Ladies and gentlemen, from the fRight Deck, Happy Halloween!

Over at my “Adventures of Cap’n Aux” blog, we celebrate Halloween with a traditional post called, “The Darwin Awards—Aviation Style.”

If you haven’t heard of them, the Darwin Awards “salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it…”

Sadly, there are plenty of tales of aeronautical stupidity out there, almost too many to choose from. While we have a frightfully good—if slightly macabre—time celebrating the Darwin Aviation Award recipients, Safety in the cockpit it no laughing matter.

Which brings us to today’s post.

It has been over a hundred years now since man has taken to the sky under his own mechanical power, and safety has advanced dramatically. Over the past century, the most hazardous mode of transportation ever devised by man has evolved into the safest—by orders of magnitude. When you fly on an airliner from here to Timbuktu, you are exponentially safer than your drive to the airport.

It may be a cliche now, but it remains one of my favorite sayings: “Safety is No Accident—it must be planned.”

Indeed, safety must be planned. While every airline has a system in place to maximize safety, there are still critical issues that must be addressed on any given flight, in order to plan that accident-free journey. Every system ever built by man, at least so far, needs some semblance of human intervention and judgement in order to be tweaked to “maximum safety.”

For example, when I board my A321 aircraft, I am handed a stack of paperwork, called the “Dispatch Release.” It is the Flight Plan, in a nutshell. A professional Dispatcher inputs the parameters for the flight, and a very sophisticated computer program plans the flight based on winds, ride and weather for the most efficient route. The Dispatcher takes this plan that the computer spits out, reviews and tweaks it, then sends it to me.

The Release will contain such items as:

  • Flight Route
  • Fuel Burn, including
    • Taxi Fuel
    • Alternate Fuel
    • Holding Fuel
    • Contingency Fuel
  • For the specific plane and airport:
    • Performance (Takeoff) Data for any given runway
    • Weight and Balance data
  • Weather Package, including
    • Takeoff, Destination and Alternate weather, both current and forecast
    • Enroute Airport and General Area weather, both current and forecast
    • SIGMETS (SIGnificant METeorological events, such as areas of thunderstorms) and AIRMETS (AIRman’s METeorological weather that is perhaps not as significant, but still good to know, such as forecast areas of moderate turbulence)
    • NOTAMS (NOTices to AirMen), of anything from taxiway closures to NAVAID (NAVigational AIDs) out of service
  • Any other safety-related items

As Captain, I must review this data and approve it. Often, this information is collated hours ahead of time, so some data may be stale. I must make sure it is current, that the weather is holding as forecast, and ultimately deem it safe to fly. So, for example, I may order more fuel, or contact the Dispatcher in order to add an alternate airport if the weather is starting to look worse than forecast.

In other words, intervention, based on human judgement.

Safety, being planned.

No flight is ready till the paperwork is done!

While I am reviewing this paperwork, my First Officer is doing something similar, by walking around the aircraft, inspecting for damage or issues, and also reviewing the cockpit safety equipment. Both of us will review the aircraft’s maintenance logbook to look for issues as well.

In an airliner with over a million parts, there will always be issues. Were those issues properly addressed by Maintenance, and then properly signed off in the logbook? Are there any MEL’s (Minimum Equipment List) that affect the flight?

An MEL is a standard list of items that can be safely deferred by Maintenance, to address at a more convenient time. For example, would you want your flight delayed for 3 hours while the airline flew in a new toilet seat for your plane? Thought not. The lavatory could be “MEL’d” for repair at a later time, so that the flight can roll.

More systems and procedures are in place these days, systems and procedures that have evolved over the past century, through the harsh lessons of those that have come before us. Systems such as Checklists, CRM (Crew Resource Management), and standard phraseology, all of which is practiced regularly by every airline pilot, both on the line and in their annual or semiannual (depending on the airline) recurrent simulator training.

No mode of transportation will ever have zero risk. Rest assured, however, that the men and women up front in the cockpit, as well as your cabin crew, and the thousands of airline personnel behind the scenes, working on and with your airplane, are the very professionals tweaking the system for maximum safety.

This year, drive safely to and from those Halloween parties (have a Designated Driver, or take über), and, while driving, watch out for all the little ghosts and goblins out there canvassing your neighborhood for tricks and treats.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this fun photo one reader sent in, of an eerily accurate depiction of a cackling witch—on his weather radar screen:

Could it be the proverbial, “ghost in the machine?”

Here’s to you all having a frightfully good time this Halloween season.

This is Cap’n Aux . . . signing off!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Bob Hoover, lost to us this week. Both Jimmy Doolittle and General Chuck Yeager called Bob the greatest “stick and rudder” pilot they’d ever seen.
Those of you embarking upon your airline career, take a lesson from Bob. In these days of button-pushing, computerized flying, YOU become a stick and rudder pilot. Learn stalls. Learn spins. Learn aerobatics. Learn what makes your plane tick. It may save your life some day.