CLIMB! CLIMB NOW!

I'm working a crazy schedule this month. Crazy awesome, that is. For the first time in my five plus years at the airline, I'm working three days followed by four days off. It's crazy having four days off in a row every week. It hasn't exactly been as much of a boost to my homework productivity but it has been a boost to my Netflix queue. Currently, I'm avoiding homework to write about something that happened on a flight last week.

"When something does happen that accellerates the pulse we usually have the ability to problem solve or otherwise mitigate said accelleration."

I've recently crossed the 5,000 hours logged threshold and I'm getting pretty comfortable in my "new" airplane that I transitioned to in 2013. I've got about 1,200 hours in the jet and there aren't a lot of things happening for the first time anymore. Rigamoral and boring is the ideal as a pilot. We strive to limit the exciting or abnormal happenings. When something does happen that accellerates the pulse we usually have the ability to problem solve or otherwise mitigate said accelleration.

Recently on our return flight to Chicago from El Paso, we were in search of a smooth ride at 31,000 feet. Our dispatcher had filed us down low in an effort to avoid the turbulent air above, however, we were bouncing along the cloud tops right at 31,000 feet. I try to reiterate to the passengers whenever we're in turbulence that it's nothing more than an annoying inconvenience, but we still try our best to avoid it. So up we went, 33,000, and eventually 35,000 feet. Even all the way up there we were still grazing the upper reaches of the clouds.

We had only been in flight for about 30 minutes by the time we made it up to 35,000 feet and the ride was finally starting to smooth out as we progressed towards Chicago. As you can imagine, the airspace up at these altitudes is usually pretty busy with airline and business jet traffic. Today was a little less busy as it was mid-day on Sunday, but we still had a decent amount of airplanes crossing our path. When another airplane crosses in front of us, air traffic control will alert us so we can be aware of them. They'll tell us which direction from us they are, which direction they're travelling, and their altitude and aircraft type. This helps us locate them, and ensure they're where they should be and that no collision threat exists.

"Traffic at your 2 to 3 O'clock, north-west bound, leveling a thousand feet below you, is a Phenom."

"Traffic at your 2 to 3 O'clock, north-west bound, leveling a thousand feet below you, is a Phenom." An Embraer Phenom is a very light jet that some private operators fly as well as some corporate and charter companies. This call from ATC was nothing out of the ordinary, we get these types of alerts from ATC probably a hundred times a day. We look outside for the airplane, make sure we're going to miss them, and then we resume reading the instruments (newspaper).

It's also not uncommon for a climbing aircraft to trigger a traffic alert from our anti-collision system called TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System). This alert sounds an aural caution "TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!" to let the pilot know that an aircraft is approaching and could become a collision threat. At lower altitudes these alerts are very common and almost always never become a resolution advisory (actual collision threat exists). At higher altitude however, these alerts are almost non-existent. Not today.

As the aircraft approached their cleared altitude of 1,000 feet below us, we recieved the "TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!" alert. Up at 35,000 feet this is acutally pretty rare because climb rates are usually reduced in reduced vertical seperation airspace (RVSM). This alert got our attention and started that accelleration we try to avoid. The TCAS system is designed to alert us of traffic visually, aurally, and if needed, also provide vertical escape guidance both aurally and visually. It's a tiered system that escalates the alerts as needed based on the threat of collision. The system had shown us this aircraft visually at first, as just another airplane near us. Next it will show you an airplane that has a potential for a collision by changing the color and symbol on our display and giving the first aural alert of "TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!" Finally, when an actual collision threat exists the display changes again to a red symbol and the aural alerts now give commands on what manuever to begin in order to avoid the collision.

"As a testament to the limitations of the human body during times of stress, I never heard the first aural RA."

"CLIMB! CLIMB NOW!" was the resolution advisory we received. The display also modifies our vertical speed indicator to show what rate of climb or descent is required to vertically navigate away from the threat. This was actually a corrective resolution advisory as the first one told us to descend. As a testament to the limitations of the human body during times of stress, I never heard the first aural RA. I think it was "MONITOR VERTICAL SPEED" – even though the aircraft was in level flight, we were experiencing some light mountain wave turbulence which causes the aircraft to oscillate a few hundred feet. Our vertical speed indicator is an instananeous indicator and will sometimes show a climb or descent as much as 1,000 feet per minute for brief moments. This tricked the TCAS into thinking we were in a descent when the RA was triggered.

"The tricky thing here is getting the aircraft away from the threat expeditiously while simultaneously avoiding loading the wing too much and inducing a high altitude stall. Yay we missed them! Boo now we're falling with style!"

After initially commanding us to maintain a rate of descent to avoid the aircraft, the system calculated that our descent was no longer an option to avoid the aircraft and it then commanded us to climb. The tricky thing here is getting the aircraft away from the threat expeditiously while simultaneously avoiding loading the wing too much and inducing a high altitude stall. Yay we missed them! Boo now we're falling with style! Up at this altitude the airplane has a much smaller margin of "too fast" and "too slow," it is inbetween these speeds that we must remain in order to be considered still flying. Entering a high rate of climb at this altitude is usually non-sustainable (and non-habit forming). Our goal in this situation was to climb fast enough to avoid the conflict, but not so fast or too quickly to deplete the energy on the wing to induce a high altitude stall.

Luckily for me and for all the people behind me, we managed to avoid all the pitfalls of the event and complete an uneventful flight. It did take a few minutes for the reality of the situation to register. We spent quite a few moments recollecting what happened and why. It's very rare for this type of event to happen, especially at such a high altitude where aircraft are meticulously seperated from each other.

We never heard the other aircraft on our frequency, so it's likely he had already been switch to a new controller. We don't know if they had the wrong altitude programmed or if they were simply climbing so fast the computer calculated a collision risk. What a lot of people don't know is that scenarios like this one is how our modern day FAA got started. 

probation

Less than one month left on my probation as a first officer. Looking back I can hardly tell where the year went. It certainly didn’t feel like any year I spent as a flight instructor. This year, pardon the cliche, flew by.

When you think of employment probation, time frames that often come to mind are; 90 days, 6 months maybe. Did you ever think you could be on probation for an entire year? I didn’t. I had never even contemplated that as a possibility. Well that’s how long my probation as an airline pilot has been so far. Considered an industry standard, the year long probation pretty much removes any requirement for the airline to have substantiated reasoning to cut loose a pilot. Although some people will fear this more than others, it’s important to remember that I am an investment to the airline. They spent a fair amount of capital training me and keeping me employed. However I’m sure I’ve earned more for the company than I’ve cost them in terms of revenue service completed.

My probation was just a few different interviews with my chief pilot at 6, 9, and soon to be 12 months. Included in that is a probationary check ride. Part of the glamour and glory of being an airline pilot, is the pleasure of jumping in a simulator every year. That is until I upgrade to captain, then they double the pleasure, double the fun, double the check rides. At that point you go every 6 months.

Anyways, the probie ride was pretty straight forward. Just your regular ‘ol proficiency check. Kind of like what is required for part 91 pilots, known as a flight review. The PC covers all the essentials plus a few. Most flight reviews don’t include instrument approaches however, and since we don’t have to log approaches for our instrument currency, we get to demonstrate some on the PC.

I was extremely nervous and hopefully slightly over prepared. There is so much pressure right now to not fail check rides and PCs and especially at the 121 level. The industry is in reactionary mode right now in the wake of some previous accidents. As such, they are putting a lot of pressure on applicants that basically equates to check ride failures = not getting hired. Certainly there are exceptions to this, however it’s pretty wide spread belief that more than 1 failure, sometimes even just one, can mean the difference between you and other qualified applicants. Now put on top of that, the rumored belief that if you fail your probationary check ride, you could get fired! Not only could I maybe not get another job, but I might get fired from my current job?! Holy Toledo!

Now most of that is just rumored speculation, however, at a stressful time such as in the moment of the PC, it doesn’t matter. It adds to your stress level and it overcomes you. Which was the case with myself. I studied religiously, read endlessly, and prepped relentlessly. In the end it paid off, however my stress level was pretty high for a few days prior to the day.

I got incredibly lucky to have a very cool, calm, and relaxed check airman. He helped me relax, and he showed me some pretty neat insights. I was also lucky to have a cool captain that helped me out a lot too. I think they both understood the pressure level assumed for probationary rides and they both were a huge help.

One interview left, and it’s on to bigger and better things!

stick shaker

One of the stall warning indicators the airplane is equipped with is the stick shaker. It helps provide a ‘WAKE UP’ warning to an impending stall. It literally creates vibration in the yoke control that simulates a car on a dirt road feeling. The mechanism that creates it is loud, while holding the yoke with it active it will shake your entire arm.

There is no mistaking what is occurring when you feel and hear the shaker activate.

Recently during a departure from a hub airport, we were cleared for take off immediately following an Airbus 319. You’d be surprised how close they clear us for take off normally, however during this departure they were stacking us pretty close.

This specific hub airport utilizes RNAV(Area Navigation, more commonly known as GPS) departure procedures for all RNAV capable aircraft. This means that the flight path for 99% of the traffic departing the airport is within one tenth of a mile of each other. With adequate lateral and vertical separation it’s never really a problem. During this departure we had significantly less lateral separation, however still beyond the minimum required.

Around 1500 feet above the ground we encountered the wake turbulence from the Airbus.

Predictable.

Wake turbulence is defined as a byproduct of induced drag. As airflow over the wing passes over the tip of the wing, it rolls over as it’s mixed with the air from under the wing. There is a small amount of span-wise flow from the air under the wing that creates a rotational vortex. These vortices flow outward and down from the wing tips of the aircraft. Since these are created as a byproduct of induced drag, the heavier the aircraft, the more intense the vortices. There are other factors that create more wake turbulence such as clean and slow aircraft. Clean referring to lack of high lift device deployment such as flaps or slats. Without those devices employed a higher angle of attack is required for flight which increases lift production, which increases induced drag. Slow aircraft require more angle of attack as the amount of lift generated is directly proportional to the indicated airspeed of the wing.

Put all of these factors together and you can see that during take-off, you have the highest amount of wake turbulence creation after take-off.

Small vibrations of what normal light turbulence feels like first. The captain is hand flying the aircraft throughout the climb. One of the signs of wake turbulence is the rotation force exerted on the aircraft that requires aileron input to keep the wings level. That happened next.

Another stall warning and protection device our aircraft uses is a pitch limit indicator. It shows how close to the stalling angle of attack the aircraft it currently at. It immediately showed that we were less than 3 degrees from stalling angle of attack. Simultaneously the stick shaker activated.

The entire event lasted less than 5 seconds.

I spent years teaching students about the dangers of wake turbulence and the techniques to avoid it. This made me realize I need to be more vigilant about it. Almost every take off and landing we hear ‘caution wake turbulence’ because we’re either landing behind or taking off behind a heavy airplane. Perhaps that dumbs it down a little or dilutes the seriousness of it.

Land above and beyond, rotate before and climb above.

lifeguard

Part of my duties of preparing the aircraft for flight, is an external pre-flight of the aircraft. I basically just walk around the plane and make sure there aren’t big chunks missing, puddles forming, and ensure it’s ready and safe for flight. I have a fancy neon green jumper that I get to wear. This ensures that no crazed ramp worker runs me over, and I believe in enhances my overall appeal.

Most of the time there is nothing too exciting about the pre-flight. I found a puddle of hydraulic fluid under one of the main landing gear once. Turned out to be a strut leak, and we had to get a different aircraft. Another time I had to close a panel that was left open, really exciting stuff.

Yesterday I found a box outside the aircraft on the baggage loader. On the outside of it was labeled ‘Perishable human tissue’ and ‘Kidney’. Now this isn’t very far out of the ordinary for airlines. Transporting human tissue, organs, blood, whichever, not too uncommon. However this was the first time I had ever had the opportunity to do this.

Normally a flight will be chartered for the purpose of transporting human organs, I guess they couldn’t get a charter lined up in time, or we were the only flight available at the time. Either way it was pretty cool to know that we were going to be helping somebody out.

Once I finished my pre-flight, I returned to the cockpit to finish the rest of my work before we depart. When I got the clearance for our flight, it was appended to the bottom that we were to be a ‘LifeGuard’ flight. This basically gives us a high priority over other traffic. The kidney we were transporting was probably going for a transplant or the packaging it was in had a time limit before it would ‘expire’.

So for the nearly 1 hour flight, I was ‘LifeGuard’. It might have been insignificant to anyone else, but to me it was an immense feeling of service.

initial operating experience

Here I am. Flying the line. Finally.

I have completed my IOE(initial operating experience) training, and I’m now in the shark infested waters of line flying.

I’m now a fully fledged reserve pilot, to be used and abused at the whim of crew scheduling. Which so far, has meant flying every day I’m scheduled. I’ve flown almost 60 hours now and I’m almost getting the hang of things. Almost.

I spent about 30 hours of flying with my IOE instructor. His job was to primarily not let me kill anyone, while not bending any airplane metal. Throughout that time he also taught me quite a bit about flying an airplane. He bridged the gap between the simulator and the real world. Meshing my training with real world experience and know how that is required to make everything come together.

I started like a blind folded child. I had all the training, and no clue how to use it or where to start. My first day felt like a dream. I had all the pieces of the puzzle, I just didn’t know how to put the puzzle together. That’s where my instructor came in. A captain that had been flying with the airline for over 20 years, he got paid extra to babysit me. Which is good, because I needed a little babysitting at first.

It felt like I never had enough time when I first started. We get to the airplane 45 minutes before we’re supposed to leave and before you know it passengers are loading, the doors are closing and I’m going a million miles an hour in my head. The wheels are spinning but we’re not going anywhere. It seems there will never be enough time to get everything done. Surely they know it is impossible to complete this much work in such a short amount of time. It can’t possibly be done by a human!

Day two comes around. Somehow I have found a few extra minutes of time and I’m completing work quicker. Pretty soon I have a lot of extra time. I stop rushing. I start enjoying the work. My sense of humor returns. Life is good again. I’m not stressed.

I’m still making mistakes though. That’s making me angry. I’m trying really hard not to get frustrated at myself or at my captain. It’s a very hard transition to go from being the ‘know it all’ to being the new guy. I don’t have all the answers anymore. I don’t have my confidence yet, I don’t know what to do sometimes. I hate this feeling of being lost.

Most of all I hate that I can’t land the damn plane. My first landing was bad. Children cried, women scorned, men cursed. Cities burned and the sky was blood red. It wasn’t pretty, I’ll admit it. In my defense it was my first landing ever in the plane. It’s not really fair to have 50 people on board to witness that mess. Luckily I haven’t had any landings as bad since. I’m hoping that I will never have landings that bad ever again.

Since I finished IOE the landings have been improving a lot. Which is good for me, and the general flying public.

Yesterday I left Corpus Christi Texas at 6 in the morning. It was my leg to fly and I chose to fly the aircraft manually to about 10 thousand feet. The air was clear and smooth and the sun was just cresting the top of some storm clouds off in the distance. It was calm and quiet, the scenery was incredible, and I was flying. These are the moments that make it all worth it.

I love my job. I love flying airplanes. They even pay me to do it.

Go beyond all the bureaucracy and drama, complaining and bickering, and you have the most amazing job in the world. I look forward to what the future brings to me every day.