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Thunderstorms and Go Arounds

This day was a ‘four sector’ day again, so it would be a long day for me. In the middle of the day the rest of my crew changed. The first two flights were more or less uneventful and we had a nice flight over the Swedish coastline. The ground handling in Germany was pretty efficient but due to the large amount of baggage we still departed with a delay of around 15 minutes. While 15 minutes is not much, it is hard to catch up this delay as the time on the ground between flights is very short. Also it is virtually impossible to catch up and time during flight – on a flight duration of one hour thirty flying at maximum speed will usually reduce the flight time by one or two minutes only. While on the ground in Germany I reviewed the forecasted weather for the last two flights. There was a forecast of occasional thunderstorm activity. I agreed with my next first officer to uplift around 800kg of extra fuel on the phone. When we arrived in Oslo the next crew was already waiting in the jet bridge.

I briefed the first officer about the technical status of the aircraft and about the weather situation. I haven’t flown with that specific first officer yet, but he was highly experienced. He had many more flight hours than I have and could have upgraded to Captain already many years ago, but he prefers the lifestyle of a first officer. Most people want to become Captain as soon as they can, but I can fully understand his motive. In one way it is very nice to have your own command and to be responsible for the operation, but it can also generate a lot of headache as well – whenever something goes wrong everybody will be questioning the Captain. In a way it’s a question of personality and personal preference. We didn’t make up any delay but we were soon on our way to our destination in Poland. As I hadn’t flown to this specific destination before I wanted to be pilot flying for the first flight, which the first officer accepted. When we approached the destination area we saw a lot of thunderstorm activity. We arranged with air traffic control to fly around the storm clouds. When we crossed in the vicinity of the thunderstorms it was very turbulent. As we got closer to our destination we saw that there was a lot of thunderstorm activity quite close to the approach. I even considered to cross the airport and approach from the south to avoid the thunderstorms, but in the end and with the help of my first officer we found a gap between the storms on the northern side of the airfield. It was still raining heavily, so I turned the ignition system for the engines on. Jet engines, different from petrol engines (as used in many cars), don’t need a continuous ignition spark under normal conditions, but in heavy rain a jet engine can experience a condition know as ‘flame out’, which causes the engine to fail. This can usually be avoided by having the ignition system turned on.

We finally broke out of the clouds and got a clear view of the runway. I was relieved that we managed to find a gap in the storms to do an approach. Everything was normal now, so I disconnected the autopilot for landing. We were surprised when the tower controller told us to ‘go around, climb on runway heading’. We did not know why this instruction was issued, but I assumed it probably had something to do with the thunderstorm. Anyway, there was not time to ask any questions, so we immediately complied with this instruction and performed a missed approach. This is trained many times in the simulator and is considered a normal maneuver, but it is rarely done. During my career I had a total of five go arounds, this one was the first one after I became Captain last year. We pushed the thrust lever forward the engines responded and we were pushed back into our seats. I engaged the autopilot again – in situations of high workload like an unexpected go around it removes the workload of manually managing the flight path so we could focus on our navigation and following the procedure correctly. We managed to keep up good teamwork. We established the airplane at a safe altitude clear of the thunderstorms. In the meantime we had been transferred to an other controller and we now asked about the reason for the go around. He didn’t know yet and told us to expect an ‘undetermined delay’. Not good. I was very happy now that I took 800kg of extra fuel. I made a short announcement to calm the passengers. Air Traffic Control asked us to climb by another 2000ft, to 6000ft. The first officer remarked ‘the weather seems to be better down here – you want me to ask him if we can stay at 4000?’. I agreed and the controller approved our request to maintain 4000ft. We negotiated our way through the storms with Air Traffic control and were told that the airport was open again. We started our approach, the tower controller told us that the reason for the previous go around was bird activity on the runway. We finally landed and boarded the airplane. There was a new ramp agent (person in charge of all the ground activities) who was being trained by an experienced colleague. I discussed the loading with them and we could manage the ‘turn around’ very fast. However the thunderstorm had moved over the airport know and it was raining heavily. When we were ready to depart the rain had almost moved through but we were told that there was equipment on the runway to remove the huge amounts of standing water. After waiting an other 20 minutes we were finally cleared to depart, now with a total delay of around one hour thirty.

Thunderstorm on the way back from Poland

When we approached Oslo we saw some thunderstorms in the area once again. Cabin crew called us to inform about a passenger who was not feeling well, but it was not a life threatening situation. In consolation with the purser I decided to call for an ambulance after landing with our handling company. We passed an other thunderstorm during our approach and landed in Oslo after a very long day. We met the next crew who were now also late due to our late arrival. When we left a pigeon flew through the jet bridge and into the cockpit. The ramp agent managed to catch the pigeon and to let if fly outside. I was really happy to catch some sleep after this long day.

Finnair Airbus passing 2000ft/600m above us.

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Maximum Range

Apologize for not writing for a long time, but I had a few days off and was rather busy at home. I now started a new work period from Oslo. I was assigned a flight to Las Palmas on the Island of Gran Canaria. These kind of holiday flights are usually always fully booked. This flight is on limit of the range of the A320 and we were also supposed to fly to Las Palmas and back again during one day. This means that we would be working for 13 hours, which is the legal limit for day time flights. Under certain conditions this can be extended to 14 hours in advance by the company. The company agreed to apply this procedure, because a minor delay would otherwise put us over the limit. If there is a delay during the actual flight that could not be foreseen (for example due to weather or unusual airspace congestion) that Captain can increase this limit up to 15 hours after consulting with his crew. This option however requires a written report to the authority, so I try to avoid this option unless absolutely necessary.

When I received the flight plan I noticed that the company had already used all legal possibilities to improve our payload. Today we were both limited by tank capacity and Maximum Takeoff Weight. The minimum required fuel for our flight today would be 18700kg, which is exactly the published tank capacity of the A320. There is a possibility to have one or more additional tanks installed, however this is rather uncommon and our airplane today didn’t have them. With the full load of passengers we had an estimated takeoff weight 76.9 tons, 100kg short of the structural limit of 77 tons. We use a special application on our iPads to calculate the loading. When I entered the values that I estimated before the flight I discovered an other issue. Close to Maximum Takeoff Weight the aircraft is also limited by the Center of Gravity, i.e. the distribution of the loading [1]. With only a few bags the airplane would be too nose heavy, with too many bags the airplanes would be overweight. We only know the actual amount of passengers and checked in bags after the check in closes a short time before the flight, so we decided to wait and decided when we had some real figures. In these situations a decision has to be made to either leave passengers and their bags behind or to make a fuel stop. However making a fuel stop would have brought up the issue of maximum working times. A fuel stop adds around 1 hour of delay and because there will be an additional flight the maximum allowed flight time is reduced by 30 minutes – so in our situation a fuel stop would likely involve staying in a hotel in Gran Canaria and canceling or delaying the return flight by around 12 hours.

When we arrived at the airport we were told that many passengers were children and we had 153 bags, which was more than I anticipated. We put the values into our iPad App and noticed that we were exactly on the Center of Gravity limit and around 50kg below the maximum takeoff weight. However with our fuel load we would just be able to fly at the most economic speed, i.e. slower than normally and the company also used a procedure that enabled us to reduce the additional fuel carried, but meant that we had a Decision Point [2], over the Atlantic southwest of Portugal, at which we needed a minimum quantity of fuel. If we didn’t have it at this point we would have to divert to Faro in southern Portugal, if we had this quantity at this point we could continue to Las Palmas.

We departed at just under 77 tons and headed towards the UK. With our low speed against the headwind we expected a flight time of just under 6 hours. Air Traffic Control asked us a few time to speed up for the benefit of traffic behind us, but we managed to negotiate to continue at a slow speed and we also managed to maintain our altitude as close to optimum as possible. When we approached the decision point after around 4 hours flight time we noticed that it would be tight. We had already obtained the weather for our destination airport. I was a typical day in the canary islands, 25°C and generally good weather but strong winds. Our alternate airport was also useable. We passed the decision point with around 160kg more than we needed and estimated to land at the destination with around 200kg above the minimum required reserves, i.e. around 5 minutes of flying time. If there was some issue at the destination we still had to option of diverting to our alternate Tenerife and 30 minutes of ‘final reserve fuel’. Luckily there was not much traffic in Las Palmas and we landed in the strong winds in Las Palmas after just under 6 hours in the air. During our descend we got a nice view of the Teide volcano [3] on the neighboring island of Tenerife.

Mount Teide as seen from the aircraft

When we parked we had around 2400kg in the tanks, the minimum quantity to make the decision to go to Tenerife would have been 2200kg.

We felt a bit tired after this flight, but on the way back we only had around 150 passengers and also a tailwind, so we were not limited on that flight and added some extra fuel. Due to our slow speed on the first flight we had some delay now, but we could compensate for this by going faster on the way back. With the higher speed and the tailwind we estimated a flight time of under 5 hours. The sun set while we were crossing into Portuguese airspace, but once we travelled further north we could already see some light just after midnight. The sun below the horizon was illuminating some clouds which reflected the light. This phenomenon is known as noctilucent cloud [4].

Noctilucent clouds over the North Sea

When we landed the sun hadn’t risen yet, but it was already really bright at around 2am. After this long and exhausting day we were all happy to go to sleep.

[1] Center of Gravity
[2] Fuel Planing
[3] Mount Teide
[4] Noctilucent clouds

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Lovely morning flight to southern Europe

One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on how you see it) of my employer is that our airplanes are in many different places and therefore we change our place of work very often – I enjoy being in different spots as it never gets boring, but depending on your lifestyle it could be very annoying as well. Right now I am in Stockholm for the week, but I will be flying from Oslo again in July.

Today I am supposed to fly a morning ‘rotation’ (aviation language for a series of flights, in this case flying to the destination and then returning after a short while on the ground, typically around 45 minutes). When I checked the documents I noticed that one electrical generator is ‘deferred’, i.e. not working. It is very common to have ‘deferred items’ with practically all airlines. As commercial airliners are very complex machines it is unrealistic to avoid occasional component failures. Depending on the place and type of failure replacing the component immediately would mean major delays, great inconvenience to the passengers and massive costs to the airline. This is (among other reasons, most importantly safety) one of the reasons why airplanes are built with a lot of redundancy [1]. Many flight critical systems only need one component of a certain type to operate correctly, but the manufacturers usually install one or two backup systems. Even after their failure it would still be possible to fly the airplane to a safe landing, but would likely require a diversion. To regulate this airplane manufacturer publish a so called ‘Minimum Equipment List’ which needs to be approved by the authority [2]. The manufacturer needs to prove that a failure of a specific component will not reduce safety by analysis and tests (if the component is too critical it would be classified as ‘no dispatch’, i.e. the item would need to be fixed before the flight). There are also time limits until the defect needs to be rectified, in most cases 10 days, but there are other intervals as well. There may be additional limitations as well. The electrical system of the Airbus is very redundant. When everything is working normally two engine-driven generators generate the power for all systems, but one generator is able to take all the load. In addition there is also a similar generator that is driven by the ‘Auxiliary Power Unit’ (APU) [3], a small gas turbine in the back of the airplane. Normally the APU is shutdown in flight and is only used to generate electricity on the ground when the engines are shutdown. One generator (either an engine generator or the APU generator) is able to generate enough power to supply the whole network. In the highly unlikely event that all three generators fail at the same time there is an air-driven emergency generator (a small propeller under the fuselage) that, when deployed, can supply the essential loads so the airplane can still be controlled and landed [5]. With this amount of redundancy, safe operations can still be assured if one (of the three) generator is not working, but it requires some maintenance checks before each flight. There are also some items that we have to consider. If an engine driven generator is not working the APU needs to be running throughout the flight and we need to consider the additional fuel consumption in our calculations.

We decide to take some additional fuel for weather and decide to start boarding. Today we also have an animal among our passenger, a guide dog for a blind person. These kind of animals are allowed in the cabin. After a while we finally get on our way towards our sunny destination. We have an unusual routing today, leading us through the area controlled from Kaliningrad. It is the first time that I fly into Russian airspace. Unfortunately we are flying within a cloud layer so there is not much to see and it is also rather turbulent. Shortly before landing I make an announcement to the passengers informing them about our landing time and also that they can expect a lovely day, as its 26°C already and it’s still morning.

After landing we disembark the passengers and start fueling. We don’t have much time to enjoy the sunshine as our departure time is getting closer.

There is not much time to relax between flight. The table helps a lot with paperwork – most airplanes don’t have a table because the control column is in the way. The ‘side stick’ is mounted on the side console, so there is enough space for a table.

We prepare everything and after some new passengers are on board it’s time to head back to Stockholm. Austrian airspace is very busy today and we see a lot of airplanes, however it is very difficult to get a good picture due to the high speeds involved. I show the First Officer some small tricks that can be helpful. The clouds over northern Europe have disappeared and we get some gorgeous views of northern Poland and later on Sweden.

Northern coastline of Poland
View of the cockpit in flight. At this moment we were already cleared by Air Traffic control to start our descend to ‘FL290’, i.e. 29000ft. On the left screen below the altimeter (the indication that is showing 32960) you can read ‘FL290’ in blue, which mean that we inserted this altitude into our autopilot system.
Swedish coastline

Coming into Stockholm is a little bit turbulent – the winds are not so strong and the terrain is not really rough, but in summer is common to have to ‘thermals’ [4] if it is warm. The First Officer, who is Pilot Flying for this flight makes a very good landing and at the gate we are already greeted by the next crew who performs the afternoon flight. After a short talk about the technical status and the weather we move back to the hotel. The generator should probably be fixed during the night by the maintenance engineer. All in all, a lovely day at work.

[1] Center of Gravity
[2] Fuel Planing
[3] Mount Teide
[4] Noctilucent clouds

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Crew Ressource Management – how do we manage to work together?

Hey. I was thinking that some of you might be interested in an article about how we work together on the airplanes, what strategies and tools we use to create a nice working environment. I used to be an instructor for this subject in one of my former airlines, but unfortunately the company closed down and my current airline does not have any open instructor positions available at the moment, even though it is something that really interests me and I would like to give these kinds of trainings again in the future. It is a very complex topic and many books were written about it, so I only be able to give you some basic concepts and ideas how we work together in aviation, but if you are interested in these kinds of topics, you will find a lot more on the internet. Maybe some of the advise I give is useful for your personal life as well – after all, this article deals with human interaction and basically aviation psychology. You don’t have that in aviation only, you have it everywhere!

Introduction – what is CRM and how did it develop?

What is understood by the term ‘Crew Ressource Management’ (commonly abbreviated CRM)? Well the obvious answer is that it is a two day course when joining as a new crew member into new company required by law (there is also ‘recurrent CRM training’, which is a one day course required every year for each crew member). But how does it help us? To understand this we have to go back in history. In the 70’s aviation was not as safe as it is today. Accidents happened (relatively) often – technology was constantly improving and airplanes were becoming safer. One thing that could not be improved by the engineers was the human mind – the people working and airplanes did something wrong and despite good technology there were still accidents (usually called ‘pilot error’ in the media, even though that expression does not really give the full picture). Back then Captains were ‘skygods’ and nobody dared to question a Captain about his decisions. The First Officer was only there to follow the commands of the captain. However, no human is free of error. We all have bad days and make bad decisions from time to time. Maybe the first officer sees something that he knows or considers to be wrong and is just to afraid to speak up, eventually leading to an accident. Even if the First Officer spoke up, Captains regularly ignored valid concerns from First Officers or even shouted at him for questioning his authority.

Some smart pilots and psychologists came to the conclusion that the First Officer and in fact the whole crew are valuable assets that are not being utilized. This was the birth of CRM. Procedures were changed and are still constantly being updated and improved. The general concept proved so successful that it is now even used in medicine, especially in surgery. The first issue that was identified was a too steep gradient in the authority between the Captain and the First Officer, but the concept evolved and now includes a multitude of strategies to improve teamwork. While the Captain remained and still is the ‘last instance’ when it comes to decisions (and has full responsibility), the authority gradient was reduced. First Officers were empowered to speak up if they felt something was not right and Captains were asked to utilize not only the technical resources available to them, but also the human resources. Effective briefings were introduced, the Captains job changed from being ‘the infallible ace pilot’ to becoming an effective team leader. This not only includes the First Officer, but also the cabin crew members and in fact anybody working on or around the airplane. Safety and Crew Ressource Management start at the top level of an organization (i.e. with the CEO) and involve everybody. Even today you may feel that some people feel something is wrong, but they are just afraid to speak up to avoid embarrassment if they are wrong. This is especially true for inexperienced and young crew members.

Decision Making

There are several strategies that are part of CRM. For decision making most airlines use some acronym to make sure all aspects are considered and an optimal solution to an existing problem is found. Usually these processes are only ‘formalized’ when confronted with an abnormal or emergency situation, but I guess everybody guess through these processes when making a decision. A very common model used in aviation is FORDEC, an other one is DODAR. Some airlines consider it good practice (good CRM) to let the first officer do this briefing in an abnormal situation, with the final decision being made by the Captain. This was the Captain will get an honest opinion and maybe hear an option that he has not thought about himself (a new First Officer may be too afraid to speak up and only accepts the Captains decision). As there are many good explanations about FORDEC and DODAR around I will not explain these acronyms in detail. You can find an explanation about DODAR here http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:dodar and about FORDEC here http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:fordec So why do I tell you this? Because you can use it in your daily life too. You may be facing a difficult decision and a structured approach to that decision will make sure you do not miss anything important. It is very useful for finding the best rational solution, but obviously when emotions are involved it may not give you the best solution.

Communication

An other tool that is commonly used is NITS. This acronym helps to reduce communication errors in critical and stressful situations, by having a structured approach to communications. Initially it was used for communications between the pilots and the cabin crew in abnormal/situations only, but now it is also used for communications between pilots and Air Traffic Controllers in these situations, but its only implemented in some control areas until now (mostly UK and Central Europe). NITS means Nature (of the Problem/issue), Intentions, Time available and Special instructions. One example of a NITS briefing given by the Captain to the senior cabin crew in an abnormal situation would be ‘Nature of the problem is a technical malfunction of the anti ice system, my intention is to return back to our departure airport, time available is 10 minutes, special instruction expect a normal landing’. The senior cabin crew would then repeat back the message to make sure that everything was understood correctly. However as mentioned in the previous paragraph you can apply this concept as well in your private or professional life. When you are out with friends or your family you could for example say: ‘I am hungry, I would like to have dinner at the restaurant in 20 minutes, can you please reserve a table?’ Nature of the issue is ‘I am hungry’ my intention is to eat at the restaurant, the time available is 20 minutes and special instruction is to reserve a table. This example may be a bit unrealistic, but sticking to this general sequence of NITS gives structure to a statement and makes sure nothing is being forgotten.

Stress

One thing that causes airplane accidents are high stress levels. Pilots mismanage their workload or set the wrong priorities and the stress level rises (or external factors cause stress). Up to a certain point, it is beneficial for human performance to raise the stress level (this is understandable, while sitting on bored your coach watching Netflix your mental capacity will not be at peak level). After that point human performance drops sharply and leads to undesirable effects such like fixation (tunnel vision, seeing only one option while not realizing that there are better ones available). This effect was discovered in 1908 by Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson and is called the Yerkes-Dodson law, for details please find the link to the wikipedia article here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law When both pilots get to the point that they are overloaded and stressed the chance of an accident is rising. Therefore there should be strategies in place how to avoid getting to this point and if you get to that situation to recognize it and get yourself out of it again. I heard about one concept from one pilot working for an other airline, which was not used in any of the airlines I was working for until know, but which seems to be a good concept to keep track of the total stress level of the flight crew. It involved three colors, green, amber and red. Green basically means everything is normal, you are not feeling stressed and have enough mental capacity available to cope with additional stressors. Being in the amber area means you are stressed, you can still cope with the situation but if there is additional stress there is a chance to go to the red area which is basically being stressed and overloaded and not being able to effectively cope with the situation anymore. If you are in an airline that uses this concept you can notify your colleague if you enter the amber or red area, to make him aware. This enables him to potentially use his free mental capacity to reduce the workload and get his crew member ‘back into the loop’. For example it could mean temporarily taking over control of the airplane to allow the colleague to finish his open tasks. If both crew members are in the amber or red area it usually means slowing down and getting into a situation where you are able to get back to ‘normal’ (green). For example, during an approach it could mean to ask the Air Traffic Controller to abandon the approach and enter a holding pattern and regain situational awareness. If it happens on the ground it may just mean delaying the flight – I’d rather delay a flight than to depart in an overloaded state of mind. If finishing your work means missing the ‘slot’ (mentioned in an earlier post) that’s how it is. Obviously this takes a bit of character but in a good company, management will be supportive and prefer their crews to take the safest option even if it costs money.

I would like to give this post a personal note as well. I only recently became Captain, so obviously I’m still trying to improve but I will just give you an idea about some of the ideas how I try to forge a group of individuals into an effective team.

It is said that the first impression is important and it is. Usually I make a point of letting my crew members know during the initial briefing (when we first meet) that we are a team and if anybody has any questions or concerns he is more than welcome to approach me. I also welcome constructive criticism. I want to become a better pilot, but without honest feedback I may be doing the same mistake over and over again, so I see criticism as a chance not as an embarrassment or personal attack (as long as it is constructive). It is said that you learn something new in this job every day, which is or at least should be true, but in order to learn something new you have to have an open mind. I always invite the cabin crew to visit us in the cockpit during the cruise flight during their breaks, if they want to. Maybe they have some information that could be useful, but that they don’t consider important enough to give us a call. I try to be respectful of everybody I work with. I used to work as ground staff at an international airport and I know its a tough job, the salary is not great and depending on the ground handling company the amount of training provided to ground staff can be variable. So even if they make mistakes or seem to be lost I will always try to remain patient and explain as much as I can. I am actively encouraging my First Officers to let me know if they are not happy with anything I do – maybe it was my mistake our the First Officer has understood something wrong, either way if they don’t speak up if there is a difference both pilots will have a different mental model of the situation – which is not good and should be clarified.

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Visiting Dublin

This day was a bit exhausting, as I had to perform four flights. Usually we prefer two long flights over four short flights as the majority of the workload on a flight is during takeoff, landing and on the ground. Cruise flight is relatively relaxed. However my flight took my to Dublin, where I was living and working for two years in the past, when I was still a First Officer. I was excited to see the airport again. The routing took us very far north, flying over Scotland before turning southbound just before reaching northern Ireland near Belfast. I think I’ve never flown that far north over Scotland, but unfortunately it was cloudy and there was not too much to see. I told the First Officer, who was experienced but had never flown to Dublin before that there could be a lot of traffic at around 11 o’clock as many flights from Europe are arriving at that time and that we could be lucky to avoid the worst of it with our arrival time at 10 o’clock. In fact we got a very direct routing. During the approach we got a beautiful view of Howth peninsular which I pointed out to my first officer as well. When I was based in Dublin I have been in Howth many times and I personally consider it as one of the most beautiful places in the area. The village near the sea is very nice and gives the impression of a traditional village and there is a gorgeous view from the top of the island, especially at sunset and nice weather conditions. If you plan to visit Dublin, make sure to visit Howth, it’s really worth it!

As we were approaching the airfield we switched our radio to the Tower Controller, who is the Air Traffic Controller controlling the area in the close vicinity of the airport, I immediately recognized the voice. Although I have never met this controller before I have heard his (very charactaristic) voice many time over the radio when I was based in Dublin. I was actually tempted to ask him over the radio ‘Do you still recognize my voice? I was based here for two years’, but then I considered this to be unprofessional. Air Traffic Control frequencies are serious business and we are not supposed to discuss personal matters on the frequency – after all mistakes or misunderstood instructions can be dangerous. Everything was going well so far and everything was on time. That is until we asked for our en route clearance from Air Traffic Control. They told us that was had a Slot (called ‘CTOT’, Calculated Takeoff Time in pilot language) in one hour.

I promised in one of my previous posts already that I will give a more detailed explanation about slots. Every Air Traffic Control Sector has a limited capacity and the ‘CFMU’ (Central Flow Management unit) of Eurocontrol evaluates all flight plans that are filled and if it detects that one sector will be overloaded it will assign slots until the maximum of that sector is not exceeded anymore. This usually means delaying flights, by giving them a time window in which they can depart. Sector capacity can be reduced due to several reasons, for example technical problems in the control center, weather or Air Traffic Controller strike. If an airplane is ready before the given slot time it is possible to send a so called ‘ready message’. If an unexpected gap opens it may be possible that the slot comes forward to an earlier time or is canceled altogether, allowing for an earlier departure than originally expected. We are usually not told the exact cause for the slot, but in this case I suspected that the morning rush hour at around 11 o’clock was the cause here. I know that delays are never good news to passengers and therefore I suggested to the First Officer and the purser that we could use the waiting time to show the kids the cockpit. While on the ground with the doors open it is still possible to show people the cockpit and usually the people ready enjoy it. By the time we had finished all our preparations the slot moved forward by around 15 minutes. We agreed that the waiting time was not long enough to make this offer – if we were released to go earlier some kids would not be able to see the cockpit and would be disappointed.

Unfortunately the slot time did not move so we left with a big delay. On the way back we had some food and started already to prepare as much as possible for the next flight to Copenhagen, so we could minimize the ground time and maybe catch up a bit of the delay. We only had a very light passenger load for the short flight to Copenhagen so we checked if there was a possibility to ‘tanker’ fuel to save time. ‘Tankering’ fuel means uplifting enough fuel at one airport to fly to the destination and back without refueling at the airport. On longer flights or with a bigger passenger load this is usually not possible as the airplane manufacturer publishes a ‘maximum landing weight’ which could be exceeded in these cases. Today this was not the case and we decided to fill the airplane with 10 tons of fuel which would be enough to fly to Copenhagen and still have enough fuel to fly back to Oslo with all the legally required fuel reserves on board. We managed to get going pretty fast and were on our way to Oslo soon. Shortly after takeoff the purser came to the cockpit and informed me that a couple of passengers had a connecting flight and that it would be very tight for them due to our delay. We asked the ground handling agency over the radio where the other airplanes was parked any figured out that the passengers had a chance to make the connection, as it was not parked far away from our planed parking position.

After landing in Copenhagen we saved at least 10 minutes of time by not refueling. The First Officer was flying back to Oslo and we got some shortcuts from Air Traffic Control. We had a good teamwork and were happy to be back after a long day.

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Boeing 737MAX/Airbus Differences

Most of you are aware of the current issues that Boeing is having with the Boeing 737MAX. There is a lot of information on the media about this issue, but in this article I will focus on two things. This article is very technical, so if you are more interested in my personal experiences with flying, you might want to skip this one, but if you like technical details this could prove to be a good read.

First I want to talk about the fundamental differences in Boeings and Airbus design philosophy and in the second part I will explain the technical reasons behind the issues that the Boeing 737MAX is facing at the moment. I will try to start with the very basics and will try to simplify it as much as possible (so a few details may be “inaccurate” but I wanted to avoid going too much into detail), so everybody can follow this explanation.

Every airplane uses flight control surfaces on the wing and on the stabilizer (the “tail” of the airplane) for control. The surfaces on the wing are called ailerons and are used to roll/turn the airplane. The surface on the tail is called elevator and is used to control the airplane in pitch. These deflect the oncoming airstream and thereby generate a force that is then used to control the airplane. When the speed of the airplane is increased the stabilizer has to generate more upward force (called lift). This would require to pilot to constantly pull on the cockpit control which would be very tiring, therefore airplanes are equipped with a stabilizer trim which, depending on the design, either shifts the neutral point of the elevator (f.e. by the use of piece of ballast that is attached to the cockpit control and can be moved by trimming) or, on bigger airplanes, moves the whole stabilizer to generate more lift. The opposite is the case in the case of a speed reduction. In the very beginnings of aviation there was a direct connection from the control in the cockpit (control stick/wheel and rudder pedals) to the respective control surface, so moving the control in the cockpit mechanically moves the associated surface. This system is still being used on small airplanes that operate at low speeds. As aviation advanced and airplanes got heavier and faster the forces required to operate these surfaces increased as well and at some point exceeded human strength. Therefore airplane designers started to use hydraulic systems to assist the pilot in moving the flight control surfaces. The input on the cockpit control is sent to an hydraulic actuator on the corresponding surface to move it. This is the system that is in use on the Boeing 737 (and most, but not all, other aircraft of that era) since the first 737 was build in 1967. The Boeing 737 went through several major upgrades throughout its lifetime, and most systems are totally different nowadays compared to the original version, but this basic principle never changed.

Some military fighter jets designed in the mid-70s (for example the F-16) already had (very basic) computers that were processing the pilots input on the control stick, optimized these inputs and then send these modified inputs to the hydraulic actuators (this is called “fly-by-wire”). This concept proved very successful and Airbus decided to implement this (for the time) radically new approach on their Airbus A320 which was designed in the mid 80s. The Airbus system eliminates the need for pilots to manually trim the airplane as the computer automatically positions the stabilizer in the optimum position for the current speed, so with the cockpit control (Airbus calls the cockpit control “side stick”) released the airplane will maintain its orientation. If you release the control on a “conventional” airplane, for example on a Boeing 737 without trimming the airplane pitch will change until it reaches and eventually stabilizes at the speed for which the trim is set. An other feature that Airbus introduced were so called “hard” protections. These systems were designed to protect the airplane from over stress and critical conditions by limiting pilot authority at the edge of the flight envelope. Many accidents at this time were caused by pilot error which lost control of their airplanes for various reasons and this new approach was introduced to reduce the amount of these accidents. If you keep pulling back on the control column of a Boeing 737 the aircraft will (after giving you some warnings) eventually stall, which basically means that the wings are not able to generate enough lift to support the weight of the airplane and the airplane will start to loose altitude at a high rate and also loose a lot of control authority. At a low altitude this can be deadly and has caused many accidents. If you do the same on an Airbus A320 the computer will modify and reduce the pilots input, so that the airplane will be on the verge of stalling, but actually never enters a real stall, so altitude and control can be maintained. There are also several other protections in place in the Airbus system. This concept was initially met with great skepticism after all a bunch of computers (which was still a new invention in the 80’s) was limiting the authority of the pilot in a potentially critical condition. However the systems layout was very redundant from the start and became the standard over the years. For example, the aircraft has a total of five flight control computers, 2 “ELAC”s, short for Elevator-Aileron Computer (these are the “main” computers in charge of most control surfaces in normal conditions and each ELAC actually consists of two independent parts, that check the other parts computations and inhibits the computer in case of a discrepancy in computations) and 3 “SEC”s, short for Spoiler-Elevator computer. Even if four of these computers failed the pilots would still be able to maintain control through the remaining computer. Boeing eventually also developed a fly-by-wire system in the 90’s that is in use now on the Boeing 777 and Boeing 787, however the Boeing 737 is still conventional. The philosophy behind Boeings implementation of the Fly-by-wire system is different. I won’t go too much into detail, but Boeing features a “soft” protection system. They provide the pilots with clues that he is about the exceed the safe limits of the airplane (by indications on the displays, but also by tactile clues on the control column, which becomes “heavier” when limits are approached). The underlying philosophy is the Boeing is giving the pilot ultimate authority in any situation (for the good or the bad, as a disoriented or badly trained pilot might make a situation worse by exceeding safe limits) while Airbus is limiting the pilots authority to keep the airplane within a safe envelope.

The problems with the Boeing 737 MAX that Boeing is facing at the moment as caused by a system called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). Most modern airplanes (both the Airbus A320 and well as the Boeing 737) have their engines mounted beneath the wings. Because this location places them below the airplanes center of gravity the thrust output of the airplane has an effect on the pitch axis. If thrust if increased pitch tends to increase, if thrust is reduced pitch is reduced. This effect is particularly noticeable at low speeds, as seen during takeoff and landing. Airbus with its fly-by-wire system automatically compensates for this effect, however on the Boeing 737 there is a need to trim the stabilizer if there is a change in thrust. To help the pilots Boeing introduced a system called “Speed trim System” already during the early versions of the type. Under certain conditions this system would move the trim to reduce the need for the pilot to trim during takeoff and landing. When Boeing developed the Boeing 737 MAX the biggest and most noticeable change were the engines. The airplane was designed in 1967 for the engines in use at this time which were rather small so not a lot of emphasis was placed on ground clearance, actually it is an advantage to have to airplane closer to the ground, for example for baggage loading. The newest engines would not fit under the wing and lengthening the landing gear to archive a better ground clearance would have required Boeing to redesign many parts of the airplane and the re-certify them which would have been uneconomical. Therefore the engines were placed further forward and closer to the wing, so that they could still be mounted onto the airframe. One undesired side effect of this was that the effect of thrust changes was more pronounced than on earlier versions of the Boeing 737. This effect was so strong in certain situations that it could not be certified without some additional system in place, so Boeing developed the MCAS system which would enhance the speed trim system. However for some reason Boeing based this system on a single sensor which, if giving an erroneous high reading, would result in the stabilizer trim running in the nose down direction until the mechanical stop of the system. With the stabilizer trim in the full nose down position there is not enough authority by the elevator to maintain control of the aircraft and the aircraft will nose-dive into the ground. The system used by Airbus is also based on sensor readings, however Airbus uses three sensors and has introduced a system that is able to detect and inhibit a single false sensor reading. If multiple sensors are unreliable on an A320 the system will revert to a more direct mode of operation and stop the automatic trimming. It is impossible to archive absolute safety, no matter what system is used but common sense would dictate that multiple sensors should be used for such a flight critical system, unlike the system that was in use on the Boeing 737MAX until now.

Boeing has updated the software by now and is working with the authorities to find a solution to re-certify the airplane. One of the changes is that the system now uses two sensors for MCAS activation and that generally the authority of the system is reduced. Obviously after two accidents it will take a while to satisfy the authorities and the public that the airplane will be flying safely after the upgrades. If you are interested in the details of the changes that are being introduced by Boeing, you may want to have a look at their website: https://www.boeing.com/commercial/737max/737-max-update.page

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Jet streams – how wind can affect an aircraft

Recently I did one more flight from Oslo to Spain, which proved to be interesting. The day started a bit rushed as the shuttle bus from the hotel to the airport was overfilled and we could not take the bus we originally wanted and therefore were already slightly late when we arrived at the airport. However, my crew was very experienced and we managed to finish our preparations in time, however the boarding took longer than expected as a lot of people brought some very big items of cabin baggage which had to be stowed into the cargo compartment during the boarding and so we left Oslo with a delay of around 10 minutes. I was flying with the same First Officer as I did a few days ago and this time it was his turn to start as ‘Pilot flying’ while I would be ‘Pilot flying’ for the way back to Oslo. As the ‘Pilot Monitoring’ on the first flight it was my duty to conduct the so called ‘walk around’, which is a visual inspection of the exterior condition of the airplane for any obvious damage or other defects that is performed before each flight. It was raining heavily so I was soaked when I finally arrived in the cockpit again. According to our flight plan we were to expect an average of 65 knots (120km/h) headwind on the first flight, which added around 10 minutes of flight time. These so called ‘Jet streams’ are quite common and can sometimes be turbulent, but today we were lucky and managed to have a smooth ride. As the airplane was very heavy, being full with passengers, bags and fuel, we were initially limited to a relatively low altitude. We initially climbed to FL340, which is 34000ft (in pilots speak we remove the last two Zeros from the altitude in feet and call the result flight level – we only do this above a certain altitude, called transition altitude which is different from airport to airport). We could have barely made FL360 as well, but the French and Spanish Air Traffic Control uses a slightly different altitude allocation system than other countries, so once we reached French airspace we would be expected to move to an ‘odd’ level, either FL330, FL350 oder FL370. As we would be to heavy to climb to FL370 by the time we reached French airspace I discussed with the First Officer to stay at FL340 and then climb to FL350, instead of climbing to FL360 right away only to descend back to FL350 later on. Once over France, I checked the forecasted wind conditions one more time during the flight and noticed that we were right in the core of the jet stream at our current altitude (as expected we were asked to climb to FL350 at the French border) and that the wind should reduce by around 20 knots (around 40km/h) if we climb by 2000ft (600m). I showed this information to the First Officer on my iPad and asked him about his thoughts. He agreed that once we had used enough fuel to be able to climb to FL370 we should try to climb out of the core of the jet stream to save time and fuel. We had finally burned enough fuel and were light enough just after passing Paris and asked the friendly air traffic controller to climb to FL370, which he approved. Before starting the climb I noted down the current ‘ground speed’ to see how much faster we would get by climbing out of the headwind. We were both disappointed when we found out that the forecast was inaccurate and we actually even slowed down slightly by climbing. After landing we swapped the ‘Pilot flying’/’Pilot monitoring’ duties and prepared for the flight back to Oslo.

We were delayed by Air Traffic Control that informed us that we had a so called ‘slot’, a time window in which we had to depart. These ‘slots’ are issued and coordinated by the agency ‘Eurocontrol’. I will give you some more information about slots in one of my next posts. When we finally took of we were around 45 minutes late. This time there were a lot of thunderstorms over Italy, but luckily they were far to the east of our route and therefore they were not affecting us at all. It was not cloudy today, so we got a great view of Lake Geneva while crossing the alps.

The alps and lake Geneva

The headwind from the first flight obviously became a tailwind for our flight back to Oslo. When we passed the alps we noticed a special type of cloud, called lenticularis cloud (they are named like this because they look like lentils). These clouds are an indicator of a phenomenon called ‘mountain wave’. ‘Mountain wave’ can only occur under very special conditions, when a strong wind hits a ridge of mountains. This will cause the air behind the ridge to move up and down in a wave pattern. This can cause very strong up- and downdrafts, but generally a flight in mountain wave is very smooth. Skilled glider pilots have used this phenomenon to soar to great heights by using the updraft generated by the wave.

Lenticularis clouds above the alps in very strong wind conditions. Notice their smooth appearance compared to the other clouds visible on the picture.

The flight was progressing well and surprisingly we hardly encountered any turbulence in the jet stream. As we were still running late I decided to increase the speed to save some time at the expense of a slightly higher fuel consumption. I had just finished my meal over Denmark and was having a conversation with the first officer when I noticed the engines spooling down slightly (It would be very tiring and inefficient for one pilot to always control the airplane manually during long periods of cruise flight, the airplane is controlled by the autopilot and auto thrust system. The auto thrust works like a cruise control on a car, i.e. maintains a preselected or computed speed by changing the thrust setting of the engines). This made me look at the speed scale on my Primary Flight Display, short PFD. This screen displays all essential parameters necessary to control the aircraft and to monitor the autopilot. The auto thrust was supposed to maintain a ‘Mach Number’ (Speed measured as percentage of the speed of sound, Mach .80 means that the airplane is traveling at 80% of the speed of sound) of .80 instead of the usual cruise speed of Mach .78 as I had increased the speed to reduce the delay. The speed had increased to Mach .81 and I saw that it was still increasing even though the auto thrust system had already reduced the thrust. The maximum allowed Mach number for an A320 is Mach .82 – exceeding this Mach number by a small amount is not immediately dangerous, but – depending on the exact amount of exeedance – may require a maintenance inspection before the next flight and also needs to be reported to our safety department. During the certification of the aircraft type very brave test pilots have to prove during a test flight that the aircraft can fly up to the ‘design dive speed/mach number’ (called Vd/Md in manuals), which is Mach .89 for the A320. As you can see there is a lot a margin involved in airplane design, but we will never intentionally use this margin, as it is there for a reason. I instinctively reached to the control panel for the auto thrust system and reduced the selected Mach number to Mach .76, so the auto thrust would decrease the thrust even more. Afterwards, as the speed was still increasing and just about to reach the limit I pulled on the speed brake lever to arrest the speed increase (the speed brakes are panels on top of the wing that, when activated, will reduce the lift produced by the wing and therefore help to descend steeper or to slow the airplane down, depending on the situation). This finally proved effective and now the speed was decreasing rapidly. I immediately stowed the speed brake again as there is only a narrow speed band available at high altitude and it is possible to go from ‘going to fast’ to ‘going to slow’ in a few seconds if the reaction to an impeding overspeed is too aggressive. The airplane recovered to normal flying conditions, but I decided to leave the Speed at Mach .77 as a precaution, which is approximately in the middle of the allowed speed band and gives a good margin to both over- and underspeed. The First Officer remarked ‘That was quite close’ I remarked: ‘And totally unexpected.’ The First Officer noted that the jet stream reduced from 80 knots (150 km/h) to just 40 knots (75 km/h) within just a few seconds, which was probably what caused this speed excursion. He told me that he had experienced a similar situation already once while flying over Greece. Due to our quick reaction no limits were exceeded and therefore no report was needed.

We started our descend into Oslo soon afterwards and we were told to reduce our speed. For some reason Oslo Airport was very busy at that time. When we got close to the airport we counted at least 7 airplanes ahead of us on our screen (other airplanes are displayed on the ‘Navigation Display’, which gets this information from a collision avoidance system called ‘TCAS’, Traffic Collision Avoidance System [1]). We were held above our optimum profile by the air traffic controller. Usually airplanes enter the ‘glideslope’ from below, but in this case we were above the ‘glideslope’ and therefore had to apply a special procedure to get back onto our desired vertical profile. At this moment Air Traffic Control told us to reduce our speed to 160 knots as the aircraft ahead of us was just around 4 nautical miles (8 kilometers) ahead of us and getting closer. With the help of the speed brakes we managed to reduce our speed and to get back onto the glideslope at the same time (it is very difficult to descend and to reduce speed at the same time in a jet aircraft – the drag produced by the airframe is just not enough so the speed brakes are very helpful in these types of situations). The First Officer suggested that we could extend the landing gear earlier to further increase the drag and thereby reduce the speed faster. I decided that using the speed brake would be sufficient for now. While we were passing through 1000 feet (300 meter), which equates to slightly over one minute before touching down, the Airbus ahead of us landed. Air Traffic Control asked them to expedite vacating the runway which they luckily did. They finally cleared the runway while we were descending through 300 feet (90 meter) and we got landing clearance. After landing Air Traffic Control told us that there was somebody that was close behind us and we vacated as fast as we safely could. We were just turning onto the taxiway parallel to the Runway when the next airplane, a Boeing 737 was touching down. It is quite unusual to see this kind of tight spacing and in Europe only London Gatwick and London Heathrow work like this, but here in Oslo it worked perfectly as well. It was tight, but very efficient. I think if more airports were able to provide this quality of Air Traffic Control, delays could be reduced by a lot, but unfortunately in most airports the Air Traffic Control are not able to use this kind of procedure. There is no safety risk involved in this kind of operation as an airplane is always able to perform a go around (a maneuver that is considered ‘normal’ in aviation and is practiced by pilots many times, mostly in the simulator), if things don’t work out as planned. In most airports, especially big airports go arounds are very common and usually happens several times a day. In fact if there is any doubt if an approach should be continued to a landing or not for any reason, a go around is usually the safest option, as it gives everybody more time to reevaluate the situation and get back ‘into the loop’. All in all an interesting day for both of us.

If you are interested in some more details about flight testing at high speeds, I can recommend you this youtube video.

It shows the ‘flutter testing’ for the A380 where the test pilots push the airplane to the ‘design dive mach number’. As the A380 is certified for higher speeds than the A320 they had to fly the airplane up to Mach .96. For the A320, as mentioned above, the ‘design dive speed’ is Mach .89 only.


[1] Center of Gravity
[2] Fuel Planing
[3] Mount Teide
[4] Noctilucent clouds

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Dodging thunderstorms – how teamwork works in practice

Thunderstorm as seen from the flight deck

Today started just as a ‘normal’ flight, but became interesting on the way back. My First Officer only recently joined the company, but is very experienced, professional and we seem to be able to get along very well. The alarm was set at 5am and I had a look at all the flight documents while enjoying the breakfast in the hotel. Nowadays nearly all documents required for a particular flight are electronic, so I usually have my iPad with me and review everything that I need to know to operate that particular flight. I usually arrive a bit early at the breakfast even if it mean that I have to get up even earlier. The flight started and progressed normally and we parked with a slight delay at our destination.

For the way back to First Officer was ‘Pilot Flying’, i.e. the person performing the actual flight. I was ‘Pilot Monitoring’, i.e. I was supporting and supervising the First Officer and managing the communications with Air Traffic Control and doing all the paperwork. We usually alternate these duties (i.e. the Pilot Flying becomes Pilot Monitoring for the way back and vice versa). We updated our latest weather forecast and saw that the weather forecast was more or less okay, but there was a chance of thunderstorms. We decided to add some more fuel to cover for any eventualities. It is perfectly okay to takeoff with the legal required minimum which includes a lot of reserves already (maybe I will make a post about this later on, for those who are interested), but in this case we decided that 400kg of fuel, worth around 10 minutes of additional flying time available would be beneficial. We took of and after a short while had a very nice view of Marseilles and later on the alps, even though there was a cloud cover.

Overview of Marseilles from 36000ft

We have a very nice system installed in most of our aircraft called ACARS (aircraft Communications addressing and reporting system – in aviation some people simply love to use complicated words/abbreviations for ‘easy’ things), which enables us to communicate with the company while enroute (similar to sending a WhatsApp/Chatmessage). It also helps us to get weather reports of places further away. While passing over Fulda in Germany I used that system to get the latest weather report. I looked at the weather report. Not good at all. I handed the report over to the First Officer. He looked at it and said: ‘I am not allowed to land in these conditions – according to our company rules, as a First Officer I will need at least 1000 meters of visibility to be pilot flying, we have 650m right now’. He was indeed right, as a massive thunderstorm was just passing the area. We agreed that while we could still legally land in these conditions (with a change over of pilot flying duties to me), it would be unwise to attempt an approach under these circumstances. Thunderstorms are dangerous to airplanes for various reasons, there can be massive hail stones that can smash the windscreen or engines, really nasty turbulence and massive wind shifts which could cause an accident, if encountered close to the ground. The good thing about thunderstorms is that they are very dynamic and move or dissipate rather quickly. I discussed with the First Officer that if the weather remained like the report I would like to have a look before deciding to attempt an approach or not. A weather report only gives part of the picture and radar data and the view out of the window are needed to make a reasonable decision. I also got the weather for the alternate airport the company planned for us, in case we could not land at Oslo for any reason (the so called ‘alternate fuel’ is part of the legally required fuel reserves that every airplane must have on board before take off). In our case this was Stavanger Airport, well to the west of Oslo. Unfortunately this airport was also affected by the thunderstorms and therefore not useable. I told the First Officer that I would like to have a solid and safe ‘plan B’, in case that the weather is not allowing is to land in Oslo. We discussed several airports and finally agreed that Gothenburg Airport in Sweden would be our best option. The weather system was moving to the west and the latest weather report for Gothenburg were clear skies and 25 degrees celsius. The fuel required to Gothenburg was almost exactly the same as the one needed to go to Stavanger. The First Officer suggested and I agreed that we should already put a sensible routing from Oslo to Gothenburg in our flight management computer, so it would be ready should we need it in a hurry. The purser rang the door bell and entered the cockpit to ask if we needed anything. I told him that we were fine but to expect a rough ride during approach and that there was a small chance of a diversion to Gothenburg in Sweden.

While approaching Denmark a line of thunderstorms appeared on our radar screen. I asked the First Officer ‘Do you want to go left or right of that line?’ ‘Well, I guess from looking outside it looks rather bad on the right side, so lets go for the left side’ ‘On the radar screen the line is tilted towards the left, so we definitely have no chance of turning right before the end of that line, wherever that will be. Also the wind is coming from the right side so if we deviate to the left the line might just be blown right into our way and we are safer on the upwind side…while it looks cloudy on the right there seems to be a gap that we could sneak through’. The First Officer agreed to my suggestion. At this moment the Air Traffic control center that controls Belgian, Dutch and northern Germany Airspace and is located in the city of Maastricht and therefore called ‘Maastricht Radar’ transferred us to the Danish Air Traffic Control, called ‘Copenhagen Radar’. After switching frequency we heard somebody asking about climbing to get above the thunderstorms. While only climbing will usually not be sufficient it can be helpful to get a better overview of the situation and get more margin to the cloud tops. I checked on our flight management computer if we could also accept a higher altitude and saw that we could, although we would be pretty close to the maximum altitude we could maintain at our current weight. I asked the First Officer if he would consider a climb or rather stay at our current level which would put is closer to the clouds, but would give us a greater margin to the maximum level. We agreed that climbing would be the safer option. We called Copenhagen and asked to turn 30 degrees to the right to avoid the line of thunderstorms ahead and also to climb by 2000 feet (equivalent to 600 meters). The turn was approved and the climb a short while after. I made a call to the cabin crew and told them that I would switch the seatbelt sign on and that they could expect some turbulence for the next few minutes.

Passing a line of thunderstorms

We cleared the first line, surprisingly with only very little turbulence, and saw yet an other line of thunderstorm clouds in the distance. In the meantime I got an updated weather report. Just as I hoped the thunderstorm had moved away from the airport and we had a good chance of getting in. We both very relieved by this news. We were told by the next Air Traffic Controller, who was already working from a Control Center in Norway, that there was a lot of thunderstorm activity and everybody else was deviating from their route to the east to avoid this area, but that approaches into Oslo very progressing normally. We decided to do the same after having a look at the massive thunder storm cloud (these are named Cumulonimbus, abbreviated ‘CB’) that was pretty close to our original route.

While we descended towards Oslo we saw that the thunderstorm was to the east of the field and exactly on the planned arrival route. The aircraft ahead of us seemed to be going through parts of it, even though it looked red (i.e. really, really nasty) on our radar and it looked impressive when looking at it through the window. While I do not want to criticize colleagues I was thinking that the pilot ahead of us was taking a high risk by going through that weather. I told the Air Traffic Controller that we could not continue on the published arrival route due to the weather and we had to deviate towards the west. The controller was luckily very cooperative and we picked our way through the weather without encountering any significant turbulence or any other hazard. The first officer did a very nice landing and taxied the airplane to the gate. We were greeted by the mechanic who queried if we encountered any technical difficulties (which we had not) and told us that just an hour ago there was extreme rain and a massive storm passing through.

I thanked my first officer for his good work and we both agreed that we handled a challenging situation very well as a team. While I, in my position as a Captain, am the final authority concerning the operation of the aircraft I like to have an open communication with the First Officers – very often First Officers have ideas that I had not thought about and even if I decide to stick to my decision I will always explain the reasons and try to give the First Officer the feeling that his input is a valuable contribution to the operation (which it indeed is). This way both of us can learn. I think on this flight we were able to archive these goals and we were well prepared for any realistic eventuality. If the airport was closed when we approached due to the weather we had already thoroughly prepared a plan B which, even though it would have been inconvenient, could have been activated and actioned without being burdened by a high workload and stress.

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Why I love flying

Hey there,

I just decided to start trying blogging. As with every new activity it will certainly be a steep learning curve. Let me first introduce myself. I am a 29 year old airline Captain flying the Airbus A320 through the busy European skies. My motivation for starting blogging is to tell about my daily life, while conveying my total love for my lifestyle, so I will start with summarizing why I am in love with flight.

I feel absolutely privileged to be in the best job in the world. I could never imagine working in a “normal” 9 to 5 office job. Flying is existing in so many ways. First it’s the sheer and stunning beauty of nature seen from the sky. It gives you a feeling of humility to look down to our planet from height and realize how small and unimportant the problems most humans face are actually. You don’t see any borders from the sky and as you are working with so many different persons from so many different cultural background you realize that all humans are equally important and nationality or the amount of money somebody owns doesn’t actually mean anything at all.

It still fills me with awe to see that an airplane carrying 180 people and weighting up to 77 tons is able to lift to sky fly at an enormous height and speed. Just little more than 100 years ago anybody who would propose that we would be sitting in giant metal tubes traveling trough the sky at around 850kmh at 11000m of height, while complaining about the quality of the coffee served, in just 100 years would be called a madmen. Humanity has seen an enormous development in just the last few years.

An other aspect that is fascinating to me is the great amount of team work involved. I guess most people boarding and airplane don’t actually realize the amount of coordination involved in every turnaround. My role as a Captain is to supervise and to coordinate all activities. My, in my opinion most important task when talking about safety, is to be what I call a “last line of defense”. While we have well trained people working around airplanes everybody is still a human and makes mistakes. It is my job to make sure these mistakes are caught before they cause any serious consequences. My job is also to say “no” when anybody is putting an unreasonable or high-risk request on my which would jeopardize the passengers and crew who are entrusted to me. I have to be able to deal with pressure put on me from various parties and to make sure the outcome is safe. At the same time I need to be tactful and respectful of my crew and I will do everything I can to support them – I am a trying to be a “leader” not a “boss”. If somebody is not happy with something, I will find a solution even if it means inconvenience to me. I really feel grateful for this responsibility and while it can be stressful in one way it is also an enormous challenge. And I enjoy finding solution to complex problems.

Last but not least the technical side is extremely interesting. Our “FCOM” (short for Flight Crew Operating Manual) is more than six thousands pages long and this only includes the technical aspects (how systems work, our “procedures”, i.e. how we do our work in normal and abnormal situations). A modern airliner is extremely complex and a lot of computers are constantly exchanging, calculating and submitting information to various other systems. While modern airplanes are extremely automated a good pilot will still know how the systems work in detail and will be able to take the correct action in case parts fail.

I hope you enjoyed reading my first post – I will try to put some more posts on this blog about the activities I do while on and off duty. At this present moment I am in a hotel in Oslo, resting before flying again tomorrow morning.

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