Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Some thoughts about hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy heading to the coast of the
USA on 28 October (NASA / NOAA)
We are studying meteorology quite intensely in our lessons at present, so I thought I would take a look at a rather impressive meteorological phenomenon that's happening right now — hurricane Sandy.

There is nothing unusual about tropical hurricanes forming over the Gulf of Mexico at this time of year, nor sadly is there anything unusual about the level of destruction and loss of life they cause. The worst damage is usually done to the islands of the Caribbean, Bahamas and Cuba where it tends to be woefully under-reported. Of course hurricanes often reach the south coast of the USA, such as Katrina that caused catastrophic flooding in New Orleans in 2005 — in which case we certainly get to hear about it.

Sandy was causing devastation and misery in Haiti, which is already struggling with a Cholera epidemic as far back as 24 October and 52 people are reported killed, with another 11 in Cuba. This is currently far higher than the death toll in North America — and I hope it stays that way — but was barely mentioned in the media. Nimby-ism perhaps? Last time I checked, Haiti was closer than most of the USA.

But I digress. This post is supposed to focus on the meteorology, not press double-standards.

How hurricanes form

Hurricanes (or tropical cyclones) get their immense energy from the warm sea waters in tropical areas towards the end of summer, particularly in sheltered basins like the Gulf of Mexico and can only form in specific conditions.

The sea must be warm — at least 27C for the top 50m. The wind should be low to allow time for the storm to develop and avoid breaking up the structure. There must be plenty of moisture in the air, and the air must cool quickly with height (known as unstable air). Finally, there has to be a trigger to start the process, and a weak feature called an atmospheric wave is often the culprit.

Now, think about a layer of air sitting over the warm sea. It will soon become warm and moist itself, making it less dense and so — given an appropriate kick to start it off — it rises. As it climbs, it finds the air around it getting cooler and cooler, and so it becomes even more buoyant and rises faster. Soon, the air will reach dew point, where it cannot hold on to all of its water vapour. Cloud forms, and this releases a huge amount of latent energy, warming the air still further and causing it to rise even faster.

You can see where this is going... soon enough the air is positively rocketing upwards. This causes the pressure low down to plummet, and pull in more air from the surrounding area continuing the cycle.

Cross section through a hurricane

Meanwhile the whole thing starts to rotate. The is caused by the Coriolis Force. Now, the Coriolis Force is not in fact a force at all; nor it is very easy to explain. The outcome is simple though, it causes any wind in the northern hemisphere to turn right.

As long as there is warm moist air to feed it the storm will gather momentum, with wind speeds averaging at least 70mph — often much more. A central cloud-free 'eye' often forms. It has become a hurricane.

Enough theory, back to Sandy...

The power of an average tropical hurricane is so huge it is difficult to comprehend. Estimates come in around 1 petawatt — this is around 200 times more than the entire electricity generating capacity of the world or, to put it more violently, the energy released by fifty Hiroshima-type bombs per day.

But Sandy is far from average, it is huge. Just before it made landfall and magically changed from a hurricane to a 'post tropical cyclone' it measured around 1000 miles across — the largest on record.

It is also moving in an unusual way. Instead of slowly dissipating and meandering off across the Atlantic to eventually cause horrible weather here in the UK, it is continuing to track north-north-west across land and looks likely to pass into Canada and the Arctic. It seems it has been interacting with an existing low-pressure system that has caused it to develop into a huge 'hybrid' of a powerful frontal depression with a thermal cyclone at the core.

Despite the enormous size, the wind speeds are relatively low, classifying it as 'only' a class 1 hurricane, and indeed for a short time on 27 October it weakened into a mere tropical storm before building up strength again.

The damge has come not from the wind speed, but from flooding. The very low pressures in the system 'suck' on the surface of the sea, raising the sea level while at the same time the on-shore winds in the north half of the system push massive amounts of water towards the coast and drive large waves. The centre of the hurricane made landfall over New Jersey, meaning that New York has seen the biggest storm surge with sea levels 4m above normal.

To see the consequences, open any newspaper.

 A final thought...

As most people know, to aid identification hurricanes are named alphabetically from a list held by the World Meteorological Association. Generally names will be used again and again, but if a hurricane is particularly destructive the name will be removed from the list.

There are practical reasons for this — the name can be kept permanently as an identifier for historically significant storms. But it seems to me this is the right thing to do out of respect as well. Not out of respect for the hurricane particularly, but for the souls who have lost their property, houses, loved ones and even their lives. Wherever they are.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Head full of flying facts

British Airways Future Pilot Program group BA04 (CAE Oxford Aviation Academy division)
Those who don't know me will have to guess which one I am!
I'm back home with my lovely wife after my first week at flight school, catching up with much-needed sleep and waiting for my head to stop spinning — it is so full of flying facts I'm even starting to dream about them.

The school day goes something like this; up at 7am, smart uniform on, breakfast at 7.30, bus to school at 8 and time for coffee and chat before classes at 8.30.

There are typically four or five taught lessons per day and one or two computer based training sessions, all which last an hour. With breaks we are finished around 4.30pm. Head back to the digs, uniform off, and time for exercise, snooze or study until dinner at 6pm. There are a couple of hours in the evening for more study or a perhaps a quiet pint before hitting the sack and then up to do it all over again.

Getting in enough sleep is not easy (especially for those missing their 'other halves') and by Friday lunchtime the eyelids were certainly drooping.

There are 26 in our class, and we even sit in the same places; very school-like. But we are not kids and there is no need for the instructors to maintain perfect political correctness. There are plenty of laughs and lots of strong characters which makes the work more fun and more memorable. How does a flight data computer work? Pure Magic. Make sense? Yes, we are lovin it, lovin it a lot.

The content of the lessons is (so far) only moderately complex, but the volume is relentless. For me, it's great, I can hoover this stuff up all day. Admittedly I have a big advantage that I have seen a lot of it before and I am extending existing knowledge; without this keeping up with the material would be a huge challenge.

We are studying seven subjects in parallel which can sometimes be confusing, for example it is very difficult to understand how pressure instruments work before you understand the theory of flight. But soon the overlaps between the subjects becomes clear and they start to re-enforce each other giving a deeper understanding.

The expected standard is high; it has been made clear that we are to achieve at least 85% average in our final exams, with a first time pass in all subjects. Sounds daunting, but the groups ahead of us have been consistently scoring in the high 90s and I see no reason why we can't beat that!

Working and living together means getting to know each other quickly and becoming fast friends — sharing lifts, helping each other out with study questions and so on. Already it feels like we've been doing this for weeks. My classmates already trust me enough to let me lead them blind over pitch dark muddy fields with only the promise of a decent pub at the other end!

That's all for now, I have some important chilling out to do before it all starts again at 7am on Monday...

Monday, 22 October 2012

First day at school

While the plumbers and builders repair the flood damage at the halls of residence, most of our class has been put up in a pleasant hotel down the road, with meals included. The longer we can hang on here the better...

We are a class of 26 cadets of which eight are on the British Airways programme. Ages range from 18 to 38 but there are no women in the class, which I find a bit sad, I can only assume that very few applied for the course. Already a good rapport and sense of humour is building as we get to know each other.

Our first day at school was set aside for admin and initiation, and for meeting some of the key staff at the flight school. I can summarise them in three words; helpful, humorous and slightly eccentric. All right smary-pants, five words. The Chief Ground Instructor for example, claims anyone who genuinely enjoys ground school is a pervert.

The message we are receiving is consistent something like "work hard, enjoy the course, help each other out, did I mention working hard?"

We were issued with our uniforms and course materials — just take a look at this little haul:

The tools of the trade are from top to bottom: flight case, Jeppeson airway manual (student version), hi-vis tabard, huge kneeboard, 14 chunky textbooks, calculator, CRP-5 flight computer, dividers, fuel tester, protractor and scale rule. There is more to come for the flying lessons including headsets and charts.

Now 'all' we have to do is understand and remember the contents of those 14 textbooks and the exams should be a piece of cake.

The CRP-5 flight computer is a state-of-the art machine that requires no batteries, can withstand large shocks or vibrations and will even work underwater. It has a 1-byte non-volatile memory and can perform approximately 0.03 floating point operations per second. OK, it is basically a glorified slide rule.

One side is used to solve ratio problems. You can multiply and divide, convert between units, do speed/distance/time and rate calculations and so on. Extra markings allow aviation-specific maths such as converting indicated to true airspeed or finding density altitude. The other side together with the large rectangular slide is used to solve vector triangles. Typically when planning a flight you know the wind speed and direction, you know the airspeed of your plane and you know the bearing to your destination. The computer tells you the missing information — what heading to steer to allow for the wind, and how long it should take (ground speed). Oh dear, I think I may be one of those ground school peverts.

Oh go on...

Alright then, you've all been so patient, here is the promised cheesy uniform picture.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Oh dear...

Just one day before around thirty new cadets are due to arrive, there has been a major plumbing disaster at the halls of residence.

I am told half the building is now unserviceable. My sympathies go out to the staff at the flight school who have to sort out this nightmare. They have been great so far, calling us all individually to explain and booking us into a nearby hotel for (at least) a week until things are sorted out.

Training will now commence next week, which is only a small delay but a bit of an anticlimax after anticipating the 'big day' for the last six months.

All the many friends and family who have (slightly worryingly) requested pictures of me in uniform, you will have to wait just a little longer.

On a brighter note, our liaison pilots have been in touch. These are active British Airways pilots who have volunteered to mentor us through the training process and help us with any questions or problems that arise.

They sound like a very friendly bunch, and have been in the job long enough to have the experience and clout to help us, but not so long they can't remember the trials and tribulations of their own training.

They have made it clear that we can consult them in total confidence about any subject so they will be a really useful resource and — as that sounds rather impersonal — I hope they will be come good friends as well. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Into the lion's den

The British Airways Future Pilot Programme will almost certainly open for applications again, although I have no idea when... watch their website! As I'm sitting surrounded by bags, boxes and suitcases at a bit of a loose end, I thought I would make a few observations about the selection process that I went through.

We were requested not to reveal the details of the selection process, so I won't. What I can offer are suggestions of ways to prepare for the selection that I found helpful.

Preparation 1: Learn to fly

It seems a significant minority of successful applicants to the scheme do not have any flying experience. Indeed, none is required as they train cadets from scratch.

But I find it very strange that anyone would put so much at stake without knowing if they actually enjoy flying an aircraft and if they have any talent for it. What if you suffer from chronic air sickness? What if you find the experience totally unnerving? Or boring? Or you don't have the ability to multi-task or decent hand-eye coordination?

Personally I think you'd be mad to jump through all the selection hoops without being certain that flying was what you wanted to spend your life doing. Fortunately, I already knew this through a lot of gliding (thanks again to my lovely wife for the trial voucher!) and a bit of time on light aircraft.

FSX has a remarkable level of detail
The most economic way to get started is with a flight simulator "game" on your home computer such as FSX or if you like gliding, Condor. You will need a reasonable PC, a decent size screen or a projector, a joystick and — importantly — a set of rudder pedals.

Then simply work through the in-game tutorials. I only have experience of FSX, but I have to say these are remarkably accurate and detailed, reflecting what happens in real flying lessons closely. Enjoy the program but take it seriously too — try to do everything correctly and accurately and no crashing just for fun, that's not something you want to practice.

Flight sims will rapidly teach you how the controls work, how to coordinate turns, the procedures and mechanics of flying and so on, and they will give you a great head start in flying for real. But it is not the same thing, and there is no substitute for getting your hands on a real aeroplane.

Any flight school would be delighted to take you up for a trial lesson in a light aircraft and I think at least one trip would count as essential research. It won't be cheap, around £150-£200 per hour, but can you really afford not to try?

Also consider learning to fly a glider. Gliders, contrary to popular belief, are 'real' aircraft that fly in exactly the same way and with the same controls and aerodynamics as any other sub-sonic aircraft. True, they lack the complication of engine management but they add much greater pressure on good judgement of circuits and landings, situational awareness and general handling skills. Do not write them off, they give valuable flying experience — and are also a lot cheaper.

Preparation 2: Talk to pilots

The single most useful preparation I did was to spend time talking to active pilots  — the more the better.

This will give you a real sense of what the day-to-day job is actually like without any of the hype or misconceptions that go with the image of a pilot. Find out how they deal with family pressures, how they cope with shift patters, what went wrong for them, what they love and hate about their jobs and so on. Really quiz them — everyone I spoke to was only too pleased to help.

I was even able to speak to pilots from British Airways. I found out about the latest staff and marketing campaigns, the current safety concerns and what is being done, how the fleet and crew are changing and all sorts of other relevant information. None of it secret, but equally not easy to get by reading websites.

The fact that you have done this should definitely be mentioned in the interview — it shows initiative, good judgement and that you are realistic about the job. They asked me why I wanted to be a pilot. I responded that I already knew I loved flying but more importantly all the airline pilots I had spent time talking to said they loved their jobs. This went down very well.

If you don't know any airline pilots, the place to start looking is your local gliding or flying club. What do airline pilots do in their spare time? Fly planes of course!

The interview... tell stories!

By "tell stories," I do not mean "lie."  Let me explain...

The trend these days is for competency-based interviews. This means you will be put on the spot, asked to give an example of something from you past, and how you dealt with it and learnt from it. It can be almost anything, but some typical examples might be:
  • When did you take a calculated risk and why?
  • When did you disagree with your superiors and how did you resolve it?
  • Have you experience racism and how did you deal with it?
  • When did you provide outstanding customer service?
  • Have you ever made a serious mistake at work? (Hint: do not say no!)
  • Give me an example of something you have done you are proud of (easy)
  • Give me an example of something you failed at (harder)
This type of questioning is the stuff of many people's nightmares — how can you prepare for this? Actually it's not that hard. I spent some time coming up with perhaps half a dozen interesting events in my life (not just professional life) and thinking of how they might be moulded to various questions. This worked surprisingly well, I effectively had answers ready to about half the questions.

Take your time to think before you answer, don't just babble away. Don't shy away from negative experiences or failures, provided you can show how you dealt with it positively and learned from the experience.

So where do the stories come in? The real trick here is not just to state your example baldly. What you need to do is involve your interviewers. Spin a yarn. Be enthusiastic. Draw them into your story. If possible, make them laugh.

There is good psychological basis for this approach. You are not just answering the question, you are establishing a relationship with your interviewers. By engrossing them in your story you are making them part of your life, you are in fact forging a friendship. You will stand out and be remembered, especially if you speak with honesty and emotion.

I can testify that it works. Thanks to my brother, a qualified psychologist no less, for giving me this tip.

Finally don't forget to bone up on the more traditional material. Find out about the company's fleet, finances, routes, people in charge and so on. Make sure you understand the training process in detail. Learn the basics of aerodynamics and how engines work (here is a good site). Find out about the state of the aviation industry. Read current aviation literature, including trade and business magazines.

If they ask a factual question and you don't know the answer, at least say how you would go about finding out.

Computer based assessments — stay calm!

There isn't a great deal you can do to prepare for these, but here are some observations that may help:

Some of the tests will overload you — they are designed to gradually increase your workload until you are saturated and beyond. You are not expected to complete them perfectly, the aim is to keep going and not get flustered. Pilots are not super-human, but they can remain calm and decisive in stressful situations. so if the test seems impossible, do not panic and do not give up.

Others will be very boring and go on forever, but require constant concentration. The key here is maintaining a kind of relaxed awareness, as concentrating avidly for long periods is not possible and will cause you to make errors when you do get tired. Again this is a key skill for the modern pilot.

Where a test is repeated several times, they are looking for a good rate of improvement. So don't worry if you make a hash of the first attempt, the important thing is to demonstrate you can quickly learn from your mistakes.

At both testing facilities we were told that flying experience was not necessary for the tests — but I have no doubt it helps. At least one test will require you to perform different tasks simultaneously with your hands and feet. Learning to fly (see 1 above) even on a simulator game will really help here.

Don't get despondent if you mess up a test, you won't be the only one and it is only a small part of the overall assessment.

The dreaded group exercises

These tasks certainly split opinion, some people hate them with a passion while others see them as an ideal chance to show off.

As a group you will be given a complex problem to solve, such as desert survival situation. The situation will keep changing. There will be a time pressure.

Firstly, realise the problem is artificial and whether your group completes the task or not is unimportant. You are really being assessed individually on qualities important to good leadership teamwork such as:
  • Ability to communicate your arguments quickly and clearly
  • Being assertive but not bullying or dominating
  • Seeing the 'big picture' (situational awareness)
  • Pointing out errors or problems but without blame
  • Seeking consensus (eg. suggest a vote to resolve disagreements)
  • Be organised — make notes, keep track of time etc.
  • Remaining friendly and positive (don't let anyone visibly annoy you — they could even be a 'ringer')
  • Be honest and realistic — say what you think
  • Remaining focussed on the goal
Finally we were given some current subjects to discuss from aviation and general news. This tests your knowledge of current affairs, but more importantly your ability to express your opinions and debate constructively with the rest of the group.

Good luck!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

So how did I get here?

"Toothbrush, iron, smart shoes, highlighter pens, class 1 medical..." begins my list of items a nervous new cadet might need to pack for his first week at flight school. Nearly a year after first applying to the British Airways Future Pilot Programme, I am finally starting my new life as an airline pilot (trainee) this week.

I am excited and a little apprehensive although I think I have done as much preparation as reasonably possible. This will change my life completely. Two years of study, testing and hard work lie ahead. There will be long periods away from my beautiful wife. There will be tough times and failures to be overcome. My life savings — and large loans — ride on the outcome. But beyond that the promise of the dream job and the lifestyle that goes with it.

The story of how I got here and what happens next is one I would like to share. If you too find the world of aviation fascinating and strange, if you have wondered how those smart and well spoken pilots are made, if you have ever wished your office was way up above the clouds then perhaps my simple tale will interest you. Perhaps it will be helpful other hopeful pilots, or even change their minds. In either case, it will be worthwhile.

So again, how did I get here?

BA's new offices at Waterside were especially
designed to impress and intimidate trainee pilots

The airline industry is cut-throat. Margins are small, risks are high. Competition is relentless, and where money does not absolutely need to be spent, it is saved.

Consequently aspirant pilots face a very tough deal. There are virtually no sponsored training schemes around, leaving the trainees to foot bills approaching £100,000 with no guarantee of success or a job at the end. If you do qualify and find work, you may have to shell out up to £30,000 for type training only to be offered a poorly-paid temporary contract that won't cover your loan repayments. If you don't, you have to somehow find the money to keep your licence and ratings current. It's remarkable that anyone would take this gamble, but hundreds do every year and the competition for jobs for newly-qualified pilots is fierce.

So when British Airways launched the Future Pilot Programme in August 2011, it almost seemed to good to be true. Admittedly, cadets are still expected to contribute a large sum towards their training, but this includes the type rating, line training and the all-important light of a secure job at the end of the tunnel. Guaranteed loans were made available and for the first time in years it became possible for someone with little flying experience or money to become an airline pilot for a major player. Someone, in fact, like me.

I admit it; I only found out about the scheme because my Dad saw it in the Sunday paper. Recognising what an great opportunity this was I immediately applied.

The all-conquering A320 will, fingers crossed,
be my new office from sometime deep into 2014...
To my surprise, my online application form was accepted. Ahead lay interviews, computer testing, medicals, references, psychometric tests, more interviews, more medicals, more computer testing — the process was long and daunting. But then something strange started to happen; I kept passing each stage of assessment and it kept getting more real. Finally, in December, the magic letter arrived — still proudly displayed on the fridge — I was in.

It would be wrong to claim any real expertise, but I do have a few theories about what helped me through the application process which I am happy to share; but that's for another day.

Fast forward through ten months of paperwork and planning and I am poised to start. I probably wouldn't be here without the support of my wonderful wife, family and friends and — be warned wife, family and friends — I will probably need a lot more support to get through. A huge thank you to them and thank you too for reading — I hope you will stay along for the ride.