Friday, June 11, 2010

Manifest Destiny

Family vacations these days mean lots of 737 time, in the back. And since the FAA seems to be in no particular hurry to grant me a medical certificate (150+ pages of "normal" evidently not being enough), and since we do not have any soaring weather predicted until next week, 737 time is all I'm going to get.

My daughter is a little bit of an airplane nerd. As we settled in for the first leg, she asked "How much does the airplane weight right now?" What a great question from a 7th grader!

"Oh, I don't know, maybe 120,000 pounds. We'll ask in the cockpit after we land."

So we settled in with our books and iPods and watched the scenery go by. For the life of me I can't explain why before an airline trip I go to Flight Aware and get our clearance (I do it on my iPhone, and take a screen capture of yesterday's route), so I sometimes look out the window and pretend to navigate. Back in the VOR days (Doesn't that make me sound old? How about "Back in the days of the four-course range..."?) you might actually spot a VOR, but now we pass RNAV waypoints like KAADE that are really defined as x-, y-, and z-coordinates in an Earth Centered-Earth Fixed coordinate system.

As we filed out of the 737 she got shy so I went to the cockpit by myself. Only the FO remained.

"Do you happen to remember our takeoff weight? My daughter, who is getting shy, wanted to know. And I had a guess."

"What was your guess?"

"About 120."

"Not bad." He started to go through the little bag of trash that airline pilots always manage to leave behind. "Here, here's our loading schedule. It was 125,658 pounds. You should have bet her!"

He handed me the loading schedule. "Keep it," he said, "And, oh, here's our dispatch, keep that, too."

During my days flying Part 135 I was a perhaps too much of a stickler for paperwork. "Pilots get busted for paperwork," I told everyone, "so protect yourself." Our systems were manual and more than cumbersome. You had to get the aircraft configuration out of the maintenance log, enter that onto the manifest, read off the empty weight and empty moment, and then start the weight-and-balance calculation. If the maintenance log didn't agree with the manifest, the FAA could bust you. If you were over maximum zero fuel weight, the FAA could bust you. If your listed takeoff time happened to be a time when the field was below minimums (another complex calculation), the FAA could bust you. As check airman I made sure that everyone did this all correctly, once, but who knew what happened when I wasn't watching?

I kept trying to design new forms that pilots would actually use. There was a "Life Flight Shift Briefing" form, which summarized weather at our typical destinations, MEL items, and the like. Looking at it now (I changed the names to protect the innocent) it seems rather simple. But nobody used it. Nor did they use the passenger briefing cards, flight planning forms, duty time calculators, altitude optimizers, or any of the other stuff.

(To make up for this, I did a monthly newsletter with the subtitle All flying, no paperwork that covered emergencies, weather, and other techniques. People read that one. It was the precursor to this blog.)

This airline gave the pilots everything I would have wanted. ICAO and FAA flight plans. Mode S transponder code. Minimum Equipment List items. Fuel planning. Takeoff and landing data. A navigation log, just like the ones you did as a student pilot. Information comparing terrain to service ceiling. Plus company contact information and company NOTAMs.

A person could get used to flying that way. Even if it is from somewhere in the back.

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