Several decades ago, author Arthur Hailey wrote a great book called "Flight Into Danger". It was such a good yarn that it was also made into a movie. It was also titled "Runway Zero Eight" which was the title of the book that I read back then. It concerned a Canadian commercial carrier flight from Winnipeg to Vancouver in 1956, the unusual happenings on board and the exciting conclusion where an ex WWII spitfire pilot and a Flight Attendant (Stewardess back then) saved the day, their own lives and the lives of all on board. The emergency on board stemmed from the fact that because the flight had been delayed, a substitute caterer was pressed into service and the fish meal choice was tainted. The other meal, chicken, was fine. So, all who chose the chicken were OK but all who chose the fish, including both pilots, became so ill that they were rendered unconscious or otherwise completely incapacitated. I am not clear whether the book theme prompted the regulation or the regulation provided the idea for the book. It matters not now. The regulation I'm referring to is the one that prohibits the pilots from having the same meal. At Air Canada, (and I assume all other world class carriers) that not only can they not have the same meal, the meal must be warmed up in different ovens as a further precaution. Meal trays were prepared with cutlery, condiments, salads, desserts etc and kept refrigerated while the "casserole" style hot meal choices covered with aluminum foil were warmed up after take off until ready for the flight meal service. Unlike passengers who have raised complaints about airline food to an art form, I was usually quite happy with the food but that's just me. When you think about it, being served a hot meal with nice wine at 35,000 ft while traveling at 8 miles a minute is a minor miracle. Not only that, now you can have gluten free, kosher, low cal, low fat, or vegetarian variations of the same meal. People who whine about this should try the bus next time. I digress.
We ate a lot of chicken. Plentiful, available, inexpensive and flexible, the flight deck choices were almost always "something and chicken". Beef & chicken, fish & chicken, pasta and chicken, lasagna & chicken, etc.
Captain; "What's for dinner?"
F/A; "Um...something that looks like it might be fish, and chicken."
Captain; "Chicken please."
Most crews operated on the unwritten rule that whoever was doing the flying got first pick. That's the way I always did it. Some old Captains, if offered, always took the beef or steak regardless. Others would offer the choice to his F/O even if he was doing the flying himself.
You've heard of breast of pheasant under glass?
We used to call chicken "breast of bird strike under foil"
Passenger; "I've had this same chicken meal for my last two flights. I demand to know why."
Senior F/A; "Lady, I've been eating this chicken for 30 years. I'm sure you can handle it twice."
I'll finish with a yarn that didn't make the book.
A little boy was ushered into the flight deck to visit the pilots and he stood in shy silence behind the centre pedestal between the pilots' seats. The Captain was sitting with his arms folded, scowling straight out the front windscreen and he did not acknowledge the little boy. In contrast the F/O was the perfect host, welcoming the youngster with a big smile. Soon they were having a grand conversation and it became apparent that the little boy really wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. This went on for several minutes with the little boy asking very intelligent questions about the airplane and the F/O answering with much patience and good nature.
Suddenly the Captain turned to the boy and boomed;
"So! You wanna be a pilot eh!?"
The little boy was startled and looked up at the Captain with saucer eyes.
"Er...ye...yes sir" stammered the little boy.
"Do you like eating chicken!?"
"Wha? Um yes.Yes, I like chicken."
"Then you'll do just fine!"
And he turned back to staring out the window. Maybe he offered the choice, his F/O scooped the steak and he just finished the chicken...again!
Until next time over 'n out
There's a small part in the book where I touch on Christmas greeting cards and the bizarre humour that often results when the regular sentiments of the Christmas season are accompanied by crests, coats of arms and translations of Air Force Squadron Latin mottos. The mottos usually have something to do with war, loyalty, fidelity, stalking, hunting or striking or killing--not the things you see in Christmas cards as a rule. Then there was the card Liz & I got from Jim and Maggie Reith years ago about Santa's Annual Proficiency Check Ride with a Flight Inspector. It was pretty funny. Any pro pilot knows that every check ride has at least one engine cut on take-off--arguably one of the most critical airborne emergencies there is, except perhaps an engine fire thrown in for good measure. Well someone has turned the card into a video and it is attached to my email. I can't upload it to this blog. It's worth a look but I hope the inspector missed. You'll see why when you watch.
To all who are reading this who have read and/or purchased "Flight Lines", I would like to say thank you for your support and kind words. I would ask that should you feel inclined, that you take a minute during a quiet time and pen a testimonial, review, critique or a rotten tomato up-and-in heater about your thoughts on the book, good or bad and post them here, or on Amazon or on Good Reads or all three! It would be very much appreciated. Who knows? If I get enough positive ones, it may stir me to start another book but as the old saying says, "Be careful what you wish for(!)
To all, a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.
Until next time, over 'n out.
The previous post was about ATC/flight crew language problems at busy airports and the delays and hazards that can result.
From the opposite end of the spectrum, watch the YouTube session below for a prime example of how it all works 99.9% of the time. It's an Air France B-777 doing a night arrival at LAX and is the picture of precise crew cooperation--a professional, calm, quiet, unhurried, approach and landing. There are no sweaty palms, no panic or raised voices as there is no need for any. The two pilots (the first officer is flying and the Captain is working the radios, gear and flap selections) are clearly comfortable and "ahead of the airplane".
The clip starts with the airplane downwind for 24R just at the final stages of the SADDE 6 (pronounced say-dee) STAR into LAX. (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) Their heading has downtown L.A at about their 11 o'clock position. This arrival routing is stored in the aircraft Flight Management Computer (FMC) and comes complete with route fix altitude and speed restrictions and places them ready for their base leg and then to their intercept heading to the final approach track. It is the standard inbound routing for aircraft arriving from the north bound for LAX. I've done this same arrival dozens of times in the A-320.
Watch and listen and read the captions as they come up. They are informative. Stick with it...you'll be bored probably. Visitors sometimes asked if we ever got bored with airline flying. My answer was always the same. "Yes. And that's exactly how we like it. In this business, boring is good!"
Enjoy the approach!
Until next time, over 'n out.
The last post concerned Chicago O'Hare and the ATC pros that run the show at one of the busiest, craziest airports on the planet. The contollers are often under immense pressure to move the machinery around safely and efficiently, keeping their cool and understanding that the flight decks of the aircraft they are shepherding to land or take off can be just as tense an environment. Sometimes they can forget. After all, their "customers" actually leave the ground with all that that entails.
The international language of civil commercial aviation is English, partly because it is spoken and understood in such a large percentage of the world but also because it is a more technical language than, for instance, any of the so-called "romance languages" I heard one guy once quip that the English phrase "lower flaps" took up a whole paragraph when translated into French and that by the time you got it all out, you would've crashed. An embellishment for sure but the point is taken--English seems to be a language more suited to technology or areas where crisp and concise information needs to be passed quickly. International flight crews are expected to be fluent to a certain level of English but I have heard that some carriers have resorted to carrying translators with them on the flight decks because their pilots have not made the grade but have to fly the airplanes to both generate company revenues and to earn their keep. This is obviously a hazard, especially at busy international airports. London's Heathrow airport has a very lengthy and formal procedure to obtain IFR clearances before departure. It is a regal pain but one reason for it may be that at this literal crossroads of the world, where thousands of passengers and tons of machinery from all countries of the world meet up and are all hurtling around in close proximity, ATC needs to be sure that not only all players are on the same page, but that all players understand what page they're on. LHR's safety record is second to none and perhaps this is partly the reason. Problems with poor communications are evident everyday in all walks of life. But when communications have to do with large equipment in motion carrying passengers, it clearly becomes vital---as in vital signs.
Pilots comfortable with the language, customs, airport, local terrain and procedures can do some things that pilots less familiar would never be asked to attempt. There was the "crow-bar" approach at La Guardia in a DC-9 (or equivalent) where ATC, seeing a small gap opening up in the arrivals line on a clear day, would fill the slot by "dropping" in an airplane to speed things up.
"Air Canada 756 La Guardia can you make thirty-one from there?"
"La Guardia Air Canada 756, rog." (I never heard "no we can't"---ever)
"Air Canada 756 La Guardia go tower eighteen seven now. Thanks. Seeya!"
After some furious fast hands flight deck work and a steep carving descent, mission accomplished. This would never even be asked of an airport "stranger"
The tower controllers at LAX often asked us to switch runways at the very last minute for whatever reason.
"Air Canada final right side LAX can you shift to the left?"
"Rog" and away we would go with an aggressive left turn then right to line up again.
I've done it many times there, sometimes inside the marker. The move is, to a well trained, confident and competent crew, a safe, straightforward hands and feet excercise. But I have heard it on good authority from LAX ATC that when a carrier arrives from Asia, they assign their runway 300 miles out and never EVER change it. Evidently many Asian carriers do not handle change too well and I'll bet some has to do with language.
The video and recording attached to my email is an example of this problem and indicates quite clearly the stress and impatience of a very busy ground controller at JFK when an airplane, even one that is on the ground, fails to "get the message". Please return to the email and give a listen.
Until next time, over 'n out.
When In O’Hare…
Chicago O’Hare airport can be an absolute pressure cooker at the best of times. It’s one of the busiest airports in the world and has claimed that distinction for many years. Newark and La Guardia are both close seconds but toss in a line of nasty mid-west summer thunderstorms and things at O’Hare can quickly go off the rails. Luckily, on this day we were not trying to land—we were trying to leave, and found ourselves number ninety-six (96) for take-off in an A-320 while a line of thunderstorms roared past overhead. But instead of having us all putz along in a huge conga line, snaking around the airport in the rain and burning up precious fuel, the ATC pros running the show just pushed us back more or less on time and then taxied us out somewhere to a huge vacant ramp area somewhere in the airport’s back forty. They said it looked like a serious delay, told us to shut down our engines if desired and that they’d be sure to call us back a few minutes before our turn was coming up after the storm passed and the train started to roll again. In those days, cell phone use was prohibited when the doors were closed. So after parking and shutting down both engines, with our trusty APU keeping the lights on and the airplane nice and cool inside, I turned the belt sign off, directed the girls to open one fore and one aft main cabin doors and announced that passengers were “free to use their cell phones and move about the airplane.” Now they could phone whoever they had to phone about their delay and not bust the rules of the day. They were happy--using their phones or the lav or stretching their legs, and I was happy—the fuel gauges weren’t moving south and we were safe on the ground while lightning flashed and the heavens emptied barrels of rain on us.
The ATC troops at O’Hare are definitely major league. But given the experience and performance (and stress) levels of O’Hare ATC, the flight crews were expected to conform and comply with any and all procedures and instructions with both speed and precision. Failure to do so invited the scornful wrath and hurled verbal lightning bolts from the harried and impatient gods in the tower. Pilot indiscretions could be rewarded with a trip to the Penalty Box. (no, really) O’Hare has a clearly charted holding area called the “Penalty Box” where they send offending miscreants to sit and wait in embarrassment until they are called back to play nice with the others. And since it is VHF radio communications, everybody on the frequency hears the sentencing being handed down;
“Air France seven nine three heavy, O’Hare ground, I said left on Alpha, not right--taxi instructions cancelled. Penalty Box. Turn right on Charlie, proceed to the box and park north side facing east until further advised.” Just like two minutes for tripping!
You just knew that flight decks all over the airport were chuckling and giggling and pointing their fingers while the red faced crew of Air France went to sit in the corner.
To actually leave O’Hare, you had to contact (if memory serves) about five frequencies before you even got to tower frequency to clear you for take-off! First, you contacted Ramp Control to report that you were ready to push. Then they sent you over to Clearance Delivery to get your IFR clearance (aka airways) Then they sent you back to ramp for push back clearance, start up and taxi. Then they sent you over to “Metering” who would then clear you to taxi to a hold point on the ramp just short of the busy highways that would take you to your departure runway. These busy highways were the protected domain of “O’Hare Ground Control”. You were to taxi to this hold point as instructed where metering then switched you over to O’Hare Ground. and then you were to listen out and wait for further taxi instructions that took you to your assigned runway. YOU WERE NOT to call ground control for taxi instructions no matter how long it seemed to take (as if they’d forgotten about you—and sometimes the wait time would give that impression) for ANY reason except perhaps if you were on fire. Well, on this day, a keen young F/O at Air Canada hadn’t read that memo and his Captain may have missed it too. This is doubtful, so the Captain must’ve had a great layover and was in a rather cavalier mood because evidently, he was going to let events play out . They were holding as instructed, the ground controller sounding like a cattle ranch auctioneer who breathed through his ears, but this keen and impatient F/O started jumping in calling for taxi instructions;
“O’Hare ground, Air Canada 748, taxi.” No response.
“O’Hare ground, Air Canada 748 at the hold point. Request taxi instructions”. No response.
“O’Hare ground, Air Canada 748 holding for taxi instructions” No response.
The Captain must’ve been turning his head away and biting his lip off. Finally, after four or five attempts to butt into the frazzled and frantic world of an O’Hare ground controller, with a strong south-side Chicago accent, he erupted and flung his lightning bolt;
“AIR CANADA! YA KILLIN’ ME HERE! TURN RIGHT DIRECT THE PENALTY BOX! I”LL CALL YA BACK IN FORTY-FIVE MINUTES!”
Abbotsford International Airshow 2017 Report.
Liz & I travelled west earlier this month to revisit the Abbotsford International Airshow. It had been since 2009 so I needed a bit of a jet noise/exhaust fix. Mr. Jim Reith, who you may recall is not only a good friend and big contributor to my book "Flight Lines" but is an ex Snowbird, ex-Abbotsford Airshow veteran AirBoss and is now President of the whole lash-up. He invited me to be part of the Airshow Flying Events Team (got the shirt) and also be host and Point of Contact (POC) for the US Navy F-18 Super Hornet (aka The Rhino) Tactical Demonstration Team. (got another shirt) It took exactly a tenth of a second to make up my mind and say yes to the invite!
So we two-hopped it to Abbotsford on West Jet and landed in the smokey Fraser Valley on a Wednesday afternoon with the temp in the 30s. Right to work. (well, after a welcome BBQ at the Reith household Wednesday night that is) This airshow is a monster-- a massive and complex project that is literally being planned for the following year before the parking lot is empty for this year's show. Performers, their crews and their demands and challenges, local accomodation for hundreds, rental cars, concession and food stands, vendors, ticket sales, advertising, 700 (!) volunteers to be herded and directed, VIP and sponsored (and catered!) tents on "Chalet Row" where the heavy hitters congregate along the show line to take in the action all to be be set up, staffed and furnished. Feeding and watering of volunteers and performers, parking and traffic control, water supply, sewage and sanitation, radio, communications and the announcers' tower, RCMP aircraft security details and pass control, briefing tents, press releases...it just goes on and on. And bear in mind that this all takes place on the infield, right on the grounds of an active international airport with West Jet and Air Canada in and out several times a day plus unscheduled "scrambles" by Conair, the resident water bombing operation on the field. As you can imagine, this has been a very busy summer for them.
Jim, as President of the whole thing, was the picture of cool throughout as the pressure increased and the thousands of bits and pieces and many moving parts came together for the three day show. If things were going to go off the rails, it was usually on practice day, Thursday. On picking us up at the airport on arrival, I asked Jim how it was all going? Jim calmly replied:
"Oh, the usual. Spent most of today un-f**king things"
I laughed right out loud; "Say, can I use that?"
As part of the Flying Events Team, I had a "Hot Side" pass which allowed unrestricted access to the entire airfield and allowed some great opportunites for up close and personal pictures.
Thursday was practice day as many of the performers and static displays had arrived on the Wednesday. My "Rhino" guys snuck in a practice as the visibility in smoke was just at their limit of 5 NM. Other fast mover shows had to scrub. Below: I'm right on the ramp beside the super hornet flashing up for the Saturday show. Ear defenders highly recommended. Note the haze in the picture from the forest fires, Also note the folding wings and the monster undercarriage. This is a carrier based aircraft. We used to have one of those.
The two pictures above show the Lockheed Martin F-35 on the hot ramp. One monster engine and you could tell by the sound of it on take-off that this is a different airplane. It thumped your chest and rattled your teeth. A very impressive machine with on board wizardry that would astound. Back in my airforce days, copies of a magazine called "Aviation Week" were usually scattered around the squadron ready rooms. We used to call it "Aviation Leak" because we thought, even back in the 70s, if this is the stuff they're publishing, what are they keeping secret?! 40 odd years later, one cannot imagine.
I heard a story from Jim about a competition between the the F-35 and the F-22, two rival contenders for supremacy (and sales!) in the competition for next-gen fighters. It involved setting two F-22s on CAP (Combat Air Patrol) to defend a target from attack by two F-35s. The target was somewhere out on the range in the Nevada desert. So the CAP was set and "Fight's On" was declared. About 45 minutes later, nothing was happening. One of the F-22 pilots called up: "So are you gonna send these guys in or what?" The reply was devastating;
"They've been in and out--twice--and oh, by the way, you're both dead"
This is the same airplane that, according to our government "is not suitable for our needs"
The CF-18 Hornet in the "Canada 150" colours, flown by Captain Matt Kutryk, put on his usual spectacular show. By the way, he has a brother, Joshua, who flew in from Cold Lake in another CF-18 to say hi. Joshua just happens to be Canada's newest astronaut. Hard to compete with THAT family. Pictured below is the Canada 150 Hornet and Captain Joshua Kutryk on arrival at Abbotsford
One of the highlights of the show was a team from the US flying four Harvards. Or they may have been T-6s, the American equivalent. But they sure sounded like Harvards. A wonderful, loud, right in front of you tight formation air show with lots of smoke trails. They were called the Aero Shell team flown by four of the biggest, nicest southern drawl gentlemen I've met. To see the four of them sitting together in the briefing tent, they could've doubled for the front four for the Green Bay Packers. I don't know how some of them fit in the airplane but they put on a terrific show.
Some added pictures:
A great shot of the other "Rhino" in the team that I was hosting.
The F-16 "Viper". Put on a great show but sometimes cut pretty close to the line. This is on my list of "airplanes I'd like in my garage"
The Snowbirds lined up and ready for action, a briefing with the Snowbird Team and the Minister of National Defense on the ramp and me, taken by Tom Watt, who just proved to me that despite my failed attempts, my cell camera works just fine.
The F-15 Eagle came to visit. The didn't fly, they just parked on the static line and partied.
I spent much of the time blasting up and down the show line delivering crew chiefs, personnel and meals in this machine. Great fun! Boys and toys. The crew chiefs of some of the vintage aircraft wanted to be with the Crash-Fire-Rescue Teams on standby on the field in case their "pilot extraction" skills were needed if their bird crashed. Thankfully, they never were required.
Below, Liz and I are waiting for Steve Hinton and his vintage, mint F-86 Sabre to start and taxi for the Heritage Flight Show. You've probably seen Steve in just about any war movie that involves airplanes, including Top Gun. The Heritage Flight is a four ship showcasing four generations of American fighter aircraft; The P-51 Mustang, the F-86 Sabre, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-35. We then ferried his Crew Chief to the other end of the field to be with the fire crews, then back again when Steve finished his majestic and graceful solo show in the Sabre and taxied back to the hot ramp. It is quite possibly the most beautiful jet fighter ever built.
It was six exciting days of travel, jet fumes, ear splitting noise, smoke and spectacle. The after show parties were pretty good too but midnight seems to be coming sooner than I recall. Good news, the Show AirBoss said he wants me back next year. Best of all, our luggage arrived safe and sound both ways!
Until next time, over 'n out.
On seat belts, air pockets, climate change and CAT*
*Clear Air Turbulence
Good grief. Where to start.
Once again, the noble press has jumped the shark. How many times have we heard a breathless passenger in a terminal, (or a personal acquaintance relating their own airline roughest-flight-in-their-life-ever war story) with a local news microphone shoved in their face say something like;
"It was terrible! We hit an air pocket! We must've plunged 500 feet!"
Darn those nasty air pockets. They just come out of nowhere. "Air pockets" are what you get under a diving bell or a capsized canoe on a Camp Gitchee Goomee camping trip. Whoever coined that silly phrase should be given a swift kick and sent to sit in the corner. "Air pockets" are not evil hidden things that airplanes blunder into while flying along minding their own business and then plunge 500 feet, which by the way is approximately the height of a 50 story building.
There was a recent incident where people were injured on a flight that hit some unexpected and unforecast CAT. The potential causes of the CAT were never discussed of course. CAT does occur near high wind shear zones such as jet streams, near frontal boundaries, near mountain ranges or thunderstorms. Always has and always will and if a previous aircraft on the same route misses the rough stuff, or does not bother to report it (very bad form) an unsuspecting follower can bang right into it without any warning. These unfortunates were likely flight attendants, passengers standing in the aisles stretching their legs, waiting in line for the lavs or sitting without their seat belts fastened. Then, a climate "scientist" stated that these incidents "will become more common with climate change" and that this incident was evidence of that. The holes in this statement are truly breathtaking. He is saying, in effect, that if we all turn off our gas BBQs, people will stop hitting their heads on aircraft cabin ceilings. Connecting climate change with CAT injuries is completely fallacious, ignoring the fact that the amount of aircraft in the sky has increased dramatically since the whole climate change thing started thereby increasing the chances of serious CAT encounters. In 2006, the year of Al Gore's acting debut, 2.1 billion people were carried. By 2016, only a decade later, and the latest year that the ICAO has numbers, 3.7 billion passengers flew. The math works out to...um...a very much larger number of airplanes in the sky daily, even if we assume there are, on average, 200 passengers on every aircraft. This "scientist" also ommitted the possibility that the aircraft could've run into the wingtip vortices or jet wash from another in close proximity. This can happen on any airway but occurred often while flying in the North Atlantic Track System (NATS) where aircraft now fly with just 1000 ft. separation. It happened to me over the ocean several times and hits like a hammer out of a clear sky.
Anything to frighten people needlessly about "climate change" these days qualifies as news.
Shame on them.
Speaking of seatbelts, wear them...ALL the time while seated. I noted on a recent flight that my wife (who is about 5'2") while seated, had a distance of less than two feet from the top of her head to the luggage bins above. This dimension changed only slightly when standing in the aisle. Rather than "plunge 500 ft!", all the airplane has to do is drop that short distance at a rate that is less than zero "G" and you, dear friend, are on the ceiling. Going up with sufficient force is dangerous enough but it's the coming down again that usually does the damage. So if you think wearing your seatbelt when the seat belt sign is off is not cool, just ask the bleeding passengers from that CAT incident.
Until next time, over 'n out.
"Got 'em lit yet?"
Another yarn that did not make the book simply because I remembered it too late.
As a rule, people do not like to lose. I know I don't. Even though public figures in business, politics or sports appear to take it well and in good spirits in public, inside they may well be harbouring "thoughts most bloody" concerning those who have bested them in whatever the field of competition. Fighter pilots usually have a highly developed competitive streak, as well they should. Unlike fields like the World Wrestling Federation showbiz machine, where "LOSING IS NOT AN OPTION!" grudge match hype is screamed out over the PA amidst flying folding chairs and steel cages, the loser is still alive. Not so in the fighter pilot world. Losing there really isn't an option in an all out shooting war.
The following story took place in the 70s in Cold Lake Alberta. It shows without doubt that this particular fighter pilot had the killer instinct and trained the way he would fight.
First some background. NATO and western ally fighter pilots have "Fox" code words that they transmit over radio to signify the type of ordinance they have just fired. These codes were used in training and in competitions and most likely in wartime to their controllers unless radio silence was necessary. In my day, "Fox 1" was radar guided missles, "Fox 2" was infra-red or heat seeking, "Fox 3" was unguided "bullets" and "Fox 4" was a mid air collision(!) Guns were, well, guns and as the old saying went "There's no kill like a guns kill". The only one to remember here is "Fox 2", which signified the launch of an air to air missle that depended on the heat of the target's tail pipe to guide it to impact. In short, no heat equals a blind missle shot.
Two instructor pilots in their respective CF-5s went airborne for a little "1-v-1" out in the area. In close formation, the lead called for his winger to break right 90 degrees from their current heading for the split and after a count of maybe 20 seconds or so called "Fight's On!" Without doubt, both lit their burners and pulled for all they were worth to the vertical trying to get an immediate height advantage in the ensuing fight. Well the CF-5 did not have the kind of thrust for that to last long and the resultant (very) low airspeed, high angles of attack and blanked inlets often caused a double engine flame out, a problem that occurred fairly often doing these kinds of violent low speed manouvering in the vertical.
"Double engine failure!...they both flamed out!" barked one of the pilots in some distress.
"OK, fly the airplane..tiger re-light" calmly replied his adversary who had managed to out climb his opponent and had him in sight. A "tiger relight" was simply pulling both throttles back to idle for a couple of seconds and then pushing them full forward. This re-set a bunch of stuff and started an automatic ignition and start sequence. For those not familiar with the CF-5, like most fighters, it had the glide characteristics of a set of car keys, so the clock was ticking and a decision was coming soon.
"OK, doing it now!" gasped the pilot whose breathing was now quite heavy. "I've got rotation...and...ignition!"
"OK be cool. Head back toward the base if you can. Got 'em lit yet?"
"They're both winding up now. Almost back up and running"
"Ya, all good now. Both lit"
"Good. Fox 2. You're dead.See ya back at the Mess"
About the Air Canada A-320 that very nearly landed on a taxiway in San Francisco, I haven' the faintest idea how this could have happened. Having flown to SFO and landed on that runway dozens of times, I don't know of an excuse in the world that could exonerate the crew. Stay tuned. It should be interesting.
Until next time, over 'n out.
MH370: The third and final round.
Welcome back. Here's the rest of the story and I'm sticking to it.
My initial theory had the captain temporarily handing over the flying duties to his F/O sometime between the level off check and the hand off point from Malaysian ATC to Viet Nam ATC. It involved the Captain leaving his seat for a few minutes under the pretext of retrieving some item from his personal luggage stored in the aft spaces of the flight deck. In the dark behind his first officer, he then reached up and pulled the ACARS* circuit breaker. This would’ve triggered a warning followed by a call for a circuit breaker reset procedure and the cancellation of the warning. The Captain, still in place, would’ve then pulled it again. The second time any re-set circuit breaker pops, it is to be left alone for fear of fire etc. So with some slight-of-hand, the Captain surreptitiously disabled the first of several communications systems before returning to his seat and assuming control of the aircraft again. This could be done easily in the B-767—I know exactly where that circuit breaker is—and assumed, incorrectly, that it would be in a similar location in the B-777. After some digging, I discovered that on the B-777 the ACARS could not be shut off from the flight deck, only from the electronics bay located below the floor with the access hatch under the carpet in the forward galley. This made the timing and required actions of the captain nearly impossible and very nearly blew my theory right out of the water.
But I have discovered (with help from AC B-777 instructor Captain Owen Stewart) that the ACARS system cannot be switched off but it can be disabled on the B-777 without leaving the flight deck. Right at the handoff point between Malaysian and Vietnam ATC, the drama begins. Here’s my possible re-creation and it is actually very simple. I recall a BA (British Airways) captain stating that if there ever was a time to steal an airplane, it would be at the international boundary ATC handoff point between two countries.
*ACARS stands for Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. It is a fully automatic data linked message sent back to the airline operations control with a set of captured flight and engine performance data. The pilots are not involved in these regular automatic transmissions.
Timeline: MH370 Communications. All times local.*
1. 1:07 am: Last received ACARS transmission.
2. 1:19 am: Last verbal communication. “All right, good night” from the aircraft; believed to be the co-pilot (F/O).
3. 1:21 am: Transponder stopped transmitting (turned off or failed).
4. 1:30 am: Civilian (primary) radar lost contact.
5. 1:37 am: Expected ACARS transmission; not received.
6. 2:15 am: Last military primary radar contact.
7. 8:11 am: Last (hourly) satellite handshake.
*aviationist.com MH370 timeline
The points of interest from the timeline above are numbers 1, 2 and 5.
Points 1 and 5 indicate that the ACARS transmits once every thirty minutes. Point 2 shows the last VHF radio transmission occurring eighteen minutes before the next scheduled ACARS transmission.
The hand-off transmission to MH370 is made from Malaysian ATC, giving the crew the new Vietnam Control VHF frequency. The F/O reads it back, Malaysia confirms that it is correct, and the F/O says, “All right, good night,” to the controller. It’s only a courtesy, common on the radio in the air, nothing sinister about it, and it indicates quite clearly that all was well on the flight deck. While the F/O has his head down dialing up the assigned Vietnam control frequency on his radio, he is interrupted by his captain: “Hang on a minute. Could you do me a favour? I’ve got the radios. I’ll check in with Vietnam for you. Take a break. Go back, stretch your legs for a few minutes, flirt with that beauty in the biz class galley, grab us a couple of coffees and a copy of the Malay Times. I like their sudokus and I take my coffee black.” Or whatever chore the captain could think of! The F/O leaves his seat to complete his captain’s errand and the flight deck door closes and locks solid as he exits. The captain is now in complete and sole control of the aircraft and all her systems. From here, it’s a simple matter of either disabling the electronic emergency flight deck entrance system by pulling the appropriate circuit breaker or physically dead-bolting the door. Or both. Either way, no one can enter without a cutting torch—rather scarce gear at the time—and the captain is free to put the rest of his plan in play at his leisure.
First, he turns off the transponder (timeline point 3, just two minutes after the F/O’s transmission) and kills all the aircraft running lights, anti-collision lights, and strobes. Now he’s virtually invisible to both radar and other aircraft.
Second, he turns off all his radios—VHF, HF and SATCOM—as he had nothing further to say to anyone. This act disables the ACARS by denying it the required transmission devices. The anticipated transmission at point 5 above never occurred.
Third, he activates a stored secondary flight plan in the flight management computer (FMC) that he had previously programmed, perhaps from memory, while on the ground in KL. We used to mess with the secondary flight plan feature all the time, even while in flight. You know—important stuff like how many miles it is from Katmandu to Grandma’s house. But mostly we used it to program the route to our alternate airport to cut the workload should a diversion from our destination become necessary. As long as the primary flight plan was active, nothing would happen unless and until you selected and activated the secondary stored flight plan, at which time the autopilot would begin to follow this new flight routing. This, I believe, is when the sharp turns to headings to the west, the southwest, and the south began. I speculate that the routing had something to do with getting away from civilian ATC radar as fast as possible. But I’m guessing, of course.
Fourth, he allegedly climbs to 45,000 feet (FL450). This is debatable, as it was both unnecessary and most likely well above the maximum ceiling of the B-777 at that weight so early in the flight. Perhaps he believed that climbing to such an altitude would make it even more difficult for civilian or military ATC radar to spot him. Passenger mobile phones would also be useless and I have since learned why: cell phone towers are not aimed skyward but angled toward the ground because—wait for it—that’s where the phones are. Quite possibly, no passengers knew of any trouble at that time and had no obvious reasons to call regardless.
Fifth, he reaches up to the cabin pressure controller sub-panel just above his head and starts dumping cabin pressure, rapidly raising the cabin altitude to well above normal.
Sixth, he puts on his own flight deck oxygen mask.
As the cabin altitude climbed above 10,000 feet pressure altitude, the passenger masks would have automatically deployed. These supply just ten to fifteen minutes of oxygen to the passengers, just enough time to allow the flight crew to don their own masks, declare an emergency, and steeply descend to an altitude where it is safe to breathe without them. This descent to safety was never intended and never happened. After twenty or thirty minutes at a pressure altitude of, say, 30,000 feet, it can be assumed that the F/O, flight attendants and passengers, if not already unconscious or incapacitated, were struggling for their lives, using whatever oxygen, portable or otherwise, was available. The passenger oxygen would’ve run out by then. Regardless, the passenger cabin would’ve been chaos until the inevitable. Pleadings by the F/O to be allowed entry to the flight deck were ignored. (Author’s note: As were the dreadful recorded pleadings of the German Wings captain through the flight deck door to his own F/O as that aircraft descended to its doom in the Alps.) Most would finally just go to sleep and succumb to hypoxia even as they tried to contact the captain. He was in no hurry. He had all the oxygen he needed.
As an aside, the time of useful consciousness (TUC) for an average human at a pressure altitude of 35,000 feet is thirty to forty seconds .(The term is time of USEFUL consciousness—you’re still conscious, but you are losing your faculties VERY quickly. You are breathing but the air is NOT entering your bloodstream at that altitude. The next sentence is absolutely correct. After forty-five minutes, most, if not all, on board would be dead.
The seventh and final act: This is where the captain’s basement simulator may have been useful, even though he didn’t really need it. He only needed the B-777 performance charts and the location of the deepest, most remote part of the South Indian Ocean. We’ll never know either way.
When the captain was sure that all were dead or otherwise incapable of any interference, he sets his autopilot to do his bidding. He knew how much fuel he had on board and he knew the location where he wanted the flight to end. So he simply created a way-point using the latitude and longitude of his target, entered it into the FMC, made it the “go to” waypoint (it may have already been pre-loaded) and selected “NAV” on his glare-shield control panel. The autopilot would now take the aircraft directly toward his target. Or he could’ve used “Heading Select.” Setting an aircraft heading of 180 degrees true will point you straight at the world’s geographic South Pole, no matter where you are.
But how could he plan the impact point? This is where the performance charts come in. At a given speed, altitude, and temperature, the aircraft will burn “x” pounds of fuel per hour per engine, which increases if the aircraft is flown at a lower altitude and/or at a higher Mach number. He makes his target the “tanks run dry here” point and works backward. He calculates that, at a certain altitude and speed/power setting, the fuel he has remaining will be exhausted roughly over his target. So he simply sets the desired altitude in the altitude select window, the speed in his speed select window, the rate of descent to the selected altitude, and hands it all to the autopilot. When satisfied that the autopilot is doing as ordered, the captain removes his own mask (or perhaps takes a suicide pill of some kind), and goes to sleep. The aircraft dutifully descends to the chosen altitude (low twenties perhaps?) and flies for hours into the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean at the selected speed, burning up the remaining fuel with no one on board alive.
On the B-777, the cockpit voice recorder is a two-hour self-erasing loop. If ever found, and with recoverable data, the investigators would most likely listen to two hours of engine and flight deck air noise and nothing else. The flight data recorder would be equally useless, revealing only that the aircraft performed beautifully and exactly as programmed until fuel exhaustion and impact.
Many believed that huge pieces would be recovered. How can such a large bit of machinery disappear so completely? I asked myself the same question (similar to when we heard “The towers are gone!” in the van in Denver on 9/11), but it’s easier to imagine the disappearance when one pictures a near vertical B-777 hitting the ocean doing somewhere between 400 and 500 knots. The aircraft would very nearly vapourize from the astronomical impact forces.
Many also believe that when an airplane in level flight runs out of fuel, it will just glide down gracefully and pancake onto the surface. This might happen for airplanes not in autopilot “altitude hold” mode. For an aircraft flying in this mode though, it’s a different story. When the fuel is exhausted, the engines stop—first one, then the other (they never stop at the same time). As long as the electrical and hydraulic power lasts, the autopilot will keep doing what it has been asked to do for as long as it can do it. Even with the temporary asymmetric thrust problem, the autopilot will try to maintain the assigned altitude and track. When both engines quit, the airspeed starts rolling back. Because the autopilot is trying to maintain altitude, it begins to increase the pitch angle (raise the nose) in order to generate the lift required to maintain the selected altitude at a lower airspeed. More pitch equals more drag, causing the airspeed to roll back even faster. I’m willing to bet that, in less than thirty seconds from the second engine quitting, the aircraft had already started its death roll and plunge to the ocean. One wing always stalls before the other. The autopilot by now had thrown up its hands and disconnected—its limits exceeded. With no pilot alive on the flight deck to initiate a stall recovery, that huge machine would’ve rolled on its side as the first wing stalled, its nose falling to near vertical, and gravity would have done the rest, rapidly accelerating it to extremely high speeds, ensuring complete destruction on impact in one of the most remote stretches of ocean on earth. The flaperon found near Africa may have ripped off during the ferocious descent, tumbling and slowing down as to remain intact on impact.
So that’s it. No bloody violence and no conspiracies, on-board or otherwise. A single dead villain and an airplane full of innocent dead passengers and crew that slammed into the Indian Ocean, disintegrating and sinking to the depths. More pieces may be found on various beaches around the Indian Ocean. Investigators may connect some of the dots, but in my humble opinion, this simple but plausible scenario I’ve just presented is the most likely.
Until next time, over ‘n out.
Welcome back. Round Two.
The captain did it. There was simply no one else on board that aircraft with the authority, the opportunity, an array of possible motives, and the knowledge to carry out such a perfect and, for want of a better word, elegant crime. Experienced, competent, trusted—in other words, the perfect villain.
During the aftermath, there was much discussion, mostly by the talking heads on CNN, along the lines of the traditional solidness, accountability, and trustworthiness of pilots, the professionals tasked with the safe handling of approximately 700,000 worldwide daily passengers. If true, how could this pilot do such a thing? they wondered. Aren’t pilots screened regularly for their mental state, etc.? Should this pilot not have been caught beforehand? The short answer is no. Pilots are people, certainly, and while they may act more responsibly then some other professionals in their daily lives, there is a very big reason for this. Let’s face some facts. After all the hours of training, the enormous costs, working your way up from “the minors” to “the Bigs,” being the newbie at the bottom of the seniority list, the simulators, the interviews, the psych tests, and the medicals, when the big bucks finally start to roll in, the vast majority of pro pilots avoid behaving in any manner that would jeopardize what is still viewed as one of the most sought-after professions in the world.
We all know there are exceptions to the rule, to the norm. The captain of MH370, the perpetrator in this theory, was either mentally unstable, seriously troubled by something, or a stone-cold murderer who then took his own life. There was a report that his wife had left him shortly before the flight and unsubstantiated rumours about mistress “issues.” An additional stressor may have concerned politics. Allegedly, the captain was very upset about the conviction and incarceration of the Malaysian opposition party leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The theory involves him calling the Malaysian prime minister using the aircraft satellite (SAT) phone after seizing sole control of the aircraft and demanding Ibrahim’s release (or similar) under threat of deliberately crashing the plane. We’ll never know for sure—one, two, or a combination of the three factors above could have contributed to his motivation. The possibilities are endless.
Whatever his reasons, he also wanted to cover up the crime. My guess is that he wanted to commit suicide while sparing his family the shame and enabling them to collect his life insurance. And unless evidence is found and proven otherwise, murder/suicide must be ruled out. Therefore, any insurance policy remains valid. I posit that this was a careful crafting of a successful crime by a troubled but determined soul.
The simulator in the captain’s basement was, in my opinion, a bit weird. For a newbie pilot, a flying enthusiast, a hobbyist, or a heavy jet-pilot wannabe, I could understand. But for a pilot with his amount of experience? Why? He may have used it to plan this event. But again, we’ll never know.
The flight originated in Kuala Lumpur. In most airlines, the captain will fly the first leg of any new “pairing” or planned sequence of flights with his assigned crew. A “pairing”, at least at my old airline simply meant the “pairing” of a crew with a series of planned flight legs that could span several days. A good one (and tiring!) that I well remember was Toronto-Heathrow, Heathrow-Ottawa, Ottawa-Heathrow, Heathrow-Toronto. It spanned six days and we were whacked when it was over.
The Captain taking the first outbound leg would be especially true at night, to an airport with which his F/O was unfamiliar or with any newbie on the aircraft. Usually, flight legs are flown alternately as a courtesy to both allow the F/O to gain flying experience and to share the load, but the captain can fly every leg of the trip if he wants to. It’s his airplane, and he’s lord and master of all he surveys, consigning his F/O to pulling the gear and flaps, working the radios and keeping the flight logs. By always flying the first leg of a new pairing, the captain sets the tone on the flight deck for how the show will be run. The routine works very well.
The flight departed and climbed on course for the five or six hour flight to Beijing. After the climb to altitude and level off (thirty to forty-five minutes after takeoff depending on weight and local air temperature), the F/O would call ATC to report that they were level at their assigned altitude. The captain would then call for the level-off check, a routine scanning of all the flight deck instrument and control panels done by the PNF (pilot not flying—in this case the F/O), making sure that all was where it should be, that the many sets of altimeters, compasses, airspeed indicators, etc. were set correctly and agreed with one other. They also confirm that the autopilot is doing precisely what it has been ordered to—level flight at a set speed and altitude on a programmed flight routing. All was well, but was about to change in dramatic fashion.
Happy 150th Canada! Have a great weekend. Until next week, over 'n out.