Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Right Stuff (Part 1): What It Takes To Be an Airline Pilot

In the golden days of aviation, (which many would say peaked right as the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was signed by President Carter) the profession of being a pilot was absolutely revered. Kids eagerly got tours of the cockpit in flight (totally unthinkable in the post 9/11 era) and aspired to be pilots. Pilots did, in fact, make incredible sums of money and the profession was looked up to as one right up there with being a doctor or a banker or a lawyer.....OK with being a doctor or a banker. There's many old pilot jokes that go something like this: "What's the difference between God and a pilot? God doesn't think he's a pilot." So, what happened to the glamour of being a pilot? From your pilots perspective, nothing happened. From an industry perspective, however, a lot happened. After deregulation in 1978 (which is when the government stopped saying who could fly where and what they could charge for it), competition happened. Capitalism at it's finest. Second only to fuel, the largest cost of running an airline is people and the economics of hordes of pilots making $300,000 a year doesn't necessarily work in a world of $90 a barrel oil and $200 round trip tickets. Something had to give and it was unfortunately flight crew pay. I'm not trying to paint you too depressing a picture because there is one exceedingly bright spot in all of this. "What is it?" you ask?  It's that you have to be one very motivated, passionate individual who flat out loves to fly in order to want to work in a very difficult but very rewarding industry. So who are these people we entrust our lives to? Who are these people who make it safer than driving when we fly in a metal tube at 500mph, 7 miles above the earth? What do they have to do to become your pilots and what do they actually do to get you to your destination safely? We will look at these questions in this two part series.

I won't go into the physics of flight other than to say the weight of any wannabe pilot's wallet is inversely proportional to the thickness of their logbook. The more hours you fly, the more money it takes. Plain and simple. Almost every single pilot in the world started flying in the simplest of airplanes: single engine propeller aircraft like a Cessna or a Piper. These planes are great to learn the basics of flight in. Usually no fancy autopilots here. In these planes, if all the instruments are working, there's a minimal amount of duct tape on the seats, the plane goes up, down, left and right and you typically burn more fuel than engine oil, you're in good shape! These are basic planes and are meant to make your pilots, well....pilots! The basic concepts of flight are the same in a Cessna 152 as they are in a Boeing 747 and you have to start somewhere!

As pilots advance, they add a myriad of advanced "ratings" that allow them to do many different things like fly in the clouds (an instrument rating), fly for compensation (a commercial rating), fly big, complex airplanes like a typical airliner (a type rating) and ultimately, fly for the airlines (the Airline Transport Pilot or ATP rating).  By the time everything is said and done, it is not unheard of for pilots who were not trained by the military to have invested well in excess of $50,000 in their ratings.
On top of all of the ratings,  each pilot must meet with a special doctor on a regular basis to be certified as fit to fly. Any number of conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart issues or a myriad of other conditions will keep a pilot grounded, sometimes for good. And, when you get to the airlines, regular drug testing becomes the norm (which puts a slight kink in the plot of the latest Denzel Washington movie "Flight").

All of this takes years of study, practice and dedication. Many aspiring pilots will also choose to combine all this work with a college degree....and that's just to earn the opportunity to interview with the airlines. No job guarantees at all! Often times, pilots will take other types of flying jobs to earn more hours to make them more attractive to the airlines. What are some non-airline flying jobs that many pilots do to earn hours? I'm sure I'm missing some really interesting one but to name a few: flight instructing, banner towing, crop dusting (yep, they still do that), skydiving flights, hauling bank checks (although this is going away quickly with electronic imaging), hauling lab specimens, charter flying, freight and mail flying, fire fighting, pipeline patrol, fish and wildlife tracking and basically anything that anyone will pay a meager wage for in exchange for the privilege of flying on their dime. "Will fly for food" is an appropriate slogan for many an aspiring airline pilot. As you can see, the guys and gals in the front office of your plane are some dedicated and passionate folks when it comes to flying......either that or crazy but I'm trying not to scare you so let's go with "dedicated and passionate"!

So, you're a highly credentialed pilot who has earned all your ratings and paid all your dues and you FINALLY land a coveted airline job. You've arrived! Whew! Kick back, relax, start flying and reap the benefits of your years of hard work, right? Wrong! Airline politics, pay and job security aside, the fun has just begun! All of what you've learned thus far was enough to get you to the dance (typically in a very low paying First Officer / Co-pilot job at a regional airline, mind you) but now you have to learn all of the things specific to your particular airline. You may have been hired to fly a different type of plane than you are certified to fly so you may need to do another type rating for the plane the airline hired you to fly. That involves classroom and flight simulator training a competency test known as a checkride. Even without a type rating, weeks of classroom work on your airline's processes and procedures as well as hours of training on all sorts of nightmarish scenarios in the flight simulator are thrown at you (like when they only have decaf coffee in the galley) before you ever make it to the cockpit of an airliner. And, once you get there, recurrent training, drug testing and medical certifications all happen on a regular basis to make sure you stay a safe, proficient and healthy pilot. Kind of gives you an idea of why the safety record of commercial flying is so good, doesn't it?

In the next part of this two part series, we'll look at what your pilots actually do to get you safely to your destination. You'll find it fascinating to see what goes into safely managing a flight and you'll see how far in advance the work for your flight really starts!

We'll get the glamour back into this noble profession just yet!

Until next time....

Blue Skies,

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Fear of Flying

A great article by Douglas Boyd, Ph.D, Commercial Pilot on what we as pilots can do to help those with a fear of flying. Great ideas, Douglas! Thanks for your contribution!

A Contribution of General Aviation to America: How we as Pilots can
Help Passengers Overcome their Fear of Flying.

General Aviation (GA) is under assault by the public and media and it is vital that we show contributions to our communities. Certainly, there are already wonderful examples of how the GA community serves the public (Angel Flight, Pilots N Paws). But we need more examples of non-self-serving activities to effectively counter a constant anti-GA media barrage. Here is another way we can step up to the plate.

Without a doubt, we all know someone who won't fly or do so with great distress. Fear of flying (reported on by the Wall Street Journal -June 2011) is nothing new cutting across all socio-demographics. Indeed,  articles in the Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases and Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine journals indicate that  10-40% of the adult population experience anxiety when flying and 2% of the population avoid this mode of transportation altogether. That means that over 6 million folks in the US who won’t fly! This is all despite the fact that airline safety has improved in every decade over the past half century based on NTSB fatality rates.

So what can we do, as pilots, to reach out to these jittery passengers? Anxiety feeds on ignorance and demystifying the flight environment will go a long way to helping these folks overcome their phobia. When you next encounter an aviophobe, enquire as to their concern(s) and then explain why there should be little cause for concern. Here are some of the more common fears of phobic fliers. A biggie, especially in areas prone to high convective activity, is thunderstorms. A soothing response is the requirement for all transport-category flights, as per Part 121 regulations, to have operative weather radar allowing the pilot to circumnavigate the worst of the weather although, of course, this does not guarantee turbulence avoidance.  Often discussion of thunderstorms segues into the topic of turbulence or vice versa. Discuss how wing dihedral increases stability, the concept of "rough air" penetration speeds and perhaps most importantly how wing flex testing has to be undertaken as part of the certification of all aircraft. Another white knuckler is engine failure. A good comeback here is that transport category aircraft are required to fly with a single engine inoperative and this includes departure climbs to meet obstacle clearance.  Even with total engine failure transport category aircraft make excellent glider ratios and the 75 nautical mile glide of a mid-Atlantic, powerless Airbus A300 (Air Transat 236) carrying 306 passengers plus crew to a safe landing in the Azores is worth citing. System redundancy, again required for the airlines, is also worth mentioning: dual, independent hydraulic systems for moving flight control  surfaces (not to mention manual reversion in the event of the failure of the hydraulics); dual navigation systems; triple pitot-static systems to cite a few.

What else can we do to get these folks flying? Psychologists know well that phobics have to be exposed to the fear often incrementally. If you are a proficient GA pilot who flies regularly, consider offering a nail-biting passenger a short flight. Review what goes into preflight planning-weather, NOTAMS, the aircraft. Follow this with one or two circuits around the traffic pattern in VFR, non-turbulent conditions. On a subsequent flight, graduate to a short hop to a nearby airport say around 10 minutes distance. Finally, consider referring these folks to a fear of flying program near them (

Chances are you’ll find that helping these folks a highly rewarding experience and even more importantly showing the community a positive image of general aviation. Who knows-we might even convert a few of these individuals into pilots a bonus considering the ever shrinking pool of pilot starts.

Douglas Boyd Ph.D., an active general aviation pilot holding Commercial/IFR ratings, directs the Houston fear of flying program. The “Clinic” ( includes presentations by an airline and GA pilot, TSA, counseling by psychologists as well as visits to ATC and an aircraft maintenance facility.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rumble in the Jungle (Part 2) - How Airplanes Safely Deal with Thunderstorms

In my last post, I talked about thunderstorms and why they are to be avoided by airplanes at all costs. I think by now, we can all agree that thunderstorms are pretty serious stuff. But, airlines keep a pretty tight schedule and regularly negotiate around some pretty nasty storms. So, how do they do it?

First, remember that the airlines and the FAA have teams of meteorologists working to predict the weather and, if they see some bad thunderstorms building up and the economics justify it, they typically choose more favorable routes of flight to avoid the severe storm potential altogether. What if the economics don't justify it and they can't be avoided? Remember - crashes are really expensive for the airlines. You'll be sitting in the terminal yelling at the gate agent. But, as we all know, on a warm, humid summer day, stuff pops up and planes still fly so, how do they get around it? The answer is: very carefully.

First, every airliner is required to have onboard weather radar. In the nose of the plane, there is a little radar dish that the pilots aim at various points of the sky to measure how much water vapor is in the air. The more water they see, the greater the chance that it is part of a severe storm. The pilots use this radar to calculate which route will keep them away from the storms. They then request that deviation from their assigned route to Air Traffic Control (ATC) and 99 out of 100 times, ATC approves the deviation without question. What happens when ATC doesn't approve the deviation? Well, the pilots do whatever they need to in order to keep your flight safe. Just because a guy sitting comfortably in a radar room tells your pilots they need to fly though a thunderstorm for traffic spacing doesn't mean that the pilots are actually going to do it. After all, they are the "Pilot in Command" and are the final authority on the safe operation of the flight....sorry God, it's right there in the regulations....the pilots are the final authority.

What about low level wind shear (LLWS) and other wind shear? Well, ever since the Delta L-1011 crash that I mentioned in my last post, the FAA mandated that every turbine powered passenger aircraft (basically everything you fly in with a jet engine) must have wind shear detection onboard. Thru a NASA developed technology known as PFM (or Pure Friggin' Magic), a computer analyzes the onboard weather radar to calculate whether or not wind shear exists. When your pilots hear the plane yell "WIND SHEAR! WIND SHEAR!" they get out of Dodge (or Cleveland as the case may be) quickly.

The airplane is not the only way LLWS is detected. Most airports that the airlines fly into have wind shear detection sensors all around the airport. Wind shear, by definition, is when you have wind going in many different directions. So, when those airport sensors start detecting wind going in a bunch of different directions in different locations around the airport, they alert ATC  so they know that wind shear has the potential to exist at the airport when planes are in their most vulnerable condition: low and slow. ATC will in turn notify your pilots and your pilots will react and fly the plane as the conditions dictate.

So, the next time your flight is delayed because a huge thunderstorm is rolling thru the airport, head to the bar, grab drink and lay off the gate agent. Trust me, you'd rather have a Guinness in your hand than a thunderstorm.

Blue Skies,

EDIT: Douglas makes an excellent point in the comments below. ATC has weather radar as well that they use to coordinate deviations with the pilots. In fact, if you hear some storms rolling thru your area, go to and find a local airport feed to listen to. It is amazing to hear the professionalism of both pilots and controllers as they safely navigate planes around storms. Thanks Douglas!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rumble in the Jungle (Part 1) - Why Thunderstorms are Bad for Airplanes

Most flyers have experienced some sort of weather related delay. Sitting in the airport terminal for hours on end, your schedule is ruined, you complain and yell at the poor gate agent because you're now going to miss a wedding, a funeral, your kid's baseball game or your hot yoga class. All the airlines fault, right? "I'm never flying this airline again!" you say. Well, think that if you want but they have most likely just done you the biggest favor of your life. There are many things that you can blame the airlines for but delays due to severe weather is not one of them. For all the things humans have figured out how to control or circumvent, weather is not one of them. And, of all the little understood weather phenomenons that occur, the thunderstorm is probably one of the least understood. First, I can assure you that, no matter what you think, on your worst flight, unless you had the world's worst pilots, you have probably never flown directly thru a thunderstorm. It doesn't matter what you are flying in -  avoidance is key because, no matter what you are flying in, the laws of physics are not subject to repeal. Now, that's not to say you haven't possibly come close enough to a thunderstorm to get an autograph but, more than likely you haven't gotten "up close and personal" to see the ugliness that exists within. Let's delve into why.

To set the stage, three basic things need to exist for any run of the mill thunderstorm to form: moisture/water, instability in the atmosphere (read low pressure so things can "move around") and some sort of a lifting force (heat from the sun or a cold front moving thru to push things up into the air or some other force that can jam millions of tons of water 30,000+ feet into the air). That right there should give you the idea of the amount of energy contained within a thunderstorm. The best way I've heard it put is that if you compare a thunderstorm to a hydrogen bomb (you know, big mushroom cloud explosion that could evaporate an area the size of Rhode Island...sorry Rhode Islanders) a thunderstorm releases it's energy more slowly than a hydrogen bomb but has lots more energy than a hydrogen bomb. Impressive so far, right?

Let's look at all the nastiness that can occur in a thunderstorm.

First and foremost is turbulence and wind. If you refer to my post on turbulence, you'll see that there is some turbulence labeled as "severe" and "extreme". While these types can, in rare instances, occur outside of thunderstorms, you have a pretty good chance of finding them in a thunderstorm. Why there? Go back to those basic ingredients necessary for a thunderstorm. Instability means well.....instability! Air moving in many different directions unabated. Think that can create turbulence? You bet it can! Next - a lifting force. Some supercell thunderstorms like the ones that occurred last night can exhibit updrafts (air moving upward that develops a thunderstorm) in excess of 160mph! In aviation terms, that's about 12,000 feet per minute (fpm) or well in excess of the climb rates of commercial airliners....and even many fighter jets! Updrafts are bad enough. Now take that updraft and turn it into a downdraft with similar speeds. It doesn't take anything more than simple math to tell you what happens to an airplane capable of climbing at 5,000fpm that is stuck in a 12,000fpm downdraft (or what would be referred to as a "microburst"). The word "splat" comes to mind. Even a more "benign" storm or your run of the mill summer thunderstorm can have 5,000+fpm updrafts and downdrafts. Consider that your average Boeing 737 can climb roughly at a maximum of 6,000fpm lightly loaded at sea level/takeoff (that number goes down quickly as you get heavier and higher) and you can see why you don't mess with mother nature. Now, imagine all of this happening in close proximity to the ground and you get what is called "low level wind shear"(LLWS). There is a famous crash of a Delta Lockheed L-1011 that occurred in 1985 in TX that resulted in the development and subsequent mandating by the FAA of modern LLWS detection systems to ensure similar crashes never occur again. In addition to all of that, the stresses imposed on airplanes by those severe updrafts and downdrafts can greatly exceed the design limits of the airplane and the airplane can, well....break. Oddly enough, because of the power of updrafts and downdrafts, it has, over the years, rained some pretty crazy stuff. Fish and birds have gotten sucked up in an updraft and ultimately rained down and, yes, as the song goes, it has even rained a few men as some unfortunate skydivers have gotten caught up in thunderstorms. Here's one great story you have to read!
Would YOU fly thru this? Didn't think so.
An impressive supercell thunderstorm.

The second reason you don't tangle with thunderstorms is water. Wait, water!? You're probably thinking "you're telling me water can crash a plane!? Great! I'm never flying again!" Well, hold on a second and I'll explain. What happens to water when the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit? It freezes right? Wrong! It sometimes freezes. 32 degrees is the magic number at which ice melts not at which water freezes. So now that we've thrown 5th grade science out the window, how does ice form then? Well, it forms when that below 32 degree water hits something solid that is below 32 degrees as well like airplane wing!  Now, lets join the rest of the world and use Celsius. Water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius (32F). Every 1,000 feet up you go, the temperature drops on average by about 2 degrees Celsius. So if you're on the ground on a nice 80 degree F (about 27C) summer day, the "freezing level" is at about 14,000 feet. While all commercial airliners have very robust and very capable ice protection systems, they can easily be overwhelmed by the enormous volume of water found in thunderstorms.  Trust me when I say this - ice does not do nice things to an airplane. Aside from that, what happens when you take that very large volume of water and stick it into one of those updrafts I talked about? Well, at some point the water does start to freeze together and get heavy enough that it starts to fall and you get hail. If you think hail is bad when it leaves little dents on the roof of your car sitting in your driveway, think of what happens when it hits an airplane doing 450 knots (or about 520mph). In extremely powerful thunderstorms, hail can actually shoot thousands of feet out of the TOP of the storm! The final thing I'll say on the water front is that there is so much water that there have been extremely isolated incidents where water in a thunderstorm combined with hail have overcome jet engines and have caused them to flame out. That's a lot of water!

The third but far less important reason you don't tangle with thunderstorms is lightning. Now, many airplanes have encounters with lightning regularly and they don't fall from the sky. In fact, one estimate says that every commercial airliner is hit on average once a year. Airplanes can and regularly do survive lightning strikes. Wires are shielded to protect avionics, fuel tanks are designed to withstand sparks created by lightning and the skin is typically made of aluminum which means it conducts the charge around the outside of the airplane. But, let's face it, there is a lot of energy contained in a bolt of lightning and if you can avoid it, you probably should. Just because the law of averages is stacked very comfortably in favor of airplanes surviving lightning strikes, why throw caution into the wind? And where does lightning come from? Well, all that water caught up in all that wind rubs together which causes the friction that creates the charged particles to form lightning. So, in all reality, you want to stay away from the stuff that creates the lightning even more than you want to stay away from the lightning itself. And, pilots tend to like happy passengers. There's a high "underwear change" factor when you have a plane that gets hit by lightning and, if you think thunder is loud on the ground. Try being 2 feet away from the lightning bolt that the thunder originates from.

By now, you're thinking "I AM NEVER FLYING AGAIN!" and, if you stopped reading at this point you'd probably be right in your thinking! But, planes do safely navigate around thunderstorms all the time. In my next post, I'll talk about how your pilots safely deal with thunderstorms.

Until then.....

Blue Skies,

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Where's the Runway!!?

I once read an article that said one of the best feelings in flying is taking off into thick clouds only to see it get lighter and lighter and lighter until....poof! Out of the tops of the clouds you come and into the clear blue sky above! While I will admit that is an incredible feeling, it a close second to just the opposite: descending into the clouds below only to pop out of the murk (or "soup" as pilots like to call it) and have a big, beautiful runway sitting right there in front of you. After all, getting up into the sky is only half the battle and, as an old saying goes: "Aviation has a perfect record. We haven't left one up there yet!"

To passengers, however, there is perhaps no greater mystery in flying (other than how you are rocketing thru the air 7 miles above the earth in a metal tube) than how do they get you safely on the ground when fog thicker than pea soup keeps you from seeing anything until seconds before you land. The answer is using what's called an "Instrument Approach Procedure" or IAP. Many people assume that GPS has taken all the guesswork out of IAPs. But, consider this: many airlines have not approved GPS - based IAPs and are using the venerable Instrument Landing System or ILS. Amazingly, the first airliner landed using an ILS approach in 1938!! Imagine that! Technology that was invented in the 1920s and first used in the 1930s is still used to reliably land the majority of airliners in 2012! Pretty impressive record. So, how does it work? Let's delve into it.

The inflight movie just ended and your seat back and tray table are in their upright and locked position. The plane slowly descends into the fluffy overcast layer below, the sun fades away and slowly your plane is engulfed in nothing but grey. Air traffic control (ATC) issues your pilots a series of turns and descents (vectors) until they are lined up with and using the first component of the ILS approach called the "localizer". Think of this as an imaginary runway centerline that originates from a radio transmitter at the far end of the runway. There is a needle in the cockpit that represents the runway centerline that floats to the left and right. If it's to the left, you need to fly left to get back on the runway centerline. If it floats to the right, you fly to the right....just like you were looking at the centerline of the runway itself!

ATC will keep your pilots flying toward the runway on the localizer at a certain altitude. When they reach a certain point called the "Outer Marker", a blue light that says "O" illuminates and a distinct series of tones is heard in the cockpit which lets the pilots know what point they are over. This point, known as the "Final Approach Fix" (FAF),  is where a second needle known as the "glideslope or glidepath" comes alive. The radio signal that moves this needle comes from a second radio transmitter that is on the side of the runway about 1,000 feet from the runway threshold. Think of this one as a tractor beam that is pulling the plane diagonally onto the runway. This needle floats up and down. If it floats up you are too low. If it floats down you are too high. Just fly toward the needle. The localizer and glideslope create a set of crosshairs.  Your pilots (or the autoflight system) keep the crosshairs centered so that your plane descends down to the runway and lands roughly 1,000 feet onto the runway! Easy, right? Well, sort of. At some point, the pilots have to actually see the runway or else they have to execute what is called a "missed approach procedure" (go missed) which means they fly back up into the air as specified by their charts and try the approach again or divert to another airport. How do they know when to go missed? Simple. At either the "Middle Marker" (Amber cockpit light and some tones) or the "Inner Marker" (White cockpit light and some tones)  and not below a charted altitude known as the "Decision Altitude" (DA), either your pilots see the runway or they go missed. For a standard ILS, that DA or "minimum" comes at only 200 feet above the ground at the Middle Marker which is about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile from the runway threshold. By the way, seeing those crazy flashing lights at the end of the runway counts as seeing the runway.

What about "autoland" that I mentioned in my previous post on autopilots? Well, if your airplane is so equipped, the airport you are flying to has a specially certified ILS installation and the pilots are specially certified, the need for actually seeing the runway is almost eliminated and the pilots can use the autoflight system to fly the airplane right onto the runway.

Pretty amazing for 1930s technology, huh? Hey, it works!

If you are so inclined, head out to YouTube and search on "ILS minimums" and check out what flying an ILS aproach looks like from the "front office". You'll see why I say it's one of the best feelings in the flying!

By the way, there are many other types of instrument approaches. If you're so inclined, you can Google: RNAV, GPS, VOR, NDB, RNP (these are new and particularly cool), and PAR approaches to name a few.

Blue Skies,

Full credit to for some of this data. Check it out for the real nuts and bolts of how an ILS works!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Autopilot Myth: What Your Pilots Really Do During Your Flight

There is one saying that I hear from people over and over agin: "Planes fly themselves" often followed up with "In a few years, we won't even have pilots in the plane". Let's delve into that a little and see if you have the same opinion after reading this. First, what exactly does an autopilot do? Well, the answer is "it depends". Autopilots first came into being as what were called "wing levelers". With a wing leveler (yes, they still exist) the pilot basically gets the plane flying at the correct heading and at the correct altitude and turns on the "wing leveler" and, voila, hands off the controls! Any time a turn is necessary, the pilot manually turns the plane and resets the wing leveler. Every so often, the pilot has to tweak the heading and altitude to get it to stay on target. Not much of an autopilot and not one you'll find on most commercial airliners.

So, how does the modern autopilot of a commercial airliner work? Well, first, let's change what you call it because it is much more accurate to call it an "autoflight system" because it's often times a combination of systems that generate the desired end result. In a modern airliner almost anything that controls the movement of the airplane can be manipulated by an autoflight system....right up to the brakes once you hit the runway. What about speed and the throttles that control the engines? Autothrottles! Can they know what route to fly? Absolutely! The autoflight systems are fully integrated with the navigation systems. "Can planes land themselves", you ask? The answer is: sort of. I'll explain as we go along.

So by now, I probably haven't convinced you that the pilots are necessary. Well, let me tell you what autoflight systems haven't been developed yet: good judgement, analysis, decision making and experience systems. Autoflight systems are designed to follow certain rules and when those rules go out the window because of weather or some abnormal situation, you want to have the best pilots you can possibly have.

Let's look at a hypothetical flight from Boston, MA to Tampa, FL. The weather is predicted to be gorgeous all the way. Not a cloud in the sky. Before taxi, your pilots have your route of flight programmed into the Flight Management System (FMS) which is a little onboard computer that performs a variety of tasks. Fast forward to takeoff. You're lined up on the runway. Your pilots physically advance the throttles and pull back on the control stick or yoke and up into the air you go. As soon as the plane is climbing, they pull a lever to bring the landing gear up. Moments later, up come the flaps, slats and anything else used for takeoff. The airplane is now "clean" and climbing. No mention of the autoflight system yet. The climb continues with your pilots "hand flying" the plane....all the way up to 29,000 feet where, federal regulations dictate they must turn on the autoflight system. Why? Do they not have the skill to fly over 29,000 feet!!? Of course they do! In an effort to pack as many planes in the sky as possible, the FAA designed a way to stack planes on top of one another more closely and that requires the use of an autoflight that can hold a very precise altitude. But, get up to 41,000 feet where most modern airliners don't fly and you can again hand fly. So, on goes the autoflight system and your pilots "sit back" and "let George fly".

"George" dutifully flies the plane until you get to New York City. In that busy airspace, Air Traffic Control issues a series of climbs, turns, descents and speed changes to your pilots (vectors), each of which require the pilot to tell the autoflight systems what to do in response.
No, autopilots don't look like this!

OK. We get past New York and all is great with the autoflight systems flying and your pilots doing some housekeeping work, monitoring systems and maybe reviewing emergency procedures. Until you get to Georgia. There, your pilots find that some of those famous Florida thunderstorms have popped up are working their way into Tampa from the Gulf of Mexico. Remember the forecast that said clear skies? Well, have you ever seen an accurate weather forecast? I thought so.

Your pilots start to closely work the onboard weather radar and get reports from other pilots (Pilot Reports or PIREPs) and ATC to find the most appropriate route around the storms. They then start working with ATC to negotiate that route. The line of powerful storms is pretty well developed so it's going to require some careful planing to navigate around. Your descent begins and you notice it's getting pretty cloudy outside. You are now fully in the clouds and what sounds like rain starts hitting the plane. Only it's -10 degrees outside and that rain instantly freezes when it hits the plane. Your pilots turn on the ice protection systems and turn off the autoflight systems.  Your pilots are now hand flying the plane. Why no more autoflight system? Because of how unpredictable ice is. Ice is one of those things that throws all the autoflight "rules" out the window because it doesn't know how the plane flies loaded with 1,000lbs of ice on its surfaces. Your pilots can figure that out pretty quickly and make the appropriate adjustments to the plane to keep you flying safely.

You continue the descent into Tampa and when the temperature goes above freezing, all the ice flies off the plane. Because of the constant turning by your pilots who are working very hard and monitoring the weather radar, you stay out of the storms and hit no turbulence. However, because of the storms passing thru, Tampa airport is now completely fogged in. Uh oh, no way to land now, right? Wrong. In steps your pilots to configure the "autoland" system. Now, this isn't a system where your pilots push a big "LAND" button, sit back and fall asleep and wake up and say "oh look, we're on the ground". First, it requires the plane and the airport to be equipped with the right systems to support an autoland approach. Your pilots even require special training and certification to be able to fly an autoland approach. Imagine that - extra training for something that everyone thinks requires less pilot skill! Autoland requires careful inputs by the pilots to get the plane to maneuver itself right onto the runway where the "autobrakes" kick in. Depending on the surface conditions and length of the runway, your pilot configures the autobrakes to stop the plane with a certain amount of force. Again - not something the plane will figure out by itself especially since pilots rely on other pilots who have landed before them to give a detailed description of the conditions on the runway.

So the next time you think there's no need for your pilots anymore, think of how comfortable you'd be with only "George" (the autoflight system) doing all the flying when you encounter thunderstorms, ice and other nasty things that mother nature can throw at your airplane. This is just one small example but I could go on for days about other situations where the autoflight systems just won't cut it and well trained pilots will.

Knowing the rigorous training programs the airlines put their pilots through, I for one will take a couple of highly trained pilots any day of the week.

Blue Skies,

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Get out and fly!

The United States has, without question, the best aviation system in the world. The technology, the accessibility and the safety are just simply second to none. It is something America should be proud of. To many, "General Aviation" means flying around in private jets but let me show you a different side of it. One populated by folks as middle class as it gets. I know people from all walks of life who fly simply because they love it. Some have lots of money and some lead simple lives. But when you're up in the air, none of it matters. You are all pilots.

This is what keeps me flying. Imagine yourself doing this:

You get to the airport early on a Saturday morning after a very stressful week at work and, as you drive up to the airport, you forget about your job sitting in an office for 50 hours a week and you start the transformation into being a pilot. Transformation complete, you pull the covers off your small, piston engine 4 seat plane and untie the ropes holding it to the ramp. The sun has not yet risen so you grab a flashlight and do a thorough safety check and get some fuel. You hop in the plane without filing a flight plan because you have no place in particular to go. Within 15 minutes of stepping out of your car, you taxi and takeoff without calling the tower because there is no tower at the airport you're leaving from. Just come and go as you please. You decide to head out to that little island off the coast for breakfast. So you head there. On the way, from 5,500 feet above ground level (AGL) in silky smooth air, you witness one of the most spectacular sunrises you have ever seen. The sun reflects off the water with a view that is almost indescribable.
View of the sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean en route
to Martha's Vineyard
In 40 minutes you land on the island that would have taken you 4 hours to get to by car and boat and you're met by the "line staff" at the local Fixed Base Operator (FBO - place at an airport where GA planes park). They help you park your plane and within 5 minutes you have a cup of hot coffee in your hand at the small diner at the airport. An hour later, you are back in the air and decide you'd like to visit the airport near home where you fly the airlines. No problem. You call them up on the radio and they clear you for a "touch and go" which is when you momentarily touch the runway and head right back up into the air. You head back to your home airport, put the plane away and you're home and playing with your kids by 10am.  You have a smile from ear to ear that won't go away for days. Unfortunately for your significant other, you will continue to talk about every small little detail of your flight for days as well. :)

Sound too good to be true? It's not.  This is what the best aviation system in the world has to offer and the possibilities of what you can do with it are limitless. Someone asked me what it takes to become a pilot. This link will describe the process but I'll go into a few of the qualitative aspects of what it takes below:

1. A passion for flying - In flying, as with anything in life, you strive to be the best at what you do. Having a passion for flying will drive you to be the best pilot you can be. Any way you want to slice it, flying is a serious business. It can be tremendously safe and tremendously fun but if you aren't passionate about it, I would steer you to settle for going up with an instructor or professional pilot to get your flying fix.

2. Money - There's an old saying in aviation that "It take two things to fly - airspeed and money". You can't get around this one but how much money it takes may surprise you. First, identify what you want to do with flying. If all you want to do is take some nice hops within a 50 mile radius on calm clear days, then you can do it in a much less expensive airplane than one that's equipped to fly from NY to FL in inclement weather. Again - don't let money dissuade you. Save up. It can be done if you have the passion for it. And, consider this: most entry level First Officers on a regional airline make less money than the person who served you your latte at Starbucks and they found the money to become an airline pilot, which is A LOT more than it takes to carry out the scenario I described above. Again, it can be done if you put your mind to it and are passionate about it!!

3. Time - not just the time to fly but the time to dedicate to studying and consuming information on flying. Again, I go back to #1. If you are passionate about it, you won't be able to put the books down. You will seek out information because you love it so much. Again, don't let this dissuade you. I got my pilot's license and other advanced ratings while I had a wife, 3 young children and a very demanding job. I'd fly early in the morning or later in the evening and I'd fall asleep with books in my hand. I drive a lot for work so I had study materials playing on my car radio for hours on end. It can absolutely be done but remember this - if you do it all at once, you will spend less money over the long haul because you won't have to spend extra time in the plane relearning things you forgot since your last lesson. And, to that point, the more prepared you show up for your lesson, the more quickly you'll master the concepts in the air.

4. Your health - You need to be fairly healthy as a pilot although there are options for people unable to obtain an FAA medical certification (see Sport Pilot certificate) but are still generally healthy. Don't worry about it if you wear glasses as plenty of pilots require vision correction. You're not landing on an aircraft carrier so that whole myth of pilots needing perfect vision doesn't necessarily apply to you. There are plenty of people to help you thru this process.

So, are you interested? I hope so. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots association is a great resource and this link will tell you all you need to know about the requirements for getting your pilots license. And, if you're in my neck of the woods, give me a call and I'll help navigate you thru some of the local airports and schools.

I hope to see you in the air sometime soon!

Blue Skies,

Friday, January 27, 2012

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends: Air Traffic Control

So you think you have a stressful job, huh? Try this: Sit in a dimly lit room staring at a screen trying to keep a bunch of dots representing the lives of hundreds of people in metal tubes flying above the earth from hitting each other or flying into cumulo-granite clouds (better known as mountains) or thunderstorms. Now, do all that with ever changing weather, congested airspace and other distractions happening simultaneously and you have the job consistently ranked as the most stressful job in the world: Air Traffic Controller. But, how does it all work? Well, let's take you thru a typical airline flight so you can see the lots of different types of controllers that will work with your pilots to get you safely to your destination.

Well before you've gotten up close and personal with your friendly TSA agent, your pilot or their dispatchers have already filed a flight plan with the FAA computers. After some work by FAA planners, the plane's route info gets sent as a strip of information to every controller responsible for handling that flight. Literally a paper printout that gets put in a holder and stacked and moved around on a board next to the controller and sometimes handed from controller to controller like a high stakes game of Jenga.

On to the fun stuff. While you are trying to stow a carry on the size of a small Volkswagen and are putting your stuff on the middle seat thinking that will make nobody want to sit there, your pilots are getting their route assignment sent to their onboard computer or are using the radio to call a "Clearance Delivery" controller who verbally gives them their route, altitudes, etc. Clearance Delivery may also work out alternate routes if necessary.

Now, you get going. You're all strapped in and have dutifully shut off all your portable electronic devices. The pilot now calls a "Ground" controller who clears the plane to push back from the gate and taxi up to but not onto the runway.

Next comes the "Tower" controller. That guy makes a phone call to the guys controlling the planes in the air to make sure they have room for your plane in the air and once he gets the OK, he clears the plane for takeoff and within seconds, your plane is hurtling down the runway and into the air.

Off to departure. Seconds after you leave the ground, the tower controller hands your plane off to the departure (sometimes referred to as TRACON or RAPCON) controllers. Their job is to quickly find your plane on their radar screen and get the plane from the "terminal area" (think city streets) into what's referred to as  the "en route structure" (think highways).  These guys will "vector" (tell the pilots to climb, turn, descend) a plane with the goal of getting the plane on to the route assigned to them by the Clearance Delivery guy.

Just about the time you get your iPod cranking, your plane gets handed off to a "Center" controller. Center controllers handle the majority of your flight. These guys get your plane up to your cruising altitude so you can get a bag containing exactly 3.5 peanuts and some lukewarm coffee. These are typically the guys working to get you the smoothest altitude. They keep planes spaced properly for cruise flight often times by asking the pilots to fly at specified speeds so nobody has to turn or change altitude.

When you're ready to land, everything basically happens in reverse except the "departure" controllers become "approach" controllers.

Seems nice and simple, right? A walk in the park, you say. Throw in some congestion or nasty weather and, trust me, these guys earn their pay and then some. As big as the sky is, space is more limited than you think. In fact, the next time you are sitting at home and you hear a severe thunderstorm rumble on in, go to and listen in to what's going on in the city above your head. When the chips are on the table and a huge line of thunderstorms is in the area, it is truly amazing to hear controllers and pilots work together to keep things moving along smoothly.

It's a job that's part skill, part nerves of steel and part being crazy enough to want to be an air traffic controller but make no mistake about it, these dedicated professionals are every bit as integral to the safety of your flight as the pilots.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


(Disclaimer: this information is not intended to be used for any flight planning or flight operations purposes. Use at your own risk.) Yes, I know too many lawyers. :)

On my  flight today from Dulles (KIAD) to Hartford (KBDL), I sat next to a woman who was extremely scared to fly. I could feel the tension emanating from her and I felt really bad for her.
Even though I was just a passenger today, I had looked at the weather, knew to expect a few light bumps and that we'd mostly be in the clouds for the flight. I held off on telling her what to expect thinking I'd only make her more nervous. We departed from KIAD and were in the clouds in just a few seconds. As expected, the bumps started a couple minutes in. VERY light but immediately the woman next to me threw the relaxing music on her iPod, started her deep breathing exercises, death gripped the armrest and looked like she'd rather be anywhere on earth than there. I thought to myself, "if only she knew that, more than likely, it wasn't going to get any worse and knew what to expect". I held off on telling her however, I figured that some you nervous flyers would be interested. So, for everyone who hates turbulence or is just curious about it, here's a few interesting and hopefully helpful tidbits on turbulence.

1. Your pilot is really trying to avoid the bumps. They want you to not be scared so you'll fly again - their livelihoods depend on you flying again! They are constantly getting "ride reports" from air traffic control (ATC) which are reports from other planes in the area or on the same route. If a different altitude looks better, they will more than likely try it if ATC will clear them to do so and it doesn't adversely affect the flight in other ways. On a bumpy day, almost all you hear on the radio is pilots and ATC working out smoother altitudes.

2. There are four different classifications of turbulence with the laymen's definition below:

Light - my coffee shows a few ripples in it.
Moderate - my coffee may spill a little on the tray table (most people's "worst flight" story)
Severe - I'm wearing my coffee
Extreme - my coffee has become a deadly projectile and the flight attendant who served it to me is now embedded in the ceiling.

3. While turbulence related crashes have occurred, they are so rare and unlikely that you have a greater chance of dying because you got run over by a Coyote wearing Acme Rocket Shoes chasing a Road Runner than you do of dying because of turbulence. In other words, don't worry about it. Almost all of those accidents occurred because a chain of other events occurred in addition to the turbulence. In case you doubt me, this is a picture of the wing loading test of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

So, don't worry on your next flight when you see the wings bend. They're supposed to do that.

4. Clouds are a generally a good indicator of turbulence. Cumulous = bumpy until you get above them. Status/fog = smooth. Terrain is an indicator too - flying above mountains tends to be bumpier because of the air movements off of their surface. Yes, if it's really windy it'll probably be bumpy closer to the ground but it can easily smooth out as you climb up as the air sometimes tends to move more erratically closer to the ground. Thunderstorms do cause severe or worse turbulence but, trust me, your pilots and ATC work together using sophisticated weather radar to avoid them at all costs. Unexpected encounters with severe clear air turbulence (CAT) are very rare and, many planes have dealt with some pretty extreme encounters with CAT with nothing more than an unhappy ground cleaning crew.

5. It tends to be smoother in the morning so if you absolutely hate turbulence, you'll generally reduce your chances of encountering it if you fly earlier in the day (although nothing will eliminate your chances of encountering it). Throughout the day, the sun heats up the earth and causes air to rise which causes bumps. The next time you cross over asphalt parking lot on a hot day, see if you notice a couple bumps or a little bit of a "rise" as you pass over.  You can see this point proven when you see those "waves" coming off a hot surface on a hot day.

6. Remember, the airplane you are flying on cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars and lawsuits are expensive. The airlines would like to see that expensive asset make it safely from A to B just as much as you do. If it's unsafe, they don't go or they divert. Period. So, don't get mad the next time your flight is delayed or cancelled because of "weather". Trust me, if your pilot doesn't want to fly, you don't want to fly either.

So, now that you're all turbulence experts, get out there and fly and relax!! And, if this doesn't help you calm down, a couple of your favorite cocktails probably will.