Crew Training

“Train the crew to make safety their highest priority when making decisions.”

I was just watching an episode of Mayday/Air Crash Investigation, and it made this important point. Though there has always been emphasis on this on every simulator training session I have had, the last training session in the simulator particularly focussed on this. The training sessions usually have three main elements – a briefing, the simulator session and a debriefing. The briefing mainly consists of reviewing the items that we will be practicing in the simulator, looking at & discussing case studies and crew resource management training. We then go into the simulator for about 4 – 5 hours, and get the opportunity to practice emergency and non-normal scenarios and we are also tested on them. The session can be tiring but it really does go very quickly despite the amount of time spent in there. Once the simulator session is over, we go over what went well, what we can improve on and what we have learnt.

The aim is always to feel like you’re a better pilot having practiced manoeuvres that cannot be on the line (unless there is an actual emergency), and ideally come out with more confidence in your own skills. However, this is not always the case – anyone can have a bad day in the simulator where they’ve not performed their best, leaving them feeling disappointed with themselves and as a result, less confident. How do you deal with that? You take notes and learn from your mistakes and use it as a learning experience to motivate you to do better next time. If I have the odd day where I’ve not performed well, I do look at what I haven’t done well and learn from it, however I also look at my performance over a period of time rather than a single snapshot to give me a better indication on how I am doing. We are humans and I don’t think it’s fair to judge someone based on one test, but rather look at a range of tests over a period of time and see what the trend is!

We have simulator checks every 6 months, so there’s always a chance to improve on the last check and there’s always something new to learn!

Winter Sunrise

Winter Sun

I’ve had a busy couple of weeks with line checks and simulator checks, so though I had some time to enjoy the festivities, I had to be disciplined and set aside time for study – and it paid off! The simulator checks consisted of the usual training – practicing engine failures, circling approaches, and dealing with various system failures. In addition to this, the new item on the syllabus was an RNAV approach – this type of approach is where the aircraft navigates using the GPS system without reference to any ground based navigation aids. Most airports that we fly to currently have ILS or NDB/VOR approaches – all of which use ground based navigation aids.  The main point I took away from the training on this type of approach was that the aircraft’s lateral and vertical path must be carefully monitored (as with any other approach of course) which must adhere to a certain degree of accuracy.

Outside of flying, I’ve also been busy with iOS development – serving updates to my loyal app users. Apple shutdown the developer portal where we upload our updates over the holiday period for a week, so it was a bit frustrating to not be able to deploy updates – both for me and app users. However, they were good enough to expedite my update after telling them it was critical!

Back into flying – I’ve been mostly flying towards Eastern Europe, and a few flights South towards Spain.  It’s been a mild Winter so far, and we’ve not had to de-ice much, and I’ve not yet seen snow anywhere! I’m not complaining! Other than cold weather and snow, I find Winter also brings gorgeous sunrises/sunsets.

Early morning sunrise
Sun setting enroute to Norway.
Sun has just set, enroute to Norway.

Coming back home, you can get some dramatic views with the clouds allowing some of the sun to filter through, producing some defined rays.

A dramatic view on descent over UK.

Windy Weather!

We’re having our fair share of windy weather here in UK & Ireland this month! This is thanks (or no thanks) to the deep low pressure systems that develop over the Atlantic and make their way over here with full strength. The pressure was incredibly low in Dublin – the lowest I’ve seen, 959Hpa. That is the equivalent pressure that would be at around 1,500ft in the air on a normal day!

The low pressure system currently over UK & Ireland, centred over Scotland.
The low pressure system currently over UK & Ireland, centred over Scotland.

I was on the early shift today, which meant waking up at 4am to get ready and get to the crew room in time to do my pre-flight preparation. The windy weather did wake me up a little earlier, and right away I knew that I’ll be having an interesting day today – with either diversions or delays, going by past experience.

The first flight was to Dublin, so we checked the weather for it and any suitable alternates. Dublin was already indicating that it was out of limits for landing.

EIDW 270630Z 22036G54KT 8000 -RA FEW017 SCT028 BKN038 07/04 Q0960

This is a METAR – a coded format to communicate weather to pilots. It says that at 6.30am, the wind was coming from 220º at 36 knots (around 41mph) gusting to 54 knots (around 62mph). It was raining, visibility down to 8km, few clouds at 1,700ft, scattered clouds at 2,800ft and a broken layer of cloud at 3,800ft. The temperature was 7ºC and the pressure at sea level 960HPa (this increased slightly from the very low 959HPa I saw reported earlier).

Boeing guidance says that the 737-800 can handle up to 40 knots of crosswind on a runway of standard width. However the company imposes specific limits that are more conservative – in the interest of safety. We uplifted extra fuel – to give us the flexibility to attempt some approaches, to keep our options open in terms of diverting to alternate airports and to give us some time to hold in the air to see if the weather was going to improve in order to allow us to make a successful landing.

We took off from a very blustery runway and as we approached Dublin the tower was still reporting wind vectors that were out of our limits, so we opted to hold in the air close to the airport to see if there was any trend in the weather towards improvement that would allow a successful landing.  After all, we do want to get our passengers to their destination with the least disruption possible! There was a passenger that had a flight to New York with a very short connection time, so we did get him to Dublin – I just hope he made it to New York as well! After a few circuits in the holding pattern we heard some good news – the wind was within limits! I advised the Captain “let’s have a go at an approach, we don’t know how long the wind is going to stay within limits!” We knew from the forecast that the wind could soon go out of limits again! The controller was informed of our intentions – that we would like to attempt an approach, and so we were cleared to exit the holding pattern and were given headings to fly to set us up for the approach. The wind was quite strong, nonetheless we managed to make the first successful landing into Dublin today.  It looked like a window of opportunity had opened up, and I saw a few more aircraft land behind us, and aircraft were beginning to queue up for departure again.

We managed to depart from Dublin after some delay – again due to the wind being out of limits for takeoff. Thankfully, though we did experience some strong winds at our other destinations, they were all within limits and didn’t cause further delay. It was a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed it, and it did get me excited. What made it even more worthwhile was how patient, appreciative and gracious the passengers were. One passenger even shook my hand as a gesture of thanks to the crew. How lovely!

Crosswind Landings

The recent low pressure system over UK & Ireland has certainly brought some interesting weather, and in particular the wind! I recently flew to Northern Ireland from UK, and the pressure difference between my departure and destination was in excess of 20 hectopascals (or around 0.6inHg), which says there’s a steep pressure gradient.  Consequently we experienced some gusty crosswinds which were approaching our operating limits.

I found a video that was uploaded recently which demonstrates what an approach and landing would look like in such weather:

The aircraft is “crabbed” into the wind on approach so that it can track the runway centreline.  This means that the aircraft is not pointed directly towards the runway, which would normally be the case if there was no wind, or only a wind coming directly towards the aircraft. However, the aircraft is pointed away from the runway and slightly more towards where the wind is coming from to mitigate the effects of the wind blowing the aircraft away from the runway.  The pilot maintains this angle all the way down to the flare or touchdown. On the 737, we have two options, we can either “de-crab” on touchdown or in the flare.  This means that we can either re-align the nose of the aircraft so it points in the runway direction once we are on the runway or just a few seconds before touchdown, in the flare (where the pilot slows the descent rate and sets the correct airplane attitude for touchdown).

The video title is a bit misleading – I wouldn’t say it’s terrifying, but it can get the adrenaline going.

Superb Visibility

I’ve had short flights to Spain the last few days, and each time I’ve been treated with amazing visibility – giving me gorgeous views from the flight deck. The jet stream that had been giving us some milder weather in late September has now moved from a northerly position to just south of UK, settling over Northern France. Unfortunately that means the weather is rather grim across the UK, whilst Spain is still enjoying warmer weather with temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius. Malaga was at 26°C whilst Alicante at 30°C today.

The wind speed increased to around 100kt in cruise, indicating that we were crossing the jet stream. We did anticipate some turbulence but it was smooth all the way through, to the passengers’ relief I’m sure! I always look forward to the approach into Malaga and the views are spectacular, particularly when landing on the North-Westerly facing runway. We began descent around just over a 100 miles to touchdown, after passing over the Pyrenees. The skies over Spain were clear, with very few clouds in sight. This is often the case, and even though France may be overcast, it is often clear past the Pyrenees. The descent took us past Granada in the West and Seville in the East.

As we got closer, air traffic control gave us a few shortcuts to the routing to expedite the flow of traffic since we were ahead of the queue with a few aircraft behind us and only one ahead. We normally program in the standard routing into the aircraft’s computer, or what is expected. From experience we knew that the controllers may give us a shorter routing since there wasn’t much traffic ahead, so we planned to be lower than the computed descent profile, preventing a rushed descent. As we predicted, the controllers gave us a few more shortcuts along the way, and our planning put us in good stead.

The approach initially took us south towards the coast, passing the mountainous region in the vicinity of Malaga. As we crossed the coast and went over the sea, I pointed out the Mountains in the far distance to the Captain and remarked that I hadn’t seen them with so much clarity before and that the visibility must’ve been superb. We checked on our map displays and confirmed that we were looking at the Atlas Mountains in Morocco – more than 80 miles away! We went out over the sea for about 10 miles and then the controller vectored (directed) us onto headings to line up with the runway and begin our final approach. Once we lined up with the runway, about 10 miles off the coast and the runway, we were greeted by beautiful, panoramic views of the coast with the mountainous backdrop.

Over the Mediterranean looking towards Spain.

Absolutely wonderful and gorgeous. Really.

Glistening Ocean to Lanzarote

The weather was pleasant today so I was looking forward to some easy flying – a stark contrast to the six sector day (six flights) that I experienced a week ago. The weather was terrible at that time with gusty crosswinds and windshear on approach. It was enjoyable though – I must admit I like a challenge. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t ideal for the airshow in Dublin that day!

We briefed the necessary details in the crew room and we saw that we had an aircraft change in Lanzarote! We weren’t in a good position to begin with due to a slot imposed on us by ATC which meant we would have to accept some delay, and an aircraft change could compound the delay. Delays are a lot more problematic on long sectors such as flights from UK to the Canary Islands due to the already long duty time and consequently running the risk of going out of it by coming up to the maximum amount of time we may work in the day. Thankfully there was no degradation in the delay and we were pushing back around 30 minutes behind schedule – some of which we managed to reduce by shorter routings given to us by air traffic control.

We flew over Wales and then towards Lands End and over the sea. The first bit if land we reached after that was Santiago, Spain. I thought this would be a good point to speak to the passengers. It was a long flight and I like to give passengers an update at least half way through and then again just before descent, if time and workload allows. I remember taking a look outside and just admiring the view of Portugal below. The coast looked pristine and the water was glistening in the sun. Very inviting. Once we left the Portuguese coast, there was nothing to see but the ocean in all directions. Water as far as the eye could see.

The Atlantic Ocean.
Approach to Lanzarote.

 

Once in Lanzarote, we had to wait for the aircraft we were changing onto which gave us enough time to grab a coffee in the terminal and check the latest weather. I was quite refreshed after the break so didn’t mind the delay so much and the passengers seemed fine as well. We took off at night and I wish I had a camera that could really capture the night view! We flew along the coast and over the ocean, giving us fantastic views of Faro, Lisbon, Porto and other cities and towns in between.

Croatia

It was my first time flying to Croatia, so I was quite excited to see how it would be. I’ve never really known much about Croatia other than war coverage in the 90s, so this was a good opportunity to learn a little!

We took off from UK and I took took the opportunity to fly manually for a while to keep up the proficiency in my handling skills. It’s so easy to be reliant on the autopilot all the times and gradually over time handling skills will degrade, so every now and then I fly a manual departure. Our route took us south towards Birmingham, passing London, over Germany, Austria and the finally to Croatia with a flying time of just over 2.5 hours. The approach was simple – a straight in ILS, so we were already lined up with the runway from the direction that we were coming in. The mountains were to the north with the Adriatic Sea to the south, giving us spectacular views.

Zadar, Croatia - looking out to the Adriatic Sea.
Zadar, Croatia – looking out to the Adriatic Sea.

The airport itself had a small terminal building and a small apron to match.  It had just recently rained, as it was damp, but the weather was mild and I could see the mountains in the distance as I did my walk-around.  On departure from Zadar, we were once again treated to spectacular views.

Zadar Airport, Croatia - Mountains in view!
Zadar Airport, Croatia – Mountains in view!

From Sunny to Rainy and back at over 400mph

Today’s day of flying gave me some gorgeous views.  We first hopped over to Ireland, which was a flight that took no more than 30 minutes.  Everything happened really quickly and only a few minutes after take off, we were already at cruising altitude, travelling at over 400mph over the Irish Sea inbound to Ireland.  The weather was cold, dull and it was raining, which gave us some indication of what we were to expect later on in the day back in UK!

The next trip was to Spain again, and this time it was a much longer flight of just over 2 hours, which gave me a little bit of time in cruise to catch my thoughts.  England was still in a state of generally good weather, with clear skies, though the temperature had dropped a little over the past few days, being only around 8ºC in the morning.  Our routing took us past Birmingham, west of London and then past the Isle of White. Halfway over France we were once again over cloud, obscuring the view of the ground below.

Isle of White on a clear day.
Isle of White on a clear day.

We soon approached the Pyrenees and today the cloud cover had diminished, affording us a superb view.  As usual, as soon as we had flown over the Pyrenees, the sky was clear and I could see a sharp ridge rise ahead in the distance, which we fly over on our descent towards Barcelona.

Pyrenees
Pyrenees

The turnaround in Barcelona took a little longer than expected due to an issue we had to deal with.  After managing to to calm down a passenger that had a fear of flying (which wasn’t the issue that actually caused a delay) and once we had a new flight plan, we were on our way!  On the way back to UK we got fantastic views of the northern coast of Spain, as we headed over the Bay of Biscay towards the Brest Peninsula, France.  On landing back in UK I said goodbye to the many appreciative passengers that disembarked and were quite happy with us getting them back to UK with minimal disruption despite the initial delay.  It always feels great to have your efforts appreciated with some genuine polite expressions of gratitude rather than the quick courtesy “thanks” one gives as you’re trying to get off as soon as you can!

Northern Spain
Northern Spain

 

Windy over Europe

The past few days have been quite windy over Europe, resulting in some disruption due to the necessary diversions.  Luckily, I was on my time off away from flying, so I wasn’t affected by any of it.  It looked like a strong low pressure system was moving across causing all this havoc!

My early shift began today, and though I usually find the sleeping pattern on the first day quite difficult to adjust to, I found it relatively easy this time.  I find a cup of green tea before work always sets me up nicely for the rest of the day!  Am I getting used to waking up at 4am for my flights?  Maybe, I don’t know!  I used to worry about trying to get to bed early, and tried all sorts of rituals in order to get myself to sleep early for the next day.  I found that worrying is just counterproductive and I end up not being able to sleep as a result, so now I just don’t think about it and manage to doze away quite easily!

Todays flights took us to France and then Barcelona, Spain.  The weather was mild in both locations, but slightly warmer in Barcelona at 19ºC, though it felt a little bit colder due to the breeze.  We ended up flying a procedural approach to both destinations since there was no radar support at the airport itself (though there was around in the surrounding area).  I find procedural approaches quite easy to plan for in terms of descent since the lateral path is defined, and so the track miles are defined.  With radar vectors it’s a bit of a game in trying to anticipate the controllers next move and heightened situational awareness is necessary.

Decent over UK, enjoying the sun whilst I can!
Decent over UK, enjoying the sun whilst I can!

The weather looks like it’s improving as we’re approaching Summer.. and soon we shall be avoiding thunderstorms and wrestling with thermals! Summer does bring its own challenges as well!