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Friday, January 27, 2012

Zen and the Art of Aircraft Maintenance

Pilot’s maintenance write-up:  “Something loose in the cockpit.”
Mechanic’s corrective action:  “Something tightened in the cockpit.”
If you’re any kind of aviation buff, you’ve most likely seen this and other gems in a popular email of funny aircraft maintenance write-ups.  If not, I’ll take that as an excuse to plagiarize a few more here for your pleasure.
Squawk: “Aircraft handles funny."
Corrective Action:  “Aircraft told to straighten up, 'fly right,' and be serious."
Maintenance write-ups, or “Squawks” in pilot parlance, are a daily occurrence for pilots.  When you’re trying to keep safely in the sky a man-made bird with a million parts, well, that means a million and one things can go wrong.  Fortunately, a century’s progress in aircraft design has rendered modern airliners extremely safe; failures of the catastrophic kind are nearly unheard of.  But hassles of the minor and mundane kind, the equivalent of the knob popping off the radio in your ’03 Prius, are an every day occurrence.  While you may be able to live without that knob (I’ve been using the remote control in my ’98 Celica for the past year), every single airliner’s maintenance issue, no matter how trivial, must be addressed before flight.

Squawk: “Number Three Engine missing.”
Corrective Action:  “Number Three Engine found on right wing after brief search.”
But you wouldn’t want to delay, let alone cancel, a flight for, say, a broken toilet seat.
Enter the MEL, or Minimum Equipment List.  The FAA allows airliners to hurtle through the stratosphere with myriad broken parts, such as toilet seats, until those minor bits can be fixed while overnighting at a maintenance base. 

Squawk: “Mouse in radio stack.”
Corrective Action:  “Cat installed in radio stack.”
You know how, when you take your Prius to the mechanic, that “whee whee whee” sound it was making suddenly fixes itself?  Same thing happens on a plane.  (“But I swear, Frank, that radio was going ‘screeeech!’ a minute ago!”)  There's nothing more frustrating to a pilot than receiving as a Corrective Action:  "Could not duplicate; returned to service."  Worse, I’ve had my share of rookie squawks based on my lack of intimate knowledge of the airplane.  (“Uh, lady, that ‘chunk chunk chunk’ you’re hearing and feeling is called a ‘flat tire’.”)  Once, fresh on the Airbus, I wrote up the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) when I couldn’t get it to start—only to find out that you had to first turn on the Batteries to help power it up.  Uh . . . duh!  Now, after over 18 years on the Bus, I’m more than comfy on “Fifi’s” flight deck, though she still finds little ways to rise up and make me humble again .  That APU write-up, for example, is not just for rookies.  Even vets fall for it from time to time, when the Starbucks across from the gate hasn't opened yet.
Er, um. . . so I’m told...

Squawk: “Evidence of hydraulic leak on right main landing gear."
Corrective Action:  “Evidence removed."
For the hi-tech Airbus, 90% of my squawks are quickie fixes.  Reset a couple circuit breakers, do a quick byte test, and you're off and running.  But little things often do have the habit of snowballing into big things.  Hence the perpetually frustrating “another ten minutes and we’ll be underway” PA you hear a dozen times before actual door close.  All we pilots know is what our mechanics tell us, so please don’t kill the messenger.  And please, please, please don’t take it out on the flight attendants, either!  They’ve had a long day, too, and wanna get there just as badly as you do.  We’re all in this boat together.
Squawk: “Dead bugs on windshield."
Corrective Action:  “Live bugs on order."
While we all have our airline delay horror stories, my personal record was eight hours—count ‘em, eight!—hours stuck on on the plane , doors closed, on the tarmac in EWR.*  While our original maintenance delay only put us back 30 minutes, it was just long enough to ground-stop all traffic as a slow-moving wall of thunderstorms leisurely strolled overhead.  Our flight took off four minutes before our “drop-dead” time (i.e., max legal duty time) expired.  And then came the five hour flight to LAS.

Squawk: “Test flight OK, except autoland very rough."
Corrective Action:  “Autoland not installed on this aircraft."
So, your ace mechanics swooped in on the plane and did their magic.  You’re all patched up and ready to launch, right?!  Well, not exactly.   Just like the picture above, no flight is ready until the paperwork is done.  While a C/B reset might take two minutes, the paperwork takes at least ten.  For, close on the heels of the airline pilot’s mantra of “Safety First,” is “Charlie Yankee Alpha—Cover Your A**.”  The FAA can smell a dubious paper trail from FL390, so it is imperative that that toilet seat’s Green Card is filled out in triplicate, “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed, signed and stamped by the mechanic, entered into the memory banks and approved by  Maintenance Control back at Company HQ, and sent via ACARS message (a fancy term for onboard email) to the cockpit.  After that, the Company dispatcher must amend the flight manifest to include the broken toilet seat, calculate its aerodynamic effects on fuel burn, and ACARS that to the cockpit as well, where it must, ultimately, be christened as safe by the Captain.  
God forbid a poor, unsuspecting passenger sit down in the lav and suffer the consequences!

Squawk: “Whining sound heard on engine shutdown."
Corrective Action:  “Pilot removed from aircraft."

  • Click here for more funny squawks!

*This incident took place years before the “Passenger Bill of Rights” was passed.  One poor couple onboard missed their own Vegas wedding, and sheepishly asked if the Captain of the Ship could perform the ceremony onboard.
Oh, how I wish I had!
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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Poker Game That Launched My Career

"The event that ultimately defined my life was...a poker game."

It’s mind-boggling—”uncanny,” as my dad would have said—to look back on life and realize that there were single, seemingly innocuous decisions that ultimately determined the path that your life took.  I’m not talking about the deliberate life decisions we try to make—marry or move on?  Abort, adopt or raise?  Aeronautical Engineer, English/Japanese Major, or Acting degree?* How ironic that most of these forks in the road come within +/- the age of maximum arrogance and minimum experience (yes, I’m talking about the Golden Age of 18!)  
Ultimately, I decided on Aero Engineer, thinking it would boost my airline career prospects—until my buddy got hired by a major airline two years before me with a degree in... Photography.  No, I’m talking about the seemingly simple decisions that, in retrospect, define the very essence of your life.  Brake instead of pushing the yellow light, miss a semi barreling through the intersection.  Right instead of left, land a random job that becomes a career.  Go to the bank instead of Sub Stop, meet the love of your life.  
Looking back, I was flabbergasted (thanks Grandma, for that word!) to realize that the essence of my career, the innocuous event that ultimately defined the path my life was to take, was...a poker game.

Fresh out of college with a BS in Aero E, (ain’t “BS” the truth), I found myself stuck.  While attending college at Arizona State University, I had been flight instructing—the official entry-level job for wanna-be, non-military pilot types.  While it literally flew circles ‘round the standard college McDonald’s or waiter job (though perhaps not the way-cool bartender job,) it had put me in a rut.
At age 24, I had a BS degree and 2,200 hours of flying.  Impressive.  Most impressive.  But I was not a Jedi yet.  The vast majority of my time was flight instructing, in single-engine Cessna 152’s.  I needed twin-engine time.  And turboprop time.  And instrument time.  And, ultimately, jet time.  But each rung on the aviation ladder came with its own “Catch 22”:  you couldn’t GET the time without already HAVING the time.
In addition to flight instructing, I had bagged my first “real” aviation job:  flying charters in single-engine prop planes.  The bread and butter of the operation was the ubiquitous Grand Canyon tour in the mighty Cessna 210.  Turbocharged, top ‘o the line, a favorite of pilots.  But still only a single piston.  

I was in a rut.  And I knew it.

But then, opportunity fell into my lap.  An outfit specializing in Grand Canyon tours out of GCN Airport, was hiring.  This was my chance!  My lucky break!  With my six years of GCN flying, surely I was I shoe-in!  Best of all, GCN Airways flew the mighty Twin Otter, a twin-engine, 2-pilot turboprop.  With a whopping 19 passenger seats!
Oh, man, I was salivating at the prospects!
Like 18 other prospective pilot-candidates, I showed up at Day 1 of GCN Airways’ week-long ground school awash with the enthusiasm of bagging a REAL “airline” job--certainly the springboard to the fabled Left Seat of a major airline!**
I’ll be the first to admit, I showed up cocky.  Mighty cocky.  I had 3 times the flight hours of every other pilot there.  And when they informed us that only half of us would be hired, I actually felt sorry for those rookies around me who would no doubt get the pink slip.  So confident was I in my new calling, that I had quit both flight instructing and charter flying jobs.
The week of ground school flew by, a flurry of aircraft systems, procedures, company policies . . . and parties.  While those other bores from class spent their nights diligently studying, in classic, tortoise and hare fashion, I drank rum with my buddy Ramon, a GCN bus tour driver I’d met on one of my countless sojourns.  And then, on Saturday, came the final exam.  8 am sharp, we would test on our knowledge of said systems, policies and procedures.
The night before, I went to a poker game.
I had a marvelous time.  I cleaned out Ramon and his buddies, to the tune of $18 and change.  The perfect end to a boring week of ground school!

I made it to the 8 am test a little late.  And more than a little hungover...

...the questions seemed a little harder than I thought necessary, and I guessed a little more than I probably should have.
It was only after I turned in my test that I got the shocking news:  hiring was based STRICTLY on test performance, not on experience.
And when the results came out in the afternoon, I missed the last slot by 1/2 a point.
1/2 a point!
Mouth-agape, I watched in stunned silence as each of my winning classmates proudly stepped forward to accept their test—and the handshake welcoming them to the company.
Empty-handed, with ego thoroughly thrashed, I limped home, a long, 5-hour drive to Mom and Dad’s.  No job.  No prospects.  No career.
That $18 and change barely paid for my gas home.  Oh, if only I’d studied that fateful Friday night!  I had only myself to blame...

But it turned out to be the best decision of my life.

For, shortly thereafter, I got a phone call from my college buddy Kevin that would change my life.  And launch my career.
Three days later, I found myself flying the Alaskan bush.  An amazing experience full of “there I wuz” stories that led me, inexorably and ironically, straight into the Left Seat of a Twin Otter in...the US Virgin Islands.
But that’s another dozen blogs or two...

*Believe it or not, Cap’n Aux seriously considered each of these degrees.
**See my previous blog, "Cap'n Aux's Ultimate—and ultimately shattered—Aviation Dream")

My old Twin Otter, after landing…well, actually after Hurricane Hugo (St. Croix, USVI, 1989.)  So sad, however, to see the demise of the "French Bra," as we called her (note her tail number!)  In this pic: I invite Julia aboard!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cap’n Aux’s Ultimate—and Ultimately Shattered—Aviation Dream

For most pilots struggling up the aviation ladder, their singular focus is on their loftiest dream:  to become an airline Captain.  To have a fighting chance of getting there, they must endure years of food stamp wages, of studio apartment “crash pads” shared with six other similar pilot-dreamers; of Top Ramen meals, washed down with Pabst Blue Ribbon—just like college—but for six, or ten, or a dozen or more years.  They must endure 6 on/1 off days of 8-leg, 16-hour, back-side-of-the-clock shifts, in ear-splitting pistons, freighters, or turboprops.
I know I did.  All for the ultimate dream of, one day, maybe, just maybe, having a shot at flying for a major airline. 
And, God willing, if you actually got hired by a major, and that company actually stayed in business long enough...mayhaps you could even make it to the fabled Left Seat.  
The standing joke in the cockpit is, You’re not a real pilot till you’ve been divorced, furloughed and through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
I’m a real pilot.  Twice over.  Two divorces, two furloughs, three Chapter 11’s and even one Chapter 7—doors closed for good...
Looking back, however, I know I was more lucky than good.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is aviation's real “Right Stuff.”  Oh, yes, you need perseverance, determination, focus.  And money, don’t forget.  Lots and lots of money, thrown at a dream that will most likely fail.  But, above all, it takes pure luck.
Ultimately, I was one of the lucky few. 
And yet, ironically, the Left Seat has never been my ultimate aviation dream.
I dared to dream higher.  
Much higher.
What, you may ask, could possibly be loftier than the left seat of a jet airliner?
Oh, you lowly mortals, who dream such pitiful, petty dreams!
Many pilots, engineers and scientists were inspired by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the Apollo moonshots.  Many NASA scientists and astronauts, in turn, often list "Star Trek" as their original inspiration.  But for me, ever since the movie “Airplane!”* debuted in 1980, I have known a singular purpose in life.
Sadly, however, on November 10, 2010, my dream was shattered.  I never did—and now never will—achieve my ultimate aviation dream.  For, on November 10, 2010, the airline industry lost one of its most revered icons.
Leslie Nielsen, star of "Airplane!," died.
For my life's dream has been this one thing:  to have Leslie Nielsen poke his head into my cockpit before flight and announce, in pure, Lesliesque deadpan, “I just wanted to tell you both, good luck.  We’re all counting on you.”
I would have flown my flight.  A perfect, error-free, baby’s butt-smooth ride for my First Class passenger Mr. Nielsen, nailed a “roller” landing, set the parking brake and walked off that plane, retired.  Never to fly again.
And, dare I dream, a baggage cart would have run me over, killing me instantly.   
I know, I know, you’re saying, Eric, surely you can’t be serious!
Yes I am serious.

"Airplane!" Trivia:  Most of the movie’s jokes were based on the disaster movie, "Zero Hour."
Leslie Nielsen's bio can be found here.

*To this day, over 30 years after its release, Airplane” is still quoted in cockpits around the world.
Roger.  Over.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Life Aquatic and the Battle for Air Supremacy

Last week aviation headlines were made when a near miss occurred between a an Air New Zealand airliner...and a shark.
 Yes, folks, you heard me right!  Captain Sully’s suicidal flocks of Airbus-downing Canadian geese got nuthin’ on this aero-nautical predator.  Nor, for that matter, does Jaws...
But what the unsuspecting traveling public doesn’t know is that aviators have been battling aquatic fauna for aerial supremacy since Wilber Wright lost his wing warping hand to a rabid nurse shark in 1906.  And suspiciously stricken from the annals of history is Charles Lindbergh’s confirmed testimony of his harrowing encounter, while flying at 10,000’ on his historic transatlantic flight, with a school of killer jellyfish.  
Yes, we airline pilot types have known all along about the vast conspiracy by the airline industry and world governments to coverup these close encounters of the marine kind.  Think dolphins are benign, cutsey things you pet at Seaworld?  Guess again.  Given the chance, a school of marauding bottlenose surfin’ the jet stream will take out a modern airliner before you can say, “Flipper.”
Even Cap’n Aux himself, while flying the Alaska bush out of Juneau, AK, had a literal run-in at altitude with a two pound Chinook salmon in 1988.  Well, actually, while delivering Tlingit locals and logging supplies to Hoonah in my treetop-cruising Cessna 207, I startled an enormous bald eagle who dropped its freshly caught load, which was shredded by my prop and splattered across the windshield.*
Talk about a bad day for Mr. Salmon!
Articles about the Air NZ shark encounter:
*This incident, while true, didn’t actually happen to Cap’n Aux.  It happened to an Alaska airlines jet in 1987 in Juneau.  But Cap’n Aux has plenty more “there I was in the Alaskan bush” tales to tell...stay tuned!  The true story can be found here: