Archive for June, 2009

The Best Terrorism Essay Ever

8 June 2009 at 5:10 pm
by Berck

From Bruce Schneier. It’s 3 years old at this point, and I’ve probably posted it before. But, just in case: If you haven’t read it, you should.

Idea

8 June 2009 at 4:45 pm
by Jonah

Idea

Creative Commons License
Idea by Joanna Elise is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Flying the Line (When Trips go Bad)

8 June 2009 at 3:54 pm
by Berck

Last Sunday started out innocuously enough at 4:15am for a 6:00am departure from Casper, Wyoming for a leg back to Denver. It was my leg, and the weather over the rockies in the summer is best for flying in the early morning. It was a perfectly calm morning, though the clouds that would form the afternoon thunderstorms were already in evidence. Even the approach into Denver was perfectly smooth, which helped me make one of my best Dash 8 landings yet. The whole approach went perfectly. Right before the wheels touched I was sure it was going to be a good landing. In most aircraft, I’d be right. In a Dash, you can do everything right and just know that you’re going to have a perfectly smooth touch down, and then be completely wrong. It’s by far the most challenging aircraft to land smoothly that I’ve ever flown. Fortunately, this time I was right, and it rolled right onto the runway without embarrassing me.

We had just 20 minutes to get the airplane ready to board for the flight right back to Casper. This, too, was my leg, and we managed an on-time departure. The flight over was relatively uneventful, but as the Captain and I were chatting about cars, racing, and the costs and feasibility of building our own airplanes, I asked, “Isn’t that the airport right over there?” “I sure hope not,” he said. “Well, the FMS is showing that it’s about 30 miles, right that way.” “Oh, my.” “So, suppose we should ask for lower?” “Probably not a bad idea.” We were still at 24,000 feet, and normally the controllers would have given us a clearance to descend 30 miles earlier. It wasn’t a big deal, as if the Dash is good at anything, going down is something it can handle. I pulled the power back to idle, dialed in a 3,000 fpm descent and quickly briefed the captain on the approach. Given how high we were, we decided to do a landing with the flaps at 35°. Normally, we only use 15° of flaps for a landing approach, but the Dash was built to be able to handle difficult mountain airports, with the steep and slow approaches those airports often require, so 35° is actually available.

I was barreling toward the airport from an extraordinarily high altitude at the maximum descent rate I could manage without exceeding the aircraft’s maximum safe speed. The approach was one that would have been impossible in the jet, but I knew it wouldn’t be too hard in the Dash. As I approached 3,000 feet above the ground, I disconnected the autopilot and leveled off with the power still at idle. As the plane slowed down, I asked for gear down and Flaps 15. As I turned final, I asked for Flaps 35°. The captain moved the flap selector the 35, and I waited for the lurch forward and pitch-down attitude that I knew would come with the flaps, but it didn’t happen. I checked the flap indicator. It read 15.

“Flaps aren’t moving,” I said.

“I know,” my captain said and cycled the flap handle back to 15, then back down to 35. No noticeable change. Plenty of hydraulic fluid and pressure.

“Well, I guess it’s a flaps 15° landing after all,” my captain said. I called for the landing check and landed uneventfully.

After landing, I retracted the flaps in accordance with the after landing check list, and they retracted normally. We tried extending them on the ground to 35, and they went down just fine. Non-reproducible problems are frustrating for everyone. We’re required to document any such discrepancy, however, and it’s up to maintenance to decide what action they want to take.

A lot of Captains might have said, “We’ll just write it up when we get back to Denver.” Mine said, “I know what I plan to do, but I’m curious what you think, without hearing what I have to say.” I thought about it a minute and said, “I think we should write it up here and let maintenance do whatever they want.”

He actually agreed with me, which was good. I hate being put in a position where I have to tell a Captain that I want him to follow the rules, but I’m not willing to compromise my career over a maintenance discrepancy even if I think it’s perfectly safe to fly. It’s just not worth it.

The captain was hoping for a quick, but perfectly legal solution. He was hoping that if we wrote up the problem, and agreed to operate the flaps on the ground, that we could show that the flaps appear to work, sign it off in the book and go. He called maintenance control, and they agreed to send out a mechanic to do just that.

It took about an hour for contract maintenance to arrive. At little outstations like Casper, airlines do not have mechanics on staff. Scheduled maintenance happens at hubs or maintenance bases. If a plane happens to break at an outstation, which does happen from time to time, the airlines contract with mechanics in the area who are on call in case you need them. Generally, they are certified mechanics, but they don’t know anything about our specific airplane, they don’t have any parts or manuals, and the sorts of things they can do are limited.

When they arrived, we started the engines and operated the flaps. They stopped at 15 and refused, once again, to go to Flaps 35. We were somewhat pleased that the problem was reproducible, but that meant our plan of having the mechanics sign off the plane as being go to go was unlikely.

They were, however, able to do the one thing that contract maintenance is particularly good for: they could sign off on what’s called a ferry permit.

If an aircraft is broken in some way that prevents it from being considered airworthy, but is actually reasonably safe to fly, it can be flown to a place where maintenance can be performed on it while it’s still broken, provided a mechanic signs off on it being safe to make the flight people not essential to the operation may not be transported.

So, the mechanics, in coordination with maintenance control in Phoenix, issued us a ferry permit to fly to Grand Junction, but only with the flaps all the way up, and no passengers. We were permitted to take the flight attendant.

Our flight attendant for the trip was old and crazy. I was warned that she’s a bag lady. She had normalish flight attendant luggage when we started the trip, but the captain told me she’d have a zillion bags by the end. Sure enough, by day 4, she had a giant garbage bag she hauled around in addition to her luggage. We didn’t dare ask what was in it. Anytime we were waiting around, she’d go to the back row of the Dash, which has 5 seats straight across (known as “The Bench”), and passed out. We debated not telling her we were taking off for Grand Junction, to see if we could get there before she woke up, but we decided that legally she needed a seat belt on for takeoff. So we told her. The Captain spoiled it by letting on that we were going to Grand Junction, not Denver. It would have been swell if she woke up in Grand Junction, thinking she was going to Denver.

The reason we were going to Grand Junction is that all the mechanics who actually know something about the Dash are in Grand Junction. We have a large maintenance hangar there, and all the heavy maintenance gets done there. Whenever the Denver and Phoenix mechanics can’t figure out how to fix something, they call Grand Junction.

The flight to Grand Junction was mostly uneventful, though the landing was pretty darned fast without the flaps. It was almost jet-speed. After we landed, we taxied straight over to the maintenance hangar, where a mechanic with a large beard and a cigarette in one hand marshaled us up to the hangar. We shut down the engines, and within about 30 seconds, he’d towed us into the hangar. We got out of the plane, and the mechanics were able to reproduce the problem in no time. They decided that the problem was probably the flap drive mechanism.

The flaps are hydraulic, and the flap drive unit is the device that takes hydraulic fluid under pressure and converts that energy into mechanical energy that turns a shaft, that turns a bunch of jack screws that move the flaps.

We hung around the hangar while they got to work. My captain got in touch with crew scheduling who told us that we’d be getting on a deadhead flight back to Denver at about 5pm. I spent some time gawking at a Dash 8 engine on a stand (centrifugal compressors make a jet engine look way more complicated than it needs to be), and watching the mechanics do their thing.

Shortly after 4pm, we saw a Dash-8 pull in to the terminal across the ramp from the hangar we were in. It turns out that my captain misunderstood the crew scheduler and we were supposed to be on a flight leaving at about 4pm, not 5pm. Only it was late, so they were in a hurry. By the time we got over there, they wouldn’t let us on the flight.

No problem, we still figured we’d be able to fly the plane we flew in once the maintenance guys finished with it. Only, it turns out that the problem wasn’t the flap drive after all, and they didn’t know what was wrong with, but suspected an electrical relay, which was not a part they had on hand.

So, crew tracking got very mad at us, marked us tardy on the flight we missed, and assigned us to a new deadhead that was estimated to leave at about 7pm. (To dead head means to fly a flight as a passenger. The company needs crew members in a place different from where they are, and its best solution is simply to pay them to ride as a passenger. At Mesa, we only get paid half of our regular pay for time spent dead heading.)

I’d never ridden in the back of a Dash before, so it was an entertaining experience. I discovered that it’s very loud while the props are at full speed, and that in most seats, your vision outside is rather impaired by the giant engine nacelles. Unlike most planes, you do get a swell view of the landing gear, and you can watch the wheels touch down. Additionally, any incorrect pressure on the rudder pedals results in a very uncomfortable yawing moment in the back of the plane… It’s pretty much unavoidable because the rudder is way too big, and the plane is insanely sensitive in yaw to power changes, probably a result of the enormous 13-foot propellers.

Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft leveled off and made 180° turn. The Captain made a PA announcement that the plane would not pressurize and we would be returning to Grand Junction.

After landing in Junction, we’d been on duty for over 15.5 hours. Crew Tracking said they’d get us a hotel and wanted us to report for 5am dead head the next morning. We refused, on the basis of it not being a legal assignment.

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regularions, §121.471 states, in part:

(b) Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, no certificate holder conducting domestic operations may schedule a flight crewmember and no flight crewmember may accept an assignment for flight time during the 24 consecutive hours preceding the scheduled completion of any flight segment without a scheduled rest period during that 24 hours of at least the following:

(1)9 consecutive hours of rest for less than 8 hours of scheduled flight time.

It also states the following:

(c) A certificate holder may schedule a flight crewmember for less than the rest required in paragraph (b) of this section or may reduce a scheduled rest under the following conditions:

(1)A rest required under paragraph (b)(1) of this section may be scheduled for or reduced to a minimum of 8 hours if the flight crewmember is given a rest period of at least 10 hours that must begin no later than 24 hours after the commencement of the reduced rest period.

I include this for a couple of reasons. Legally, it’s interesting because of the “and no flight crewmember may accept” bit, which leaves pilots on the hook, legally, for illegal assignments our employers (referred to in this case as “certificate holders”) may assign us. That means that we have to pay attention to the details of the nearly-incomprehensible language.

One of the first things this rule does, which isn’t immediately obvious, is that it means that no pilot can work longer than a 16 hour day from the time he reports for duty until the time he’s released for duty. At the end of a scheduled flight segment, a pilot must be able to look back over the last 24 hours and point to at least 8 hours of rest. Obviously, if he works longer than 16 hours, he can’t do that.

The 16 hour duty day is well-established and understood by most everyone involved. What’s not as easily understood is the following:

Because we’d just worked longer than a 15 hour day, we would need compensatory rest of 10 hours that night, even though prior to starting work that morning, we’d had 14 hours of rest. The only thing that matters is that once we worked longer than 15 hours, we’d had less than 9 hours of consecutive rest in the previous 24 hours, which meant that we’d need 10 hours of compensatory rest that would have to being no later than 24 hours of the commencement of the 8-hour reduced rest period. All of that, to essentially say: If you work longer than 15 hours, you need 10 hours of rest.

It probably won’t come as much surprise to you, then, that not everyone that works in a relevant portion of our airline is familiar with this rule, or even understands it. As best as they understood, we’d had 14 hours of rest prior to our 15 hour duty day, so all we needed was 8 hours of rest. My captain spent 45 minutes on the telephone with crew tracking supervisors and, eventually, a chief pilot, before they finally consented to give us our required 10 hours of rest.

By rest, the FAA only means that we have to be free of all duty. If we’re in the van, traveling to the hotel, we’re considered to be free of all duty. We’re also considered to be free of all duty while we’re in the maintenance hangar arguing with our employer whether or not we need 8 or 10 hours of rest that night.

We eventually got the hotel, where I slept solidly until 6am, when I had to get up to get to the airport in time for our 7am departure. When we got the airport, we discovered that the 5am departure (the one that Mesa had originally wanted us to depart on) hadn’t left yet, due to inexplicable ATC delays. Furthermore, our flight out was overbooked. They ended up putting me on the very-delayed 5am flight, and the rest of our crew on the later flight.

After getting to Denver, we’d missed everything but the afternoon round-trip flight to Aspen. All we had to do was work one flight to Aspen and back, then we could go home.

For Neal, I think it’s prudent if I point out that at this point, while waiting for the Aspen departure, I consumed an excellent breakfast burrito. It turns out that the best breakfast burrito I’ve had in the DEN airport thus far comes not from any of the Mexican restaurants, but instead from “Heidi’s Brooklyn Deli.” This is unexpected and quite queer, considering that I don’t think one can acquire a Breakfast Burrito in Brooklyn at all. Additionally, Heidi’s also has truly awful bagels, so I’m thinking that perhaps they need a different name.

While waiting for the Aspen trip, I had to undergo many harangues from my coworkers, many of whom were seriously inconvenienced by our whole ordeal. You see, because we weren’t able to work a flight to Durango, that flight had to be assigned to a reserve crew. But that reserve crew was apparently unable to work the 6am departure out of Durango that we were scheduled to do, so the crew than was supposed to work the 8am departure had to leave 2 hours early. And so on…

You might think that this is all that could possibly go wrong on this trip, but that’s because you don’t understand what it’s like working at an airline. A trip either goes smoothly all the way, or the entire thing becomes a disaster. This was the latter.

At the appropriate time, we met the inbound aircraft that we’d be taking out to Aspen. Unfortunately, the crew who brought it in had several maintenance problems with it, the most damning of which turned out to be the weather radar. We can’t fly into an area of known thunderstorms without the weather radar, and this radar wasn’t working at all. Maintenance had no spare radar parts on hand. Furthermore, there were no spare airplanes since maintenance was still unable to fix the airplane with the broken flaps in Grand Junction.

This meant that we sat around for an hour or so until the company decided to steal the plane from another flight and give it to us in order to go to Aspen. It turned out that the crew we stole the plane from was the same one that we’d caused to wake up two hours early that morning in Durango. They were not happy.

The flight to Aspen turned out to be one of the hardest I’ve ever done in the Dash. The weather was awful, and we had to hold over Aspen while we considered our option. The Captain was flying, but he got confused about the direction of the hold that we’d been assigned. Fortunately, I’m a good FO and caught the mistake before he made it. It was the first time I’ve ever had to hold in the Dash. After about 15 minutes worth of playing telephone to our dispatcher via the airport operations in Aspen over the radio, we had the necessary information to return to Denver. Our planned alternate was Grand Junction, but we really didn’t want to go there. Just as I was about to ask the controller to let us out of the hold and go back to Denver, he reported that the weather had just improved in Aspen.

The visibility was just above the minimums we needed for the approach, and the cloud bases were being reported just above the minimum altitude we would be allowed to descend. So we were legal to shoot the approach, and had a good reason to think we’d be able to see the runway when we got down there.

The approach and landing were as uneventful as one could ask for in Aspen, which meant that it was still a whole lot of work. The instrument approach into Aspen is such that we wind up terribly high and close to the runway where we break out of the clouds. Fortunately, steep approaches are what the Dash is good at. The reason the approach is so steep is because the airport sits in a valley surrounded by giant mountains.

The flight back to Denver was relatively uneventful, and I was thrilled to finally get home.

Synecdoche, NY

7 June 2009 at 9:01 pm
by Berck

I have mixed feelings about Charlie Kaufman’s work. I loved Adaptation, but consider Being John Malkovich to be one of the worst movies of all time. I’ve seen all of his movies, and I’ll probably keep watching, but I hope they get better.

He can be terribly entertaining, but usually he’s wasting time trying to be profound. I understood Synecdoche, NY just fine, but I didn’t really like it. It’s not that the idea isn’t worth exploring, but it can be done in better ways. Aside from a scene early on in the movie, Synecdoche was not entertaining. I think many people will hate the movie simply because they don’t understand it, which is a perfectly valid reason to dislike it. It’s not easily understood, but I don’t think that understanding it makes it much better.

It could just be that I’m in a foul mood and would have liked it better if I were happier at the moment, but I’m not and didn’t. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s bothered by non-coherent plots. Many people (Kelsey, for instance, and possibly Ben) will think it’s absolutely brilliant. As for me, I think Charlie Kaufman is a little too self-absorbed.

Prisons

7 June 2009 at 2:31 pm
by Berck

The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. This is an excellent article.