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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Somtimes I Don't Know Everything"

T.H.ursday's with Tom Hill

Interesting title, huh? I'm sure some of the young aviators I fly with can't believe I'm making such a statement. Well, it's true. It is absolutely true.

I have mentioned flying our little Beech 1900 all the way from the Continental United States to the Hawaiian Islands a few times. I found out that I don't know everything on one of our returns from Hawaii. Here is the challenge in this particular situation for this particular aircraft: there is simply not enough fuel capacity on the Beech 1900 to fly from the closest point in the Continental United States to the Big Island of Hawaii and still meet all the reserve fuel rules. For those who don't know, reserve fuel rules pertain to the fuel you're supposed to have onboard the aircraft after you get to your destination. You do not fly 2,000+ miles to plan to arrive overhead with no fuel. You have to carry extra fuel. Since it's more than 2,000 miles from the California Coast to the Big Island, our little airplane can't carry enough fuel. 

Some of you are probably wondering, "How do you get there, then?" That's easy - through Alaska. Yup, the shortest legs take you up the West Coast into Alaska, then out on to the Aleutians to Adak, AK. Next, you fly the 1,400 miles from there to Midway Atoll straight south. Finally, you turn back east for the last thousand mile leg to Hawaii. Simple! Starting in New Mexico where we live, it's a six or seven day adventure if the weather cooperates. As we all know, weather in Alaska does not cooperate. That's a blessing and a curse in this story.

A couple of years ago, when returning from Hawaii via Midway, we decided to save a day on our return leg. Normally, with just a little head wind and a little adverse weather at the destination, we would have to return using the reverse of the route we took to get to Hawaii--i.e., through Adak, AK. Anyone that's been to Adak for longer than pit stop knows it’s not an easy place to live. The wind is constantly howling, there are very few civilized resources left on the island after the US Navy left in the 90's, and the weather is completely unpredictable. You know those epic storms in the reality series “Deadliest Catch”? That’s Adak. To make things even more interesting for aviators, the runway orientation and the surrounding mountainous terrain make the best departure path the opposite of your arrival path. If the winds are blowing, like they always seem to be, that awesome headwind you had on landing will turn into a nightmare Take Off and Landing Data (TOLD) tailwind on the way out. This means you’re stuck if there are the usual heavy winds.

By the way - god bless the folks who suffer the elements in places like Adak. Most of us have no idea what real challenge is unless you hear a few of their stories. 

But back to this story:

To say we were motivated to bypass Adak, or Cold Bay, or any of the other remote airports out on the Aleutians is an understatement. If the weather cooperated, we wanted to try for Anchorage, 2200 miles away from Midway. Most of you are now thinking, "Wait a second. Why can you make Midway to Anchorage in one hop if you couldn't fly from the West Coast to Hawaii?" There are a couple of reasons. First is the possibility of a tail-wind most of the way from the West Coast--that would be zero chance. And, because of the Great Circle route of flying the curve of the globe, we had good diverts along the way. The Great Circle route took us right past all those remote airports on the Aleutians if our fuel burn didn’t work out right. Finally, Anchorage is a populated location with many potential diverts allowing us to plan a much smaller fuel reserve.

Since this was going to be such an epic flight, all three pilots onboard did their own flight planning and weather research independently. If you hadn't guessed, it's not the easiest thing in the world to get good wind data in the middle of the North Pacific. Working with a couple of weather professionals back home and out in Hawaii, we had a good feel for the weather by take-off time. All was a go in the end. The weather in Anchorage was cooperating with no low ceilings and minimal snow. And, we had our requisite 10 kt tailwind most of the way.
This was a nine and a half hour flight. For our little airplane, that's gigantic. Not worthy of a record - it wasn't even my longest - but still epic for this little airplane. In the end, I think we thought of every possibility except one thing: what long duration Alaska cold temps at cruising altitude would do to our little New Mexico based airplane. After almost 10 hours of flying, closely monitoring the weather, tweaking the throttles to fly optimally, and the premature elation of actually having it all work out, our left main showed unsafe when we lowered the gear on final. 
Uggggh!!! The left main hydraulic pack that pushes the gear down was a little weaker than the right. We didn’t know that. It worked fine in its home environment, but in -50 deg C temps for almost 10 hours, it was too much.

There we were on final to Anchorage International, a heavy Fedex in front, a heavy Korean Air behind, flying in and out of snow squalls, about an hour of total fuel onboard and us with a good nose gear, good right main gear, but no indication for our left main. Oh, yeah - and it was night time, as if all the other stuff wasn't enough. 

Let me describe the crew setup. I was sitting in the left seat as the Aircraft Commander for the day--i.e. the man in charge. In the right seat, flying the approach, was our youngest pilot with only about 100 hrs in the airplane. Still, he was very experienced overall with a couple thousand hours in 40 different aircraft. And, our chief pilot was sitting as a passenger with a clear view of the gear indicators reading off the checklist for the emergency procedure.

Alternate extension of the landing gear for King Air aircraft is through a floor pump at my right foot. According to the Tech Order, it could take up to 80 pump throws to build enough pressure for the main landing gear to show safe. That's if everything works perfectly.

When the gear indicated unsafe, I threw my seat back and deployed the pump handle. The chief pilot was right there reading the checklist. The co-pilot continued to fly the approach. I pumped and pumped and pumped. When you are pumping head down like I was, it's very difficult to maintain situational awareness of where we were on approach. After what seemed like an eternity without the left main indicating safe, I glanced up to check where we were. We were approaching Decision Height. I called out "Go Around" so we could solve the problem away from the ground. The co-pilot had just started to move the throttles when the chief pilot yelled out, "We got three green!" The co-pilot responded "Continue, we're landing." See, just when we started to go around, the left main indicated safe. The chief pilot updated the aircraft status with a call when he saw the indicators change. The co-pilot made a call and decided to continue and land. I finished the Before Landing checklist. The landing was uneventful.

Afterwards, we talked about what happened. As you can imagine, there were many things going on at the same time there. Decisions needed to be made in short order to tackle the situation. I’m glad we had another pilot onboard to help us through. There wasn’t anything controversial about our decisions from mission planning right up and through lowering the gear. The most interesting topic was the decision to land versus the command to go-around.

In our situation we had a very experienced crew that had flown extensively together. We knew each other and could trust the other guy’s decision process. One thing we all recognized was not everyone had full situational awareness (SA) all the time. Sometimes, the guy making the commands was not the guy with the most information or best position to make the best decisions. I think that was the situation in our case. As I called for the go-around, I made a decision based on what I knew. But, as the power was about to go up the landing gear situation improved which changed everything. The questions became: was it better to follow the go-around call and take a perfectly good aircraft into the night for another radar pattern? Or, was it better to simply adjust to the situation, use the skills we had, and land?

In assessing this situation, you also have to consider that the Aircraft Commander called the go-around. As far as the USAF was concerned, I was fully responsible for the aircraft and everything associated with it. As they say, my rear was on the line. In some situations, this is a very important nuance: there can only be one guy in charge. My direction should have been the rule. But, in this situation, it doesn't make sense NOT to respect the SA and the skills of other people I’m so used to flying with. In other words, just because I say something as the guy in charge does not mean it’s the way it has to be. I can include other inputs.

So, back to this situation: it really came down to who had the most SA. In this case, I called for the go-around based on what I knew. The circumstances changed almost immediately. Then the person flying, the guy with even more SA, made a change in plans leading us to continue the approach and land uneventfully. Even though he wasn’t the Aircraft Commander, he was the guy flying. No one on the airplane knew more about flying and landing that approach than he did.

What’s the lesson here? Even though you are in charge you may not know everything that is going on. Therefore, your commands may not be the best. It is good to be able to include others in your decision process, allowing for changes to commands as circumstances direct. Of course, the unmentioned circumstances from this situation were a uniquely qualified crew with a close rapport from many missions together. Without that, it would have been much more difficult to adjust to circumstances so quickly.

Hopefully, there are little tidbits in this story all you fliers might learn from. The experience sure taught me a lot.



Note: The photos were all taken at Midway Island just prior to his making this epic flight.


  1. Tom, you are absolutely right. The person in command must take others into consideration when stopping the buck as other crew members posses vital information. There is no letter "I" in T.E.A.M. Each member is there for a purpose.

    As for the ultra long hauls in the Beech 1900, I would love to join you sometime on one of these expeditions. Even though it's commercial op, your mission reminds me of the London City UK A318 service we get here at JFK where the flight into JFK has to stop in Shannon to obtain that extra amount of fuel to cross the Atlantic.

    Awesome post, Tom!

    Weekend is almost here, thank goodness....


    1. Jeremy, Thanks so much for your comment. It is an awesome post. One thing we all take for granted... there are no outs if something happened when transiting the oceans like this. And his team was great.

    2. Thanks for the post, Jeremy.

  2. I'm glad it worked out, but I'm not sure I approve. I wasn't there, so I can't judge how quickly it all happened, but if someone (anyone) calls a go around I believe you should go around unless doing so would actually cause an accident. You had the fuel, you should have gone around. Not making that an ironclad rule sets up a "who is in charge" scenario that will eventually bite hard.

    1. That's a good point D.B. But I'm thinking that it came down to the wire. The decision to go was based on the gear not being down. The decision to land was based on all green. I suspect the pilot flying would have gone had he not been able to make a safe landing.

      Yes... not having been there, it's hard to determine what's right, as that moment. Sometimes all the planning, and hanger talk... we just do what we feel is best at the time with all the data in our brains.

      I had a textbook case of "should have gone around" a year ago. But based on multiple pieces of data combining together , pressing on was the better course... for me.

      I have to believe after than long flight, and all the other circumstances... going around, at night with the gear hanging out, and I assume low fuel because of the leg... landing was a good choice at the time.

      Thanks so much for your comment, and excellent point.

    2. DB,

      Thanks for the post. I wrote this article for precisely this discussion, any discussion. The opportunity here is to be able to look at various scenarios, analyze them, then hopefully make good decisions down the road. The concept here is making decisions before the circumstances actually occur.

      For example, I'm an evaluator instructor pilot in all my current aircraft. I've been one for years. When I was a new instructor I was taught "never let the student ever take things so far that you can't recover from their mistakes." I've taken that to heart in many many different ways. And, it's a fine line when you're an instructor. As an instructor you need to let your students make mistakes. Then again you need to not let your students make so large a mistake that you can't recover. What this means is you have to develop a considerable set of foresight to see how far things will go based on the circumstances and what the student does.

      I translated this habit pattern to when I fly even if I'm not the listed instructor. EVen if I'm not the aircraft commander. Even though I might not be the guy listed as being in charge, if something bad happened with me at the controls because of the listed guy in charge with considerably less experience did something wrong, I'll still be held responsible. That's the way the Air Force works.

      Of course, this can be a delicate thing because I never want to be considered overbearing or micro-managing. People need to be allowed to make their mistakes after all.

      How's this apply to my scenario. There were plenty of time for me to take the aircraft away from the pilot flying if I knew he was not making a good decision or not doing something correctly. Even though I called for the go around as we approach mins--i.e. we're still VMC--there was plenty of time to initiate a go-around if required. In fact, I recall sitting there thinking "man, this is taking forever to land" after I stopped pumping the gear down and completing the before landing checklists.

      Also note, this scenario exhibits a higher level of crew coordination than might be found between crew-members that do not know each other. If the crew make-up was different, I'd probably do something different.

  3. Thanks, Tom, for another great post. This tale is another from your vast experience and obviously worth reading. I was not aboard, so I won't try to second-guess (hangar-fly?) your crew's last minute decisions. While there is great merit in D.B.'s comment (above), one cannot ignore the collective input of a crew, all of whom are apparently well used to working with each other and, as you note, the greatest SA then residing in the right seat, with the pilot flying the approach. Your crew not only made it, but you enjoyed multiple options. All of that aside, one question still begs for an answer: WHY would one stretch the range envelope of a Beech 1900 to that extreme degree and/or what essential function did the flight accomplish? Thanks again for another great post. -C.

    1. Thanks for the comment Craig. That is an excellent question. Why the flight? I hope we'll hear. I'm thinking men and their toys? You know, the stories from past... those who survive, hopefully had a great lesson to share. And often think... I did that? And DB did have a good point...but you're right... we weren't there.

    2. Excellent question, why do the flight?

      First, why not? Understand nothing we did was out of the extreme of any of the FAA or military rules for flying. Even if we went around, we still had plenty of fuel to work the situation before something catastrophic would've happened. In fact, our planned landing fuel was more than what we might might consider being a bit short back at home. Except for the gigantic distance and the possibility of the winds not quite working out, this was no more risky than any other flight we do. It was just so long and it had that gear problem at the end.

      Also note, the plan involved a lot of off-ramps--i.e. diverts--if the need would allow. I learned a lot time ago to never have no options. You always have to have plan-b and you need to know clearly what plan-b is at any given moment. In this case, we always had a plan-b and mostly a plan-c for this flight.

      The real benefit of doing this gigantic flight was saving an extra days on the road. We had lots of reasons to do this. We definitely would've not tried it if the weather did not cooperate. As it was, everything went as planned right up until the gear came down. After that, the event turned into a learning opportunity for us all.



  4. Tom, Thank you once again for a great story. I think that your leadership and the team you flew with... gave you and your crew the knowledge of what you were all trying to do. There is also a certain amount of intimacy and friendships that build with doing what you three did for so many hours in tight quarters on the gripping edge of death. You were a team, and morphed into one of equal voices.

    I suspected the PF knew the go decision was based on unsafe gear. And when it went all green... he could land safely. Your story served a great point... sometimes we have to get out of our way and allow the team to do the right thing at the right time. Not that they are defying orders...but the fulfilling the ultimate goal.

    Pilots are very get the job done sort of people.

    With the question of should you or shouldn't you. I know what it's like flying for so many hours, droning on. The fatigue of you must all have felt. All green. A good runway. A slot to land in not the most favorable of locations... (Alaska is a bear)... I'm not sure I would have wanted to go around with the gear hanging out either.

    The goal was to land. If you could do that on the first try... then go for it. By the way... how much fuel did you have to play with?
    Thank you!

  5. "...fatigue of you must all have felt. All green. A good runway. A slot to land in not the most favorable of locations... " Karlene, you are speaking my language.

    Those were all considerations when I allowed the approach to continue. As I noted before, I could've always insisted on the go-around. No one would've second guessed me.

    As it was, the most difficult part of the landing and taxi to our parking area was the darn taxi route. I never landed north to south there at Anchorage before and when we got off the runway trying not to be in the way of everyone I was completely unprepared to receive the taxi instructions. Since my attention on approach was spent on the gear then monitoring the approach, I didn't have the airfield diagram up to follow along the ground controller's instructions. Fortunately, he wasn't too unforgiving. But, I definitely wasn't on my A-game when I asked him to read me back the taxi instructions more than once.



  6. All, thank you, thank you for the very awesome comments. As with everything there is no "right" answer. There might be better answers given the situation. I write these things to open up the dialog. The opportunity here is to hear some of my experiences and to see if you all might have any of your own that might be applicable. Of course, I always try to better my decision process. As I've gotten higher in my years of aviation, I've taken to heart that some might give me too much "he's experienced so he must know what he's doing." This particular little episode really was a non-issue. It sounds epic but really... not so much. The real benefit of the incident is the opportunity for discussion which I'm very thankful for.

    A couple of things. I have a lot more "there I was" stories which I'll share down the road. All our new aviators need to hear these types stories so it populates their mental perspective to help them with situations as they occur to them. I think this type of old school communication is a bit lacking in our environment which probably doesn't help our new aviators. The other thing is my "there I was" stories seem to be less prevalent the older I've gotten. Of course it makes sense that as I've gotten more mature those "there I was" scenarios have diminished. This makes me realize for one reason or another "stuff" happens to you're a young'n's like it did to me. Here's the thing for you experienced fliers, with today's connection/communication technologies, it makes no sense for a young'n to experience something first hand without hearing something similar in story form from one of us old-heads.

    Once again, thank you for the opportunity to share these experiences.




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