Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Top Secret Story


I am a Secret Squirrel. I have, or rather had, a top secret clearance as it most certainly expired years ago. My clearance was known as a TS/BI/SCI or Top Secret-Background Investigation-Sensitive Compartmented Information. Having an expired clearance doesn't mean, though, that I am free to tell the secrets entrusted to me. The statute of limitations on classified never runs out even though what I know is long since obsolete.

Getting my TS clearance involved lengthy interviews and an exhaustive questionnaire administered by a very nice, but doggedly determined lady from the Justice Department. I don't remember her name, but it was probably something like Minerva, or Millicent.

Have I ever travelled to a communist country? Do I know anyone who has? Do I have any relatives who have ever advocated the violent overthrow of the US government? Do I have any large debts? Is there anything in my past which may be used to coerce me? And on and on.

The last question, asked as the interview was ending, was probably the one that tripped up the most people: Could you give us the names of two or three people who know you well that we might contact? Of course you'd give the names of friends who would only say glowingly positive things about your character and trustworthiness.

She would then contact those people and ask them if there were two or three other people who might know you. As the circle expanded, a real picture of character would emerge. Quite effective, I imagine.

Well she must've been off her game and not gotten around to certain ex-girlfriends or people I had otherwise slighted, and I was issued my top secret clearance. It was a good thing as well because not having a security clearance for a job that needed one meant you would soon be looking for a new job.

My job at the time was as a pilot flying the KC-135 Stratotanker for the Air Force's Strategic Air Command or SAC. SAC no longer exists, but its primary mission was nuclear war. Ironically, the SAC motto was "Peace is Our Profession" to which we would always add "War is Just a Hobby". We were the guys (and gals) who were going to go to nuclear war "toe to toe with the Russkies" as Slim Pickens so eloquently put it in Dr. Strangelove.

Classified is Serious Business

One thing you quickly realized when offered entrance into the world of secrets is that this was a place untouched by any sense of levity or humor. Getting access to classified documents involved briefings, warnings and the signing of multiple statements continuously reminding of you of your responsibilities when handling classified material including the penalties that awaited should you screw it up. 

They weren't joking. Careers have been wrecked for the inadvertent mishandling of this stuff. (And may yet still be!)

The classified study area itself was in an actual room sized vault. Nothing went in or out. We had no cell phones back then but all the handsets had push to talk mic buttons so conversations couldn't be overheard. Any documents left on a table top had to have a cover sheet to prevent unauthorized viewing. 

And the stuff was boring. Oh my god was that stuff ever boring. Most of it involved details concerning codes and communications. There were flowcharts, and rules, and exceptions to those rules and exceptions to the exceptions. It was stuff we might need to get encrypted messages and what those messages meant. No "deep state" kind of stuff at all. Very disappointing.

And our "comm" class was right after lunch. Staying awake took Herculean efforts. I came to the conclusion that this was secretly some type of Chinese torture resistance training in case we were captured. 

But that changed one day. Most of the material we had been dealing with to that point had been classified "secret". The government has three levels of classification which determine the security measures and procedures used to protect that material. They are "confidential", "secret" and "top secret". Each level has its own increasingly complicated protocols and increasingly severe penalties for breach.

Somewhere it had been determined that we now had the need to be given access to some "top secret" information. Aha! At last I was to be given clearance into the inner sanctum. Now I was to find out if Herbert Hoover really did cross dress, who had really killed Kennedy and maybe even where Jimmy Hoffa was buried.

The Inner Sanctum

On the appointed day we were led into the vault and from an armored combination locked filing cabinet came a thick metal bound and locked notebook. All Maxwell Smart-y. Sadly, Agent 99 was nowhere in sight but it was thrilling nonetheless. Only after signing more documents giving up claim on our souls and firstborns was the notebook opened.

Then came the Geico moment. You know the ad where someone says "did you know that...." and the other person answers "Sure, everybody knows that". Well I looked at this stuff and immediately thought, is that it? Everyone knows that! Where's the REAL secret stuff?!?

Alas, there were to be no great revelations about the inner workings of the US government, the Air Force or even the Strategic Air Command for that matter. What I saw in the vault that day was public, obvious, and common knowledge. Sure it was stuff we "needed" to know but it was just common knowledge to anyone who had sat down and thought about it for a moment. 

My guess is that it was actually the imprimatur of the US government on the information that made it top secret. Essentially an official confirmation of widely held but otherwise unconfirmable knowledge.

Still, if I told you what great secret it was that was revealed that day, I could still go to jail for a long time. Trust me, you wouldn't be impressed.

Or as one smart-alec intel briefer would always end his classified briefings..."for further details, please consult the USA Today".


So what do you think? Does our government keep too many secrets?

Friday, August 28, 2015

When Flying, Be Ready to Expect the Unexpected

I used a somewhat unusual construction in the title of this post to illustrate a point about the attitude pilots need to take while on the job. What I mean by this is that pilots are not expected to be sitting on the edge of their chairs for every second of every day waiting for something to go wrong. That would be simply exhausting. Rather, pilots should be ready to consider that when things seem amiss, the airplane may be keeping a secret.

Let me give you an example which recently happened to me er, my buddy Joe, as he tells it:

About an hour and a half into a two hour flight, one of our flight attendants asked to come up front to discuss something. This piqued our interest because in the years since 9/11, the procedures used to visit the cockpit have become so onerous that almost nobody does so anymore. It used to be the opposite but that's a topic for another day.

The flight attendant came up and said that a passenger had spotted and was concerned about a liquid he thought he saw on the top of the wing. She then mentioned that yes, in the reflection of the sun off the paint, there did seem to be an area that might've been wet, but it was hard to tell.

We immediately begin to think that we had another nervous flyer ready to believe that death was imminent due to the wing falling off or some other disaster. This happens enough that most pilots have at some point had to deal with excitable passengers claiming to have seen something. This, I'll admit, was my first thought. But I'll also admit that I did take a look at both the fuel and hydraulic quantity gauges. All was in order, so if there was any leak, it was a small one.

There's an old joke about the F-4 fighter. A pilot was asked what he'd do if he found a leaking fluid on his walk-around inspection. He answers "nothing". When asked why, he explains that if it isn't leaking, then that means there's nothing onboard to leak. The point is that all airplanes are plumbing nightmares and to some extent they all leak.

A trip into any wheel well on any airliner will display a dirty and greasy area. It's just like looking under the hood of your car. That grime you see comes from some fluid whether it's oil, coolant, steering or brake fluid that oozed out from somewhere. Airplanes are no different. That's not to say that leaks are acceptable, they aren't. But usually, leaks are from loose fittings that need tightening and present no real problem. Looking for leaks is one of the primary reasons for doing walk-around inspections in the first place.

Big leaks are of course bad because not only will the leaking fluid not be available to do it's intended job, it might cause trouble as it goes some place it is not supposed to go. Fuel is the most obvious example of this, but hydraulic fluid can cause trouble by going where it shouldn't as well. Skydrol, the hydraulic fluid used by most airlines causes burns to unprotected skin, while the stuff the military used when I was there was explosive when it became aerosolized from a high pressure leak.

Yea, you'd think the military would move away from explosive hydraulic fluids being that their airplanes are targets and all, but whatever.

Anyway, I was simultaneously thinking about what fluid might be on top of my wing while also trying to think of some plausible explanation for our flight attendant to tell our worried passenger. If it had been winter, the best explanation would have been that it was deicing fluid. Deicing fluid is designed to stick to the wing surface and gives a wet appearance. As it was summer, all I could think of was that some fitting in the actuators for the leading edge flaps may have been leaking with the fluid running back across the top of the wing.

We ended up assuming that it was most likely that if anything. At this point I kept an eye on the gauges and called ahead to have a mechanic meet the airplane. Was I concerned about this? Minimally, and here's why. First, all my pressures and quantities were perfectly normal. Secondly, should the system have failed for whatever reason, there were still multiple ways to extend the leading edge flaps or even to land without them.

Lastly of course was the possibility that our worried passenger saw nothing but a reflection. Trust me, I've heard worse.

After landing, we had a mechanic take a look. As it turned out, the leak wasn't hydraulic fluid as we'd suspected but was in fact fuel. The fuel line coming out of the wing snakes through the top of the engine strut down to the fuel control unit. A fitting in this line was damp.

Was this a big deal? Not really. That area, as do all areas with fluid lines, has a drain which collects any leaking fluids and vents them overboard safely. A tiny bit had made its way out from under the panel onto the top of the wing which our eagle eyed customer saw. Still, in over 25 years I'd never seen nor heard of a fuel leak on the top of the wing. Most engine fuel leaks drain out of the bottom of the engine cowling.

The airplane was taken out of service due to replacement O-rings not being available at that station, and we got to deadhead to our final destination for the overnight. Just another day on the job.

Would I have done anything differently? No. The actions we took were appropriate, but I was reminded that especially in aviation as in many things, the most obvious conclusion may not always be the correct one. Things are not always what they seem.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Is Getting Hit By Lightning in an Airplane a Bad Thing?

Delta Airlines has been having a rough go with the weather lately. I wrote about a Delta jet's encounter with hail last week, and this week they're back in the news for a rather dramatic lightning strike caught on video. Actually, everyone has had a time of it with the weather this past week. I even had to divert to San Antonio yesterday as Houston, our destination, was beset with thunderstorms.

So this past Tuesday afternoon a passenger was filming a lineup of airplanes waiting out a storm in Atlanta when a bolt of lightning struck a nearby 737. The shot shows the lightning hitting the fuselage while a simultaneous discharge jumps from the landing gear to the ground. Now here's the crazy part. The airplane, scheduled for a 5:45 departure, subsequently took off for Las Vegas with only about a two hour delay according to flight tracking websites.

Why, you ask? Well, they probably didn't even know they'd been hit. A two hour delay in Atlanta is considered more or less on time, and the airport was on a ground stop due to the storm. Had they suspected a lightning strike, the prudent thing to do probably would've been to return to the gate for an inspection. Even so, the flight had no problems and landed uneventfully.

So, is getting struck by lightning in an airplane a big deal? I won't say that it's a non-event or even routine, but no, it's not any particularly big deal.  As most airplanes are made of metal, which conducts electricity, the vast majority of lightning strikes pass completely through the airplane with little or no evidence that there was even a strike. We have lightning strike checklists which direct checks of things like compasses, communications radios and navigation systems to make sure everything is operating as it should.

That may be changing slightly, though. As aircraft construction moves away from aluminum to composite materials, provisions will have to be made to accommodate lightning strikes. Electricity doesn't flow willingly through those new materials. Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner, for instance, is comprised of about 50% composite materials with carbon laminate and carbon sandwich making up most of the fuselage and wings. More on that later.

I'm Hit!

In over 30 years of flying, I've been struck by lightning perhaps two or three times that I remember. On one particular flight in a C-5 cargo jet, we were struck by lightning on the nose of the aircraft. How did I know it was the nose? That's because there was a small hole blown in the radome which we found after landing. Remember, lightning likes to travel through metallic structures. The radome is made of a composite material designed to allow radar signals to pass.

The experience was more or less what you'd expect. There was a bright flash simultaneously accompanied by a loud crack of thunder. As we were already in the pattern, we thought it best to land.

St. Elmo's Fire

Another artifact of flying near storms is St Elmo's Fire. No, I'm not talking about a tedious 1980s coming-of-age flick, but rather the phenomenon first noted by ancient mariners of static discharge in their sails. As static electricity builds up in the atmosphere due to moisture, discharges can take the form of a blue light which sailors would attribute to the presence of their patron saint, St. Elmo. This form of discharge is occasionally visible today on the windscreens of airplanes flying in clouds at night as seen here (fast forward to the last minute).

It's a little unnerving the first time you see it, but it's really harmless. Airliners have small rods known as "static wicks" attached to the trailing edge of the wings and tail to drain built up static charges off of the aircraft before they can build up. Even still, the voltage required to produce St. Elmo's fire is on the order of 1000 volts per cm. How is it that the people inside an airplane aren't cooked by lightning?

Faraday Cage

Michael Faraday, a scientist and an early experimenter with electricity, noted back in 1836 that for a hollow conductor holding a charge, the charge existed only on the exterior of the conductor and that the interior of the conductor held no charge. Faraday cages, essentially grounded metal enclosures, are used to insulate sensitive electronic components and computers from electromagnetic interference and lightning. The fuselage of an aluminum aircraft behaves in a similar manner, directing the current from a lighting strike along the outside of the airplane where it jumped the gap between the metal gear strut and the ground in this instance.

So How About Those Composite Materials?

Ok, so getting back to the new airplanes using composite materials, how are they protected from lightning strikes? The answer is the old fashioned way...with a metal enclosure in the form of a metallic screen or foil embedded in the composite material. There's simply no way to get around this requirement as composites, essentially laminates of synthetic materials such as carbon fiber, do not conduct electricity. They actually have a nasty tendency to simply blow apart when subjected to the high voltages present in lightning.

Engineers have to make sure the embedded mesh has the ability to conduct the amount of electric current expected from a lightning strike while also attempting to keep the weight as low as possible. That's the whole point of using composites. Other considerations such as potential corrosion or chemical interactions between the mesh and the composite materials must be considered. Repairs on such materials will not be easy either. Should a ramper run the belt loader into an aluminum skinned plane, a new piece can just be riveted on. Repairs to composite structures will be time consuming and expensive.

Time to Worry About Lightning?

No. Airplanes made of composite materials have been flying for decades with few problems from lightning. Composites are only just now making their way into commercial airliners, but the knowledge base of how to mitigate lightning strikes in composite structures is mature. Boeing estimates that each commercial airliner flying can expect an average of one lightning strike a year. That's a lot of lightning strikes, but other than the occasional fortuitous photograph bringing the issue up, it's really nothing to lose sleep over.

How about you? Have you ever had a much too close encounter with lightning? I'd love to hear about it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pilot Report: Flying the KC-135A Stratotanker

Water Injected Takeoff

I graduated from the Air Force's Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) program in December of 1982 at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. Pinning on my silver wings was one of the proudest moments of my life. My parents, siblings and grandfather all flew out for the event. At that point I already knew that my next assignment was going to be a KC-135 tanker based in Okinawa, Japan.

Getting assigned to the KC-135 was slightly bittersweet as I, like all 22 year old aspiring military pilots, wanted to fly a fighter. Actually, not everyone wanted fighters, but at the time, such a desire seemed downright odd. Why wouldn't you? Afterburners, Ray Ban glasses, girls, G-suits, Corvettes, girls, big watches, girls, etc.

Well as it turned out, in my class of thirty or so students, there were only five fighter assignments available. And while I was good and had never "hooked" or failed a ride, I wasn't in the top five so my destiny was to fly a "heavy".

Armed with the knowledge that flying a heavy lay in my future, I decided to at least have an adventure at whatever base I was to be assigned and checked the box marked "overseas volunteer" on my dream sheet. A dream sheet was the form where you'd list your preferences for aircraft and base.

Normally I suppose the drones moling about at the personnel assignment command would get a good chuckle out of those dream sheets as they were tossed into the trash and your all expense paid trip to Minot, North Dakota was arranged. The assignment gods, however, took pity on me and I got my posting to Okinawa, a smallish island in the Ryukyu chain about 1300 miles south of Tokyo. There was once a battle there you may have heard about.

My next stop was Castle AFB, in Merced, California where I would spend three months checking out on the KC-135 as a new copilot. This was followed by a week or so in Spokane for survival and resistance training before catching the Flying Tiger 747 "Freedom Bird" from Oakland to Okinawa.

The First All Jet Tanker

The KC-135 Stratotanker, produced between the years of 1956 and 1965, was a derivative of Boeing's test bed aircraft, the 367-80. From this early test aircraft, both the KC-135 and 707 were derived which is why the KC-135 has a strong resemblance to the 707, though the tanker was smaller and lighter. Still, the tanker could carry 135,000 lbs of fuel and weighed in at just under 300,000 lbs fully loaded.

Part of the impetus for the Air Force to acquire this aircraft was the cold war. The nuclear arms race was in full swing in the late '50s and the Air Force wanted to have a tanker which could refuel its new intercontinental bomber, the B-52, to allow it to reach Russia. The old KC-97, a derivative of the WWII era B-29, just wasn't up to the task.

In fact, because the angst of quickly fielding a nuclear deterrent was so high during that time, several compromises and shortcuts were made in the design of the KC-135 to get it operational faster. These were compromises which I came to despise acutely nearly thirty years later.

The first compromise was the engines. Engine manufacturer Pratt and Whitney was working on a new engine design at the time known as the bypass fan engine. This new engine was to become the basis for all modern engines and was eventually used on the 707, but it just wasn't going to be ready in time for the tanker. So the KC-135 was outfitted with older engines which incorporated a technology known as water injection to produce enough thrust. Yes, you heard that right...they pumped water into the engine.

Without getting too detailed, high pressure pumps injected water into the engines during takeoff which increased thrust by means of an increased mass flow rate. Still, the airplane was grossly underpowered. While the airplane did usually get airborne, it would take most of the runway to do so when heavy. I have seen the departure end of the runway coming under the nose during rotation more times than I care to remember.

To give you an idea of how puny the engines were, the CFM-56 engines fitted on a 737 today produce about 34,000 lbs of thrust while the tanker's original P&W J-57s produced a mere 12,000 lbs. Due to it's underpowered nature, the aircraft gathered unflattering monikers such as "The Silver Sow" or "The Steam Jet". My personal favorite was "Strato-Bladder" for the bladder type fuel cells in the body tanks.

The KC-135A was eventually re-engined in the 1980s with those same CFM engines and was redesignated the KC-135R. The new "R" models are quite sporty now and even hold some time to climb records for transport category aircraft.

This first compromise of using water injected engines led to the compromise which I came to hate the most. To feed the water injection system, a water tank was needed. Since most of the body of the aircraft where cargo bins are on a normal plane were taken up with fuel tanks, a decision was made to remove one of the two air conditioning units, or packs. This meant that the airplane was hot, and I don't mean hot as in cool, but rather hot as in fetid.

I was stationed in Okinawa, remember, which is in a subtropical climate zone. This means warm and damp winters followed by hot and damp summers. The lack of A/C on the aircraft was most pronounced when flying hour after hour of "transition" training, or touch and go practice. It wasn't uncommon to get off the airplane soaking wet. Boeing didn't even have the courtesy to install an air vent to blow on the pilots' faces. The air outlets were under the seat where what little cool air that did emanate did no one any good at all.

Old Technology

As I flew the airplane in the early 80s, it had undergone a number of technology updates to its original systems but many vestiges of older technology were still on board. We still had a navigator assigned to the crew, but he had at his disposal an inertial navigation system, or INS which made his job more or less obsolete. Airliners were crossing oceans then with similar systems which had their accuracy measured in yards while GPS was still on the design table.

The aircraft also had, however, a sextant and an overhead port with which to view the stars. Celestial navigation dates back to the time of Magellan and was the reason the navigators were still on board. Remember, this aircraft was designed to fight a nuclear war and at the time it was thought that a nuclear detonation might render all electronics useless. Therefore, the navigator was trained to use the ancient technology of celestial navigation with a sextant to determine our course while flying to nuclear armageddon. My one regret is never having had our nav teach me how to shoot the stars with the sextant.

Over-water communications were also rather dated. While we had a high frequency or HF radio which could bounce signals long distances, ours was an old tube-type radio requiring a warmup and without a squelch control. This meant maintaining a "listening watch" on air traffic control frequencies which were always full of static, whistles and pops. Of course this was a copilot duty. When the air traffic frequencies became too unusable, I might have inadvertently tuned the radio to an awesome rock station beamed out of Saipan.

The standard for overseas communications is through the use of satellites today.

Flying the Beast

As I mentioned above, the airplane was underpowered. This meant that it had to be flown very smoothly and deliberately when it was heavy, which was most of the time. There were restrictions on the angle of bank that one could use after takeoff for instance, and multiple warnings concerning what to do or not do should an engine fail on takeoff.

There were so many red warnings on the engine failure pages that I think most of us flying the beast were convinced that an engine failure was pretty much game over. Thankfully I never got the opportunity to test out that proposition.

Once you got the airplane away from the ground and up to altitude, it really flew quite nicely. The autopilot was primitive and rudimentary by today's standards but it did its job well enough. We'd use standard airways navigation when in range of land or the navigator would feed us headings to fly when out over the water.

The actual aerial refueling process could get quite busy. Getting two airplanes together could be a challenge, especially in the weather. F-15s were easy as they had such a good radar that they always found us (and we had the gas). F-4s were hopeless, and Marine F-4s were a disaster. My job as copilot was to talk to air traffic control while operating the pumps to offload fuel to the receiver aircraft. I was also in charge of keeping our own weight and balance within limits by moving fuel around with pumps and valves. 

Refueling large aircraft such as the C-5 took special care. That aircraft had such a large bow wave that it would actually push the tail of the tanker around. On occasion, the forces might be too much for the autopilot which might click off without warning. One of us always had to be ready to grab the controls in that event.

Sushi for the inflight meal?

In the Pattern

Once we got back from a refueling mission, we might spend some time in the pattern or there might be times when we just launched a sortie with the express purpose of only flying practice approaches. There was a simulator on Okinawa but it was a sad affair with no motion or visuals and wasn't suited for actual flight training as are modern sims.

The tanker behaved reasonably well in the pattern when the weather was not very gusty. In gusty conditions, however, she became quite a handful. The reason for this is the aircraft had some very rudimentary flight controls. If you've ever wondered why fighters have a "stick", and large aircraft have a "yoke" or two handled control wheel, it's because two hands were needed to control large airplanes.

Nearly all modern large airplanes are now equipped with hydraulic flight controls. That means hydraulically powered actuators move the flight controls which control the airplane in flight. Think of the power steering on your car. The KC-135, however, had only cable and pulley flight controls. Moving the control wheel physically pulled cables running directly to the wings. This made the controls less effective and at times sluggish, especially in gusty conditions. We joked that it was a true "fly by wire" flight control system.

One of our pilots had a bad experience with this facet of the airplane. I just remember being out windsurfing that day in some truly righteous surf and north winds. Unfortunately, one of our pilots did not negotiate the crosswind landing and allowed her upwind wing to rise causing the downwind engine to strike the runway and catch fire. They landed safely, but I don't think she flew again, at least on Okinawa.

All Things Strato

As I look back on my time flying the KC-135, I don't think I appreciated what a piece of history it represented in its technology as part of the vanguard of the jet age, or its role in both the cold war and Vietnam. It has been said that during the Vietnam era, a tanker "driver" could not buy a drink in the bar as appreciative fighter pilots returning on fumes from the North would want to thank them for them being there with some gas to get them home. The motto of my squadron, the 909th AREFS, was in fact "Always There". 

Nonetheless, being stationed overseas flying some real world contingency missions in your early 20s is an experience that I'll never forget. It was an awesome time.

I'll finish this post with a bit of guitar lore as playing guitar is another hobby of mine. As the '50s were a heady time in the post war era, Boeing came to put the prefix "strato" in front of many of its airplanes as they would cruise in the stratosphere. There was the Stratoliner (model 307), the Stratobomber (B-47), and the Stratotanker.

In 1954, a guitar builder named Leo Fender introduced a revolutionary new guitar featuring many new design elements. Having already produced guitars named the Broadcaster and the Telecaster, Fender added the strato prefix to his creation and the Stratocaster, one of the most iconic guitars ever built, went on to make rock and roll history.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Airlines are Colluding to Raise Ticket Prices...or Are They?

The US Justice Department recently announced a probe of the four largest US airlines alleging that these airlines have illegally colluded to restrain capacity and to thereby keep fares high. While the airlines deny any wrongdoing, Justice is requesting internal documents and communications from the big four airlines concerning capacity plans.

Whatever else you may think of them, CEOs in competing companies are certainly not stupid enough to be caught calling one another on the phone to coordinate their efforts. It seems more likely that this "investigation" is a political fishing expedition which will likely come to naught. Even so, let's take a look at how we got here.

A Brief History of Airline Industry Economics

The great investor Warren Buffett once quipped that as far as airline investors were concerned, they'd have been better off if the Wright Flyer had been shot down. There's much truth in that statement. Buffett further observed back in 1992 that the net profit since the dawn of commercial aviation up until that time was zero. This was also true.

For various reasons, the airline industry has defied all efforts to make itself consistently profitable, at least in the years since deregulation. The industry has always appeared to have only two modes of operation: either wildly profitable or bankrupt. These two states have often been experienced by the same airline over very short periods of time.

Economists have gone on at length to explain the reasons for this boom and bust cycle. Some point to the cost inputs that rely on very expensive capital goods such as jet aircraft, and a dependence on a commodity, oil, which comes from an unstable part of the world and is subject to whipsaw pricing, geopolitics, and currency manipulation.

Others point to overreaching labor unions, or the nature of network organization which rewards the larger network with ever more traffic. Think of cell phone coverage here and the advantages a larger network confers when trying to sell phone plans. People want options when redeeming their frequent flier miles, and they also want the ability to stay with one carrier to build those miles.

Still others point to the low marginal cost of producing the product, which is known as a seat-mile. When an airplane departs with empty seats, the revenue from those seats is zero. So like a supermarket trying to clear out day old bread before spoilage, any revenue gained by putting another passenger aboard the airplane goes almost entirely to the bottom line. This is because the marginal cost of carrying one extra person on the airplane is nearly nil. Airlines are therefore incentivized to lower fares below their average cost to fill empty seats.

In the wake of deregulation, airlines realized that because of the network dynamics mentioned above, growth was the key to market success. These two forces, a need for growth and the low marginal cost of production, often saw airlines pouring capacity into the market and then attempting to undercut competitors to fill their seats. Hence the birth of the airline fare wars.

It was the ensuing fare wars that caused the post deregulation economic carnage among airlines. In the period since airline deregulation in 1978, 55 airlines have declared bankruptcy in the US. While many of these airlines were smaller or regional carriers, nearly all major US carriers have also reorganized under bankruptcy law.

Airline managers eventually came to realize that beating each other over the head by throwing capacity at the market has been a failing strategy. They knew that growth was key but as with a crab trying to escape a bucket, those remaining would always pull the leaders back down. The problem was that there was no way out of the trap.

Multiple trips into bankruptcy transformed some carriers into so-called "zombie" airlines. They could never prosper but they wouldn't die. Bankruptcy allowed the zombies to shed high labor costs and debt and to continue operations, but they still couldn't grow. Attempts to merge were turned back by government antitrust watchdogs. United's attempted merger with USAir back in 2000 was denied on antitrust grounds for instance.

Merger Mania

All that changed in the later 2000s. After a string of bankruptcies in the wake of 9/11, the Bush and then the Obama administrations approved a long sought after series of mergers and acquisitions by the largest US carriers. From the approved consolidations emerged four large airlines which now represent nearly 90% of all airline capacity in the US.

In the time since the approval of the last round of mergers, and assisted by a drop in fuel prices, airlines have been making money hand over fist. The latest round of earnings saw the big four airlines hauling in billions of dollars of revenue while 2nd quarter return on investment for the sector was an extremely healthy 34%.

We're From the Government and We're Here to Help

It's been said that anyone who works for the Justice department's antitrust division operates under a sneaking suspicion that someone somewhere might be making a profit (or too much of one). That may or may not be true, but in the case of US airlines, making a ton of money immediately following a wave of mergers may have been the triggering event for this investigation (never mind that Justice itself approved the mergers).

Airlines were also quick to add fuel surcharges when oil prices spiked to over $100 but have been reluctant to repeal those charges now that fuel prices have retreated to below $50 per bbl. Adding to the suspicion among the flying public that something is amiss is the sardine like conditions that exist on most domestic flights as they all seem to be completely full. It wasn't too far in the past that one might occasionally have an empty middle seat. Now they're quite rare.

And as anything that the federal government does is informed by the current political winds, it probably was seen as prudent by Justice department lawyers to be seen doing something to address this issue if for no other reason than to stave off inconvenient questions to the boss in press briefings or congressional hearings.

Yes, But Have the Airlines Really Been Misbehaving?

As I mentioned above, for CEOs in competing companies to even talk to one another is extremely unwise and simply not done. This also goes for the whole corporate structure, so it seems unlikely that any "smoking gun" indicating collusion will be found. It seems that Justice will have the daunting task of "proving" that airlines are voluntarily growing more slowly than they would otherwise. This will be an exceedingly difficult task as there is no way to prove what a "proper" growth rate should be.

The Wall Street Journal even noted that over the last year airlines added an additional 859 million seats or 3% to the US market. Airlines may well be constraining growth over previous decades, but this seems more of a realization that past practices were disastrous for the industry as a whole rather than evidence of malfeasance. Southwest's stock price was clobbered earlier this year after it made public plans to accelerate growth. The airline later offered a "clarification" to walk back its growth estimates.

What's more likely happening concerning airline growth plans is that discipline is being imposed on airline managements by stockholders with memories of the bad old days. Bad old days for investors, that is. The flying public, and their public servants, on the other hand, miss the $49 fare war days.

Monday, August 10, 2015

So Who Flies Into a Hail Storm?

The short answer is nobody does this on purpose. This past Friday, a Delta A320 with 125 passengers and five crew was enroute from Boston to Salt Lake when it ran into some hail near Denver. The aircraft was heavily damaged and diverted into Denver. There were no injuries other than some passenger anxiety.

The problem is, hail is more or less invisible until you run into it. Being dark at the time of the incident didn't help either. The other problem is that hail doesn't just come out of the bottom of clouds but can be ejected from the top of some larger storms. Large thunderstorms are maelstroms of updrafts and downdrafts. When hail is caught in an updraft, it can be thrown out the top of the storm for dozens of miles. The airplane was cruising at 34,000 ft and likely well clear of the storm when it was hit.

I'm amazed every time I see a photo like this that the hail damage isn't much worse. The airplane, after all, is traveling close to 500 miles per hour. Anyone who's ever ridden a motorcycle can attest that simple rain drops at 60 mph are painful. Imagine chunks of ice at 500. The fact that the windows were cracked but structurally intact is a testament to the engineering which goes into their design. A complete windscreen failure would mean a high probability for loss of the aircraft.

Rest assured, dear reader, that those windscreens are designed to take a lot more abuse than some hail can dish up. Their design specifications include hitting a large bird such as a goose at a very high speed. Special cannons are employed to shoot bird carcasses at windscreens during certification. The windscreens are a multilayered laminate which includes a heating layer embedded in the glass to keep it from becoming brittle. Even if one of the layers appears shattered, the load bearing layer most likely is not.

I even had a windshield shatter about a year ago for no reason at all. We were at 41,000 ft minding our own business when the windscreen just spiderwebbed with a resounding crack. After a few tense moments, we determined that it was not the load bearing layer that had cracked. We landed at our original destination (it was the closest airport) and I doubt the passengers knew a thing because we didn't tell them. There's no reason to unnecessarily scare anyone.

The bashed in radome on this jet also looks alarming, but it really isn't. The radome is plastic and is designed to be transparent to radar signals. The airplane will actually fly just fine even if the radome is knocked completely off. The noise level up front may increase and the radar antenna itself may be somewhat worse for the wear, but it isn't any super big deal.

Hail going into the engines, though, can be a potential problem. If the hail is severe enough it may bend or break some of the inlet guide vanes or compressor blades. Again, this is unlikely, but possible. Those engines are also tested by having birds and hail fired into them while running at full power. The cowling of the engine is also designed to contain any flying parts from hitting the fuselage.

Probably the largest challenge these pilots faced other than cleaning out their britches after the hail first hit, was landing the airplane with an obscured view through the damaged windscreen. The truth is, even that could be mitigated by using the airplane's instruments. Aircraft instruments, after all, are designed to allow pilots to land in low or no visibility. They might even have used the airplane's autoland capability.

Can't Pilots Just Steer Clear of Storms?

Well, they can and do. The FAA publishes guidelines for the avoidance of thunderstorms to which all airlines must adhere. The guidelines state that above 23,000 ft, all radar echos must be avoided by more than 20 miles. Pilots also know to avoid detouring around a storm on the downwind side because if hail is thrown out the top, the wind is likely to carry the hail to the downwind side. 

But even with all those safeguards, occasionally an airplane will run into some hail. Thankfully it doesn't happen too often, and when it does, the professionals up front know how to get the damaged beast safely on the ground.

Screenshot of Delta flight path

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Pilot Shortage Hits the Bottom Line

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (gated) made the claim that the ongoing pilot shortage is responsible for a drop of 50% in the value of Republic Airways stock. This is an unprecedented claim.

What this means in less technical terms is that "this s#!t be getting real!"

Republic Airways Holdings is a regional airline holding company based in Indianapolis. Through its subsidiaries Republic Airlines, Chautauqua Airlines and Shuttle America, the company operates regional feeds for its major airline partners branded as American Eagle, United Express, Delta Connection and US Airways Express.

Republic maintained that their inability to reach an agreement with their pilot union coupled with an ongoing pilot shortage resulted in a reduction of about 4% of their flying and causing 2nd quarter results to come in well under analyst expectations. Last year Republic parked 27 of its 243 aircraft due to a lack of pilots according to the carrier.

An irony here is that while dragging out labor negotiations is a tactic often employed to avoid raises for unionized employees, the current stall in talks is now hurting Republic's ability to attract new hires and to fulfill contractual commitments.

The Government Accounting Office, coming a little late to the party, said they had "found mixed evidence" regarding the extent of a pilot shortage. Being astute as ever, what they've discovered is that the major airlines are as yet having little trouble attracting aviators away from the regional airlines. The real difficulty is being felt by the regional carriers in replacing those disappearing pilots.

New government experience requirements have effectively closed the door to all but the most committed of new pilots. Only those who are willing to spend the better part of $100k dollars for a career which starts at about $20k and takes decades to reach the top tier are applying. New rest regulations are also reducing pilot productivity by 5 to 7% which increases the numbers of pilots the majors need to hire.

The regional airlines themselves have little ability to increase revenue to cover the needed increase in salaries to attract new aviators. This is due to the long term fixed fee service agreements they have with their major airline partners. They have in effect wet leased their aircraft for a fixed rate and can only increase profit through cost cuts.

It is this financial arrangement which allows the regionals very little wiggle room. There may not be a way out of this maze other than reductions in service. Republic Chief Bryan Bedford is even on record saying that the airline business will necessarily get smaller.

What he actually meant by that statement is that the regional airline business will have to get smaller. As the economics of regional feeders evaporate, the majors may take some of this flying on themselves as I mentioned in a recent post.

In the short term, look for 90 seat or larger regional airliners to become more prevalent as they have more advantageous economics. This trend may, however, leave smaller cities without service entirely.