Well, I realise that today I am living Tom Cruise’s worst nightmare, one that he was threatened with in the film ‘Top Gun’. I am that man hauling a hundred tonnes of plastic ‘doggy do-do’ out of Hong Kong, but I do it with a smile on my face as I consider myself to be in a very fortunate position none the less!
Sitting here at 32,100 feet, or as the Chinese prefer to call it 9,800m, as the captain on the flight deck of my nice warm Boeing 747-400; I find myself leaning forward on the glare-shield, the aeronautical equivalent of a car’s dashboard, trying to make out the mountains south of Lanzhou through the diminishing daylight which my terrain display tells me are almost 23,000 feet high. Not quite Everest or the Himalayan range, but I still need to think about them, just in case, plan ahead, which started me thinking.
As a pilot our life literally flies by, not just because we criss-cross this tiny planet of ours at over 500mph, but because as a contract pilot I am always thinking at least a month or two ahead, trying to engineer ways which allow me to travel home as much as possible; manipulating my schedule so that I can also do this at the lowest cost. However, there is also a far more important need to think ahead.
Ultimately then in all aspects of our professional life we pilots are plotting the future, or we should be. Projecting ourselves not only socially months ahead, but on the flight deck, also hours and miles ahead.
Contingency planning and having a working solution for that just in case situation, in all professional pilots lives normally commences before the engines have even been started, often in the briefing office or during the formal pilot’s briefing when on-board their aircraft.
In my opinion it is beholden of all pilots to have a plan, one of my training captains, whom was and probably always will be wiser than me, from too many years ago told me, “Always have a plan Alan, it doesn’t have to be the most correct or accurate one, but at least have one.” Again very wise words which I hear every day in my head whilst at work, I can hear the mocking laughter as some of you think that I have odd voices swirling around my cranium, and that I should be confined to the nut house! Maybe I should be, after all I have spent the equivalent of two years in an aluminium tube; that is a lot of chicken dinners and instant coffee.
The often heard phrase, “What’s it doing now?” should be banished from the flight deck, especially as aircraft become more sophisticated and automated. The pilots should be in control at all times, telling the aircraft what to do, not the other way around. The computers are there to increase operational awareness and the automation to reduce workload, therefore a thorough knowledge of these systems is required if they are going to be used to assist in troubleshooting and planning.
For pilots this process of forward planning starts even before we depart, as all aircraft crews run through a thorough briefing confirming with each other verbally that everyone understands what will happen in case of an emergency during the take-off and departure phase. Primarily in case of an engine failure, but they should also consider other failures, if only to themselves.
So first of all the engine failure case after V1; this is the speed calculated for every take-off, and is defined as the one that should a take-off be rejected, the first actions to stop the aircraft have taken place prior to reaching it. It should be mandatory for every pilot to be able to run through the required actions in their sleep; the only differences being those on the day due to primarily high ground or the weather.
This scenario is practiced repeatedly when all pilots have their six monthly check-flights. So no excuses; not only must the aircraft be totally under control but a thorough understanding of the escape manoeuver to avoid any obstacles should be engrained into their mind. What is the route, how high will we fly, where can we hold if necessary to evaluate the situation. Do we need to jettison fuel to reduce the aircraft weight for landing and where can we do this; is the weather good enough to return?
Though there are many other situations which can cause the adrenalin to pump faster, and these should also be considered. For example, what happens if the undercarriage won’t retract, especially if there is high ground immediately after take-off, as the extra drag will penalise the aircraft’s rate of climb. Alternatively, what is the best course of action if the flaps won’t retract, where will I fly to to sort out the problem?
Maybe there could be Windshear, a phenomenon often associated with Hong Kong, the airport which I have just departed from, in this case I must remember not to raise the undercarriage (extra drag as the closed sections of the gear doors will open) or retract the flaps until at a safe altitude and clear of the Windshear. Also, we should consider the use of maximum take-off thrust and the highest flap setting on the longest runway available. It is also a good idea to possibly consider delaying the lift off until you have reached the lift off speed for your aircraft’s maximum take-off weight, so building in an extra safety margin in extreme cases.
On my aircraft the Boeing 747-400, generally the captain uses the left autopilot and the co-pilot the right autopilot, each of which require a specific and different hydraulic system. So should a hydraulic system fail in its entirety, which has happened to me, think about which autopilots are available. Aircraft have crashed when pilots have thought an autopilot was controlling, when none were actually engaged.
The most dangerous scenario is that of a fire which can’t be extinguished or confirmed to be extinguished. It’s not just acceptable to say we’ll ask for radar vectors for an emergency landing, as this option might not be available. Again there could be high ground and/or bad weather. A plan needs to be thought out which will keep you safe and have you back on the ground in the shortest possible time.
However, it’s not just the aircraft systems that require a wee bit of thought in this contingency planning, but the weather too. If I take-off, should the situation require it, is the weather good enough for me to return and land, generally this is due to low visibility or a low cloud base, and in extreme situations the wind too. In this case we need to designate an airport as our take-off alternate, and we need to understand what rules apply to selecting one; distance, time and its own weather and suitability.
The one failure, which I only ever hear of being spoken in hushed tones, is that of a complete radio failure. When this situation is raised, often it is met with a blank or vacant expression, and if you ask ten pilots you would probably receive ten different answers. Even though there are rules and documentation to assist should this occur; excuses will be made to make an important phone call or a visit to the washrooms instead of answering.
Not to be forgotten are our passengers, what happens if one of them suffers some form of medical emergency. I shall use an extreme case, purely as a hypothetical example.
You are departing from Sondrestrom in Greenland for the USA, as you are climbing away you are advised that a passenger has suffered a major heart attack and needs immediate medical treatment. Well he or she won’t thank you if you turn around and land back, they might have to wait a day or two for suitable treatment, which would subsequently lean towards needing a mortician as opposed to a surgeon. So do you turn around and go in the opposite direction of your planned routing to Keflavik where there is an excellent teaching hospital, or press on to the Canadian Inuit town of Iqaluit. This thought process requires ‘local knowledge’ as opposed to systems, but is equally as important.
All of the above need to be considered on every flight, but before any actions are taken, or switches moved, pause, take a breath and check with your colleague what has happened. We all know this but it doesn’t always happen, when in the heat of the moment and the stress levels are raised the wrong course of action is taken, occasionally leading to disastrous consequences.
Finally, also be clear with what you mean. For example a pilot often raises his finger to his colleague indicating there is a thousand feet to go before reaching a particular level; however on one occasion my illustrious co-pilot misunderstood and his motor reflex was to select the first stage of flap, even though we were descending through 23,000 feet. That type of action concentrates the mind very quickly, which is why we have SOPs, Standard Operating Procedures, which we should know better than our wedding vows but practice more rigidly!
For you pilots who have read this, I apologise for having you ’suck eggs’, a phrase I’ve never understood. But for those of you not so familiar with aviation, when you see a pilot leaning forward staring out of the window, he is not dreaming of that first rum punch and the blonde stewardess from First Class on the beach in Barbados, he is actually contingency planning. Honestly!
Remember, all of the above is considered often before our first cup of coffee has been delivered to the flight deck and our meal order taken. A different thought process is required once airborne, but is equally as important to understand. In the light of recent accidents these could require quite drastic decisions to be made. However, that is a topic for another time, and once read for some passengers it may require a trip to a ‘Fear of Flying’ course, which coincidentally my company Simufly Ltd can offer, along with putting you in the pilot’s seat of almost any Boeing airliner if you are brave enough and would like to experience the above scenarios for yourself.
You can contact Captain Alan Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +44 (0)1372 879195