Greetings from the Flight Deck—Welcome Aboard!

…Join me on an adventure. A journey. A celebration of flight, regaling tales of world travel, and musings on the “ups n downs” of the rarely lucrative but always rich airline pilot career!

Follow the Adventure

Follow the Adventure...

Join this Site!



Monday, February 20, 2012

Zen Trois: Zen and the Art of Pilot Maintenance

What’s the difference between a pilot and a jet engine?
The jet engine stops whining at the gate.
Pilots are a notoriously picky lot.  At least, that’s what my flight attendants are always telling me.  Hey, so what if I insist my coffee (2 creams, not 1) be presented in a ceramic mug and not that styrofoam stuff (got that, Mary Ann?!)
OK, so maybe there’s some truth to that statement.  But, doggone it, we worked long and hard, put in tens of years, thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to get to this position; so why can’t we get a li'l picky?
What three things must a First Officer always say?
“Nice landing, Captain.”
“I’m buying this round.”
“I’ll take the ugly one.”
(Disclaimer:  Hey, I don’t make these jokes up, I just pass ‘em along!!)
At the top of the “gotta pamper the pilot” list is, unfortunately, the copilot.
First of all, the term “copilot” is a misnomer:  s/he is a fully qualified, full-fledged pilot, and is entirely capable of running the ship himself.  By the time a pilot reaches a major airline (or most regionals for that matter), he already has thousands of hours and years of experience.  The ONLY reason he sits in the right seat throwing gear for the Captain in the left seat is because Cappy happened to get hired first.  While a Captain-type tends to have more flight experience in general, it is by no means a given.  Oh, and by the way, the "copilot" flies, too (typically ever other leg.)  That’s why I prefer the more accurate term, “First Officer.”
Despite his already-vast experience, however, a good FO nevertheless anticipates his Captain’s needs, to a near-psychic level.  In addition to being psychic, he must be psychiatrist, as well.  He must quickly and accurately assess the Captain’s basic personality and adapt accordingly.  If not, friction immediately ensues.  
And friction means distraction.  And distraction means risk.

It seems a strange irony that, in the age of jet engines and terrabytes, the safety of a flight could hinge on personalities.  But pilots are human, and as such, subject to personality quirks and downright neurosis.  And let’s face it:  pilots are notoriously not “people” people.  In fact, one of the greatest strides in aviation safety made in the past 30 years is not in technology, but psychology.  The relatively recent concept of CRM, or “Cockpit Resource Management”—"Charm School," as us macho pilot types sarcastically refer to it—has dragged the demigod-like Captain (think Kirk), kicking and screaming, into the age of the people-manager (think Jean-Luc Picard.)*
This is a good thing.  For, despite what the senior Captain’s ego tells him, he’s not perfect, doesn’t know it all, and doesn’t always make the best decisions.  And in the cockpit, two heads are vastly better than one.

Example:  Once upon a time, I was a fresh, baby-faced Captain (ok, more baby-faced than I am now) on a 39-passenger de Havilland Dash 8 turboprop.  Shortly after takeoff, we had a lightning strike.  No big deal, nothing major.  But it sounded like a shotgun went off in the cabin, and it knocked one of our generators temporarily offline.  The thing was so bloody distracting, in fact, that it knocked me temporarily offline.  Went “into the red,” in today’s CRM parlance.

My FO Bob, older and more experienced, played his role perfectly.  Instead of committing mutiny and taking command immediately—which he could have justifiably done at that point—he very tactfully and adroitly coaxed me back to “the green,” by asking me a series of assertive, leading questions.  It went something like this:
“Hey, Captain Eric, you want me to reset that generator?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Hey, Captain.  You want me to report the lightning strike to Center?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Hey, Cappy.  What do you think we should do, return to PHX or continue on?”
“Uh, ahem.  Well, I think everything’s fine, so let’s press on.”
“Good idea.  You want me to tell the passengers what happened?”
“Uh, yeah, you do that.   They probably pooped their pants . . . like I almost did.”
Of course, when we got on the ground, we had maintenance do a lightning strike inspection.  The bolt had penetrated the radome in the nose leaving a quarter-size burn mark, routed through the airplane's superstructure, and blown a static wick off the trailing edge of the tail.  Exactly what that wonderful airplane was designed to do in a lightning strike.

What’s a Captain use for birth control?
His personality.

Today’s Captain must be well versed at CRM as well.  While it’s understood that a pilot’s hat size grows two sizes bigger at upgrade, the best Captain never forgets his humble days as a lowly FO.  He keeps a healthy dose of humility inside him, knowing both his limits and remembering that those around him are valuable extensions of his eyes, ears, and especially, brains.  Not just the FO, but all the FA’s, ATC, Dispatcher, Mechanics, even the occasional MD patched in via “Medlink” for inflight medical emergencies are all critical resources.  He is, as CRM implies, the Manager of Cockpit Resources.
In the preflight crew briefing, the best Captain will verbally affirm the First Officer's and Flight Attendants' worth, and in so doing ensure that each will enthusiastically perform their roles and not be afraid to bring up an issue during flight.
My briefing to the First Flight Attendant goes something like this:  “Hi, Biff, I’m Eric.  We’re looking at 2 hours 50 minutes to ORD.  Weather and ride looks good.  You’re in charge in back; I’ll back you up 100%, take the blame and do the paperwork.  And if there’s anything you’re concerned about, don’t hesitate to bring it up.”  
In my years of saying this briefing, I’ve never had a Flight Attendant complain.

Note:  This post is intended as a companion piece to the two previous “Zen” posts.  (Let’s call it the “Zen trilogy!”) But my Valentine’s Day-themed post, “The Loon is a Harsh Mistress,”—and my new film production blog—rudely got in the way ;-)

*The worst aviation accident in history, in Tenerife, Canary Islands, 1977, is directly related to human error and CRM; indeed, CRM has its origins in the accident report from this disaster.  For more info, see:  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Little Froggy and the Right Brain Urge

Hey, Capnaux followers:  
New Blog Alert!
We just started a new blog over at 
to chronicle the nefarious filmmaking activities of several dubious airplane pilot types.  I just wrote my first blog for the site, entitled, "Little Froggy and the Right Brain Urge."  We will also be posting several video clips as they become available, and I hope to dip my virtual pen into the "vlogging" world ink for you here, soon as well!

I invite you to check it out!!

Cheers and Safe Skies,

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Loon is a Harsh Mistress: The Pilot’s Dysfunctional Love Affair

More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.

—Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Ask a pilot how he started flying and you will hear a love story.*
One just like mine:
From age 5, I dreamed of flying.  Scanned the skies.  Built model airplanes.  Along with my buddy Alan, doodled dogfights during math class.  Thrilled at the occasional trip to the airport and practically peed my pants to actually fly.  To this day, I remember verbatim the conversation I had—at age 8—with the Hughes Airwest pilots in the cockpit of their Boeing 737.
When I was 14, I announced my intent to buy a hang glider.  Dad said, “Son, if you have the money, you can buy a hang glider.”  Little did he know that this flying-obsessed boy had been saving up lawn mowing allowance for the past three years!  I promptly bought a used Rogallo wing for $430.  I diligently took the ground school, aced the tests, and was thoroughly prepared.  Nevertheless, the flight school, perhaps wisely, made me wait another year, till I was 15, to fly.  And, God bless his soul, my father honored his words, crossed his fingers and let this fledgling chick spread his wings.
It changed my life.  The euphoric feeling was a drug that I would pursue for the rest of my life. 

Fly.  Flying.  To Fly.
Me and my First Love, at age 15
My soul is in the sky.
— William Shakespeare, 
"A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Shortly thereafter I visited the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, which included a viewing of the classic IMAX film, "To Fly!"**  Like few other earthbound media, it captured for me the sheer joy and grandeur and magic that is flying.
To Fly…
Hearing those words still give me goosebumps.
From that moment on, I was determined to fly two types of craft: a bush plane, and a spaceship.

The summer of ’87 saw my first wish fulfilled in Alaska.

Death And Ex’s
A pilot retires.
All at once in love again with this painful
bittersweet lovely thing called flight.
— Richard Bach, "A Gift of Wings"
While an Ex or two may have had her suspicions of a fling with a flight attendant, the true culprit would be my long-term love affair with "Fifi," my A320.  Today, her graceful looks, sleek, sexy lines and loving, yet quirky and unforgiving personality are my obsession.*** 
Indeed, I believe more airline-related divorces can be traced to this plain plane obsession than sexual flings.  Often, the plain plane-obsessed pilot comes home from his trip, pecks his wife on the cheek, repacks, and is off to the weekend fly-in.  Football widows got nuthin’ on airplane widows.

Cap'n Aux and Fifi.
Accountants, firemen, even physicians can retire and live to a ripe old age.  But, despite the relatively youthful forced-retirement age of 65, the pilot-retiree often augers in within scant months or years.  I am convinced that this is because, inside, he is heartbroken.  He has lost the Love of his Life;  his harsh mistress of 30-some years has traded him in for a newer model.  Oh, he may have dabbled with his own Cessna 182 during his brief twilight years, but it’s like trading the Supermodel for the cleaning lady.  He has lost his purpose, his identity, a large chunk of his core personality.

Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds.
Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.
 Captain Malcomb Reynolds, "Serenity"

Mal had his Serenity.  Kirk and Picard had their Enterprise.  Adama had his Galactica.  And have my Fifi.
Fifi is my spaceship.  From her glass cockpit at FL390, on a moonless night I can gaze out the window at the lights of Planet Earth as they meld with the Milky Way, and imagine being in command of a starship cruising at Warp Speed.

I savor these fleeting years, when I and my mistress are perfectly content.

MCCOY:  Well, I doubt seriously if there's any kind of love antidote we can give the Captain for the Enterprise.
SPOCK:  In this particular instance, Doctor, I agree with you.
KIRK:  Mr. Sulu, ahead warp factor two.
—Star Trek, Elaan of Troyius (paraphrased)

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and the Love of your Life.

* While sailors et al have traditionally referred to their vessels as “she,” feel free to substitute a more gender-neutral or politically correct moniker for “pilot” and “plane” than “he” and “she,” respectively =)
**Still shown daily at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington, DC
    • The first few minutes of To Fly!:
    • Buy the DVD on Amazon, eBay or the like.  Better yet, go see it at the Smitshonian.  Best yet, go take a flying lesson!
***My all-time favorite planes:  Those I’ve flown:  de Havilland Beaver, Twin Otter, Grumman Mallard, Airbus A320.  Those I've always wanted to fly:  Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” DC-3, Boeing 727, 747, and anything on floats.  My all-time favorite airplane:  P-51D Mustang.
What’s your favorite plane, and have you been lucky enough to fly/ride in one?  And, briefly, what’s your most memorable aviation experience?  Please comment and let us know!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Zen Redux: Zen and the Art of Passenger Mainenance

"This is an emergency announcement," the female voice declared in prim 'n proper British accent over the intercom of the British Airways’ 747—while cruising at 35,000 feet over the North Sea. "We may shortly need to make an emergency landing on water."
Minor detail:  this “emergency announcement” was an accidentally-triggered prerecorded message. . . accidentally triggering 330 passengers to panic.
This recent embarrassing debacle reminds me of the old Airbus pilots’ joke:  “Ladies and gentlemen, we are flying a state-of-the-art,  fully automated Airbus and nothing can go wrong click! go wrong click! go wrong . . .”

While I’ve have never had to deal with trying to calm down hundreds of panicked passengers inflight, there is definitely an acquired art to the making of a passenger PA.  Typically, flight attendants must read their briefings verbatim, but the pilots up front have much freer reign.  Oh, sure we’re required to grovel a bit to you and say, “Thank you for flying Very Fast airways.  Buckle in, there is no need to panic,”* etc.  But how we say it is largely left to us.  While I’m always tempted to simply say, “Welcome aboard, sit down, shut up, behave,” and be done with it, that particular PA only works to cut the tension on the annual simulator check ride.  At least for me...

Rule # 1:  the traveling public wants to be reassured.   They want their Captain to have a deep, gruff, authoritative but soothing fatherly voice, like George Clooney with a Texas drawl.  Unfortunately, my voice has been going through puberty for the past 35 years; I sound more like Cap'n Doogie Howser.  Once, during a particularly early morning departure when my vocal chords were at their most relaxed, I thought I’d made the most manly PA of my life.  But that fantasy was quickly shattered when two college kids poked their heads into the cockpit after the flight and said, “We just wanted to see who was flying, ‘cause you sounded like you were 18!”  Since then, I’ve been resigned to my fate.

Rule #2:  Humor is allowed over the PA, but you’d damn well better be good at it.  If not, refer to Rule #1.  While my buddy Captain Tony can keep his cabin in stitches for hours,** I found out a long time ago I’m in the “Not” category.  Once, on April Fool’s Day, I diligently kept our passengers informed of our imminent arrival into RNO . . . during our flight to LAX.  From the first announcement on, the flight attendants plagued the cockpit with pleas to correct the destination . . . the passengers were on the verge of mutiny!  It was then that I learned:  the Captain’s voice over the PA is the Voice of God.

Barney Fife's Cap'n voice?  EPIC FAIL!

The strength of the turbulence is directly
proportional to the temperature of your coffee.
— Gunter's Second Law of Air Travel 
The age old turbulence/seat belt sign bit is an art unto itself as well.  It boils down to this:  one man’s gentle rocking, nappy-time turbulence is another’s “my God, my God we’re all going to die!” . . . it’s simply a matter of opinion.  And the forecast of turbulence is just that: a prediction.  Personally, I use the SWAG method:  the “Scientific, Wild-A** Guess.”  Oh, sure, we can guesstimate by reading the clouds, listening to other aircraft’s reports, etc.  But in reality, there’s no telling just what Mommy Nature has up her sleeve.  In fact, it’s so random, that we call the Seat Belt switch the Turbulence button:  turn it off, get instant bumps.  Bottom Line, we err on the side of caution.  In the end, really, the seat belt sign is nothing more than a Liability Switch:  if it’s on, get up at your own peril.

There is also an art to revealing just what’s going on without giving away TMI.  While I can’t exactly jump on the PA and say, “Folks, pay no attention to the burning wing,” I also must avoid describing ad nauseum exactly what the mechanics onboard are fixing.  For example, I can't launch into a five minute dissertation of just why our our IAE V-2533-A5 Engine Number 2‘s ECU (Engine Control Unit) on the FADEC (Full Authority Digital Electronic Control) is triggering spurious warnings from the SDAC (System Data Acquisition Concentrator) to the EWC (Engine/Warning Display) without sounding alarmist.  And I certainly can’t say, “The doohicky on the whatchamajig is causing quite a nasty ruckus with that gizmo thingy.”  But I can say, “Our ace mechanics are onboard resetting one of our black boxes.  We should be under way in a few minutes.”***

Bottom line:  Trust us.  It’s OUR butts in the plane, too, and we ain’t gonna risk it, PERIOD!

Cap'n Aux in the midst of another one of his stellar—if not very funny—PA's.
…but he STILL sounds (and looks a bit) like Cap'n Doogie.
Note:  Special thanks to Getjets for "volunteering" her awesome classic pic at the top of this post!  I stole it from her "MissTWA" blog--see below for link!

*For inspiration, I always look to this Monty Python sketch as the quintessential pilot PA:
** Example of classic Tony PA:  “Attention K-Mart shoppers, we have a blue light special on aisle . . . oh, sorry, that’s my day job.  Ahem!  (deep, gruff George Clooney voice with a tinge of Texas drawl) This is your Captain speaking . . .”

*** See previous  blog post!
Related links: