Throughout the upcoming week, we will be featuring Father's Day posts from our Blog Team. We kick off the week with this fantastic post from Phoenix Captain Ray Stark. It was prior to the Great Depression when my grandparents divorced. Two years later, after my father's mom re-married and her new husband voiced great displeasure at having to feed two hungry boys, my grandmother told my father, then twelve, and his brother, nine, that they had to go live with their father in Oklahoma. With a few dollars in his pocket, and with his nine year-old brother in tow, my father headed out to the rail yard in Stockton, California to ride the freight trains to Oklahoma. It was 1929. A hobo, having just gotten off a freight train, scolded these young boys telling them, "A rail yard is too dangerous a place for two young boys like you." My father replied, "But, we have to go to our father's in Oklahoma because our mother cannot afford to keep us anymore." The hobo replied, "I just came from Oklahoma. I ain't got nothing better to do. I guess I'll take you boys out there myself." The hobo taught these two boys how to outrun the conductor and safely jump on the train while it was moving. Like a guardian angel, he made sure their trip was safe. But, when they arrived in Oklahoma, their father said, "I cannot afford to feed you boys. You need to go back to your mother's in California." To earn money for the trip back, Ray, and his brother Ralph, worked on a farm for about a month. When they went to get their wages, the farmer told them, "You boys have been working for room and board." They headed to the rail yard in Oklahoma with less than a dollar between them. Two days later, the found themselves in El Paso. The trains had stopped running. They asked someone why the trains were not running and they were told, "It is Thanksgiving. The trains never run on Thanksgiving." The boys had not eaten in two days. Starving, they walked up a side street in El Paso and knocked at the back door of a home. They were told to stay on the steps and soon, a plate of turkey and dressing was brought for them to share. They were told that they were to leave as soon as they were finished, and not come back. Three days later, they arrived back in Stockton. With little support from his mother, my father worked in CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) Camps building roads in the Sierra mountains. Later, he worked in a fruit orchard in Modesto, California. The farmer that ran the fruit orchard he worked at was married to a school teacher who impressed upon my father the need to "get as much education and training as you can." "That," she said, "will open up opportunities for you." By the time he was 16, he lied about his age to get into the merchant marine. A year later, he was accepted into the Navy. As far as formal schooling, he never finished 7th grade. By the time he retired in 1983, my father had been an aerial photographer in the Navy, a camera repairman, a civilian flight instructor, flight school owner, and an aircraft and engine builder. He had taught himself electronics and ultimately retired as an associate field engineer, having put three children through college. When I hear people today talk about how tough times are now, I think back to my father's generation. He literally had nothing. No wealth, little family support, no formal education, and little in the way of direction or mentoring. There was no welfare, no minimum wage, and no food stamps. And yet he was very successful because he believed in the value of hard work, continuing education, and living an honorable and constructive life. All he needed was opportunity. I remember hearing this story from my dad, only once, while I was about ten. He never dwelled upon his hard life. But, as a young kid living in a loving family with every need taken care of, I knew how very lucky I was to have the father that I had. Not a day goes by that I don't think of him. Or miss him. Thanks Dad.
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Anytime you use the word “emergency” in the context of aviation, people get understandably concerned. A look at what happens during such an event reveals the planning and forethought that goes into aviation. And, as a good friend of mine likes to say, “With knowledge comes comfort.” In aviation, when a Pilot uses the word “emergency,” it is simply a message, a code word, to the Air Traffic Controller (ATC) that the Pilot has an issue that will require traffic priority. Just using the word as part of the call sign is an efficient way to “declare” that a situation exists on your aircraft that requires priority handling. Flights have “call signs” that identify them, like license plates on a car. For an airliner, the call sign is the flight number. When a Pilot on, say Southwest Flight #123, calls ATC with, “Center, Southwest 123 emergency, we are losing our cabin and need a descent to 10,000 feet,” ATC knows precisely what that flight needs. There are fewer situations more important to a Pilot than when the cabin pressure goes too high, requiring descent to a lower altitude swiftly and smoothly. And, to a controller who may have airplanes below the aircraft that must descend, getting those planes out of the way quickly and safely is the overriding issue that must be resolved to allow the aircraft in trouble to descend without delay. The “emergency descent” profile that a Pilot uses to expedite a descent is actually not much different than a normal descent. The nose is lowered and the speed brakes (spoilers on the wing) are raised to help the plane descend faster. This occurs routinely in normal operations when ATC starts the plane down late due to traffic below. The major difference is the Pilots fly a little bit faster, closer to their maximum allowable speed, to expedite the descent. The rush is to simply get the plane down where pressurization is not required (around 10,000 feet). The onboard oxygen canisters operate long enough to allow the plane to descend to where oxygen is plentiful in the thicker surrounding air, normally between 12,000 and 10,000 feet. Emergency descents are also used for medical inflight emergencies, when we have to get a Passenger on the ground quickly.
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An odd thought ran through my mind the week before Christmas. Spending my second night in a hotel while the "BLIZZARD OF '09" dumped a couple of feet of snow on Baltimore and much of the Northeast, I began to realize, we have this all wrong. We need to have Christmas in summer like they do in Australia. That way our Christmas travel plans would never be interrupted by snow or ice storms. Perhaps we could all go to the beach and have a "barbie." (However, I am not sure I could wrap my brain around snowstorms in July...) Having your travel plans interrupted by Mother Nature is no fun. (My vacation started the next day but I wasn't going anywhere.) But, given that we have no choice when massive storms blow our way, I made the best of it and took pictures. The sights in the terminal at Baltimore/Washington International were bizarre indeed for the week before Christmas: The place was deserted. When can you see a airline terminal in a major US city completely empty? Here's the Bad News Board. Even the flights that were still listed didn't make it in. Better to keep those planes out in the system moving other people. Getting them needlessly frozen to the ground only inconveniences more people. I can't remember having seen this many cancellations for a long time. The main ticket counter out front. About five Passengers and ten Employees. Hard to believe it's the week before Christmas. A peek outside shows why. The storm has just begun to bear down on the airport. Major highways are passable but will be closed by midnight. Inside the Main Terminal there is one passenger, on his laptop. Cleaning staff vacuum around him. The food court, usually a bustling place, serves only a few Employees who have taken a break from snow removal operations on the ramp. Me, getting off the hotel van for my second night at the Holiday Inn. Notice the SUV behind me. Here's the same SUV the next morning. This was a shot of the gates mid-blizzard. Crews are trying valiantly to keep the jetbridge areas as clear as possible. Only 12 hours later, the same area after the storm passed. The ramp had been cleared of most of the snow though, it was still ice covered.
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Fast approach in gusty weather... From a frequent flier: While landing in gusty winds it looked like we were going way faster than normal. We floated way down the runway and then pounded on the runway after which the pilots slammed on the brakes! Why would this happen? Without any winds, the aircraft flies at basically 1.3 times the stall speed. (Stall speed is the speed at which the wings essentialy "quit working" and lift would diminish rapidly.) When you have winds and gusts, we take half of the steady state winds and then add the gust component up to a max of 20 additional knots. That number gets added to our approach speed. Flying "plus 20" looks faster if the winds are mostly crosswinds. With headwinds, they usually average out. When the wing gets down to an altitude of half of its wingspan it enters ground effect. That reduces tons of drag on the plane as it travels through the air. Now, add 20 knots, and you have a plane that wants to float and float and float... At some point you have to stick it on the runway and that appears to be what you experienced. Maybe the Pilot was trying to "flare it on" when in retrospect, he or she could have flown it down to the ground (often yielding a smooth landing). Or, sometimes you can fly final in smooth air and get hit with a big gust that adds lift and makes you float. Either way, brakes only work on the ground so getting the plane stopped is only possible once it has landed. Float a little too far, and that means firmer braking to get the plane stopped. Either way the Pilot played it safe and got the plane on the ground so he or she could get it stopped.
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If you fly on Southwest Airlines regularly, chances are you’ve probably been on a flight where the cabin breaks into applause upon landing. This happens from time-to-time for various reasons. Often, it’s in response to a “sporty” approach in gusty winds or bad weather that has the Passengers who are not “comfortable fliers” clutching their armrests until touchdown. Often, the raucous applause breaks out at the suggestion of the Flight Attendants via the P.A. system. You probably hear more of those comments on SWA because we are free to make flying more fun for our Passengers. Off-the-wall comments by our Flight Attendants are encouraged. (“Ladies and Gentleman, if you are not doing so at this time, please do so immediately. Thank you.”) My favorite PA comments are following a firm landing. (“Take THAT Mr. Runway!” or “Folks, that wasn’t the Captain’s fault. That wasn’t the First Officer’s fault. That was the asphalt.”) Flight Attendant interaction with the Passengers is critical at times. Once, in descent to Austin's old Robert Mueller Airport, we heard a call by another carrier reporting severe turbulence on climbout. There was a huge mass of weather to the north of Austin, but it was clear to the south along our arrival path. FAA regulations prohibit Pilots from flying into areas of known or reported severe turbulence so we had little time to determine whether we were legal to continue the arrival. Once we were assured by ATC (Air Traffic Control) that the reporting aircraft was “in the weather” about 15 miles northwest of the field, we continued our approach and landing. Though our approach corridor had only been reported as “occasional moderate” turbulence, we encountered increasingly more “enthusiastic” bumps and deviations from our glidepath. Several times on the approach, the bottom would seemingly drop out of the plane as we entered strong sinking wind currents. On these occasions, we could hear the passengers' voices as the plane rode through the roller coaster ride on approach. During all of this, the Flight Attendant seated in the rear of the plane was making hilarious (at the time) comments to the passengers. “I know these Pilots folks! We are going to be fine!” And another: “Hold on to your seatbelt with one hand, and hold the other hand over your head and yell YEE-HAWWW!” The passengers were still loud, but their surprise was immediately followed by laughter and clapping, even louder than the initial screams of surprise. Up front, we had our hands full. My partner and I had decided to continue the approach as long as it was safe. We had an alternate route to Houston in clear air to the south. Realizing we were going to be able to land, I voiced my intention to the First Officer to make the landing an unequivocal and unmistakable “end to this carnival ride.” The last couple hundred feet of the descent was just continuous bouncing and shuddering of the jet. I managed to get a decent landing out of the approach and came on with firm braking and full reverse. My message to the passengers: This ride is OVER. From the back was a thunderous applause followed by yelling and whistling for about 15 seconds. As a Pilot, my primary job is to get the aircraft safely on the runway, in the landing zone and get it stopped well before the end of the runway. Smooth “greaser” landings are nice but not preferable to landing “in the zone.” After a sporty approach, it’s fun to hear the Passengers vote with their hands. It goes a little way toward making up for the inadvertent “pounder” landings all Pilots experience now and then. In the case of the Austin approach, the cabin was jovial and laughter was contagious during deplaning, all thanks to the work by the compassionate and quick-thinking Flight Attendant. --A woman I had never met before in my life. In my mind on approach and after landing, I was applauding her.
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While SWA doesn't serve Milwaukee, some off-line alternates have accommodations for airstairs or jetway use for special occurrences. Some alternates are refuel-and-go locations that have pre-coordinated fuel arrangements where we plan to be refueled and airborne again in as little as 30 minutes. In those cases, no deplaning is required.
A SWA jet suffered an engine failure after takeoff from Midway. Rather than land a heavy jet on the shorter runways at Midway, the pilot elected to land at O'Hare and the passengers were taken care of once the plane arrived at O'Hare (Deplaned by jetway or airstairs and I believe by bus in this example -back to MDW).
Luke Air Force Base in PHX is another example. They don't mind if weather causes a few orange jets to drop out of the sky unexpectedly. (Many of our pilots are or were Luke based so it's familiar territory for them.) Commercial jets are parked on their generous ramp space as they await refueling and the weather improvements. Boeing Field in Seattle is a similar airport (gas 'n go) offline alternate for SEATAC.
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Oakland to Chicago, July 2008. Like nearly every morning before a flight, I check the weather data for my series of flights that day. This day, I see a band of moisture up near Minneapolis, but that is two states away from my leg into Chicago. Things should be fine. We should handily beat the weather into Chicago. On the second leg of the day, we arrive in Oakland, and I again check the weather. The mass of moisture has moved a little but, based on my hourly summary, it still looks like we will beat the weather into Chicago by a few hours. Then, just prior to pushback for Chicago Midway, we notice the fuel gauges winding up as more fuel is pumped onboard. The Operation Agent brings us the final weight and balance paperwork along with a new flight release to account for the extra gas Dispatch has added to our flight. We push back with 2,000 pounds more gas than originally planned, “just in case.” The flight is smooth as we cross the Sierras and cross the barren northern Nevada ranges. Crossing just south of the Great Salt Lake, we head into the western Rockies, crossing the Front Range just north of Denver. All the way it is clear and smooth. Passing Omaha, we start to see clouds approaching from over the horizon. We now begin to see the weather is moving much faster than expected. Over Iowa, we inquire as to what is going on with Chicago arrivals and the Controller replies, “Stand by for holding instructions.” Hokey-dokey. We are still up high (33,000 feet) where holding is the most efficient. Holding at lower altitudes consumes more gas, and we pass on to Air Traffic Control (ATC) our desire to stay high, “as long as possible.” In flight, fuel is time and time offers options. I fire off a message to the SWA Dispatcher watching our flight informing him of our fuel remaining and Expected Further Clearance (EFC) time. (This is the time ATC expects to clear us into our destination.) Our Dispatcher has already seen us circling and sees those in front of us holding at holding fixes closer to Chicago. Because of the possibility of weather at our destination, we designated a good-weather alternate of Milwaukee, about 70 miles north of Chicago. If you have looked at a SWA cocktail napkin lately, you will notice Milwaukee is not on the SWA route system. I confirm with the new Dispatcher who has taken over for our original Dispatcher, whether or not they want us to possibly proceed to an “off-line alternate.” It’s safe, but once you land, you are on your own. There are no Company resources there to help you get airborne again to your destination. Our new Dispatcher agrees that Indianapolis would make more sense so we change our alternate and work up a new “bingo fuel.” This “bingo” number is how much gas we need to depart the holding area with to be able to fly to our alternate and land and still have 45 minutes of reserve fuel left. In other words, it is an absolute minimum amount we want to depart from holding with. In holding, the Boeing 737 uses about 4,000 lbs of fuel per hour. (About 1,000 lbs of fuel every 15 minutes.) In holding, we advise ATC that we are now about 15 minutes from diverting to Indy. Almost immediately, he informs us Chicago Approach is now taking planes into Midway. We coordinate with our Dispatcher, and he confirms the worst of the weather is now past Chicago so we depart holding and head to a closer holding location for a few turns. Just in case, I tell Dispatch via typed message: “MKE hip-pocket alternate.” Dispatch responds “Roger.” If something goes goofy getting into Chicago, we will still bolt for Milwaukee (MKE) with enough gas to land with our required 45 minutes of reserve fuel. We are finally descending in to Chicago, and on the radar, we can see vast bands of rain moving to the east. By the time we reach Joliette, we can see the skyline of Chicago and laying before it, the Midway Airport. Out both sides, the passengers only see darkening skies. Running the latest weather information through our landing performance computer, we realize we will have to ask for a runway different than what the controller wanted us to use. The controller grants us the runway we need. We fly an approach to the advertised runway, and then circle to use the runway that affords us the best performance margins based on the runway surface conditions and wind direction. As we cross the runway threshold I duck under glideslope a tad and firmly plant the tires at the start of the touchdown zone to ensure spin-up on the wet surface to allow the brakes to work. Deploying the reversers right at touchdown, I beat the auto-brakes and slow the plane to near taxi speed about halfway down the runway. No hydroplaning or traction problems today, and we exit the runway with over 1,000 feet to spare. About 45 minutes late, we pull into our gate in Chicago. To the Passengers, it seemed an unnecessary delay. A few deplaning Passengers look back in surprise as I tell the oncoming Captain, “We almost went to Milwaukee, then Indy, and then Milwaukee again.” To the Passengers, it was just another airline delay.
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Brian asked me recently if I had been doing much flying outside of Southwest. As I have mentioned in the past, my daughter is a flight instructor in Phoenix and flies regularly. I flew with her when she was earning her ratings, but now that she is a bona fide instructor, there is no reason to haul a non-paying passenger like me along. She has student loans to pay! Everything is more expensive today. Private aviation started getting expensive about 30 years ago, and is now beyond the reach of most people. Much of this cost arose out of questionable law suits aimed at the manufacturers of light aircraft. Today, it is estimated that 60% of the price of a new Cessna goes into a “contingency fund” should the manufacturer ever be sued over the life of the aircraft. With a ticket price of just over $200,000, that means, $120,000 of the purchase price goes to attorney fees. That is tough for many people to swallow and is probably the single largest reason more new aircraft aren’t produced. Because of the high cost associated with new planes, older planes have kept their value very well over time. Still, the number of pilots has fallen off markedly over the past 30 years. In fact, since 1980, the number of rated pilots in this country has declined from over 827,000 to less than 600,000 in 2006. So few are the people who can afford to meet the stringent rating and training criteria--and the stratospheric aircraft rental costs, the FAA has created two new pilot rating categories in an attempt to lower the costs associated with “flying yourself.” In 2004, the Sport Pilot category was created to allow pilots to fly a new class of planes that only carry two people, only go no faster than 120 mph, and weigh no more than 1,320 lbs, about half the weight of the average car. This aircraft is limited to daytime operation only. An additional rating category termed, Recreational Pilots, further restricts pilots to a certain distance from their home airports but greatly lowers the training costs associated with flight training. A new pilot going for a traditional Private Pilot’s rating can expect to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 to gain certification. The Light Sport rating is estimated to run $5,000 to $6,000. For a pilot who wishes to work as a commercial pilot, the costs approach that of medical or law school. My daughter started with a Private Pilot rating I paid for when she was still in High School. Since then, her student loans to get her an Instrument rating, a Multi-engine rating, her Certified Flight Instructor Rating ( CFI ), and her Certified Instrument Flight Instructor Rating (CFII) have run her about $75,000. She will be employable at a commuter airline shortly, after bagging a few more flight hours. But, before she can start class at Southwest Airlines, she will have to earn a 737 Type Rating. That unique requirement means all applicants at SWA that get accepted into our training program are already Captain-rated by the FAA to fly the 737. That rating will run another $7,000-$9,000. Okay, say you don’t want to be an airline pilot, but rather just a professional who likes to fly on his or her time off. After the basic rating, you either have to rent or buy an airplane. Sadly, not many friends loan out their airplanes to their friends. Renting is the most hassle-free method. You can expect to pay between $100 and $140 an hour to rent a small Cessna or Piper. You pay more per hour but you don’t have any of the “boarding” costs associated with ownership. The rental facility takes care of all the maintenance and upkeep issues with the aircraft, along with the considerable storage costs associated with storing and "feeding" the aircraft. Fuel is usually included in the rental hourly rate. For those deadset to buy their own plane, often the best way to go is with multiple partners. Two or three people will buy into a plane and this greatly cuts the maintenance and storage costs. Unlike SWA Boeings that get inspected monthly because they fly so much, every year a light aircraft is required to undergo a “annual inspection” where all aspects of the aircraft are inspected to ensure airworthiness. Sitting is bad for an aircraft, especially if the aircraft is stored outdoors. Hangar costs can run $300 to $700 a month at small general aviation airports Those who can afford it, undertake the whole cost of an aircraft unto themselves. Many have decided to “live at the airport” at fly-in communities where they store their aircraft at their house, usually in an attached hangar which looks like part of their home. This situation is usually the most cost effective and helps lower cost of ownership as well as lowers the “hassle factor” by keeping the aircraft close for spur of the moment flying. This, in turn, is better for the plane because it sees more frequent use. So, in my case, I get my fill of aviation flying my passengers around the country. It sure would be nice to own a small plane to go fly with my daughter, but that is really an expensive proposition, especially while she is buying flying ratings so that she can replace me and fly my passengers' kids around someday. I hope to fly with her here before I retire in a decade. But then there’s always the PowerBall! (Ray asked us to share this great video about the joys of flying at the greatest airshow in the world, Oshkosh.)
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Jet Engines: Beasts of Burden I noticed the planes my airline flys only sit on the ground a few minutes and they are back in the air over and over again all day long! How can this be good for them? Doesn't it make them break more often? How can they hold up? Let's use a car analogy. Imagine if your car worked for a taxi company.... It would be running pretty much constantly for three or four years. It would get an oil change every week because, in a week, it has gone 6000 miles. In a year, the engine would be replaced because it had 300,000 miles on it. (White Horse Limos in Raleigh/Durham N.C. has Chevy Suburbans with 430,000 miles on them! THE SAME ENGINE!) Do you think you'd get 300,000 miles out of your engine? Probably not. Wonder why? Machines like to work. The hardest thing you can do to your car engine is to start it up in the morning after it has cooled off. The temperature stress is terrible to the motor. Oil has dribbled down to the pan and has to be pumped back up to coat and protect the working parts as the engine starts. For a few seconds during start the engine is almost dry (that's why you should never rev your car engine right after a cold start -give it five seconds to get up to oil pressure. Warm starts are fine: The engine internal parts are all dripping with oil from when you turned it off 30 minutes ago.) Pratt & Whitney makes jet engines used on the older 737 and MD-80 series aircraft. These engines are also used on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to generate electrical power for the rig. The engines on those rigs run off natural gas, which is plentiful and usually run for 90 days (that's 24/7!!!) before another "power pack" is brought on line. The depowered pack is then shipped back to land to be inspected and rebuilt. What they found amazed them when they got the first motor back on land: It was like brand new! Jet engines on airliners are the same way. Keep them warm from running them and they like it. Oil seals stay sealed longer; bearings stay tight longer; and fluids stay in better shape. Another analogy is exercising the human body. Regular exercise keeps your system working better than infrequent bouts on the treadmill or bike. I have done exterior inspections in Providence in winter where the engine covers are placed on the cowling openings to keep snow and gook from collecting in the engine. Upon opening the covers, the engine was still warm from when it flew six hours ago--even though the outside air temperature was below freezing! SECRET PILOT STUFF--Oddly, jet motors start so slowly and have so few moving parts, they don't see the stress that a car engine sees on start up. They use synthetic 10W oil--very much like sewing machine oil--WAY thinner than the oil in your car. And, jet engines never get their oil changed. Oil slowly gets burned as it seeps past the oil seals, and Maintenance just adds oil periodically as the Pilots see the gauges in the cockpit reach a certain point. Scheduled maintenance inspections are done on a very strict timetable as specified by the manufacturer and the FAA.
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I flew from Chicago Midway (MDW) to Las Vegas (LAS) recently, and the view was fantastic most of the way. There were some areas of "chop" around the Front Range of the Rockies, and these clouds show the areas of turbulence at the bottom of the fast-moving jet stream. We felt some of that turbulence up near the top at 40,000 feet. The jet stream core in winter is moving very fast. On my flight at 41,000 feet, the winds were only 70 knots. Descending through 33,000 feet, we saw 135 knots of headwind, and at 28,000, the winds were once again about 70 knots from the west. Like the eddies along the edge of a fast-moving stream of water, the edges of the jet stream are occasionally bumpy.
During the first half of the flight from Chicago, the terrain is simply one farm after another--not the most interesting view after an hour or so. Once past the Front Range of the Rockies (just west of Denver/Colorado Springs), things got really interesting. Like it or not, if you are on my flight, you are going to get the running monologue from the cockpit because, clouds permitting, the view is amazing. This is what we see from up front when looking west over Colorado Springs.
Further to the west, we saw Monument Valley dusted in fresh snow. White sure makes for an unusual contrast against the usual pink tones formed by iron in the rock.
The same was true for the Grand Canyon. Here's the South Rim from about 24,000 feet as ATC descended us into the LAS traffic flow. With the low sun angle this time of year, it is tough to look south but the rock colors just jump out at you, despite the sun's glare.
If you'd like to see gorgeous views like these, buy a seat at southwest.com !!!!
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I have never worked at another airline though I have many friends who do -or have. All I know is, at this company, I have full latitude do do whatever I think is safe. If that means waiting out weather or diverting, the company backs me 110%. Even if other planes are operating, if I choose not to fly, they supprot me in that decision. That is the way it shhould be. I hope it that way at other companies as well.
In my heart, I believe there will be big changes and fantastic new announcements about exciting new growth and changes here at Southwest in the New Year. Thanks for your patronage and keep tuned in for great news!
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!!!!
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"Because we aren't Santa Claus...THAT's why."
Travel in winter is fun. Invariably, when you plan a trip, Mother Nature throws some weather into the equation, and when it comes to flying, that understandably triggers apprehension in many people. (Hey, I live in Phoenix! Anything below 65 degrees triggers apprehension in me! "Honey! Where's my COAT!!!")
Flying in winter weather is far safer than driving on crusty frozen roads. In the air, you don't have to worry about another plane skidding on a turn and running into you. Planes in flight don't have to slow down in cold weather. Jet engines are easier to start than car motors in freezing weather. Even snow doesn't really affect airliners, until it's time to land. The best way to get traction when braking on snowy surfaces is to be really heavy. There aren't many heavier vehicles on rubber tires than an airliner. Plus, unlike cars, planes have reverse thrust. With reverse, on longer runways, I have landed just fine on icy runways, covered in snow. The hardest part was taxiing to the gate but, at three mph, even that wasn't too hard.
Snow is a hassle because it creates barriers to planes just as it does to automobiles. Drifts of snow build up and often times, airports run out of room to pile it up after plowing it out of the way in the vicinity of terminals. Or, it falls faster than the snow removal teams can remove it from the airport surfaces. Taxiways and runways have nifty blue edge lights. But, it sure is nice to see the other lights embedded in the center of the taxiway or runway. However, seeing those is not essential, even at night. That is why we Pilots slow down to a fraction of our normal taxi speed: We want to make sure where we are going and that we can stop when we get there.
A plane buried in snow overnight can be easily "de-iced" with hot snow/ice removal fluid and go on its way just fine, assuming the snow is not falling too heavily. Snow melting in the de-ice fluid dilutes this fluid, and eventually, it will freeze as if it is water. We call the time between de-ice and contamination, the "holdover time." Get airborne before the conservative holdover time expires and you are on your way. "Bust" that time and you are heading back to get de-iced again. The Pilots will confirm the plane is clean and safe for departure. If need be, you will see one of them in the cabin looking at the wings up close if there is any question whatsoever.
The only thing that really throws a "monkey wrench" into travel plans is freezing rain like that which recently hit Oklahoma. Freezing rain is caused when warmer air sits above colder air on the ground. Rain falls through the colder air and freezes on everything it contacts. Trying to de-ice a plane in these conditions is purely futile because there is no way to know how heavy the rainfall is. Unlike snowfall that accumulates much slower and is easy to measure by its affect of visibility, rainfall is hard to measure accurately. It doesn't take much freezing rain to shut down flying operations. Once the freezing precipitation stops falling, the planes can be hosed down with hot de-ice fluid and sent on their way.
So, when you look at The Weather Channel before your airline trip, don't be upset to see winter weather in your path or at your destination. Airports and airlines are experienced in dealing with messy weather. If they can safely get you on your way, they will. If they decide to err on the side of caution, it is because the airlines have learned how to safely operate in harsh winter environments. They will not cut corners just to get the plane airborne on time. And with operations slowing down as weather worsens, expect some delays in your travel schedule. To paraphrase a saying from my old days in the Air Force's Strategic Air Command, "Rigid Flexibility: The Key To Successful Air Travel!"
That said, unless you are heading into a blizzard or ice storm, expect operations to be pretty much normal. Expect a few delays and most likely, you will be pleasantly surprised to find your flight departing and arriving pretty much on time.
A very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays From all the Crews and staff here at Southwest Airlines! I look forward to seeing you onboard one of my flights in the New Year!
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Sorry to take so long to get back to you!
That puzzles me too! It may take awhile but let me ask around. Nothing like a GPS to while away the hours as you cruise along.
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A modern jet airliner is a brilliantly designed assembly of a million or so parts flying in close formation. Given the vast array of systems and ancillary parts that make up the aircraft, it is remarkable indeed that the dispatch reliability of these machines approaches 98 percent. In other words, in 98 departures out of 100, the jet is capable of doing its mission. Every now and then, something breaks. That is when SWA Flight Crews get involved with SWA Maintenance to either get the issue fixed or deferred so that we can fly with this minor inconvenience to the next Maintenance (MX) station. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-granted ability to fly with certain parts of the aircraft either not installed or inoperative allows us to keep at our primary mission: Getting our passengers safely and efficiently to their destinations.
This FAA grant comes in the form of the Minimum Equipment List (MEL). Every airliner has an MEL dedicated to it's specific aircraft type. The MEL grants allowances to fly with certain pieces of equipment inoperative and, depending on the equipment, may invoke additional limitations or time limits before repairs must be made.
For example, if your radar is out, you are cleared to launch as long as it will not be required for that flight. A close examination of the weather along the route answers that question. Another example is an engine anti-ice system. Not a particularly essential tool in mid summer. Of course, essential items like engines and wings are non deferrable.
Just because we have a book that says we can go with certain items inoperative, doesn't mean we make that decision on our own. Pilots call their SWA Dispatchers in Dallas and notify them of the problem and then the Dispatchers call a Maintenance Technician in MX Control for a three-way phone conference between parties. That MX Technician is dedicated to one specific model aircraft and has a computer file showing a MX history of the aircraft, as well as any current write-ups. With the Captain, Dispatcher, and MX Controller all working together, they can verify whether or not there is MEL relief for this issue and whether or not weather or scheduling would impact the plane operating in a degraded status.
An example: Let's say one of the two air conditioning packs is inoperative. The MEL allows the plane to depart with only one pack working but limits the flight to 25,000 feet or below. MX Control might feel this means we can go, but the Pilot and Dispatcher might know of the five-hour flight time and weather issues along the route of flight, or perhaps, at the destination. Using this all-encompassing approach, the Team realizes the aircraft flying at an inefficient lower altitude will not have the fuel to make the five-hour flight without either stopping en route for gas or leaving freight or passengers behind. Based on all the variables, they make the best, most informed decision possible. This may mean they swap aircraft with another flight which is only scheduled to fly short legs all day.
This whole deferral procedure can happen very quickly if the problem is minor and does not require any immediate MX attention prior to departure. In fact, I had one on my last flight.
At an out-station (no Company MX) during the cockpit pre-flight, we noticed the yaw damper was off. (Yaw dampers keep the tail of the plane from rocking back and forth at high altitudes.) Attempts to reset it were unsuccessful. Knowing this device was deferrable, I turned my cell phone on while writing up the problem in the aircraft logbook. By the time my phone was awake, I called my Dispatcher and got a patch to MX. In about two minutes I had a three-way agreement the problem was deferrable and not an issue for this leg (we would fly at a lower altitude where "Dutch Roll," the cause of the side-to-side tail wiggling, was not an issue).
After amending my release to show the current status of the aircraft had this inoperative yaw damper, I affixed a couple of yellow temporary warning stickers to the yaw damper switch, and we were ready to fly. The elapsed time was less than five minutes from the time of discovery.
At a SWA location where SWA MX was available, they would come and try to troubleshoot the problem. If the Technician was unsuccessful, the problem would be deferred by working directly with MX Control, and the Captain would advise the Dispatcher via phone of the issue and obtain an amended flight release (the main document showing the status of the aircraft and the most current routing for the flight with the very latest winds and fuel requirements).
Aircraft with MEL inoperative items are either fixed at the next MX base if it will not impact the next departure significantly, or for more lengthy repairs, they wait until the aircraft goes through an overnight at a MX base, usually within a day or so. If the MEL requires immediate repair (within a defined period), the aircraft will be rerouted to a MX facility where it can be repaired. This is often why passengers find themselves changing planes unexpectedly.
So, every part of that brilliantly designed aircraft you are sitting on need not be working. The redundancy built into modern jetliners allows certain systems to be inoperative with certain conservative stipulations. How often do I see a plane here at SWA with an MEL in the logbook? Rarely, if ever. Perhaps one a month or one every other month. That is a testimonial to the reliability of the machines we get from Boeing, as well as the dedication of the SWA MX Technicians who keep our planes flying in tip-top shape. It's no wonder they are at the very top of their field of aviation maintenance professionals.
No worries! Have a great trip!
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PS Sorry for all the typos! My browser wouldn't re-size and I was stuck in "micro-print mode." Once I got out and came back it worked correctly. I could barely read what I had written on my 19" monitor.
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It's not about runway length... it's about runway SLOPE.
If you look at the runway, it goes uphill to the west. That slope has a great impact on how your plane can accelerate in a high density altitude full of fuel and people. Going downhill, even with a slight tailwind is far easier, from an acceleration standpoint, than the usual uphill direction. This is a routine procedure for this time of year when hauling a full load a long way. In fact, it is not unusual to to see two or three planes sitting there waiting for ATC to make a "slot" to blast those departures opposite direction.
With the exception of winds above 10 knots from the east, Las Vegas usually lands to the east (RWY 25). If it were not for the uphill slope, a 25 departure would work fine but there is the issue of those nasty mountains off the west end of 25. Bust a motor at liftoff heading west on a 100 degree day with a full load of folks onboard and you are barely going to outclimb the rising terrain to the west. Going east, the terrain goes downhill.
As for you suggestion that you pilots were "placed" there to await a slot time, that is also incorrect. Slot times are something the TOWER will attempt to comply with if at all possible but, when it comes to opposite direction departures, they cannot instantaneously shut off arrival traffic to their airport. LAS tower only own the airspace within 5 miles of the tower and up to 3000 feet. APPROACH control has planes lined up as far as 50 miles out heading for LAS and only when Apporach has time to create a hole can TOWER release your jet into oncoming traffic. Your 40-year travel history must not include many summer Vegas trips. Sounds like you need a few more!
Now you are not so naive either!
Thankss for flying my airline.
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Terri is right...it's a tough crowd sometimes! Every pilots nightmare is doing the PA on ATC frequency. You should hear the cracks after that. Priceless as ten airplanes and a controller get their jabs in.
Terri brings up a good point. When things get wacky with ATC or Mother Nature, the folks inside the terminal do their best to try and keep you informed. We pilots have to share info we get with the Operations personnel because we are talking to ATC, Company Dispatch, and other agencies, often on a more frequent basis that they have time to. When Terri is coordinating, she would get the first call to the station from ATC that a ground stop had been lifted or extended and quite often, her call to us would be almost simultaneous to a radio call from ATC telling the same news. Operations Coordinators are literally "the voice on the other end of the phone" when you call the station and they are the conduit of important information that comes into each station. Aside from keeping the usual flow of planes coming and going to the right gates, making sure wheel chairs get delivered to gates who need them, solving the various and sundry needs of planes on the ground, the Operations Coordinators on the radio at each station keep us abreast of information and other options and needs that arise. Terri is very good at "juggling" and her awesome sense of humor makes everyone's job easier.
("Phew, I thought for a second I did that on ATC freq!!!")
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I cannot tell you about the circumstance you cite because in 20 years of flying here at SWA, I have never experienced such a delay. At the most, I have had to wait 20-30 minutes for a gate and that was usually caused by an early arrival on my part when my gate was still occupied by a previous flight.
There is no set limit. SWA leaves that up to the discretion of the pilot because, as I tried to explain, the dynamics of delays is an extremely complex issue. We have no policy directive which attempts to curtail our customers freedom to "roam about the country" by keeping them hostage onboard an aircraft. Our job is to get them to their destinations, despite Mother Nature or ATC delays.
If all gates are busy -as is often the case when the weather or ATC issues impact flight operations, and I push back opening one up, the next plane waiting for my gate takes it. That means I will get in line for the next available gate if I need to return for a lengthy time. In the past, I have left the wait period up to the passengers. If they want to go out and wait on board the plane in hopes of getting airborne, I will do that too. Weather or ATC issues change rapidly and it is best to make a decision based on good information as things unfold.
My personal goal is to get airborne in an hour or less. If things delay slightly, I can accept that. If a flow or "gear up" time is so far in the future that we have hours yet to wait, there is no reason to depart the gate with passengers.
An alternate option is using air stairs to deplane passenger adjacent to a gate. Not all locations have airstairs though.
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I forgot to mention the volume control on the PA's is set by maintenance "in the basement" of the aircraft. Some are loud. Some more quiet. Technique in getting your mouth up to the microphone, as well as which mic you choose to use has a big impact on how loud you come across.
PA Rule Number One: You can't please all the people no matter what you do! But, you can shoot for what the majority might want. I get quite a few positive comments from people so I must be doing something my passengers like.
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One of the most daunting aspects of airline flying for newbie Pilots is talking to John and Jane Q Passenger via the PA system. It is especially tough for the ex-military Pilots because they rarely had to talk to the passenger group--if they even had any passengers! At an airline, addressing the passengers is something that happens several times a day. There are two extreme schools of thought regarding PA's: Don't say any more than you have to. ("Hi." And, "Were here.") Give the passengers a nonstop monologue the entire flight. I have flown with followers of both extremes, and believe it or not, there are passengers who like both extremes. Angling to please the "majority" of the passengers in the middle, I have found a technique that seems to work the best: Frequency and brevity. (At least it yields me the least number of odd looks or cocky comments from my deplaning passengers.) The length of the flight and what time of day it departs all affect what and how many times you will hear from me inflight.
Except on early morning or late night flights (say "Hi" and let 'em snooze til we get there), I typically give my passengers the usual information prior to pushback: destination (you'd be surprised!); scheduled flight time; actual airborne time (early estimate); weather en route (if any); destination weather; and any pertinent additional information.
Once airborne, if the ride is smooth, I let the turn off the SEAT BELT sign and remind passengers to keep their seat belts fastened at all times when seated. If the flight is less than two hours, I'll probably only point out something outside if it is visible. Telling someone we are over New York City is no fun if you can't see it except perhaps when you have been droning over an undercast for a few hours. Then, a few reminders of where we are are OK.
This country is blessed with a great many wonderful things to see out the window. Unfortunately, the Midwest doesn't have many of them. Other than a few cities, rivers, or lakes, the Midwest is one giant farm from Ohio to the Front Range of the Rockies. Going east from the West Coast is tough because you have lots to see for the first hour and a half and then.... Phoenix to Baltimore can get pretty quiet after Colorado except for hourly updates on position and arrival time.
Arrival PA's are fairly canned as well: time to take your seats; we are descending where the weather is great and our arrival time; and barring any unexpected Air Traffic Control (ATC) delays, we should be 15 minutes early. The most important part of the arrival PA is the sincere thanks directed at those who make our airline a success.
Weather often poses a whole "nuther" set of problems.
Often, we are held at the gate in a "groundstop" where we cannot takeoff until a predetermined time set by ATC. The gate personnel will usually pass that information to passengers prior to boarding. If I am at the gate, I will usually pull up the weather on the gate boarding gate podium computer and turn the screen around and brief the passengers who want to know what the delay is all about. That lets the folks know that I would love to board up and go right now, but I cannot.
Delays off the gate are far more problematic, especially with the media attention directed at airlines holding their passengers "hostage" onboard the aircraft for several hours prior to takeoff. An hour is my limit. If I cannot reasonably expect to be airborne in one hour, then I will not board and push off the gate. However, when working with ATC, deciding to go or stay is often a tough call. A few examples:
Las Vegas (LAS): We are heading to Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and are issued a 1.5-hour delay. We delay our boarding and I brief the passengers at the gate computer. Thirty minutes prior to our ATC assigned flow time (takeoff time plus or minus two minutes), we start boarding up. As we pushback and call for taxi, ATC informs us we are now delayed at least another two hours! I immediately arrange for an unoccupied gate where we deplane passengers and wait. At 50 minutes before our revised flow time, ATC calls and moves our flow time up 30 minutes. Due to a few "missing" passengers we cannot locate in the terminal area, we miss our flow time and are issued another "wheels up time" 30 minutes later. In this case, delay created more delay, and then, an unrealistic shortterm change in flow times made us yet later still.
New Orleans (MSY): As we taxi out for Houston (HOU), ATC calls and advises that HOU is about to start a groundstop due to thunderstorms. We opt to sit on the ground for 30 minutes awaiting an update from ATC. In that time, I advise the folks and then call SWA Dispatch to see what their weather radar shows. His estimate is for no more than 45 minutes to an hour of more delay. Based on that information, we wait at the end of the runway for further developments. I advise my passengers of what I know. At the 30-minute update, ATC extends our groundstop one more hour. I advise the passengers and tell them based on what my Dispatcher has told me, that I believe the groundstop will be lifted well prior to this additional hour delay. Everyone is happy except one passenger who is upset we are not returning to the gate to deplane and wait out the delay.
I explain to the passengers that ATC arranges their takeoff priority on those best able to make the soonest departure. If we return to the gate, we will be unable to make an earlier departure should the flow period be shortened and that will mean all the other planes waiting to go to HOU will be in front of us. That will delay us at least a half hour more.
As I expected, ATC calls and announces the groundstop to HOU is cancelled and asks us how long it will be before we are ready for takeoff. Five minutes after notification, we are rolling down the runway heading for HOU. Total delay time: 50 minutes, 40 minutes less than the second ATC update told us it would be.
LAS: About to depart LAS for Phoenix (PHX) on the last flight of the night, we are informed by clearance delivery that ATC has issued a groundstop to PHX due to thunderstorms. Our delay is set for at least an hour (according to ATC) with an update at that time. Again, I call Dispatch and ask what the weather situation is in PHX and am advised the thunderstorm dumping on the airport now is almost done and should be moving off slowly to the north. With this information, and the fact that the Operations Agent needs this gate for a flight arriving in about 20 minutes, I elect to push off the gate in expectation of a shortened groundstop period.
We advise Ground Control that we have to depart our gate and would like a parking spot close to the runways. They issue us a location, and before we get there, we receive a reroute (alternate flight plan), sending us south and into PHX from the west. We are then informed the groundstop to PHX has been lifted and we are now released to PHX. Because we are the closest to the runway, we are first in line, and ATC asks, "How soon can you be ready for takeoff?" Scant minutes later, we blast off south along the Colorado River, and when I check the estimated arrival time on the Flight Management Computer, it shows we will arrive only five minutes after scheduled arrival time. All because we were ready to go with a good idea what was about to happen in PHX.
Southwest Airlines prides itself on keeping the passenger informed. Whether in the boarding area, inflight, or waiting for your bags in baggage claim, we want you to know what we know. It may not be the news you were hoping for, but as soon as we know something, we want you to be aware of it too. We do not like to keep our passengers in the dark.
In situations where our departure airport has nice weather but our destination weather is threatening to delay or divert us, I always let the passengers know before departure what we are up against: The weather may go down at our destination (below landing minimums). We have extra gas so we can hold if necessary and wait out the weather. If that doesn't work, we have a good weather alternate and plenty of gas to get there. Once there, we can quickly re-fuel and get back in the game if necessary. Armed with this information, the passengers know we may have to hold, go-around, or divert. They can make plans accordingly. Once, I was flying from Midland, Texas, to Dallas, and a line of thunderstorms was planned to roll though Dallas about our arrival time. I pre-briefed the passengers on the ground about the delays en route, as well as my idea of how things might unfold. At that time, we had seatback telephones on the plane. Unbeknownst to me, one of our passengers happened to be the president of major oil company, on his way to a very important meeting.
With my advance play-by-play explanation of what was most likely to come; a running account of what was actually happening to us; and the final word that we had been cleared to Love Field after only a short delay, the oil company president was able to call his chauffeur and keep his company appraised about whether or not he was going to make his meeting. He made it and sent me a very nice thank-you letter which pretty much validated in my mind that passengers thirst for the truth in honest updates, not varnished, over-optimistic guesses. When dealing with Mother Nature or maintenance issues, you simply have to expect delays at times.
As a passenger, I expect the truth in reasonably frequent updates. And my passengers get nothing less.
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Doctors are Good Samaritans at large. I think their willingness to help comes from their Hippocratic Oath and their dedication to mankind: To keep the good of the patient as the highest priority. I have never heard of a doctor anywhere called to help a person in distress outside a hospital ever ask for compensation.
ABQ is like most places in the summer except for the nearby Sandia mountains which generate some thunderstorm activity a bit more reliably than flat terrain. ABQ is a bit windy at times but other than the "wiggly-jigglies" caused by wind over the rougher terrain, the approaches in and out of ABQ aren't that much different than any other location. But, the Mexican food is better than most.
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I was flying into Baltimore many years ago on the 4th of July.
A typically huge thunderstorm system was sitting over the Inner Harbor and up and down the Chesapeake were bolts pf lightning flying from cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground and everywhere inbetween. The lightshow was only a few miles off our right side and straight ahead, the airport was in the clear. With light turbulence I felt compelled to inform the passengers, "It's alright folks, the airport is in the clear ahead, enjoy Mother Nature's show off to our right as we are well clear of it all."
Seconds later, as I looked down I saw small explosions underneath us and intially thought it was someone shooting off fireworks on the ground. As we got closer, I realized what it was: power transformers on power poles exploding as the lightning off our right overloaded the electrical grid underneath us and popped the transformers like sparklers.
And they actually pay me to do this....
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Our day starts in Burbank (BUR), where we pick up our plane at noon and fly five legs to Phoenix (PHX) via Oakland (OAK), Seattle (SEA), Spokane (GEG), and Las Vegas (LAS). The monsoons have not yet officially kicked off yet in PHX, but the days preceding this one have shown towering thunderstorms lurking just beyond the mountains to the north and east of the city. We want to get home ontime and manage to stay on schedule all the way to our last stop, LAS.
I call my wife to tell her we are running ontime and that I should land in PHX in about an hour and a half. She informs me the local TV news channel just had a piece on the weather, and the PHX Sky Harbor airport is closed now due to weather right over the airport. After short conversation with my wife, I return to the cockpit where my partner has just gotten the word from Air Traffic Control (ATC) that PHX has groundstopped all arrivals. They are not accepting anyone right now, and the next update will be in 45 minutes. I inform the passengers what the delay is about and what our tentative plan is.
I call my wife and let her know I'll be late and then turn my attention to getting us to PHX. I arrange for more fuel to be loaded, in case we need to hold near PHX and wait out rapidly changing weather conditions. In discussion with Southwest Dispatch personnel in Dallas, I inform the Operations Agent boarding the flight that we will plan on pushing back right at the update time in anticipation of an immediate release based on what the Dispatcher guessed would be the end of the threatening weather. About halfway through boarding, we get another call from ATC, and they have extended the delay another 45 minutes due to more weather moving in from the south. The Operations Agent informs me there is another plane on arrival for this gate so we elect to push back and go wait near the end of the runway to await our departure release. The passengers are again updated on the fact that we will be first in line if we are ready to go at the runway. I also mention the extra fuel and a good alternate of LAS--just in case the weather doesn't allow us to get into PHX. I assure them that my belief is we will get in with, perhaps a few minor delays.
After pushback, we no sooner taxi down to the assigned parking location near the runway when ATC calls us and issues us a "reroute"--an adjustment to our route of flight. Instead of flying directly southeast down toward PHX as we originally filed, ATC now wants us to fly south of LAS and enter PHX via an arrival starting over Blythe, CA. Following that clearance, we are cleared for takeoff and wing our way south toward the start of the arrival.
Cruising south along the Colorado River, we can see against the stars fireworks to the east as the thunderstorms, or "cells" launch lightning from cloud to cloud, lighting up the cloud like a huge light bulb. Before making the turn over Blythe, I have already pulled the latest weather for PHX, and it looks great with 20 mph winds and light rain.
As we start the arrival, I advise the passengers we will be shutting down cabin service a little early this evening due to the potential for bumps with all the weather in PHX. I read them the latest weather and ask the Flight Attendants (FAs) to secure the cabin as we start our gradual descent. About that time, I get a call, and one of our FAs has a passenger who is having difficulties breathing. The passenger is a 12-year-old girl who is an asthmatic and left her inhaler at home. The FA asks for a patch to MedLink where a doctor is sitting by waiting for airliners with ill passengers to call in. Within a couple of minutes, my FA is talking directly with the doctor in PHX describing the symptoms to the doctor. It is decided that the FA will administer some emergency medical supplies we keep onboard for just such emergencies. Before doing so, the FA asks the passengers if there is a doctor onboard. Fortunately, for this young girl, there is. Using clues not a available to the MedLink doctor working via radio patch, the onboard doctor quickly realizes the situation is a severe panic attack, not an asthma attack.
While I am coordinating medical radio links with my FA, my partner is doing a great job of dodging weather to the west of PHX on our arrival. By the time I join him, we are on the outskirts of town looking at the chain lightning running from well south of Chandler all the way north to Payson, about 40 miles. The light show is amazing. We run a few checklists and prepare for a windy and bumpy approach with a reported of winds gusting to 30mph. Between us and the runway, it would appear that there is only light rain. When we check in with Approach Control, we find the weather we got only minutes ago has been updated twice in twenty minutes due to rapidly changing conditions.
Ahead of us about ten miles is another jet only a couple miles from touchdown. This airplane encounters a microburst (intense windshear) losing 39 knots of airspeed in a couple of seconds. That Crew executes a go-around and rocks their way though the winds and rain moving in from the south of the airport. Advised by ATC of this new angle to Mother Nature's wrath, I advise ATC, "Nahhh.. we would rather just mill around out here and wait out the weather for a few minutes." The controller begins giving us lazy vectors around west Phoenix with people on both sides of the plane getting a front row seat on the fireworks bearing down on the airport. We spend about ten minutes cruising around while another jet appears above us and mills along with us, waiting his turn. The lightning show from 5,000 feet only ten miles away beat any 4 th of July you have ever seen. Through all this, the 12-year-old is seated next to the doctor who is talking to her and stabilizing her emotionally.
Glen, my First Officer, was doing a great job of flying and had planned to land for this final flight of the night. While I had no question he would do a great job, I had a handy instrument on my side of the cockpit he did not have on his side: the Heads Up Display. This nifty piece of space-age technology shows me ever changing energy conditions along with my flight instrument parameters repeated through a piece of one-inch-thick Lexan I simply look through. This could come in handy for the gusts and possible windshear we might encounter during landing. I offer to do the landing and Glen backs my decision as we hear the microburst warnings at Sky Harbor have now ceased. Only five miles from the runway, we call the field in sight and are cleared for the visual approach. We drop our landing gear and flaps and head for the runway.
As we contact Tower, we are advised the winds are from the southwest at 20 mph, and we run final landing checklists verifying the gear are down; the flaps are set correctly; and the speed brake is armed for landing. Once established on final, I advise Glen I'll fly slightly faster than our planned approach speed should we get surprised with another shear. There is an old saying in aviation, "Speed is life." Other than few bumps down final approach, we encounter nothing unusual, and touchdown only about five minutes after our scheduled arrival time. Lined up on the departure runway, we see a dozen or so planes waiting for weather conditions to improve before departing. Some of them begin taxiing back to their gate as we taxi to our gate. From the ground, the lightning seems to come from all over the sky almost continuously.
Upon arrival, I advise the passengers who will be heading down to baggage claim that their bags may be slightly delayed due to the close proximity of the lightning. Aircraft make great lightning rods, and while the people inside are fine, the Ramper's outside risk electrocution should they be standing nearby when the plane is struck. For that reason, we evacuate Ramp Employees during lightning near any airport.
After saying good night to the passengers and ensuring that our anxious 12-year-old needs no further assistance, I thank Glen for an outstanding job and all the help he gave me. We bid each other goodnight and begin the most dangerous part of our evening: The drive home.
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I have said it a hundred times: If Herb Kelleher is the "soul" of SWA, Colleen is undoubtably the "heart" of this great company.
Glad to hear you will be taking some more well-earned time off while still remaining associated with a group that needs you as much as you need us. Thank YOU for your dedication to the customers and employees of Southwest Airlines.
You truly changed the world.
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How does one make the transition from First Officer to Captain? is there a "Captain Exam" that must be passed? Is there any kind of formal ceremony?
Except for the walk alone through the woods without food or water for six days and six nights and then the pealing of every church bell in the state for the entire seventh day as the new Captain emerges from the sojourn, annointed with total enlightenment, it's pretty much a low-key deal.
It's a huge deal. A really huge deal.
The First Officer (FO) has been watching and learning about the Air Traffic Control system and how the airplane performs. The move to the left seat now exposes the new Captain to paperwork (aircraft logbooks, Company required reports, etc); knowing where to taxi on more than 60 airports; direct management of the Crew (personnel issues, job critiques and counseling, issues between Crew Members and passengers, combat field marriage counselor, issues between the aircraft and outside agencies, etc); absolute responsibility for the passengers; direct responsibility for the safe operation of his or her aircraft; dealing directly with Maintenance and the Minimum Equipment List (MEL); working with Company Dispatch; directing Crews in an inflight or ground emergency; making the call on whether to actually declare an emergency; final authority on about every aspect of what happens "if"; and a host of other decisions and judgment calls that have been made by every Captain the upgrade FO has ever flown with--and some the new Captains have not even contemplated yet.
Upgrade begins on the first day an FO shows up for work. That FO will watch and learn what differentiates a great Captain from an average one. The FO learns what kind of Leader is the easiest to work with and how vital or appreciated FO input is with certain Captains. Many personal skills will hopefully be developed before the FO moves to the left seat. It is a seasoning and a learning process that cannot be avoided or substituted. It just takes time.
The actual training is only about a month long. The first ten days consist of a quick review of airplane systems and Company policy and procedures. Then, the new Captains pair up with a student buddy to go through roughly seven training simulator rides, each four hours in length. Here the new Captain gets used to seeing everything he or she has known inside the cockpit turned around because he or she is on the other side of the center console. Nothing is where it should be and the natural feeling of being able to find something without looking at it must be relearned. (The pressurization panel that used to be over his or her head is now on the other side of the ceiling. Above the new Captain's head now is a fuel pump panel.) I refer to it as about as disconcerting as putting your clothes on backward. Nothing comes easily. Even your hands must relearn their primary duties: The right hand that used to steer the plane now operates the throttles. The left hand that used to run the throttles, now gets to fly the plane with the yoke and drive the plane on the ground with the "tiller," a nifty steering wheel that steers the plane, while negotiating tight corners on the ramp and taxiways. There is no tiller on the FO side. Everything your body knows is wrong.
Once complete with the training, the new Captains fly a four-hour checkride. The next day, one will fly a simulated four-hour sequence of flights while the other plays the FO. The next day after that, they swap positions for another four-hour ride. Then they go to a Pilot Base and fly a week or more with a Check Airman who monitors their performance in the real plane with passengers and Crew. At the end of this week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rides along and observes the new Captain, and upon the FAA's blessing, the Captain is now the real deal.
HOWEVER, most shiny new Captains now go back to their crew base and fly as FO's, occasionally picking up the odd Captain trip because most airlines upgrade pilots prior to their falling off the top of the FO list and to the bottom of the Captain seniority list. This keeps the supply of Captains ready available should they be needed on a short notice. After six to eight months, most are flying pure Captain lines, never again flying from the right seat.
In a nutshell, that's it.
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(Not to interfere with the off-topic chatter....)
That is a toughie.
Greater minds than mine look at aircraft flows, the number of overnighting aircraft and hotel costs, along with about 89 other variables to site a new crew base. Just opening one up costs SWA nearly 2 million by the time the paint is dry, the phones are on and the people have been paid to move there. Airport office space is off-the-charts-expensive to lease -after you build in the infrastructure. Other things come into play as in Las Vegas, our newest base opening in October.
We know many pilots and FA's will commute to LAS. The company has to make sure the commuting personnel will have access to reliable and affordable hotel rooms to reside in before and after their scheduled trips (paid for by them by the way).
On top of that, future growth must be considered. Plus about eleventy-seven other factors I am not even aware of.
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The humorous title of this piece is an old aviation saying that actually has a serious side to it.
In modern jet airliners, every important fluid level, pressure level, electrical voltage level, electrical current level, essentially every important item that could impact the flight, is monitored by some sensor wired to a light or gauge to notify the Pilots if something is amiss. All those lights you see when you peek in the cockpit--they are all wired to one or more systems in the aircraft. If there were a problem with one of these systems the last time the aircraft flew, the Pilots would have been notified by a warning system. Once on the ground, the Pilot would have been charged to notify Maintenance about the issue.
But, those monitored system "levels" are not the only things that could affect the flight. That is why Pilots do "walkaround" inspections on the aircraft. These are performed on the first flight of the day as well as during Crew changes one or more times a day and upon the final flight of the day--and as well as at the discretion of the Captain. For example, on flights after moderate turbulence, I like to do a quick exterior inspection to make sure no aircraft panel latches have popped loose.
A walkaround inspection is simply a visual inspection to verify there are no serious leaks, drips, spills, dents, scrapes, scratches, or other boo-boos on the outside of the plane. To make sure we don't miss anything, we always start at the same point and end up at that same point. Usually, before the inspection starts, the Pilot inside turns on all the exterior lights, and the Pilot doing the exterior inspection verifies the lights are operable.
Starting at the nose, we inspect for birdstrikes or other impact damage on the nose of the plane. The "pointy end" of the jet is called the radome and is fiberglass. It is very strong but will deform if you hit a big enough bird. (I hit a snow goose once on final, and it dented the side in about ten inches.) We also inspect the pitot tubes that sense the airspeed the plane is flying as well as an Angle of Attack sensor on the nose under the pitot tube. Once the nose is checked, we enter the wheel-well and check for hydraulic leaks, bent rods, worn tires, and overall condition of the strut assembly. The nose gear locking pin is removed (if installed). Then, we move outside.
Walking down the right side of the aircraft, we ensure lower door panels are closed and secure. We make sure no ground equipment has come in contact with the jet, damaging it. We peek in the forward cargo bin to ensure there are no liquid spills and that the bin is undamaged and usable.
From the bin, we move further back and inspect the intake to the right air conditioning pack. Birds, trash, and other foreign objects can occasionally lodge themselves in this ductwork.
With the pack inlet inspected, we inspect the leading edge of the wing inboard of the engine making sure the landing light lenses are not cracked and the leading edge is not dented from an errant bird. Latches on the engine are verified secure, and the leading edge of the engine cowl is checked for dents and damage.
We peek inside the front of the engine to verify no bent fan blades and no damage to the inlet area. Moving to the outside of the engine, we ensure the outside latch is secure, and then, we ensure that the leading edge of the wing all the way out to the tip is secure and undamaged and all the wing leading edge high-lift devices (slats) are properly stowed.
The wingtip has clear lens covers on it, and we make sure they are undamaged. Same for the aircraft equipped with winglets. The composite winglets are examined as we move to the trailing (rear) edge of the wing.
The trailing edge is the most fragile part of the wing structure. It also consists of the ailerons and flap assemblies. Aileron and flap alignment and position is checked, along with fuel measuring stations on the bottom of the wing. Passing the rear of the engine, we peek in to inspect the turbine blades for damage and the reverser assembly for correct position and condition as well as any leaks on the ground under the engine. Some leaks are normal, but anything out of the ordinary is referred to Maintenance. After a main landing gear strut and tire inspection, as well as pulling the main landing gear pin, we move into the main wheel-well area.
Here there are miles of wires and hydraulic lines and pumps positioned here, we inspect overall condition as well, as the main hydraulic tank quantities and emergency engine and APU fire bottle quantities. If you are going to get your nice new white shirt dirty, this is probably the place. A fine layer of dirt and grime covers everything. Standby brake accumulators are checked for proper residual pressure to enable is to stop the plane should all hydraulics fail. Once finished there, we once again go outside and continue down the side of the plane.
The rear cargo bin is inspected and the main outflow valve located right behind the cargo bin is verified clean and clear. The Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) inlet follows and is verified clear. The lower fuselage is inspected for damage, and we then inspect the tail of the plane.
The horizontal tail leading edges are verified dent free just like the wings. If there are small dents, we call Maintenance Control to verify these dents are within limits and are entered into the aircraft electric logbook "dent log." The horizontal and vertical flight controls are inspected for proper positioning and damage. From the rear of the plane, the pilot pauses and examines the whole aircraft from behind, the only exterior vantage point for wing upper surfaces and upper wing flight controls (spoiler array). Then we move around to the left side of the plane where the same inspection is essentially carried out in reverse order. We eventually end up at the nose of the plane where we started.
I have only described a tenth of the things we actually inspect and verify. A Pilot essentially "washes the plane with his or her eyes" making sure the aircraft before him meets the "normal" aircraft he or she is used to seeing day in and day out. These visual Pilot inspections are in addition to scheduled inspections by maintenance personnel when the plane passes through maintenance locations on a weekly cycle. And further, far more detailed maintenance inspections are completed on a longer-term time scale with the aircraft being taken out of service and essentially "disassembled" every other year or so, depending on flight time or calendar time, as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the aircraft manufacturer.
So now you know what that Pilot is doing out in the rain and wind, with the flashlight in one hand and three orange streamers (attached to the gear pins) in the other hand, staring at the plane while trying not to fall over anything like ground equipment or air conditioning hoses or power cables, and the whole time while trying not to get run over by ramp vehicles zooming by or getting blown away by jets taxiing out from and into nearby gates. They are watching everything to make sure the plane you will fly on is in tip-top shape for your flight. This is but another one of the duties Pilots perform outside of the cockpit.
In addition to Pilot inspections, ground personnel loading bags are ever vigilant for unusual items they see on the aircraft on which they are working. When I am on the ramp, whether involved in an aircraft inspection or just walking along, I constantly examine other aircraft nearby for unusual conditions. Airliners are constantly being examined and inspected by everyone that comes in contact with them, and this is partly why the safety record of commercial aviation is so excellent.
Oh yeah, once the outside inspection is done, the Pilot goes back to the cockpit where the entire cockpit gets a look-over and most aircraft systems are exercised and tested. All for your flying comfort...
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"This Lady Has Some Loose Wires..."
During my second year as a First Officer here at SWA, I was seated in the cockpit in Burbank as we loaded the last of the passengers. Among the very last passengers to board was a lady who stuck her head in the cockpit before taking her seat.
Upon hearing her voice, I turned to meet an attractive middle-aged lady who expressed a fear of flying and liked to meet her Pilots before takeoff. She asked about the weather at our destination and the maintenance status of the plane. After assurances from Captain Tom Moore that we were family men and had no intention of doing anything dangerous, the lady thanked us and took her seat. Having never heard of a passenger wanting to meet the pilot before, as she left, I thought, "This lady has some loose wires. How could meeting us make her less nervous?"
How ignorant I was...
A couple of years later I began to wonder what I could do to help people like our lady who wanted to meet her Pilots. I would encourage people who were nervous to come visit us in advance in the cockpit. Whenever I deadheaded (traveling to pick up a flight) in the cabin, I would offer to trade my seat by a window to a passenger who was anxious about air travel. Usually, within ten minutes of looking out the window in awe of what was going on outside the aircraft, and with my running narrative of exactly what the plane was doing--and why, the passenger would usually relax.
One day, I was deadheading to Albuquerque (ABQ), and as we were about to push back, the last lady who boarded stepped on the plane and said in a loud voice, "I am deathly afraid of flying! I am going to sit next to that Pilot right there!" With everyone's eyes turning to me, I said "Woo-hoo! Lucky me!" She smiled, and everyone else laughed.
As we taxied out, this lady told me her father was ill in ABQ, and her husband could not drive her. While I couldn't get her to take my window seat, I got her to look out the window, and by the time we leveled off, she was very relaxed and chatty. We talked about her concerns all the way to touchdown in ABQ. As we taxied into the gate, she thanked me for helping her with all the airplane trivia. I mentioned that I had actually thought of writing it all down. The lady turned to me and grabbed my arm and said, "I wish you would! That is exactly what people like me need to know." That evening, I called my wife to inform her that instead of buying a motorcycle, I was going to buy a laptop and write a book.
After my book was published, I discovered an online website that dealt with Fear of Flying (FoF) issues. After donating time there, I joined a new group of moderators who were starting a new free self-help site. After nearly four years of offering online help in trying to explain what happens behind the scenes during flight, I have a true appreciation of what that lady who wanted to meet her Pilots was dealing with. And, not surprisingly, one of the first things I suggest for people suffering from FoF is to meet the Pilots.
It is estimated that between 15 and 20 million people in the U.S. are either extremely nervous about flying or too frightened to even contemplate a flight. I would place the number far higher, especially when you include the number of people who currently fly without a worry but who will encounter a trigger at some time in the future which will result in them joining the ranks of people who suffer from varying degrees of FoF.
Fearful fliers come in all flavors. Many are highly intelligent professional people with advanced degrees or credentials who go about their routine lives with little care except when it comes time to book a flight. Others have other anxiety issues involving claustrophobia or other maladies which flare up in the worst way when contemplating travel by air. Usually, the Anticipatory Anxiety (AA) is many times worse than the actual flight. About 90% of the time, our board members come back and tell how the week prior to the flight was a roller coaster of anxiety and lost sleep. But, somehow, once the flight got underway, the normalcy of the event made the anxiety abate or disappear altogether. A few successes can help these individual become functional fliers because, for some, the fear never completely goes away.
People have varying reasons for flying but those who have to fly on business face professional pressure to do something that scares the heck out of them. Many do everything in their power to avoid air travel and a large number end up leaving the job that requires travel by air--or they lose their jobs. Two of the fellow moderators from the web site for which I answer questions are professional people who travel weekly as a part of their job. One is a chemical engineer, and the other is the head of the personnel department for one of the largest security companies in the country. Both are "functional" fliers who have learned to put their anxiety in check enough to allow themselves to fly for work and pleasure. For some people, there exists no "silver bullet" cure for FoF. For others, simple information answers the questions which stimulate distrust or concern.
People suffering from FoF generally fall into two categories: The Rational Flier and the Irrational Flier, though some exhibit traits of both categories. For the Rational Flier, information helps abate the concerns and calm the mind. To the Irrational Flyer, information alone will not help calm the fears and concerns they harbor. A good majority of Irrationals can learn mental tricks and techniques that side-track the adrenaline powered portion of their mind which convinces them the plane will crash simply if they board it. The indisputable fact that riding to the airport places them at 25 times more risk than air travel does not faze them. Their car is a familiar setting where risk is ignored. Planes, however, are perfectly safe--until they get on board. Their fear is completely irrational, and they eventually admit it. Using tools to allow them to fly means the difference between losing their livelihood and missing out on once-in-a-lifetime events like weddings or trips to Hawaii or Europe. Today, flying is about the only way to get most of the choice places across the globe, given the time and financial constraints that accompany modern life. If you cannot fly, you simply don't participate in life.
After doing this for awhile, I have come to understand a very small percentage of the population should not fly. Perhaps one to two percent of the people who suffer from FoF. Of the rest of those who cringe at airline flight, about 70 percent can fly functionally through self-help programs and FoF classes, as well as paid programs. The remainder of that population will probably have to visit with a specialist in anxiety issues to get hold of the root issue that harbors their FoF.
One regular member on our web site walked off the plane in Nashville enroute to her wedding in Las Vegas. Three days later, her intended met her at the Greyhound station in Las Vegas where they were later married. She made it on to the flight home buoyed with enthusiasm, but three months later when a free flight came up, she again faced "the monster." Finally, after working on this issue for almost two years, she went to a mental health professional and attended FoF classes at a nearby college in Tennessee. She beat "the monster" back into the closet and is now a confident flier who looks forward to travel by air. Being a small part of that kind of transformation has been very rewarding to me and keeps me answering questions online.
For those who suffer or for those who know someone who suffers from FoF, please understand you are not crazy, you are not unusual, and most importantly, you are not alone. There are people that can help you. All you have to do is ask.
Captain Ray Stark
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For you "techno geeks" (like me) who like all the details, you might get something out of a huge compilation I have made at http://www.getonthatplane.com/forums/showthread.php?t=21
This thread involves a bunch of questions I have answered over the years with more to come monthly.
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