MH 370, and what didn’t happen.


So much has been talked about and speculated over the last 12 days regarding the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 370. A Boeing 777-200, among the most sophisticated in the air today, has vanished. It seems everyone and their dog has a “theory”, but that’s wheeler it ends. They are all theories, of which I am ad to say are almost all wrong.

First, the possibilities. Yes anything is possible in this world we live in today (including losing a plane full of 239 people). But let’s look at what has been said, and why it is most likely incorrect.

First, the easy ones. Terrorism. I think by now if the plane had exploded in mid air, at 500 mph, the scattering of debris would have been stumbled onto. (It seems that will be how this is discovered eventually, by stumbling onto it). And given the fact that there are enough ships to walk from Singapore, to Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong without getting your feet wet (Hunt for Red October style quote) I’d say it’s nowhere in the South China Sea basin. Secondly, when a plane explodes, it makes a hell of a flash. This part of e world is full, and I mean FULL of fishing boats. With more then 2 billion people in this corner of the globe, fishing is among the cheapest ways to feed them all. I have seen enough fishing boats between Indonesia and Hong Kong that lit up the black ocean more then the Canadian prairies are lit up at night. Someone would have seen this when it happened, and someone would have found wreckage by now. The same points can be made for an accidental/purposeful shoot down with a missile.

As far as the other theory on terrorism, the plane has been hidden, for a 9/11 type mission at a later date? Why? 9/11 was as dam dating as it was because NO ONE saw it coming. Least of all the authorities. With damn near the whole world looking for a white 777 with a red and blue stripe, it will not get anywhere near a major city without being noticed. So sorry, that’s out too.

Flew by the Maldives you say? Took 11 days for ANY witness to come forward? That right there doesn’t add up. I know they have TV in the Maldives, so someone would have realized they should say something long ago if they did in fact see a 777 cruising by the southern Atoll at sunrise.

The pilot is making a political statement. He has been photographed wearing a “democracy is dead” t shirt. Political extremist wiling to hijack a plane full of people he must be. He is not a political extremist, he sounds like someone who is tired of living in a Muslim nation. It is 2014 after all, some things don’t fly (excuse the pun) anymore (like jailing homosexuals). I can say however that his t shirt collection alone does not make him stand out. In fact, shirts like that with pointless sayings (a t shirt never brought back democracy – revolution maybe, but not a t shirt) are ALL over Asia. Here in Hong Kong I see things on a t shirt almost every day that don’t make much sense, but people think they look cool (like my chip and pepper t shirts in the 80’s).

Ok, the captain has a flight simulator at home. You know why? It’s not because he was practising some elaborate scheme to hide the jet (18,000 hours should have been enough practice). It’s because being a pilot is awesome. We dreamed about flying since a young age, it’s a rush, it’s challenging, and it’s so much fun, many of us do it on our days off. Those that can afford have their own plane, those that can’t OFTEN set up PC based flight simulators. I have rarely seen a lawyer post a picture on Facebook sitting in front of his new laptop with a thumb in the air. But the first thing a pilot does (especially this day in age) when they are checked out onto a new plane, snap a pic and send it to friends/post it on a social media website. People don’t hang out front of a law firm hoping to see a lawyer walk by, but every airport I’ve been too there are “spotters” and “avgeeks” everywhere taking pictures and watching big shiny things make a shit load of noise. If it’s that much fun for people to watch, then obviously it’s that much fun for a pilot to “take the job home” with him/her.

Now for the big one, the viral theory. Which I’m happy to report is starting to be debunked. An in flight fire. Whether it’s a cargo fire, cabin fire, unknown source of smoke, ANY smoke/fire drill calls for two memory items and then auctioning a checklist.

Oxygen mask on.
Communication establish.

Breathe, and talk to someone. First your partner in the cockpit. And then ATC. Even if the smoke/fire requires your immediate attention (they usually do) a quick “Hong Kong control Malaysian 370, unknown smoke, emergency in progress, standby”. Why do we do this, so while our attention is shutting down systems, closing valves, and trying to isolate and put out what is among the worst inflight emergencies, ATC starts their work. They immediately will move traffic out of the way, knowing that you are about to turn around and land somewhere, because if you don’t, you are probably going to die in a little less than 20 minutes. They will also instinctively know where the closest airports are and start pulling up weather and NOTAMS to make sure that airport can accommodate your emergency landing. So once you have completed a checklist/procedure and the pilot calls ATC and says, we need to land ASAP, ATC can come back with Langkawi Airport is at your 7 o’clock 70 miles, weather CAVOK. Heading bug left 130 degrees and away you go. Swissair flight 111, the MD-11 that suffered a fire inboard spoke with ATC for 15 minutes before the cockpit roof finally melted on the pilots heads and the plane crashed into the Atlantic. A UPS 747-400F suffered a cargo fire leaving Dubia, and spoke win ATC for 10 minutes until there last calls were “there’s too much smoke, we can’t see anything, which way do we turn”. Pilots talk, even when there is nothing to to we talk to each other. It’s rare, almost unbelievable that they would not have said one thing to ATC. and certainly if the plane was over come by smoke and the pilots coughed their last cough, they would have said something before the pane just headed in the direction it was programmed for 5 hours. And if a fire was bad enough to knock out the passengers, how could the plane fly for 5 more hours without burning up?

So what was it? Where did the plane go that no one could find it? Someone was in control that I am sure. Someone who knew how to turn things off and fly in a way that would be difficult to track. Someone who knew where the deepest part of the Indian Ocean is, and how to get there with the fuel they had. Someone who wanted to die. Sadly, it has happened before, and I think this could be what has happened now. A pilot suicide event. I won’t speculate any further, as there is no need. These are just my thoughts on where something went and possibly why, and most likely why not. Time will tell we are all hoping.

Fly safe.

A Day In The Life: Time to go to Work


 

 

As I approached this idea to write about “a day in the life” I figured it best to take the “average” day.  As most of my trips (about 75% of them) have a sign on time in Hong Kong between 10pm and midnight, I will write about one of those days.  

 

One of the most important things when considering starting a flight after 10pm that will last anywhere from 8-14 hours or sometime more, is proper rest. So when I’m going to bed the night before I go to work, I usually set my alarm for around 700am.  I find it important to wake up nice and early with some sort of physical activity for the morning.  Usually this involved a workout with Impact Fitness of Hong Kong.  By the time an intense workout is over at about 930 I return home for yet another important part of the work day.  A good breakfast.  It can be a very uncomfortable flight if you have eaten large, rich meals all day before going to work late at night.  Not only can it be physically uncomfortable, but a full stomach also (for me anyway) really makes me want to go to sleep, especially when its near midnight.  So for breakfast, usually a fresh fruit/spinach smoothie, or maybe a couple of eggs, avocado, and a decaf coffee.  Decaf is important, along with waking up early for a common reason which I will get too.  The next few hours can vary, sometimes we will take the dogs to the beach, or the waterfall, or do some errands in the town center of Mui Wo.  Those few hours can also be as simple as taking the dogs for a walk and relaxing at home and catching up on some North American TV.  When that comes to an end, I will usually take care of all my “pre-flight” activities.  I pack my suitcase, get my uniform ready, and review the route for the evening with our company port pages and route briefings.  The port pages are a 4-12 page document that detail everything there is to know about a given airport.  Terrain considerations, speed restrictions, Low Visibility Operations capability, even as detailed as to which taxiways our large 747-8 can taxi on (Vancouver as an example has many taxiways that are not certified for a plane of that size).  The route briefings are just that, a 8-12 page document that detail ATC requirements, typical weather patters for a given region, communications procedures, and others, so that before heading out on a given flight, between the port pages and route briefings, we can have an excellent understanding of a new route, or a good review of a route we frequent.  So with those notes done, and my luggage packed, I will either look at the bus schedule or arrange for a taxi.  Generally the ride from my village to the airport is about 40 minutes.  Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it usually offers a nice view crossing the mountain range on Lantau Island.  

 

So off to bed.  My pre flight nap.  The light breakfast/decaf coffee, along with waking up early in the morning and working out, usually yield a little fatigue for me by mid afternoon.  This is the perfect scenario.  I close the blackout blinds, put in ear plugs and head for bed.  I usually set an alarm for 3-4 hours later depending on how tired I am.  If I sleep for the whole time, great!  If I wake up after 2 hours, well that is just my body telling me I’ve had enough sleep.  So when I wake up I am usually greeted with my wife having prepared a nice dinner for me.  Again eating lighter foods, and smaller portions are key for me.  If I have a big heavy, rich meal, I get to work and just want to crawl into bed.  If I have a smaller meal that is healthier, I remain energetic when it comes time to report for work.  So after dinner, I will relax with the dogs and my wife.  Take the dogs for a walk, and then check the airline’s employee web site for the first version of our Computer Flight Plan.  Usually within about 5 hours of the departure time, there will be an initial flight plan generated.  Sometimes these plans will change, usually just the Zero Fuel Weight as passenger/cargo loads can change.  So once I have downloaded the 60 plus page document onto m iPad, I start with the basics.  First things first.  Check the aircraft registration, the type (can be one of five different types: 747-400 passenger, 400 freighter, 400 Extended Range Freighter, 400 Boeing Converted freighter, and of course the 747-8F) of which there are three different engine types.  So there are some numbers (weights, and engine temperature limits are the most relevant) that need to be reviewed once we know which plane we will be operating.  

 

Next I check the fuel information.  I cross check all the numbers with the total fuel required and then add the zero fuel weight to get a ramp weight.  These figures are all on the flight plan, but of course we double check them before each flight.  From those calculations we can get our takeoff and landing weights to ensure they are within the operating limits.  For those interested, the maximum takeoff weight of the 747-8F is 447,695 kgs.  Or just under 985,000 pounds.  Quite impressive in my opinion.  

 

With all my preflight notes complete, its shower, change, and head to work.  I like to arrive about 30-45 minutes before sign on time to make sure I am well prepared, and just in case there are some traffic problems I have a built in buffer.  

 

So arrival at work.  We scan into Cathay City with our crew id cards and head to the storage room next to flight planning where I leave my suitcase until it’s time to head to the plane.  The room is quite large, and accommodates several wide body crews (up to 21 of us on a 747-400 passenger flight).  Off to the bathroom to quickly get into my uniform shirt.  The Hong Kong summers are too hot to make the commute to work in a uniform shirt, so I usually wear a T-shirt and then make the change into a freshly ironed shirt once I am at CX City.  With that, it’s onto the briefing tables.  Cathay has a nice set up where each flight has it’s own table or counter with our documents bag.  In here we find the binders with all relevant port pages and airport charts for the route.  We also add a few house keeping items.  Ear plugs, sanitary wipes, screen wipes, replacement earmuffs for the headset, and of course, Evian facial spray to help stay moisturized in the dry air of a pressurized airplane.  Once “the shopping” is done, I double check that the paperwork matches the online information that I looked at earlier.  It is around now when the other crew members arrive and we all introduce ourselves, or catch up with someone we may have flown with before.  It is quite common that there will be some changes to the load (passengers or cargo) at this point, or perhaps the aircraft tail number we will be flying, if there has been a maintenance issue with the planned airplane.  Once we take note of any changes, the crew decide on a fuel load.  If all things are as planned and there are no outstanding contingencies, we will take flight planned fuel.  Our flight plan fuel covers virtually all contingencies enroute (weather, traffic, etc.) as well as an additional percentage to cover us in case there are more things to deal with on our flight.  Generally speaking flight planned fuel is enough, but occasionally we will increase that fuel if the weather at the arrival end is questionable.  Even with an ok forecast at out arrival airport, we can take advantage of other clues to see if the weather will in fact be as advertised.  The most common example is returning to Hong Kong, with say Shenzhen as our alternate.  Perhaps Hong Kong has some thunderstorms in the forecast, but Shenzhen does not.  So using Shenzhen as the alternate is legal, but when you look at Macau, and Guangzhou weather, you see they are both forecasting thunderstorms.  All of these airports are within about 20 miles of each other, so it is likely that some extra gas will be needed.  

 

Ok, so fuel is decided.  Off to the airplane.  We clear customs and security right in our building next to flight planning.  We jump on a crew bus and make the 5 minute drive to the airport.  Depending on the gate, or cargo position we are parked at, we are usually at the plane within another 5 minutes.  Collect our bags, and make our way up the stairs to the main deck.  In the freighter we leave our suitcase on the main deck near the L1 door, where cargo handlers will strap them down next to the sidewall in the midst of 100 plus tons of cargo.  On a passenger flight, we can check out bags right at Cathay City and they are loaded in the belly just like everyone else’s bags.  Up to the cockpit now and we all sort our belongings and start with job number one.  The Captain will go through the Log Book.  ANy outstanding defects or operational notes we need to consider?  Hopefully not.  For the most part these “snags” are dealt with whenever the aircraft has some down time between sectors.  Of course if there is a serious matter, they are dealt with immediately.  When all the information in reviewed in the Log Book, we then start our duties.  The pilot flying for the sector will begin initializing the FMC and ACARS, while the monitoring pilot will go do a walk around.  Big or small, every plane needs a walk around by one of the flight crew.  Me?  Well the second officer has the responsibility of a cockpit pre flight check.  It is a basic run down of all the equipment on board.  From cockpit voice recorders, to life vests, to escape harnesses.  The freighter aircraft adds more of the safety equipment that normally falls under the duties of a flight attendant (life rafts, portable oxygen masks, etc).  Once that is done, it’s time for the easy part.  Make the beds.  Both the freighters and passenger 747’s have two beds for in flight crew rest.  

 

When that is done.  We all assemble back in the cockpit.  I usually start a pot of coffee if I am on a cargo flight, and grab some bottles of water for the Captain and FO.  When we are back up front, the cockpit set up is finished.  Our final zero fuel weight arrives via ACARS and we enter the current weather information and send for our Take Off Data for the day.  We obtain our IFR clearance, enter the data into the CDU for the flight, and then we are ready for pushback and start up.  Throughout all that my role as a Second Officer is basically just support and an extra set of eyes.  

 

Next comes the fun part.  Taxiing our for takeoff you get a real sense of the size of the 747, especially when you pass any other airplanes.  With the exception of the A380, the 747 dwarfs other airplanes.  A large wide body like the A330 doesn’t even compare to the length and height of a 747.  It’s a cool feeling considering the last airplane I was a crew member on had a prop clearance of less then 12 inches.  Once on the takeoff roll, it doesn’t take long for the mighty 747 to reach takeoff speed.  Despite being more then 800,000 pounds, or just shy of a million pounds in the case of the 747-8F, Boeing and GE/Pratt Whitney, and Rolls Royce have teamed up to make an airframe, wing, power plant combination that would defy what the Wright Brothers first envisioned possible when it came to powered flight.  Even at the heaviest weights, we reach a cruise altitude of 31,000 feet (typically) in around 20 minutes or less.  With an economic cruise speed of around Mach 0.83, the 747 is almost climbing at that speed through the final segment, and rarely needs any time to accelerate.  My old metro, at a heavy weight, might be climbing at 140 knots when leveling at 21,000 feet, and would take 10 minutes to reach a cruising speed of 190 knots indicated airspeed.  

 

So with the plane set up in cruise, we have a few house keeping items to take care of.  By this time I will have jumped in the right or left hand seat depending on who is ready for sleep first.  Fill out a bit of information in the ACARS for the closing report that will come at the end of the flight.  Next, enter the step climbs as they appear on the flight plan into the CDU.  This gives our FMC (the brain of the airplane) an accurate plan for our flight when it comes to calculating fuel used and time to our arrival airport.  Once the house keeping items, the next thing to do is get some enroute weather.  When departing for Anchorage, the first airports that we obtain weather for are usually Taipei, Naha (Okinawa), Fukuoka and Osaka.  These are basically the major airports on our route at intervals of about 45 minutes to an hour.  The reason for checking weather at airports we have no intention of flying to?  Well once the ACARS prints out the latest METAR’s we check to see if there would be any reason that we could not land there in the event of an emergency.  We also go over the NOTAM’s (which we checked before the flight) for those airports for a quick reminder on the relevant info.  So if we know there are no NOTAMS restricting a landing, and the weather is good to support a landing, then we file that in our minds as good to go “in case of”.  In case of what?  Well a cargo fire is the most time critical situation, and if that occurs, we take immediate action to head to one of these airports.  Engine failures and depressurization are also critical situations, but mostly when it comes to fuel.  Depressurizing is the most fuel critical situation, as we have to descend to a breathable flight level (FL140) where our engines are less efficient per nautical mile flown.  In both these cases however, we more then likely would not divert to the closest airport.  It is a very situation specific.  If we had a simple engine flameout, we can consider continuing all the way to the destination (especially if the destination is Hong Kong).  Once an event has occurred and has been dealt with, we will communicate with the company and then make the best decision for the situation.  

 

Ok, so we are cruising happily along with all the house keeping done, and with good situational awareness as to where to go in the case of an emergency.  Here comes the boring part.  For the next several hours, the job basically consists of monitoring the radio and making frequency changes as we cross FIR boundaries.  Hourly, we make a fuel check to cross check flight planned fuel burn vs actual fuel burn.  The 747-8 typically makes gas on a long haul flight.  That is, burns less gas then the flight plan predicts so on our arrival, we have “made” more gas to use in the event of a diversion or holding time.  

 

Lets fast forward to the last 90 minutes or so.  Prior to the top of descent, we will review the planned arrival into our destination based on the latest ATIS for the airport.  Based on our landing weight, we assess our landing performance via a Landing Data request sent via ACARS.  A quick review of the aircraft status (in case any systems have failed or downgraded during the flight) and we are ready to descend and make our approach to landing.  

 

By this time, as the Second Officer, I am comfortably in my observer seat, watching the more senior crew do their thing.  Again I am an extra set of eyes and ears, and there for support.  Once on the ground and parked, its simple again for me as the So, put the documents away, file a bit of paperwork.  We leave the plane for customs, and hopefully without too much delay, we are on our way to the hotel.  Check in, receive our per diems, and get up to the room.  

 

That is all for this installment.  

 

Fly Safe.

Game Plan


A Day in the Life

 

After reading a few other blog posts related to the aviation business, I thought it would be fun (for me at least) to start a small mini series of “a day in the life”.  I would like to think there are people out there who are curious about the life of an airline pilot, both on, and off the job.  So what I have come up with is to write a series of posts on the following:

 

A day in the Life: Day Off – what does the typical day hold for an expat in Hong Kong?  What is different then home in Canada, and what is the same?  Just a few of the questions to be answered. 

 

A day in the Life: Time to go to Work – the job begins when I get to the airport, but the preparation starts hours earlier.  A daily routine before a long haul flight is very important and can make an all night challenge to stay awake, much easier if a few things are followed.  So before I even start thinking about work, there are some must do’s to prepare.  Then of course once I am in “work mode” I need to prepare for the flight of the day.  

 

A day in the Life: Layover – One of the several perks about this job is that we get to spend 24-48 hours or more in some amazing places that we might not get to see otherwise.  Virtually everywhere I have flown too has some unique experiences, so I will try and highlight some of these things in the various cities I have flown too.  Those cities include, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Anchorage, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  I will also discuss the routine while away from home to make sure I am rested, and prepared for the long flight home to Hong Kong.

 

I may also include:

A day in the Life: Recovery Day – obviously after a long haul flight crossing many time zones, through all hours of the day or night, it can be a challenge to re-acclimatize to a “Hong Kong Body Clock”.  I will discuss some of my routines to help with this, as well as what I find works best when on a “super compact roster” where I return to Hong Kong with around 24-36 hours, before departing on another long haul flight.    

 

I hope this has some interest to some of my readers, and will be working on these posts over the next few days, so please stay tuned.  In the meantime, I hope everyone has enjoyed the Labour Day weekend in North America. 

 

Fly Safe