Are we monitoring 121.5?!

121.5 is the “guard frequency” or more formally, the international air distress frequency. Airline pilots will monitor this frequency whilst flying, as well as air traffic controllers and flight and emergency services. In addition, emergency locator beacons attached to aircraft will also transmit on this frequency, which sound like a high pitched siren when they do go off.

 

You would have never thought that your pilot at the front may be burping or farting down the mic on the international air distress frequency did you?

 

Keeping in mind the serious nature of having this frequency clear of interruptions, what I do find amazing is how often it is filled with childish noises and silly requests! Some of the drivel I’ve heard: burps, farts, cat “meows”, some random bloke shouting “FRANCCCOOOO!”, requests for sports scores, snoring, passenger addresses (these are meant to be given to passengers in the cabin) and of course the odd fellow policing the channel and shouting “YOU’RE ON GUARD!” in an aggressive (albeit probably justified) tone. You would have never thought that your pilot at the front may be burping or farting down the mic on the international air distress frequency did you?

I have of course never resorted to such childish behaviour (unless I’m at home annoying my family for entertainment).

Pilots asking for or chatting about the football scores on guard annoys me a little. We get requests from passengers to ask for them as well, and though I am all for customer satisfaction, I really do not want to piss off London control and everyone else on the frequency with this strange request. Especially so, considering the frequency is congested as it is!

Over the years of flying the most common use of 121.5 I’ve heard is for aircraft that have lost radio contact with the air traffic controller. This could be for a variety of reasons – maybe the pilots have forgotten to establish initial communications with the controller on handover, or pilots have not been listening to the controller, or maybe the controller has forgotten about the aircraft and not handed them over to the next controller and lost radio contact. This is formally known as “Prolonged Loss of Communications” or PLOC. This can be a security and a safety issue, and airliners can be potentially intercepted by military aircraft. The last thing a Captain would want to see is a military aircraft on the left side of their airplane…

Night Flying: lights, lasers and black holes.

I do enjoy flying at night – the dimly lit flight deck, a view of the stars above and passing over brightly lit cities below. It feels a lot more relaxed than the busy atmosphere in the cabin sometimes. It does come with its own challenges though – for example, attempting to eat a meal whilst struggling to get the lighting correct so you can maintain your night vision and still eat comfortably without loosing the prongs of your plastic fork somewhere in your meal (or in your stomach).

“Eat comfortably without loosing the prongs of your plastic fork somewhere in your meal (or in your stomach).”

Other challenges can be identified by those that drive at night – taxying at night presents similar challenges. It is more difficult to judge distance and speed, and harder to see other aircraft and obstacles around you. Then, in the air we are subject to visual illusions. Bright lights on an object makes it appear closer than it may actually be, and so again this presents a challenge when judging distance. The most common or well known illusion is probably the ‘black hole’ approach. This is where there’s very little light around a runway other than the runway lights and the horizon may be difficult to discern. Consequently, pilots can diverge from the approach path if reference to instruments is not maintained. From personal experience, this hasn’t been an issue, as we don’t conduct visual approaches at night, and always refer to our instruments. However, this comes into play during the landing phase, which can make the landing flare difficult to judge resulting in a firmer (albeit still safe) touch down!

Illusions aside, a danger that is often present at night are lasers. I feel quite strongly about this, as I, along with my colleagues in the flight deck have been victims of this many times. This is when lasers are pointed at aircraft, from the ground and it often occurs at critical stages of flight such as take-off, approach and landing. These stages of flight are of a high work load and demanding and the last thing any pilot would want is a laser being pointed at them, causing distraction and possibly, eye damage. In the worst-case this can have catastrophic consequences. This article expands on these points well. It is a criminal offence and in many countries, it will be met with fines and imprisonment.

On a lighter note, there are prettier things in the air than lasers, such as viewing the stars, planets, and even space stations. I’ll leave you with this photo that I took recently whilst in cruise over Rome.

Rome, Jupiter and Venus.

Rome, Jupiter and Venus.

RIP Germanwings 4U9525

It’s been 2 months since the Germanwings Flight 4U9525 tragically crashed in the Alps from what appears to be, deliberately by the First Officer. It’s taken me a while to post anything about this event, as I have been reflecting on it. At the time I airborne and had just flown across the Alps and heard a few gestures of condolence on the air traffic control frequency, but did not fully understand the scope of the tragedy till we landed. The investigation is still on-going, so I won’t comment specifically on this particular accident. It did however bring the issue of the pressure put under pilots and mental health further to the surface.

Once a year, every pilot with a license is required to submit to a medical examination and is required to pass this in order to continue exercising the privileges of the license. The medical examination itself is solely a physical check. The examination involves blood & urine analysis and checks the eyes, ears, heart, weight amongst many things. This is to ensure that the individual is reasonably fit to perform their duties with little risk to encountering a medical problem during a flight – though this does still occur.

The mental health of a pilot is never checked at the examination, other than a potential and informal chat about life in general with the Doctor. I raised this point in my last examination and asked that shouldn’t it be prudent to check a pilot’s mental health as well as their physical health? I have thought about this after hearing numerous stories in the industry of incidents and close calls due to the mental health of the pilot. This could be something as small as having had a bad day before coming into work or something as serious as the stress of the death of a loved one or a divorce. More seriously, are there more cases where pilots are suffering mental problems silently due to the stigma attached to such issues?

My intention is not to be scare mongering, but to open up a discussion of an important issue and for the industry as a whole to deal with it. This is how we make aviation even safer.

Lastly, I would like to share a piece written by a fellow pilot, Steve Franco, who draws on his own personal experience.

“The events of the Germanwings tragedy have really touched a nerve with me. It’s a truely catastrophic event and my thoughts are completely with the families of all onboard.

I have taken these events very personally..

Not just because I have a pilot’s licence and want to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ but because just over a year ago I had to make a conscious decision in my head to discontinue flying on the basis that I found I was suffering severe anxiety and depression.

The events onboard that Germanwings Airbus 320, if true as reported are unforgivable in many ways BUT it’s key to note that if mental issues are to blame that it could have been prevented! Now I made a conscious decision to stop flying not because I was afraid that I would harm myself and I certainly would not have harmed others! I stopped because I felt my focus and full attention would not have been directed fully at the task of safely flying an aeroplane without distraction.

Thoughout flight training you learn about how stresses and issues within your personal life can affect your performance on the flight deck, lead to incidents or accidents and generally are a recipe for disaster. The problem is the “manuals” solution is to just to try sort them out before you come to work, tell your doctor or to stop flying. Fine, all resonable answers but my issue is the lack of support. When going for a Class 1 (commercial aviation) medical the doctor asks you questions to gauge your mood and general “how’s life?” probes, airlines do initial psychometric testing upon interview for a position but all this is simply NOT ENOUGH. The thing is Pilots are humans! I feel the general view is that people forget and once you have the label of “pilot” above your head that you suddenly have an S on your chest and wear a cape. As humans pilots go through the same stresses as anyone. Relationship troubles, family feuds, financial difficulty and countless others.

Flying is becoming a more difficult career day by day. The industry is expanding faster and faster. Airlines are cutting costs, cutting wages and frankly cutting corners. As I said earlier in this post the events on that Germanwings aircraft are terrible and tragic but the airlines could have stopped this from ever happening. FREQUENT psychometric testing throughout training and employment, airlines and training organisations pushing the open approach to therapy and councilling, increases in wages for junior flight crew and more overide systems built into flight deck doors. These are just a couple of things that I believe may help.

I’m not claiming to be any expert but the point of this post (which I found really difficult emotionally to write) is that Mental health needs A LOT more attention within the aviation industry. If that first officer acted because of mental health problems then that is horrible and it breaks my heart to think all those people lost their lives because of a selfish act. Airlines and Manufacturers need to stop cutting corners and more support needs to be given to employees within the industry. My depression and anxiety is something not many knew about me and it has been extremely testing and hard but thankfully the support of close friends and family is putting me back on the path of clouds with silver linings. R.I.P to all those on-board and I pray that nothing like this happens again.” —Steve Franco

Switch your computer off!

I was recently positioning and had my iPad switched on because I was reading a book as we were taxying out towards the runway. The lights were dimmed, and I was just relaxing and getting into the book when I heard an annoyed lady exclaim “switch you computer off!”. It did startle me a bit and so I turned to my left to see an annoyed expression on the passenger who had instructed me to put my iPad away. I politely explained to her that we are now allowed to use these portable devices as long as they are in airplane mode and I pointed to the airplane symbol on the top corner of my iPad. It didn’t seem to satisfy her and she sharply turned her gaze away. 

“Surely these multi-million dollar airplanes can handle any interference from these relatively cheap devices?”

So, why do we need to switch off electronic devices or at least put them on airplane mode? Surely these multi-million dollar airplanes can handle any interference from these relatively cheap devices? I always get asked this question from baffled passengers, friends and family members. I can think of two reasons to why we are asked to switch these devices off. One reason is that there is the potential for interference with the aircraft systems, and the other is so that passengers can pay attention to the safety demonstration and be alert of their surroundings during critical phases of flight (take off and landing)! I always find it disrespectful when I see passengers ignoring the pleas of cabin crew to switch off electronic devices and generally ignoring the safety demonstration. I am sure many people may have seen the safety demonstration repeatedly if they are frequent fliers, nonetheless, a refresher that will take only couple of minutes is always good!

iPhone 4

Can this play havoc with aircraft systems?

In the case of interference, though there’s been no clear scientific study, there is anecdotal evidence that points to electronic devices being the culprit. There was a discovery made recently during testing of an onboard wifi system, which showed that wifi signals interfered with display screens in the flight deck, causing them to blank for up to 6 minutes. This is quite critical because the display screens give pilots vital information such as the airspeed, altitude and the attitude of the aircraft. This can be especially dangerous during take off or landing, if it were to occur. The FAA has mandated a fix to the systems to avoid this though.

The FAA has since 2013 allowed the use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) – at least in airplane mode. Similarly, on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), has approved the use of PEDs in all stages of flight. Initially, after a safety assessment process, EASA allowed the use of PEDs in airplane mode during any stage of flight in December 2013. Then from 26 September 2014, EASA permitted the use of PEDs whether in airplane mode or not (so they can transmit) during any stage of flight. Though EASA permits this, each airline can make the rules more restrictive, so airlines can still enforce electronic devices to be switched off. This is generally the case worldwide – the regulator such as EASA makes the rules, however operators (e.g. airlines) can be more restrictive. Ryanair currently allows small PEDs to be switched on during all stages of flight, but must still be in airplane mode (to ensure there’s no transmission).

First Week Back

My first week back started with relatively calm weather and the approach to Palermo (one of my favourites) was absolutely gorgeous. “Nice and easy”, I thought, but it was not to stay this way! The wind was blowing quite strongly from the North for the rest of the week, and as it was passing through mountainous terrain, it caused quite a bit of turbulence. During take off the first couple of hundred feet above the ground was okay but as we got higher, the aircraft got caught in the rough air. We decided to climb a little faster by delaying acceleration, for the safety and benefit of our passengers and crew. Once we were a few thousand feet above the mountainous terrain, the air smoothed out, though with occasional bumps reminding us of the rough air below. My roster this week took me to a mixture of flights to the UK and Italy.

“This was my first max-crosswind landing from the left seat…”

The weather in Sicily in the middle of the week was not particularly good – heavy rain and crosswinds approaching our limits! The problem down the line is that the crosswind limit for take off is more stringent. This makes it possible to land at a destination, but then unable to take off till the wind dies down. This was my first max-crosswind landing from the left seat, and though I felt confident, it was still a good challenge. My muscle memory has now established itself. As a First Officer, I flew from the right-hand seat and my left hand was used to operating the thrust levers, whilst my right hand was controlling the yoke. Now that I’m a Captain, and I’m seated on the left, it’s the opposite way around! So it takes a bit of getting used to!

I was pleasantly surprised at how appreciative our passengers were this week, and some even came into the flight deck to visit us and shake our hands! We don’t always get face-to-face contact with passengers, so it’s nice to see them come in and thank us, or even to have a look to satisfy their curiosity to see what goes on in the front! Although we don’t get much time during a turnaround, I’m still interested to see and ‘people-watch’ and even occasionally be a bit nosy and ask passengers about their travels. I find the best opportunity for this is usually either if I’m positioning (i.e. sitting in the cabin en-route to the airport I will be operating from), when passengers visit us in the flight deck, or when I’m coming back onto the aircraft after doing the walk-around. I don’t do this all the time, however, when I do, there’s always an interesting story to be heard!

Drawing for the Captain

Drawing for the crew, addressed to “Tor Capein” 🙂

Children are of course the most entertaining passengers and always welcome to visit us – especially when they have produced a drawing for the crew!