Should’ve Gone to Specsavers

HSS Hire Shop

What is the silliest thing you’ve mistaken for something else? We’ve all done it. The first thing that came to my mind was something that happened years ago. We passed an HSS Hire Shop (industrial hire company here in the UK) and I quickly glanced over my shoulder and said: What’s a Hiss Hair Shop? Much to the amusement of the rest of the family. It’s easy to mistake something for something else. I’m sure there are many more recent examples but none have come to my mind just yet.

The following story takes things to the next level. Early last week and fresh out of the simulator, I was preparing for a flight to Chania in Greece. We had a slot time, which meant we had to be airborne by a particular time otherwise the slot would expire and we’d need a new one. All flights have to depart at a particular time but if you don’t have a slot time then it’s usually easier to recover from delays.

Everything was going to plan until we’d started the first engine and completed the pushback. There was a loud ding in the flight deck indicating the cabin crew wanted to speak to us – never a good sign during the push. In my relatively short time I’ve had all sorts of things from passengers losing passports to medical issues and nervous flyers. Today was something new. A passenger was claiming to have seen their bag on a luggage cart back on the stand we had just left. Okay. Interesting claim. We had no reason to doubt it at first and so made contact with our handling agent who had the stand searched and confirmed with the baggage handlers that the bag count was correct. Procedures are in place for this very reason.

The story should have ended there but it goes on a little further. The searching caused us to almost miss our slot time. Tower had kindly managed to arrange an extension of a couple of minutes. Enough time to taxi to the runway and take off. We approached the runway holding point and waited for another aircraft to land. After which we were cleared to enter the runway, backtrack and line up ready for departure. During this time we were waiting for a signal from the cabin to say everything was secure for take off. I pressed a button which tells the cabin crew we’re ready and then we wait for a response. The response didn’t come and we were occupying the runway at a peak time so we dinged the cabin again. Then they picked up the inter phone and explained the situation.

The cabin crew inform us that said passenger is still insisting their bag is still on the stand and won’t go without it. The cabin was not secure, the safety demo hadn’t yet been done due to all the commotion and we were still occupying an active runway. We asked tower for taxi instructions back to stand while we sort out a baggage issue. Instructions were provided and the slot time went out of the window. We make it back on stand to be greeted by a sea of high visibility jackets. The passenger was invited to lead the way to this forgotten bag.

Much to my relief, we hadn’t left a bag after all. The forgotten bag – was a pile of chocks. You read that right, aircraft chocks. Yes, they were black, yes, there were a few of them and yes, they were stacked on a luggage cart but no, they weren’t a bag. The passenger returned to the aircraft, we uplifted an extra 300 Kgs of fuel and awaited a new slot time. When was the new slot time? Almost an hour after our original scheduled departure time.

chocks

As a result of this case of mistaken identity, people were delayed, fuel was wasted and one passenger kept their head down for the rest of the trip. Not a very warm welcome to the working week having completed a six monthly simulator check the day before. Fortunately all ended well and we made it back to Leeds only 15 minutes late. What things would you be willing to delay a flight for? If I was certain my bag was still on stand, sure, I’d mention it but if we had to go without it I’d be cheesed off enough but I’d live. I wouldn’t dare delay the flight. I’d only have the guts to demand a return to stand if I felt desperately unwell.

Line Training

Time for a long overdue update.  The more I leave it the harder it is to update so I need to crack on.  So much has been happening that I haven’t been writing about so if I get more up-to-date it should be easier to keep current.

Pictures are great.  The only way this picture is related to line training is that it was taken on evening on a walk in Chelmsford.  I stayed in Chelmsford throughout line training at London Stansted.

Pictures are great. The only way this picture is related to line training is that it was taken one evening on a walk in Chelmsford. I stayed in Chelmsford throughout line training at London Stansted. The dust was caused by harvesting in nearby fields.

With simulator and base training complete, the next stage to complete was line training.  Line training is essentially on the job training.  Training is done by a very experienced line training captain and for the first few flights, there is another pilot on the flight deck as safety pilot.  When the criteria to be safety pilot released has been met, flights are then carried out with the line training captain only.  Items that must be covered to be safety pilot released include: pre-flight safety inspections, altimeter setting procedures, low visibility approach and procedures for pilot incapacitation.

Line training continues for approximately 80 sectors (a sector is one flight, from A-B.  Number of sectors varies between operators and level of experience) and covers many procedures and discussion items.  These procedures cover all parts of a flying day: planning, aircraft pre-flight, push back, start and taxi, take-off and climb, cruise, descent and approach, landing and taxi.  Further discussion items include critical safety items such as rapid de-pressurisation, level bust avoidance, winter operations and terrain awareness.

As with all other stages of training, this stage is intense.  Intense for a few reasons.  Reason one: you’re operating with paying passengers.  I was a little nervous the first time I flew passengers but not as nervous as I thought I would be.  I was too busy to be really nervous and what is there to be nervous about?  It’s still an aircraft that you’ve already learned to fly, only it’s just a little heavier!  Reason two: line training is intense because of the long days and the busy schedule.  Never in any stage of training did I do four flights in one day and suddenly here I am doing just that.  It’s all good though, along with the four flights you get four take-offs and four landings which are most certainly the best bits!  Soon you get in to the flow of things and build a routine that works for you.

Reason three: you’re still learning.  Even though flying on scheduled services you’re still learning how to operate safely and efficiently.  The learning continues long after line training too.  One thing that takes a lot of practice is the descent profile.  In a world of clear skies, still air and no air traffic, this would be easy.  Weather, air traffic and winds all affect the descent from cruise altitude to the destination airfield.  If air traffic control keep you high while another aircraft passes below, it’s up to you to then get back on the descent profile so you’re at a suitable airspeed and altitude when it’s time to make an approach.  As with all things that require practice, you improve over time.

Line check.  Checks, checks and more checks.  What stage of training would be complete without a check?  Line training concludes with a line check and then you’re qualified to fly with regular line captains.  The check takes place over two sectors, one as pilot flying and one as pilot monitoring.  Pilot monitoring does radios and paperwork amongst other things while the other pilot flies.  The check is supposed to be just a couple of normal line flights to ensure that you are proficient in safe line operations.  That’s it.  Do what you’ve been taught to do, do it well, and the line check is complete.

There we have it.  A short essay on line training.  I’m sure there is much more to say but I’ll keep it brief for now.  If anything crucial from my line training comes to mind, I’ll pop it in another post.  Overall it was a great experience, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  During the first couple of days I wasn’t sure if I’d chosen the right job but I soon got into it and now, months down the line, I’m absolutely loving it.

Base Training

Once the Licence Skills Test was complete, there was one more hurdle to complete before starting on passenger services – taking the jet into the air for the first time!  It was an absolutely fantastic experience.

Me, in the right hand seat of a Boeing 737. Apologies for the low resolution and the poor lighting, we didn’t have all day!

I changed seats with the previous cadet at the edge of the runway so there was no time for messing about!  Headset on, belt up and adjust seat.  The captain looked over and asked: ‘Ready?’ and then I must have said something that communicated that I was because the safety pilot told the control tower we were ready for departure and before long we were on the runway all ready to go.  I knew the simulators were good but I didn’t realise how good until I was in the aircraft.  The layout and feel is exactly the same.  Everything felt familiar, the only thing that was different was the view.

After confirming runway heading on the instruments and starting the timer, I pushed the thrust levers forward to 40%.  When the engines had spooled up I heard the call from the captain ‘stabilised’ and then I pushed the TO/GA buttons and said ‘set take-off thrust.’  On take-off, pushing the TO/GA buttons activates some servos in the throttle quadrant which drive the thrust levers forward to a pre-set position which was calculated and set earlier.  When the engines have spooled up to this thrust setting, the captain calls ‘take-off thrust set, indications normal’ and then places his hand on the thrust levers.  He does this so that if the take-off needs to be rejected for any reason, he is ready immediately.  The next call I hear is ’80kts’ and I respond ‘check’ as we continue to accelerate down the runway.  Moments later the captain called ‘V1, rotate.’  As he noted V1, he removed his hand from the thrust levers.  At V1, you’re going into the air!  A rejected take-off at or above V1 would see you overrunning the end of the runway.  I applied some pressure on the control column and raised the nose and we became airborne.

Man it was fantastic.  Things happen quickly in a jet!  I had to complete six take-offs and landings for my base training to be complete.  Because East Midlands was fairly busy at the time (including another aircraft in the circuit) it took just over an hour for me to complete the training.  I had no problem with that!  Afterwards it seemed like just a few minutes.  It was just thrilling to be piloting an aircraft with a tailplane larger than the last aircraft that I flew.  There were five of us who needed to complete base training so it took some time, but it was an absolute blast.  Quite possibly the only time I’ll ever experience 30 landings in one day.

So there we have it, base training.  I wish I had written this much sooner afterwards, much of the detail has already been forgotten.

Licence Skills Test

Yesterday afternoon (and on into the evening!) and after almost 4.5 hours in the simulator, I passed my licence skills test.  The test was conducted with my flying buddy, who flew for the first part and then I flew for the second.  What is a licence skills test you ask?  Here’s a quick summary:

The purpose of the LST is to establish:

  • whether you have acquired the standard of proficiency necessary for safe operation in controlled airspace under IFR (instrument flight rules) conditions,
  • are familiar with company SOPs (standard operating procedures) and checklists, both normal and non-normal,
  • are competent to operate the aeroplane accurately in both normal and non-normal operations
  • and whether you are able to use effective Crew Resource Management skills.

The LST contained various instrument approaches throughout and also some failures and emergency procedures.  The most challenging flying is with an engine failure.  We practised an engine failure on take-off which occurred above a speed called V1.  At or above this speed there is no longer enough runway distance to stop on the runway and so the problem needs to be taken into the air.  That’s what we did.  We flew around on one engine while we did some checks on the failed engine and planned a landing with the one remaining engine.  On the first approach the weather was too bad to land and so we went around for another approach – another interesting manoeuvre – a go-around on one engine!  The second approach was successful and then we landed which was just about the end of the test.  I like examiners who don’t keep you in suspense – as we were doing the shut down checks he said something along the lines of: ‘well done lads, you’ve passed the test.’  Off we went for a debrief and then a bite to eat at the local curry restaurant.

How often do we fly single engine?  Not often.  It’s a rare occurrence that needs to be dealt with right and so is practised in the simulator on a regular basis.  Check out this video of an engine problem on take off at Manchester.  The pilots did a great job and sounded far cooler on the radio than I did in the sim.  This video shows almost the same exercise that we did during the test only these guys got to land off the first approach, were in a real aircraft and had a bunch of passengers in the back.

It’s great to have the LST done, as you are probably aware, every step of training has written or practical exams and sometimes both!  The next step now is base training which is going to be next week – it will be the first time I take a jet aircraft into the sky.  I’ll see if I can put on a bit about the simulator sessions, I was incredibly busy and as expected didn’t have the time or energy to write.

Visit to East Midlands ATC

A great shot of East Midlands control tower.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Fletcher Photography.

 A few weeks back I had the amazing opportunity to visit the control tower at East Midlands airport.  Before heading up to the main tower we had a look at the radar room.  This is where the approach controllers handle arriving aircraft before handing them over to tower for landing clearance.  The setup was quite fascinating and the active controller just worked away with a noisy crowd in the background – some serious focus going on.  I wouldn’t be able to do the job even without the noise!  There were too many screens to look at, even after half an hour in the room I didn’t know what they were all for.  While seeing the control room and some controllers in action was very interesting, it gave me no desire to be an air traffic controller.

An even better view of the best overcast sky England can muster. Wish I’d taken a proper camera rather than just my phone!

I was up for the challenge of 248 steps but in the interest of time took the lift with the rest of the group.  Sigh, maybe another day!  The tower controllers have access to pretty much the same information as the approach controllers and then an amazing view to top it off.  It was great watching the arrivals and departures from the tower, a perspective I’ve not had before.  I thought of some intelligent questions to ask our tour guide, one of the few I can remember is ‘how often are the windows cleaned?’  The response was ‘not often.’  They were last cleaned years ago – a combination of sideways rain, the rake of the glass and a special coating make it so that it doesn’t need doing often.  A good job too, I’m sure it wouldn’t be cheap!

Same as the previous picture, just with me blocking the view.

I was reluctant to leave at the end of the tour, it really was quite fascinating seeing how the controllers work to help us pilots out.  I wish I could remember the tour in a bit more detail, it’s my fault for not writing about it weeks ago.

If you get a magnifying glass you’ll be able to see the BMI Baby 737 just touching down on runway 09.

One last photo for good luck.  Training update: Ground school is complete with its various exams passed.  After a couple of weeks off I’m about to start training in the simulator.  I’ll do my best to write a little about what goes on in those training sessions but I know I’ll be busy.

Magnificent Sky

An attempt to capture this evenings sunset.

My study desk is in front of a west facing sliding door and for once I could get a glimpse of the sun as it set.  My phone camera didn’t do a great job of catching the real colour.  Sunsets are one of the best things about the sky – I can’t speak much for sunrises, I’m not often around for them!

A few weeks ago I had a study week to get through as much of the thousands of pages of materials as I could.  That was then followed by a week of computer based training, a study filled weekend (and a 16lb hamburger) and then we get to this week.  The majority of it is also computer based training with a little mix up of things – using the procedure trainer, a flight management computer trainer and an exam to name a few.  On Thursday I have a technical exam which will test the knowledge I have gained in the last few weeks of study through 120 questions.  Little time is available for much else, plus it doesn’t leave much to talk about.

Slides ARE Fun

Wet Life Jacket

That's the best I can do for today, a wet life jacket.

Yeah, sorry about that.  I like to post articles with pictures but there wasn’t much that I could photograph today.  I’d have been thrown out of the pool and put in the local newspaper had I photographed there, I’d have been thrown out of the exams (plus there’s not much to see), a picture of the smoke training would have been a grey square and the provider of the other training equipment (emergency exits) requested that photos weren’t taken.

The day started early, way to early considering the time the last one finished.  We gathered at a local swimming pool and then went and got wet.  The first exercise was to swim a length.  No problem there.  Then, slightly short of breath after swimming the length (I know, I need more exercise), we had to manually blow up the life jackets.  Back in the pool we went to swim another length.  Once that was completed, we had to jump into the pool with the life jacket on.  Fortunately the instructor reminded us to cross our arms over the jacket to prevent it from smacking us in the face – I’m sure I wouldn’t have remembered otherwise!  Then, I played dead and was dragged to the other end of the pool by one of the other cadets.  Upon reaching the other end, I magically recovered and dragged the other cadet back who had passed out from dragging me.

Finally, the grand finale, the survival circle.  The life jackets were deflated and then six of us went to the other end of the pool.  The instructor threw in the deflated life jackets and then we swam up the pool to collect a jacket, put it on and inflate it.  It’s not as easy as you think while you’re trying to tread water.  To my great disappointment, this time round I got one of the life jackets that wouldn’t stay inflated (due to severe overuse, don’t worry!).  When we were all (kind of) life jacketed up, we formed a tight circle intended to preserve body heat.  The final part of this fine training was to sing a song.  After much persuasion we burst into ‘Happy Birthday’ despite being instructed not to (they’re sick of it).  A few words in we changed to ‘Jingle Bells’.  I feel sorry for everyone who had to listen, especially the general public who were trying to enjoy a quiet swim.  Still, I think it was better that the other groups rendition of ‘Old MacDonald’.  Oh yeah, the reason we had to sing?  Supposedly it was to ‘keep out spirits up.’  I suspect there was some other underlying reason such as a way to embarrass us!

I didn’t intend this post to be quite so long, the swimming was just that fun.  Other training we received during the day included fire and smoke training, emergency exits and escape slides.  I was so nervous about the smoke training!  You had to go into a shipping container full of fake smoke, find the PBE (Protective Breathing Equipment), put it on and then exit the container.  I couldn’t see a thing in there!  Fortunately they showed us around beforehand to familiarise ourselves with the layout (since we would know the layout of our aircraft).  I found the PBE and managed to make it out alive.

Way too much waffling (and brackets) I know.  I do have to mention the slides before I finish.  They are incredibly fun.  The surface is made so that you go down very quick and then there is a grip pad at the bottom that slows you down just before you jump off the end.  It was so fun that upon receiving the offer for another go down the slide before we did the final test of the day, I went straight back to the top of the slide.  This proves that there is no such things as growing up, only growing old.  If you get the chance, have a go, but don’t go pulling emergency exits to do so!

Safety, Safety & Safety

Humans aren’t supposed to fly – we weren’t born with wings.  Well, at least anyone I know wasn’t.  However, for the past century or so, we have been doing our best to fly and to fly safe.  One of the things we have to take into account in modern aviation is the altitude we fly at.  High altitude is great for the aircraft and the airline – the aircraft experiences less drag because the air is less dense and also burns less fuel – good for the airline.  The thing is, humans need oxygen.  That’s why you’ve (hopefully) been breathing since the day you were born!

At 30,000 feet there is a lower concentration of oxygen than at sea level.  So low that, if you take a human from sea level to 30,000 feet in a matter of minutes, they’ll pass out and eventually…well…you know.  To get around this problem, aircraft cabins are pressurised to keep the oxygen levels far closer to what we are used to.  The pressure stays in the cabin throughout the flight until the descent to the destination airport.  During the descent the aircraft systems equalize the pressure inside the cabin to the ambient pressure outside.

As you know, before every flight there is a demonstration by the cabin crew.  They talk about oxygen masks as part of their presentation.  These would be used if there was a decompression in the cabin and the inside pressure becomes equal to the outside pressure.  These oxygen masks provide a limited supply and so the aircraft would descent to a lower altitude where the pressure is back to levels that enable us frail humans to take in enough oxygen.

The following video was referred to in class today.  We didn’t get to see it so I looked it up. It’s both entertaining and informative.  I didn’t have the time to watch it all the way through and so skipped to the part about air pressure which starts at around 13:00.  For a greater insight into what happens during a rapid decompression it’s well worth watching.  For those nervous about flying, go here instead.

Crew Resource Management

Co-pilot Checklist

Ah, if only it was that easy! (Supposedly this belongs to aviationhumour.net but I don't really know the original source.)

Joining an airline as a cadet involves many things and one of them is a Crew Resource Management course.  The purpose of a CRM course is to improve communication, decision making and safety in the flight deck among other things such as managing stress and fatigue.  I’ve seen the above picture a couple of times during my training now and it’s a dig at how captains supposedly saw co-pilots (in times past).  CRM is aimed at ensuring this is not the case in the modern flight deck.

Despite all the improvements in aircraft, navigation and air traffic control technology, the largest cause of accidents remains human error.  The primary causes of these accidents are inadequate communication, deviation from Standard Operating Procedures and errors in maintenance.  CRM is a vital skill to ensure these causes become less and less frequent.  We discussed a number of incidents throughout the day that displayed how a number of factors had combined to produce a serious incident that could have been avoided had each crew member communicated properly and essentially just watched the other pilots back.

One of the cases I found most interesting was a flight that ended with an emergency landing at Birmingham airport in 2006.  The Boeing 737 departed from Belgium and on arrival at London Stanstead airport was unable to land due to weather conditions deteriorating below minimum requirements.  The crew put the aircraft into a hold for 30 minutes to see if the weather improved and then diverted to East Midlands airport.  The weather conditions in East Midlands required the crew to make a low visibility approach to Runway 27.  At approximately 500 feet above the ground, the crew were passed a message by ATC which stated that the company (operating the aircraft) would like the crew to divert to Liverpool.

The commander of the aircraft accidentally disconnected both autopilots while attempting to reply to the message from air traffic control.  He attempted to re-engage the autopilot in order to continue the approach.  The aircraft diverged to the left of the runway centreline and developed a high rate of descent.  The commander commenced a go-around but was too late to prevent the aircraft contacting the grass which caused the right main landing gear to break off.  Fortunately the aircraft became airborne and diverted to Birmingham where a successful emergency landing was made.  In this case, the chain of events that lead up to the accident did not cause a loss of life but in many cases they do.

It’s incidents like these that cause me to say ‘what if?’  What if ATC had decided not to pass the message?  What if the crew had ignored it, landed and then asked questions?  What if the captain hadn’t hit the disconnect button?  What if the co-pilot had called for a go-around?  An awful lot of trouble could have been avoided.  CRM courses are to try and ensure things like this don’t happen by ensuring each pilot is an active team member.  Things like this really shouldn’t happen but if it can happen to the crew involved, it can happen to anyone.

For a better understanding of this incident see the following reports from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch: here and here.

Chapter 98, Type Rating Training

I don’t really know how many chapters my life covers, honest.  Still, a new chapter started today with the commencement of my type rating training.  It was a fairly long day, I got to the airport at about 08:40 for a 09:00 start and finished just after 18:00.  After an introduction to the airline we went through the vast pile of manuals, booklets and forms that cluttered our desks.  After lunch we went through the various websites and other resources we would be using to access information (up-to-date manuals, roster, briefings, airline news and so on), contact relevant people and track progress.  The day finished up with a bit of paperwork and document checking in order to progress towards the issue of relevant ID.

Aircraft Manuals

Just some of the manuals received today! Wish me luck...