Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Cascades in the Morning!

Departing out of Portland this morning, we had a spectacular view of the volcanic peaks of the Cascade range in the northwest United States. Below are several pictures I was able to snap.

When you fly, if you are not looking outside, you are missing out on many opportunities to see God's creation from a perspective you normally don't get. So... look outside!


The peak to the left is Mt. St. Helens, which erupted in the early 1980's. The peak on the right is Mt. Rainier, just southeast of Seattle. It doesn't look very big, but it's a long way away!

Mount Hood, just east of Portland, Oregon. Sadly, three climbers lost their lives on this mountain just a few weeks ago. Mt. Hood also hosts a ski area on a glacier...and many alpine racers from all over North America converge here in the summers to practice. Imagine skiing gates and dodging butterflies at the same time!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sunset over New York

Here are two pictures of a beautiful sunset as viewed from 38,000 over New York.

Enjoy...and praise God for the beauty of His creation!

Winglet Picture

I was able to get a great picture at the airport today that illustrates two different winglet configurations in a single shot. In the foreground is an Airbus A319 (about a third the size of the plane in the background!). You will note it's winglets are not very large, but they extend both upwards and downwards from the tip of the wing. In the background is a Boeing 747-400. It's winglets are huge and extend upwards at an angle. I'm sure there are aeronautical engineers out there who can expound upon the benefits of the different configurations, but suffice it to say that they increase the efficiency of the wing, which translates directly to fuel savings and increased range for the plane.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What's With the Winglets?

Since no one has asked a question recently, I thought I'd come up with my own.

Lately there has been a rash of modifications to planes, adding those large winglets. This isn't necessarily new. The 747-400 has had winglets since it was first produced as has the Airbus A320. So why are airlines suddenly spending considerable sums to equip their fleets with winglets? What do they do, other than look pretty cool?

As a wing moves through the air, the shape causes there to be higher pressure on the bottom than on the top. At the end of the wing that pressure escapes and tries to make it to the top. This causes small, horizontal tornadoes off the tip of each wing. These are known as "vortices." In high humidity conditions, you can sometimes see them. The thing about it is that, especially at slower speeds, these vortices cause a tremendous amount of drag, which in turn causes a much higher fuel consumption because the engines must compensate for the extra drag.

The addition of winglets interrupts the creation of these vortices. You can't stop them altogether, but you can reduce them...and any reduction in these tornadoes reduces the drag on the airplane...and any reduction in drag reduces the fuel consumption...and any reduction in fuel consumption reduces costs, and increases the range of the plane. A couple of airlines have added the winglets to 757's in order to increase their range to the point they can fly across the Atlantic.

I am going to try to get a couple of pictures of winglets to post for those who are still scratching their heads about what I am talking about.

Friday, December 01, 2006


In an earlier post, I noted that crop circles won out over Yosemite. Today I had the pleasure of flying right over Yosemite National Park and was able to get a beautiful shot that included both El Capitan and Half Dome. So I thought I'd post it here for you... and then you will understand my confusion at why the crop circles brought more interest on that previous flight!

1,000 MPH Closure

Here is a picture I took over Southern Colorado. We are at 39,000 feet and this USAir 757 is at 38,000 feet. Our closure rate is in the neighborhood of 1,000 miles per hour! Trust me when I say it is hard to keep the plane in the viewfinder of the camera!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Takes Your Breath Away!

I just had to post this picture as well, taken as we climbed out of Florida during sunrise. It almost makes it worth getting up at that horrendous hour! But it also makes for breathtaking amazement at the grandeur of God's creation!


Pilot Halo--The Answer

Here is a picture of a "pilot halo" taken a split-second before we descended into some clouds. The sun is directly behind us, so it focuses our shadow on the clouds in front of us. Then, for some reason beyond this particular pilot's ability to understand, the light refracts around the plane and places a circular rainbow around the shadow! ...thus the name "pilot halo." If the sun is on one side or the other and we are flying close enough to a deck of clouds, it will do the same, but from a profile angle... and you in the back would be able to see it as well!

Pilot Halo--The Question

There are those who think pilots' heads are already far too big for their hats! So now we're wearing halos???

It's not what you think... but you will have to wait until I can get a picture downloaded from my camera to see exactly what it is.

So...use your imagination, and see if you can figure out what I'm talking about.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Ears and Pressure

One of my readers asked that I address the problem some people have with their ears when flying on airplanes. So...I'll try to oblige!

As anyone who actually listens to the flight attendant announcements knows, airplanes are pressurized. What that means is that the atmospheric pressure inside the airplane is kept at a level that human beings can tolerate. None of us would last very long at all if we were exposed to the pressure of 39,000 feet. It's not that there isn't enough oxygen there...the percentage is the same as at sea level. The problem is the partial pressure is so low that the oxygen molecules aren't pushed through the lung membranes into the bloodstream.

All that is beside the point of the question, though...

The planes are built to withstand a pressure difference between the inside and the outside of about 8 pounds per square inch. That translates to an altitude in the cabin of about 8,000 feet when the airplane is at 39,000 feet. So the most your body would have to endure is a pressure change from sea level to 8000 feet and back. Unfortunately, that's a lot...especially if your ears aren't clearing.

If your eustachian tubes and your ears are normal, and you don't have a cold, then the trip up and down is typically no big deal. But if you have any blockage of the eustachian tube, then you start to have a problem. Because of the way the tube is designed (it connects the inner ear to the throat, which equalizes the pressure between the outer and the inner ear), as you go up, the pressure on the inner ear increases relative to the outer ear. Even when the tube is constricted due to a cold, the pressure can escape. Think of it like a balloon and you are letting the pressure out. The problem comes when it is time to go down again. Now the pressure on the outer ear increases. With a normal tube, the pressure goes back into the inner ear as well, keeping them equal. But if there is any blockage, that pressure can't get back in...sort of like air trying to get back in the balloon by itself. That's where the pain occurs. In very serious cases, it can actually rupture the eardrum.

So what to do? (Keep in mind this isn't medical advice!!!)

Chewing gum sometimes helps in minor problems. Children crying actually helps as well. Pilots (and scuba divers) are taught to "valsalva." That means to hold your nose, close your mouth, and exhale strongly and forcefully. This forces the air through your eustachian tube and into the inner ear. When successful, you will feel the "pop" as well as the relief as the pressure is equalized. You will need to do this several times as the plane descends. If you can catch it before the pressure builds too high, it is far easier. One of the downsides is that a valsalva maneuver will also press some of the "guck" from your cold into the inner ear. You stand a much better chance of coming up with a subsequent ear infection.

Obviously a small child isn't going to be able to do the he has to just deal with the pain and cry, which might help. But if you understand what is going on, it helps you to have compassion on him during the descent and put up with the screaming (it's very, very painful).

Of course, if he's throwing a fit at any other time, then it's time to have compassion on the parent!!!

[P.S. (posted 12 Nov) There seems to be a misconception that smaller airplanes have a greater problem with ear difficulties than larger ones. Actually that's not the case. Both types of planes have similar pressurization ranges. A more reasonable generalization is older versus newer models of planes. As with everything else, newer planes have improved pressurization controllers, so the transition between the cabin pressure at altitude and the pressure at field elevation is smoother. Another reason this myth might persist is that most people fly on smaller planes far more than they fly on the larger ones, thus increasing their chances of having an ear issue when flying on a smaller plane.]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Please Return to Your Seats...

I went out to Southern California and back yesterday and it was one of those days.... No, not one of those spectacularly beautiful, see-for-a-million-miles days without a ripple in the air. It was one with a lot of undercast, and worse...bumpy, bumpy, bumpy.

I know the passengers really dislike the bumps, and it is usually worse in the back than it is in the front. We have to keep the seat belt sign on, which inhibits stretch breaks and bathroom stops. But the bottom line is that a significant bump in an airplane will do far more than knock you will slam you into the ceiling and drop you on the back of a seat. It could easily severely injure you or possibly even kill you! Granted...those sorts of events are few and far between, but they DO happen every year. So the seatbelt sign is there for a reason. I sure hope that anyone who reads this as a passenger will keep that in mind the next time they fly.

So what do we do about it? First, we slow down. We have a speed that will give us the best ride while protecting the airplane aerodynamically from stall or over-g in the event of a hard bump. On top of that, it is like driving over a bumpy road...slower is smoother. Secondly, we ask the air traffic controllers what they have heard from other planes in the area. Our dispatchers often have already alerted us to the turbulence and its respective altitudes, so we are really only crosschecking it with the most current information from the ATC folks. If they can tell us of a smooth altitude that we can take, then we will usually change altitudes when it is available. The problem though, is that smooth altitude might be too high for us given our weight, or it could be too low (increases our fuel burn to the point where we might have to divert). And thirdly, we will cool it off in the back to help people avoid airsickness.

Believe it or not...we really DO want to give you the best ride possible!!!

But yesterday...nothing works out. So we bumped along for hours on end. I don't want to think about how many sick-sacks were used....

P.S. Hint...when it's so bumpy that people are getting sick, alcohol usually makes things worse! So if you are one who imbibes when flying...keep that in mind!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What About Those P.A.'s??

One reader commented about the lack of announcements by pilots and the frustration of not knowing where she was or what particular landmarks were. So I thought I'd post with some of the "philosophies" of pilots making P.A.'s.

The first question we ask ourselves is, "What is the primary makeup of our passengers on this flight?" If we are headed to New York, it is probably mostly businessmen. They want to hear when we are going to get there and what the weather is...and then SHUT UP!!! I'm busy back here!!! But if we are headed to Orlando, it's probably mostly tourists on vacation, so then it's far better to be a bit more "chatty" and point out things of interest...time permitting, of course. The more difficult calls are places like Los Angeles or San Diego, where there could easily be mixture of tourists and businessmen. You have to draw a fine line there about talking too much versus not talking enough. And of course, this assumes there isn't an undercast obscuring everything....

The next question is, "Can they actually see what we are talking about?" I've got a much better view than you do, so I have to decide if what I am looking at can be discerned by the average passenger through his window. If I have to say something like, "look at the fourth mountain peak on the right, just past the second village in the third valley...and you'll see a couple of mountain goats fighting." Well... let's just say the absurdity of the example says it all.

The final question is, "What time is it?" Is it really early or really late? If people are sleeping, the last thing they want to hear is my voice over a scratchy loudspeaker describing the largest forest in the state of Nebraska (there IS one, by the way...and it IS visible from the air!).

So, it's a judgment call on our part. I've had flights where I've bent over backwards to point out all the neat stuff across the Rockies, only to be told I talked too much. I've had other flights where I only made a few announcements and was told I didn't say enough. I guess you can't please everyone!

So the next time you appreciate the informational announcements your pilot makes...tell him! I guarantee he will appreciate it!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Fear of Flying

Are you afraid to fly...or know someone who is? It's not all that uncommon. Why in the world would someone be afraid to fly on an airliner? After all, statistically it is far safer than the ride on the freeway to the airport!

Usually it has a couple of components: a loss of control and an ignorance of all the sounds, vibrations, and motions associated with an airplane. Of course, all is this is exacerbated by the press any aviation accident receives.

Here's what I have seen done when we are aware of the problem. We ask the scared person to be boarded first and for him to come to the cockpit. We give him a tour and answer any and all questions. We talk about our experience (typically, there are upwards of six or seven decades of flying experience between the two of us). We discuss pitch and bank angles...they often feel much larger than they are because the inner ear feeds you false information that can't be counteracted by what you see. That sort of thing typically takes care of the ignorance side of the equation. The loss of control side is harder, for there is nothing he can do to affect what about to happen on the flight. The person simply has to trust that we will do our best to take him safely to his destination. That trust is harder to come by.

So we remind him of the bottom line: We want to go home to our families after the trip; and if we are going home, then our passengers are on their way to their destinations as well. Oh...and don't forget...Pilots are always the first people to the crash site! (Actually, that choice of words doesn't do much to calm a nervous flier's nerves!!) But it is true, and therefore, we will be doing everything in our power to operate the flight as safely as possible.

Oh...and for anyone who is deathly afraid of flying, most airlines have a program to help you overcome that fear (at least ours used to). Just call and ask about it before booking your flight.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Crop Circles?

Last week as we descended into San Jose, California, we had a beautiful view of El Capitan, Half-Dome, and the whole Yosemite Valley from a mid-altitude of about 22,000 feet. The captain made a point to bring it to the attention of the passengers. Needless to say, we expected a few comments from the deplaning passengers about the fantastic view. But instead the only comment was from a woman whose accent betrayed that she was probably from the British Isles. She was very concerned and puzzled about the "very large circles on the ground about an hour before landing."

What she had seen were the irrigation circles that many farmers use today. They are large and green (thus standing out from the surrounding desert), so from the air, they do attract your attention. And apparently, they don't have them in Europe....

So I guess the score is:

Crop Circles: 1
Yosemite: 0

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

When You Can See Forever...

For each of the past two days, I've flown out to southern California and back...and both trips have been the kind you dream about: crystal clear weather with no bumps! The visibility was well over 200 miles. The Rockies have snow to what looks like about the 9000-foot level. Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park were spectacular (although not as spectacular as from a car on the road above the tree-line). We tracked the Colorado River all the way through Lake Powell to the Grand Canyon which was...well...grand! From there through Lake Mead and down the Arizona/California border by Lake Havasu City (Why does anyone live there? Aside from the lake, it's desolate...and 115 degrees in the shade in the summer!).

As we were flying along, we also encountered a lot of other airplanes. I once read that at any given time, there are approximately 60,000 people in the air over the United States! That's a small city! Anyway, these planes occasionally meet us head-on...but at a vertical distance of 1000 feet. But at closure rates of 1000 mph, 1000 feet isn't much! So how does that work? How do we keep from getting too close to another plane? Basically it involves that vertical separation. Planes flying 360 degrees (north) through 179 degrees (1 degree from south) fly at odd altitudes. Planes flying from south (180 degrees) through 359 degrees (1 degree from north) fly at even altitudes. Yes, there are some tricky ones where you are flying north or south, but the controllers take care of that.

Monday, September 25, 2006


One of the things you learn very quickly in aviation is that acronyms are everywhere! What's an acronym? It's a "word" that is formed from the actual title of an object. For instance, FADEC (pronounced, "fay'-dek") stands for Full Authority Digital Engine Control. So, acronyms make a lot of sense. Having to say "Full Authority Digital Engine Control" every time you want to refer to the computer that controls the engine would be more of a mouthful than most would care to speak. FADEC is so much easier! Acronyms aren't always pronouncable (if that's a word!), so you may have to just say the letters. For instance, pb (not "peanut butter"...but rather "pushbutton") or PFD (Primary Flight Display). On the Airbus, there is an acronym for just about everything. In fact, there are several pages of acronyms and their definitions in the manual.

What typically happens with acronyms is they take on a meaning of their own. Many times you forget what they even stand for, but you know what they are. ECAMs are the two displays in the center of the cockpit that show all the systems and engine information. Do I care what ECAM stands for? Not really. OK...for those who can't stand it... it's Engine Condition and Monitoring.

Of course, it can get a little nuts: "When column two of the FMA on the PFD is showing V/S, then your VVI should be the same as what you set in the window of the FCU." But that is sure easier than saying, "When column two of the Flight Management Annunciator on the Primary Flight Display is showing Vertical Speed, then your Vertical Velocity Indicator should be the same as what you set in the window of the Flight Control Unit."

And of course, they aren't limited to just specific airplanes. Sometimes you get pilots using them as aviation slang when they make those announcements. Of course, they are assuming everyone knows what it is they are talking about. Yeah, right...

So...since this is aimed at people who have an interest in the world of flying airliners, I'll try to keep the jargon...and a minimum, or at least try to explain it when I use it. If not...leave a comment and ask what in the world I am talking about!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Blue Side Up???

As I read over my initial post, I remembered that my intended audience includes a lot of people with limited access to flying and thus limited understanding of the vocabulary and illustrations that are bandied about among those who fly. As such, you probably scratched your head at the sign-off of "keep the blue side up."'s what it means: all airliners (and most small planes) have an attitude indicator. This instrument is connected to a gyroscope of some kind that allows the display of the attitude of the plane, even when you can't see the ground. By "attitude," I don't mean cranky, happy, sad, or melancholy...but rather the relationship between the nose of the plane and the wings of the plane to the horizon. You can see where the nose is pointed relative to the horizon and you can see the bank angle of the wings. This allows you to know the attitude of your plane in the weather and at night. Without it, you cannot ascertain the attitude because your normal senses lie to you. This can have disastrous consequences...just as JFK, Jr learned too late; he had the instrument, but didn't know how to use it properly.

Anyway, typically the "sky" portion of the instrument is colored blue and the "ground" portion of the instrument is colored brown. Thus, if the brown side is "up"...then you are upside down! That's not a bad thing in a plane designed for aerobatics and it's done intentionally; but it's really not a good thing in an airliner! So we endeavor at all times to keep the blue side up. That makes for happy passengers and fewer lawsuits! "keep the blue side up" means to "keep things aright."

Keep the blue side up!!!

Why This Blog?

Every time I meet someone and they find out what I do for a living, the questions immediately fly as to what it is like to pilot an airliner, what the lifestyle is like, what a trip is like, what it's like to have an emergency, and on and on and on. It's a job unlike almost any other and many people have fantasized about doing it since they were children. As such it always generates questions.

Others have asked that I start a blog to post my experiences, my thoughts, my observations on my particular trips so they can gain an insight into what it's like to actually be in the pointy end of the plane...the one with the good seats and nice windows. Thus this blog.

I hope that as I post, it will educate and inspire you for the next time you ride on a plane. Maybe you will have a better idea about the professionalism and qualifications of those who are taking you to your destination, as well as a better comprehension about some of the issues and circumstances that we deal with on a daily basis.

Enjoy...and Keep the Blue Side Up!!!