Thursday, January 9, 2014

One Million Dollars

In the Austin Powers movies Dr. Evil, hopelessly behind the times, wants to hold the world at ransom for [pause] One Million Dollars.  The joke is that that's not much, but for me and probably you that is a very large amount of money.  Even for an airline, that is a very large amount of money.

A recent story in Aviation Week and Space Technology caught my eye and reinforces my tendency toward acquiring lots of data and acting rationally.

An unnamed airline was operating  a flight from the West Coast of the USA to Europe.  (I was once a passenger on a Boeing 747SP from London Heathrow to KLAX; this is a long flight!  For me, with clear skies and daylight all the way, it was a spectacular flight, allowing me to see Iceland, Greenland, and Hudson's Bay.) This crew got a "Low Tire Pressure" warning somewhere over the USA.

These days every automobile service center is familiar with these warnings.  When the weather gets cold lots of cars get these warnings, by simple physics: a 25 degree Celsius temperature drop from close to standard is, directly, a 10% drop in pressure.  So when the temperature drops from summer's 30C to winter's 5C the colder tires really have lower pressure.

Presumably the engineers who design these sensors for aircraft compensate for the expected pressure change of 30% when an airplane leaves 30C KLAX and climbs to the -50C stratosphere.  This tire was genuinely leaking.

The airline's maintenance department took several pressure readings at 20 minute intervals to determine the leak rate, and calculated (that's the word I like!) that the tire would be flat on arrival in Europe.  This didn't worry them operationally, but someone remembered that every time an airplane landed in Europe with a flat tire it cost the airline $1,000,000.

With this information the dispatchers suggested that the airplane land while still in the USA, while the tire still had air.  The crew did so, the tire got fixed, and the passengers were on their way after a small delay. This was probably another complex calculation: find a maintenance base with a tire available that was far enough along so that the airplane was below its maximum landing weight.

The airline saved $1,000,000.

Now one of my mottoes (see the sidebar to the right) is that a pilot should never think about money while in the air, but with an outcome like this I conclude that it was a good decision.  So I suppose I need to update my motto?


At January 10, 2014 at 1:51 PM , Anonymous Shamim said...

Hi Jim, I think your motto is still OK, since it was the dispatcher and/or maintenance that were thinking about the money and not the pilot.

What is the $1M flat-tyre fee? Is it a JAA fine or required maintenance if you land with a flat tyre?

At January 27, 2014 at 3:58 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm new here. I've been plowing my way through some older posts but I like the operational logic embedded in this one: Fly for a while, fix the tire, eat the modest delay and avoid that hefty fine. Yes, $1M is a lot, even for a deep-pocketed airline.
I like what I read here and I'll be back. I know your region and lived there for a bit, many years ago; you are a most fortunate fellow. It it matters, my first small airplane flight was from/to Brigham City, 17/35 @4229 feet. I rode right seat in a government owned/operated BEAVER on wheeled floats. It was a bogus flight, for my benefit after adding a little oil through the filler at my left knee. I was all of 13, perhaps pushing 14 at the time. "N-whatever approaching departure from 35 for a local circuit and landing," heard the pilot say. The huge radial engine roared and within seconds we we were FLYING. A quick loop to the east, over my home, the pilot's and all of the landmarks that we knew led us to an approach to RWY 35 again. When the last turn and the approach began, I was told to be quiet! I sat in absolute wonder as Horton fiddled with the throttle, the prop pitch, fuel mixture and aggressively pumped in some flaps. Landing that airplane, a huge monster with only one engine, sitting on huge floats with tiny wheels below them, was not a joke and not a routine event. I clearly recall an unexpected tilt and an off-center aiming point. I'd been silenced and I sat, mute. Not terrified or even fearful, just curious. Why is he flying these unexpected shapes? During our brief flight, I had been given the control yolk once, a cumbersome event in an early Beaver!! I made one of the important turns, managed to maintain altitude and felt the response from the rudder pedals. Was the seat full forward and did I stretch to reach the pedals? Of course! IT took several tries just to get me into the five-point seat belt! Horton recovered the controls and announced his approach to Rwy 35. I hear two others give grace and wish him well, landing on wheeled floats with a very heavy single. I never learned much about Horton's flying history, but he was a master. He greased it, just a hint of a directional tweak when we landed. I was hooked!
In slightly later years, I flew with Horton several more times. We flew into the wilds of Alberta, Canada to survey waterfowl, several times. Sometimes it was ground work and often a fly-over in the 'pot-hole' regions of Canada. Ha-ha... Still in my teens, I became an 'Advanced' Surveyor of Waterfowl and learned to use both my Mark-1 eyeballs and several high end camera systems. Before moving on, I logged close to 250 hours in than noisy airplane, Horton always at the controls. Save that brief first flight, I never again had the yolk, but Horton always landed us where we were supposed to be. He NEVER even warmed up the airplane if he did not like the weather and no one, not even the project chief ever questioned him; we flew and worked in good weather and when Horton said 'No,' there was no quibble; we did a few surveys on foot!
Horton is long gone. I still do not know much about his flying history beyond commercial, instrument and float tickets. What I do know is that he was a safe master of his profession. I do not know this as fact, but Horton probably flew multiple missions during the European War. He was age appropriate and seemed to know how to defend his airplane and keep his friends safe. When I pass through Box Elder County and Cache County, I think of pilots. It is a difficult place to fly, yet a wonderful one.


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