Saturday, February 27, 2010

Toronto, pronto

This image of the weather map for the northeastern US last night essentially shows the conditions we experienced yesterday, while trying to fly seven legs.  Bands of snow rotating counter-clockwise around a low pressure center between Boston and New York City made it interesting for the second day in a row for everyone in this area. 

My FO and I agreed both that the safety of flying seven flights and seven hours in a day is questionable, and it definitely isn't doable on a day like this.  DC to PIT to Philly to Toronto to Philly to Allentown to Philly to Binghamton was our itinerary.  Regardless, off we went.

Very gusty winds got my attention taking off on the short runway from DC.  Our CRJ juked and jived in the gusts as I turned away from the Pentagon to follow the Potomac river to the northwest, climbing out steeply while wondering how long the constant turbulence would last.  It wasn't long; we cruised over to Pittsburgh at 20,000 feet above the clouds, enjoying the sunshine with the familiar blue backdrop.

In about a mile of visibility because of snow falling, I landed on an all white runway, one with a thin snow cover, highlighted by wavily shaped snow drifts.  After deploying the thrust reversers to full, I applied the wheelbrakes smoothly but surely, increasing the pressure as I stowed our thrust reversers below 80 knots indicated airspeed.  The 'braking action' was there, somewhat more than barely, you could say.  The anti-skid was now cycling constantly, but we were slowing down, slowly, on this 11,500 foot runway in Pittsburgh.  The control tower told us other pilots had reported the braking action as fair, but I though it was closer to poor, and my FO told them so.  Braking action is subjective, and in my opinion this same braking action in DC on the 6,870 foot runway there would definitely been called 'poor'.  I used about 6,000 feet of runway in landing and slowing down.  After waiting for and watching an efficient bulldozer driven snow scooper plow our ramp area, we parked and boarded up quickly for Philadelphia.

Out EDCT (pronounced 'edict') time (Expect Departure Clearance Time) for PHL was 12:15 PM, but on our taxi out we learned they had extended it to 1:15 PM.  Our Dispatcher hadn't sent us an ACARS message to 'hold our push' for some reason.  We taxied to a spot on a taxiway between the snow drifts, and I elected to shut down the engines to conserve fuel.  We actually didn't have much left before we would burn down to our takeoff fuel, and then we would have to either reduce our takeoff fuel by decreasing our holding fuel or go back to the gate to get more gas.  We had an hour to wait as it turned out; they decreased our takeoff delay a little.  I briefed the pax, and after a short wait we started up and got deiced quickly by PIT's excellent deice crew.  Their setup looks like this, using enclosed control cabs on the end of booms connected to ground structures, instead of trucks.

After lining our chariot up on the centerline of this runway (yep, it really is one, see the runway edge lights?), I gave the reins to my FO, who did a great job of keeping us straight on the takeoff roll.  We knew this due to the increasing frequency 'thump thump thump thump' sound the nosewheel tires made in rolling over the runway centerline lights.  Ah, the neat, challenging, and sometimes a little perplexing things you get to see as an airline pilot.  When some visual clues are lost it forces you to use what clues you have left.

In the clear again cruising over to Philadelphia, valleys of smooth and fluffy clouds below us hid the reality of a serious winter storm giving it's best blows on the ground.  Much of the time when the weather gets rotten in winter, with high, gusty winds and snow, the wind blows straight down the runway, and that's what it was doing on the ground in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.  When a pilot has to deal with a low visibility approach with snow, reduced braking action on the runway, and then a healthy crosswind on top of it, that tends to up the ante and the heartrate.  The weather report for Philadelphia was considerably better than the delays imposed on us indicated earlier.  The snow was gone, the runways were dry, and they even offered us a short runway, after clearing us for a visual approach to the long 27 Right.  'No thanks'.   

Gold star time!  By the time we parked at the gate in Philly, we were about an hour behind schedule.  Cause I'm a team player (and because I packed my lunch), I offered to our Flight Attendant that I would say goodbye to the passengers and clean the cabin for her.  She'd already asked for a food run in Philly, and she took me up on this time saving offer too.  I'd never actually done this before, and I'll try to make it a habit when I can.  (Passengers, at the regionals don't get our cabins cleaned by cleaners like at the majors; our flight attendants (and pilots sometimes) do it ourselves.) 

PHL-YYZ, our third out of seven flights was next.  Toronto's ATIS was interesting.  Toronto was only landing on one of it's five runways, and wasn't using the runways which faced into the wind at all. For my FO, the pilot flying, it was going to be a 10-15 knot crosswind landing on a snow covered runway with fair or worse braking action, in falling light snow. What more can you ask for?  How about not having to divert to our alternate airport.  After just passing Buffalo, NY, we heard Toronto Center (ATC) give a holding clearance to two aircraft in front of us.  Holding at a fix name 'Linng' southeast of Toronto, soon became our fate as well.  We had a lot on our plate to think about, in quick order.

Here's the rundown: After conferring with out dispatcher with messages sent and recieved using our ACARS unit in the flight deck, our bingo fuel was 3,200 lbs.  Entering the hold we had 4,200 lbs, and each engine was burning about 1,000 lbs per hour of jet fuel.  Pilot mental math converts that to 30 minutes holding time.  If we weren't released from the holding pattern to continue to YYZ before we our fuel remaining reached 3,200 lbs, we were diverting to Buffalo.  And the weather at Buffalo, called up on ACARS, sucked, frankly.  Any pilot would agree that 1/2 mile visibility in moderate snowfall, freezing fog, and a healthy crosswind is not the best weather to have at your alternate airport that you could very possibly divert to. 

Toronto ATC never offered a clear reason why we were holding, I think the one runway they were landing planes on was full of traffic.  My FO offered that we should consider other options than Buffalo, and we did call up weather from other suitable airports.  None were as close as Buffalo, and if we were to divert, I preferred to land in the US, at an airport which was served by the airline we fly for, to make handling our pasengers of various nationalities easier.  Elmira and Syracuse were bad, and too far away by this time, because of our fuel.  Hamilton, in Canada, was ok, and Erie, PA, was not too great, but doable, fuel wise.  Fortunately, with the next hour's weather report, at 4 PM, Buffalo reported much improved weather, two miles visibility in light snow with better winds.

By this time we had been holding for about fifteen minutes, had a solid plan to divert to Buffalo if we bingoed on our fuel, and were hoping Toronto would open the additional runway soon.  Two other airliners holding in front of us were having fuel issues too.  One gave up and proceeded to their alternate.  Our fuel situation by now: together with the two engines we were using 2,000 lbs an hour, or 200 lbs each tenth of an hour, or 200 lbs every six minutes.  We now had 3,600 lbs, or twelve minutes left.  I asked Toronto how long till the runway is open, notifying them also that we have ten minutes of fuel left before diverting.  'Oh about fifteen minutes they say' in a polite canadian accent came the reply. 

I had briefed the passengers three times, the first being routine, the second being a little concerned and sharing the possibilityof diverting, and the third with the likelyhood of diverting.  I don't like diverting, but I'll do it if I have to.  Tick, tock, tick, tock.  "___  ____ you are now cleared out of the hold, fly heading 180 after Linng"", he told us.  They were clearing us out of the hold with a turn to the south, before having us continue on the arrival northbound.  Good news.  We had about 3,500 lbs, about nine minutes more of holding fuel left.  It looked like the other airliner bugging our had worked in our favor. 

On approach the changing weather had gotten a bit better, the cloud ceiling was higher, about 3,500 feet above the ground, and the crosswind was about half of what it had been before, about seven knots now. 

The control tower reported that the braking action reported by pilots was fair on the runway, and poor on the runway turnoff.  But like I experienced in Pittsburgh, my FO rated it as poor, and told the tower so.  We took the slippery turnoff about two-thirds down the 11,200 foot runway, and taxied in slowly on one inch of fresh snow.  Then we saw and appreciated this:

This behemoth, seen through the falling snow, is the new largest airliner in the world, the Airbus A380.  Those are two passenger decks you see, the entire length of the fuselage.  It flys all the way from Dubai, UAE to Toronto, a world away in culture, geography, religion, government, and weather.

"Hast thou seen the white whale?" Captain Ahab asks.  Well, I have now.  As an aside, I just finished reading, for the first time, Moby-Dick.  It was hard,  took me six months.  It's about much more than an egomaniacal Captain seeking vengeance on a whale.  I could wax on about it, but I can't do it justice.  Maybe just a little.  I highly recommend it. 

I will say a couple things.  I identify with Starbuck, the first mate of Captain Ahab, a man of true Christian faith, and one with his head on straight; he tries valiantly to talk Ahab out of attacking Moby-Dick.  A little background on the white whale: Ishmael, the narrator of Moby-Dick, teaches us that all sperm whales are dangerous, but Moby-Dick is a giant who has a fearsome, evil reputation for killing whalers.  Ahab is demented, hell bent on killing Moby-Dick, because of his vengeful pride (Moby-Dick took off half of one of his legs previously), but moreso because he's wrapped up in the 'white whale' his personal bias against the existence of evil and 'fate', (i.e. the unfairness and unapolagetic circumstances of life) in the world.  In demented and megalomanical character, he believes he will rid the world of the problem of evil if he kills the white whale.  It ordinarily sounds strange and implausible for a human to leap to this level of egoism, but in the backdrop of such a grand and mystifying vocation as hunting on the world's oceans (with sailboats and hand thrown harpoons and lances) these huge, majestic, and spiritually associated (by humans) whales, the subject matter and symbolism is easily pulled off by author Herman Mellville, over 150 years ago.  It is an epic and timeless book.

In this picture you can see how big the 'white whale' is compared to the 737 next to it.  We taxiied in and with typical canadian efficiency we boarded up a new batch of passengers for Philadelphia.  I had a message on my phone from crew scheduling, but because I don't get minutes in Canada and it's pretty expensive if I do make a call, I didn't check it.  It was good news (for us), however; we found out after landing in Philly that our Allentown, PA round trip and our Binghampton, NY overnight had been canceled.  We were overnighting in Philly after flying four of seven legs. 

I haven't written too much on spiritual stuff lately, but God is still calling me, and I'm still answering.  Even when I don't answer, he still calls.  What a commitment God has made to all humans through the work of his son, Jesus Christ!  The problem Ahab had with Moby-Dick and evil has been solved by Jesus.  We can fret and philosophize over it, but we're better off examining the life and nature of God's son, who died on the cross for all of our sins, and, well, evil.  The answers to the questions of life and the true life, personal relationship with God, are  found in Jesus. 

What is your white whale?  What is your frustration in life, that has got you in a bind, a bias, against God?  What has been unfair to you in life that has influenced you to think God doesn't care?  God does care.  BTW I'm just assuming these things, my dear reader, I know that not everyone has a grudge against God.  I have had a grudge againtst God before, myself, a few times.  I likely will again in the future, but that won't invalidate my faith.  Recently I flew with a good guy with a poor attitude.  He appeared to have a Christian, but cynical, faith.  His cynicism extended to his personal life and our airline.  To you, my friend, and others, I submit one of my favorite and simple verses: the word of Jesus from Matthew 11:28-30: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." 

Until next time, thanks for reading my blog.

Friday, February 19, 2010

PBS Frontline's "Flying Cheap"

I recently watched PBS Frontline's premiere of the episode "Flying Cheap", which questions the safety of the regional airline industry. You can watch it online here. The program highlighted the growth of regional airlines in general, and Colgan Airlines specifically. Frontline focused on the crash of one of Colgan’s Dash-8 Q400 Turboprops a year ago in Buffalo, New York. Colgan was operating the flight as Continental Connection 3407, and fifty people perished, including one on the ground.

The NTSB is establishing that pilot error is the cause of the accident. Both pilots let the plane get too slow while configuring for an instrument approach, and then the Captain, the pilot flying, responded improperly to wing stall warning indications. The First Officer made the situation worse by retracting wing flaps at the wrong time, and without being commanded to do so by the Captain. The plane's wings fully stalled, then the big turboprop started to enter a spin. There wasn't enough altitude above the ground to recover from that and the resulting dive.

This sort of basic airmanship pilot error is unconscionable; it is hard to believe that it occurred. But when the Captain’s and First Officer’s record and relatively low experience levels are taken into account, and added to the fact that they both were very likely affected by short term fatigue, it is conceivable that together they could make this series of errors which added up to this horrific tragedy. Another contributing circumstance to the crash that the NTSB might emphasize is that Colgan had an insufficient training and operating program for the Q400, and consequently both pilots’ limited experience in the airplane exposed them to a higher risk of an accident than otherwise.

The Captain had failed checkrides five times, but had notified Colgan about only one of them. When he was hired he had failed three checkrides, and unfortunately he failed two more at Colgan.  Colgan has stated they would’ve never hired him if they had known he lied about two of them of them. Failing a checkride is common, however. I’ve failed three myself, unfortunately, and consider myself to be a pretty capable and skilled aviator. I know in detail why each one didn't work out, but it comes down to the fact that each time I rushed my training and lacked preparation in exactly where I busted the ride at.  My last one was nine years ago on my Captain upgrade checkride at Great Lakes, a commuter turboprop airline with a reputation for failing many Captain upgrade applicants. I retrained and passed the checkride a few days later.

A failure doesn’t mean you’re an unsafe or bad pilot. Does failing the bar exam mean you’re a bad lawyer? Does failing important medical exams while an intern mean you’re an unsafe doctor? No and no. However, if a pilot has basic airmanship deficiencies, it should show up in the training process as a new hire. I’ve heard of new hires failing in training at my current airline and seen it happen at Great Lakes. Should it have happened in this case at Colgan? I don’t know, it would be unfair for me to say without having specific knowledge, but it’s clear that basic but critical flying mistakes were made.

Furthermore, some pilots just need more experience, then they will be able to successfully complete airline pilot training.  The right stuff is real stuff, but it also depends on experience; experience is important.

Our airline has a probationary period of one year for new hires; it’s a period where a pilot can be terminated without job protection from the union. Some have not made off probation at my airline, for airmanship reasons, but the most common reason is having a bad attitude.

I don’t know how well Colgan taught the following operating procedure, but in my opinion the First Officer should’ve had it down pat. When operating in icing conditions, with the icing speed reference switch selected ‘on’ then the pilot not flying must set higher that normal approach and landing speeds (about 20 knots higher) to compensate for the artificially higher stall warning speed produced because this aforementioned switch selected ‘on’. On the accident flight the Q400 was starting an approach in the clouds, in icing conditions. For an unknown reason the higher speeds had not been set; the normal, slower, non-icing condition speeds had been set instead. This left the Q400 dangerously slow when configuring for approach. Neither pilot voiced concern nor presumably noticed that the plane’s airspeed was too slow. The stick shaker (a device which vibrates the control column and indicates an approaching wing stall) activated and the Captain responded by raising the nose of the plane, not lowering it as he should have.

Then the First Officer made another mistake, in retracting the wing flaps of the plane in the midst of the captain fighting the wing stall with the plane’s bank and pitch angles gyrating wildly. Retracting flaps is part of the recovery from wing stalls practiced in the simulator, but only on command and after control is recovered with an increase in airspeed and performance is observed by the pilot. In real life, retracting flaps after recovering from an approach and landing stall would occur long after the airplane is back under control.

Fatigue reared its ugly head in this one, in a way unlike other accidents recently. Each pilot was under the effects of short term fatigue, from sleeping in the crewroom at the airport after commuting in the night before (the captain) and from commuting through the night on a major cargo airline (the first officer), then napping the morning before their showtime. This accident brings it home to me more than ever before: commuting through the night and/or sleeping in the crewroom will leave you very tired and you will sacrifice alertness and airmanship ability if you do it.  If you’re wondering, I don’t sleep in the crew room; I have a bunk bed with my name on it in an apartment within walking distance of the airport.

Overall, this is a good and balanced program, and a needed notification to the public about the present problems at regional airlines. However, it did at times go too far toward the ‘Nancy Grace Tonight’ style of TV journalism sensationalism. One scene showcased the cynical response of a crash victim’s father, who discounted a regional airline executive’s personal expression of sympathy and promise to him that they corrected the 'safety gaps'.  The executive was one for Pinnacle Airlines Corporation, another regional airline company which bought Colgan in June 2007. 
Host Miles O'Brien, who is a private pilot himself, did good in showing the economic hardships new regional pilots face, making as little as $16,000 the first year employed, while possibly being based in a city which has a high cost of living (Newark, NJ in this case). Regional pilots fly smaller planes, and airline pilot's salaries are based on the number of seats the plane has. Thusly, the average Co-Pilot's annual salary at a regional airline is $32,000, and for a Captain it’s approximately $70,000, according to the Regional Airline Association's President Roger Cohen.

The program questioned the safety that a regional airline has when it pays that little of a starting wage, and when grows rapidly. The idea it expressed is that safety suffers when rapidly growing, low paying regional airlines hire unsuitable and inexperienced pilots as compared to the past. It also showed that when paid at these salary levels, some pilots will choose to commute to their base and forego suitable rest facilities in order to save money.

Colgan did double in size, twice, in 2005 and 2008. One Colgan Pilot testified that he upgraded to Captain in nine months, to O’Brien’s surprise. To anyone who has spent time in the trenches at a regional, this is nothing new, but traditionally the quick upgrades to Captain have happened on a nineteen seat turboprop, not a brand new advanced 74 seat turboprop or 50 seat jet. With the rapid growth of regional airlines in the 2000’s, this was the new norm. One really nice fella from my first crashpad in DC upgraded to captain of a 66 seat jet before he had two years in at his airline. When the major airlines and the better regional airlines are hiring, the worst regional airlines operate like a revolving door. Flights are typically canceled not because a pilot is sick or the airplane is broken, but because the staffing is simply not adequate.

With interviews and commentary, Frontline opined that the FAA didn’t do much to spur Colgan to correct safety problems that pilots reported flying there. Frontline seemed to say that the FAA has been too busy promoting the airlines and defending them to properly regulate them when their safety is out of bounds. However, in their defense (am I really defending the FAA here?) the FAA has shut down unsafe cargo, commuter/regional, and low-cost (ValuJet) airlines in the past.

But more experience and qualifications doesn't necessarily equal safer, meaning that pilots with very high levels of experience and qualifications can make simple but critical mistakes as well. In the nineties two different major airlines attempted takeoff without the flaps set properly, both ending in disaster. A Spanish airline did the same recently. Pilots are human and prone to mistakes, whether they have 6,000 hours or 600.

Experience does count for something though, and it should. The last six fatal airline accidents in the US were regional airline accidents, according to the program.

Frontline also took major issue with the facts that major airlines don’t have direct oversight or safety management ability over the regional airlines that carry their name and logo, and that each regional airline is liable for accidents, not their parent airline. These are facts which shock passengers and politicians, and Frontline posited that this modus operandi should be corrected because it is seemingly false advertising when an airline, because of the ‘seamless’ marketing and ticketing, ‘advertises their level of safety on their regional airline when it isn’t actually as safe’.

I don’t wish to denigrate airline pilots, this airline profiled by Frontline, the FAA, or the airline industry in general. But because of the facts behind recent accidents and incidents, I feel that I should share my views. The FAA is focusing sharply on improving the level of professionalism and flight discipline in the flight decks of all airlines, major and regional alike. Randy Babbitt, the new FAA Administrator, speaks honestly and unapologetically on this issue, and he should.

There are new, good changes in regulations coming down the pike from the FAA. ALPA, the Air Line Pilots Association, is on board with these changes too.  To see ALPA's position on 'producing a professional airline pilot', click here.  In the future the minimum level of pilot experience to be an airline pilot will increase from approximately 250 hours to 1,500 hours minimum. There is a big difference in a pilot between these experience levels. For pilots who’ve been hired under this experience level and/or with limited time in jets, there will be more frequent ‘line checks’, a flight observed and evaluated by an instructor captain. There are other regulations and programs which will be put in place as well.

I still believe that airline travel in the US, even on a regional airline, is safe, in spite of recent events and current issues. I will still travel on regional airlines with my family. I hope that safety, professionalism, and standards of livings of pilots improve in the future. However, with each accident, no matter how decreased the frequency becomes, we’ll be reminded of the great responsibility pilots have, and of the fragility of life we all have in crossing the sky.