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.


capnaux said...

Stumbled across your aviation blog as I was researching to start my own. I like it! I'm glad someone out there in our profession is openly stumping for HIm!

I am a follower of Christ, but my blog (like yours) is about the beauty and adventure of the business we love so well.

I noticed there aren't many comments on your site and your last post was last October. I just wanted to drop a line encouraging you to keep going! My only request is that, in a few months, you send me a word of encouragement too, lol!

PS--I put a link to your blog on my own ;-)

Craig said...

Thanks Eric! For the encouragement and edification. I have more posts in the works, I will write soon. My father read some of the blog the other day and also encouraged me to continue.
My main distraction is a small business I have going, Check it out! It is doing well & I'm improving the website and products. I have other ideas I'm chasing also.
I hope to glorify God no matter what I'm doing I'm the future.
I will definitely check out your blog also. We should talk some. God bless you, Craig

capnaux said...

Stopped back in and I'm hungry for more stories! Keep 'em coming! Esp. because you have important things to say; I think your point about CRM is crucial to new pilots.

And, for a good chuckle, come on over and join me at!

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