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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Flex Air

The symbol above was created by my son, Mike, for the cover of his Flexible Flyer song and the CD album of the same title.  You may recall that one of the reasons I came up with the title of my blog was the Flexible Flyer sled I had as a child.  Another part of that was our call sign at Florida Express, Flexair.  It came from the first two letters of each of the words FLorida EXress.  Yes, I know most of you are smart enough to figure that one out.  Remember Pacific Express was PacEx.

The call sign was often abbreviated to Flex, by both our pilots and the controllers.  Often when we were just talking about the airline with fellow pilots, it was referred to as Flex.  We had to be very flexible to fly for that company, so that is just about all that went into the process of coming up with the title.  As I said, I thought about this for a long time and used to bug Mike to write a song titled Flexible Flyer or even use that as a name for one of his bands.  I wasn't all that serious about that, but I guess he thought I was.

I look back on this time as the peak of my flying skills.  I had spent 3 years teaching the systems of the plane I was flying.  I had spent more than a year thrashing around learning how to fly it in mountainous parts of the American West, eventually upgrading to captain.  About a year after upgrading to captain at Flex, I became a check airman.  This meant I was a training captain for both new captains and new first officers.  Check airmen did the training in the simulator in Pittsburgh and in the airplane while flying the line.  

We had to be able to fly the plane from either the left or right seat.  This was a little trickier than you might think.  One of the first things you would notice when training someone who was moving from the right seat to the left seat was that they did not line up on the runway or taxiway center line at first.  This was not too big a challenge to correct.  It was just necessary to show them the sight picture when they were on the line.  Of course, another issue was switching the hands with which you flew the flight controls and moved the throttles.  (They are called thrust levers on American made jets, but were still called throttles on the British Bullet.)  It may just have been me, but another issue was getting used to having all that open cockpit space on the side where I had become accustomed to having a wall and window.  It was weird....weird I tell you.

My friend, Warren, became a check airman at about the same time. We could give each other our required line checks while flying on the same trip together.  One such occasion occurred on a nasty winter night, while flying to the Akron-Canton airport, one of our new destinations as we acquired more planes.

I was flying and Warren was in the right seat, acting as FO, but also checking me.  When we got the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service - I know you remember this from my previously mentioning it.), we learned that the cloud ceiling was 200 ft. and the visibility was 1/2 mile.  Those were our minimums for starting the approach.  If they would have been worse, we would have had to go to an alternate, without beginning the approach at the destination.  

This situation was a classic example of a problem we emphasized to newly upgrading captains with our airline.  I mentioned earlier, that we were flying the BAC to the limits of its range, far more than the original intent of the designers.  Preflight planning by the dispatchers and pilots require having enough fuel to fly to the destination, then to an alternate if weather requires, then for an additional 45 minutes.  Jets have a much higher fuel burn rate at lower altitudes than higher.  Once you leave your cruise altitude, descending to the destination, your options are limited.  While at the higher altitude, you could glide at idle thrust to all the airports within a mileage radius of about 3 times your altitude, so you should be checking weather at all these places and talking to dispatch to make all these decisions before you have to descend to the original destination.

The Akron - Canton airport (CAK) is between Pittsburgh and Cleveland and is definitely the smallest dog in that fight.  By this, I mean those two busier airports have higher priority in the air traffic control considerations when it comes to the strategic planning and developing of arrival and departure routes as well as the tactical considerations in real time.  What this meant to our Flexair flight that night is that we were held a little high by the controllers and had to do a "slam dunk" descent, with speed brakes, to get down in time to be at the correct altitude to begin the approach.

Warren is a big dude, from Texas and likes to hear himself talk.  Nothing wrong with that most times.  He is smart and knows a lot about a lot of subjects.  I always enjoyed listening to him talk.  On this particular night, I found myself wishing he didn't talk so much.  As we approached the point where we needed to begin our descent, we had the big picture on surrounding airport weather and our plan was to attempt the approach, then go to an alternate, if we missed the approach (did not see enough to land).  Warren got into a conversation on our second radio involving dispatch and the Florida Express station people at CAK.  Blah, blah, blah!!!!

I needed him to be dealing with the ATC situation, as they were not giving us the descent altitude clearances we needed and we needed to brief the approach to make sure we were both on the same sheet of music.  We were both check airmen and had flown together enough that we could do that in abbreviated terms, but we still needed to make sure we had the same plan.

The procedure for the ILS approach would be to get slowed and configured for landing before intercepting the glide slope, then flying the GS to 200 ft. above the runway.  This would all be hand flown, because we did not trust our old autopilots to do it as well as we could and well, we just liked the challenge of doing that.

When we got to minimums, there are several specific things the pilot not flying needs to look for.  If he sees one of them, he calls it out and we land.  If he does not, he calls that out and we execute a go around.  We practice this stuff in the simulator all the time.  No sweat.

Some of the problems with this particular approach, was that the runway was short, it was covered with snow that had been plowed and was hardened by planes operating on it.  It would create a braking challenge.  Furthermore, the plowed snow was piled up along the side of the runway into snow banks.

My plan was to fly the glide slope to the runway, with very little landing flare and get the plane on the ground at the earliest possible point.  The snow would soften the landing a little, but I was more worried about getting stopped in time.  I would not use the wheel brakes until I was convinced they would not cause a skid.  I would use the engine thrust reversers until I was certain the plane would stop before running off the far end of the runway.  Normally we would stow the reversers as we decreased through 80 knots, but I was going well below that to about the speed you would use to walk on a slippery sidewalk.   

Yak, yak, yak.  I finally said, "Just tell them what we are doing and get back in the dance.  I need you here with me." or something to that effect.  Real captain stuff.  As I said, it didn't take much time to transfer my plans and we were in agreement.

This turned out to be one of the best approaches I ever flew and that is probably why I remember it so well.  When we got to 200 ft. Warren could kind of see the glare of the bright, flashing approach lights, we call the rabbit, coming up through the fog and snow.  We decided that was enough and continued to 100 ft., where we saw runway lights.  That is the definition of one of the requirements for what we must see on such an ILS approach.  Very cool.

I was locked on the localizer and glide slope and Warren was watching for any deviation.  If it happened, he would call it out.  It all went just as we had planned.  We touched down in the target, got into reverse, stayed in until we were down to walking speed, then tested the wheel brakes and stowed the reversers.  We were about the length of the plane from the end of the runway at that point.  If it had looked closer, I would have tried the brakes a little sooner.  

Taxiing in those conditions is as challenging as flying.  We made our way to the ramp, parked and shut down as the passengers walked off the plane into the blizzard.  Warren said he was buying the beer at the debrief at the hotel.  See you at the bar.

We discussed one of our captains who called in sick more than all the other pilots combined and frequently ended up at alternate airports.  Warren explained it this way:  "When guys like you and I learn that the weather is 200 and a half, we think, 'Oh, I have a chance to get in there and we fly the approach and miss if we don't see anything.  When (blank) learns that weather is at minimums, (blank) thinks, 'I'm calling in sick or going to the alternate.'"


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