Jumpseat: Metal Neutral

Tails of a flying club that transcends traditional boundaries.

Metal Neutral

Metal Neutral

** Membership in the metal neutral club offers
great photo opportunities.**

At first glance, the title of this column might suggest that the subject ­matter involves airline code sharing. The phrase “metal neutral” has been a buzzword used by airline management to indicate passenger revenue obtained through fare agreements with other carriers. The concept implies that it is immaterial whose logo is painted on the aluminum. Regardless of the advantages, airline employees grit their teeth at the concept. It allows for a reduction in labor force and thus a reduction in job security.

On a trip home from London, I thought of a more positive connotation for the term. Metal neutral is an attitude shared by an exclusive club. Membership in the club is dynamic. The only requirement for membership is to participate as a crew member on a flight across the North Atlantic. How so?

When I stare at the magenta line that is created by technology capable of steering the 777 to within a foot of the course, I am still amazed. In relative terms, it wasn’t that long ago when airline navigation over the ocean was performed with a sextant and a good compass. An NDB was considered modern technology.

Not a crossing goes by when I don't contemplate the cockpit activity of DC-3s, DC-6s, Super Connies … and even 707s. Trans-Atlantic operation was in its infancy. Airplane reliability, let alone navigational reliability, was nowhere near its current status. When crews were faced with an abnormal situation, they not only utilized their own airmanship resources but also the outside resources of pilots on other airplanes. Those outside resources still exist today, mostly in the form of a professional camaraderie. When a flight requires assistance, there are no differences in what's painted on the side of the fuselage.

Typical metal neutral assistance comes in the form of turbulence reports. Despite advances in meteorological forecasting, the only truly reliable report for turbulence is through another pilot. Oftentimes a turbulence pirep is given without solicitation. The pirep is broadcast over the air-to-air frequency.

Regardless of the banter ­taking place within the cockpit, my ears immediately tune in to a chop report. Even if the report is not on my track, it may very well affect our flight. If other airplanes ahead of us begin to have the same experience, the alarm bells are already ringing. Without question, I will call our flight attendants and give them an approximate time range when the bad ride may begin. On a handful of occasions, I have seated the flight attendants in anticipation. Although the turbulence wasn’t as serious as advertised, I was grateful to my colleagues. One injured flight attendant or one injured passenger is one person too many.

Although not an everyday occurrence, the inability to contact the appropriate oceanic agency via the HF radio does happen, usually as a result of reception issues. Another flight with adequate HF reception will copy the required position report and relay the data.

On a tongue-in-cheek note, when an open request for a relay is made, the airwaves sometimes remain void of a response. North Atlantic veterans, especially veterans with automatic reporting capability on their airplanes, are a ­little hesitant to deal with the marginal clarity of an HF frequency on behalf of another flight. That being said, a sympathetic someone will eventually answer the call for relay assistance.

In various forms, a practice called SLOP (strategic lateral offset procedure) has been utilized. The practice is now highly recommended. The procedure has been standardized to require a one- or two-mile offset to the right of the clearance route. The theory is that current navigational technology for most participating airplanes is highly accurate. A flight that needs to descend from its assigned track because of an emergency might very well create a traffic conflict with airplanes at lower altitudes. The offset provides for a lateral safety margin.

As was done before the days of GPS and inertial reference systems, SLOP is used simply as a courtesy. A flight on the same track that is trailing behind another airplane may experience wake turbulence. Knowing that this possibility may occur, the leading airplane will offset, pending wind ­direction. Of course, it isn’t always apparent that another airplane will actually be affected by wake turbulence. More often than not, the trailing airplane will initiate the procedure.

Not too long ago, I answered a call from a brave soul ferrying a Cessna 172 across the pond from France. It seemed that the type of airplane didn't quite register with the other airlines that day. The pilot's request was for current weather in Gander, Newfoundland. I gladly put our printer to work. After I read back the metars in the area to the pilot of the 172, we had a brief discussion regarding his status. All was proceeding well. I made a few inquiries as to the technical details of his equipment. It was a newer 172 with a Garmin G1000 system. I wished him a safe flight.

Without saying, emergencies command immediate attention from our metal neutral club. Although satcom and CPDLC (controller pilot data link communication) are superb communication tools, another cockpit can sometimes help. And on some occasions, assistance has been rendered just by virtue of another pilot’s previous experience with a similar emergency.

As I mentioned in a previous column, my declaration of a medical emergency was greeted with numerous offers of assistance. So much so that I had to make an assertive request that the other airplanes stand by. My colleagues quickly understood that our cockpit was becoming a busy place. They refrained from further comment. I am thankful for a Lufthansa flight that had us in visual contact. He stated his position, indicating that no conflict would occur. It must have been disconcerting to observe a contrail dash almost 90 degrees across the tracks. I am also thankful for an Icelandair flight that volunteered to alert Keflavik ATC as to our diversion.

On a lighter note, the metal neutral club participates with brief snippets of discussion involving contact with old friends. Commentaries and commiserations of a particular airline’s state of affairs can sometimes be heard on the air-to-air frequency. The occasional info regarding the particulars of a given layover is conveyed for the benefit of the next crew. If it’s an especially mundane crossing — with no adverse ride conditions — the silence might be interrupted by a few quick refrains of a rock ’n’ roll song from an errant iPod.

One of the more visually ­pleasing benefits of the metal neutral club is the spectacular view of another airplane. The close proximity of 1,000-foot vertical separation allows for some great photos. The opportunity to capture another airliner in flight, contrail included, is a way cool experience. Digital cameras make their way out of flight bags. Pilots exchange e-mail addresses in order to share the suitable-for-framing moment.

The negative connotation of metal neutral will probably never quite dissipate from our airline pilot psyche. To consider our job as part of one homo­genous global airline seems contrary to the competitive spirit. In addition to having a sense of loyalty, my colleagues take pride in their respective companies. But pride comes from within. In that regard, I am proud and privileged to be a member of a club that is always prepared to assist its fellow professionals regardless of what may be painted on the aluminum.