Common Questions for the Cockpit Crew
This month, I’m glad to have the opportunity to answer questions that many travelers may have always wanted to ask their pilot, but have never had the chance. Some of my answers are based on my company’s SOP (standard operating procedures) and operations manual, and others come from my own experiences and other pilots’ opinions.
Q. Who determines when or if you’re going to make an unplanned landing for a passenger’s medical emergency or something else that comes up with a passenger (e.g., unruliness)?
A. This question has so many variables—it depends on the severity of the medical emergency in question. My airline has a checklist that we reference, in addition to coordinating with a medical team on 24-hour standby at company headquarters. We are initially alerted to the emergency by flight attendants, who use their own checklists to assess the situation. Their second step is to look for qualified medical personnel who happen to be traveling on the flight. Nine times out of 10, there will be someone with medical experience onboard who can provide a professional opinion on the severity of the emergency. If needed, a satellite phone patch allows the medical professional to speak directly with my company’s medical department to determine if an immediate medical divert is necessary.
If the doctors determine that the passenger’s condition requires immediate attention, then the divert location is decided by our dispatchers and pilots, and the flight lands as soon as possible at the nearest suitable airfield. The dispatcher then coordinates through airport operations for all local authorities and medical personnel to meet the flight and get the passenger to the hospital as quickly as possible.
An unruly passenger is handled much like the medical emergency. Again, we have checklists that explicitly rank levels of abusive behavior with specific responses that may lead to an emergency divert.
Q. Is a passenger capable of opening a plane’s door while the plane is in flight?
A. Thankfully, the answer to this question is an emphatic no. The doors on most commercial aircraft are “plugtype” doors, meaning they are slightly larger on the interior side. The doors initially open inward, rotating slightly to fit through the opening, then swing outward. After clearing the opening, they come to rest against the outside of the fuselage. While an aircraft is in flight and pressurized, it would be impossible for a human to have the strength to overcome the pressure differential to open the door. On the other hand, if the airplane became depressurized due to a malfunction, a door could be opened slightly from the inside—but opening it fully would still be next to impossible due to aerodynamic forces.
Q. Under what circumstances should passengers alert the flight crew about a weird noise, sounds from the cargo hold, strange smells, etc.?
A. Every airplane has its usual creaks and groans. Most of these strange sounds are completely normal, but there are times when things malfunction, and we would definitely like to hear about it. Some systems and components on the aircraft don’t have an associated cockpit warning system to alert us to a problem. Pilots sit so far ahead of the rest of the aircraft that we are unlikely to hear anything that happens aft of the cockpit.
Fuel leaking out of a wing or oil seeping out of an engine pylon would be one such instance we would like to hear about. Just be sure that if you are reporting a fuel leak to a flight attendant that it is indeed a leak, and not condensation or water dripping off the wing.
Any time you smell electrical burning or any other type of burning scent, do not hesitate to tell someone. The main rule of thumb on this is if something looks out of place, don’t be afraid to bring it to the flight crew’s attention.
Q. I recently saw flames coming from the back of an engine after a plane pulled away from the gate. What is this, and why is it not dangerous?
A. This particular anomaly is very rare with today’s modern high-bypass turbofan engines. It was more prevalent when airlines were flying the old 727s, 737s, DC-9s and DC-8s with older turbojet engines. The typical start sequence of a jet engine begins with an electric motor rotating the core turbine blades to a minimum rpm (revolutions per minute) before introducing fuel and a spark. The spark comes from igniters that act much like the spark plugs in automobiles but are not used continuously once the engine is started. Fuel (in vapor form sprayed from spray nozzles) is introduced to the engine by the pilot when the minimum rpm is achieved, simultaneously energizing the igniters to “light the fire.”
Sometimes the igniters fail or don’t achieve enough spark to light the fire instantly. In this case, an abundance of the fuel air mixture will build up inside the engine. If the igniters finally develop enough spark to ignite the fuel, the excess burning fuel will exit the engine in a large plume of flame. As long as the flame exiting the tail pipe dissipates quickly, there is no danger; but if you see flames that look like a large campfire for more than about five seconds, then there is a problem.
Q. A recent flight I took left 15 minutes early. Who determines when flights can depart?
A. Most airlines now use electronic ticketing, so they can know the number of passengers who have booked a seat and how many have actually checked in at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure. As such, CSRs (customer service representatives) can release flights early if all of the booked passengers have checked in and the aircraft and flight crews are ready to go.
There are times, though, when air traffic control has restrictions on flights going to airports where there is “flow control” due to bad weather. In this case, a flight that was scheduled to depart later for a different destination may be able to leave early using the ground personnel from the delayed flight. Ultimately, though, the decision to leave early is up to the CSR, with concurrence from the captain.
Q. Have you and your colleagues felt pressure to fly with less fuel recently?
A. No. But many airlines (mine included) have implemented fuel-efficiency classes to educate the pilots on how to use less fuel. The captain, with agreement from the first officers, has the last word on how much fuel he thinks will be necessary to get us to the destination safely. There has not been any pressure at my airline to fly with less fuel, but I can’t speak for the other airlines.
Q. When a jet plane (737 or larger) is not very full, how crucial is passenger weight distribution?
A. Having logged over 4,500 hours in the 737-300/500 as both captain and first officer, I can count on one hand the times I received a request from our load planners to shift the passenger load. On those few occasions, it was a nearly empty flight and passengers were always asked to move aft a few rows. As the jets get larger (757, 767, A-300, A-330, A-340, 777, 747, etc.), passenger weight distribution is even less critical. I’ve flown all of the Boeing jets listed above, and I personally have never been asked to adjust passenger seating locations.
CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.