Ex Libris

Pilots don’t read very much.

Just ask any chief pilot or flight ops head and they’ll tell you that pilots don’t read NOTAMS or memos – or e-mails, for that matter!

However, when it comes to recreational reading, it may be a different story – certainly in my case.

I have a veritable library of “flying” books, ranging from the whole set of Ernest K Gann’s books, to many biographies and histories. I must have indicated as much somewhere in one of my posts, as about two years ago Pen and Sword contacted me to suggest that I should perhaps read some of their publications for possible review. Their logo includes the heading “Bringing you Closer to the Past” – which explains their catalogues of special interest publications. Long story short – after battling the SA postal service, I finally received From the Spitfire Cockpit to the Cabinet Office.

A typical Pen and Sword offering, this is the memoirs of the late Air Commodore JF “Johnny” Langer, CBE AFC DL. A career Royal Air Force pilot, he joined the RAF towards the end of WW2 and, as pilots could wait for up to a year for a flying posting , volunteered to fly gliders in India, preparing for airborne assaults in Burma. Later in his career he would return to the far East in various postings – the final time overseeing the creation of the Singapore Air Force.

JF Langer book

Post war he served on fighters, first in Germany and later commanding No 43 (F) Squadron – the famous “Fighting Cocks” at Leuchars. As a Group Captain he commanded RAF Valley and later became Director of Flying Training. In this position he set up the original Red Arrows in Gnats and saw their transition onto Hawks.  Of particular interest is his co-chairing of the multi-national committee to bring the Tornado into service, and his responsibilities in introducing the Hawk trainer into the RAF (and the US Navy).

Retiring after 37 years of RAF service, he served as Civil Aviation Security Adviser to the UK Government.

That’s the very short summary.

The book itself is typical of a self-written memoir, full of minutiae and sometimes quite long-winded. Bearing in mind that he wrote these memories down over three years while already in his eighties, it is easier to understand where the sometimes quaint and often almost archaic descriptions come from. Be prepared to decipher many bits of “RAF-speak” and a military attitude to most situations described – the writing often reminds one of a staff paper, but at least with some typically dry British humour thrown in here and there! At times he almost touches on ribaldry (he quite bluntly lists some of his youthful sexual conquests), but constantly one senses an understated but very detailed approach to the typical peace-time career of an air force pilot. This said, he is never shy to make mention of some of his achievements as a pilot and sportsman!

One issue, about which he minces no words, is his dislike of military personnel who did not meet his demanding expectations. He is particularly scathing about some senior officers whom he regarded as obstructive to his career advancement. His aim was to end his career as an Air Vice Marshall (AVM) – something he did not achieve.

Air Commodore Langer remained active in retirement, still acting as a tour guide at Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds well into his eighties.

From the Spitfire Cockpit to the Cabinet Office covers a period from the end of WW2 to the first military jets, through the Cold War and the Victor series, to the modern fast jets and the security threats to modern airliners. If military and aviation history is your cup of tea – then you will thoroughly enjoy this book!

Featured Image: World of Aircraft Design; WordPress.com.







On MAMILs and Jekyll & Hyde

While reading a recent Sunday paper, I added a new word to my vocabulary: MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra).

Around the area where I reside, MAMILs flourish – they thrive on the beautiful scenery and the abundance of coffee shops. They also seem to hunt in packs, but not silently and stealthily as one would expect – rather garish and brash colours give away the expensive stores their apparel was bought from, and loud conversation gives away their actual occupations (mostly finance and stocks).

Somehow, when I watch TV coverage of le Tour, the small, rather emaciated professional cyclists look – well, professional. MAMILs mostly look like beached whales on thin wheels, tottering into trendy coffee shops. When will they learn that tight lycra pants were probably not intended for the male anatomy?

When they actually ride, the Jekyll and Hyde personalities emerge: Apparently placid men in boring eight-to-five jobs suddenly turn into hooligans. The road rules, which they would (more-or-less) abide by when driving their BMW’s, Range Rovers and McLarens, are suddenly redundant. Now they are free to terrorise other road users – riding five abreast, hogging lanes, shouting abuse at anyone daring to come too close or show some irritation. Some MAMILs actually take to bashing on cars and threatening those who dare to stop at a red light in the lane they would like to occupy.

The fact is, you actually cannot be Jekyll and Hyde, not unless you happen to have a very serious personality disorder. You are either the one, or the other and the way you behave on a bicycle will indicate how you would behave in a car, in your day-job, as a father, husband…. In short, you may adjust your behaviour to suit certain situations or environments, but it does not change who you are.

This is an area of concern and new study in aviation Human Factors. We have accepted that behaviour style analysis can assist pilots and crew to understand themselves and others a little better – thus creating an environment where appropriate behaviours should assist in ensuring safety.

Now, however, we are considering other influences and personality becomes a focus area. Just compare the psychometric tests of, say twenty years ago, with those used by some airlines today: Chalk and cheese.

Modern psychometrics look for certain competencies (see ICAO competencies) in pilots. One would expect the basic technical knowledge and hands-on flying skills to be there – it is interesting, though, that only four of the nine required competencies are based on traditional flying skills: Flight Path Management (Manual and Automated) and Knowledge and Application of Procedures.

The other five required competencies are Human Factors skills: Communication, Problem Solving & Decision Making, Situational Awareness, Leadership and Teamwork, and Workload Management.

These competencies can obviously be enhanced by training and experience, but by ensuring that pilot candidates display these competencies, their training and successful integration into a safety culture is made easier.

The problem of Jekyll and Hyde still exists, however. If you display a disdain for rules and regulations in one aspect of your life – you will show the same disdain in other aspects. The FAA Risk Management Handbook mentions that Human Behaviour studies indicate that there is a direct correlation between disdain for rules and aircraft accidents.


From: FAA Risk Management Handbook.

Bottom line is, whatever you wear and whatever your choice of Sunday morning transport, you cannot hide who you really are! And, if you happen to be a pilot – imagine others’ surprise at your law-breaking behaviour.

Would you let your wife and children fly with someone displaying a disdain for rules and regulations?

(Featured image from The Human Cyclist – WordPress.com)


Read between the lines…

“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses”.  – Malcolm X –

I’m always fascinated when the ultimate truth of any assertion can be proved by stating “I’ve seen it on TV / read it in the newspaper / seen it on Twitter”, et cetera. Too often something proposed as gospel truth is preceded by the statement “they say….”.

The major difference between the media of Malcolm X’s era and today is the internet and social media. Which means that the power of the media is now in your and my hands – it is no longer held by the media houses and TV majors. Anyone with access to a cell’ phone can now become an instant reporter – even with no training or understanding of the power of the media.

The airlines are learning this lesson the hard way – just consider the recent furore on both United and American. I’ve touched on the issues of social media before, refer to my blogs Evacuate! Evacuate! Are you ready? and Beware the Jabberwock, my son! . But now it has become even more dangerous, when 140 characters going viral in an instant could potentially bankrupt an airline. It would actually appear to me that passengers are now simply waiting for any little irritation or slight problem to pounce on with their cell’ phones, and once it has gone viral, hoping to sue for some huge compensation.

Chris Manno2


Let me get this straight: The way the United crew removed the passenger on the viral video clip is not acceptable and the airline deserved the fallout. Similarly, the way the American crew reacted to the mother and stroller was unacceptable.

But, I believe in the old adage that there are always three sides to a story: Yours, theirs and the truth (and no-one is lying). The bottom line is that airlines and crews need to be very aware of the pitfalls associated with social media. We need to watch our every step and every action, ensuring that no opportunity exists for untoward internet exposure. We need to ensure that all three versions of the truth actually correspond – then we could avoid the negative impact of the viral video phenomenon.

Chris Manno

With the recent emergence of “fake news” and “paid Twitter”, the other danger we are exposed to is that the “they” we so often quote as a source of information could actually be disingenuous – their “facts” should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt.

So, the next time someone starts telling you about what “they” say – rather ask “who?”, before endorsing it.

(Cartoons by Capt. Chris Manno – @Chris_Manno)
(Featured image by ParkSleepFly.com).









The Symphony of Flight

“Only once we had started, did I notice that part of the orchestra was dark – the percussionist had misread his schedule and did not arrive!”

I met Kwamé Ryan by chance – I was alerted to the fact that he was a passenger on one of my flights, heading to London via Cape Town after conducting the KwaZulu Natal Philharmonic. Through third parties we had arranged to meet in Cape Town to go up Table Mountain and to lunch afterwards, while he had a few hours to kill between flights.

Kwamé is a renowned international conductor, who has worked with many of the major orchestras in Europe and the UK. He currently freelances all over the world, while heading up the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Here he works on educational and community development projects.

We hit it off immediately – him the unassuming music man with an interest in aviation (he did consider piloting once), and me the pilot with an interest in music. (Many years ago I was one of the few brave souls who started a commercial classical music station, but that’s another story).

Over a vegetarian lunch (his preference) we shared life stories and anecdotes, remarking on the similarities between the roles of conductor and captain.


Maestro Ryan conducting the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. (Pic: TSO).

The conductor has to know his craft and the music well, then he has to meet a diverse group of individuals and win their confidence. Once they trust you and your abilities, you now need to mold their separate skills into a well coordinated human machine. This human machine has to be controlled, but also cajoled into performing better than spec – not just playing the notes, but making extraordinary, beautiful music. Only once this is achieved do the bravos and encores follow.

And if something goes awry, you need to think on your feet and save the performance. Kwamé related the story of the percussionist who did not arrive for a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana. This he only realised once they had started – he then had to improvise, letting another player (I think it was in the horn section) crack the whips and ring the bells, while still playing his/her own parts! The whip cracks, exactly seven of them, also served as cues for the choir to enter – you can imagine the potential for some discordant disaster!

The airline captain’s role is much the same. You need to win the confidence of the crew, the engineers, the ground controllers, the load masters and dispatch (and the passengers). All the time keeping a close eye on all of the many players in this huge orchestra and picking up the false notes or someone playing behind the beat. Only once everyone is inspired to play their part perfectly, do we achieve a push-back on time, a smooth flight and an early arrival.


Intense coordination and concentration required to arrive at this point, the finale.

Naturally, it does not always work out as planned. And now the captain has to keep calm, track the parts which can be improvised and which not, arrange and re-arrange, keep others’ frayed nerves calm and still conduct the orchestra of flight to please a very finicky audience – the passengers.

Once the flight is over, once the performance is done – it is gone, history. Now the next performance beckons – with all the associated challenges. No two flights are ever exactly the same, just as no two performances are ever the same.

And why do we do it? For the satisfaction of achieving something extraordinary, molding a team into a successful performance.

Then the encores and standing ovations (the compliments on a smooth flight, outstanding service and a brilliant landing), then these only serve to affirm that you have indeed attained what you set out to do – creating something truly beautiful.

(The featured image is from Le Figaro).





Of Expensive Dachshunds and Landings

The story goes that Picasso was sitting in a Paris café when an admirer asked if he would do a quick sketch on a paper napkin. The artist politely agreed, quickly made a sketch and handed back the napkin adding that it would cost a rather significant amount of money. The admirer was shocked, asking how it could cost that much: “It only took you a minute to draw this!”

“No,” Picasso replied, “It took me forty years.”

It is the type of answer I am often looking for when faced with comments about my occupation as a pilot – the problem is that you only think of it afterwards!

You’ve heard these assertions before: “Does it not get boring? Surely you should know it all by now – why all the constant recurrent training? You’re paid too much for just reading newspapers, after all the autopilot does the flying! Glorified bus drivers…”

Just as any other older aviator would attest, the answer is that it has taken me almost forty years to hone my skill to its current level.

That smooth flight did not happen by chance – we checked the forecasts, decided on flight levels based on these and myriads of other parameters, drawing on experience. Then we adjusted en-route, flying around convective weather and climbing or descending just to keep our passengers’ coffee from spilling.


A busy descent ahead when that massive storm is situated exactly where you need to go.

That smooth landing was also no fluke, it took planning and concentration and a large dose of experience to achieve a touchdown in the demarcated zone, at the correct speed (adjusted for weight, wind and surface conditions) staying on the centre-line and turning off the short runway without any uncomfortable, white-knuckle braking.

That experience did not arrive via the internet. It was achieved through the traditionally accepted years of hard work and dedication, endless training, and doing a variety of flying jobs to eventually land a seat in an airliner.

But now it would appear that the long-predicted pilot shortage is starting to bite. ICAO and the major aircraft manufacturers have warned about the predicted shortage of pilots and technicians for many years now, here is an ICAO position paper from 2105 which highlights the major contributing factors and the associated safety concerns.

Until such time as AI (artificial intelligence) can safely fly passengers around in airliners, a high demand for human pilots will persist, as the huge salaries now offered by (in particular) Chinese airlines prove.

My inbox is inundated daily with job offers from all over the world, where qualified B738 Captains are currently being offered salaries of US$40 000+ per month. For an expat pilot this would (taking into account the tax free benefit) immediately mean earning your current annual salary in just a couple of months. Any wonder that we are experiencing a drain of pilots from South Africa to these lucrative positions?

The situation is exacerbated further as entry requirements to international airlines are lowered to allow younger and less experienced pilots onto flight decks – so the traditional “stepping stone” regional airlines are now missing these pilots. No longer do you find pilots with contract experience in turbines or jets clamouring to get into the local airlines – they’re being snapped up directly by the international majors.

With no viable local cadet programmes currently in place, it may well be only a matter of time before local airlines have to park aircraft due to a shortage of pilots. Perhaps it is almost too late for airlines to consider recruiting kids from school to train from ab-initio to ALTP. Flying is no longer considered a glamorous occupation and the long hours and time away from home puts paid to the idea that its a desirable lifestyle. So the recruiters may have to look much deeper into their companies’ budgets to attract new candidates.

On the other hand, should a young aspiring pilot currently have access to funding of around R 1 million for an accelerated course, an airline position is virtually guaranteed.

So, next time you fly behind an older, more experienced Captain – be reminded of Picasso: They’re not being paid for that one flight, but for all the years of honing their skills.





The Birth of CRM?

I’ve just finished reading “The Wright Brothers”, a definitive study of the aviation pioneers by David McCullough. Very appropriate too, with man’s first self sustained flight on 17th December 1903 being remembered soon.

Its a great read with vast reference material, illuminating the brothers’ relationships with their siblings and parents, taking you from their childhood through to Orville’s death in 1948.

One aspect, which fascinated me, was their intense attention to detail. Nothing was left to chance and every aspect of their work was carefully studied, crafted, tested and rebuilt. At an early stage they realised that the figures and formulas they’ve used from the Smithsonian and revered aeronautical fundis of the time like Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute were pure speculation and simply wrong, so they worked out their own. In fact they built their own wind tunnel to test and verify their wing designs.

This research took years – trekking between their home in Dayton, Ohio to the windswept Outer Banks of North Carolina, first with gliders and finally with the engine built to their specs by Charlie Taylor.


Crumpled glider, wrecked by the wind, 10th October 1900.

The brothers had a number of close shaves – one could hardly expect every new attempt at achieving what many believed was the delusional dream of a few madmen to go off without any problems.

But throughout their persistent experimenting, they remained patient and constantly erred on the conservative side.

In fact – it struck me that, although unbeknownst to them, they were adhering to the basic tenets of CRM:
1. Plan and Operate (Prevent and Avoid).
2. Detect and Correct (Monitor and Challenge).
3. React and Recover (Mitigate the Consequences).

While Wilbur was in France to demonstrate the “Flyer” (with great success), he received a letter from his father, the Bishop Milton Wright, urging him to “avoid all unnecessary personal risk”. At the same time Wilbur wrote to Orville, who was then about to demonstrate the “Flyer” to the US military at Fort Myer, Virginia:

“I tell them plainly that I intend for the present to experiment only under the most favorable conditions…I advise you most earnestly to stick to calms, till after you are sure of yourself. Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent. Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready. Be very cautious and proceed slowly in attempting flights in the middle of the day when wind gusts are frequent…Do not let people talk to you all day and all night. It will wear you out, before you are ready for real business. Courtesy has limits. If necessary appoint some hour in the daytime and refuse absolutely to receive visitors even for a minute at other times. Do not receive anyone after 8 o’clock at night”.

He then discussed some technical details about the rudder, concluding with:

“I can only say be extraordinarily cautious”.

Here was an aviator who understood the danger of weather conditions, the threat of external pressure and distraction, as well as the disabling power of fatigue.

Apparently Orville heeded his brother’s advice and the first two weeks of the demonstration flights went off well. But on the 17th September 1908 a blade of the right hand prop cracked and broke off, vibrating enough to break a stay wire which had supported the rear rudder system. This rendered the aircraft uncontrollable and Orville crashed. He was severely injured and his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first fatality of powered flight.


The wreck of Orville’s crashed aircraft at Fort Myer.

Wilbur was at his shed at Camp d’Auvoirs, Le Mans on the 18th September when he received the news of Orville’s crash. This led to another profound CRM statement:

“Now you understand why I always felt that I should be in America with Orville. Two heads are better than one to examine the machine”.

Erring on the side of caution was one of the Wright Brothers’ enduring qualities. They understood that risk was inevitable once one decided to become airborne – but they believed in well calculated risks.

With 2016 about to become history, perhaps it is time to once again reflect on how far we’ve come since the dawn of powered flight at Kill Devil Hill, Kitty Hawk. I certainly do when I cruise in air conditioned comfort at high altitudes and Mach numbers.

Perhaps it is also time to realise that we disregard many of the lessons learnt by those pioneers of flight at our own peril. Rather let us take a leaf out of the Wright’s book and “be extraordinarily cautious”.

Here’s wishing everyone bon voyage and safe flights in 2017!







“It’s a heavy professional burden on the Captain to know he may be called upon to tap into the depths of his experience, the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to think quickly; weighing everything he knows, while accounting for what he cannot know”. – Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.

My work as a Human Factors instructor consists mostly of presenting CRM Initial and Refresher Courses, fitting these in-between flying a full roster as a line pilot. Every now and again however, there is an opportunity to run a Command Upgrade CRM Course for First Officers.

Such was the case again last week, when I did the introductory day for a group of young Kenyan F/O’s and it once again reminded me of the major mindset change required when moving from the right seat to the left seat.


Six KQ FO’s discovering their behaviour profiles in the Command Upgrade CRM class.

Distance wise it may be a move of less than a metre, but it represents a major change in responsibility.

As Captain Richard Phillips put it: “The Captain is responsible for the crew, the ship and everything on it. Period.” (Richard Phillips was the Captain of the Maersk Alabama, when it was hi-jacked by Somali pirates).

In simple terms, ICAO defines the PIC (Pilot in Command) as “The pilot responsible for the operation and safety of the aircraft during flight time”. That responsibility covers vast areas of legal authority, essentially ensuring that the Captain’s authority overrides almost any other while the aircraft is in motion.

The applicable law may differ slightly from country to country, but in essence it states that the PIC is responsible for:

The operation and safety of the aircraft while he or she is in command;
The conduct and safety of flight crew members and passengers carried, and
The maintenance of discipline by all persons on board.

The PIC furthermore has the authority:

To give such commands he or she deems necessary in the interest of the safety of the aircraft, persons or property, and
To disembark any person or cargo, which in his or her opinion represents a potential hazard to the safety of the aircraft, persons or property.

In short, the buck stops here.

Captain Al Haynes, the hero of United 232 said that as a pilot you can never be ready, but you can be prepared (for any eventuality). And every flight is different, despite the general perception that routine flights become boring and, well, routine.

Flying is like playing the piano: Sometimes you get to sight read a simple Three Blind Mice, other times you have to find your way through sight reading a Bach Toccata and Fugue.

Or as a wise old Captain once said, it’s like playing bridge – you always play with the same 52 cards, but you are dealt a different hand every time.

Then you also fly different aircraft on different routes with different crews – and as any pianist will tell you, different pianos are different to play, requiring some adapting.

But there is a limit to how far you can and should adapt as PIC. You may experience intense pressure from line engineers, management, fellow crews and passengers to accept an aircraft, avoid a delay or push out at all costs. Yet at all times you have to balance that pressure with those imperatives of the law, which gives you the authority as Captain.

Sully Sullenberger put it sagely – as Captain you have the power of the park brake – that aircraft goes nowhere until you decide to release the brake.

As an interesting aside, the term “Captain” for the PIC is attributed to Juan Trippe, founder of Pan Am – he apparently decided that his flying boats deserved “Captains” as on ships. (The flying boats were also where the Pan Am call-sign “Clipper” had originated). Thus the First Pilot became the Captain and the co-pilot became the First Officer. To compete with ocean liners of the day, Pan Am offered first-class seats on their flights, and flight crews’ style became more formal. Instead of being leather-jacketed, silk-scarved airmail pilots, the crews of the “Clippers” wore naval-style uniforms and adopted a set procession when boarding the aircraft – hence our still wearing blue pants and white shirts on the flight deck today.

But in the final analysis, the title of Captain would mean absolutely nothing if the pilot wearing those four bars is not willing, capable and able to accept the authority and massive responsibility that comes with the territory.