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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.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Airline's Hidden Secrets

 How Safe are You?

Delta Hail Damage August 2015

There are some things that cannot be hidden such as damage after flying through a hail storm. However, the public should wonder how Delta Air Lines can hide their near catastrophic incidents, when United, for example, is pulled into the media with a similar situation as Delta, but not as close a call. To my knowledge, the event you're about to read was known by the FAA and NTSB, but Delta and those agencies kept this silent from the public. Employee's cannot speak out because of social media violations and a subsequent termination. The public is left in the dark.

The following event was one of many in the safety report that cost me my career at Delta Air Lines for speaking out.

It was May of 2015. I was attending ERAU to earn a PhD in Aviation, focused on Safety. My research revolved around manual flight. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) wanted to know why pilots were not manually flying their aircraft. The FAA had issued a Safety Alert in 2013 to encourage pilots to manually fly. Based upon Delta Air Lines Negative Safety Culture I wondered how a negative safety culture impacted manual flight. My research proved that it did. I published Normalization of Deviance, a Threat to Aviation Safety to share these results with the general population. 

In 2015 Delta had posted a training video to advise pilots to declare an emergency if they lost their autoflight system. Simply put, Delta determined that manual flight at Delta would be an emergency, contrary to the FAA Safety Alert. Unless the FAA was encouraging pilot emergencies. 

Captain Dempsey, the Chair of Delta's Human Factor's working group, departed for a three-hour flight to Atlanta and learned he had no autoflight system upon departure. He then flew into RVSM airspace without an autopilot. RVSM airspace, Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums, is airspace that mandates an autopilot because there is only 1000 feet of separation between aircraft. 

I was taking an aviation law course at the time. After discussing the issues with my law professor, who was also an attorney and a Captain at another airline, I had many questions. First, if Dempsey thought this to be an emergency why didn't he return shortly after departure? Second, why did he fly into airspace he was not allowed to enter? If he didn't know, then certainly dispatch would. Third, why was Delta's response to tell pilots to declare an emergency if they didn't have an autopilot?

Flying without an autopilot and/or autothrust should be a basic skill for all pilots. I located Captain Dempsey's contact information and emailed him. We had numerous email exchanges. Captain Dempsey's following statements ended up in the safety report that I provided to Steve Dickson, Delta's SVP of Flight Operations, and Captain James Graham, Delta's VP of Flight Operations. 

What I learned was frightening. When I reported my concerns to the company, it cost me my career at Delta Air Lines. 

Below is what Captain Dempsey emailed me regarding his performance and decision-making. But he also disclosed frightening information of what Delta and the FAA both knew to be true, with a near catastrophic accident, yet hid from the public. 

Captain Dempsey: 

"If you ever solve the automation challenge, let me know. Presently, I chair the Delta Flight Path Management Steering Committee and we have wrapped up 6 weeks of meetings contemplating (among other things) automation. I am writing up recommendations to flight ops and expect some changes will result over the next 6 months - 2 year time frame. We have a good group, including Drs. Key Dismukes and Barbara Burrian from NASA Ames. You are probably familiar with their work given your history.

The video served many purposes, but one certain takeaway is that we as a group [Delta Pilots] are presently not prepared to fly in complex airspace with Level 0 automation [No automation]. Nor, might I add, are we suitably prepared to fly in complex airspace with Level 4 automation [Fully Automated] (so says ASAP [Aviation Safety Reporting Program].) Still, hand flying was necessary in that situation, so what should we do about it? Fun question. 

 Dempsey continued... 

"As you know, SWA has a problem with trusting/understanding the automation and is only too happy to click it off (even when it is certainly inappropriate.) In a way, they have the opposite problem we have.

I have been having dialogue with them for some time, and we both believe the answer lies in a hybrid SWA/DAL pilot!

In our case, we have a 737 on final in ATL in IMC [clouds]. At 700' they decide to GA [Go Around] but hit the AT [Autothrottle] button instead of TOGA [Takeoff Goaround] (FD [Flight Director] stays in APP [Approach]).

No one seems to notice that the pitch (3 degrees nose up) and power (56% N1) are not the pitch/power for GA (appx. 12 degrees up and 90%). It doesn't matter that they didn't have the exact number memorized...they didn't even have the SA [Situation Awareness] to look beyond the FD and recognize something was wrong

And they got to 186' with 2,000+ fpm descent 
before saving the day 
as EGPWS wails in the background.

You know, as a T-38 instructor I flew 1,500 sorties with no A/P or A/T. I was pretty good at hand flying back then. To have my skills degrade to a point where a level 0 VMC [Nice day no autopilot]  landing in ATL required declaring an emergency is a personal wake-up call. I hate to think that someday manual flight ops will be an assumed emergency, but that day may be approaching." 

Captain Steve Dempsey,
Chair Delta Air Lines 
Human Factors Working Group

When I asked Dempsey if he knew he was not allowed to enter RVSM airspace he stated, "I did know that but thought that after asking for and being given a block altitude that I was OK." 

It was not okay. 

Result After Voicing my Concern: 
  • Four months after the email exchange with Captain Dempsey, Captain Graham communicated via email with Dickson and others that I would be subject to a psychiatric evaluation  because I requested a meeting to discuss Delta's Safety Culture.
  • A little over a month after that Dickson Graham meeting (five months from when I first requested it), I was removed from duty and sent to an abusive psychiatric evaluation.
  • The psychiatrist, Dr. Altman, debated me as to whether manual flight was an emergency. 
  • I did not fly for 2 years because of that report, despite the fact that I never lost my medical. 
  • 6-years of legal battles, a 9-day trial, hundreds of thousands of dollars, (millions for Delta) with an appeal, and dozens of motions... 
  • Delta lost almost every motion. Delta lost in court. Delta lost their appeal. 
  • Dickson became FAA administrator. 
  • Captain Graham was promoted to CEO of Endeavor Airlines. 
  • Ed Bastian remains CEO of Delta, despite his knowledge and involvement of the retaliation.
  • Delta killed 7 years of my career, and I gave up the last four because....
  • Nobody has been held accountable at Delta Air Lines.
I'm asking for your help, 
to improve safety! 

As of today, on LinkedIn, 18,803 people have viewed the post my Life is Not Over.  Since that date, there have been 543 signatures to change the law. I am asking everyone who reads this, to please sign that petition and to share it with ten people and ask those ten to do the same. Passenger's lives depend upon it. Careers depend upon it. Safety depends upon it. 

This is a Worldwide Petition, despite the AIR21 statute being a U.S, Law. What happens in the United States with aviation jeopardizes countries worldwide. With effort I hope to make this a worldwide law. For now, let's get it changed! 

Enjoy the Journey
XO Karlene 


  1. Karlene, Thank you. That is so disturbing, in very many ways. I sincerely hope DL, UA, FAA, the entire sector, soon grasp how far they have slid down this very slippery slope. I will do all I can to publicise these worrying trends. Keep up the great work.

    1. Ken, this is disturbing in so many ways. I relayed this event to the woman who interviewed me and she said that I was "overly concerned for safety." Interesting situation.

  2. Karlene, Thanks. "overly concerned for safety" is a chilling point of view; ignorant, complacent, uncaring, and immoral.


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