minor but very common level. Potentially ATC was vectoring us in for a short final approach from a higher than preferred altitude. Just when I was about to ask my FO to ask ATC to give us a turn to give us more room, he did, and let us descend to a lower altitude where we could see the airport.

I am always awestruck at just how green the Green Mountains are, and I was again today. Saying it over and over doesn't do it justice. If it looks like that from the air, what would hiking, biking, and kayaking/canoeing it be like? Add it to the list. We we approaching BTV from the south, the hilly side, so we had a great view of the valley that stretches out to the southeast from BTV. Our MFD's terrain showing features from the ground proximity warning system database were coloring up the screens as we lined up on final for a 'raw data' approach. The winds were shifty and a little gusty, they made me work for it a little.

Thinking about our tires now, it's comforting that we didn't have to worry about tires with chord showing which might hit runway centerline lights at 140 MPH, didn't have to worry about handing a bad plane to another crew, and didn't have to worry about the tire blowing for another reason. After a nice run and some great home cooking leftovers, it's time to hit the sack for another early show.

A reminder to me after recollecting my vacation and this three leg day: 'God is good, and I've been blessed.' It's kind of hard to say in light of all the wrong and evil things people and governments do to each other (Iran is this moment's example), but God IS good. He proved it with the life, love, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Visualizing and the F-word

(Disclaimer: This post is not about the other F-word. This post is safe for family reading. I just had to make a title with a hook. Maybe not had to, but wanted to. Thank you.)

“There it is”, I proclaimed, I admit inappropriately, just after takeoff. A violation of the sterile cockpit rule (non-essential conversation below 10,000 ft), yes, but the view warranted it. Even heroes do it, as it was reported yesterday that Captain Sullenburger remarked “What a view of the Hudson today” during US Airways 1549’s climbout from La Guardia, moments before hitting the flock of geese which would lead them to ditch in that same river. Non-essential conversation happens, the point of the rule is to not let it distract from operating the flight. And in that way, this post won’t be about the sterile cockpit rule.

We had just taken off from Ithaca, NY, a couple days ago, with me as PNF and ‘Nate’, an FO I favor quite a bit, at the controls. Nate and I have had a couple big learning experiences together, mostly because of his errors and my temporary lack of oversight which permitted him to commit them. But he’s a pretty knowledgeable and capable guy, and very easy to work with.

Laid out before us, beneath my left shoulder and to stretched out to horizon to the right, was beautiful Lake Cayuga (click here for pictures), one of the famous western New York state ‘finger lakes’. Ithaca (click here for tourism info) is at the south end of it, and this morning it was calm with a sliver sheen, inviting a tranquil time for those on its surface, surrounded by towering 500 plus foot lush green, round ridges on both sides. The Finger Lakes are a sight from the ground and the sky; they are five or six narrow but long lakes, carved by glaciers long ago. Because they’re glacier lakes, they’re pretty deep, great for fishing and sailing, and whatever suits your fancy.

The Finger Lakes region combines with the Poconos and Niagra Falls areas as a classic and growing area for tourism. There are wineries which advertise Napa valley style tours via brochures placed in our Ithaca hotel. My shameless family vacation fantasy involves relatives meeting us for sights of Niagra, time on the Finger Lakes, a night or two in Ithaca, and of course a car race at nearby Pocono or Watkins Glen.

A bumper sticker you might see in Ithaca, which houses Cornell University and Ithaca College, would be ‘Visualize World Peace’. At the moment over the lake, I was visualizing sailing on it (multi-tasking of course). That's when Nate pointed out the tall waterfall 2,000 feet below us, which fed into the lake via a half mile creek at it's bottom.

Waterfall? Instantly I thought I was in Brazil somewhere. The previous day I’d been flipping through a copy of Outside magazine, some ‘cabin bounty’ that had been left by a passenger. First was a picture of a kayaker making a 70 foot drop over a waterfall in South America. Later a column documented another Brazilian kayaker who did a 125 foot waterfall drop and lived to tell the tale minutes later, after coming out from behind the waterfall curtain, and encountering three boa constrictors during his swim.

“Call Outside magazine”. Taughannock falls (click here for info), I’ve now found out, has a 215 foot drop, the highest east of the Rockies. You cab barely make out people viewing it up close on the right side of the picture. The eons spent carving the rocks was evidenced by the high circular granite around it. However, the low water flow and shallow pool would make it an even crazier drop than what I’d read about. But as they say ‘If it can visualized, it can be done’.

That’s more of what this post is about, what we visualize and what we actually do, or what is actually done. I’d like to learn to sail someday, I visualized it but don’t know if it will happen.

I can visualize Steve, the cool fella I flew with two posts ago, reading the bible I gave him and he accepted at 35,000 feet somewhere over Kentucky, on the flight from Kansas City back to DC last week. On the way to KC he asked about my ring: ‘so is that a Templar ring?’ He said it looked like the Templar knights cross, he’s apparently a Dan Brown and DaVinci Code/Angels and Demons fan. “No, it’s just a regular cross, I’m an evangelical Christian, yep”. So we started talking, it went from ‘I don’t believe in God’ to talking about his and my opinion of God’s nature and why does God permit so much evil in the world, religion is the cause of so many wars, etc. Tough questions, but from a certain basis unfair questions, biased against God in the first place, in my opinion. I did my best to listen to him and contrast his statements to my point of view. He let me share my personal experience with Jesus Christ, and I encouraged him to seriously investigate his life and claims. It was a good exchange, we coasted in to park at the gate and Steve went to retrieve us both sandwiches.

I felt led to give him this small New Testament that I had been carrying around. During the long cruise portion (for a regional jet) of the flight back to DC, and after a quick prayer for courage, I offered it to him. He accepted it and started reading the gospel of Matthew right there. I had to turn away and hide my easy smile, praising the Lord silently in our heavenly office. Well, who knows what will happen spiritually with Steve. Like the U2 song I’m (coincidentally?) listening to at this moment, ‘One step closer’, I hope that he is that person.

I’m sitting in NWA first class, commuting home, on the way to Minneapolis-St. Paul, visualizing them holding the FSD flight for me. We were delayed in a ‘ground hold’, from taking off from DC this evening due to thunderstorms blocking the ‘departure gate’, in ATC terms. It will be a tight connection, one I may be running for, but one that they just may hold the flight for. I know there are at least ten other FSD peeps on this airbus, and this will be the last flight of the night. Such is the life of a commuter, especially a ‘two-legger’ as I am.

This morning, the fifth day of a five day trip, I didn’t want to get up. A 4:30 AM van, 12 hour day, six legs, and 6:45 of flying awaited us, and it was all perfectly legal. I and my crew were blessed with a message from crew scheduling, left on my silent ringer set cell phone at 3:30. At 4:00 I (my brain did) heard the nice CS gal tell me that because of yesterday’s weather, our jet didn’t make it to Albany for our morning flight. Our first three flights were cancelled and we didn’t have to report for duty until 9:00 AM. Yes, three more hours of restful and needed sleep!

It’s June 10th, and the typical spring thunderstorms had thrown another wrench into the ATC system works on the east coast. Out three legs left were PHL-DCA-RDU-DCA, and our jet was late as well. It came at 1:30 PM and it was hot, literally. We would leave at least two hours later than scheduled with the jumpseat and cabin full. We had 41 hot and frustrated passengers, and the other nine ‘deadheaders’ and one jumpseater. Fellow pilots and flight attendants sometimes become critics of your operation, but I know they mean well. And we had something to be criticized for, our plane had only one of our two air conditioners, or ‘packs’ as we call them, operating. This was all legit, the problem had been documented in the aircraft maintenance log and the bad pack had put placed on the deferred maintenance list. Inflight, the cabin never got below about 83 degrees, and the airflow was poor. One pilot I know really tried to persuade me to write the aircraft up as having unsatisfactory air, even unsafe air, as he was sweltering and couldn’t breatheon the PHL-DCA flight.

I wanted to, but I had an ulterior motive, I had to get home. We were already about two hours late, and I was afraid if I wrote the plane up the increased delay would mean spending another lovely night at the crash pad. If we immediately flew the last round trip I’d get to the gate for the MSP flight at about 7:30 for an 8:00 PM flight. So I sympathized with our FA and her sweaty ‘pits’ (her words, she was NOT happy), and went to fetch the paperwork for an RDU, NC round trip.

I noticed inflight that the sole remaining pack was only putting out 30 psi. The training file was clicking in my head, hmm, ‘I think that the pack is supposed to put out 41 psi while operating on just one, do you remember that, Nate?’ The systems description of our FCM, Flight Crew Manual backed me up on this. The pack will regulate air inside it to 30 psi when two are operating, and to 41 psi with only one. ‘Trivial’ numbers do have a use after all. The pack was operating, but not according to advertised standards. The plane was safe to operate, but questionably so for passengers, especially those sensitive to heat. It was definitely not acceptable customer service. We were ‘pissing off the world, fifty people at a time’ today.

The only bright side of this scenario is that we requested and received an external air conditioning cart at PHL, DCA, and RDU, which blows a cold, hard stream of air through the ducts into the cabin while boarding, and cools things off a bit before the roasting begins. The shine of it is that this wouldn’t have happened in the past, only in the last year has US Airways Express placed these in service for us.

The flights to Raleigh-Durham and back were done with lots of water and patience, and the weather radar on. Haze in the atmosphere, and leftover cloud material from previous buildups made the danger clouds difficult to see. It seemed that two thunderstorms over the Potomac river might be in our way on the approach back into DC, but we skirted them with ATC’s help. Their radars have weather displaying capability, and we seemingly always get a turn away from cumulonimbus clouds moments before we politely insist they we need a turn, now. Cloud to ground lighting mere miles from the White house, seen from the ramp in DC by our sweaty passengers, reflected the ongoing political tug of war that is Washington. No further comment please!

The swapping crew, the poor souls who would take our sweat box, arrived and the FA said she gets heatstroke very easily. I was already thinking hard about writing it up, and this fact helped clinch it. Maintenance was understanding and didn’t fight me. Good, the right thing was done here.

Do you think quoting rock lyrics in a personal blog is tacky and wrong? I don’t, but a comment made on a widely read fellow airline pilot blog did. Here’s my latest, from Don Henley’s song Heart of the Matter:

I’ve been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about

Everyone wants to be forgiven for the wrongs they’ve done to others and to God. That’s an easy thing to do; after the humbling step of acknowledging your wrongdoing, ‘please forgive me’ is universal. My lovely five year old, understandably, doesn’t consistently have the sorrow and admitting your guilt part down yet. She’ll say loudly ‘I’m sorry’ and think it makes it all better without any remorse at all. She’s working on it.

The other side of the F-word is forgiving another when you’ve been wronged. When you’re bitter and hurt. When you’ve been wounded and disrespected. When your relationship is fractured. When you’ve been betrayed and manipulated. When the person hasn’t admitted wrongdoing or asked you for forgiveness, and might not.

The Lord has revealed to me recently that I have and have held unforgiveness in my heart, toward others, friends and relatives. I’m in the process of forgiving them, and it feels great. I feel liberated and free. I don’t need an apology from each of them, although most have. How do parents of children who’ve been brutally murdered forgive their killers? We’ve seen this on TV time and again. I posit that it’s only by the power of God and the Holy Spirit.

We can: Visualize Forgiveness, more forgiveness, in our lives and in our hearts, toward each other. More forgiveness in our citizens, and our citizens of the world. Peoples forgiving peoples, nations forgiving nations, races forgiving races, tribes forgiving tribes, cultures forgiving cultures, governments forgiving governments. It's a big bumper sticker idea like the other one previously mentioned, it's a step on the road to world peace (another subject entirely).

It’s important, forgiveness, is, so much that Jesus taught us (and his disciples) to do so, from Luke 11:4 and his teaching on prayer: “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” God’s forgiveness of our sins brings us back into a right relationship with him, it does the same when we forgive others.

Did I make it home this night? Did I catch the last flight out of Minneapolis? Did NWA/Delta hold the flight? Yes! I had a peace about it that I like to think was from God. It was just another moment in life acknowledging the ‘God things’ he has blessed me with. Amen!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Loss of Air France 447

Unfortunately, on the night of June 1st, an Air France Airbus A330, flying as flight 447 from Rio de Janerio, Brazil to Paris, France, disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean while flying at 35,000 feet through the intertropical convergence zone, in an area of known thunderstorm activity.

Crash debris was found yesterday and today on the ocean's surface, but experts say the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder might very well be difficult to retrieve, because of the oceans' extreme depth and mountainous floor. No survivors have been found, and all 228 souls on board are presumed dead.

I would like to express my sympathy to the family and friends of the victims, and to Air France employees. Another airline tragedy has befallen us, and it is my hope and prayer that surely something positive will come about from the investigation. Knowledge will be gained, and hopefully the lessons learned will be applied to future high altitude jet operations worldwide.

For more information regarding this accident, see Aviation Herald for detailed information and Tim Vasquez' website for a very detailed meteorological analysis of the weather conditions present where and when Air France 447 was lost.

I'm not a meteorologist, but I do have some weather knowledge. Tim Vasquez's basic theory is that the flight was doomed by being exposed to severe turbulence. He postulates that the aircraft might have been flying in moderate turbulence in cirrus clouds leftover from a previous thunderstorm, which wouldn't be very harmful by itself. He thinks that a rapidly growing 'cold updraft tower' from a developing thunderstorm below the aircraft's altitude might have grown upwards into the airliner's position just as it was flying past. Such a fast growing cumilonimbus cloud, with a rate of at least 6,000 feet per minute or more, would surely deliver severe turbulence to an airframe. According to Tim, thunderstorms in the intertropical convergence zone can have these strong, narrow updrafts at high altitudes, which are difficult for weather radar even modern jets have to portray accurately without expert knowledge and operation. Translated, that means that a strong, high altitude updraft from an intertropical convergence zone thunderstorm which is maturing cannot yet have enough moisture inside it to be typically portrayed on a weather radar as a storm signature.

In any case, the loss of Air France 447 is tragic, and another reminder of the fragility that life in flight can be, and of the great responsibility given to all pilots by their entrusting passengers.