By Captain Koray Yilmaz …
University of Kyrenia …
I recently came into contact with Chris Elliott and Margaret Sheard who operate a website and online Enewspaper – CyprusScene.com. Their main passion is the promotion of North Cyprus to the rest of the world. They came to the University of Kyrenia to experience some tuition in the newly installed Alsim ALX Flight Simulator and I was pleased to be able to give them some experience with this piece of modern technology.
Safe flight from point A to B for a commercial pilot sets off long before the mighty beast gets airborne soaring the skies of our blue marble. Any pilot is conscious about the important event at least a day before he/she is scheduled to carry out a flying duty, no matter how routine it may be. This awareness is not limited to making sure he wakes up on time for the duty, but stretches out to details such as healthy eating habits and ensuring the body and the mind is well rested at all times, particularly just before his duty begins. Regulations guide pilots on how much rest they must get before they are allowed to carry out the tasks assigned to them as professional pilots, but the pilot himself remains to be the sole authority in making sure he takes all the necessary precautions. This is one of many areas where pilots are left alone with their moral values and work ethics to observe the regulations with the absence of someone watching over their shoulders. This, however, can and does prove very difficult amid very busy rostering pilots are subjected to. Flying six days in a row has become second nature for many medium range jet pilots, acting almost like an office clerk with the added mental and physical stress of flying long hours in a pressurized hull (not disregarding the indirect stress related to decision making obligations). Therefore, a pilot will somewhat commence his duty in his conscious mind at least a day before he actually pulls the yoke to lift off a hundred odd tonnes of engineering marvel away from the magic of gravity. Social interactions, family, private life, spare time for sports and exercise are bare minimums an ordinary working individual would like to enjoy as a human being, and a pilot is not an exception to this rule, especially if he wants to perform at sufficient level as it would naturally be expected from him.
Maintaining healthy diet is a great challenge even if the pilot is fortunate enough to return home after each flight. Depending on the company profile and route infrastructure, pilots are prone to frequent relocation and many days or even sometimes months away from the comfort of their own home. Some pilots will take this for granted and consider it as an opportunity and an enjoyable break away from the stress of daily problems at home, but for the remaining majority, constant hopping from city to city becomes frustrating at the best of times. For the latter, adaptation to hotel rooms and different food types can be daunting, with direct impact on the healthy diet pilots would ideally like to maintain. Time zone changes and flights into and out of daylight are all problems associated with routine eating habits.
Watching a beautiful sunrise at altitude through your office window is surely a motivation, but this is one minor pro against the con of having to consume not so edible frozen food during times when you should be in your bed. Your body rather wants to be in sleeping mode even though your mind is cheating the body that it should be awake because it’s at work! By the way, such incredible and rare pictorial moments out the window can go unnoticed after spending years airborne with the added effects of fatigue.
Pilots rarely dilly dally during flight even though you can find plenty of them claiming flying can be boring, but in my opinion, the two are totally different things.
In short, what pilots learn from their books during training in relation to lifestyle adaptation once qualified may not be easily implementable in practice. Being fully aware of this fact together with desire to challenge the difficulties popping up with relocation will grant pilots bags of experience that will prove essential to a long and fruitful career ahead.
Every now and again I get people ranging from teenagers to adults approaching me with interesting questions about pilots, and in particular how they can pursue a career in aviation or commercial flying, much like I used to approach professionals in my early days. One of the most fascinating facts I come to realise is people’s belief that once you qualify as a pilot you won’t have to continue studying, or sit exams of some sort. On the contrary, a pilot spends the rest of his life until retirement having to sit exams and checks every six months. This not only keeps the pilot current, but also makes sure he updates himself with advancements in technology and operational requirements. The burden of periodic medical checks are also part of a pilot’s life, having to convince the authorities that he is fit to act as a commercial pilot. Demanding it may seem, but these are the essential elements in achieving and maintaining safe aircraft operations globally.
Although one can observe differences in practice from one part of the world to another, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of United Nations laid solid foundations to develop consistency in safety and its implementation so far as revenue based air transportation is concerned. Provisional ICAO was formed in 1944 after the world renowned Chicago Convention. The permanent ICAO as it is known now was then finally formed in 1947 and currently stands strong with 191 member nations. It remains to be the backbone of the strict principles that govern the safe implementation of air regulations. ICAO is still the game-changer, actively involved in devising solutions to problems that directly affect safety and efficiency of air travel in our day and age.
One example is the implementation of the ICAO English Language Proficiency requirement for commercial pilots and air traffic controllers, regardless of the operator and the country involved. Language proficiency has been a very hot topic for the past decade considering the scale of impact it made on airlines, flight schools, national authorities and most importantly the pilots and controllers themselves. Resistance by parts of the industry proved useless in changing ICAO’s tough position on the issue, which deserves a standing ovation since the world has witnessed more than 800 people lose their lives in just three aircraft accidents due to lack of English language proficiency between the pilots and the controllers. The attitude of ICAO has been especially admirable since the directives imposed on language proficiency was fully supported with details of how candidates shall be evaluated. As a result, individuals are now in a position to prove their level of English proficiency within an aviation context to a minimum level before they can act as pilots or air traffic controllers. The format and contents of the test is carefully designed to analyse the candidates’ proficiency under the conditions they will be exposed to while working in their own professional area. English proficiency examined under conditions other than those depicted by ICAO is strictly unacceptable to allow a pilot or a controller exercise the privileges of their license.
Another area in which ICAO has been instrumental is the promising set of rules that aims to reduce Carbon Dioxide emissions due to air transportation by 50% in less than 50 years. 50% may sound very ambitious, but alternatives will be minimal if we continue to make irreversible damage to our lovely planet. Carbon dioxide is one of the most influential greenhouse gases contributing to global warming because of its ability to absorb radiation. It’s known to remain in our atmosphere for thousands of years, trapping heat which consequently increases global warming.
If it wasn’t for ICAO’s decisive enforcements on such crucial realities, we would witness our nature perish in favour of commercial interests. Fortunately, science and technology works in harmony to alleviate mankind’s quest to destroy the gift of heavens.
With so much going on in the background to plan and support a flight between two points, actual planning of a flight takes some effort and know-how at the very least. Attention to detail is of paramount importance, especially if the flight path is to take you across a variety of weather patterns, traffic intensity and airspace restrictions. Putting aside the absolute minimum fuel quantity you need for a given route and distance, the points mentioned above are some of the fundamental factors which determine how much extra fuel you will require on top. Pilots only start to enjoy flight planning once the subject is mastered to a sufficient level of understanding.
A typical fuel calculation takes into account contingencies for diversion due to adverse weather, technical difficulties or medical emergencies. The absolute minimum fuel on-board assures the safe completion of flight in any case. Nowadays, a commercial airliner won’t commence take-off without at least the trip, taxi, contingency, go around and diversion fuels (contingency in this context refers to 5% of the trip fuel which is taken on board in case wind forecasts don’t match the actual weather encountered in reality).
To make the overall operation even safer, pilots are encouraged to demand extra fuel for whatever reason they may deem appropriate. An example would be congested airspace upon arrival to the destination, or extreme meteorological difficulties that may arise during approach and landing. Luckily, commercial pilots enjoy the privileges of computerized flight plans which combine and present them with everything that they potentially need to make their final fuel quantity decision on. The burden of making the final figure call still lies on the shoulders of the man with four stripes of course, but no agitation, computerized flight plans are so accurate that the fuel calculations are almost immaculate. Unless a serious discrepancy exists between the actual and forecast weather reports, remaining fuel quantity at destination even for a very long flight is expected to be within a couple of hundred kilograms of the planned remaining fuel, which is the equivalent of approximately five minutes flying time for a medium range commercial aircraft. What then remains for the flight crew is to follow the flight plan route as closely as possible with as little deviation as they can possibly make. Thence, the pilots of our era are more concerned about keeping to the flight plan performance requirements rather than the initial call for the total fuel that is required, which is calculated to a very precise degree of accuracy anyway thanks to sophisticated computer software. The latter somewhat makes life easier for pilots.
What commercial pilots enjoy in terms of computerized flight planning may not be readily available to private pilots, and you can rest assured that careful planning then becomes a tad more troublesome. In addition, commercial pilots spend most of their flying career at the higher boundaries of our Troposphere, keeping them safely above all high terrain and horrible weather, whereas private pilots have the disadvantage of navigating around terrain and adverse weather at low altitude due to performance limitations of their aircraft. Flying over difficult terrain is only fun if the ride is smooth enough in good visibility conditions and you haven’t forgotten your camera at home! But try flying over the same area in cloud and turbulent conditions where even reading your instruments alone can become a challenge on its own. Uneven terrain is a great source of opportunity for winds to get distorted and cause unstable air flows as high as 20,000ft directly above them. As a result, private pilots have no option but to avoid such areas and if they are to do this, they must have some expertise in analysing weather forecasts along their intended route of operation. No sensible pilot would put themselves in such a difficult situation unless they missed out on roller coaster rides during their childhood. What’s important however is not to get lost in fine detail sometimes. If the weather forecasts along your flight track take you across areas of significant variations in temperature and pressure with evident instability in the atmosphere, it’s almost inevitable that you will require extra fuel to accommodate the changes in altitudes or off-track routing due to icing, turbulence, obscuration or reduced visibility. So, the decision is then to be concentrated on how much extra fuel you should consider taking on-board. Consequently, you may realize that you may be limited on the amount of extra fuel you can request due to overall weight performance restrictions (take-off, landing etc.), meaning that it might actually be more rational to cancel the flight altogether. This is of course the extreme side of the story, but one which should always be an option for flight dispatchers and pilots. As an old saying goes, it’s better to be down here wishing you were up there, than being up there wishing you were down here. Any risk taken in aviation is only good if the end result is thought to be much better than your current situation, and if possible, such risks should always be discussed with the rest of your crew before it is even considered an option.
The beauty of the blue skies and a lunar smile in the background (top left corner) does not soften up the strength and danger hidden inside this ‘’tiny’’ Cumolinimbus cloud. One might be fooled to believe that it’s only a bubbly little innocent cloud covering the tops of some local hill or a mountain, whereas in fact it sits at around 25,000 feet, just a few thousand feet shorter than what Mount Everest measures. It takes moist and unstable air mass with some supportive uplift to get air molecules near the surface reach such heights. The end result is convective clouds of this nature which pose risks such as turbulence, hail, lightning and icing anywhere near 30 to 40 kilometres from the cloud cell. So, fuel is your saving in the bank that keeps you going in days of extra need. Before flight, pilots vigorously analyse their weather forecast reports so that they are not caught off guard without additional fuel. Unfortunately, local convective cloud activity can be encountered out of the blue since they can form pretty quickly over short periods of time, even if it wasn’t reported on forecasts, but the equally fortunate fact is that they also die out pretty quickly and with some extra fuel in your tanks, the trick is done by deviating around the danger areas. In conclusion, such local weather phenomenon are a piece of cake for pilots to handle thanks to robust airframe structures with generous safety margins. Anything more serious than a local weather development, such as hurricanes and cyclones, then your flight is most probably cancelled anyway. To make things safer, aircraft are equipped with state of the art weather radar technology which warns pilots of weather that might be of concern and it does this hundreds of miles before the actual confrontation, allowing plenty of time and space for pilots to take deviating action around it. Pilots very easily identify unstable atmosphere ahead of them from the shape of clouds that might otherwise look like a fancy romantic paint work to an amateur eye. Understanding the physics of our atmosphere is essential and you will find pilots read how the atmosphere is behaving thanks to the shape, height and formation of clouds, winds, precipitation and so on. These are the hints we take from the atmosphere to determine whether our ride will be smooth or rough.
It’s 115 years since the Wright brothers defeated logic by achieving powered and controlled flight, all in one go! What we take for granted nowadays about air travel was beyond imagination a little over a century ago. The Wright brothers had more enthusiasm and passion than what resources in hand promised, yet they managed to convert dream into reality for humanity.
Pioneers before the Wright brothers had managed to devise mechanisms which enabled them to fly long distances, albeit in uncontrollable manner most of the time. Even if it was, you could only travel so far without man-made power which would ideally keep you going. This is what made the Wright brothers’ fruitful effort worthwhile, although it was an achievement of less than only one minute. They were not only able to achieve controlled flight, but also able to propel their Kitty Hawk forward with the aid of an engine. The total duration of this first ever powered and controlled flight was only relevant for historians and the statistics, what mattered in reality was the outcome which shaped the future of what we now call aeronautics. Their long fought battle to defeat gravity was short lived, but this was a classic example of where quality was the quantifiable factor, not the quantity.
Ever since, our planet has seen aircraft technology evolve into impressive form and shape, and considering the world is around 3.5 billion years old, what we have achieved in only 100 years is remarkable. We are now at the brink of a few wealthy entrepeneurs commencing passenger services to outer space, and believe it or not, it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when. I am pretty sure there are more than a handful people already saving their pennies for a ride. But I would say don’t rush, surely someone will also come up with the idea of low cost flights to space and back. In the end, nobody in their healthy mind a hundred years ago would have guessed we would have thousands of cheap and affordable flights between towns, cities, countries and continents, so what’s stopping us enjoying a similar privilege in space exploration now?
The evolution which we have encountered in the past 100 years has of course had its tragic moments. Thousands of people lost their lives in both the supplier and the consumer side of aviation whilst flying either as a crew or a passenger, not forgetting those who perished on the ground as a result too.
To be continued, including a direct flight from Stansted to Ercan ….