Category: Airline Flying

Boeing 737 Radio Panel, monitoring the international air distress frequency 121.5

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…

B737 MCP

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.
germanwings-absturz_8556188-original-lightbox

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).

Palermo

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!

Alpine Moonrise

Back to Flying

It’s been a while since I last flew since I’ve been on leave. I’ve had a great time being at home and on holiday, but I think I’m ready to go back.. I do miss it! I miss the strategy game of getting an efficient turnaround and the satisfaction of winning. (Sarcasm)

In reality, what I do miss are my colleagues, the children that draw me pretty pictures of aeroplanes, and of course the gorgeous views. The photo you see is over the alps, with the sun setting on the other side, and the moon rising on the side photographed. The view was interesting, especially because the moonlit alps were partly shrouded in a blanked of cloud, with the tops curiously peaking out.

The month ahead isn’t as busy as it has been so far, and it’s welcome by me, since I want an easy roster to start with! I’ve decided to pack as light as possible for my trips down to the base. I used to carry 3 bags with me, one for my luggage, one for my food, and one was my flight bag. I cut it down to just my flight bag and my backpack – I managed to pack efficiently. It’ll give me less stress, and ensure less energy is required without dragging all that around with me! Other things I’ve done to prepare are to import my roster and positioning flights into my calender, which is much more handy than carrying a paper around, and to charge my work iPad up and update it! I’ve not used the iPad we use as an Electronic Flight Bag (EFB), so it had numerous updates available which I had to install. I wanted to get it done now, so that I don’t waste time when I arrive on my first day back.

Company iPad we use as an EFB.
Company iPad we use as an EFB.

The iPad is a fantastic tool. It makes it much easier to search through manuals quickly, and have them, conveniently, with you at all times. We also do our performance calculations on the iPad, which calculates the thrust settings and speeds to set according to the conditions, for take off, and runway distance, etc for landing. This is an accurate and time-saving tool which makes the operation more efficient, and also saves money on things on engine maintenance by reducing wear and tear with more accurate calculations to ensure so. We will also be eventually be using these iPads for our charts and it will certainly make it easier to ensure they’re all up-to-date and much more convenient to use than paper plates. This is really true for airfields like Madrid or Barcelona where they have a huge number of pages available! The iPad will make it easy by allowing you to bookmark the relevant pages to be used for the day and then you are able to go directly to those without a bother! I can imagine an older generation of pilots finding it a bit more work to adapt to the EFB, but it’s where we are headed and many airlines are using tablets – both for safety and commercial benefit.

Autopilot Disengage

Back to School

The past few months have been quite challenging and interesting and I’ve learnt a lot as a result. In aviation you are constantly learning and improving, and that’s part of gaining experience. I’ve had several diversions due to weather and a few passenger issues – mostly due to medical problems with them, and for the poor passenger’s sake, thankfully none of them serious. A medical emergency in the air requires good CRM and liaison with the crew, any medical personnel onboard or on the ground and ATC. I once had two of these events in one week! I have had exposure to this early on in my training, when a passenger onboard had not taken her required medication and so was unwell. We diverted and the passenger was given the necessary medical assistance. These things do happen and we are trained for it in the simulator where we are given scenarios to play.

The command upgrade has been a challenge and I am enjoying it so far and it’s given me an even greater degree of job satisfaction. I want to continue to challenge myself, and so I have enrolled on my second Master’s degree – MSc Air Transport Management. I’ve done two modules so far – Air Accident & Incident Investigation and Airline Operations. I’m busy with the Airline Operations coursework right now. It’s great to learn more about the aviation industry and subjects outside my current direct experience.

I’m going to try and update this blog more often with my progress as a Captain, MSc Air Transport Management student and other thoughts on aviation; for now I leave you with this wonderful photo of Mount Teide in Tenerife.

Flying past Mount Teide in Tenerife on approach.
Sunset towards Malta

The view out of the left…

This week gave some fantastic views – mostly with flights to Spain and especially the flight to Malta. We experienced gorgeous views over the Alps, after which we passed Milan, Pisa, Rome and then went over Sicily to get to Malta. On the way back it was clear so we got great views of Paris and London – which the passengers that sat on the left side of the aircraft also enjoyed. I could easily make out the Eiffel tower, just south of the River Seine and then on reaching London I spotted the Greenwich Dome, London City Airport, London Eye, Houses of Parliament and many other landmarks.

I’m feeling much more comfortable now in the left seat, and it’s been a busy month with plenty of flying to get me further acquainted with my new position. I find that everyone performs better in a relaxed atmosphere and though it’s a high pressure and stressful environment at times, I try and set this tone. This is especially important during these busy Summer months which do come with their own challenges – thunderstorms, busy loads and even the heat! It’s amazing how quickly the environment and go from busy to peaceful and vice versa. The busiest period as anyone would expect is generally the turnaround to around 10,000ft and then decent onward.

Alps LPL-MLA

Captain!

I have recently been promoted to Captain! 🙂

The course was scheduled across approximately 3 months and consisted of ground school, simulator sessions and training on line, acting as a captain with a trainer guiding me through the process. The easiest part for me was the ground school, the most difficult were the simulator sessions and the most tiring the line training. Ground school was over a few days and included presentations of responsibilities of a commander, aircraft performance, technical exams and also computer based training. The simulator sessions were enjoyable but difficult and the preparation certainly paid off. The most difficult bit for me was to get into the mindset of a commander – not so easy when you’ve been a First Officer for 4 years – but I got there!

The line training was the most enjoyable part! I found taxiing the aircraft quite exciting since this was my first time since flight school! The main difference I find moving over to the left seat is that I am now responsible for the management of the whole operation, and accountable for it. The flying is the same – though it takes a bit of getting used to the new motor skills with using the left hand for the yoke and the right for the thrust! I had my fair share of exposure to problems during line training – thunderstorms, delays, and dealing with problems related to aircraft/passenger/crew! I’m grateful for the exposure since it gave me confidence and I would much rather have an experienced training captain sat next to me on first exposure!

Overall my experience of being a Captain so far is it’s a lot more enjoyable and satisfying!

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Winter Operations

For the first time this winter I felt like I was in a winter wonderland with full use of Winter operations. As we descended down over Eastern Europe, I could see that the ground was covered in snow – as far as the eye could see. With the temperature being -11C, and snow everywhere, it reminded me that we would have to adjust our operations to the weather.

Snow over Eastern Europe
Snow over Eastern Europe

We started by adjusting the Minimum Safe Altitudes (MSAs) and any altitudes below this, to compensate for temperatures below 0°C. This is because any temperature that differs from 15°C, which the instruments are calibrated to, introduces an error in the altimeter. Warmer temperatures will make the altimeter under-read, whilst cooler temperatures will make the altimeter over-read. This is because when the air temperature changes, the air expands or contracts. If the air is cold, it contracts and so the pressure levels bunch up closer together. The opposite happens when the air is warm. The altimeter works by being sensitive to the air pressure – consequently it causes errors in the reading when air temperature diverges from the calibrated temperature of 15°C. We don’t make any temperature corrections for warmer temperatures because an under-read does not affect safety (the aeroplane is actually higher than what the altimeter is indicating) and everyone else’s altimeters would be reading the same in any case and there wouldn’t be any issues with traffic separation.

We found the runway was cleared from snow, giving us plenty of room to land safely. Once we landed we ensured we taxied slowly and cautiously, as to not skid or slip, and followed our winter procedures. It did add to the workload, so everything had to be done without rush as usual and meticulously. During the turnaround we checked the wings to ensure they were clear of ice. This reminded me of an Air Crash Investigation episode I was watching a few days ago – where a Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac river in Washington, shortly after takeoff. The aircraft crashed because the the wings were not de-iced and consequently the ice changed the aerodynamic characteristics of the wings, leading to an early stall. The episode gave a bit more detail and there were other factors involved, however it shows how import it is to remove ice off the wings and take off with a clean wing.

When we de-ice we usually apply fluid to the wings which removes any existing ice and protects them from accumulating any more ice for a certain period of time. This period of time is often referred to as the “holdover time”, which is dependent on the concentration and type of the fluid sprayed onto the wing. So, next time you are in cold and icy weather and you see some fluid being sprayed onto the aircraft from a large hose, then you know your aircraft is being deiced!

Thankfully it’s not snowed much in Western Europe this Winter, so we’ve not been afflicted by the consequential delays that come with winter operations. We still have a couple of months to go though, and it can still snow in April! I was looking at the news and saw the weather in North America – let’s just say that I’m glad we aren’t experiencing the same here!