Collision Avoidance

Collision Avoidance


Cavern City Air Terminal, New Mexico: circa 1980s

There we were, on a dark night, minding our own business when all of a sudden...

Human error is one thing, but "stupid pilot tricks" are something else. The incident at Cavern City taught me that sometimes survival is a matter of luck and providence. Your odds go down when someone doesn't play by the rules.

Photo underlay by United States Geological Survey (derivative of original)

New Office Chairs...YS-11 Flight Deck

As pilots sometimes refer to the flight deck as "the office" and this aircraft was the first I flew as an airline pilot then yes, these chairs were new, at least to me. The decor you see here, as it appears in a museum piece in Japan, is a bit different than what I had at Mid-Pacfic, but you get the idea. Even after a fair number of hours flying corporate twins, I found this aircraft to be a sluggish handful - two handfuls, to be exact.

As a new hire at an airline, I found that some of the differences between my preparation as a civilian and that for the military flyers began to blur a bit. For example, when someone else is paying for your training, there's a lot less patience if you don't make timely progression. I felt that kind of heat sitting in the right seat of the YS-11 though the sun had set long before our training sessions began.

Photo: Hideeyuki KAMON
CC BY-SA 2.0

DC-8 Simulator

Real or really close to reality? Simulator training provides so many advantages in terms of cost and safety that you have no problems overlooking the few limitations they do have. Early incarnations suffered from a lack of computing power which somewhat compromised their flying capabilities. Even still, they were worthy devices, especially for procedural instruction and for practicing responses to systems malfunctions.

There were no simulators used for my training at Mid-Pacific or for the Hawaiian turbo props. Learning to fly as a second officer on the DC-8 was my first exposure to this kind of synthetic training. I learned how to handle malfunctioning equipment alright, but the instructors who went off the rails weren't as easy to compensate for. There were no procedures for that.

Photo by Author

Low Life Pilot

Living in Holland (familiarly but erroneously translated as "low" land) brought a unique solution to an age-old problem of airline life, namely, what do you do when a furlough comes? There were innumerable obstacles to the transition and yet wonderful opportunities that came with it. I even had a "near death" experience during my time at KLM though when I tried to float out of my body, it came with me.

A big reason for the successful outcome of this gamble was due to Mary who, from the start, embraced this uprooting and saw it as an adventure. Other couples who tried to adjust had a much tougher time of it, and the strain of that only added to the difficulties inherent in switching companies, aircraft, and procedures.

KLM treated us well and we enjoyed perks of employment that I wasn't used to. For instance, the cost of my uniform was absorbed by the company which provided all necessary items except one (two?). Take a good long look at this photo, and try to guess what part of my clothing I had to provide for myself.

Photo by Author

The Northwest Aerospace Training Corporation - NATCO

Most top-tier airlines invested in their own training facilities. This one, in Eagan, Minnesota, was the best facility I had the pleasure of using. It was fabulously conceived and executed, and used by pilots not just at NWA - Northwest Airlines - but at many companies that had contracted to make use of its superb accommodations for their own crews.

The serene setting belies what occurs behind the walls of glass and masonry. This is a place of testing, of revelations, of highs and lows, promise and pressure. I got to see it all during my years there.

Photo © Lonnie Laffen, used by permission

State of the Art DC-10 Simulator at NATCO, 1990s

Simulator sessions aren't the only activity which takes place at the training center, but they certainly are the focus. Much of everything else that goes on inside the facility exists to support these events. Sessions range from the routine to the exotic as dictated by the standard training syllabus, corrective instruction, or in response to special mandates by the FAA.

Some of the most satisfying times in my role as an instructor / evaluator occurred inside "The Box," as the sim is generically referred to. I've also been close to things that were three kinds of crazy, either in what took place during the lesson or in regard to the series of events that occurred to summon a pilot into some sort of special training. And just when you think you've seen it all...

It's just a short walk across the drawbridge to transition from the classroom to where theory must be perfected in practice. Fittingly enough, the moat that separates reality from the land of make believe is made of air.

Photo by Author

"Flight Controls," Sim-Style

The sensation of motion in a simulator is a carefully contrived deception made largely possible by a set of six hydraulic actuators arranged to provide "six degree freedom" movement. (One of those pistons is hidden behind another at extreme left.) "The Box" can pitch forward and aft, bank left and right, and yaw (pivot) left and right. It can do so in combination, adding pitch to bank, for instance.

A careful look shows the attendant hookups which provide data transfer to the external computers (the bundles wrapped in white), air-conditioning (yellow tube), fire suppression (red bottles along the wall and, underneath - I think! - green bottles), and high-pressure hydraulic supply lines (thin black hoses). The smell of hydraulic fluid was a pervasive aroma so distinct that getting a whiff of it today would instantly send me back in time.

The illusion of flight is aided by another accomplice - the visual system projected through flight deck windows. Evidence of that is the large, grayish enclosure seen in the photo above this one. Perhaps the greatest advances in simulator realism for the last couple of decades owes to vastly improved graphics rendering.

This particular simulator was not owned by NWA. We rented it from United Airlines when DC-10 training required maximum output and Northwest didn't have the capacity at NATCO. Crews had to go "off-site" to conduct training wherever suitable facilities could be procured, Denver, in this case.

Photo by Author

My Second Home

I spent several years within the cozy confines of Northwest's DC-10 simulators as an instructor and then as an evaluator giving check rides and certifications for new flight engineers. Volunteering for the training department was a calculated move. It was designed to illuminate the dimly lit margins of my comfort zone which, through repeated close calls, had begun to encroach on my psyche. The strategy worked for a long while, until it became a good idea gone bad.

The black monitor directly behind me displayed the position of the aircraft in cyberspace. The pair of identical touchscreens directly below it are for use by the captain instructor. They are portals for calling up pre-programmed lessons, modifying general parameters like aircraft gross weight and location, making inputs to the weather conditions or aircraft systems configurations, and triggering malfunctions for the crew to handle.

As the second officer instructor, I had a similar setup for making inputs, particularly affecting my student. My station was this side of the black curtain at right. On my screen I could enter an isolation mode that would let me conduct training without affecting the captain and first officer.

Even from this long range vantage point you can sense that the DC-10 flight deck showed maturity over that of its older, four engine sibling, the DC-8. Compared to running that ancient panel, the engineer on the '10 had it much easier.

Photo by Author


Instrument Approach Chart, San Francisco International

Pilots generally need reference materials, especially when operating around the airport. This chart is typical and shows the data needed to fly to landing using the equipment of the Instrument Landing System (ILS) which is still a widely used component in terminal (proximate to the airport) navigation.

The pilot controlling the aircraft during the approach is usually the one to conduct a briefing and will use the chart as a guide. Depending on whatever else is happening (extremely low visibility, aircraft malfunction, special operations, etc.) other materials may need to be incorporated. With airlines increasingly opting for electronic delivery of such information, it can be difficult to manage all the necessary reference sources on a single, tablet-sized screen.

Photo: Federal Aviation Administration
Public Domain


Airport Chart, San Francisco International

Once you get on the ground and clear the runway, be prepared to hear something like this:

"Hawaiian Two Heavy, from TANGO left onto BRAVO. At ECHO, pass behind an inbound Delta Airbus. Continue on BRAVO and contact Ramp abeam HOTEL."

Obviously, it's always a good idea to study up ahead of time and have some idea of what you'll be instructed to do. At the largest airports there can be several charts dedicated just to taxi routes and even more for the parking areas.

Photo: Federal Aviation Administration
Public Domain

Crash Landing in Amsterdam??

Ok, excuse the bad acting but this isn't that far from the truth for pilots flying internationally, particularly to the east and through the darkness. For a number of reasons (late departure, inflight diversion, didn't sleep too well the night prior) you might arrive at your room exhausted. If you fell asleep with your uniform on, you wouldn't be the first to do so.

The comfort of the rooms can vary greatly from one layover city to another and even at the same property. In my career, Pago-Pago and Las Vegas layovers enjoy especially dubious distinction, with Rome an honorable mention. Other locales were fabulous.

If you fly overseas, this kind of scene can easily happen 500 times or more in your carrer. Say you average ten ocean crossings per month, that's 120 in a year. After eight years or so, that's an even 1000. Half of those, for example the ones heading to Europe, can win you the "Face Down 500" award. (You can pick up your trophy after your nap.)

Photo by Author

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