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.