Flying During Coronavirus: Threat-And-Error Management From An Airline Pilot

Daryl and Jean Hickman social distancing with a Legend Cub and authentic Mexican food. Courtesy Les Abend

One of the most common questions asked of me as an airline pilot—and now as a former one—is, “Did you ever have any really close calls?” My coy response is usually, “The espresso maker on the Triple Seven quit just as we reached our North Atlantic oceanic entry point after departing from London.”

The inquiries emanate from a respectful and innocent perception that my “always” glamorous career was mostly routine but sometimes fraught with the perils of flying a potentially flawed monster jet airliner through the stratosphere. The question really involves threat-and-error management, a term that most of us had never really defined until the airlines and the FAA directed that the concept be included in our training.

For the most part, my colleagues and I thought we were doing the job all along, ensuring the safety of our passengers and crew by simply upholding recurrent training criteria and adhering to standard operating procedures. So, when we were introduced to a color-coded concentric circle that offered a methodology to visualize the intrusion of threats and errors—with green being normal, yellow being a potential problem and red being a serious threat—we skeptically accepted the new model as a tool to better assist in managing a safe flight.

Though I would not characterize the unceremonious spool down of the right engine on our Boeing 767 while en route from New York’s LaGuardia to O’Hare in Chicago as a “close call,” it was certainly an illustration of TEM. The event occurred around the time I was contemplating the eye-watering amount of sodium in the cheese omelet that made an appearance as my crew meal. I was halfway through breakfast when Capt. Jack and I were rudely interrupted by caution lights on the engine-indicating and crew-alerting system’s screen. My immediate reaction was to rapidly toss the breakfast tray behind me onto the jumpseat. Jack did the same, albeit while depositing some hot coffee into his flight bag. We were entering the yellow zone.

With a hint of annoyance in his tone, Jack announced, “Crap, we lost the right generator.”

I glanced at the overhead caution lights that were illuminated and then studied the EICAS screen for a brief moment. “Uh…actually, Jack, we lost the right engine,” I said almost sheepishly, watching the rpm needles spin counterclockwise.

“S—t! You’re right.”

Hesitating for a second, I waited for Jack’s next command, but he seemed busy assimilating the reality of the situation, so I simply said, “Checklist, please,” which was correct protocol because it was my leg.

Other than the interruption from a flight attendant who called us via the intercom within seconds of the engine failure, announcing a life-threatening loss of galley power, the transition back toward the green zone was progressing as we neared completion of the emergency checklist.

The blue airport circle depicting Detroit (KDTW) appeared on our moving-map displays. It offered us an alternative to continuing the flight. But, no, Jack wanted to complete the mission into O’Hare (KORD). His reasoning was that we didn’t have that much farther to fly. Back into the yellow zone.

Read More from Les Abend: Jumpseat

As I adjusted my rudder-pedal pressure to the new normal of flying on one General Electric engine, Jack informed ATC that we required a slow descent. Inevitably, Flight Level 350 would be unsustainable. Though he articulated the engine failure, Jack never declared an emergency. Hardly a seasoned veteran of the airline at 29 years old and three years’ worth of seniority, I didn’t assert myself in suggesting an emergency declaration would be a wise decision. We moved further into the yellow.

Our transition to O’Hare Tracon provided me an opportunity to at least persuade Jack that we should request that the emergency equipment stand by. He agreed. We moved toward the green.

While I focused on the task of maneuvering a wounded airplane to begin the approach, Jack indicated he wouldn’t be informing the passengers via a PA system that their airplane was operating on only one engine so as not to alarm them. I didn’t object. He would save the announcement for me to accomplish once we were safely on terra firma and the flashing red lights chasing us down the runway were blatantly visible to everybody on board. We remained in the yellow.

While maintaining a heading to intercept the final approach course, I offered my captain control of the airplane. After all, he would be responsible for the outcome regardless. Jack accepted. Depending upon one’s perspective, we moved either closer to the green or further into the yellow. (You can munch on that for a moment.) Except for the sea of suits and ties with furrowed brows that greeted us on the jet bridge, the story had a happy ending. We never entered the red.

Transitioning to present day, it never occurred to me that a 20-minute flight would have the serious consequences of revisiting the TEM model. My friend Daryl Hickman, Mexican-food aficionado and founder of the aviation charity, had been suggesting lunch at a restaurant within a block’s walk from municipal grass strip in Pierson, Florida. Notably, Pierson claims to be the fern capital of the world. Because of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, we would operate separate airplanes. Daryl would fly his Legend Cub, and I would fly my Piper Arrow.

My first threat was the unfamiliar 2,600-foot grass strip. I flew a complete circuit around the pattern in order to appropriately assess the environment. Other than some tall trees at the approach end of the runway, and a no-excuses calm wind, the challenges seemed minimal. I was mostly in the green.

While turning onto the downwind leg, and smiling at the pure joy of landing on a turf runway absent of touchdown or centerline markings, I recalled Daryl briefing me that the primary airport traffic were the gopher turtles—and they don’t announce their position. One of the larger residents had strutted his bad self onto the touchdown zone precisely on the centerline at the time I chose to begin my flare. I was in the yellow.

An unpleasant outcome for all concerned was possible, but a go-around seemed an overreaction. Instead, I altered my course away from the turtle with a gentle drift to the right. I couldn’t help but glance at the creature as the left wing passed over him after touchdown. The turtle was unimpressed. Defiant, he continued his painfully slow march across the runway. I was back in the green.

After our walk—6 feet apart—to the restaurant and back, we dined with the best view in the house, underneath the wing of Daryl’s Legend Cub. The serenity was a stark contrast to the health crisis crippling the world. My inability to keep the hot sauce from dripping out of the burrito put me back in the yellow, but my shorts apparently took a trip to the red zone.

The gopher turtle reemerged for my departure out of pure spite but remained away from the centerline. I’m certain his raised head was acknowledgment of my superior TEM skills.

This story appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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