Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ahh, a pilot's life. Traveling all over the planet, staying in fine hotels and eating in fine restaurants, meeting beautiful people and having a 'friend-with-benefits' in every port. That's the cliche, but it ain't entirely a cliche.

So there's this pilot I know..

This pilot has an ongoing romantic relationship with 2 other people at the same time. Neither person is aware of the other one's existence. This tells me that my friend pilot is a bit of a sociopath, and is also well-organized. The pilot uses a spreadsheet to make up flight schedules, then shows the fake schedules to each partner, and the schedules are set up to explain the pilot's absence through work. This has been going on for some time, as in years.

This person isn't the first pilot I know who has run two relationships at the same time; the nature of our business is such that random, extended absences are pretty common, so it makes it easier for a cheater to come up with excuses for a liaison. For example, I nearly did a trip to Texas this morning, which would cause me to miss the Hallowe'en party that Lisa and I have been planning for a while. Lisa didn't even bat an eye when I told her last night - she knows it's a part of my occupation / career / passion.

I do admit that from a purely clinical perspective, running two simultaneous and separate romances takes some genius. It also fails a basic risk management test - failure is inevitable, and the consequences of failure will be spectacular but not in a good way.

The thing is, in this particular case, it's worked so far and it's been quite a while.

I couldn't handle a life like that. First of all, I'm not too big on betrayal - I would drink poison for Lisa anyway, and the thought of hurting her on purpose is horrifying. Second, eventually the jig will be up, and I don't have the energy or inclination to worry about whether every incoming phone call I get is a loved one, distraught and furious after having unraveled some small lie that caused the whole big lie to come apart. Lastly, I value my time alone, and a quick peek at this pilot's master schedule (detailing time allocated for work, and for each partner), shows this pilot has zero time alone. To me, it sounds like a private Hell, but clearly I'm missing something. It's gotta be the sex, right? I just wonder how satisfying it can be when it's all based around a lie.

When I think of my pilot friend, the word that comes up a lot is 'selfish' - to me that's doing something that hurts loved ones, but choosing to continue anyway because it gives some sort of gratification. The thing is...

I have had to no-show to lots of important events and occasions with friends and family due to flying, and it is extremely likely that when I have kids I will miss important moments in their lives because I'm away on a trip. Just thinking about it makes me really sad, but it's a price that I will pay, and make them pay, because it's what I want, and because I'm selfish. Really, the only major distinction I can make between my behavior and my pilot friends is that I am honest about my selfishness to my loved ones, while my pilot friend chooses to keep that information private. Is that actually enough? I really hope so.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Skip foward 60 seconds for an example of just how wild a rejected takeoff can be.

A rejected takeoff is one of the most dangerous situations you might encounter in aviation - it's not easy to slow a large heavy object from over a hundred mph to zero in a few thousand feet. We use thrust reversers which help a little, and we use speedbrakes to increase our drag and slow down faster, but the job mostly falls upon the aircraft brakes, which are usually made with all sorts of high-tech expensive materials like carbon fiber ceramic and Kevlar (same stuff they use in bullet-proof vests), but can still be completely demolished in a single rejected takeoff. Brake temperatures can reach 1,800 degrees Farenheit due to friction, which which is on the high end of the temperature found in a cremation oven at a funeral home (thanks to Google for that morbid little search result).

Anyway, when we push the throttles forward in our jet, we have already computed and marked several airspeeds on our airspeed indicators. One of them is V1, which is also known as "Decision speed". On the take-off roll, once we accelerate past V1, even if an engine blows it's safer to continue the takeoff than it is to stomp on the brakes and attempt to stop on the remaining runway. If our plane is heavy or if it's hot outside then it will take more runway to come to a complete stop. Before we attempt any takeoff we have done the math (actually a computer program does the math, but you get the point) and made sure that the runway we will be using is longer than the runway we actually need. If we are doing a charter flight, we need a 60% distance buffer on top of the minimum distance calculated by the computer program.

There are some things the calculations can't take into account, the main one being if the pilot decides to reject the takeoff at a speed above V1. If that happens, then there is no data out there that tells us how much runway it will take to slow down, or if we will slow down at all - at a certain speed our kinetic energy is such that the brakes will fail before they absorb enough forward motion to keep us from going off the end of the runway. In our training, we get it pounded into our heads that after we reach the V1 speed on takeoff, we are going flying unless a wing comes off. But I have heard more than a few accounts from pilots of them rejecting takeoffs well above V1 for various reasons, and most of the time the runway is still long enough. Most of the time.

Now, this accident happened a couple of weeks ago in Cabinda, Angola. We don't know the details, but from an accident-investigation or "armchair quarterback" point of view, I can see several things that *might* have resulted in the calculated accelerate-stop distance appearing less than the distance it actually took them. How many factors do you see at work here?