Tuesday, March 23, 2010


It's Tuesday, mid morning on day three of my current trip, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Under a white but clear sky the sun is getting rid of the dew on the grass and surfaces.  From my hotel window I can see the airport only a quarter mile away, and a jet on final.  It's going to be a great day, it seems.

Our first day had us flying six legs on a Sunday, in and out of New York LaGaurdia and Philadelphia, mostly.  We arrived in New York on the second flight of the day, then saw it again after stopping in Philly once.  After seeing Philly twice we were to make our way up to Allentown, Pennsylvania for the night.  Allentown is pretty close to Philly so it would be a busy, short flight.

On our third flight, LGA-PHL, we had a jumpseating pilot up front.  He was a Captain for a large regional airline which has a good prescence at LaGaurdia, but not ours.  He seemed like a sharp fellow, and proved it before the flight was over.  Our First Officer was flying the plane with the autopilot engaged in the Philadelphia terminal area, and I was handling the radios and checklists while we were getting vectors for the visual approach to runway 35 (landing towards the north).  Philly sometimes gives us delay vectors for 35 because they have to coordinate the proper spacing for the landing runways.  Runway 35 and runway '27 right' physically cross each other, like a street intersection, so it's critical that we have safe spacing when they are landing jets on both of these runways.  After zig zagging per ATC's instructions for a few minutes it looked as if we would be cleared for the visual approach at any second.  We could easily see Philadelphia International through the afternoon haze, in a very pleasant appearing sky, about ten miles away.  We were about 2,000 feet above the ground, pointed toward the airport, when a voice shouted, loudly, GEESE!!  It was our jumpseater, looking out for us.  The fact that I nor my FO hadn't seen them didn't bother me, I was glad that 'Dan' our jumpseating pilot in the extra seat, did.

Upon all of us looking up, there they were, at our altitude, almost right in front of us.  Actually, they were from our center position in front of us off to our right.  It was two large flocks of big honkers, Canadian Geese, the kind that brought down US Airways 1549.  Just as my brain thought that we needed to disconnect the autopilot and manuever to avoid these birds, and I may need to ask my FO to do just that, he did.  "Blink blink blink blink" (a poor imitation) the sound came as he disconnected the autopilot and smoothly but quickly banked the plane to the left to avoid the flock, and the birds nearest to our flight path banked away from us as well.  We had other options if the birds had been right in front of us, on both sides, but thankfully they weren't, and we didn't have to consider them.  If that had been the case, whomever was flying the plane could have disconnected the autopilot and started a sudden climb or dive to avoid the birds. 

But that would have been a tall order, at the range we can identify birds in our way, there just isn't enough time to be that clever, it's a matter of three to five seconds before they're there and past you, it happens quickly.  We aren't given specific training or advise on how to avoid flocks of big, aiplane damaging birds, besides the simple but sage advice of "see and avoid". 

I reported a large flock of geese at our altitude about two miles behind us to approach control, right after they cleared us for the viusual approach to runway 35, shortly after our encounter with them.  They appreciated it, and had already been busy advising other aircraft on final approach for runway 27 right of other flocks of geese in the final approach path for that runway.  It was a certain afternoon of risk for a large bird strike at Philly.

After ten years of airline flying, this was the second closest I've come to a large bird strike incident, and the largest flock I've seen up close.  The closest were 'six flashes above out heads at night',  while descending into a prarie airport.  See my original posting here for that one.

I hear these beautiful birds outside my open window now, landing in the courtyard of the hotel here.  I like these honkers, like watching them fly and hang out; they are certainly majestic and beautiful.  And dangerous.  I have three more days of flying and avoiding flocks of birds, before this bird writing this heads 'north', to migrate back home.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Post-PC ramblings on love

(I wrote the first part of this about a week ago, but am just getting around to finishing it now)

I’ve just enjoyed, or 'loved' two days off at home, or two half days and one full day at home, or, best expressed, forty-eight straight hours at home. I had a PC (proficiency check or check ride) again in Charlotte, with a relatively good time slot of four PM to ten PM, plus a debrief. Spending another night in Charlotte meant my first day off from flying or training duty was actually a travel day (still a working day) I get paid for, to travel back to my domicile of Washington, DC. Instead of going home through Washington, I got up early on just a few hours sleep and jump-seated to the Twin Cities of Minnesota and then home, to big slushy snowflakes falling at the airport, but a cold rain falling on the other side of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the city I commute out of. The seasonal change to spring is almost upon us, and the first day of spring is one week from now, excellent.

About my PC: it went fairly well, after I spent most of a long overnight in Charlotte preparing for it the day before. There’s always so much to study for, and as usual, at some point I felt like I studied a few of the wrong things I hope to study earlier and smarter next time.  I even made a simple sixth month studying checklist after this one: if I study such and such each month I won’t have to cram as much for it next time. But I made no serious mistakes, no retraining was done, and best of all, I didn’t crash! With simulated engine failures on takeoff and realistic wind shear encounters, it’s a possibility. Also, It’s considered a good sign if the Instructor is nitpicking your technique, which he was, honestly.

I don't love PC's, but I don't loathe them either.  It’s always good to have a review of our jet’s systems and procedures, backed up by a demonstration of my capability to actually fly and perform those procedures in the simulator. We know what’s going to happen, pretty much, the instructor is mainly the facilitator of that during the flying portion, and the quizzer during the oral portion.

The ‘box’ (the simulator) has a delay, a lag, however, between the time you apply the controls till when the ‘airplane’ reacts. This is due to the time it takes for the host computer to realize you want a greater bank angle or lower pitch attitude, for example, and then to calculate the change and transmit the response to the simulator itself. The advice to overcome this tendency is to make a control change and wait a moment longer for it to happen than you would in the airplane. But it takes discipline to not over control the simulator, it does for me at least. I remind myself to wait and not over control, and to breathe, as strange as it may sound. Breathing well helps you to think, not surprisingly.

And when I have two days off at home, like I do every time I have three days off while commuting on two of them, two subjects enter my mind: I must make the best use of my precious time at home, and I ponder why I’m doing this: why do I continue to sacrifice time with my wife and girls, and time at home?

Besides my religious and spiritual motivation which helps me to justify being away, and upon which I've expressed at length before, there are a couple other prime reasons I've neglected to mention. I need a job to pay the bills and the mortgage, and support my family with, that's the simple one.

The other one, and I'm surprised that I've never come outright and wrote it here, is that I love flying. I Love flying! I've always been fascinated by airplanes, long before I was a pilot, since I was a boy on our driveway, craning my neck to watch Cessna's and 727's pass across the sky.

Here are just a few things I attach the L-word to in flying: punching through an overcast layer of clouds into the burning blue sky, and surfing them for a moment while still enveloped; dodging puffy stray cumulus clouds, using these giant punchy cauliflower growths as pylons in the spring and summer; the challenge of hand flying a final approach, still mystified at the runway enlarging at us in a 700 foot per minute descent and at a speed of two and three-quarters a mile per minute; takeoffs are fun but landings are better, a tailor made return to terra firma satisfies my passengers and myself, sometimes I say “lucky again” out loud to avoid grandstanding (and to keep the "luck" going).

I wouldn’t exactly say “I love being a Captain” and having all the responsibilities and leadership role that comes with it, but ‘its good to be the king’, as Mel Brooks says. Some of you youngsters might have to Google that to get the reference. I would much rather be a Captain than the First Officer, but I'd rather be in a secure sport at a major airline than at a regional.  I’m always my favorite Captain: I get to run the show the way I want to, within reason and our SOP’s, of course.

It bears worth writing again that the hardest part of this job is dealing, in a healthy way, with the emotional and physical toll due to not being home. Again, I’m blessed and lucky to be doing something for a living that I love to do. Not everyone gets that opportunity. Too many pilots lose sight of their love for flying, they let the demands of the job overshadow their passion for it.

Life is meant to be lived in balance, it is demanding when getting the most out of it, whether you’re a free spirit or a devoted religious person. My personal experience has been that a life lived “in Christ” brings balance, peace, and an eternal perspective that re-orients one’s eyes and heart anew. Want to be in better balance on the see-saw of life? Put Jesus on the other end!

This is some of what I’ve learned, and keep re-learning, with Jesus Christ in my life: God loves me, not because of anything I’ve done or will do, He just does. God’s will for me is to know him, and to make him known, and to glorify him, whether I‘m flying planes or fixing drains.

He wants to be lived out in me! May I be so presumptuous to say exactly this? Yes, the following Bible passages quote Jesus implicating it to be so in John 14:23 (his home with us), John 15:4-5 (the vine and the branches), and John 17:21-23 (Jesus prays for his disciples).  Galatians 2:20 is one of my favorite verses in the New Testament.  Galatians was written by the apostle Paul, whom Jesus, in glorified form, met and temporarily blinded him on the road to Damascus, while Paul was named Saul, a zealous Jew, and actively persecuting Christians.  Paul teaches clearly in this verse that Jesus lives in us: Galatians 2:20 (ESV): "I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Love is an interesting thing, it asks you to do things you might not want to do otherwise. Love asks you to sacrifice. My wife and I have sacrificed a lot for each other, and will continue to do so, out of love for each other and to enable me to do what I love. “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” - John 3:16. The proof of the love God has for all of us is in Jesus Christ, my friends.

Thanks for reading my blog, and God bless you today.