A Pilot Learns How Not to Fly
Rain sizzled on the windshield as we were flung into a dark gray cloud. I was flying a Saab 340, a twin-engine propeller driven aircraft, from the right seat. I was the first officer (co-pilot) for this flight. I knew we shouldn’t be trying to fly around thunderstorms that were remnants of a hurricane. I should have kept us on the ground.
As if to reinforce my guilt, we were struck by lightning. And that was just the beginning.
I was twenty-six, with over two-thousand hours of flying in my logbook, when I was hired by the small regional airline based in Burlington, Vermont. The captain thought we could beat the line of thunderstorms, known as a squall line, between Hartford, Connecticut, and Albany, New York. I didn’t think we should try. It was my job to convince him we should stay on the ground and wait out the storms.
Prior to being hired by the airline, I had taught crew resource management to aspiring commercial pilots. Crew resource management involved teaching pilots how to effectively communicate and share the piloting duties on the airliners that were all flown with two pilots. Crew resource management was required training at the airlines ever since a Lockheed L-1011 crashed into the Everglades with two pilots and a flight engineer at the controls in 1972. No one was paying attention to flying the plane. All three pilots were so distracted with changing a light bulb for the landing gear indicator that no one noticed the autopilot had been disengaged. The airplane made a slow descent into the alligator-infested swamp.
A second accident in the Canary Islands five years later, the worst aviation disaster in history, reinforced the need for crew resource management training. A first officer failed to stop a captain from taking off even though he suspected another airplane was still on the runway. The two airplanes, both Boeing 747s, collided on the runway in the fog. Crew resource management training emphasized the need for first officers to communicate effectively to captains, and to collaborate on decisions on the flight deck. I taught these concepts every semester for four years, but didn’t apply my expertise when it was needed the most.
When the lightning hit us, the two computer screens in front of me went black. They contained all the flight information such as our altitude and airspeed, as well as navigation information. I had to use a few small and awkwardly located backup instruments to fly the plane. Fortunately, the blackness lasted only a few seconds and everything turned back on.
Meanwhile, eight of the nine passengers, and the one flight attendant, were barfing in the cabin due to the severe turbulence -- and fear.
Turbulence can break an airplane apart in midair. The turbulence associated with thunderstorms is composed of strong updrafts and downdrafts, and rapidly changing wind conditions known as wind shear. It is as if a giant hand grasps your airplane and shakes it until pieces come off.
As my head smacked the ceiling despite my seat belt and shoulder harness, I reflected on how, just moments before, I had my chance to keep us from taking off. As we were taxiing out, the red cargo smoke alarm illuminated with a ding on the panel in front of me. The response to a cargo smoke alarm was to push the button for the cargo fire extinguisher, also known as the “doggy snuffer” because it kills any animals in the cargo bay. I was as much a dog lover as anyone, but even the sign at my vet’s office warned not to risk human life to save an animal. I thought I should push the button, but the captain didn’t agree.
“I’m sure it’s just moisture,” the captain said in response to the alarm, and went back to fiddling with the radar screen to see where the squall line was now. Apparently he had seen the cargo smoke alarm go off before in heavy rain due to moisture building up in the cargo bay.
I thought, “What if it is a cargo fire and we ignore it?”
“OK, so it’s your turn to fly this leg,” he added.
Great, I thought.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wait this out? It looks like it is moving fast and the turbulence was pretty bad coming in here,” I pleaded my case for not going.
“It’s a short flight. I think we can beat it. If we can’t we’ll go around it, but it’s worth a shot. I could sure use a nap,” he added, almost as an afterthought.
I remember thinking if he had just let me push the extinguisher, we all could have taken a nap right there in Hartford.
I could barely hear the captain over the pelting of the rain and the whacking of the windshield wipers as we taxied for takeoff. As we approached the runway I realized that everyone else was waiting out the storms. The normally congested radio frequency was eerily quiet. The taxiways were empty except for the puddles and us. This was nuts. Sometimes the control tower would close the airport if the thunderstorms were close enough, but we were in the calm downpour before the storms arrived. We were cleared for takeoff.
The first ten minutes after takeoff were bumpy but tolerable. Then with a jolt the turbulence started as we entered the dark, puffy clouds, bursting with rain. From the colorful radar screen, with its reds and yellows, and the greenish color of more clouds to the west, I knew we were not going to beat the squall line.
“Could you ask for a block altitude?” I yelled at the captain so he could hear me over the sound of rain pummeling us. A block altitude would give us a range of altitudes to fly. It was impossible to fly one altitude with the strong updrafts and downdrafts. The reply that came back over the radio from air traffic control was revealing.
“You’re the only plane in the area. You can have any altitude you want.”
The implication was that no one was stupid enough to have taken to the skies in this weather. Meanwhile, the captain was fiddling with the radar screen, as if he tweaked it enough, the thunderstorms would go away. The flight attendant kept calling from the back for updates on when we would be in Albany. Most of our vomit-covered passengers knew this trip normally was over in thirty minutes. We had been thrashing around for an hour and a half.
Finally the squall line moved through, and we broke out of the clouds in Albany. The rainbow the captain pointed out to the passengers probably did little to lift their spirits. I wondered if some of them might never want to fly again.
One person who would not get back on an airplane was the flight attendant. She quit right there in Albany.
On the way to the hotel, the captain conceded that maybe waiting out the storms would have been a better idea. I was so disappointed in myself that I nearly quit with the flight attendant that day. It was my job to advocate for the safest course of action. The captain was a congenial kind of guy. He probably would have been fine with staying on the ground, if only I had made my case more effectively. That was part of the problem. It was easier to tell a jerk he was wrong than a nice guy. But my responsibility was to the passengers -- not worrying about being well liked. A lot of well-liked pilots were dead because no one wanted to tell them they were wrong.
Pilots have always faced two seasonal adversaries in their quest to fly. The thunderstorms of summer, and the ice of winter. Ice forms in clouds or in precipitation when the temperature is below freezing. No matter what kind of airplane pilots are flying, if the pilots want to keep it flying, they need to get out of the situation that is producing ice. Airplanes are not designed to fly with ice on their wings; ice adds weight and destroys lift -- both at odds for defying gravity. To get out of the ice, pilots may have to climb, or descend, or get out of the clouds -- whatever it takes. The trick is to know where there isn’t any ice.
My airline flew lots of trips in the “snow belt” of upstate New York in cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. If being struck by lightning had not taught me how to be a better first officer, then some footprints in the snow that winter were going to add to my education -- like a second ghost from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The footprints belonged to a pilot who worked at my airline and lived in Albany. He had returned to our home airport of Burlington, Vermont from a four-day trip. It was snowing when he landed and the snow was expected to continue throughout the night. It was his habit at the finish of a trip to catch a ride home with a cargo pilot who flew every night from Burlington to Albany.
On this particular night he was late and landed just as the Cessna Grand Caravan, the largest single-engine turboprop on the market, was being loaded with the last of its cargo. He ran from the Saab to the Grand Caravan parked a few yards away on the ramp. I imagine he must have been relieved to not have to wait until the next day to catch a flight home. In his haste he likely did not see the ice and snow on the wings. He could not have known the cargo pilot, in an added bit of irreverence for the weather and its power, had overloaded the airplane by 1,100 pounds.
They wobbled down Runway 15, struggling to get airborne, and crashed into the ridge within five minutes. Both pilots died in the crash. I had seen my fellow aviator’s footprints in the fresh snow. They marked the last steps he took from the parking spot of the Saab to where they loaded the Grand Caravan every night. It was a somber reminder of the hostile environment we flew in when the weather turned bad.
As spring arrived during my first year at the airline, I moved up in seniority and got the benefit of being able to fly more favorable schedules. This also meant that I found myself flying with the most senior captain at the airline. It was intimidating because senior captains had a long tradition of flying for the airline. Some were eager to share their expertise with first officers. For others, it was a sign that their decisions were never to be questioned. I had never flown with this captain before as we began a four-day trip.
On the third day of the trip we were behind schedule due to the many things that can delay airplanes. We were supposed to end up in Ithaca, New York at 11 p.m., but it was after midnight and we were still on a leg into Binghamton. The captain was close to the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots. He talked a lot about the past as I flew, and as it got later I noticed that he kept falling behind. He missed radio calls from air traffic control, forgot to call our company operations center to tell them we were inbound, and had to be reminded repeatedly to finish our required checklists. It was as if he was asleep with his eyes open.
When we landed in Binghamton I was relieved to learn that fog had moved into Ithaca. The regulations dictated that for every runway the forecasted weather needed to show that we would have enough visibility to see the runway, or landing minimums. Usually that meant that we needed a forecast that said we could see half a mile, but for some runways the requirements were higher for many reasons. For Ithaca the landing minimums were three-quarters of a mile. The fog had already moved in and the forecast was for half a mile until sunrise. It was simple -- we could not go and would have to spend the night in Binghamton.
Unfortunately the captain did not realize that we needed more visibility, and the company dispatcher who provided us with the weather also missed the fact that we couldn’t take off and head for Ithaca because of the fog. Normally the dispatcher would have realized the weather was less than landing minimums, and would have cancelled the flight. Not only was I worried about the weather, but I also knew this captain was not up to par at this late hour. It was approaching 1 a.m. and he had been ready for a nightcap since about 9 p.m.
If we had taken off, we would have been in the precarious position of looking for the runway at night in fog. If we didn’t see the runway, then we would have to abort the approach. That involved executing a fast-paced maneuver that required a lot of tasks to be completed in a short period of time. It was also something that rarely ever happened, and so the last time we had both done it was in our last training session. It was like throwing a fourth ball to a juggler that had only practiced with three for the last six months.
I don’t know if being struck by lightning did the trick, or if the footprints in the snow sparked the change in me. Whatever it was, I was not the same first officer who had ineffectively pleaded with the captain in the past.
“Call operations and tell them we can’t go. We need three-quarters of a mile, and it’s down to a half,” I told the captain.
“No, we’re good to go,” he responded, clearly not aware of the need for more visibility.
I repeated myself one more time, but he wasn’t getting it. The next words out of my mouth shocked even me.
“I’m going to get the rental car and head to the hotel.”
The flight attendant was standing next to me, looking bewildered at this conflict between the two pilots who were supposed to be working together.
I looked at her and said, “We can’t go. I am going to the hotel. Care to join me?”
Without hesitation she said, “Yeah, I’m going with you.”
The captain looked dismayed, but I now had his attention.
“We can’t go. It’s below minimums. We need three-quarters of a mile,” I repeated.
The captain called the company dispatcher again and confirmed that I was right. Not willing to give up his last semblance of authority, he returned from making the call to say, “Yeah, you know we can’t go. We don’t have minimums. Let’s go to the hotel.”
He then went on to explain to me in detail why we couldn’t go, as if it was his discovery in the first place. I didn’t care. I just wanted to sleep peacefully that night, knowing that I had done my job. I had learned one of the most important lessons for a pilot: how not to fly.
This article was first published in The Atlantic on January 15, 2016. You can read it at https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/airplane-pilot-storm-training/424407/
Shirley Phillips, Ph.D., is a Professor of Aeronautical Science at Southern New Hampshire University, Science Writer, Researcher and Airline Transport Rated Pilot/Instructor. She is an industry expert on human factors in aviation and is a published author.