Thursday, January 18, 2007

It's Best to be Headed Where You Are Going

The NTSB has released transcript details regarding last August's Comair crash in Lexington, KY, that killed 49 people.

Notable in the transcript was the amount of conversation on the flight deck during taxi. (the link has some particularly good diagrams completely lacking in the other coverage I reviewed)

[Snip. The time line is such that conversation prior to 5:56 was very likely prior to pushback]

Polehinke: (5:56:34) Right seat flex takeoff procedures off of um ... he said what runway? One of 'em. Two four.

Clay: (05:56:43) It's two two.

Clay: (06:00:09) Both kids were sick though, they, well they all got colds. It was an interesting dinner last night.

Polehinke: (06:00:16) Really.

Clay: (06:00:16) Huh, oh gosh.

Polehinke (06:00:19) How old are they?

Clay: (06:00:20) Three months and two years old. Who was sneezing, either nose wiped, diaper change. I mean that's all we did all night long.

Polehinke: (06:00:31) Oh yeah, I'm sure.

Polehinke: (6:06:07) Set thrust, please.

Clay: (6:06:11) Thrust set.

Polehinke: (6:06:13) That is weird with no lights.

Clay: (6:06:18) Yeah. One-hundred knots.

Polehinke: (6:06:25) Checks.

Clay: (6:06:31) V-one rotate. Whoa.

(6:06:33) Sound of impact, unintelligible exclamation.

The reason this is notable is the FAA regs completely forbid non-pertinent conversation during taxi, takeoff, and all non-cruise operations below 10,000'.

For good reason. A shockingly common factor among airline mishaps was such irrelevant conversation. IIRC, the FAA finally put the hammer down in the mid-80s.

As a matter of deep background, the airlines I have flown for are emphatic about this. Virtually all the Captains I have flown with brook no nonsense in this regard.

Airlines actually go a step further than the FAA. In addition to the stated restriction, the two I am familiar with prohibit conversation within 1,000 feet of level off altitude.

More pertinently, my current employer insists the First Officer provide "progressive taxi" instructions, using the airfield diagram to verbally direct the Captain at every turn. In this particular case, the direction would have gone like:

The dogleg is closed.

Make the 90 right.

We will be crossing runway 24. Final is clear.

The next intersection is runway 22.

The NTSB also recommended pilots cross check the aircraft heading against the assigned runway heading. That seems simple enough, and was common practice when I flew in the military. However, airline operations frequently include rolling takeoffs, making checking the heading somewhat problematic while also setting power, keeping the airplane on the stripe, monitoring engine instruments and warning lights, all while the airplane is accelerating at rates that can rival a race car.

However, it isn't a prohibitive task. Should the FAA decree it, the airlines would incorporate a heading check into their takeoff flows. Unfortunately, most of the wrong runway scenarios I know of involve picking the incorrect parallel runway, which this measure would do nothing to solve.

All in all, there is really no need. Just shut-up on the flight deck, and make sure someone is hawking the airfield diagram. You have to wonder how many times pilots will have to visit this particular morgue before finally taking on board the obvious.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yes, I read the cockpit transcript of the PSA plane that hit a small plane over, I think, San Diego in the '70s. A deadheading extra pilot was yakking about his retirement.

Steven Cushing's 'Fatal Words' was an eyeopener for someone who is supposed to be a professional communicator.

It's a joke in the newspaper business how the message sent is not always the message received. But when we are unclear, nobody has to die.

January 19, 2007 8:12 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

You have to wonder how many times pilots will have to visit this particular morgue before finally taking on board the obvious.

Maybe never. Chatting is a near-universal human behavior, and it's really complacency which is the culprit - how do we prevent people from feeling that the 1,000th time that they do something, they can handle it with one hand tied ?

It's like cell-phone/driving.

But robots will be flying the planes eventually, so we just have to stay alert until then.

January 19, 2007 4:14 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I'm just glad that you're on the job, Skipper.

January 19, 2007 8:23 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Actually, O, a pilot told me his plane (a 767) can already take off by itself from NY, fly to Maui and land itself without his ever touching the controls.

January 19, 2007 8:59 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Yea, but can it blog? Seriously, can it?

January 19, 2007 9:24 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Maybe never. Chatting is a near-universal human behavior, and it's really complacency which is the culprit ...

That is a very acute observation about complacency.

However, as universal as chatting is, I have been surprised by the degree the Captains (who very much set the tone on the flight deck) comply with the requirement for only pertinent conversation during critical phases of the flight.

Notionally putting a percentage on it, I'd say almost all Capts are somewhere between 95% and 100%; none have chattered on like this hen party.

There may be something to background. Just under half the pilots at my first carrier were ex-military. The number is probably closer to 70% at my current employer.

A commuter has on the order of 0%.


So am I. beats heck out of working for a living.

January 19, 2007 9:32 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Commuter pilots are also, mostly, very young. Too young to remember many incidents of colleagues killing themselves.

When I was a young reporter, I thought it was cool to rush to riots. Now I'm old I am more circumspect.

Skipper, did you read the magazine the AF put out about crashes? I cannot recall its title; perhaps it was Crash. I used to read it in the early '70s. It was one of the most exciting magazines ever and it greatly influenced the way I think about things.

Namely, it's the little things and ignoring the minor rules that kill ya.

January 20, 2007 12:10 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Skipper, did you read the magazine the AF put out about crashes?

I entered active duty in early 1978. I don't recall seeing anything like that.

Near as I can tell, Air Force safety was largely a den of incompetence, corruption and time servers.

But I only have first hand experience to go on.

January 21, 2007 3:40 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

According to the biography 'Grim Reaper,' Jimmy Flatley, the Pacific ace, was put in charge of naval aviation safety because the Navy was losing a pilot every 18 days when jets came in.

He got it down to one every 180 days and 'saved naval aviation.'

My first newspaper job including Oceana, the big Navy training base in Virginia Beach. Seemed like we had a plane down every month, though in reality it wasn't that often.

We had a lot of pilot's wives working as secretaries, and they would all panic and weep and we couldn't get anything out of them all day.

But the boys looked real handsome in their whites, I guess.

January 22, 2007 4:52 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

During my first year in the F-111, 24 were destroyed.

Overall, I knew 12 guys who got killed in the 'Vark over eleven years; roughly three times that many bought the farm over that period.

Engineering advances have been amazing, and largely responsible for the huge reduction from Flatley's time to mine, continuing to the point where a fighter aircraft crash is exceptional, rather than normal.

I flew the F-15 once. It was an absolute doddle compared to the F-111, which would turn on you and rip your head off, given half a chance.

January 22, 2007 9:43 PM  

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