Saturday, January 30, 2010

Point of Convergence

Recently, after hurrying through preparing and getting our forty some odd, mostly business travelers on board for an eight AM weekday flight from our nation’s capital to Philadelphia, my First Officer called ground “ready to taxi”. Only DCA ground control didn’t want to play, instead telling us to stay put due to a ‘ground stop’ in Philadelphia.

Knowing that DCA ops (our airline ramp and gate operations) probably needed out gate for another flight, and in addition to the fact that both engines were ‘turning and burning’, we negotiated a taxi with ground control to proceed to the holding pad next to the nearby runway.

Once there, after getting confirmation of the ground stop and ‘expect further update’ time with our Dispatcher and DCA ‘Clearance Release’, we ‘shut ‘em down’ to save fuel, and I briefed the pax (passengers) and our Flight Attendant on our situation.

A ground stop is when ATC, due to weather (usually) at the destination, stops all departure flights headed toward that destination. The philosophy is that it’s better to wait on the ground than to waste fuel in a holding pattern burning fuel or divert to an airport other that your intended destination. The ‘expect update’ time meant that ATC didn’t have a takeoff time planned for us. They were basically winging it, and Mother Nature was in charge for now. Actually, an update time gives ATC time to deal with the situation and the traffic they already have, and means that ‘we will get back to you when we can’.

We had taxied out of the gate at 08:10 AM and the update time they gave us was 9:00 AM. A little after nine they gave us a takeoff time (EDCT) of 9:45 AM, then moved it up a few minutes later to 9:32. Things were looking better, but we still had to contend with a promised to be adventurous short flight from Washington, DC to the City of Brotherly ‘Love’.

Philly’s weather was horrible, due to an inflow of moisture from the Atlantic coast, drawn up into a low pressure are spinning near the Great Lakes, like a wagon wheel on a frontier trail slinging mud up and around itself. Strong, and very strong winds from the south meant that taking off and landing toward the east on the long, east-west runways might not be feasible.

As we were waiting for an update we checked the winds in Philadelphia: 19029G42, or something like that. Translated, that’s an almost direct crosswind from 190 degrees (south) at 29 knots, gusting to 42. In miles per hour, that’s 34 and 49 mph. Regardless, it’s more than our jet’s maximum crosswind component (27 knots) and close to or more than most airliners max crosswind components.

Continuing landings and takeoffs in these type of extreme winds depends on the pilots resolve, and judgment to accept it. Stopping operations requires one or more pilots to request a runway into the wind, to say ‘enough’ to ATC and refuse the approach or takeoff clearance with the crosswind. ATC might want to keep operating the same way because that’s what gives them the most operations per hour, and it’s likely they won’t change it until a pilot complains. At Philadelphia they have three runways aligned on an east-west direction, and only one runway aligned north-south, so you can imagine how the number of takeoffs and landing is reduced when ATC restricts operations to the single runway only.

My 56 year old, retired Marine Aviator veteran First Officer and I agreed that the cause of the ground stop was that Philly had indeed switched to a single runway operation on runway 17, and were trying to deal with the traffic that was already on the ground and in the air. We settled in for while, hoping the wind there wouldn’t get worse.

True to ATC’s word, we started our engines at 9:25 and blasted off the short runway in DC at 9:32 AM. Once airborne, we received a new weather report from Philly which showed a wind of ‘19037G54’, a gust equivalent to 62 mph! They were landing and taking off only on runway 17 (oriented at 170 degrees magnetic) as we had suspected.

An uncommon but discernable feeling came over me as we still flew in relatively smooth air to the northeast toward Philadelphia in and out of smooth gray clouds. I’m hesitant to use the ‘F’ word, but concern and some form of anxiety was settling in my pilot psyche. I was concerned about the unknown, of what we might encounter on approach and landing, and concerned that ATC might change their plans and force us to divert to our alternate airport. I was a little anxious about landing in a 43 mph wind, gusting to 62, and about the possibility of wind shear.

But a good pilot is able to manage their fears, along with managing the risk and making good aeronautical decisions. ‘Know yours and your airplanes capabilities and limitations, and don’t exceed them’ is a good one sentence capsule of advice. The airlines and the FAA will let you can get right up to the limits, with a hair trigger set and trained to ‘retreat’ if the conditions become unacceptable. Safety and efficiency are intended to both be maximized; and this is the way it’s done in the airline world. My office is not a boring one, especially on days like these.

We started preparing for the ‘Converging’ ILS approach to runway 17, with me as the flying pilot. ‘Converging’ meaning that your final approach path converges with the final approach path of another runway and airplane, usually with runway 17 our approach would converge with aircraft on approach for runway ‘Nine Right’ (9R). But since only ‘one-seven’ (17) was being used it wouldn’t be the case. There are higher minimum descent altitudes and an alternate missed approach procedure with the ‘converging ILS 17’ approach, however, which gets us out of the way of an airplane going missed from an approach to 9R. Clear as mud? It’s hard to explain in one paragraph, this map of PHL airport and of the converging ILS 17 approach might help.

Just as I finished briefing the approach, the constant moderate chop turbulence in the clouds started, and would seemingly not let up. Upon checking on with PHL approach control, they vectored us south, then east, then northwest again, all to get in a long line for the instrument approach to ‘one-seven’. Along the way we picked up the latest update on the wind conditions: 19028G42. It was still a very strong wind, but more doable than previously known. The visibility was still fairly good at 2 ½ miles, and the cloud ceiling was at 1,400 feet above the ground, above our minimums of about 700.

I called for the approach checklist and we were cleared for it by PHL approach. There was a lot of chatter on the frequency as we rapidly bounced down the final approach course and I made the callouts to my FO to configure our plane with flaps and landing gear down. It was like riding a giant gray washboard in the sky, with time seemingly slowed down; due to the high winds at altitude (60 knots) our groundspeed was only 100 instead of the usual 140.

PHL approach then changed our approach clearance for a normal ILS 17, not a converging ILS 17. At first we surmised that it was because the runway 9R wasn’t being used, then approach said the visibility had decreased on 17, which made sense. We quickly reviewed the differences in the approach and made the changes on our FMS and minimums we had set.

We started hearing other flights going around and saying they couldn’t continue the approach. ATC came out with a new ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) with a wind of 19027G34 KT, a visibility of ¾ sm with +RA and OVC14. Translated, this was wind 190 degrees at 27, gusts to 34 knots, visibility of ¾ statute mile in heavy rain, cloud base overcast at 1,400 feet above the ground. This wasn’t good, because our new clearance to fly a 'normal' ILS approach required a minimum visibility of 1 mile or ‘RVR 5000’. I had been feeling my heart pound with some adrenaline on this approach, these new developments made me feel it more.

We were still cleared for the approach, but with the new visibility (3/4 mile) it had gone below what our legal minimums to fly it were: 1 mile or ‘RVR 5000’. RVR (Runway Visual Range) is a horizontal visibility distance measured down the runway, and when it’s available it ‘controls’ whether we can ‘shoot’ and instrument approach or not. We had been switched by PHL approach to PHL tower, and they quickly reported the RVR to us as ‘4,500 touchdown, 4,400 rollout’. We continued the approach, my FO and I talked the minutia of the regulations over, and hoped things would improve. Why didn’t we tell ATC we couldn’t continue then and ‘go missed’ right then? One good regulation the FAA has which we observe and operate under is that we can fly an ILS approach up to the ‘final approach point’ (usually about 1,500 above ground and 5 miles from the runway) with the visibility below minimums. If the visibility hasn’t improved to the minimum required by that point, then we can’t continue the approach and have to go missed.

The tenths of miles and mere seconds to arrive at ‘HYILL’, the name of this final approach point, were rapidly counting down. My FO had been steadfastly trying to get a new, improved RVR report from the tower. Just as we were right on top of HYILL it came: ‘RVR 6,500, cleared to land’. We both breathed easier and prepared to land, at least with more certainty than before. The heavy rain and low visibility had been a temporary condition, to be expected with a wind of 27, gusts to 34. I had my FO configure our jet with the last two settings of flaps for landing and we spied the airport at about 3 miles out. The winds were very gusty and to control our airspeed I had to perform some ‘throttle jockeying’ that experience is the best teacher of. In spite of the gusts, we had a fairly nice landing right on the 1,000 foot markers of runway 17.

Taxiing in and parking at our gate we saw many airplanes of all sizes waiting for takeoff, lined up on both sides of 17, a 6,500 foot long runway. For Airbuses and Boeings this would normally be a ‘short’ runway, especially when there is normally a 9,500 foot runway to be used, but not today. Once shut down at the gate, we thanked each other each other for a job well done and considered our suspenseful ‘point of convergence’ on over HYILL.

Life isn’t always this exciting, but life also brings it’s own points of convergence, sometimes by our own actions, but many times by events and circumstances, or others involved in our lives: Marry this person or not? Change careers or not? Take that big step or not? Go out on a limb or not? Go and fight for your country or what you believe in or not? Believe and receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior or not? Make a deeper level of commitment to God or not?

Gleaned from this experience, I don’t have much scripture to quote or biblical advice this time, except a common one we’ve all heard from our parents: $h!7 or get off the pot. Do it or don’t do it, but if you don’t do it, do something else regardless, and move on. Life is better lived by not getting permanently stuck in an undesirable situation.

(BTW in regard to Jesus, if you’ve read my blog you know that I firmly believe he is worth taking a step of faith for. Making a commitment to Jesus can be daunting. Just remember he committed himself to us first: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8)

I was generally miserable in my former career life at a Mechanical Engineer/Designer, not because I didn’t like it, but because (1) I wasn’t very good at it (I give myself a C) and (2) I really wanted to fly for a living. With my wife’s blessing (what was she thinking? ;) I made a career change at about age 30 to full time Flight Instructor, then arrived up at my first regional airline about nine months later. I’ve looked back, but never gone back. The time spent away from my wife and family has made it a struggle to have an acceptable quality of life at times, but overall, I don’t regret it. My office is in the sky! I only imagine how I would regret not giving flying the full time shot that I have.

Thanks for reading my blog.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Far from perfect?

A certain professional golf player, who won’t be named, in what we now know to be perhaps the understatement of 2009, admitted that “I’m far from perfect”. I have a few things in common with him. He plays golf, so do I. Well, it might be a stretch to call it playing, but I try. He’s travels away from his home quite a bit, so do I. He’s far from perfect, and so am I. Actually, so are all of us.

Don’t get the wrong idea; I’m not like the philandering pilot in “The Pilot’s Wife”, showcased by Oprah’s Book Club. I’m devoted to my wife, and take my marriage vows seriously. But like the bumper sticker “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”, I’m still human.

Since it’s a new year, and resolutions are common, the subject of perfection and being perfect is appropriate. Being perfect is something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. I feel like sometimes this blog mistakenly makes the impression that I’m expressing how good of a person I am, how obedient I am to God and what not. That is not the purpose. My intent is to share the experiences I have both as an airline pilot and as a Christian, trying to follow Jesus Christ in word, faith, and deed. I wish to glorify God and illuminate Christ. I struggle, I sin, I fail, I fight temptation, and I suffer. But I also pray, study God’s word, praise and worship Him, share my faith with others, revel with God and glorify him in my victories, and try to love others as I do myself.

Nobody’s perfect is a trite saying, but one that we all have in common, whether you’re the Pope or a pauper, President or Pro Golfer, Parent or Pilot. Honestly, we are all ‘far from perfect’. God’s view on this is shown in Romans 3:10-12, 18, and 23 as this theme: “10As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; 11there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." . . .18"There is no fear of God before their eyes." . . . 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Well, there is one exception to that rule. There is one man who lived a perfect life, and never committed a sin. I’m speaking of Jesus Christ, of course. He did God’s perfect will, sometimes even surprising his parents and offending others in the process, and though he was human like us and was tempted like us, he never sinned.

Scripture backs me up. From Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Just after the Holy Spirit descended on him as he started his earthly ministry, he was tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1-10). And from II Corinthians 5:21: “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

There’s more, from Hebrews 9:14 (NLT) “Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.”  And Hebrews 7:28 calls Jesus our ‘perfect High Priest’.

The naysayer might want to (1) debate whether Jesus lived a perfect life, and (2) also say ‘so we know we’re not perfect, so what? God still loves us anyway, so he would accept me into heaven, I’m not a bad person’. The first point is another subject, maybe for another day.  On the second point, yes, God still love us, but He commanded the Israelites in the Old Testament to “be holy, because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

In the Old Testament, God’s people kept disappointing him with their sin and wickedness (not being holy), and God had Moses and Aaron institute a prescribed and precise system of animal sacrifice, which by the spilling and shedding of blood (because the penalty of sin is death, and spilling of blood represents death) would atone for the sin of the people and make things right with God (Leviticus chapters 16-17).

By the time Jesus was born (start of New Testament) and started his ministry 2000 plus years ago, the system of animal sacrifice for atonement of sins was firmly established. Then Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and at the end of it commanded us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Now didn’t God say in Genesis that he created man in his image? And Adam and Eve for a time didn’t sin, at all. So on the basis of God’s creation it’s actually somewhat valid for him to expect us to be perfect.

Let me get this straight, you might say. Not only is God and Jesus Christ perfect, but He wants us to be perfect? Yep. According to the Bible, we need either to be perfect (a very tall order indeed) or we need a fix (they say fix in Oklahoma, where I’m from originally), or a repair, or a remedy for our imperfectness. What I mean by this is a way to look like we’re perfect to God, even though we’re not. I think most all of humanity, when it comes down to it, would choose the latter option.

Jesus Christ himself is the fix for our imperfectness, and the way to repair the broken relationship we have with God due to our sin. He is the Son of God, part of the Holy Trinity, which is portrayed and displayed in the Old and New Testament. Thusly, he is God, and admitted as much in the gospels before he was crucified on the cross.

Do I mean Jesus will help us not commit sin at all and be perfect? Yes and no, kind of. Walking spiritually ‘in Christ’ will grow a desire in your heart to please God with your actions, desires, and thoughts. Avoiding sin only because you know its wrong quickly not only becomes tiring, it becomes impossible! Also, can imperfect humans really be perfect, really? Not by our own efforts, not by our own works. Even the Pope and Billy Graham sin. So where does that leave us, desperate?

For a moment only; no, that leaves us totally and completely dependent on Christ to perfect us, to make us perfect. But does the Bible say He does this? Yes! From Hebrews 10:14: “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Christians being sanctified).” There it is, straight from the Holy word of God. We REALLY CAN are made perfect in God’s eyes, without actually being perfect!

This is a lot to chew on spiritually. For more explanation, I found it was good to read the sections from Hebrews 7:23-28Hebrews 9:13-15, and Hebrews 10:11-18 (all NLT). Also consider the phrase ‘in Christ’ from the standpoint of John 15 (‘I am the vine, you are the branches’) and as well as from John 17:23 (NLT) when a pre-crucifixion Jesus prayed for future believers: “I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” Christ is perfect, and he is in us and we are in him. Hallelujah!

What can I share about flying lately? Well, I’m not perfect there either. Things occasionally happen, despite my best intents and efforts that I don’t share unless you’re a fellow pilot at my airline that I’m comfortable sharing it with. No, I can’t divulge the details; it didn’t require a visit from the Chief Pilot or the FAA. Let’s just say the complacency curve caught up to me, and something happened which made me ask “how the heck did that happen?” When I make errors, or mistakes, usually it’s ones of small significance, customer service related, or one where the Co-Pilot and I agree that it just amounts to ‘style points’. But sometimes, well, ‘stuff’ happens.

OK, I give, as I frequently do. We were taxiing out of a Birmingham, Alabama, about a month ago at ‘dark O’Clock’ in a pounding, cold rain. We were a little late because of a number of frustrating occurrences, some caused by a seemingly inept ground crew, some caused by a broken and uncooperative airplane.

The ramp crew hadn’t serviced our jet properly during the overnight, and I had to request water for the galley and lavatory, and a ground power unit (GPU) and air start cart. You’re heard these terms before and together they mean our APU (auxiliary power unit) was broken. When the APU is ‘inop’ we need a GPU for electricity and a start cart to provide air pressure to start our engines. The cabin not being clean enough was minor at this point.

They got us water and the aforementioned equipment, then boarded us and we prepared to start engines, only to see that the tug driver couldn’t make his headset work to communicate with us for the pushback. Eventually he got it working intermittently, and then our left engine had trouble starting correctly. The start was fine, but when it was completed we kept getting a red warning light and text and audible message ‘engine oil pressure’ telling us that the oil pressure on our left engine was too low. Upon checking the actual oil pressure gauge and the other engine indications, the reality was that the pressure was fine, and I surmised that so was the engine. It was entirely logical that the warning was not correct, but with a $2 million engine and a warning that won’t go away, you can get antsy quickly. I shut down the engine, we started the right engine, and planned to start the left one again, and we tried to communicate this to our soaked to the bone ramp agents through the rickety headset connection. Upon starting the left engine again the message wouldn’t go away, so I called for the QRH (Quick Reference Handbook) procedure for low engine oil pressure. The checklist basically said if you have both gage and warning message indications of low oil pressure, shut down the engine, if you have conflicting indications, keep it running and monitor it. Just about then the message did go way.

The ramp crew, in their yellow slickers, had about had enough. To get them out of the rain, I resolved to call maintenance and report our trouble in starting the left engine, but do it after taxi while sitting next to the runway. We finished our checklists and prepared to taxi out.

Leaving a rain soaked, black asphalt ramp at an unfamiliar airport for the very first time, at a dark hour of before sunrise would prove to be interesting. There had been so much rain and moisture that our windshield had fogged up on the inside surfaces, like you get on a car sometimes. I asked my FO to select high on our windshield heat instead of low. For some reason he was reluctant to do so, so I did it myself. The high setting would remove the fog on the windshield sooner. Windshield heat is a super powered version of rear window defogging on a car. We started taxiing out from the ramp to the taxiway after receiving taxi clearance from Birmingham ground control to taxi to our departure runway.

Feeling our way past the terminal and other aircraft, the wipers were doing okay in clearing the rain and the fog was slowly being removed from the windscreen. Two ‘islands’ (areas you can’t taxi over), wrapped in the blue lights taxiways are identified by, were ahead of us, and it looked like we could go right between both of them. Getting closer I slowed the plane down and we both peered through the drops on our windshield. “I don’t see lights on the inner sides of the islands” I said. My FO, a really good guy to work with but a new pilot at our airline, with only about 500 hours total time in jets, agreed. Approaching with about ten yards left to reach the islands I noticed that there was a green reflector in the ground right ahead of us, then the depth and width of the drainage ditch I was about to drive the plane into blossomed into full realization in the threat area of my brain. After an exclamation or two, a brake application and a sharp turn to the left around the ‘two’ islands which in reality were one, we found the taxiway down to the runway.

Fortunately I had been taxiing the jet slow enough to see the danger, slow down, and turn out of the way. We surmised that sometime in the past a blue light and post had been broken and the airport had replaced it with just a green reflector on the ground. The ditch was one to two feet deep and about three feet wide, and would’ve ‘ruined our whole day’ had I driven the plane through it.

At a holding ramp next to the runway, I called our maintenance department. When I reported our engine starting difficulty they agreed it was just an anomaly, and advised us to keep an eye on it, as we certainly would. The engine never gave us any more trouble the entire day, which involved five legs worth of flying.

The temperature in this moderate, constant rain was a cold 3 degrees Celsius, or about 38 degrees Farenhight. That required that we takeoff with our wing and engine cowl anti-ice systems turned on. Because our jet doesn’t have takeoff and landing performance calculated (it wasn’t certified this way to increase available payload) when operating without the APU on while using hot air from the engine for wing and engine cowl anti-ice, we would have to perform the takeoff with the cabin unpressurized, and consequently perform an unpressurized landing and takeoff at Charlotte, Huntsville, and Washington DC. I could explain more but at this point it would be too confusing and diverting from the story; just know that an unpressurized takeoff or landing is a pain in the butt!

After we briefed this procedure, I took a little time to consider with my Co-Pilot what we could’ve done better to avoid ‘driving it into the ditch’ in the first place. I should’ve selected high on the windshield heat immediately, and not taxied until it was clear of fog. I should’ve looked at the airport diagram closer and defined and briefed our taxi route from the ramp to the taxiway, before the plane started moving. I always brief the taxi before the plane is moving, but this time I let being in a hurry get the best of me. I noticed that the airport diagram didn’t show enough detail to see that the two islands were actually one, but one page later, in a map of the terminal and ramp area, it did show that important detail. Lastly, I should’ve been on better guard since I was operating at an unfamiliar airport. Actually there’s one more, too, that I kept to myself. I tend to lose ‘flight discipline’ somewhat when I get emotional, on the angry or happy side of the scale. I could do better in safeguarding against this.

‘Flight Discipline’ is an important term I favor in my job arena. When even the new FAA Administrator is lamenting a loss of professionalism in the regional AND major airline pilot ranks these days, encouraging pilots to have better flight discipline will be one of the keys to improving the airline safety record even further. I’d like to plug a great book I read by the same name, ‘Flight Discipline’ by Tony Kern, a veteran Air Force Pilot. He reviews military and airline accidents in which a lack of flight discipline directly contributed to the crashes occurring. Based on my experience as an airline pilot, former military pilots seem to have better flight discipline than their civilian cohorts. They have more of a mission mindset and a greater respect for the rules and SOP’s (standard operating procedures) than other pilots. This isn’t to say that every civilian pilot is a ‘cowboy’ either, by no means.

Traditionally, the public holds pilots in such high regard, sometimes I wonder why. Maybe it has to do with entrusting your life to complete strangers in a foreign, unknown, unfriendly sky. Not to malign my brothers and sisters in arms, but we are people too. On one hand, passengers seem to think that pilots are brave, courageous, have razor sharp reflexes and coordination, are safe and professional, and thusly, have the morals and ethics of saints. I’m sorry, it’s just not true. You can be a safe and professional pilot and still be completely human, with many personal failings. The opposite stereotype of pilots as greedy, lazy, drunk, egotistical male chauvinists and bigots who cheat on their wives or girlfriends is far from the mark as well. The reality is somewhere between; as it is in society in general, it depends on the individual pilot. Yes, airline pilots tend to have egos, but we’re not superheroes, we’re people like you and me. We’re just people, far from perfect people who have a love for flying, who have a blood and heart infection for being in the sky.