It is often joked that a good landing is one which you can walk away from, and that a really good landing is when you can reuse the aircraft with the minimum amount of work being required! The ability to satisfy this requirement is a result of professional and consistent training alongside careful planning.
We have already looked at how pilots need to plan and project themselves into the future prior to taking off, now we need to consider what happens or more importantly what could ‘possibly’ happen once airborne, during the climb and the cruise. The following once again are purely some of my own views and opinions on operational matters garnered from almost thirty years in the airline industry; ones which might be of interest to those not so familiar with flying large aircraft around the world.
Our contingency planning doesn’t finish with the 25 mile circle around the departure airport, or the fix depicting this area’s minimum safe altitude. This thought process needs to be continued for the remainder of the flight again projected forward in both miles and time now taking into account other potential hazards.
Firstly, during the climb out, especially when operating at high weights we need to know what altitude the aircraft can climb to in event of an engine failure, this is important regardless of how many engines your aircraft has, especially when flying towards or over high terrain.
Some years ago when flying from Seoul to London and about twenty minutes after take-off, one of the engines surged then seized on my Boeing 747-400, we were above the maximum altitude that the aircraft could maintain on three engines and therefore had no choice but to descend. Fortunately we were flying over the Yellow Sea towards China where the highest obstacle would be a ship’s mast or a flock of seagulls and therefore of no relevance, this time! Another point we had to consider was that permission would not be granted to enter Chinese airspace at this lower altitude, so a turn back towards Seoul would need to be sought from the South Korean controllers. Now we knew that this could only be done by turning left, otherwise we could have infringed North Korean airspace, with even more serious consequences.
As this was a failure which meant we would not be continuing the flight to London, a decision was needed to be made about reducing the aircraft’s weight to the maximum certified landing weight prior to making the approach. How much fuel would need to be jettisoned and where would this event occur, I knew there were specific areas and minimum altitudes to complete this task, but we were at twenty something thousand feet over the sea, so no problem.
I had worked through this problem in my mind many times before; when considering the ‘what-if’ scenarios which could potentially occur, so I already had an outline of a plan, and I am sure most pilots go through these mental processes at some stage when all is quiet. Make life as easy for yourself as possible, especially in high workload environments, that’s my mantra.
However, should an aircraft suffer an engine failure and once the aircraft is correctly reconfigured and a stable flight path is maintained; having followed these three important actions. Aviate, Navigate, Communicate……in that order; consideration needs to be made should a subsequent engine fail too. This would be a potentially serious situation when flying a four engine aircraft, critical when flying a three engine aircraft and obviously catastrophic if flying a twin engine aircraft.
However, again with careful contingency planning prior to an event such as this, then extra thinking time can be created, reducing the likelihood of becoming dangerously blinkered or suffering from tunnel vision.
Also, use your crew, all of them. You might have extra crew members travelling with you as passengers, their input and assistance during a time of high stress when things are not going well can be invaluable. Captain Alfred Haynes on his United Airlines DC10 at Sioux City airport is a text book example of how to utilise all the experience available to increase the chances of a more successful outcome.
In aviation there can in some cultures be a mental desire not to lose face, but this can be diplomatically circumvented, with a little bit of thought’, so reducing the chances of a serious situation becoming a critical or catastrophic one.
I remember seeing a video reconstruction of a crash involving a carrier from the USA, where the captain and flight engineer on a Boeing 727 were ridiculing the co-pilot when he tried to interject as their inflight situation deteriorated. I believe it was the captain who said “What’s the difference between a bird and a co-pilot………Answer. A bird can fly” This kind of attitude should have no place on the flight-deck of an aircraft. Unfortunately it is still with us though and a recent crash on an A320 in Asia just confirmed that it’s still there, occasionally.
Once in the cruise, with your meal ordered a hot cup of coffee by your side and the BBC World Service selected on the HF radio, it’s time to relax. Yes and No. I totally understand that you can’t constantly scan the sky like a World War Two fighter pilot or stare unblinkingly at your engine displays. You’ll soon tire yourself out, but before you do drop down a couple of gears just assess where you are where you’ll be in the next hour or so and what options do you have.
If flying west from Hong Kong, for example, you will soon find yourself flying over some very high terrain. There are specific ‘escape routes’ when flying in this airspace. Familiarise yourself with them, maybe create a visible picture through the Flight Management Computers, just as an aide memoire almost. Should the need come to make an emergency descent, know how low you can descend to; not just based on the height of the ground below you, but also considering the wind speed over the mountains and what the local altimeter pressure setting might be.
I often see pilots use the area on and around their oxygen masks as a storage area for charts, manuals, snacks and bottles of water. In the event of a rapid depressurisation you don’t want to be groping around amongst these, your time of useful consciousness above 30,000 feet is measured in tens of seconds, not minutes, and literally every second counts. This may seem a wee bit pedantic to some, but it’s just another link in the chain assisting your self-preservation when faced with this kind of emergency.
On the Boeing 747-400 freighter for example, should a main deck fire break out, the checklist states that you should descend to either the lowest minimum safe altitude or 25,000 feet, so always know your minimum safe altitude, not only for your current location, but also in the direction of the nearest airport.
Which brings me to one of the most important aspects of situational awareness, where is the nearest suitable airport for the most catastrophic of emergencies. To the fare paying public they might not like the answer to this……..
If you are over the middle of the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean then your nearest airport could be hundreds of miles and several hours away. Aircraft have crashed when they have tried to stay airborne with a fire which can’t be extinguished. Never rule out the prospect of a ditching or an off airport landing on dry land. Think about what could lead up to making such a drastic and potentially final decision as those; it could be a last resort one day for some unfortunate crew. The need to ditch into the water, which was so expertly controlled and executed by U.S Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his crew in New York’s Hudson River, maybe your decision and not because it’s been taken out of your hands because your aircraft’s engines are no longer functioning.
However, the above example is an extreme one, generally we operate in regions where an airport can safely be made in 30 minutes or less, and so know where these airports are, have an idea what runways and aids can be available for their forecast weather conditions. Again situational awareness can be enhanced by entering these airports into your Flight Management Computer and maybe drawing range rings around them.
As touched on in my previous article, it’s also a good idea to know where the most suitable medical facilities can be obtained should a member of your crew or passengers become seriously sick, something to keep in the back of your mind as it’s a situation like all that should not be rushed but carefully thought out, discussed and acted upon. Again use all the facilities available to you, your cabin-crew have received basic medical training; however, some of them could quite possibly have been nurses in a previous life, know this and use this knowledge. Whenever I have requested the services of a doctor over my aircraft’s P.A. system, even in these litigious times, at least one has always come forward. Some airlines I have flown for subscribe to a ‘Medlink’ service, which allows direct access to medical experts through either HF or satellite communication systems. Again use everything available to you.
It’s not feasible to consider here every eventuality as I am sure that there are still some that are waiting around the corner, waiting to catch us out, regardless of how prepared we are. All we can do is the best that we can, both in advance and on that fateful day.
Contingency planning helps us to understand better our flight operations, and to increase our chances of a successful outcome when the unplanned for occurs. When these thought processes are completed it also justifies a quick ten minutes listening to the BBC World Service whilst sipping that hot coffee!
Finally the descent and approach sections of flight operations need to be considered separately, as this is the time when the majority of incidents and accidents occur; without being flippant it is of course when we purposefully aim to return to the ground, so it is even more important to enhance your situational awareness.
To conclude, again I have no desire to teach my colleagues to suck eggs, as I know that many of the above thought processes are also carried out by them in a very similar manner. The above statements are purely and simply my own understanding of how I would like my crew to operate on a daily basis.
Once again after the above has been read by some future passengers it a trip to a ‘Fear of Flying’ course may be required, 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