Thursday, June 30, 2011

Airport Message to Critters: Planes Suck

Sometimes romance shouldn't be discussed in the cockpit, and sometimes its vital that it is. That was the case on Wednesday when diamondback terrapins looking for romance began crossing an active runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

A couple of eagle-eyed American Eagle pilots blew the whistle on the amorous reptiles. Their call to the airport tower caused the temporary closing of the runway to relocate the critters on a mission to procreate. One of the pilots delayed by the closing can be heard on the radio frequency muttering, "Sufferin' succotash!" (So, so, mild, compared to what we've heard recently.)

John P.L. Kelly, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey told The New York Times, the turtles were crossing the runway to get to the other side because that's where they'd find an ideal place to "lay their eggs in the sand."

Photo courtesy Port Authority of NY and NJ
The turtle story is cute and has a happy ending. When it comes to wildlife interfering with flight operations, its not turtles but birds that are most likely to cause disaster.

Unlike bouts involving land critters, airplane versus bird encounters are usually at low-altitude. And the most dangerous time for this match is during takeoff, according to Richard Dolbeer, an ornithologist and aviation consultant who spoke to me after the successful Miracle on the Hudson landing of USAirways Flight 1549.

"On takeoff you’re trying to gain altitude and you’ve got critical decisions to make in terms of turning around and lining up on the runway. This is why bird strikes on takeoff are more likely to cause significant failures on the aircraft but also they’re more difficult for a pilot to manage,"  Richard said.

Try and imagine for example what it was like to be Roger Wutkl who was flying solo over Arizona when a bird crashed through the windscreen of his airplane, knocking his headset and glasses off and making a disgusting mess of the cockpit in November of 2009.

That was a busy month for bird strikes. From India to Brazil, Venezuela to Kenya airplanes were returning to airports in a hurry after flying into birds. (International Birdstrike Committee keeps a comprehensive list of events and a covey of related information on its website.)

Earlier this week Jim Hall, former chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board wrote an opinion piece for the Times expressing alarm over the location of garbage transfer station very near New York's LaGuardia Airport. One does not need to be an expert in aviation or wildlife to know that some very big birds are attracted to garbage and this is going to cause problems at the airport.

I mentioned Jim's article while having dinner with Andy Lester, manager of New Zealand's Christchurch International Airport on Wednesday night which prompted Andy to invite me to see how his airport is minimizing bird hazards by planting bird and bug repellant grass in some of the fields adjacent to the runway.

Ford Robertson and endophyte grass at Christchurch airport
As I understand it, in a process developed by a Kiwi agricultural scientist working in cooperation with the airport, an endophyte fungus is introduced to a certain kind of grass called fescue and the end product is given the catchy name Grasslanz Technology.

It may look like grass but birds don't like it and neither, apparently do bugs, making fields of the stuff unlikely to attract bug eaters. This is the first full year of a large field test and Andy and Ford Robertson, manager of quality and security are monitoring it closely.

This afternoon, while Ford drove me around the perimeter of the airfield and I snapped photos, we saw several large magpies and some smaller birds on or near the airport but the Grasslanz test field was bird-free.  

Magpies hangin' at the airport
Christchurch airport officials are encouraged by their biological fix and consider themselves leaders in the development of an agricultural solution to an aviation issue.

Its not a silver bullet its not even romantic but it is a creative approach and one worth keeping an eye on, even an eagle-eye, for how it might be more widely applied in the future.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Delta Pilots - Not a Day to Play the Lottery

What are the chances? That's got to be what the pilots of Delta Flight 277 were asking each other after a cracked windshield forced them to put their Boeing 747 down at Henderson Field on the Midway Islands where - before landing - the darn thing flew into a big ole albatross.

The pathetic photo sent to me tonight shows just how much damage a large bird can do. But don't blame the albatross, they live here. In fact, they're nesting at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge  an island with "the world's largest population of Laysan Albatrosses." 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Southwest Rant - Holding Pilots to a Higher Standard

The Southwest Airlines captain whose big mouth rant of frustration over the lack of suitable flight attendants to date during a trip in March has made him the latest example of declining professionalism among airline pilots. He mistook his office for his personal conversation pit, yes indeed. But really, is all the fury about his piloting or his piggishness? And if the answer is the latter then really, what is all the fuss about?

From the Wall Street Journal to NBC News, to the flight attendants union and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, everyone is weighing in on poor Capt. Bigmouth. Meantime, movies like Sex in the City 2, in which an entire nation is disparaged or Wedding Crashers which features a team of bachelors scheming to serially lie their way into bed with beautiful women, (not a gay, granny or grande among them) are just two on a lengthy list of blockbuster hits churned out of Hollywood proving that audiences just love rakish, randy, rogues. 

So what's behind this a state of horrified outrage over the presumed-to-be-private conversation between two men piloting a flight from Austin to San Diego?  Trust me, its not because these pilots are the only ones who view flight attendants as co-workers with benefits.

I'm sure to generate some controversy here, but truth be told, there's a certain lifestyle in commercial aviation that - whether they participate in it or not - is no secret to flight crews around the world. This involves socializing on layovers. Its a recipe for marriages and sometimes for divorce. 

Some pilots misbehave and so do some flight attendants and for the most part the airlines  stay out of the way - unwilling to get involved in this enormously sticky state of affairs. Airlines could and should be more active in defining for their employees what is and what is not acceptable behavior considering the power imbalance between pilots and flight attendants. 

But no evidence has emerged so far that this Southwest pilot was anything more than a "player" in his personal life who had the misfortune to accidentally depress the transmit key on his microphone and share that fact with the world. 

Last night, I was invited to a wonderful dinner with three students at CTC Wings, an airline pilot training center in Hamilton, New Zealand. It's so rewarding talk to young people happily anticipating a future doing what they love. 

Perhaps it was the wine, but feeling somewhat philosophical I waxed on about something that - in the light of the Southwest story - seems almost prescient. 

"When you put on your smart, dark uniform and head to the front of the airplane, you have two very important tasks," I told them. "The first is to get your passengers safely from A to B. The second is to represent your airline in such a way that travelers feel comfortable putting their lives in your hands." You can do the first and fail at the second, but not for long. 

That's a lesson for young aspiring pilots and its a lesson for Capt. Bigmouth too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Who Do You Trust?

There's a world of difference between how much trust the citizens of various nations have in their government. This is particularly obvious here in New Zealand where, while listening to a radio news show recently, I marveled as caller after caller expressed confidence in their government's ability to properly handle the crisis in earthquake-riddled Christchurch. 

To an American it sounds downright quaint, but on second thought, I'm envious. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The View From 100K

Thanks to a certain Aussie pilot and 100K others!
Its lovely, really it is, this view from one-hundred thousand. Not 100,000 feet silly, one-hundred thousand readers.

Thanks to you, and you and you, and so many others, FLYING LESSONS crossed this exciting threshold sometime during (my) Wednesday night in New Zealand.

Numbers being an arbitrary but nonetheless widely accepted gauge of progress, I am taking this opportunity to say THANK YOU! and provide a de-brief of some of FLYING LESSONS past destinations. I've sure had fun writing about them and I hope you've enjoyed reading about:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Crash Heard 'Round the World

Writing from New Zealand.

Yesterday was a clear and crisp autumn day as magnificent as any I have lived through back home in famous-for-fall New England. Jane Orphan and I were soaking it up in the light-soaked dining room at Wither Hills Winery in Marlborough, New Zealand where the food was as excellent as the view of acres of vineyards. Still, the news of a B-17 crash in an Illinois cornfield dampened Jane's mood.

Many people are saddened by the loss of this historic aircraft, but Jane, and coterie of hard-core historic aviation aficionados have spent the last decade on a crusade to make this little valley in the far north of New Zealand's south island, a center for the restoration, demonstration and display of old warbirds. In this world, any loss is lamentable  - even the not-so-rare (relatively speaking) World War 2 B-17 Flying Fortress, of which this particular one was still toting the public on ride-of-a-lifetime-flights at airshows until the crash.

Each year, the Wings and Wheels Air Expo at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey hosts a visit from Yankee Lady, a B-17G tail number N3193G.  In 2007, I trotted down there with my son Joseph and two of his friends - at the time all pre-teens - and their eyeballs popped out of their heads at the sight of this magnificently restored, four-engine prop plane that did so much work in a war they've only heard about in history class.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Geeks Just Want to Have Fun - ISASI Down Under

The Scottish transplant to the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Andy Cant, did the translating while the Kiwis shot comments and questions in my direction.  "How had I never heard of Peter Jackson?" "What were my plans in Blenheim?" "How did I like kumara?" 

My daughter, Marian, a temporary resident of New Zealand and my companion at this dinner could have helped but she was on the wrong end of the table yucking it up with Lara Mansil from Qantas. OMG we were laughing so hard we were practically in tears. We were at the dinner banquet of the Australasian Society of Air Safety Investigators meeting in Wellington, New Zealand and clearly we’d chosen the right table. 

This is one of the things I love about attending the ISASI meetings. No matter where in the world they are held, no matter how technical (or controversial) the presentations, at the end of the day, when the cocktails are served and we settle in around the dinner table, there’s a easy course of conversation as we tackle the questions remaining from someone’s  presentation suggesting the application of a mathematical model of the chaos theory to aviation disasters to what we think of the fact that Pippa’s tush has its own Facebook page. Then of course there is the opportunity to try some local food. 

At the Australia/New Zealand regional meeting held this weekend it was kumara, a hard, dry sweet potato that’s like a blend of turnip and salted yam. (It’s good, but it’s no Afghan biscuit. Why in the world is New Zealand not exporting this delicacy???) 

I’d been one of about a dozen presenters, talking about human factors and asking the question, how much has applied psychology actually contributed to safer skies? The quick answer is, we don’t know for sure. But it took me 25 minutes to get there, so stand by, I’ll be blogging about this in more depth in the future.

The two papers I’d like to share with you, come from relative “outsiders” in the world of air safety, Rick Sellers, a consultant from New South Wales reminded the audience of the irreversible trend towards distraction in the work place and negative effects of interruption of tasks in aircraft maintenance.   

“Who here would think it okay for a heart surgeon to be interrupted in the middle of an operation to take a phone call from her husband asking what he should pick up for dinner?” Rick asked. That’s a chuckle because it’s absurd. Look, even the flight deck has the concept of “sterile cockpit” where its accepted that non essential conversation is a distraction and a danger. But no such protection exists for airplane mechanics, Rick says, and it should. 

Rick’s brilliant suggestion? Creating a block of time he calls a “focused maintenance environment” in which workers, identified with special vests, or working within a specially marked zone, are to be left alone. 

When I’m on deadline I post a sign on the door to my office, “THINKING”, it says, “Don’t interrupt!”  I could transpose a word, or mix a metaphor. Frightening, yes, but how much more serious is the work of mechanics whose errors can have life-threatening consequences? 

“The biggest challenge for human factors scientists,” Rick told the attendees, “is to take what they know and come out with practical tools people can use.”

Mechanics work in an environment rife with opportunities for error, conducting multiple tasks, parallel tasks in close proximity, and under time pressure. Sorting out these opportunities for error and creating tools to prevent task interruption  is as important for mechanics as it is for pilots. 

Rick’s low-tech solution for the constantly challenging problem of human error was in contrast to the high-tech presentation made by Sam Watson, a 16 year old from Canberra. For a high-school science project, this young-engineer-in-the-making, decided to push what’s known about the deterioration of carbon fiber materials by applying lightening-like energy to carbon fibers in a lab. Sam studied how the carbon fibers broke down affecting the integrity of structures and creating health risks from the respiration of the microscopic particles.  

As the mother of a couple of teen aged boys, I have to say I was dazzled by the sophistication of this young man’s research and his poise in presenting it to a room full of people who could and did ask the tough questions in the follow up.  

For the ISASI, ESASI, and ASASI conference banquets to come, I'm predicting fights may break out among members eager to have Sam sit at their table.

  Kiwi women and American women have entirely different opinions 
on the proper foot gear for a fancy dinner.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Don't Believe Brian Ross? Ask John Travolta

Kudos to ABC News for reporting on the problem of using handheld devices during flight. In his report on Thursday, Brian Ross took viewers into the EMI lab at Boeing, where engineer David Carson showed levels of electromagnetic interference from a Blackberry, an iPhone and an iPadthat even the most blasé airline passenger might find startling.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Airlines Losing a Terrier in Bisignani's Retirement

IATA boss Bisignani after his last state of the industry speech
Writing from Singapore

State of the industry speeches can be boring affairs. Even the best don't garner adjectives like entertaining. But this morning's presentation by Giovanni Bisignani, to an international gathering of airline executives was described just that way and that's one reason why the airline industry is gonna miss the most colorful  director general the International Air Transport Association has ever had when he steps down at the end of June.

Reporters will miss him too, the man is a sound bite machine. Enemies are "leeches", a European Union proposal is a "cash grab". You can't make these quotes up! Neither can you doubt the man's dedication to commercial aviation.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sullenberger on the Fallacy of Pilot Error

I'm starting a crusade for a more judicious use of the term "pilot error" and I nominate as my campaign poster boy…Tada! -- Capt. Chesley Sullenberger.

The newest member of the formerly obscure community of aviation safety commentators has a new gig on CBS News.

From that platform he can say what many others who don’t have his good looks or American hero status have been saying, and he can make these points to the very people who have recently been given a somewhat mangled version of what happened on Air France Flight 447.