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August 29, 2006

A Word from the Cockpit...

For Those of You Who Are Interested...

I somewhat doubt anyone in the media is going to delve too deeply into the goings-on in the RJ cockpit of yesterday's accident in Kentucky, other than to imply they were criminally negligent, sloppy, poorly trained or otherwise AFU. But, because you rarely get a look at what a normal day "up front" in your airliner is like 'cause it doesn't sell papers and journalists are hardly ever interested in the Big Picture anyway, here's some background...

1. The vast majority of today's passenger jets are crewed by two pilots, the Captain and a First Officer--the pilot and co-pilot, respectively. You probably knew that, but what you probably don't have completely nailed down is what each does.

The Captain is responsible for everything, from a safe flight (and not getting a ticket from the FAA, otherwise known as a "violation") to making sure the crew, flight attendants included, are supported/protected on that flight, get timely transportation to the hotel, etc., etc., etc. He/She gets paid the "big" bucks for taking the FULL responsibility for the crew, passengers and safe operation of the jet from push-back to parking and engine shutdown.

The First Officer backs up the boss and either does the flying or backs up the Captain when the latter is actuating the stick.

As far as flying is concerned, the two flight deck types usually swap off--one takes the first leg and then they switch back and forth until the day's done. Sometimes only the Captain can do the flying, based on FAA guidance and/or company policy. For example, in some jets, only the Captain can land out of a full-up autopilot approach and landing--usually a CAT III ILS or "Category Three Instrument Landing System" approach--but the First officer flies the approach down to X number of feet above the ground, at which time the Capt must take it or the F/O automatically initiates a missed approach. This is because this relieves the Capt, in the initial and intermediate portions of the approach, of the task of flying while he's keeping up with where he is in the queue, potential traffic conflicts, where the terrain is, where the weather is, and, finally, looking for the landing surface. In other words, the F/O is "heads down" glued to the instruments following air traffic control vectors and then making sure the jet is on course, on glidepath and configured to land while the Boss is "heads up" safely getting the airplane into the terminal environment for that critical transition from flying in the clouds to seeing the runway and bringing the airplane to a safe and expeditious touchdown, rollout and runway exit at the appropriate/directed taxiway.

2. Some stuff is done exclusively by one or the other. Typically, the only person who taxies the jet is the Captain. That's 'cause the nosewheel steering control--the principal way to get the jet to go where you want it to go at taxi speeds--is only on his/her left side. That leaves the F/O to make the radio calls for clearance, taxi (including clearances to cross runways enroute to the runway you've been assigned, etc.) and takeoff. If it's the F/O's leg, i.e., he/she'll be doing the flying, the F/O still has the radios until the Capt turns the jet over to him/her for the actual takeoff...that happens once the airplane is lined up on the active runway for takeoff. After landing, if the F/O was flying, the roles then swap again, back to the Capt maneuvering the jet to the gate and the F/O picking up the comm responsibilities. Now, having two people involved--one maneuvering the airplane and the other doing the communicating with Ground and Tower--provides a potential for miscommunication or even no communication. However, these jets aren't single-seat for a reason. It takes two to fly them efficiently, thanks to those kinds of design conventions and the nature of the environment they find themselves in. Nine hundred ninety-nine times out of a thousand two craniums/sets of eyeballs are better than one. However, because the roles are split, the airlines and the FAA have come up with procedures and conventions to help mitigate the risks--"sterile cockpit" procedures, i.e., no unnecessary talking below 10,000 feet, within 1000 feet of leveling off at an assigned altitude, and no conversation other than that associated with ground operations after pushing back (leaving) from the gate or blocking in (arriving) at a gate. There are exceptions (cruising below 10 grand you can talk; if you're stopped on the ground and the parking brake is set you can talk) but my point is the rules recognize the potential for mishap and mandate behavior and procedures accordingly...unfortunately, nobody's perfect.

3. Most of these commuter flights are one of several a crew flies in a given day. Some of my co-workers, having come from "the regionals" (like ComAir) have flown 10-11 legs in one day. That's a lot of flying and every one of those legs may involve negotiating an airport you may never have been to, flying an approach you've never flown, maybe flying a jet on which the systems may not be all functioning, in an environment the human body wasn't entirely designed to operate in, etc. You'd be surprised how fatiguing sitting in a cockpit all day can be, especially if the weather's bad, the traffic's heavy, the schedule's changing due to that weather, the passengers are pissed, etc. NOTE: A buddy of mine was welcoming PAX on board in his old job and was called a "c**ksuc**r" to his face by an irate businessman stepping into the cabin who would not make his connection due to weather...he just had to smile, apologize and resist the urge to choke the bastid.

Ever heard a flight attendant get the flight number and/or destination wrong on his/her initial announcement as people are finishing the boarding process?

I always thought it was weird/dumb/funny...until I started doing this job myself. After a week of this kind of thing, you lose track of both time and geography. In the last three weeks, I've landed at 11 different airports in 8 different states...and I fly a VERY sedate schedule compared to the little guys. By ride #9, the Captain/First Officer/flight attendant probably has to look at his/her schedule or the flight plan/release to make sure the correct flight number/destination is used during the passenger welcome/safety brief. And don't EVEN ask what time/day it is (that's cruel).

4. Mistakes happen...and we, more than anyone, know it. That's why we're in in a state of mild paranoia throughout a flight, from block out to block in, especially on the ground. Every time Ground tells us where to go (so to speak), the instructions are repeated between us, to make sure what we thought we heard was what was said. If there's a question, we ask. If there's confusion, we stop (if necessary) and ask again.

At the bigger airports, there's A LOT of pressure not to ask to repeat a taxi instruction and the Ground Controller's delivery is somewhere around 15,000 words per minute. Don't even think about screwing up a taxi procedure at O'Hare...you will be shunted off into what's called a "penalty box" and sit there, with engines running, burning fuel (at, what? $70+ dollars a barrel?) and the flight attendants fending off passengers with a whip and a chair while the traffic thins out and you proceed, tail between legs, to your now-probably-occupied-by-somebody-else gate.

What do I do when cleared for takeoff? I repeat to the Tower Controller that I have been so cleared and, as I'm doing that, I specifically look at the runway numbers as we roll out onto the takeoff position. If what I'm saying doesn't jive with what I'm seeing, I say something and make sure nothing else happens until we get it sorted out. Why? Because I know I can do exactly the same thing that these guys did.

Bottom line: You can get "set up" and/or set yourself up for a mistake very easily. You avoid the traps by sticking to procedures, not trusting anyone (especially yourself) and singing out when something doesn't look quite right. Alas, as I said, nobody's perfect and circumstances can build to a point where the consequences can be disastrous.

Where these guys tired? Maybe. Were they new to the jet? Maybe. New to the seat (Capt or F/O)? Maybe. Disoriented? Obviously. Did they not follow procedure? Well, yeah...but they didn't recognize it, apparently. Could it have been avoided? Of course...but this will happen again.