Thoughts are like bellybuttons... everyone has one.
I can't tell you how many emails and comments I've received concerning NWA 188, the now infamous Airbus flight that overflew MSP by more than 100 miles. I'm reluctant to comment because I have few facts and am not privy to investigative information. Their certainly seems to be no shortage of speculation though. I just returned home from flying a four day trip and as you can imagine endured many thoughtless, unsubstantiated remarks by passengers. I knew that I'd experience this and contemplated my response even before backing out of my driveway.
Someone willing to make callous comments, or seeing the event as comedic, or as an opportunity to take a shot at our profession doesn't warrant an answer. I handled them simply by looking at them, maintaining my silence and turning and walking away. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words. I mean really, does anyone think that it's intelligent or humorous to walk past the cockpit while boarding and yell up, "hey... you guys had enough rest?" and then kill themselves laughing. I also try never to speak when angered, as those comments usually return to haunt me.
On the other hand, several passengers approached and simply asked "what went wrong?" or "how could this have happened?" Their approach was different. It was sincere, neither sarcastic nor a shot at our profession, but an expression of genuine bewilderment. In my mind they were making a strong statement. "We trust you guys every time we climb into one of these things, can that be restored?" Now this was a thoughtful approach and warranted discussion, to which I offered a few thoughts.
So, here are those thoughts.
I'm bewildered too. Assuming that the pilots had pulled out their laptops as offered, I can't understand being so absorbed that neither looked at their displays to determine their position for 90 minutes. If they failed to monitor time and position, when did they last check their fuel state? I can't comprehend why not communicating with a center controller for 90 minutes didn't trigger a reality check. I've switched off my ATC receiver many times when the lead flight attendant has called to conduct business and then failed to turn it back on. I'm confident that I'm not the only one who has done this, but after a few minutes of flying in silence, you suddenly realize that it's just too quiet. A quick investigation reveals that the number one comm is off. Whoops! And when selected on, the busy, noisy world of a commercial jet cockpit is restored.
One erroneous tidbit that I'm reading in the news these days is "how these airplanes practically fly themselves." This is a popular distortion of the truth perpetuated by ignorance. Ask someone who makes this remark, "how do they do that? The reply usually sounds something like this. "I don't know but I've heard that." Or, "my uncle's, first cousin's Dentist who lives in Dubuque and flies a Cessna says..." Believe me, if they did, Northwest Airlines would have furloughed all of us if they could have gotten away with it. I'm referring of course to the "old" Northwest that existed during the contentious Douglas Steenland era. So far under Richard Anderson, I'm optimistic with what I'm seeing at the "new" Delta. Please, let me digress for just a second. On 29 October we celebrated the first year anniversary of this union and it's going well; much has been accomplished in a rather amiable atmosphere with a single operating certificate on track by December. To learn exactly what has been achieved, read this article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle, forwarded by my good friend Captain Ron Turner. (USAir ret.)
OK, back to business. The autopilots (we have three in a 757 and two in a 320 if my memory is correct) do a fantastic job, but they don't "think." If they flew themselves and pilots were an after thought, flight 188 would have descended on the Minneapolis arrival profile, slowed, configured, extended the gear and landed on 30L. Autopilots/computers can't do that, they're "directed" to do this. I often joke with passengers who state that we're just "button pushers" and that they could probably get this airplane down if need be. I ask, "Yes, perhaps, but do you know which buttons to push, when to push them and in what sequence? Which button or buttons would you push or pull for an engine failure, fuel imbalance, hydraulic or electrical failure, to intercept an ILS or initiate a go around?" This is important stuff that you'd need to know to successfully fly one these babies! I've mentioned this a time or two before, but this also explains why I deplore the name "airbus." I lends to the image that we're "bus drivers." It denigrates the responsibility and the decision making which really, the job is all about.
Take a look at this video concerning an A-320 and autopilots, then come back and continue reading. See you shortly.... This video graphically demonstrates why pilots are there. The autopilot doesn't care if it flies the airplane into the ground, but certainly the pilots will recognize that somethings amiss. Well, maybe not these two, but they were test pilots at an airshow. And the remark about "the first fully automated airplane..." There's no such thing, not yet anyway and if this is what "fully automated" or "designing the pilot out of the cockpit" gets, I want nothing to do with it. Would you? How does that old joke about new, automated, pilotless aircraft go? "Ladies and gentleman we've reached 37,000 feet, so sit back and relax, nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong... I have a cartoon somewhere in my collection that shows two empty pilot seats in a commercial jet cockpit at altitude. Behind the seats, attached to the rear bulkhead, is a little glass enclosure that looks like the type that would house a fire extinguisher, with a pilot sitting inside. The sign beneath it says. "Break glass in case of an emergency."
Another popular thought concerns tedium at altitude. This is true. The push back, taxi out, takeoff and climb profile are busy. Out of places like LAX, SFO, LGA, AMS, NRT and ORD, SID's (Standard Instrument Departures) are very busy. The same is true concerning STAR's. (Standard Terminal Arrival Routes) The descent on an arrival procedure, receiving radar vectors, configuring the airplane, intercepting and flying an approach in or near adverse weather, landing and planning a missed approach are complex. The 225 people sitting behind me into LAX tonight have no comprehension of this, any more than I do of their business that they spent years preparing themselves for. But they don't need to, they're paying me for that, just as I engage their services when needed. The free market, it's a wonderful thing. But en route flying, sitting at 37,000 feet for five, six, seven or eight hours is taxing. Complacency raises its ugly head particularly at three or four o'clock in the morning on a red eye over the North Atlantic or vast Pacific. Discipline, staying engaged while "monitoring" the jet can be difficult. Most of us fly these flights with the dome lights on, flooding the cockpit with light, staving off the urge to close your eyes... even for a few seconds.
Contrary to several popular studies, the FAA insists that "pilot napping" is less than productive, thus illegal. I strongly disagree and support the European standard of controlled napping. Think about it. I'm sure you've been in your office at 3:30 in the afternoon, experiencing a boring day while rain streams down your window. That is if you're not in a cubicle and are lucky enough to have a window. Your head is bobbing and eyes heavy as your brain fogs over and yearns for a 10 minute nap. If you don't think that this occurs to a surgeon during surgery, to an attorney arguing a case or in a commercial jet cockpit, then you're naive. You though can close your door, push back and close your eyes for five, 10 or 15 minutes to revitalize your energy and tackle the rest of your day. It's amazing what a 15 minute nap can do! Logically, I think we should be able to do the same in the cruise phase, notifying the other pilot of your intentions and to insure that I'm awake in 15 minutes. Crossing six or seven time zones during a four or five day trip, sleeping in different hotels and eating on the run is fatiguing. A clear, rested brain performs much better on the Modesto3, Sadde6, Janesville5 or Milton3 arrival procedures, transitioning to an ILS to minimums with heavy rain or snow streaming back over the windscreen. That's the easy part... then you have to taxi to the gate! Take a look at this article published way back in 1992.
But getting back to flight 188. In the final analysis, until an investigation is complete, I have no idea what went wrong and refuse to jump to a conclusion and get a rope. Neither do (holier than thou) David Letterman nor Jay Leno, but that doesn't stop an nonobjective mind from using it for personal gain. Nor has it stopped the FAA from yanking licences before an investigation has concluded. This is a knee jerk, "ready, fire, aim" reaction directed at placating the public. The airline has grounded them and if found negligent, they'll likely be terminated. As in any incident/accident, I want to know what happened... I mean really happened so that I can add that information to my knowledge base, learn from others and avoid pitfalls in the future. But please, let's have the hearing first. I do know however, that irreparable damage has been done to our profession and how we are viewed. Is it any wonder?
Be assured though that the overwhelming majority of us, those of us proud to call ourselves professional airline pilots, are vigilant, on the job and take our responsibilities seriously. I'm proud of what I do and my fellow aviators who do it every day, day in and day out, throughout the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of conditions and circumstances. In 2008, considering only scheduled, U.S. based air carriers, we flew more than 741 million passengers throughout the world. That's more than twice the entire U.S. population. What does this tell us about our system, pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, dispatchers, meteorologists, sales reps, FAA controllers and everyone else who has contributed to getting me airborne tonight?
Thanks for flying with us, contributing to these numbers and utilizing the worlds safest mode of transportation.
Before I leave I wanted to pass along information that has just come my way, it concerns a group called the "Pease Greeters." They're an organization that gets together to meet returning veterans as they arrive at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH. They gather to welcome our servicemen and women home and let them know how much we value their service to America. Today is Veterans Day, click on their site... maybe you'd like to participate if you live in New Hampshire, Massachusetts or Maine near the coast.