Saturday, October 1, 2011

Stupid Questions

On a March day, ten and half years ago, I started my first IOE (initial operating experience) for an airline.  It was an eye opener, even more than I expected it to be.  CRM (cockpit resource management) was in the forefront of the airline industry then, but it hadn’t established a great presence at my commuter turboprop airline, and I was about to find out.

The first flight was easy, a short one from Spencer, Iowa to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with me as the PNF (pilot not flying).  From my first impression, I could see that my IOE Captain, whom they call a Check Airman, was ‘crusty around the edges’.  That means he was very capable and skilled, but with a certain disregard for standard procedures and protocol, and a lack of patience to go with it.  ‘Burned out’ is another term often attached to pilots like this, and although he was seemingly a good guy outside of the cockpit (he gave me a ride to the hotel two nights in a row, even though his home was the opposite direction from the airport), he was past his expiration date and needed to move on, which he did later on that summer.

Our second flight was to Denver, over the South Dakota and high plains.  They became dark below us as night had fallen, and as the pilot flying I was wondering about the STAR (standard terminal arrival route) we were on into Denver.  I wanted to study it and see what the courses and DME distances on the fixes were (on the VOR’s we were tracking).  At a normal airline both pilots have their own set of charts, but my first airline was not a normal one.  Only the Captain received a set of charts, to be shared between the two pilots of each flight crew.  The Captain decided where the charts would be placed in the tight cockpit.  Captain ‘Bruce’ had the arrival chart on his yoke, as I recall, and I couldn’t see it well in the dim cockpit.  Before Denver center had us start our descent, something happened which made me lock up, and not ask my Captain what the fixes were or to see the STAR. 

I couldn’t believe he said it, but he did, and then and there I had to deal with it.  And the method in which I did turned out to be not the greatest.  In the end it was a great learning experience for me in what to do, what not to do, and especially how NOT to be.

“Well, at this level, there are stupid questions.”  That was what he said, definitively and blank faced to me, after prefacing that inane statement with “you know how you’ve been told in your flying career that there are no stupid questions?”  I was immediately both shocked and programmed to not ask any stupid questions.  Not on my second flight as an airline pilot, and my first one as the pilot flying. 

We were now on the STAR (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) portion of our flight routing.  Each major airport has several standard arrival routes, or paths, and we were on one from the northeast of Denver, headed southwest. 

The following is as best as I can remember it.  The numbers may have been different, but this is the best I can recollect.  The STAR we were on is called the LANDR arrival, and it also included a fix (or waypoint) on the route which had the same name of LANDR. 

It was seemingly not more than a couple of minutes after the ‘stupid questions’ comment that my Captain read back that a crossing restriction clearance to Denver Center on the radio.  “Cross LANDR at-maintain one one-three-thousand” were the exact words I heard him repeat back to Denver Center, which set my synapses running. 

(Thirteen thousand feet is lower than the published crossing restriction at LANDR, but I think ATC liked us there because that permitted faster moving jets to pass us above us on the way in if needed.)
(This link is a map of the LANDR STAR.  You might have to rotate it clockwise to view it better.  Just right click your mouse and select "rotate clockwise".)

As Bruce twisted the knob, set the altitude alerter to 13,000 and I verified it, my face felt warm and flushed with the pressure of facing my first real crossing restriction, with no real knowledge of the DME (distance from a ground station) of LANDR, and most critically, with too much fear to ask what it was.  He had just intimidated me (unknowingly, probably) into not asking any ‘stupid’ questions, no matter how simple they were.

(Background: Our Beechliner was strictly ‘green needles’ for navigation; we received VHF ground navigation stations and tracked courses to and from them, following our flight plan and clearances that way.  A nice feature we used constantly was referencing the distance (DME) from each ground station (VOR), which was displayed on our EHSI’s (electronic horizontal situation indicator)). 

Two simple equations drilled into our heads in ground school training were ones regarding how to descend and make crossing restrictions.  We had to do mental math, but it was relatively simple.  To descend at an approximate three degree angle (preferred): (1) Distance to descend before the fix = thousands of feet to descend x 3, (2) Descent rate per minute to make crossing altitude = ground speed x 6 (ground speed was displayed in the cockpit).  Also, to get the current distance to the fix you had to do some arithmetic.  There are other mental math ways to do this, but this is the way we were taught.  The problem was the actual training to do this was OJT, on IOE, so it could get sketchy and stressful, and was about to be that way in our cockpit. 

I started descending at a gingerly rate, consumed with the question of what DME the fix was, but afraid to ask.  “Thirty to thirteen”.  Bruce started barking out numbers, and I had no idea what he was talking about.  “Twenty to thirteen”.  I was kind of frozen.  “Sixteen to thirteen”.  In higher volume and more urgent tones my crusty Captain pronounced this codespeak out loud. 

Post-incident, I realized that he seemed to think that I should have understood the information he was giving to me.  I admit I was a ‘green’ airline pilot, but regardless, he never explicitly explained what the numbers meant.  Also, I was so paralyzed it never occurred to me that I could just descend to 13,000 feet as quickly as possible.   I wanted to do the mental math to make the restriction, but what the heck was the DME of the fix?  In the heat of the moment, I was still too afraid to ask, and had no real idea. 

It continued: “Twelve to thirteen”.  The tension in the cramped cockpit finally reached a climax as he practically yelled: “Eight to thirteen!  My aircraft!”  I relinquished the controls as Bruce exhaled a frustrated sigh, and chopped and dropped – reduced both power levers to flight idle and pushed the control wheel forward to lower the nose of the beechliner, and increased our rate of descent to make the crossing restriction.           

We made it fine, but it wasn’t fine.  Bruce was now skeptical of me and how I would do during IOE, I could tell.  To my relief, he quickly cooled off, gave me back the flight controls, and I remember that my first landing in the Beechliner was a good one. 

But my first impressions of him had already been cemented.  He was burned out, his communication skills were poor, and he didn’t seem to care about it or about teaching new pilots very much.  At the very least, his actions showed that he was unaware how much he had intimidated me. 

However, for my part, I should’ve asked what he meant by those numbers when it was happening, should’ve asked him if I could see the chart or what the DME of the fix was, and should’ve explained my confusion once our conflict was past.  I should’ve resolved that conflict, but didn’t. 

That very first day notified me that sometimes there will be conflict between crewmembers, and how important it is to resolve it.  Over the years my experiences in airline flying have taught me how to resolve it, and just as importantly, how to avoid it.

It’s better to focus on how to be than not to be, but that experience left an impact on me I remember well.  I used to tell this story to my First Officers after I upgraded to Captain and it amazed them that a pilot could act with such disregard, unawareness, and ego.  Bruce had let his ego get too big in his left seat and eventually didn’t have enough patience and grace that was needed for the new First Officers he was given to fly with.

To a certain degree though, his implied advice was useful; let me elaborate.  Nobody wants to look stupid, but everyone needs information.  As in any industry, if there is information you need that can be easily obtained, get it yourself if you can.  If you can’t answer it, then try a higher up (Captain in this case).  But regardless, above all, don’t withhold a question because you’re afraid it might be stupid!  Safety depends on it, and professionalism dictates it!

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

Monday, July 18, 2011


“Oh, they won’t wait anymore.  We’re up for sale, you know.  Have to get that on time performance to look good.  The only way they will hold this flight is if mainline calls and tells them to.”  I was greeting the friendly pilots of the red, white, and blue regional jet I was boarding for my flight from Chicago to my home, and had just told them the CSA (Gate Agent) had mentioned to me that they had seven passengers who had just landed on a mainline flight, who would probably be late for this flight.  Even though it was the last flight of the night to my commuting city home, these two professionals (and I mean that in every sense of the word) didn’t even think it worth their while to request, tell, order, or demand to the agent and/or operations that the flight be held for these passengers customers.  Performance wins too frequently these days, and humans end up losing.  Performance over customer service.  Performance over safety).  Performance over sticking your neck out over the risk of getting a ‘demerit’ or worse. 

I kindly let their ambivalence slide and answered their questions about how my regional airline was doing, thanked them for the ride, and found my seat.

The door was shut and jetway disconnected at 9:11 PM.  We pushed back five minutes earlier than scheduled departure time at 9:15 PM, while I visualized these seven passengers running and showing up at the gate at 9:17 PM, pleading that the agent re-open the flight and board them on the plane.  No chance.  This scenario has probably occurred on my watch, when I’m tired at the end of the day, and want to get to the overnight.  I try to guard against it and leave no one behind; I try to show how I care.  But I won’t say it has never happened.  When this might occur, it is usually the gate agent’s last flight of the night and they want to go home. 

Why don’t we care like we used to in the airlines?  We care more about staying out of trouble and not getting a late departure than we do about our customers.  It starts from the top down, and if an employee fears being late more than stranding passengers, unhappy passengers lose.  The airlines say they care as much about customer service as they do about safety, on time performance, and ‘economic efficiency’ (fancy phrase for cheaper), but in my experience these priorities are unbalanced.

I’ve been on two airlines who hold flights for late passengers, however, and I will name names: #Southwest (they do a great, consistent job of this) and #United, believe it or not (the last flight of the night). 

What a day I had, five legs after a 6:30 AM van.  I tried to ‘drop’ the last two flights, a Pittsburgh round trip, but crew scheduling denied it, due to ‘lack of reserve coverage’.  We woke up in humid, stale, stinky still air in Florence, South Carolina (sorry Florence), flew up to Charlotte, over to ‘Rocket-Town’ - Huntsville, Alabama.  Loading up the peeps a United Captain came to the cockpit to meet us and ask for ride back to Washington.  Lo and behold, it was Alan Cockrell, one of the best airline bloggers and writers, in my opinion.  It was nice to meet him, and you should read his blog.  He should write a book on airline flying.
In DC we then had a three hour fifteen minute break until the Pittsburgh round trip.  If my drop request had been granted I would’ve been on a 2:30 PM flight home on the first leg of my commute. 

After my FO tried to encourage me that I could still make it home later, I replied that I’d already used up my optimism on my rejected drop request.  At the time, we had just seen the departure monitor show that our plane for the Pittsburgh flight would be late.  It was ‘posting’ as a 4:22 PM departure instead of 4:07 PM. 

A nice lunch at the new Qdoba should’ve cheered me up, but the lack of tortilla strips in my Mexican gumbo left me a little riled (no apology and no offer of chips in their place – this is a little like McDonald’s running out of French fries).  This was the first instance of someone not caring this day.

I feared that our plane would become more delayed, not knowing why it was running late.  I could’ve called dispatch to find out, but I was juggling my phone with many business emails (see today.

Fortunately, post Qdoba our jet looked like it would arrive at about 4:15 PM.  We would still go out later than 4:22 PM to Pittsburgh but I had a fighting chance of making either the 7:20 or 7:50 PM flight to Chicago. 

Fast forward to the visual approach my fine First Officer was flying into Pittsburgh.  He was ‘freestyling’ (hand flying with flight director off) a visual approach from a semi-high position (all strictly within our flight limitations), and on base leg had extended the flight spoilers.  On approach we noted that we had indications that the spoilerons and outboard ground spoilers had minor ‘faults’ indicated with them.  One or more of these spoilers had one of two actuators that didn’t seem to be working properly.  It didn’t mean the spoilers wouldn’t work, just that they had lost some redundancy.  On touchdown I verified that all the spoilers (panels on the wing which pop up and disturb the lift the wing produces) actuated properly.

After shutdown at the gate, my good First Officer asserted in a professional manner that we should give maintenance a call about the spoilers, and write the messages up in the aircraft logbook.  Because we had received the messages in flight, if we had called maintenance it would require a visit from an on-call mechanic.  This I readily admit I did not want to do.  I could visualize us waiting to twenty or thirty minutes for the mechanic to arrive, twenty or thirty precious minutes I needed to catch my DC to Chicago flight. 

In the end I called.  I cared more about doing the right thing than about getting home; I do admit I had mixed motives, but still.  On my non-company cellphone I talked to maintenance, wrote the two messages up, and waited for the on call mechanic to arrive.  It really varies from airport to airport how long it takes maintenance to get there.  But before I had much time to fret, he was in the jetway.  He took care of the writeup and circuit breaker reset in record time. 

We had already loaded up, and after closing and pushing back I had confidence again that I would make the last flight out of DC this night.  Thirty minutes later, after a fast climb to the east, ATC announced holding instructions to us.  “Holding?  What for?”  I thought screamed (“traffic volume” the ATC controller included with our clearance), while my FO wrote the clearance down, programmed it in the FMS, and I observed and confirmed it.

My FO later expressed a little admiration for me not ‘sailor talking’, saying that he would’ve been throwing the four letter words if he’d been in my position.  This exemplifies the stress pilot commuters endure, trying to get home and to work, and it adds to an already sleep deprived high workload.  Maybe someday I’ll have an easier commute (one leg instead of two) or even drive to my domicile.  But for now I’m still making the best of it.

I did make the flight to Chicago, by the way, where they closed my flight home early to the seven “mis-connects”.  We were released from the hold ten minutes early, at 6:50 PM.  The flight to Chicago was to depart at 7:50 PM.  I set the parking brake of our thinly painted, rivet exposed, well used CRJ at about 7:15, and hustled two concourses over as fast as I could briskly walk. 

We who transport people across the sky from one place to another should care more (myself included).  Too many pressures from management and bean counters “spoil” what comes naturally to many of us: to show how we care about customers by serving them to the best of our ability while performing our duties professionally and efficiently.  And in this arena we deliver something of bedrock importance to them : sustainment of their dignity as fellow humans.  When a customer is dissed, everything gets degraded: they do, our culture does and society does too. 

In earth’s short human history, one person lived who showed that he cared more than any other, and still does.  Even though He was actually a King, He served others as a servant, taught marvelous truths, healed many, had many followers, and He promised that by following him, you could enter the kingdom of God.  He cared so much that he voluntarily gave up his life on a cross of crucifixion, to pay for the penalty of my sin, and of your sin.  By putting your faith in Him as your Savior, you receive the promise He gave from John 3:16: “that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  By exercising faith in Him and his “substitionary atonement”, we are made clean and become acceptable to God.  You should conclude then, whoever this person is who died in all of humanity’s place, he must be very special, and very Holy.

And you would be right.  His name, Jesus Christ, of course, you’ve heard of him probably.    But in this post-modern, now post-Christian world (at least part of it is), others disagree.  They believe in a universal spirituality, and they don’t believe in the concept of sin as the bible teaches.  They don’t believe that their sin separates them from God, and if they believe in a personal God, they likely believe that God’s grace is available to all. 

Those beliefs lead them to not think of Jesus as the bible teaches and claims he is.  This is a grave error, and is the same as “man making God in his own image” instead of viewing Jesus through the lens of “God making man in his own image” as the bible states. 

God’s grace is available to all, but the one pre-condition to being “under grace” is believing and receiving Jesus as your Savior.  If you don’t claim Jesus as your personal Savior, you are still “under the law”.  Liberal theology and ‘pickers and choosers’ of the Bible tend to discount any claim of exclusivity that Jesus had as unworthy additions by newly zealous Christian converts in the first century.  But in the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, verse 6, Jesus is quoted in no uncertain terms as stating this to his disciples "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  A Methodist Pastor puts this passage in better perspective.  I personally feel that there are many spiritual paths to come to Jesus, and that Jesus is the best and truest way to God.

God showed how he cares about us, about you and about me, by sending his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins.  Jesus never sinned, so that is one reason that he had the ability to serve as a sacrifice for the sins of many.  Another set of reasons are the many, many Old Testament prophecies He fulfilled, involving his lineage, his life, actions, and death.  His work of Salvation for us is a marvelous thing, an amazing gift available to all who trust in Him.  Taking a cue from that cute Mexican beer commercial, Jesus is the real “most interesting man in the world”.  “Stay thirsty, my friends.”  Let me ask you, though, are you, yourself spiritually thirsty enough to want to know God, the God that personally cares enough for you to die for you? 

I’m not trying to scare anyone or to sell ‘fire insurance’.  But this is the basics of orthodox Christianity.  I see universal spiritualism creeping into our society and culture more and more, and sold out Christians (myself included) aren’t speaking up enough for Jesus, aren’t pointing toward the person He is and the light He shines, aren’t saying hey, wait a minute, that’s not how God is.

Don’t let the ideas of Universalism spoil your opportunity to go down God’s jetway.  God cares about you, reader, enough to hold the flight for you, as long as you have breath left on this earth in this life.  God will meet you where you’re at, when you’re ready to take a step of faith and put your trust in Jesus as your savior.  You don’t have to board the plane in clean clothes either, come as you are, straight from the mud pit, if that’s where you’ve been. 

God bless you, and thanks for reading my blog.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Aborted Takeoff

“Abort! Abort!”  We both declared it at the same time.  Reacting from memory and reflex, I pulled the thrust levers to flight idle, clicked and raised the shorter reverse thrust levers into the idle range, and applied the wheel brakes lightly on the top of the rudder pedals.  We had only reached between forty and fifty knots when the corresponding yellow flashing ‘master caution’ light alerted us to the message on our EICAS screen.  Any caution message we receive from the airplane on takeoff while we are below a speed of 80 knots requires an abort. 

We were both staring at the yellow caution message on our EICAS screen, “IDG1” as I exited the runway at the first turnoff.  It extinguished and was shortly replaced with a “GEN 1 OFF” caution message.  The caution message surprised us both, but we performed and reacted well.  I was more annoyed by it than startled; it being a yellow ‘caution’ message had a lot to do with it.  If a red ‘warning’ message is received on takeoff, it most likely involves one of the engines, and that would get my blood pressure up.  As we left the runway my good First Officer (funny and entertaining one too) told the pax (passengers) to stay seated on the PA and then transmitted to the control tower that we had aborted our takeoff.
I had been there and done this before as a First Officer.  I knew that this message was no fluke; it was a real problem that would occur again on a subsequent takeoff.  We taxied back to the ramp, called maintenance are wrote the problem up in the logbook, and started the ‘circus music’ with passengers wanting to leave the flight and go back home.

FO ‘Rob’ had also called our operations people, a gate agent (CSA) met our flight with news that a good number of passengers would now miss their connections in Charlotte.  We ended up losing half a dozen of them, but I had a little difficulty sympathizing with them as to why.  When an airline strands a passenger in their travels due to a mechanical problem, they are obligated to put that passenger up in a hotel for the night, by law.  The guess the passengers who got off the plane figured another night in their own beds was better than in a hotel, even though they were losing a significant amount of time at their destinations in the process.

It was our good fortune that we were at one of our maintenance bases. The mechanic came over quickly, and after a short conversation about what exactly happened it looked like they were going to “MEL” the left engine electrical generator.  MEL means minimum equipment list, and is a long list that stipulates what components we can fly with while they are broken and maintenance is deferred, or in other words, the repair of said component is put off till a later time.

The message we got, “IDG1”, referred to our integrated drive generator, a combination of an engine driven generator and a constant speed drive unit (CSD).  The CSD is similar to a car’s automatic transmission.  Filled with oil, it turns an engine’s variable rotation speeds into a constant RPM, which rotates the electric generator.  If the oil level inside the CSD is too low, the CSD can disconnect from the generator, and possibly get too hot if it doesn’t, which will also trigger a disconnect.  If our case the IDG sensed that the oil level was too low on takeoff, as we started to accelerate.  The acceleration caused the oil in the IDG to slosh just enough to trigger the IDG caution message, and resulted in the generator coming ‘off-line’. 
There are many balls to juggle when you have a gate return.  Passengers who are going home have to have their bags returned from the cargo hold.  The maintenance has to be completed and the aircraft has to be released back into service.  The Dispatcher is preparing another flight release, which can be put back in the system till the aircraft is returned to service.  I try to coordinate all that and keep the passengers informed, every ten to fifteen minutes if possible.  Sometimes there are unexpected delays in getting all this done.  This time, everything worked like clockwork in getting us going again, though.  An hour after we started engines the first time we did it again with one less electrical generator, and took off for Charlotte.
There were differences, as you might imagine.  Our MEL (Minimum Equipment List) dictated that we can fly passengers with an inoperative engine generator, but to compensate for that we have to operate the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), a small engine in the tail of our jet, for the entire flight.  The APU produces electrical power and air for engine starts and air conditioning, and it has a lower maximum altitude for operation than the altitude our flight plan had been filed for.  Consequently our dispatcher refiled our flight a few thousand feet lower.  Normally we have two electrical generators active in flight; with the APU on we would regain that second generator.
Airline flying is the safest form of travel for a reason: the many safeguards and procedures that are built into our operations help to produce a safety factor that is very high.  Although it might be frustrating when your flight gets delayed, have security that your pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics have the integrity to do the right thing when something on your jetliner breaks.   
And I do believe this advice, I’m not just saying it, in spite of all the media attention which has lately been questioning the effect that maintenance and scheduling pressures have on airline safety.

May God bless you, and thanks for reading my blog.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ is Risen!

Christ is Risen!  ("He is risen indeed.")

He is risen from the dead, 'born again'!  Let's talk about the first time he was born on earth to frame the perspective of Easter.  Everyone, it seems, or at least the majority of folks, love Christmas.  The gift giving and receiving, the kind spirits and wishes for peace and harmony, all help to ease entry into winter.  Secular folk and non-Christians alike tolerate it still being called 'Christmas', even though its a commercialized version with little in common with the Christian meaning of it.  Except that Jesus is God's biggest gift to man, and we celebrate giving gifts to each other.  Christians do well to incorporate the remembrance of God giving us Jesus (his birth on earth) as we give gifts to others.

In contrast, Easter is huge for followers of Jesus, of much more significance than Christmas.  Christmas is the birth of the promised and prophesied Messiah, savior of the the Israelites (Jewish people) and the entire human race.  Easter is the culmination and completion of that work.  First Jesus was convicted (falsely and with improper legal procedure) of blasphemy, by claiming he was the Messiah.  For this he was crucified on the cross by the Romans, on behalf of the religious Jewish leaders and the crowds in Jerusalem.  He was buried in a tomb sealed with a huge boulder and guarded by Roman soldiers.  But on the third day he rose again (as He promised) from the dead, in a resurrected body.  

We believe that the reason Jesus died on the cross, after being brutally tortured and mocked, was to pay the penalty of our sins, to make us right with God.  He freely, voluntarily, bled for us: "our sins were washed in the blood of Christ!".  Jesus Christ, "Son of Man and Son of God", was made guilty of all of the sin of humanity.  How?  Substitutionary atonement.  I'd have to be a seminary student or theologian to explain, its a mystery but we believe it.  The burden of the guilt of our sin was laid upon Him.  "For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ."  2 Corinthians 5:21

The most well known bible scripture is John 3:16.  Say it with me: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."  John is quoting Jesus here, Jesus said these words near the beginning of John's record of his ministry.  Applied to the resurrection, whoever believes in Jesus will have a resurrected body and eternal life.  Jesus proved it by his own rising from the dead!  Alleluia!

A believer is "saved by grace, through faith".  No good works or any good deeds one can do in this life can ensure a person of eternal life with God; only by investing your faith in Jesus as your Savior by his completed work on the cross can.  This is a great thing!

I appreciate you reading my blog and letting me share my faith with you.  God Bless you!  Jesus is risen!

Let's celebrate His resurrection!  Here is another video of a great song by Matt Maher.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Condemned for our sin

I just got back from a men's prayer breakfast for Good Friday in our town.  Hundreds of us enjoyed 'egg dish' and fellowship with each other before singing a few hymns and listening to a retired prison Chaplin speak.

He shared many interesting stories of ministering to hardened inmates.  What a tough job that must have been!  But he felt called to do it, to be there for the outcasts, and to have sympathy and compassion for them, when no one else did.  He focused on getting to know them, and meet them where they were at, and show them mercy, as Jesus did.  He would have volunteers run the music and education programs, and concentrate on ministering individually to the inmates and on preaching.

He kept saying what tremendous satisfaction it brought him to see his efforts succeed on the battleground for hardened prisoners hearts.  By the time a person goes to prison, they are cast off by virtually everyone around them.  Society has given up on them and shunned them, and they are condemned.

Convicts who serve time in a prison, more than any other segment of society, know what it is like to be condemned.  Sure, they've all been found guilty in a court of law, so they deserve it.  But we do not know what it is like to be declared unacceptable and unfit to exist in free society, to be banished and punished for crimes for up to multiple life sentences or worse.  We have not experienced it.  Don (the speaker) made it clear that prison is very tough on inmates.  They all have plenty of time to think about the crimes they've committed.  The guilt, self-anger, anxiety, remorse, and depression all pile up inside them to staggering and overwhelming levels.

On Good Friday, Christians remember the condemnation and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and what he died for.  Jesus had condemnation in common with prisoners.  He knew he would undergo the ultimate in condemnation and rejection by society, by the people he came to serve, teach, and to love, and by his disciples.  Because he was fully human, in addition to fully being the Son of God (perplexing, isn't it?), he agonized over this the night before he was crucified, while praying at the garden of Gethsemane.  From Luke 22:42-44: “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. 44 He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.

Even almighty God himself rejected Jesus and left his presence, as indicated in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:45, when on the cross, Jesus exclaims in a loud voice "“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). Perhaps, in his humanness, he didn't realize how horrible that would feel like exactly.

Why did God's presence leave Jesus, in this overwhelming moment when he could've used it the most?  The Bible teaches that our holy God cannot be in the presence of sin, without destroying all.  Jesus, according to scripture, was voluntarily dying on the cross as a sin offering for all of humanity.  He was innocent of any sin, yet he was made sin on our behalf: from 2 Corinthians 5:21God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   An innocent, holy, sinless man took on the guilt of the sin of the world himself, to make restitution available between man and God, for all those who believe in and receive this sacrifice (Jesus).

Before Jesus was condemned, Pilate the Roman governor pronounced him "not guilty" of the charge of leading a revolt (Luke 23:13-22).  But then Pilate had him crucified (for personal politics it seems) at the demands of the religious rulers and the crowds, because they believed Jesus committed blasphemy.  In Mark 14:60-63, the High Priest Caiaphas asked him while questioning him "Are the you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?"  Jesus responds: "I Am.  And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God's right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven."  Caiaphas and the others all scream "Guilty!  He deserves to die!"  

In spite of all the popularity Jesus had, the teachings he did, the miracles he performed, and the prophecies He fulfilled that showed He is the Messiah, He was crucified in part because He didn't meet their earthly expectations of one.  Consider this: Jesus did say in John 18:36 "My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom.  If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders.  But my Kingdom is not of this world."

By his crucifixion, though ironic, He fulfilled his ultimate purpose and prophesy.  He was condemned for us!  He was condemned for you!  He was condemned for me!

Please consider watching this touching video.  God Bless you.  He Loves you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Triumphal Entry

Today, this Palm Sunday, the first day of this trip, we had a pretty good day of RJ flying in the south and then up to Wisconsin.  The strong storms and destructive tornadoes (to property and lives, unfortunately) have moved on out to the east, and all day we enjoyed light winds and blue, sunny skies.  To say we had a 'triumphal entry' back into the skies after this severe weather as passed would be a misnomer; my crew and I were only lucky enough to have our days off during the worst of it recently.

We flew from DC to Charlotte to Memphis to Charlotte to Milwaukee.  Things ran fairly normally except a closed runway in Charlotte (for construction) backed up our taxi in Charlotte a couple of times.  Most of our passengers seemed to be in a friendly, good mood.  I like to think they were is a celebratory mood.  They expected safe, smooth travel, reasonably on time, possibly with a good view out the window.  And for the most part, they got that.  But sometimes expectations don't meet the true reality.

Sharing my peeps good moods and expectations helps me transition into writing about what good moods and expectations the folks in Jerusalem had on the original Palm Sunday, about 2,000 years ago.

Christians observe today as the day Jesus entered and paraded through Jerusalem on a donkey, the week before he was crucified on the cross.  On this day, it was also a celebratory time for the crowds in Jerusalem.  They laid their clothing garments in advance along his path, and others without garments took palm tree branches and did this same.  By this showed great honor and respect to Jesus as he rode through the streets.  They shouted "Hosanna!  Hosanna in the highest!" (save us now!) as he passed along the way.  The Jewish crowds knew from Prophecy that the promised Messiah would enter Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey, and that's just what Jesus was doing.  The ones not in the know asked "who is this?"  The response: Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet.  He wasn't Jesus Christ yet, per se, just rumored to be.

Why was Jesus being given the rock star treatment here?  He would be tried for blasphemy and led to the cross (would carry part of his own cross actually) in just a few days, so why all this adulation now?  Jesus was becoming very popular now, due to his teachings, his love for others, his wisdom, and for the miracles he was performing.  In the meantime he had become a big threat to the Pharisees (the religious rulers in Jerusalem) and to the Romans.

He hadn't been back to Jerusalem for a while also.  Jews hoped he would be be their leader in rebellion against the Romans, who were the occupying power, army, and rulers in Jerusalem and Israel.  That possibility of overthrow and freedom from the Romans and for themselves is what seemed to concern the Jews, at that moment anyway.  But Jesus had other objectives.  His mission was given by our heavenly Father, and was one which involved eternal significance.  Let's take a look some of the scripture of his triumphal entry, from Matthew 21:1-11:

 1Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, "Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.3If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord needs them,' and he will send them at once." 4This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
 5"Say to the daughter of Zion,'Behold, your king is coming to you,
   humble, and mounted on a donkey,
   and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'" (Zechariah 9:9 emphasis added)
 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" 10And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, "Who is this?" 11And the crowds said, "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee."

This is the celebrity Jesus, but this version would soon give way to the one the crowds and religious leaders were demanding the crucifixion of.  The crowds all wanted to get one thing out of Jesus, that of their own collective self interests, but he had other ideas.  What do you want to get out of God?  Does your image of God match who he really is?  Have you ever considered whether you 'put God into a box'?  Do you use God only for your needs, when and how you see fit?  This is a good time to really think about your expectations of God verses the reality as the Bible and Jesus himself expresses.  

To find out more about Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the whys, hows, and prophecy fulfilled, click on the links.  You'll learn something about Him, and maybe something about yourself and your expectations of God.

God Bless you, and thanks for reading my blog.   

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Crosswind to remember

The fourth day of a recent trip found me in Covington, Kentucky in a six-fifteen AM van, after sleeping fairly well for about the last seven hours. My cellphone playing U2 in the van alerted me to crew scheduling calling. What I dreaded wasn’t occurring; there was a plane at the airport with our name on it, but our revenue flight from Cincinnati to Philadelphia had been cancelled, and we were to ferry it there instead.

After researching the problem in the aircraft logbook, surveying the ferry flight permit, discussing it with my fine First Officer ‘Cindy’, performing all our checklists and briefings, and getting the frost de-iced from our wings, we sped down the runway in the morning light.

A single bell chime and flashing yellow ‘master caution’ light a few hundred feet AGL (above ground level) on climbout didn’t startle us, we expected it. The associated caution message on ‘ED1’, our display screen that shows our engine and fuel parameters, read in yellow letters “STEERING INOP”, referring to the nosewheel steering. At the appropriate time thereafter my F.O. read and performed the QRH (quick reference handbook) procedure for this message. Actually she read it and I performed it. This was simply to cycle the nosewheel steering switch (located on my side and accessible only to me) off and back on. The steering was restored, the message disappeared, and we continued upward and onward.

The previous crew flying this plane had received this message on climbout after retracting the gear, and during the approach to land after extending it. They ‘wrote it up’ after parking for the overnight in Cincinnati. This problem was why we were ferrying the empty jet to Philadelphia: you obviously don’t want passengers on a plane with its nosewheel steering on the blink.

During our talk on the ground in Cincinnati Cindy and I shared the hope that if the steering inop message occurred again with gear extension on the approach and landing into Philadelphia that we would be able to get it back via the same QRH procedure. A review of the weather in Philly gave us both some concern that a landing attempt without nosewheel steering would most likely be not advisable, or in plain words, unsafe.

A slow moving cold front and ‘associated low pressure system’ was finally finishing its path across the northeast, and the Philadelphia airport had pretty strong, gusty winds from the northwest at 29 to 37 mph. For our jet emptied of passengers, it would be a strong crosswind from the right side, relative to the west, landing on runway 27 (landing to the west, 270 degrees magnetic, wind from the northwest).

(This is a crosswind component chart.  See if you can determine the crosswind component for our conditions.  The runway direction was 270 degrees magnetic, the winds were blowing at 25 knots from a 330 degrees magnetic direction.)

This ferry permit placed in the maintenance logbook required that we land on runway 27L or 27R in Philly, the longest runways there; runways 26 (5000 feet) and 35 (6500 feet) were prohibited. In Cincinnati I thought about what I would do if we were unable to restore the nosewheel steering if it failed upon gear extension in these conditions upon arrival at Philadelphia. This was where someone would say that “this is why they pay you the big bucks”.

With no steering, I would’ve rather landed on runway 35, it was less of a crosswind than on 27 (20 degrees of crosswind instead of 60), but the ferry permit prohibited it. I could’ve called our Flight Department manager who authorized the permit and asked him to authorize 35, but that promised perhaps thirty minutes of work added to a morning which was already behind schedule, with no guarantee of success. We had been given a Baltimore alternate from our Dispatcher, which I appreciated, and that airport, with runways aligned to the northwest and more directly into the wind, would’ve been a better choice if we had to land without nosewheel steering.

The risk of losing the steering completely on approach was clear in my mind and gut as I decided to go ahead with the flight. I was confident that if it failed on gear extension that we would be able to restore it, because cycling the switch had worked in the past. My guess was that a nosewheel steering wire was getting pinched somewhere during the retraction and extension cycle, causing the steering to go offline. Because of this tendency, I felt fairly assured that it wouldn’t fail suddenly on landing after touchdown. But there are no guarantees in life, or in flight.

Landing without steering in a crosswind that strong would highly risk that differential braking (we brake the left and right main wheels separately) and aerodynamic forces from the rudder would not provide enough control to prevent the airplane from ‘weathervaning’ into the wind and then skittering downwind across the runway, and I didn’t want to try. In a normal crosswind landing, considerable steering input to the nosewheel is required during deceleration from landing speed to taxi speed (140 mph to 10 mph). With no steering, the nosewheels caster freely, much like a front shopping cart wheel.

I had landed without nosewheel steering before, as a non-flying first officer at Chicago O’Hare. The Captain did a fine job, we were towed in from the runway we closed down, and it’s a great story for another time. But that was in calm winds, not in a crosswind which had gusts exceeding the steady state crosswind maximum published for our jet.

We had over an hour airborne to think more about the possibilities that could happen. I decided and briefed that we wouldn’t attempt a landing without nosewheel steering at Philadelphia, that we would extend the landing gear ten miles out so we would have time to deal with a steering failure, and if the steering failed after touchdown I would apply maximum braking on the runway. It all sounded good to Cindy as well.

Once we reached the Philadelphia area, things happened fast, since we were arriving in between ‘pushes’, a busy time of arrivals, then departure. ATC vectored us quickly, and I thought that I should’ve managed my speed better as we noticed on a tight base vector that we were going to overshoot the final approach to runway 27R, due to a strong tailwind. I’m modest: the controller should’ve given us an earlier turn to final to prevent this from occurring in the first place. I hand flew a healthy crab angle back to the north, and we were basically aligned with the runway.

I say basically, because the constant moderate turbulence and kicking, gusting winds made airport and runway scene jumble and swerve around out the windscreen eight miles ahead. Philly has three runways aligned in the same direction and an old runway in use as a taxiway, and I admit that in the turbulence it had taken a few seconds to find the right one. By this time, we were relieved to verify that the landing gear was ‘down, three green’ and the nosewheel steering was still ‘on-line’ (its ‘steer by wire’).

I was a bit out of our element at this moment, but knew what to do – fly the plane, and how to do it. We were at a very light weight, and I had the thrust at a setting I thought would counter the strong headwinds buffeting us from the right side. But a series of gusts at this altitude, 1,500 feet above the ground, kept us from joining the glideslope (we were a little high) and slowing to the proper speed for a few more seconds. “Chop and drop” occurred, as they say, but only for a little bit, we were soon configured, on glide path, and ‘stabilized’ (as much as you can be in 20+ knot gusts) with the thrust ‘up’ by 1,000 feet AGL.

The exact wind report on the ATIS was 330 degrees at 25 knots, gusts to 32. The math on that works out to a crosswind of 60 degrees and a crosswind ‘factor’ of about .87, or a crosswind component of 22 knots, gusting to 28.  The maximum demonstrated landing crosswind component for our CRJ200 is 27 knots, so this was pushing it.

Its unnatural, well, it looks unnatural, to be pointed away from the runway, into the wind, flying sideways in a strong crosswind, but that’s how birds do it and that’s how man does it. Any seasoned pilot has landed in some strong ones, and this one was impressive, intimidating even. With our nose cocked twenty degrees to the right of the runway, the touchdown zone loomed into view.

“100 - - - 50 – 40 – 30 – 20 - 10”. The automated voice called out our radar (airplane based) measured altitudes down to the ground. At the fifty foot call I had the thrust levers coming back and felt them reach the idle stops by twenty. At that moment I applied a healthy amount of left rudder pressure and right control wheel pressure, and had already applied back pressure to start the flare.

Our empty and gust buffeted jet, save the three of us, gyrated on all axes, its right wing now banked low against the ground, with the nose aligned with the centerline of the runway and pitching up to permit the main landing gear to touchdown first.

The CRJ has a fairly low wing and the wingtip and/or wing flaps has a good likelihood of scraping the ground when touching down in a bank angle of ten degrees or more. I’ve never really been afraid of this occurring in a crosswind, although it’s happened before at our airline. In strong crosswinds a cautious “pilot not flying” monitors the bank angle on touchdown and advises when it reaches ten degrees. This frees up the landing pilot to completely focus on landing.

In the moments over the runway I kept increasing control deflection as our airspeed was decreasing, till I had full left rudder in and lots of right aileron. Then, just a hair before we touched down, inexplicably, I relaxed the aileron pressure, enough that the wings returned towards level. Oops. I don’t know how many strong crosswinds I’ve landed in, but it’s been a very long time since I’ve done such a ‘fool’ thing as this. I think that in this wind I was concerned about the wingtip and flaps, and ‘gave up’ too soon. The aviation axioms I failed to fulfill in this instance is to ‘fly the plane till every part stops moving’ – don’t stop flying the plane. In a flash, literally, I watched the runway slide over to the right fifteen feet, right as we touched down, not hard however, wings basically level, with the four main gear tires spinning up, smoking and sliding across the grooved runway surface. I had let the wind win, and it had pushed us across the runway, downwind (I don’t call it drifting).

I put the right aileron pressure back in instantly, lowered the nose to get the steering wheels on the ground, pulled the thrust levers into full reverse, applied the main wheel brakes on the rudder pedals, and muttered questioning and un-congratulatory words to myself. Steering the plane back to the centerline using the rudder pedals isn’t that difficult, once the other proper controls are applied, I relearned.

During our taxi in the tower updated that at our moment of landing the wind was now blowing at 31, gusting to 40, and I believed it. That was equivalent to a direct crosswind of 27 knots, gusting to 36, as much as we are allowed to do and as much as I want to handle in a CRJ. We parked next to the maintenance hangar, told the mechanics they could have it, and braved the gale in a short walk to the concourse to resume our scheduled day.

Landing in strong, gusty crosswinds bug piston and turbine engine pilots (especially at the lower levels of experience) both practically more than any other issue involved in flying planes. It tends to be black and white too, you either are comfortable or you aren’t. The problem if you’re not is that you have to go out in it and get exposure to the windy, gusty conditions to increase your proficiency and confidence in them. It is a major practical and mental barrier to pilot confidence and competence, and a major cause of minor incidents and accidents. Crosswind proficiency should be mastered at the lower levels of aviation and training. It takes courage to go conquer crosswinds with an instructor, and even more to do so by yourself. But when you relish the opportunity to meet the challenge and find yourself alone in the traffic pattern, battling them and ‘winning’, you enjoy a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, because you know you will carry that confidence and proficiency with you the rest of your flying career.

God bless you, and thanks for reading my blog. He Loves all of us, you know!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pilot Shortage? - on the horizon

Its been over a month since I posted here.  Oh, should I be ashamed?  No, I've been busy with other stuff, and will continue to be.  I do have a story almost ready to post, however.  The logbook binder business has kept me busy and will still (they're selling!), I just trained for and passed another six month PC (yea!), I've entered pilot job hunting mode, and other major tasks await as well.  Based on what my PC examiner told me and on what I've observed recently in the industry, I banged this one out though.  Its worth looking at if you're a pilot today or want to be one.

Magazines articles and flight school advertisements have trumpeted it for years, but it seems a real pilot shortage in the USA and around the world is around the corner, or is 'here'.

This doesn't mean that a major domestic or international airline will hire you off the street with only your private pilot license, however. Not yet and not in the foreseeable future, anyway, but things could always change. The shortage will occur and is occurring at the lower levels of aviation, the flight instructor, charter, small plane cargo, and commuter and regional airline level.

As many aging 'baby-boomer' pilots reach mandatory retirement age (now 65) over the next 5-10 years, a great need for pilots will occur at all levels, as younger, qualified pilots replace them and create a need to hire new pilots at the lower levels.  And the forecast for airline passenger flying is that it will continue to increase.

At the same time three factors have produced a low supply of new pilots. One: the high cost of civilian pilot training has discouraged many from pursuing the career. Pilot training starts are at very low levels. Two: Lower level pilot salaries and benefits discourage pilots from staying in the career or starting one. Three: Military pilots coming to the airline industry are fewer in number than in the past, because they serve longer, there are fewer of them to begin with, and more choose not to have an airline pilot career.

My contacts in the regional airline industry tell me that they are having a hard time finding pilots who are qualified and capable to complete the strenuous training involved.

Maybe you don't believe the hype, because you've seen it before.  Its true that 'pilot factories' and flight schools do hype the 'pilot shortage' problem to lure new students, but the reality of a shortage is present, and I believe the problem will get worse.  Don't just take my word for it.  I've found a few great blog articles which expound on the truth of this shortage and the reality of what an airline career is really like.

If you want to be a professional pilot, now is the time to be training and earning your pilot certificates. With a lack of supply and the same demand, airlines will be increasing pay, benefits, and providing bonuses to attract qualified pilots. You will still need to be intelligent, have good social skills, and have good pilot skills, especially instrument skills - you will still need to be a professional.  But there will be opportunities aplenty, I believe for pilots to start a career now and in the future. 

The worst case scenario, for the airlines, is that so few capable and qualified pilots will be available that planes will be parked and flights will be cancelled for lack of pilots to fly them. At the regional level, larger planes will be operated than now, and the flights will be less frequent. I'm not promising that this will happen, but it could.

But something has been thrown like a wrench into an engine, to make things worse; let me explain.  It started after a bad commuter turboprop crash at Buffalo, New York, on February 12, 2009.  After investigation showed that both relatively inexperienced pilots exhibited poor airmanship, the FAA and Congress have raised the minimum airline pilot qualifications for the future.  I support the legislation, because it will subsequently serve to increase the pay, benefits, and quality of life of pilots, and safety for the flying public.  Also in the aftermath, the FAA is now attempting to make flight and duty rules more conservative, to combat fatigue and further increase the safety of airline flying.

Both laws will in effect increase the pilot shortage, because of higher pilot experience minimums required and more pilots required to cover the same amount of flying, due to more conservative (and safer) flight and duty rules.

But the airline industry and their lobbyists are aggressively fighting both of these legislative efforts.  The effects of a real pilot shortage at the regional and commuter levels put even more pressure on this situation.  If you're concerned about your safety on your next regional airline flight, contact your congressman!  Its the American way.

Back to the 'shortage': This will take years, more than a decade to pan out.  A shortage will be good for the quality of life of pilots, as wages and benefits do generally increase as demand increases and as supply decreases. It is up to airline pilots and their unions to ensure that (1) they are given a minimum of what they deserve and (2) they are given what the free market 'can afford'. The best airlines will recognize this dynamic and respond appropriately.

Airline and fractional flying requires many qualifications and sacrifices, but for those who love flying enough to tolerate and manage the disadvantages, it will still be a worthwhile career for the future.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

United 93 at rest in winter

I promised on twitter recently that I would post pictures I took of the final resting place of United flight 93, which was befallen by Islamic extremic terrorists on September 11, 2001.  Here it is, snow covered and captured from about thirty thousand feet during a December flight I flew from Washington, DC to Detroit, Michigan.

You can plainly see the semi-circular arc swath of landscaping that has been done in site preparation work for the national memorial.  Red maple trees will be planted on that semi-circle, and will surely be a striking visual landmark of the area during all seasons.

Previously I had been interested in finding the exact location of United 93, because I figured my flights pass by that area frequently, especially when flying Pittsburgh to Washington, or vice-versa.  Online, I searched for the latitude and longitude coordinates, and then inputted them into the FMS (Flight Management System computer) of our CRJ.  Basically, the crash site is sixty miles southeast of Pittsburgh, twenty miles south of Johnston, Pennsylvania, and about five miles east of Somerset County airport (K2G9). 

On this day there were some low clouds partly covering the area, but when we passed by the moving map location of where United 93 should be, the clouds moved out of the way and I suddenly found the site out the left window in the same direction the map display showed where it would be. 

On this Google Earth picture I placed the coordinates of where the aircraft impacted.  Forty passengers and crew perished at this location.  The famous words of Todd Beamer, "Let's Roll", had been declared.  The heroic efforts of passengers to overpower the four hijackers had been attempted.  The hijackers gave up on their evil primary plan, retreating to the only course of action that remained, barring surrender.  And this flight, the passengers and crew aboard will be remembered always, at this memorial being built for Americans and citizens of the world over, united in the fight against extreme Islamic terrorism.

150,000 tourists a year already visit the site, and here is a nice link to a comprehensize presentation of the planning of it.

There is some controversy over the memorial design, because the shape of the semi-circular grove of trees vaguely resembles a crescent, as in Islamic crescent.  I feel that this is overblown opportunism, that the topography of the site lends itself to formulating a semi-circle as is being constructed.  The architect of the memorial is not another 'secret muslim'. 

The ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be observed this September.  I hope that Americans will be able to more honestly and accurately reflect on these events, with a more informed and balanced view.  There are many questions which don't have clear answers, but that is no reason not to ask them, in these rapidly changing and tumultuous times.

God bless you, and thank you for reading my blog.