Mission Statement

Today we take an airline’s schedule for granted. We are surprised when a large snowstorm forces flight cancellations or when a line of thunderstorms causes delays. We regard the pilot’s job as routine, and that is the case much of the time.

It was not always so. In the early days airplanes could not vault over the Rockies as if the snow and granite weren't there. They could not shrug ice off their heated wings. They could not follow programmed profiles in four dimensions. Pilots had to fly these airplanes.

Seventy-five years ago Canada's national airline flew its first “transcontinental” mission: Montreal to Vancouver via Ottawa, North Bay, Kapuskasing, Winnipeg, Regina, and Lethbridge. The aircraft was a Lockheed 10A. I don't have a 10A or the resources to fly it, but I do have a Beech Bonanza, a single-engine aircraft of similar performance. Her name is Arcadia, after the fictional airline in my novel. Together we are going to fly that route this year. Our mission is to do again what the pioneers did: fly through Canadian weather at low altitude, evaluating the real risk and flying when we can, flying by hand.


To remember and celebrate that achievement of 1939, yes. To observe and celebrate how far airline flying has come since then – yes, that too. But there is more. Between then and now is a story, a story that includes rough weather and anxious moments. These advances and adventures are not always smooth sailing. There is risk, danger, and hard work. That is where the real story lies.

Although much remains in official records and memoirs, in news stories and film, much of the history of Canada's airlines has been lost. Many of the early pioneers have passed on, taking their stories with them. We could use their perspective now, as we face the coming shortage of fuel and pilots. Once again, there is rough weather ahead.

Flying is like living. Planning and good judgement are essential for survival. But once you're off the ground or out of the childhood home, it is no longer a rehearsal. The red light is on. You're live to air. Flying has been my trade now for forty-five years, and that live to air quality is still what gets my juices going.

Since young hotshot are not words which apply to me (I turn seventy this year), I have to make sure I am well prepared for this mission. I will be flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) and sometimes in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) without an autopilot (the Bonanza does not have one) and without a co-pilot. That can get pretty busy. But I do have WAAS GPS, an electronic PFD, and an iPad. The GPS lets us navigate anywhere and do an IFR approach at most airports. On the electronic PFD (Aspen 1000 Pro) I can set cleared altitudes and approach minima, just like I used to do on the Airbus. On the iPad I have the app ForeFlight, which acts as my electronic flight bag (charts and approach plates for all of North America) my moving-map display, and my weather briefing service, among other things. It is hooked up to a GPS and to a satellite weather link.

For the last three years I have been training for this mission. Written exams. Instrument rating renewal. Re-introduction to flying light aircraft. Aerobatic instruction. Working steadily toward regaining my Class II Instructor rating after forty-some years. And practical experience, of course. I have flown the Bonanza between Montreal and California. By this summer, God willing, it will have been two round trips.

Flying experience is measured in hours and in recent hours. These are handy because they are statistical, but they are not the whole story. Experience does not necessarily lead to competence. More important are real learning and practice. You can't perform a maneuver you don't know about, and you can't do it well until you have practiced it.

I know this from my own experience. I retired from airline flying at age sixty and didn't “touch a pole” for six and a half years. When I decided to come back to flying my performance was far from an acceptable standard, even with my 18,000 hours. With a valid instrument rating and my ATR, I was “qualified” to teach instrument and multi-engine flying, but lacked the recency, confidence, and knowledge to do it well. I had to go back to school.

Old dogs are reluctant to see the need for new tricks. Breaking through my crusty assumptions to teach me is not a job for the faint of heart. I have been fortunate to find teachers who will challenge me and move me along, almost against my will.

This burst of learning is a fragile thing. Old age is gaining on me. I know how the race ends. But Arcadia and I plan to fly the mission this summer of 2014, re-enacting the flight of 1939. Much of the detail of that flight has been lost, but we will re-create it by living it. It will be its own story, but it will have much in common with the lost story of 1939 – enough, I hope, to bring that story to life and bestow honour where honour is due.

A Canadian Multi-Crew Licence?

document.write(" serif">Canada's Flight Training Reputation

Trying to keep Canadian flight training competitive is a laudable goal. We have a well-deserved reputation for competence, earned the hard way by flying in our terrible weather around our huge unpopulated country with plenty of pressure to get there (sooner or later) because it's often the only way to get there.

Much training business has come to our shores because of this reputation. The way to keep it coming is to maintain and bolster our good reputation in these trying times.

Loss of Control Accidents

In the last decade the character of airline tragedies has changed completely. Modern aircraft are so reliable that engine and system failures are rare. Aircraft and crew are designed and trained to deal with these failures if they occur. What we are seeing instead are crew failures.

These have come to be called loss of control accidents. The well-known examples are AF447, Colgan Air at Buffalo, and now Asiana 214 at San Francisco. There are many more, including, most recently, Southwest at LaGuardia. These accidents were all caused by crew action (or inaction).

(That includes, by the way, AF447 and Colgan, in which icing played a peripheral role. Flying into known icing is something for which the crew is responsible.)

These accidents all have something in common: pilot incompetence.

I know that sounds harsh, but it must be said. It is an accurate statement. The pilots in these cases may have known their airplane fairly well. They may have memorized their company's operating manual and their Standard Operating Procedures. But in all cases they did not understand some of the basics of flying an airplane. Colgan and AF447 fell into the ground or sea with the wing stalled, not flying, because the pilots pulled back on the control column and held the back pressure despite warnings and stick shakers. The Asiana crew pulled back to stretch their glide, even though they were far gone on the back side of the drag curve, within a few knots of the stall.

What is missing in these cases is basic flying training. The causes are legion and still being debated, but the fix is simple. In order to get a license, especially a license to fly a large airplane with many paying passengers aboard, a pilot must demonstrate the ability to take off, fly, and land an airplane while keeping it within its safe envelope. He must, in other words, demonstrate competence.

Commercial Reasoning

Canada's proposed Multi-Crew Licence has this as its rationale: Canadian flight training operators providing commercial training to foreign candidates are unable to compete with foreign operators and risk losing a segment of their industry (my emphasis).

Under various names, the Multi-Crew Licence has had a role in most loss of control accidents.

On the face of it this license seems reasonable. There is always a Captain who has a real license to supervise the others with lesser licenses. But on closer inspection what we are really saying is that a pilot who cannot legally take a friend for a ride can occupy a cockpit seat while the captain is back in First Class (AF447, and the Korean Air flight shot down over the Kamchatka Peninsula). We speak of Crew Concept and Crew Resource Management, but if the only pilot who understands the basics is not on the flight deck, these concepts are moot.

Commercial pressures have brought us, step by innocent-seeming step, to where we are today. Each step seems reasonable, at least at the time. We now routinely fly two-engine airplanes on twelve hour overwater legs. Back in the 1970's that was unthinkable and illegal. In those days airplanes didn't land themselves. Now they can, under the right conditions, and some operations manuals even specify autolands as the normal procedure. Pilots who comply are soon incompetent, unable to land the airplane by hand. But in San Francisco last month the glidepath transmitters were shut down on both runway 28's. Indeed, they had been off since June 1. Manual landings were the only way at KSFO.

The Multi-Crew Licence seems like a logical next step in response to today's commercial pressures. In reality, it is the next step toward complete incompetence on all flight decks.

Public Assumptions

Airlines have done an excellent job marketing a service that whisks you to another continent at half the speed the sun moves. Even with today's oil prices, ticket prices are (in today's dollars) a fraction of what they were in the 1960's. This is the new normal. Flights are uneventful. Pilots are bus drivers. Airplanes land themselves, don't they?

An airplane crashes at San Francisco. There must have been something wrong with the engines. Or perhaps the autothrust? A nosegear collapses on landing at LaGuardia? Obviously a mechanical malfunction.

Marketing has succeeded in making aviation seem safe. But even though airplanes have changed since the 1930's, flying is still a dangerous adventure. The safe arrival of even today's incredible airplanes still depends on the good judgment of pilots.

We don't want to think about that, because pilots are people and can make mistakes. But we'll have to start thinking about it, and acknowledging it, or the crashes will continue.

Feeders, Discount Airlines, and the Elimination of Apprenticeship

Flying is an apprenticeship trade. Like any job worth doing, it takes dedication and a lifetime of learning. I have 45 years and 19,000 hours of experience and I am just beginning to understand how little I know. But I have survived so far and I am very serious about continuing to survive. Dying by your own hand at the controls of an airplane is an absolute no-no for a pilot.

I was lucky. I have had (and still have) many fine teachers. When I was a young airline pilot most captains still took their teaching responsibilities seriously. Today's young pilot is not assured of the same. Pressure on unions and pilot salaries is being applied by business methods: spawning and dividing feeders and discount airlines foremost among them. The goal is to lower costs, but the (perhaps unintentional) byproduct is the interruption of the contact between old and young pilots and the teaching and learning that allows. (I believe that lowering wages also directly reduces respect for the job and the job satisfaction of the worker, but that is an argument for another time.) The FAA's response to the Colgan Air crash was to raise the experience requirement for First Officers to 1500 hours, even though it was the captain who was flying and who stalled the airplane and even though the airline had given insufficient training to both pilots on icing and how their aircraft handles ice. I have always understood that pilots are paid to be responsible. I am bemused by today's response to accidents, where band-aids are liberally applied to wounds which obviously require surgery.


Introducing a Multi-Crew Licence in Canada would be just another band-aid papering over the serious issues facing aviation today. Don't do it!

Losing Competence Part II: Asiana 214 and the Loss of Control Accidents

document.write(" serif">News and Public Relations

Deborah Hersman, The NTSB's Chairwoman, has taken some flak in the last few days. But from my perspective, she is one of the few in responsible positions who are looking good.

First a minor annoyance: on Saturday and Sunday news outlets kept repeating a young witness's observation that Asiana 214 came in “low and fast.” Many immediately available facts, including where the aircraft came to rest, made it a slam dunk that the aircraft was, instead, flying way too slowly.

Then on Monday the Korean Government announced they would be “inspecting all Korean B-777's”. On Tuesday and Wednesday various pilot unions called for Ms. Hersman's head, saying presumptions of pilot error were speculative and premature.

Please. I am used to the power players grandstanding their interests, but this is amateur hour. There is only so much ignorance out there.

The Last Thirty Seconds

Now let's get back to what we know. The cockpit cleared the breakwater nicely. The main landing gear and the tail did not. The speed at impact was 106 knots, within a knot or two of the stall speed. (The approach speed should have been 137 kt.) One and a half seconds before impact, engine power increased. Passengers in seats just behind the wing could see spumes of water being thrown up. At four seconds before impact the stick shaker operated, signifying an impending stall. At seven seconds someone is heard on the voice recorder calling for an increase in speed. In his interview the training captain said he went to push the throttles forward but the trainee already had. (Notice at least 5 1/2 seconds elapse between advancing the throttles and the increase in power. Seven seconds spool-up from idle is typical for a fanjet engine.) At 500 feet altitude the training captain became aware that they were too low (the PAPI lights were red over red) and he asks the trainee to pull back. The training captain also notices they are not aligned with the runway. Ms. Hersman says at that point they knew they were low and they were making lateral corrections to line up on the centerline of the runway.

These are the bare facts.

Flight Preparation in Seoul

Now let's go back twelve hours or so to the pilots' briefing. The dispatcher has already produced the flight plan with its route as close as possible to the minimum time track. The weather is good over the Pacific and at destination. Most likely they have fuel for a close alternate, such as Sacramento. It looks easy. But somewhere in the data available to the dispatcher and pilots are these two lines:

ISFO 06/005 SFO NAV ILS RWY 28L GP OTS WEF 1306011400-1308222359

ISFO 06/004 SFO NAV ILS RWY 28R GP OTS WEF 1306011400-1308222359

San Francisco airport (KSFO) always lands on runways 28L and 28R unless a winter storm blows through. With today's light winds and good visibility it is a near certainty that these runways will be in use. But decoding the two lines above (they are called NOTAMS, for Notices To AirMen) we find that the GlidePath (GP) is OuT of Service (OTS) for both runways. The When in EFfect (WEF) is from June 1, 2013 to August 22, 2013 at midnight. This is important because the aircraft cannot fly these approaches on autopilot in the way the pilots are used to.

Here is where we have to move into sensitive territory. (There will be more of these before we're done.) At the end of the article Terror on Jet, in The New York Times on Monday, July 8, we find these lines:

Some experts said that pilots often have little opportunity to practice landings without the aid of such technology . . .

Still, given that the weather was ideal and the guide lights (PAPI, or Precision Approach Path Indicator) were on, making a visual landing should not have been difficult for most commercial pilots . . .

on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, this was a 2 or 3 at the most . . .

Pilot Judgment

A pilot's most important skill is his judgment. (see my Developing Pilot Judgment) He must look at the tasks and maneuvers ahead and ask two questions: Can the airplane do it? and Can I do it?

The former is mostly hard data in the Aircraft Flight Manual Limitations section, but it is also practical knowledge of what the aircraft's systems can and can't do and an understanding of the feedback systems that tell the pilot if the job is being done. (A good example is the AutoThrottle).

The latter question is the more important of the two: Can I do it? The only way to answer is through experience, and it is not measured in flight hours.

Training: have I been trained in this maneuver?

Practice: have I practiced it on my own? What were the results?

Recency: have I done one in the last 30 days? 90 days?

When Asiana's pilots were preparing for the flight in Seoul, the two NOTAM lines about the glidepaths on 28L and 28R should have triggered a dialogue:

We're going to have to do an everything-off visual approach in KSFO. Has any of us been trained for this? Who has practiced one in the last year? Which of us has done one in the last 30 days? 90 days?”

I'd be willing to bet (I'll back this up in future installments) that none of the four pilots had flown a visual approach in the last 90 days. In that case, pilots with sound judgment would never have attempted the visual approach to 28L in KSFO. They would have diverted to Sacramento where there were long runways with functioning ILS systems.

Next: what else they did wrong . . .