Sunday, July 29, 2012

Delays from a pilot perspective

We've all been there. It's either on the flight information screen flashing "DELAYED" or a gate agent, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are sorry to inform you your fight has been delayed."

But what's the real deal? Is it weather, aircraft maintenance or something more?

Last week I had to deal with an event that was in the "something more" category.

Originally scheduled to fly to a European city (name changed to protect the innocent), the weather turned nasty about an hour before our departure. And by nasty, I mean I think I saw the house from The Wizard of Oz. Thunderstorms, a bow echo and sideways rain.

Of course, the gate agents only said it would be a short delay. Being near the gate I had to hide my laughter or else a passenger might have seen me!

Airline pilots are governed by FAA rules that limit how much time we can spend on duty. If we didn't have rules the company would push us to the limits of complete exhaustion, which would severely decrease safety. Knowing this, the FAA has set a minimum standard of time on duty.

About 3 hours into our delay I knew we were going to approach and bust through this limit. I had a sneaking suspicion the flight was going to be canceled.

Operations, or the airline people at the airport who try to make decisions, decided to board the flight even though they knew were were approaching this FAA limit and we weren't going to be able to push back for another couple hours.

It was all good...for the first 45 minutes on board. After that, people started asking questions. Of course I already knew we busted past our "duty day", as it's called, and was packing up my stuff to head home.

From what I learned, from friends at the airport who were working later flights, the aircraft didn't actually de-plane (what we call getting off the airplane, in airline-speak) until about 2 hours later. Operations thought they'd be able to get another set of pilots to the plane, which of course never happened due to low staffing levels.

So the next time you're delayed due to weather, look up front to the cockpit - your pilots may be already at home!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

¿Se hablas English?

Flying often produces challenges that must be overcome, including engine trouble, navigation errors, mountains you could fly into, flux capacitor problems, puking passengers, a flight attendant with the clap, chief pilots, crew schedulers, crappy schedules or even a lack of a schedule due to a lay off.

But nothing compares to air traffic controllers south of the border.

I flew a red eye from Peru and had an interesting experience. They say English is the standardized language of aviation, but for some of these controllers it isn't even their second language.

We took off from Lima and proceeded north on our assigned route. As we passed about 200 miles north of the airport we were handed off to a controller that required us to give position reports, since this area was non-radar. Picture controllers moving plastic airplanes across a table with a big map on it, like a quintessential World War Two movie.

Everything usually goes OK, unless there is something non-standard. 

Due to a volcano erupting near Bogota, traffic was rerouted to avoid the ash.

In my best Spanish accent:

CONTROLLER: "Ahhh...we need you once 360 degrees at ATIPI"

What did she say?

ME: "Confirm, one 360 degree turn at ATIPI"

CONTROLLER: "No, need once 360 at ATIPI"

Now ATIPI I understood. It was a fix that was on our flight plan. But need once 360? Didn't I just repeat that?

CONTROLLER: "Do you understand?

I think so. One 360 degree turn at the fix ATIPI.

Turns out that wasn't correct. After about 5 minutes of trying to figure out what she wanted, a Copa airlines flight, in better English, told us she wanted us to hold at ATIPI....After she relayed to him in Spanish.

Crisis averted.

A notable accident was caused due to improper English. 

In 1989, Flying Tigers Flight 66 (they were bought by FedEx) was given a clearance, that due confusion, led to disaster. The flight, on approach, was given the following clearance:

"Tiger 66, descend two four zero zero. Cleared for NDB approach runway three three."

What do you think this means? "Descend to 400" or "descend 2,400?" The crew thought he said "Descend to 400" and unfortunately they thought wrong.

As we headed north, we talked to a few more controllers.

The Panamanians are great to understand. I suppose that is the influence the United States placed on it through all our dealings with the Panama Canal.

Jamaican controllers? Ever talked to someone who was high? Ya mon.

I've just got back from a red eye and it's time for a beer and a few rounds of Battlefield 3. No matter what language you speak, getting your ass handed to you by a 12 year old in an online computer game needs no translation.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

When The S*** Hits the Lav

Position Report: Flight Level 390. Somewhere over the Atlantic. Things are about to get crappy.

Starting out it was a pretty good day in Paris. Light winds, overcast skies but the temperature was tolerable. We pushed 5 minutes early for our flight back to the United States and we were all anxious to get back home.

Coasting out over the Atlantic we said our goodbyes to Shannon Control and settled in for our 4 hour crossing.


The cabin interphone rang and I thought perhaps my dinner was ready. Or was it lunch. I'm not sure but the sun is up and I'm tired. Whatever, it'll do.

"Hey guys? We have a write up," says our Lead Flight Attendant Roger.

Usually it's a broken coffee maker, a young kid pukes on his seat...the usual. But it's not my lunch.

"Yeah, what is it?," I say.

Word for word: "You're not going to believe this. Someone took a dump in the sink of the lav. What the heck am I supposed to do?"

What? You mean my chicken isn't ready?

OK, no matter how hard we try there isn't a checklist for "A-hole Poos in Sink" although we did look. The best we could come up with is "Biological Hazard" but is seems the writers of that checklist were planning on Al Qaeda using the latest Breast Implant Explosive (BIE), not Steaming Pile in Lav (SPL).

So what are we to do?

Combining our combined 50 years of aviation knowledge we came up with the best solution: we placarded the lav inop and continued on to our destination. 

Yes, this really happened.

For all of you who don't wear shoes to the lav but rather your socks, because it's so inconvenient to put your shoes on, let this be a lesson.

Sometimes flying is a crappy experience. Literally.

Friday, February 17, 2012

ETOPS: What Is It and How Can It Save Your Life?

During our preflight preparation for our flight to Ireland last week we did all the usual routines, including check the flight plan to ensure we had the proper fuel, look at the crew manifest to figure out who we were flying with, and check the weather. Checking the weather consists of making sure our destination and alternates are at or above their weather minimums. When flying across the Atlantic in ETOPS airspace we need to make sure our diversions are proper and safe.  

What is ETOPS?

ETOPS stands for Extended-range Twin-engine Operations. What does this mean? Basically any two-engine aircraft operating for an airline must be within 60 minutes of the nearest suitable airport with one engine inoperative.  

What if you have more than two engines?

If you have more than two engines, say a Boeing 747 or MD-11 you can operate without regard to that rule. With those aircraft you can fly the most direct route, even if it's far away from a suitable airport. The logic is you have multiple engines that can fail before you're in trouble.  

OK, but there aren't many three-engine airplanes out there

On your next flight across the wide ocean take a look outside and you'll probably notice you only have two engines, one on each side. The airlines, wanting to use more fuel efficient aircraft, use a large percentage of twin jet aircraft on their routes, including oceanic routes. The FAA, along with aircraft manufactures and airlines, realized this trend and came up with a solution. With the reliability of aircraft engines increasing and better training and maintenance on the part of the airlines, the FAA came out with ETOPS.

Currently, with two engines airplanes, we can fly either 120 minutes or 180 minutes, single engine, from the nearest suitable airport. Those times depend on how your flight is planned and what fuel is required. Usually our ETOPS diversion airports are either in Iceland, Canada or the Azores, which keep us well within the 120 or 180 minutes required. And not all airlines are allowed to do this; indeed, you must be approved by the FAA before conducting ETOPS operations.

So the next time you're flying across the ocean and see only two engines, rest assured there is a plan in place to safely get you to your destination or an alternate if the situation arises.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What do you look for in a CFI?

During the course of my travels I often think back to what I had to do to get in my current seat. Flying across the Atlantic to destinations far and wide wasn't my first flying job, and it may not be my last. I've had the opportunity to fly all kinds of aircraft - from small Cessnas to large Boeings.

I also instructed for about 2,000 hours.

While some pilots have instructed more, others less, one thing is a common denominator - some instructors are great while others barely make the grade! I haven't personally instructed in many years but I still keep my CFI current in case I need it again; indeed, it's a lot easier to keep it current than it is to get the rating again!

Many pilots at my airline who work in the training department keep their CFIs current as well. For those pilots who like to teach I think it is a natural gravitation to end up in the training department of an airline. After all, an airplane is an airplane and the student's learning is influenced mostly by their instructor's ability to convey key learning points (and the student showing up prepared).

For those of you learning to fly, or perhaps you seasoned pilots out there who only get your biennial flight review, what is it that you look for in an instructor?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What do the Florida Primaries and flying across the Atlantic have in common?

When we're flying across the Atlantic Ocean we have two things on our mind:

1) Where are we?

2) Where are we going?


3) Who won in Florida?

OK, maybe that's three things but that last question is still very important when you're 700 miles from the nearest shore line and are completely out of touch with the ground. Usually when you're flying over the United States you can ask a friendly air traffic controller and, if he's not busy, he'll give you the latest score or primary result.

But what do you do when there no way to communicate with the ground?

With the advent of satellite communication we have the ability to receive messages from our dispatch, usually weather related, regardless of where we are on the Earth.

On our way to Amsterdam we did just that! Since the computer only accepts bold letters and doesn't have a question mark our question looked like this:


And about 5 minutes later, on our printer (yes, we have a printer on board), we received the following message:

Now that the results of the Florida Primary were firmly in our hand, we could go back to the business of answering the first two questions again.....Now, what were they again? I forgot.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Facebook site up and running!

I've set up a Facebook fan page for this blog!

Using the functionality of Facebook, I plan to upload pictures and tweets to give you a "real-time" glimpse of what goes on in the life of an airline pilot.

Did I just tweet that I'm drinking some strange German brew? Facebook will probably have an accompanying pictures that will provide more than Twitter will allow.

On the right side of the page you'll see the Twitter and Facebook icons you need to click. You can also reach me on Twitter by using the name @Flyingtheline and on Facebook by typing in the simple URL

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook for the quickest, most complete updates of the Airline Pilot Stories blog!

UPDATE March 2014: I've migrated this Facebook profile from its previous locations and am starting fresh. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"What's your route?"

Invariably when I'm at a dinner party, restaurant, or nearest strip club and the question, "What do you do for a living?" comes up you get a wide variety of answers.

"I'm a plumber," says one person.

"I do a little freelance consulting," says another guy.

"I'm working my way through college," says the stripper.

It seems that most time, except in the strippers case, the conversation stops there and we move on to other pleasantries. However, I always get asked the same question without fail...

"What's your route?"

I usually want to say something smart like, "I only do Del Rio...I'm the only pilot
trained at my airline to find it."

However, I'll let you in on a little-known aviation secret. Promise not to tell anyone? OK, if we can keep it between you and me, here it goes....

Airline pilots have no set route.

You see, everything in the airline world is based on scheduling demands of the airline itself. Want to go to Chicago next Christmas or Cancun the following Spring Break? The airline already has flights that are scheduled to go there - otherwise, how would you be able to book and pay for your tickets months in advance?

However, the story for individual crew members is quite a different tale.

Pilots don't actually know where they are flying to until the month prior. Usually around the 5th of the month we put our requests in for our next months schedule, with results published about a week later.

The airline uses a system called seniority.

If you have been at the airline longer than any other pilot you have your choice of flights before anyone else. If you were hired just a day after the most senior pilot, you'll be junior to him (or her) and have to select your schedule after he did, leaving you with less and less trips as you work your way down the pilot list. Indeed, nothing in airline scheduling is merit based.

They say seniority is like climbing a ladder naked. You look down and see nothing but smiling faces, yet you look up and see nothing but assholes.

There are a lot of assholes until it's my turn to pick my schedule. Usually by the time everyone else has selected their flights, or schedule, the only thing left over is London or Paris. You see, every time we cross the Atlantic it's a three day trip so you want to ensure you're maximizing the flying for the time you're gone.

A London trip will net you about 15 hours of flight time (also known as pay time, since we are not paid unless the engines are turning) while a Rome trip will bring in a more respectable 19 hours, since it's further away.

As your tenure at the airline increases and more pilots retire, you'll soon be working your way up the seniority ladder. It's not uncommon for a pilot to begin his career flying winter trips in the Ohio Valley and end it, 30 years later, flying 747s to China.

The flip side is true as well. It's not uncommon for a pilot to be flying 747s to China, then as a result of an airline bankruptcy and job loss and he switches airlines, only to end his career flying winter trips in the Ohio Valley.

So what's my route? I don't know, get back to me next month and we'll see what flights I've been assigned. Until then, while I'm at a dinner party, I'll stick to my old stand-by, "Del Rio."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

We push for Paris in two hours

It's 6pm and I can feel my cell phone alarm vibrating in my pocket. Regardless of what I was dreaming of it's all slowing disappearing as the dank smell of the crew room, a room that hasn't seen a furniture upgrade or carpet change in years, makes its way into my nostrils. In fact, one pilot I know says he even saw a mouse in here.

Why is my alarm going off at 6pm? Simple. I commute.

I don't live where I work, like most normal working adults. Instead, I live hundreds of miles away and must fly to work as a passenger before my shift starts. My company allows me to fly for free on the airline and many pilots, including myself, use that to their advantage.

Yes, you can live where you want, but that sometimes means showing up for work hours before you need to, depending on flight schedules. One pilot I know commutes from Hawaii - actually a few do - which is 11 hours away from our East Coast base. No thanks.

As I collect my belongings I glance at my trip information, which I printed out before my nap.  

Tonight I'm heading to Paris, The City of Light.

Not that I would know. With an 8pm departure, we will land in Paris before the sunrise and be at the hotel just as the sun is peaking through the curtains. After waking up from my nap, it's night again. So much for sightseeing.

But I have a fantastic crew and the weather is forecasted to be great for our entire 7 hour flight. As I finish up packing and assemble my flight case I get excited for the adventure that is to come. For every tiring 6pm wakeup on a crew room couch there is a sunrise over the North Atlantic that rivals the most beautiful thing you've ever seen.  

With this blog I will share my adventures with you as they come my way.

Yes, it's now time to go to work.