"A thrilling ride delving into the awesome responsibility of command, and how it is what makes the difference between safety and tragedy."
—Captain "Sully" Sullenberger Captain of USAirways Flight 1549, "Miracle on the Hudson"
This story was conceived with a dual purpose: first, to entertain, and second, to improve airline safety, showing how things can go awry in the cockpit and exploring what can be done about it.
While fiction, it is based on events that actually happened, my personal experience of the dysfunction that can occur when an inept captain commands an airline cockpit.
When does a first officer relieve a deranged captain of command? And if they did, what would follow?
I hope this account leaves the reader better informed about airline safety. If you are an aspiring airline pilot, please read and heed the lessons within; for someday soon, our lives will be in your hands.
—James L. Hayhurst
Washington National Airport (DCA)
The delay getting de-iced had cost them three places in the line-up, First Officer Paul Allison observed as he looked across Runway 03 towards the hold pad adjacent to Runway 36. The pad was full—six jets lined up and waiting for the last plows to clear the north end of the runway.
Now that they had the departure runway in sight, the issue was how long the de-ice fluid would last. De-icing had ended at 1510; it was now 1515. The rule of thumb was de-icing was good for 30 minutes in light snow, 20 minutes in moderate snow, 10 minutes in heavy snow. Allison estimated the snowfall was moderate, if not heavy. That gave them twenty minutes at most. They needed to be rolling down the runway not later than 1530.
Paul leaned as far as he could against the sidewall of the cockpit and peered out his side window at the right wing. From the cockpit of a 737, you couldn’t see much looking aft, not even your own engine. Even with his nose pressed against the window, all he could see was the outer twenty feet of the wing’s leading edge. But it looked clear of snow and ice. That was a good thing.
Settling back in his seat, out of the corner of his left eye, Paul noticed *MSG* flashing at the bottom of the ACARS data-link screen. He touched the screen and a message popped up. Before he could read it, sharp rapping on the cockpit door behind him distracted him.
Rachel stepped into the cockpit looking quite alarmed. “Paul, some passengers are saying that there’s still some snow covering one of the wings. I went back and took a look, and they’re right. It’s the aircraft-left wing.”
“Are you serious?”
“One of the passengers is a Navy pilot. He overheard me talking to the other passengers from across the aisle and looked at it with me. He says the right wing’s fine but the left wing still has snow on it. Apparently, the de-ice truck didn’t finish the job.”
“Damn!” Paul shook his head in dismay at the thought of going back to de-ice again and the hour or more delay this represented. He turned to Captain Donald Kallstadt and sighed with exasperation. “I’ll call Ground and tell them we need to go back.”
Kallstadt glared at him. “No! The left wing is fine! I looked out the window myself and it is clean! Now give me the before takeoff checklist!”
Before Paul could point out that only the outermost portion of the wing’s leading edge was visible from the cockpit side windows, Rachel blurted, “But captain, I looked out the window myself! The wing has snow on it!”
Kallstadt twisted savagely in his seat. “Woman, this is none of your business! I am the captain!” he snarled. “Get out of my cockpit and close the door!”
Rachel’s face turned crimson, like she had been slapped. “You can’t be serious . . .”
“I said, get out of my cockpit!” Flecks of spittle flew from Kallstadt’s lips as he shouted. “That’s an order!”
Stunned into silence, Rachel turned her head and made eye contact with Paul.
Paul nodded grimly to her. This isn’t over.
With that assurance, Rachel wheeled out of the cockpit, slamming the door. In the silence that followed her departure, Paul glanced down and read the ACARS message:
AST 451 * CALL GLOBAL * 122.95
Paul touched the flashing *ACK* symbol at the bottom of the screen to acknowledge he had received the message. Why Operations had sent the ACARS message was unclear until he reached down to tune the comm panel and realized that comm-2 radio was still set on ATIS frequency, monitoring the airport departure information.
Paul pieced together what had happened: during de-icing, under the threat of cancellation of their pushback clearance, Captain Kallstadt had looked out and saw the left wingtip clean, and told the tug driver to push them back—right out from under the de-ice boom!
With the de-ice truck’s VHF radio inoperative, no doubt the driver had used his F.M. handheld to relay a message via Global’s dispatcher, but by the time Global called on the VHF radio, Paul had switched over to the ATIS frequency. Global’s dispatcher had contacted AST operations, which sent the ACARS message.
Indignation mounting at the thought of Captain K’s reckless behavior, Paul felt a tightening in his chest. He took several deep breaths.
Be cool . . . be cool . . . be cool . . .
With trembling hands, he dialed in the Global De-ice frequency on the comm-two control head and flipped the switch to make 122.95 active. Watching him, Kallstadt reached across the center pedestal and flipped the switch back. “Don’t call,” he ordered.
“What do you mean, don’t call?” Paul sputtered in disbelief.
“I will decide who we talk to — not you! I am captain!”
Paul replied in the most reasonable voice he could muster, “Look, Donald, this is ridiculous. You have passengers in the back who—”
“You DO NOT call me Donald!” Kallstadt said, his voice rising. “You will call me CAPTAIN! Is this understood?”
Paul saw Captain K’s chest heaving, his face twisted in fury, and decided the issue was not the snow on the wing, but Kallstadt’s perception that his authority was being challenged.
By his upbringing and years of military habit, Paul’s instinct was to play the game with Kallstadt. He swallowed his pride and said, “My apologies, Captain.”
Kallstadt glared at him for a long moment. Paul watched his features slowly relax as it registered that respect had been proffered. Captain K turned his eyes forward. Gazing out the windscreen, he repeated his prior command. “Before takeoff checklist.”
Hearing Kallstadt’s order, for a few seconds Paul experienced the most curious feeling of separation, as if he had somehow disconnected from his body.
At the Air Force Academy, the subject of unlawful orders received considerable attention, and was the subject of heated debate in the course on military law Allison took in his senior year. While these academic lessons resided on some level in his consciousness, they did not leap to mind. Instead, he recalled the advice given to him by Commander Dave Fisher—a mentor and second father to Paul, a relationship that went back to his cadet days. A former navy carrier pilot and squadron commander, Fisher’s favorite aviation maxim was simple:
“Some of the best flying you’ll ever do is when you decide not to fly.”
In spite of the highly charged situation, Paul felt supernaturally calm. Every sense seemed heightened. He smelled the rank odor of sweat and tobacco pour off Kallstadt. He saw a muscle twitch in the corner of the captain’s eye. He heard Rachel move on the other side of the cockpit door. His mouth was filled with a dull metallic taste; his tongue was so dry that he could hardly speak. But he knew what he had to do. He replied to the captain, “No.”
Kallstadt turned his head, eyes narrowed menacingly. “What do you mean, no?”
Paul found his voice. “No means no, captain. I’m not running the before takeoff checklist and we’re not taking off. This airplane goes down the runway over my dead body. Now I suggest you do the smart thing turn us around. I’ll call Ground for you.”
“NO!” howled Kallstadt, his face screwed in unrestrained rage. “WE WILL GO!”
Every muscle in his body trembling, Paul took a slow breath and uttered the hardest words he had ever spoken. “Captain, either you are sick or mentally ill . . . if you don’t return this aircraft to the gate, I will be forced to relieve you of command.”
(of aviation terms used in the story)
ACARS – Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. A datalink system for transmission of short data messages between aircraft and ground stations via radio or satellite; developed by ARINC.
AGL – Above ground level. Altitude above the ground.
AIRFOIL – The shape of a wing seen in cross-section. An airfoil-shaped body (e.g., wing) moving through a fluid produces an aerodynamic force called LIFT.
AIRSPEED - The speed of the aircraft relative to the air mass in which it is flying.
ALTIMETER - An aneroid-barometric instrument used to measure an aircraft's ALTITUDE.
ALTITUDE – The aircraft’s height about the ground (AGL) or height above mean sea level (MSL).
ARINC - Aeronautical Radio Incorporated, a provider of data-link communications (now a wholly owned subsidiary of Collins Aerospace).
ATC – Air Traffic Control. In the United States, the FAA provides this service to airspace users to deliver safe, orderly, and efficient movement of air traffic.
ATIS – Automatic Terminal Information Service, “A-TIS.” A continuous broadcast of current airport information, including weather conditions and landing runway.
ATTITUDE – The nose-up/nose-down pitch and bank angles of an aircraft in relation to the horizon. Attitude should not be confused with altitude.
ATTITUDE INDICATOR – Instrument that displays the aircraft’s pitch and roll movements in relationship to the horizon. Also called the artificial horizon.
CEILING - The height above the ground of the lowest layer of obscuring clouds (broken or overcast).
CENTER - Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).
CONTRAIL – A trailing stream of condensed water vapor created in cold air by the heat of jet engines.
CRASH PAD – A residence away from home shared by a group of airline employees to reduce cost.
CRM – Crew Resource Management. Using cognitive and interpersonal skills to manage flight operations safely and efficiently.
DECISION ALTITUDE – The altitude at which a decision must be made by the pilot to continue an instrument approach or execute a missed approach.
DME - Distance Measuring Equipment, a navigation signal to determine distance from a ground station.
DRAG – The force exerted on an aircraft resisting its motion in flight. Drag can be increased by extending flaps, speed brakes and/or the landing gear.
FIVE-BY – Five-by-five. In radio jargon, affirms that a radioed transmission has been received loud and clear.
FLAP - A movable, hinged AIRFOIL set in the trailing edge of an aircraft wing, designed to increase LIFT and DRAG, used by aircraft on takeoff and landing.
FLARE – Pitching the nose of an aircraft up to reduce the rate of vertical speed at touchdown.
FLIGHT LEVEL – An altitude level, stated in digits that represent hundreds of feet, e.g. “flight level 250” represents an altimeter indication of 25,000 feet MSL.
FLIGHT PLAN - Specified information relating to the intended flight of an aircraft, filed with ATC.
FMC – Flight Management Computer. Specialized computer that automates in-flight tasks, primarily for navigation and in-flight execution of the flight plan.
FOM – Flight Operations Manual. Contains company policies, standard operating procedures and training requirements in compliance with federal regulations.
GLIDESLOPE – A tightly focused, directional radio beam transmitted from the approach end of a runway to define the angle of descent; the vertical component of an instrument landing system (ILS).
GROSS WEIGHT - The total weight of an aircraft when loaded, including fuel, cargo, and passengers.
GROUND CONTROL – Air traffic control of aircraft ground movements at an airport.
GROUNDSPEED - The actual speed of an aircraft over the ground; the combination of AIRSPEED and
wind speed relative to the aircraft's direction of flight.
ILS - Instrument Landing System. Radio-based system with lateral and vertical beams, allowing equipped aircraft to find a runway and land in IMC conditions.
IMC – Instrument Meteorological conditions; flying in clouds with little or no forward visibility.
KNOT - One nautical mile = 1.15 statute miles (6,080'). Unit of speed for aircraft. 100 kts (100 nautical miles per hour) = 115 mph (miles per hour).
LIFT - The force generated on the upper surface of a moving AIRFOIL causing the aircraft to rise.
LOCALIZER - The azimuth beam of the instrument landing system (ILS), aligned with the runway.
LNAV – Lateral Navigation. Pertaining to aircraft course guidance, the lateral route navigated in flight.
MSL - Mean Sea Level. Average height of the surface of the sea, a global reference for aircraft altitudes, as opposed to AGL—the height of the aircraft above the ground directly beneath it.
PILOT IN COMMAND (PIC) - The pilot responsible for the operation and safety of an aircraft in flight.
PITCH – One of the three axes in flight, this specifies the up- and-down pitching movement of the nose.
PITOT TUBE – A tube that measures the dynamic air pressure in flight to determine airspeed.
RAMP – Ground level at airport, paved surface around hangars and the terminal where aircraft park.
ROLL – Aircraft motion about a line drawn from nose to tail through the center of the fuselage.
RUDDER - The movable part of the vertical stabilizer that causes the aircraft to YAW left and right.
SINK RATE - The vertical speed at which an aircraft loses altitude, in glide or powered descent.
SQUAWK - A four-digit number assigned by ATC and set in the transponder by a pilot to identify the
aircraft to air traffic controllers.
STALL - A condition caused by raising the nose until the flow of air over the wing breaks away from the top surface, causing the aircraft to drop abruptly.
TAIL FIN – The vertical stabilizer tail surface.
THRUST - The propulsive force produced in reaction to the gases expelled rearward from a jet engine.
TRANSPONDER – A radio device that responds to ground- based interrogations to provide more accurate and reliable position information than possible with primary radar alone; also used to provide air traffic control with an aircraft's altitude.
VIS – Visibility. The distance at which an object or light can be clearly discerned, affected by viewing angle, presence of fog, cloud, haze and precipitation.
VOR - VHF OmniRange. A ground navigation station transmitting very high-frequency (VHF) signals 360° in azimuth. The signal identified by Morse Code and may have voice identification feature.
VVI - Vertical Velocity Indicator. An instrument that displays the rate of climb or descent in feet-per-minute (fpm). Also VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator).
W/B – Weight and Balance. Related to loading and center of gravity (CG) of an aircraft; data essential to ensure stability and remain within the performance capabilities of the aircraft in every phase of flight.
YOKE – A flight control mechanism consisting of a wheel mounted on a vertical column hinged at the bottom. Rotating the wheel left/right causes motion in the roll axis while pushing/pulling on the column causes pitching (nose up/nose down) motion.