Just Another Flight

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Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2016

“Traffic. Traffic”. The verbal announcement from the traffic collision avoidance system startled the co-pilot, who was now looking back and forth between the navigation display and the forward window. Bill had been expecting the alert, and was already looking at the other airplane. As the traffic below climbed to its assigned altitude just one-thousand feet below them, the computer knew only the position and rate of climb for the other airplane, and reacted accordingly. A few minutes earlier, when he heard air traffic control clear the other airplane to climb, Bill had watched the co-pilot, hoping to see some awareness on his part as to the potential for conflict, but awareness of other traffic was just not something that most of the younger generation brought to the flight deck. As Bill saw the rate of climb for the conflicting traffic slow, he knew the airplane was indeed leveling at its assigned altitude, and watched as the avoidance system finally reacted and went silent. Like the rest of the computerized systems, it was a great tool, but understanding its limitations was essential to using it effectively. It couldn’t think or inductively reason. It knew only its programming and the facts of the limited data input that were part of its software. A need for more than mere deductive reaction to understand the dynamics of a particular circumstance could make it more alarming than helpful. For the week he and the young co-pilot had been together, Bill had repeatedly stressed the need to understand the inputs, limitations and capabilities of automated systems in order to effectively provide human oversight, and make certain those systems were working as intended. To many of the younger pilots, automated systems were not just tools of assistance, but of reliance. The kid’s reaction to these lectures reminded Bill of his teenage son. There was no verbalized disrespect, but each time he had rolled his eyes and smirked in response.

The airline stressed that captains were expected to train co-pilots, share insights gained in their decades of experience, and bring the younger crew members along so they could someday upgrade to captain without the need to learn every facet by trial and error. The system had seemed to work well for Bill’s generation, but something was different now. Bill could not recall a single co-pilot in recent years that had started his or her aviation career working entry level jobs at an airport. Fueling airplanes or assisting in the maintenance shop had been the first aviation employment for most of Bill’s contemporaries. Bill remembered how he worked those minimum wage jobs all week long to earn enough for a single lesson. He thought at the time it was just a way to make money and be close to airplanes, but over the years, the knowledge that he had picked up about airframes, engines and systems had often proven invaluable. He chuckled at the memories of times when he was able to quickly get airline maintenance personnel on the right track, and the surprise of some mechanics to learn that the captain knew more than just how to fly. His first real flying job was teaching new students, followed by charter in single and then twin-engine airplanes. After some five years of flying for three to five dollars per hour, he landed his first ‘airline’ job, flying night freight in a retired – and very ‘tired’ – military C-45 that was twenty years older than he.

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Bill looked down at the undercast, knowing that they were passing Detroit, unseen below the clouds. He thought of that first job flying the freight every night from Detroit to Chicago and back, alone at seven-thousand feet in the clouds, rain, snow and ice. On board were cancelled checks for the federal reserve bank, mail and a hundred boxes. There was no co-pilot, no weather radar, and no autopilot. He had been the captain, co-pilot, navigator and radio operator – truly a ‘one-man-band’. The pay had still been poor, but the education on how to fly and manage an airplane was subsequently proven as beyond value.

Maybe that was the difference with the new generation. Most completed an aviation degree at a technical college, paid for by mom and dad. With the minimum flight hours required by regulation at every step, they garnered the ratings and licenses over three years in the highly antiseptic environment of a structured university curriculum, rather than the decade and more of on-the-job experience required of their predecessors. On their first day together, Bill had inquired about the flying background of his young co-pilot, and the kid proudly recounted that he had experience in five different airplane models when hired by the airline. “Five airplanes!” Bill thought, “I flew or instructed in five different airplane models on most days in my first five years of professional flying.”

It was time to start thinking about Chicago. Bill read the airport terminal information on the ACARS, and then tuned to hear the data transmission on VHF, as well, so they did not get trapped with superseded information by a delay in updating the company data. He set the display to show the ATIS on a data screen, and validated the landing speeds to print on the primary flight displays. The predicted top-of-descent point had appeared on the track line within the navigation display, and Bill waited for the kid to initiate his briefing for the arrival and landing at Chicago. But the kid was not thinking ahead. He should have been reviewing the approach and field data, but the flight deck was warm, and he was staring at infinity as the airplane closed on the top-of-descent point at nearly eight miles a minute.

The kid had been surprised that morning when Bill told him that it would be the first officer’s leg to Chicago. He had flown the leg into New York the evening before, and in the normal alternating sequence of things, Bill would have flown to Chicago. It was almost as if the kid wanted to talk Bill out of letting him fly the sector, which Bill found troubling. Maybe that indicated a difference between the new generation and those before. From the first time he saw an airplane pass over the farm, Bill had wanted to fly. In his first years with the airline, he often lobbied captains to let him fly an extra leg. He had listened carefully to the counsel of every captain. Some had been pretty average airplane handlers, and some had funny ideas based on little more than myth or trial lore, but Bill recognized that all had experience from which lessons could be taken. The new breed liked the life-style, pay, schedule, and travel, but few acted as though they actually enjoyed flying. Instead, they seemed content to operate the airplane like a video game, and flew manually only when ordered by the captain. Bill had been honest and direct with the kid when he balked at flying a leg out of the normal order. “We’ve talked about your crosswind technique all week, but it was still poor yesterday. The winds will be pretty strong in Chicago, and I want you to get another shot at getting it right.” Bill had hoped to hear something like, “Thanks captain, I can use the practice”, but there had been no response whatsoever.

Bill finally gave up on waiting for the kid to initiate the briefing. “You’re going to get a clearance to start down pretty soon, and the descent into Chicago can get pretty busy, so while we still have a little time, maybe you should brief me on your plans for the descent, approach and landing.” It was as if the kid had been jolted back to reality. There was a flurry of activity in the right seat, and after several minutes he started his briefing. It was like that given by most of the younger pilots – too long, too much emphasis on standard operating procedures, and little or no mention of the specifics that would bear special attention under the circumstances of the day. It was a perfect example of what happens when FAA managers no longer brought actual airline experience to their jobs. The form and content of briefings had expanded to where they often threatened to put the pilot-not-flying to sleep, overlooking or obscuring the most important issues in a flood of less relevant – and sometimes completely irrelevant – information. But, form over substance was often what the modern FAA wanted, and it was easier for the airline to go along than to try and educate bureaucrats in the fact that more was not the same as better.

This was their last day together. Bill would have preferred to make an instructional event of discussing the briefing in detail, and using it to consolidate some of the training from earlier in the week. But, the kid had repeatedly made it clear that he did not like even the most constructive of criticism, so Bill avoided any more talk about technique, and corrected only the elements bearing on flight standards and procedures.

The descent clearance came. Bill shifted from his instructor mode, and concentrated on being just a good pilot-not-flying, providing the assistance required by procedure and good operating practices, but allowing the kid to manage the airplane and make his own decisions. And, except for the crosswind landing, things went pretty well. “When was it,” Bill wondered, “That crosswind takeoffs and landings ceased to be part of flight training?” Even when you could get one of the younger pilots to actually use a side-slip and align the airplane track with the runway, the crosswind correction was removed immediately upon touchdown, apparently forgotten in the rush to get thrust reversers deployed and push the elevator control forward. With deceleration and forward elevator, the effective weight of the airplane was then concentrated on the nose, where of course there are no brakes. Any four-year-old knows that tricycles are not stable at high speeds with weight on the nose wheel, but most young pilots had forgotten those early lessons from childhood. The removal of crosswind control after touchdown usually left the airplane weaving back and forth with the upwind wing raised and the airplane weather-cocking into the wind. Bill thought of his early days as an instructor in Champs, Chiefs, Cubs and the like. All of them weighed less than one-thousand pounds, and yet training for even new students routinely included taking off and landing in crosswinds of twenty knots and more. Now, with modern airliners weighing in at several hundred thousand pounds, the new generation of pilots often bounced and weaved in ten knot crosswinds as though taking off or landing in a hurricane.

Parked at the gate, it was time to switch roles for the last sector of the week from Chicago to San Francisco. Bill would now be the pilot-flying, and the kid would be working in the supporting role. They had about ninety minutes before departure, so once the passengers were off and arrival paperwork completed, Bill went out to preflight the airplane. Many of the captains delegated the preflight inspection, but Bill had learned some hard lessons about that in his early days as a captain. The first officer may overlook something critical, but it is still the captain’s responsibility. He remembered the wise counsel of the chief pilot at that time. “You can delegate the function, but not the responsibility. It may be bitterly cold or oppressively hot. It may be raining or snowing, but the preflight can be critically important. Take a walk, stretch your legs and do not rely on your least-experienced crew member to decide if the airplane is safe to fly.”

The ramp at O’Hare was bustling with activity. The smell of aviation kerosene was heavy in the air, and a never-ending parade of fuel bowsers, baggage carts, catering trucks and other vehicles ran under and around the airplanes. Bill stopped for a few minutes under the tail of his airplane and took it all in. The airport was a lot different now than when he first started flying to Chicago. He could still recognize some of the first terminals, now blended into larger and longer buildings. The noises, sights and smells had changed with the level of activity and types of airplanes. Reciprocating-powered airplanes, with large puddles of oil under every engine and clouds of blue smoke at every start, were now just a memory. The ear-crushing noise and black smoke spewed by early turbojets was no longer heard and seen, as the new fanjet engines were designed to run more quietly and cleanly. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was, but something had been lost. Maybe it was the character of the airport, or even that of the airline business itself. Whatever it was, Bill missed it.

Back on the flight deck, Bill started through the procedures to set up the flight deck for departure. The gate agent showed up with the paperwork, and Bill started through it. There was a hazardous cargo notification, the weight and balance calculations, flight plan and flight release. Bill asked the kid to program the flight plan into the flight management computer and check the weight and balance calculations against the takeoff performance charts. Bill knew that many of the captains and all of the new hires accepted calculations from dispatch as if chiseled in stone tablets, but he could not recall a year during which his cross-checks had not revealed at least one instance where a significant oversight or error in calculation had made its way into the final paperwork. Maybe there was some progress with the kid, who for the first time all week did not question the advisability of cross-checking or characterize it as ‘make-work’.

Bill went through the flight management system, double-checking the flight plan as entered by the kid. There were no issues with the primary flight plan, but the alternate route section was blank. Bill caught the kid’s attention. “Remember our discussion coming out of Chicago earlier in the week about loading the most likely alternate routing, so that we reduce the likelihood of having to re-program at the last minute before takeoff, or while climbing, where we are far more likely to make an input error?” He then walked through his analysis of possible runway and standard instrument departure changes. There was a visible sagging of the shoulders and an accentuated sigh, as the kid used body language to again express his opinion that all of this was unnecessary.

Thirty minutes later, they were number one in the line for departure, when the tower both cleared them for takeoff and changed the departure routing in a single transmission. Bill assiduously resisted any language or mannerism that might be interpreted as an ‘I told you so’, and simply ordered the activation of the alternate route, hoping the point would be most effectively made in that way.

Bill used the technology to fly the departure routing, but once on course and on top of the clouds, he disconnected the autopilot and manually flew the airplane to altitude. He knew captains who always hand-flew in climbs and descents, whether in the clouds or not, and whether in busy airspace or not. He knew others who never hand-flew unless forced by an autopilot failure. Bill thought the best procedure was to use the technology when things were busy, allowing him to monitor the airplane and communications with air traffic control without the attention-consuming requirements of manual operation. At the same time, maintaining currency required that one hand-fly on a regular basis. And, of course, Bill – after almost fifty years – still enjoyed flying.

The air at altitude was clear and smooth, and the air traffic frequencies across the great plains were mostly quiet. The undercast came and went and came again, allowing one to see the ground for a time, and then only clouds below. Across western Nebraska, from Courthouse Rock to just short of Sidney, the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail were still visible from six miles in the sky, even after one-hundred fifty years of weathering. Bill wondered if those who insisted on their right to de-face the foothills near his home in the Sierra-Nevada Range with their all-terrain vehicles understood that the results of their weekend follies would alter the natural beauty of the landscape for a century and more.

The view of the Rocky Mountain Range was unrestricted. Even with significant headwinds from the west, they were still making a groundspeed of over 400 knots. Bill recalled the many times he had flown westbound at lower altitudes, and with smaller and slower airplanes. Flying across Nebraska at 120 knots seemed to take forever. Today, even three times that speed somehow seemed slow. He thought about the pioneers who spent months going across the great plains in wagons. They certainly would have seen nothing slow about even 120 knots. He checked the flight plan progress, which was ‘on time’ almost to the minute. Winds aloft forecasts used to be as much guesswork as science, but it had now become unusual to find winds more than a few knots or degrees different than forecasted.

He checked the ACARS for information from company dispatch about conditions at San Francisco. The weather was nearly perfect and no delays were expected. The instrument landing system was out of service for maintenance, but he intended to hand-fly most of the arrival, approach and landing anyway. He had flown the approaches to San Francisco hundreds of times over the years, but pulled up the depictions anyway, reviewing the routes, altitudes and speed restrictions most likely to be used today. It was time for another lesson – probably the last for the week. He asked the kid for his analysis of what arrivals were most likely, discussed it with him, and then directed those routings to be entered into the primary and alternate routes. Bill was pleased that some of the issues discussed with respect to other approaches during the week had clearly been retained.

The arrival was uneventful. Bill wanted to make ‘the perfect landing’ today, but had to settle for on-speed, in the touchdown zone, and safe. He assigned some of the post-flight paperwork to the young co-pilot. When the passengers and flight attendants had all left the airplane, Bill told the kid that he wanted to have a short discussion about the week’s flying, summarized the more important issues, and then asked if the kid had any feedback regarding their week together.

“With all due respect, captain, why do you treat everything like it’s a big deal? It’s just another flight.”

Bill was thoughtful for a few seconds. He wanted to craft his response carefully, knowing this would be his last opportunity to provide guidance that could be critical to the developing career of the younger man.

“Brent, you’ve chosen the career of ‘professional pilot’. It’s a job of enormous autonomy and responsibility. It’s not just your passengers that rely upon your professionalism. It is also the families of those passengers, and the passengers on other airplanes that will operate with reliance upon your conformance to laws, regulations, standards, procedures, assigned courses and altitudes. The airline for which you work, and all of the people who depend on it, will likewise rely upon you and the judgment, skill and professionalism you bring to your work on every flight.

“Professional pilots must operate to the best of their ability every day. There is no such thing as ‘just another flight’. You might go through a career and never see an emergency, but you must think, plan and operate every flight as though that potential emergency is only minutes away. The most important flight of your career is always today’s flight.

“I know you were offended several days ago when I told you that I do not allow operating crew members to read newspapers on the flight deck. During every flight – no matter how routine it may seem – professional pilots pay attention on a full-time basis. We observe and think about what is happening now, and what may, or probably will happen ten minutes, twenty minutes and one hour from now. We continuously monitor the airplane, engines and systems not because they are malfunctioning, but to ensure that we see any trend towards malfunction before it rises to the level of an emergency. We fly precisely every day, so that on a day when it really matters, flying precisely is second nature. We do not short cut standards or procedures because we can probably get away with it today. Instead, we follow those standards and procedures to the letter every day because they represent the safest, most efficient and most professional way to operate the airplane as a crew.

“We read our manuals and stay currently informed and proficient on not just those functions of the computerized systems that we use most often, but all of the available functions. We review technical manuals not just for company training, but also as an ongoing routine of self-study at home. When recurrent training is scheduled, we show up a couple of days early, and schedule time in the fixed-base and full flight simulators for additional practice before our training and checking sessions. We take it all seriously, because there is nothing more serious for a professional pilot than being fully informed and proficient.

“You didn’t know this week that I retire after this flight. I have been flying for almost fifty years, and here for over twenty-five. I could have just meandered through this last week of line flying. I didn’t have to invest my best level of professionalism on every sector. I didn’t have to work with you, counsel you and try to help you develop your own skill set and mind set for the future, but an important part of my job as a professional pilot has been to pay it forward by doing what I can to positively influence the next generation of captains.

“Nothing will please me more than to read one day in the company newsletter that you have successfully upgraded to captain, or have been commended for a solid professional performance in some challenging situation. I wish you the best.”

Bill packed up his flight bag and started for the door. The kid had not moved. He was quite obviously deep in thought, and Bill left him to those thoughts. As he walked up the jetway for the last time, he knew that he would miss all of it, but was proud that he had given his very best to every flight. To Bill, not a single one had ever been ‘just another flight’.

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 Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2016

“Just Another Flight” was first published in the June 2016 Issue (Vol 13 No 3) of Position Report magazine.