(A not-so-serious look at the art of landing…)

I’m sure you’ve heard the story about the elderly lady, while disembarking the aircraft asking the captain: “So, sonny, were we shot down or did we crash?”

While everyone wishes for a whistle-smooth touchdown, landing an aircraft is not always guaranteed to turn out like that! All pilots have endured comments from passengers (and sometimes from fellow crewmembers), not always full of admiration or accompanied by applause….

Some comments from passengers can become interesting – especially from the FlightSim boffins, who seem to believe that “flying” a Microsoft aircraft on your desktop would qualify you as an airline captain!

A couple of years ago James May wrote a book called “How to Land an A330 Airbus: And Other Vital Skills for the Modern Man” – I did read it, but was not left much the wiser for it. (It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, though).

Should you be one of the interested parties asking whether such a FlightSim expert, or reader of May’s book could land an airliner – the answer is no.
This book- or internet-trained novice would probably get it on the ground, but it certainly wouldn’t be pretty…

The bottom line is that, once airborne, the pilot’s primary task is to land the aircraft – hopefully on time, hopefully at the intended destination and hopefully in one piece. As the saying goes – taking off is optional, while landing is mandatory. Or, you should try to keep your number of landings equal to your take-offs… (Apparently this is due to an adaptation of one of Newton’s laws).

And this is where the black art of landing requires lots of training, but above all, lots of experience.

No two landings are exactly the same. Conditions differ – temperatures, wind directions and -speeds, precipitation, airport elevations, runway conditions, aircraft weights, ATC instructions – these are only a few of the many variable factors differing from one landing to the next.

Different aircraft also call for different techniques. During ab-initio training pilots are all taught where to look, how to control speed and attitude to achieve that smooth return to terra firma – but we all soon learn that while the basics do apply, aircraft can be fickle and devious!

Taildraggers differ from tricycle-gear aircraft, props and jets are different, even variants of the same type can differ.

Way back when I was still flying Pitts Specials, we used to joke that if you saw the runway, you knew you were off it. (Our aerobatic base did have a very narrow runway – but the Pitts is a very short-coupled tail-dragger with a narrow undercarriage, and once in the three-point attitude all foward vision disappears).

Highly modified, very capable, tricky to land – my old S-1S.

Similarly, although the B737 Classics and NG aircraft are all recognised as 737’s – they actually differ enough to require slightly different techniques for landing. For the new Max-8 Boeing even had to introduce software to change the “feel” of the aircaft to approximate that of a -800 on approach and during landing.

Mastering all of these techniques to the point where it becomes pure muscle memory is probably the Holy Grail for pilots. Any honest pilot will attest to the fact that a series of textbook landings (sometimes for weeks on end), will inevitably end with a rather forgettable arrival at some stage.

And while pilots would rather forget that one indiscretion – that would be the one to stick in passengers’ collective memory!

(I have only discussed fixed-wing landings so far – helicopters are sufficiently different to warrant a separate article!)

In Hollywood you’re only as good as your last movie – somehow it would appear that it could hold true for pilots as well: You’re only as good as your last landing!

(From 47 Years in Aviation, by Richard L. Taylor)


The Challenge of Leadership

Motor racing has fascinated me since boyhood. (Many years ago I even raced an Alfa Romeo myself – albeit not very successfully!)

In particular I’ve followed Formula One – especially the longest lasting F1 team, Ferrari, which I’ve followed since the days of Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx.

Chris Amon(NZL) Ferrari 312. Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort, Holland, 23 June 1968.

Being one of the “Tifosi” meant that I’ve despaired about the team’s misfortunes over the last few years. Since the glory days of Michael Schumacher, with team bosses Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and the South African designer Rory Byrne, Ferrari was on a downward spiral, with their last World Championship more than a decade ago, in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen.

Since the advent of the hybrid era, Ferrari seemed to be an also-ran. Until 2018, when all of a sudden they had a competitive car and looked like a winning team.

For a while.

Then the wheels came off and Sebastian Vettel looked startled and out-of-sorts, making all sorts of (for him) silly mistakes. The team’s strategists seemed to fumble from one blunder to the next and Ferrari eventually had to settle for second best.

How are Ferrari’s F1 woes relevant to aviation? The answer is: Leadership.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing – where Captain Sully Sullenberger’s leadership skills were as much on display as were his flying skills – the captain’s duty to build a team around him is pertinent.

15 January 2009

On reading Will Buxton’s opinion piece about Mauritzio Arrivabene’s demise, one has to draw some parallels to the airline captain’s responsibility for ensuring a successful and safe team.

“Arrivabene’s rule by fear fractured his team and ultimately failed his employers” rings true to many failed leadership issues in aviation as well.

What is it that sets good leaders apart from the also-rans?

There are many academic definitions and as many popular quotes from people like Richard Branson, Alan Mulally (Boeing GM for the B777 project and later CEO of the Ford Company) among others.

On analysis, two words pop up repeatedly: Trust and Respect. Two attributes which Ferrari’s Arrivabene could not claim – and it cost him the prized position after four seasons.

Speaking about Just Culture Job Brüggen, safety officer at LVNL and co-chair of the Eurocontrol Safety Team put it this way:

Everyone wants to be good,
but if people feel the atmosphere could be tending to “blame and shame”,
they become less interested in being good –
they just want to look good.

When people simply cover their own backsides and avoid taking responsibility – look to the leader for the reason.

“The walls, both physical and metaphorical, were quick to go up around the team. But far from creating a safe environment in which the once mighty outfit could rebuild, it appeared that what was being built was a system built on the fear of failure”. This was what Arrivabene did to the once proud Prancing Horse.

The lesson here is simple. To lead implies a two-way agreement – someone leads and others follow. But if the “leader” fails to gain the followers’ trust and respect, he or she can lead all they want – no one will follow.

Is it any surprise that some “leaders” sooner or later find themselves out on their own, without any actual support? Arrivabene learnt this lesson the hard way.

Hopefully Mattia Binotto, the new Team Principal, will know that leadership demands much more than the position and the authority. It demands an attitude – something special, which allows people to follow the vision of their leader.

Hopefully the Scuderia will benefit and become winners again.







Machines or Pilots?

I don’t know how genuine the featured Ryanair advert is – it could well be “fake news” – but it does fit the cost-cutting image of Michael O’Leary! He has long advocated that he wanted single-pilot airliners by 2020, as well as advocating “stand-up” cabins (no seats) and passengers paying to use the toilets. A lot of this is usually dismissed as publicity stunts, but his recent stand-off with pilot unions clearly indicates that a no-pilot airline would be his ideal. It is quite enlightening to hear him contradicting himself about the importance of pilots:

He is not alone.

Research into autonomous flight is well underway. Boeing’s research has been underway since 2013 and Airbus has been working with French aerospace research company Onera and avionics manufacturer Thales for a number of years now.

The financial impetus to move to pilotless aircraft is immense – analysts see a potential profit opportunity worth about $35 billion for the aviation and aerospace manufacturing sectors. Read more here:

Artificial Intelligence has already surpassed human ability – just research Google’s AlphaZero programme, which defeated Stockfish 8, a programme capable of calculating 70 million chess positions per second. AlphaZero, though, was not programmed or taught any chess at all. It taught itself to play chess in just four hours and then beat the 2016 World Champion (Stockfish 8) on the 7th December 2017. Yes – machines have long surpassed humans at playing chess, a game which for centuries was considered one of the greatest achievements of human intelligence.

We as pilots are inevitably quick to point out that no machine can match our intuition achieved through training and experience – forgetting that “intuition” is only pattern matching, a skill which algorithms have proved to be much faster and more consistent at.

We’re also very aware of passengers preferring two (or more) pilots in the cockpit – but younger people and new generations will be quicker on the uptake and may accept a no-pilot environment more easily. Just think of the many cockpit jobs which have become redundant over the past few decades – radio operators, navigators, flight engineers – all once essential. And now? Could pilots be next?

While I submit that we are inevitably on the road to autonomous aircraft, it will in all probability not happen very soon.

For instance, Thales is working on “genetic algorithms,” the fittest of which survive. Several variants of an algorithm are combined. The resulting second-generation algorithms are compared by having them solve a problem. Those most effective are kept and combined to create a third generation and so on. So the ninth or tenth generation will be significantly better than the first. The problem, the way I understand it, is that the algorithms’ solutions become unpredictable – not wrong, but unpredictable. And in aviation we need predictability – you cannot certify a component with unpredictable characteristics. We need to understand “why” the algorithm arrived at a particular solution.

Boeing has just learnt this lesson with the MCAS system on the B737-Max. While the designing engineers thought they understood the “hidden” system and its implications, the human-machine interface failed because of the failure to include it in pilots’ conversion training. The pilots were simply not expecting the excessive nose-down trim demanded by the system, due to the FMC being confused by a faulty AOA sensor. And here we’re not even in autonomous territory yet, because the pilot can still disengage the electric trim and revert to good old manual flight.

So while the MCAS of the Max can still be understood and be “predictable” – once we hand over complete control to the aircraft, it has to be completely predictable.

That “predictability” appears to be some way off – “If we cannot explain what the system does, we will have a hard time obtaining a certification,” said Virginie Wiels, Onera’s director of information processing and systems. Significant progress can be expected by 2021, according to Marko Erman, Thales’ chief technical officer. But Wiels does not foresee any application on the flight deck in the next 10 years.”

That would imply that the possibility exists to have pilotless aircraft airborne by 2030!

So O’Leary may have to wait a few years to see his dreams come true – until then, I’m afraid we need to understand the immense pressures pilots experience in a very demanding environment – one where their crucial role is progressively being denigrated and misunderstood.






(Dis)Service Animals?

Serious animal lovers – my family and I. We currently have a rescue dog, who has turned out to be the most intelligent and lovable animal. I have to state upfront that, having grown up with family pets and with some farm experience as well, I do actually know something about animals.


Enjoying the sun on the boardwalk. 

One of the less enjoyable parts of my job is to sign the NOTOCs (Notification To Captain) for animals carried on board our aircraft. Less enjoyable, as I often see the distress these animals suffer. More about that later.

Firstly, let’s discuss the merits of carrying animals in the cabin – a hot topic on social media, where (in particular) some US airlines are taking serious flak for faux-pas with “service animals”. The use of inverted commas is deliberate, as many of these animals appear to simply be badly behaved pets owned by equally badly behaved passengers. Apparently US airlines opened themselves to abuse by allowing “service animals” and “emotional support animals” indiscriminately into cabins – a trend they are now attempting to reverse by imposing some restrictions.

Mostly it would appear that US passengers are simply trying to avoid paying for their pets’ transport. Animals are apparently carried free of charge in cabins – probably regarded as carry-on luggage!

But this has come back to bite some airlines (pun intended), where dogs have attacked other passengers and animals caused havoc in aircraft cabins, with lawsuits now the order of the day.

To my mind, putting an untrained animal in a stressful situation among strangers in an aircraft cabin is tantamount to cruelty. That’s apart from it being discourteous and possibly dangerous to other passengers. And I am sorry, but if you need a peacock or a pony as an “emotional support animal” on an aircraft, perhaps your psychologist should have advised you against using any form of public transport.

Fortunately, the airline I fly for has strict rules about service animals in our cabins. In fact no livestock is allowed, with service dogs being the only exception. Only dogs trained (or being trained) by the Guide Dog Association of SA and other organisations affiliated with Assistance Dogs International and the International Guide Dog Federation can be accepted as “service dogs”. Passengers need to complete assessment and declaration forms, signed by a medical practitioner and provide proof from the aforementioned organisations that the dog has received the required functional and familiarisation training – all this well in advance of travelling.

In my experience this works extremely well. We often have properly certified service dogs on board and they behave impeccably, with no or minimal disturbance to other passengers.

Any other livestock must be carried in specifically designed containers in the forward hold. (Referring now specifically to the airline I fly for and the B737). IATA Live Animals Regulations apply. By the way, these regulations do not recommend sedation, except under certain conditions and when carried out under veterinarian direction.

I mentioned earlier the distress these animals suffer – this I’ve seen first-hand many times. I don’t know about fish, snakes or birds – they’re a bit difficult to understand (and we often carry those). But dogs, cats, monkeys and other pets often appear frightened and very stressed. One big Alasatian became so stressed that he chewed through his container and was found running around on the luggage in the hold after we had landed.


Alsatian chewed his way out during a flight of under two hours.


Eventually caught by a professional, still aggressive to anyone coming close.

That is clearly not ideal and perhaps indicates how, despite our best intentions, these animals suffer when forced to travel.

Now I know that the airlines, freight forwarders, pet shops and vets make good money from the transport of livestock – it’s just that I would personally not endorse the endeavour. I’ve seen too much trauma in the front hold during my many pre-flight walkaround inspections.

And as for animals in the cabin – don’t even go there!

(Featured Image by JBR Ranch via Aviation Week; Other images by the author).