Category Archives: Commercial Aviation

Honey, I shrunk the Flughafen

German builds world’s largest-small airport

Six years to build and almost $4 million dollars later, the worlds smallest airport was put into operation.

The Knuffingen Airport, based on Hamburg’s airport, has finally opened to the public. It’s on display at Miniature Wunderland, in Hamburg, and features 40 aircraft that take off and land and 90 vehicles that trundle around the runways automatically….The attention to detail is astounding. The planes park themselves and passenger walkways slowly move into place….The tow trucks even feature little flashing orange lights and the petrol tanks can be seen indicating which way they are about to turn.

Looks pretty good at “night” too!

Feeling Blue?

Yesterday’s incident involving the captain of a JetBlue flight underscores why there are at least two people on the flight deck during commercial flights.

The captain was locked out of the cockpit and wrestled to the floor by passengers after screaming about a bomb during a flight from New York to Las Vegas.

Obviously not a laughing matter. Imagine sitting in a passenger seat at 30,000 feet and the four striper starts banging on the cockpit door like Fed Flintstone. Then:

 “He started screaming about al-Qaeda and possibly a bomb on the plane and Iraq and Iran and about how we were all going down,” Gabriel Schonzeit of New York City, who was seated in the third row, told the Amarillo Globe-News. “It seemed like he went crazy.”

A number of things went right though. First, passengers mobilized to demobilize the pilot who was apparently suffering from sort of panic attack. After 9-11, there is a clear change in how passengers react to threats. Whether it’s Richard Reid, the shoe bomber or Farouk of the crispy parts. We’re not going to just sit here and let you take this plane down.  It helped to have a retired corrections officer and a security executive on board. Also: The copilot did a great job of getting the pilot off the flight deck and amazingly, there was another off duty pilot on board ready to take the left seat.

Despite the quick reaction it’s publicity that JetBlue didn’t need after the weirdness that happened when their flight attendant Steven Slater began swearing at passengers on the public-address system and decided it was time to leave the company after  grabbing a cold brew,  pulling the emergency slide and spectacularly exiting the aircraft. Which ultimately led to creative ideas on how to deal with tense situations.

 A more dramatic example is the 1999 crash of EgyptAir flight 990 which was directly attributed (by the NTSB) to the first officer’s deliberate  departure from normal cruise flight due to his control inputs. He intentionally flew the plane into the ocean.  Most of us won’t change the way we travel. I won’t  and I regularly fly via part 121 commercial operations but after this (very rare) cockpit meltdown it reminds us of the criticality of one unbalanced person in the front of the aluminum  tube.  So,if possible,  I always greet the pilots when I board to see if they’re having a good day.  Otherwise, it might be helpful to know where the slide is.

When the Screen Goes Blank

There’s a lot to like about glass cockpits.  The multi function displays (MFD) and primary flight displays (PFD) are great for organizing information, showing trends and enhancing situational awareness. They work great. That is, until they don’t. That’s when the pilot really earns his/her pay. A United flight in New Orleans learned this the hard way.


A United Airlines Airbus A320 made an emergency landing in New Orleans (KMSY) just minutes after departing the airport Wednesday. United 497 was bound for San Francisco (KSFO) with 109 passengers and crew when the pilots noticed smoke in the flight deck as the aircraft climbed through 4,000 feet. An electrical failure soon followed and all avionics displays went blank. The electrical failure went far beyond instrumentation, possibly affecting nosewheel steering and aircraft braking which prompted the crew to request a longer runway. The emergency could not have come at a worse time as MSY’s longest runway was closed for maintenance.

Let’s see: There’s a potential fire on board, which is the worst sort of emergency. Then lost avionics in the clouds, another emergency. Partial panel flying and if you get down OK, the brakes probably won’t work.

Not just another day at the office, which is what everyone expected on takeoff. Therein lies the lesson: You never know when you’ll need to execute an emergency procedure or three. If you train well, you should be able to survive the unexpected. Complacency will doom even the best stick and rudder flyer if he/she fails to make the appropriate decision at the right time.

This is one of the few times you wonder about glass panels vs. steam gauges but I’d still vote digital for lots of reasons and so would many others.  Since 2006, Cessna stopped making round gauge airplanes. The only option is a glass panel aircraft. Cessna feels the marketplace has spoken loud and clear and bet the farm on it.

Despite a dark cockpit, they brought in the bird without injuries and “only” a blown tire. Passengers gave the crew a round of applause after the plane touched down.

Listen to the audio of United 497’s emergency landing here.

Way to go.

Big Bang

To travel in an A380 is a pleasure  and, like driving an SUV, it’s usually the winner in a collision

It will need a little more than touch up paint. A number of friends have forwarded this asking how could something like this happen? Given pilot training requirements to drive the “Big Iron” these things are gratefully rare. It most certainly involved lack of vigilance by the pilot but I also believe that airport facilities and physical boundaries may not up to the challenge. The Airbus actually has a wingspan 50 feet longer than the mondo sized 747. 

My flight today is in a regional jet. I’ll have the seat belt tightened until I’m at the gate.

Is That all You Got?

Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking

It seems that I’m on a commercial flight almost every week. Once in a while, I’m fortunate to fly on a large, comfortable aircraft and today that’s a 777. We were being propelled forward by two very large, very powerful GE90-115B turbofans. Reliable too. Prior to this class of engine, the FAA required four engines for overseas travel.

Aircraft engine manufacturers such as General Electric, Pratt and Whitney and Rolls Royce allocate a ton of resources to develop and prove out their products and we’re glad. While commercial passengers may loathe the inconvenience of the TSA, they can take safe air travel for granted. Jets are far more reliable than recip engines (what I normally fly when I’m in the left seat). I do have a little time in the L-29 which features a Jet-A sucking turbojet. Newer jet aircraft all have turbofans which use bypass ducts that are quieter and more efficient. Military jets use turbofans too but of the low bypass variety.

Engine qualification involves some exotic tests. It’s noisy and fun to watch. From a distance. 

For example: What happens if you throw ¾ of a ton of large hail pellets into the maw of the beast at takeoff thrust? How about 4 1/2 tons of water? GE will also inject both 2.5 and 8 lb. birds into the engine’s composite blades as part of the certification process, All without any impact on the engine’s operation and the fan blades unharmed. If that weren’t enough, technicians planted some C-4  on the fan and  detonated it at 2,485 rpm. Even with an engines worst nightmare, the remaining composite blades with titanium leading edges continue to spin. Here’s what it looks like:


The GE90 is huge at over ten feet in diameter and that’s what allows it to produce a record breaking 127,900 pounds of thrust. It’s sufficient to allow the Triple Seven to break the ETOPS record with a five and a half hour flight on one engine.

Even if you don’t get a great seat assignment or a bag of pretzels, there’s comfort in knowing you have an engine that goes the distance.

Control Freq’s

 More than Pushing Tin

Last night, the Chicago Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) allowed 20 lucky people to experience first-hand what it’s like to be an air traffic controller, to be on the other side of the frequency. I was finally going to meet some of the voices and get behind the scenes to learn “how do they do it”? Guy Lieser has done a great job organizing the event better known as: “ZAU Raincheck”. The Chicago Center moved from Midway Airport to Aurora, IL in the 60’s. As the story goes, the cold war was raging at the time en route centers were built.. The idea was to move them as far away from “ground zero” as possible. Ergo,  ARTCC facilities are located away from major metropolitan areas.

 Even if you don’t have an instrument rating you’ll appreciate just how magnificently the system choreographs movements of thousands of planes through a crowded airspace every hour. The United States airspace system is divided into 210 different regions controlled by 21 enroute centers.  Each ARTCC works traffic that is enroute between the departure point and destination airport.  For example, the Chicago Control Tower, (contrary to what Hollywood wants you to think), controls aircraft from the gate to the end of the departure runway.  After the aircraft’s wheels are up, it is switched over to a departure controller.  Enroute centers then handle the aircraft in all phases of flight until they get within 40 nautical miles of a destination airport. Continue reading

Over the Fence

Some of the best photos of planes coming over the fence that I’ve seen. (click link for slideshow).

(h/t to Rob – great stuff)


Sorry for the lack of communications friends. I’ve been travelling for the past month both domestically and on international flights. Not in the right or left seat mind you but as one of the many pax in the back of the aluminum tube and enjoying the many x-ray, full body screening devices at major airports. It’s given me a new healthy glow.  Except in Brazil. They don’t seem to worry about that as much.

What better way to test the effectiveness of our security apparatus and ring in the New Year then a commercial airliner evacuating the capital after loss of radio contact , better known as NORAC in ATC circles. (Not to be confused with Nordo-Flying without or loss of a radio).

A passenger plane briefly lost radio contact with air traffic controllers when the pilot turned to the wrong frequency as he approached Washington, leading to the scrambling of fighter jets and the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol, federal officials said Saturday.

Good news: The system works. Bad news for the pilot in command to be sure,  but who among us hasn’t missed a read back? At least once? Of course, this was perhaps the worst possible time to miss a frequency call out. What’s puzzling is why the pilot / copilot didn’t immediately call back the previous controller once confirmation wasn’t received. (i.e. This is Piedmont flight WXYZ checking in , level at 5,000).  Lots of paperwork for a few people.

Our New Year’s resolutions should include careful copying and readbacks.  All the best to you in 2011!

The Cheap Seats

At last. A way to make air travel more painful.

 Think your seat in coach is cramped? Take a look at the SkyRider.

The new airplane seat, to be unveiled next week at the Aircraft Interiors Expo Americas conference in Long Beach, would give passengers an experience akin to riding horseback.They’d sit at an angle with no more than 23 inches between their perch and the seat in front of them.

 “For flights anywhere from one to possibly even up to three hours … this would be comfortable seating,” says Dominique Menoud, director general of Aviointeriors Group.. “The seat … is like a saddle. Cowboys ride eight hours on their horses during the day and still feel comfortable in the saddle.”

OK, but most passengers aren’t cowboys. The average traveler won’t like squatting on a large bump for three hours. And wait until you get some turbulence. Yee-hah. Guys will walk bowlegged for hours afterward. That’s not all. Most U.S. passengers are not built extra small. You’ll need a big shoehorn to get folks into their “seats” and a prybar once the plane lands.

Of course there’s already an airline ready to sign up. Ryanair  is ready to go once approved by regulators so they can continue to be the leader in low cost fares. It’s the same airline that endorsed pay toilets, a passenger “fat tax” and suggested that only one pilot is needed in the cockpit. In an emergency, their CEO Michael O’Leary explains that the flight attendant should help land the plane if the captain is incapacitated. “Two pilots worked well in the 50s when flying a plane was difficult. Nowadays they just sit back, press a button and put it on autopilot. They then read newspapers or just do nothing.”

Everyone loves a bargain . How about a low, low price brain surgeon? An aircraft built with the cheapest parts that might be “close enough”? How about an airplane seat that can’t withstand the mandatory 16G requirement? Not me.  

Disneyland for Aviators

Airventure began with rain, mud and more rain. Sploshkosh and Aquaventure were used to describe aviation’s biggest event. The most challenging ever according to organizers. Not surprisingly, attendance was down early in the week and fewer planes made the trip. The annual mass arrivals of Bonanzas, Cessnas, and Mooneys just didn’t happen. The phenomenal volunteers rallied, pumping out water, laying sod and bringing in woodchips and it was still pretty great.

 There’s something for everyone who loves aviation. If you were in the market for a new plane, it was one gigantic motor mall with every manufacturer represented. If you want a carbon fiber Cub with Tundra tires, they had it. Aerobatic planes? Pick from a range from top performance to build your own. I was intrigued by the amphibious Icon A5.It was all there, from low and slow ultralights to rocket powered helos and single pilot jets.

 There were hundreds of exhibits, seminars; panel discussions and workshops. It meant choosing among the “must see” since there were up to 30 events all taking place in a single one hour time slot. In between you can admire thousands of planes of every type and description.  Showplanes, Homebuilts, Vintage, Warbirds, Ultralights, Seaplanes and rotorcraft. Who wouldn’t be impressed by rows of P-51’s and T-28’s? Rare planes became commonplace. They had four B-17’s! One guy even proposed on a Flying Fortress.-she said yes. (My wife would have clobbered me if I’d tried that). I also spent a little time with Glacier Girl, whose good looks drew many admirers.

An air show was held each afternoon but planes were in the sky all the time. A flight of F-15’s roared overhead while I waited in line for a sandwich. Look- there goes an F-18 in full grunt. Where did that V-22 Osprey come from? Wow, a flight of T-33’s. A steady stream of planes were arriving and departing until the airshow began.

 Mostly, the pilgrimage to Oshkosh was about hanging out with fellow pilots and aviation fans. I was among friends. Some close and another half million I had yet to meet.

Oshkosh has been named a ‘Tier 1 Event” by the U.S. Navy for its centennial celebration of naval aviation in 2011. A good reason to clear your calendar from July 25-31 next year.

Here’s a one minute video summary : Airventure 2010.