By Jason Depew, TPN Staff Writer
I wish I could express to you how much less stress my life has as an airline pilot, compared to flying in the Air Force. I think I’ve successfully conveyed some of it in past posts, but that only scratches the surface. In case you pay no attention to human factors research, stress is a big deal. Stress impacts your health, and your overall Quality of Life. One Harvard/Stanford study found that stress accounted for a difference in life expectancy as high as 33 years! Yes, if your job is unnecessarily stressful, it may actually be killing you. One of the ways that airline life reduces stress is the dreaded go/no-go decision.
In the Air Force, we always dreaded days with bad weather. Sometimes the regulations would ground us without a whole lot of thought. That made our go/no-go decision easy, but didn’t alleviate much stress. You may have spent a bunch of valuable time planning that mission, only to be foiled by Mother Nature at the last minute. Maybe you are under scheduling constraints to get a training bean or upgrade completed before the end of a quarter or the start of a deployment. How are you going to get that training done now? You were hoping to take a couple days of leave with your family before that deployment. Maybe you had another squadron or some ground forces counting on your support for their own training or mission accomplishment. You let them down, impacted their readiness or mission success, and now you have to restart the coordination process all over again. How are you going to manage all of your office work now that you have to waste another day mission planning to try this flight again? Stress. Not helpful. 33 years of your life.
Outright bad weather caused plenty of problems, but for me mediocre weather was even worse. This is the kind of weather that doesn’t offer an easy no-go decision, but will impact every part of your flight. Maybe the weather is just good enough that you’d be skirting cloud clearances to maintain ground contact in a range or over a drop zone. Maybe you’d be rolling the dice on whether the minimums were actually good enough for the pattern work you needed. Maybe you’d be likely to spend most of your flight droning around looking for airspace clear enough to work in, without accomplishing all of your objectives.
In these situations, you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If you decide not to go, you’ll have to answer to your boss (…and his boss…and her boss. “And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.”) There’s an extremely high probability that at least one of them will armchair quarterback your decision and criticize you for it. (And how will that play in to your ranking in the next wing-wide rack & stack?) If you were supposed to support another unit, you’ll have to answer to that entire chain of command as well. If you do decide to go, you’ll have to answer for providing poor service or poor training because you made a bad decision to launch into inadequate weather. Are you proud that you decided to waste those government resources today, Emet?
In a training environment, this puts extra pressure on both instructor and student. Do you grade the sortie as “incomplete,” costing the taxpayers extra, unbudgeted money for a repeat event, or do you short-change your student (or agree to be short-changed) by accepting inferior training and pushing through the program? If that student’s instructors make a habit of this, what will be the long-term effects on the student’s skills? Again, there’s a pretty great chance that your judgement will be questioned no matter which way you decide. More stress… 33 years.
I have many less-than-fond memories of sitting in squadrons all over the planet debating this go/no-go decision for what seems like countless hours over my career. Sometimes the mission promised to be especially fun or compelling, or I’d feel I had a vested interest of making things happen. I’d lean forward as long as possible and jump as soon as “go” seemed reasonable. Many times though, I’d be tired and demoralized for this and other reasons. (See: Evidence of worn-out USAF pilot force.) I’d look at the possibility of giving up and doing a breakfast push with my friends and silently pray for more lightning, higher winds, or lower ceilings. (Call me a bad patriot if you want, but we both know that you’ve been there too….)
These situations were always stressful enough, but as an aircraft commander, instructor pilot, flight commander, flight lead, or chief pilot, it was even worse. When (not if) I made the wrong decision, I’d not only be a bad pilot, but I’d be a bad leader and example to the pilots in my care. Maybe this built some character, but I cringe to think about the number of years in life expectancy I sacrificed to the gods of mediocre weather.
Thankfully (and sadly,) I don’t have to worry about that kind of go/no-go decision making any more. In the airlines there’s almost always only one option: you’re going! There will be rare times when an entire airport declares a ground stop for severe weather. You’ll sit around for an hour or two and then launch anyway…flying around or through the remnant of whatever it was that caused the ground stop. As long as you’re legal, it doesn’t matter what the conditions are like. You’re going!
At first, your military brainwashing is going to revolt against this idea. The flightline lawyer in you will be screaming about how you’ll end up in violation of some regulation. Your self-preservation instinct will scream that this couldn’t possibly be safe. Calm those voices. They can keep you safe in extreme situations, but in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi:
Your insight serves you well…They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Emperor.
Stressing out over this won’t help you, and it truly isn’t necessary. When the airlines say “It doesn’t matter – you’re going,” they don’t do it blithely. They’ve set up systems to make this possible.
First, almost every airliner is certified for CAT II or CAT III ILS operations. Even the ancient, soon-to-be-retired MD88 can do a CAT IIIb autoland down to 600 RVR. In case you’ve never tried it, 600 RVR is nothing! I’d estimate that there are only a few minutes per year at any given airport when the minimums are below that. When things get that low, the controller can probably get a “more favorable” reading by sending one of the line personnel to wave a takeout menu near the edge of the runway just before pressing refresh on his or her RVR readout.
Airline pilots are all certified for these approaches as a matter of course. During your qualification training, you will, without question, perform the worst-case approach that your airplane is capable of…probably with one engine failed. It’s as standard a part of airline training as an engine failure at decision speed, or a go-around. It’s just not a big deal.
Once the aircraft and pilots are certified for these approaches, regulatory leeway helps. Every airline operates in accordance with the Federal Aviation Regulations, but each company also gets its own custom “Operations Specification,” or OpsSpec. I’ve been astounded to see how much latitude OpsSpecs give airlines. The FAA seems to place so many restrictions on Military and General Aviation, but the airlines almost universally seem to get special exemptions to the regular rules that make it easier for them to say: “you’re going.”
You may be able to launch with your destination below minimums as long as you have fuel for two alternates forecast to be usable. Do your 737s have a HUD? If so, you can do CAT III down to 300 RVR. My company has its own weather shop and is allowed to use their forecasts for go/no-go decisions, especially if they are different from what the government weather guessers are prognosticating. OpsSpecs seem to give the airlines every reasonable advantage you could want.
This mentality is very liberating in a way. You no longer have to worry about marginal weather decision making. Your company sends you with enough fuel to fly the approach and possibly divert to one or more alternates. There are two of you on the flight deck and one of you is going to try the approach. If it’s CAT II or worse and/or autoland, it’ll probably be the Captain’s landing. Again, no stress over that decision…it’s all detailed in the OpsSpec. You’ll follow procedures and fly the approach like you always do. Either you’ll break out in time and land, or you’ll go-around and divert. Easy peasy…and surprisingly low-stress.
When the weather gets bad, ATC tends to stack aircraft up in holding. There can be some stress associated with trying to guess if you’ll have enough fuel to hold out for improved weather before you have to divert. However, if you have a good Captain this should be pretty minimal. He or she will work with you and your dispatcher to set a bingo fuel and communicate that to ATC. (Sometimes the dispatcher can “find” extra fuel in your flight plan, giving you more options.) As you approach bingo you let ATC know. If they can, they’ll work you in. If not, you call uncle and get immediate, priority vectors to your alternate. There’s some stress dealing with the logistics of getting yourselves and your passengers from your divert location to your planned destination. However, the safety/mission accomplishment decision making is cut and dry. It’s awesome.
As an airline pilot (especially as a First Officer) I don’t stress out over weather at all anymore. I know that we’re most likely going. If not, the company will tell us to sit. I can just relax and read a book or surf the web while I wait. Gone are the days of dithering over choosing between getting berated for getting bad training or getting berated for being too conservative. Everyone at my company is too busy doing their own jobs to armchair quarterback. (Since the company has to make a profit to stay in business, anyone with enough extra time for armchair quarterbacking would represent unprofitable waste. That position would be eliminated. The US military is far closer to a socialist jobs program and certainly suffers from no such fiscal constraints…hence the lengthy chain of command full of people with plenty of spare time to spend questioning your decisions.)
Less stress = more fun = a healthier and longer life. What part of that equation would you not want?
This mindset also allows you some fun and interesting flying in what is otherwise a pretty vanilla career field. I’ve landed, more than once, at 1/2 mile visibility in heavy rain and strong crosswinds at night…with 152 souls along for the ride behind me. I’ve landed at night in low visibility due to blowing snow on a surface so packed with that snow that all I got was a series of faint glows hinting at where the runway edge lights were probably located. (Oh, O’Hare. I’d think a lot worse of you if it weren’t for LaGuardia dominating my rankings for worst airport in the country.) I’ve even flown some CAT III approaches to true minimums with an autoland system designed decades ago.
These situations challenged my flying skills and my nerve. They were a nice change in a job that is usually very cookie-cutter: visual backed up by the ILS. It’s enjoyable to succeed in such challenging circumstances. It’s also reassuring to see that the systems and the rules in place around me all work as advertised. In every case, I had plenty of fuel to go around and let the Captain try, or divert to somewhere we knew had better weather. With this perspective, the “You’re going!” mindset is almost comforting. No stress over the decision, the systems and procedures will keep you safe, and if the approach doesn’t work out you just divert.
Although I’ve flown with great Captains who let me shoot a lot of challenging approaches, it’s worth noting that the Captain always has the authority to “take the landing,” for any reason, if he or she feels the need. As an FO, you’re not allowed to complain about it. If you’re really sad, you can file a verbal hurt feelings report over a beer that evening with a cheeky, “I must have scared you pretty badly this trip if you wouldn’t let me fly an ILS to minimums at the shortest runway in the system with a wet runway and 30 knot crosswinds.”
I imagine that when I upgrade, deciding how much I trust my FOs’ skills in these situations will inject a little more stress back into my life. Personally, I plan to make up for that reduced life expectancy by just retiring earlier…aided by the fact that upgrading to Captain is roughly a $100K/yr pay raise.
In the meantime though, I plan to continue enjoying the relative absence of stress in my life thanks to the ease of the go/no-go decision in this job. I hope you’re doing the same, or will be soon!