Saturday, October 27, 2012

It Isn't Every Day That I Can Say That I had A Chat With An Airline Pilot

It isn’t every day that I can say that I had a chat with an airline pilot. But yesterday I did. While waiting in line with my wife to vote early, I saw   a gentleman in a pilot’s uniform just ahead of me. Rather timidly I tapped him on the shoulder, just below his first officer’s epaulets, and introduced myself.  I was wearing my EAA ball cap, purchased at Oshkosh several years ago, and it served to introduce me as another pilot (although not an ATP flying for the airlines). We exchanged pleasantries, including when we had been to Oshkosh. Then he asked what type of planes I had been flying and so on. When I mentioned the Baron, he shook his head in approval, a great plane he thought. Then I found out he was flying Airbus 320’s, the big boys. I was very impressed. Next he offered that he didn’t think he could fly the small private type planes anymore. Not only was flying a large airliner totally different, but the Airbus in particular was practically all automated. To quote him “once you advance the throttles for take- off it is all automated”. That brought back the memory of the Airbus over the south Atlantic that had autopilot failure associated with severe turbulence. Those pilots were not familiar enough with hand flying the big bird and ultimately succumbed, with a total loss of plane and personnel. My new acquaintance then offered that his airline was insuring that their pilots had training to deal with the situation of autopilot failure. I was very pleased to hear that.

All this ties in with one of my concerns, discussed in an earlier article. What if your EFIS goes blank? Are you prepared to take over with the old analog instruments? If not you had better get some retraining on those techniques. It is just a matter of when, not if you might experience a partial or complete failure. I was glad to see an ad for a small glass HSI type instrument that had its own lithium battery. A nice thing to have when the big screen goes blank.

Several days ago, while out on a walk, I happened to look up and see what appeared to be two airliners on a collision course. They were converging on what seemed to be the same altitude. Maybe they were 500 feet apart vertically with some lateral separation, no way to tell from my position on the ground. I thought of TCAS, certain it was buzzing in both cockpits, warning the pilots of both planes of danger ahead (see article written last month).

Finally, I want to touch on the topic of planning ahead. Whatever the task, you must be ahead of the airplane. The tasks that require the most pre-planning are instrument approaches and low IFR take-offs. Being ready for an ILS approach in low IFR requires that you know the procedure well in advance. Even if you have an autopilot coupled approach capability, you’ve got to know certain things ahead of time.  All the data is located on your approach plate. I swore by Jeppesen charts, (Jeps), as opposed to the government brand. So study the chart well ahead of time. Know the entry altitude and heading of the approach, as well as how to identify the outer marker,the details of a “missed” etc.

As an example of what can happen, let me relate a flight from the past. I was in the right seat of a Cherokee 6 inbound to Burke Lakefont in Cleveland. In the left seat was a distinguished cardiologist, but I was to find out on approach, non IFR rated pilot. The weather was moderately low IFR with light snow falling. He became flustered as the approach neared, finally fessing up that he didn’t really know how to shoot the approach. As I had studied the approach plates, and had a few real IFR flights under my belt, I said “Let me have the controls, I can get us in”. Well we made it ok, in spite of having to look sideways at the gages from the right seat. If I hadn’t studied the approach ahead of time it could have been a disaster.

I’ll just touch on IFR take-offs. Before you shove the throttle/s forward, ask yourself what if I lose power or have some other serious problem on take-off? What are my options? Obviously if just off the ground and in the clear, try and land straight ahead. Once you are in the soup however, it is a different matter. If you can stay airborne, and the weather is above minimums you can go for an approach at the airport you just left. If the field is really socked in, you may have to find another airport with better weather. This is where planning ahead comes in. You had better do the research on the ground ahead of time, before the sweat is pouring off your brow and time is running out.

So, plan ahead and be prepared, to help you stay out of trouble. A few minutes of pre planning can save you from making a life threatening mistake later.