Against the wind
“…Sometimes doing almost nothing for a few seconds is the best course of action…”
“Descent flight level one hundred”. As I spin the altitude selector I hear the harsh triple-bleat of the master caution. An orange light appears in front of my face. I glance across to the centre screen, the thrust levers slide backward. “Unscheduled stab trim” announces my colleague.
I shoot a glance back at the flight instruments, my hand resting lightly on the control wheel. I brush the autopilot disconnect with my thumb to remind myself where it is. Still there. Same as always. I begin to read out the autopilot modes to the other pilot. Everything is behaving normally – the aircraft is behaving predictably. No hills nearby. Not about to do anything dumb.
Sometimes doing almost nothing for a few seconds is the best course of action.
“OK, I’ll take the radio. QRH, Unscheduled stabiliser trim please”. Simon reaches to the side pocket and pulls the thick quick reference handbook out. He adjusts the overhead spotlight to brighten the soft glow of ambient cockpit lighting. My eyes flick down to the trim indicator… I’m sure that I can see it moving. The EICAS alert disappears for a second or two and then returns.
Under my hand the control wheel moves. The gentle bank begins a long sweep around the north-eastern corner of Moscow in the early hours of a summer morning. There is a half light ebbing through the windows. Five minutes ago the cabin crew called to tell us that they were finished and that they would sit down shortly. The weather radar sweeps silently through the yellow-grey gloom. A slight shudder passes through the airframe as the 767 pushes through blousey cumulus which have stopped out and lasted the night.
I watch the pitch symbol creep up the pitch scale. Pixels colliding. An imperceptible quickening in the rate. My interest changes from observer to actor: double click on the autopilot. A warning siren. Silenced. I tell Simon that I’m flying manually. The shiny surface of the control wheel pushes insistently into the heel of my hand. Much stronger than I anticipated. The nose of the aircraft bounces up a few degrees. I shove back. “Keep an eye on me here, Simon”. A firm push and I have the measure of the wounded bird. “I think I’d like to just level out here while you get that checklist done. What do you think?”
We glance at each other. The radio is alive again. “Speedbird two three five, contact one, one, niner decimal seven, maintain flight level one hundred on reaching”. We declare an emergency to get the spotlight on us. Simon negotiates a straight line in space. The controller is begrudging.
Our self-made gap in the workload means that we can methodically tick through each step without getting distracted by other demands. Metronomic and methodical. ‘Click, click’! Simon lifts two guarded switches near the thrust levers. More selections. With the left trim module out of the picture the problem seems to be cured. Mindful of language difficulties and our gently reducing fuel state we quickly wrap the checklist up and reboot our minds back into normal flying. Automation back in. What is the aircraft doing, where are we in space, has our ‘toolbox’ of capability been raided?
Did that pitch up unsettle or upend anyone in the cabin? Does the lost trim module make a difference to our landing? From beginning to end the whole process was probably less than three minutes. A simple failure had taxed our ability to prioritise the big ticket items, share some understanding of the plan then follow through on a plan.
Back to the navigation display. Still nothing much on the weather radar but between discussions with air traffic control and weather reports we know that the last few miles may be rough. Messing around dealing with the wayward trim module has left us high. I grip the speedbrake handle and ease the brakes into the airflow. I watch the vertical speed increase along with noise of air colliding with the panels on the wing.
Nothing you have just read actually happened. Well, not for real at any rate. I am about fifteen minutes in to my annual ‘Line Oriented Evaluation’ in a full motion ‘Level D’ simulator. It might as well be the real aircraft. LOE’s are no longer new: not every airline has the time or resources to create such a programme. The old regime was skills testing. Stick and rudder. Set pieces. Challenging in their own right but essentially a collection of unlikely and disconnected events strung together to meet the needs of a regulator.
LOE is intended to expose flight crews to realistic events in the controlled and assessible environment of the simulator. They are designed to offer up a scenario that might happen tomorrow. This includes all the medium-level trivia that has to be dealt with or scooped off to one side for a few moments as the situation demands.
Once a year – in addition to the set-piece skill test – each crew will have the opportunity to fly one of the three preset scenarios. This one starts at 20,000 feet in the descent. Some start on the parking gate, some in the cruise.
The common theme is to be found in the learning: structure wins every time. A good outcome is the happy outcome of joining what you know with what you can do. Of course both knowing and doing can all come to nothing if the ‘how’ isn’t up to much. Knowledge, skill and behaviour. Getting the ‘how’ right means that the speed, pace and thoroughness can all be ramped up or down depending on the event type. Thoroughness? Yup – ultimately everything in aviation is against a timer of sorts. Even if it is just the size of your fuel tank. As Bob Seager said: “Deadlines and commitments/what to leave in?/what to leave out?”
So what did I learn today? As usual, the video took no prisoners. I took away that I am pretty good at sharing relevant information – and at bringing suggestions and options out of my colleague. I could probably take a bit more time when it comes to rounding off the tail end of some non-normal procedures. Overall, I’m happy that the best skill that I learned was how to steal good ideas from other talented aviators and pretend that they were mine.