Rules to Live By

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So far as I know, there are only three things in life about which one must be very careful: surgery, flying and how you treat other people. The rest will take care of itself. So there are elaborate rules that govern these three critical domains. This explains the preflight inspection, the need for a careful diagnosis prior to treatment and the usefulness of the thank you note. Rules exist in many other areas, but often they seem beside the point, or, in some instances, risible. But for these three basic accomplishments of mankind, rules are there for a reason.

Southwest Flight 2903 is buttoned up and the jetway is clear. The "classic" 737-300 is over two hours late on the Manchester (NH) to Tampa trip due to thunderstorms throughout the Northeast. A frequent passenger on this flight, I've learned to track the airplane that makes up 2903 as it leaves Midway and goes to Baltimore, then to MHT. Though the airplane made it to BWI on time, it got hung up there; so much for my careful calculations. There will be more surprises, it turns out.

Five minutes pass and yet no push back. One of the pilots announces that the "performance computer" needs to be rebooted, expect a short delay. I can imagine the crew madly punching keys in the dark as they try to keep things moving; they've got Tampa to Fort Lauderdale ahead of them once we get to Florida and it is already 8:30 at night. Lightning flashes in the distance. Does it affect the OPC, I wonder?

Finally we move. A flight attendant makes a joke, "We're moving, but it is backwards."

No one laughs. I watch and listen as the engines are started, flaps are set, speed brakes exercised and stowed. I am heartened by the application of power. We'll get home by midnight after all, if nothing else happens.

Sure enough we taxi out, but then suddenly swerve off the taxiway to the left and stop. We are obviously in some sort of ground hold position. Has the Northeast gotten so clogged this late in the evening that we will be held on the ground before getting permission to go home? I sigh.

A few minutes pass. The captain comes on. "Our computer says that with 137 passengers and bags we must depart Runway 35, even though the wind is calm. This is against the flow of the other airplanes, so there will be a delay before we can get cleared to take off on 35. We're very sorry for the additional delay." I'm thinking that this can't be. Runway 17-35 is over 9,000 feet long. I know 737s depart MDW with its 6,000-foot runways without a problem. It isn't that hot tonight. I know there is an ILS to 35, implying that there can't be any serious obstructions on the 17 departure, otherwise how could you shoot to minimums coming the other way? What kind of rule is this?

We wait. A few airplanes land. Finally power. We taxi out to 35 and depart without incident. The seatbelt sign is on most of the flight. Lightning is in the distance; first to the right, then to the left for the entire evening. There's plenty of time to ruminate about rules.

My memory goes back to an extraordinary two-week experience at Higher Power Aviation in Dallas a few summers ago when I got a type rating in the Boeing 737. I had trouble with engine failures at V1. Though almost unheard of, catastrophic power loss at this critical point is practiced and tested over and over. That's an FAA rule. I finally learned to use lots of rudder, keep the airplane on the runway for an extra second to gain a knot or two, and to use the friction of the tires to keep straight, then rotate. Even then, the 300 simulator had a pretty anemic climb rate until the airplane could be configured with gear up. The rule is to remove your hand from the throttles after the V1 call-no matter what happened next, you were going flying. A good rule for good reason.

It also explains why runway length is only part of the equation. Once airborne, the length of remaining runway (unless it is miles) means little to the pilots struggling to nurse climb rate out of an injured airplane.

I start thinking about rules. Our pilots tonight are following them very religiously. I make a note to find out more about their decisions tomorrow. I think to rules in surgery: "Diagnosis precedes plans for treatment. You can't make a patient without symptoms feel any better. All bleeding stops (ultimately). Don't hurt yourself. Never mess with the pancreas." These are good rules to live by in my line of work.

We've got our less helpful rules, too. I think to an awkward, embarrassing moment a few weeks ago at the hospital where I work. I had brought a friend, a friend of 40 years, a neurosurgeon, to our operating rooms to watch a case. We've done this many times before. It is fun and you always learn something when you watch another operative team at work. After getting permission from the patient and his wife for my friend to observe, we changed into scrub suits. Just as we were getting started, an administrative nurse, whom I didn't recognize, accosted us. Didn't we know the rules? Indignantly quoting a series of committee rules and regulations, she basically threw my buddy out. I arranged for him to change clothes, borrow the car and go home. I was deeply embarrassed. What kind of new rule was this?

There are rules and there are rules. Some are inviolate. Some are enforced sporadically or unequally. Some are just plain silly. I'd put the OPC command to depart Runway 35 at MHT as inviolate. The angry nurse has a point: We should know who is in our operating rooms and why. But her rule has been unevenly enforced and her demeanor was hostile. So, good rule, bad execution. The rule about unpacking your toothpaste for TSA security seems just silly to me. I understand the reasoning, but fail to appreciate the wisdom.

Now I'm on to contemplating minimum fuel rules. I know them to be strict in the airlines, less so in general aviation. Too bad, because airliners almost never run out of gas, but general aviation airplanes are known to crash due to fuel exhaustion (out of gas) or fuel starvation (gas is still on the airplane but it isn't getting to the engine[s]). Though I practice many things during annual training at FlightSafety for our Cheyenne, fuel decision-making is not often discussed. It is assumed that pilots flying such nice equipment have mastered the art of landing with adequate go-juice in the tanks. It is all engine failures and prop overspeeds in the sim.

A great summertime sport in Tampa where I live just a mile south of the main airport is to sit in the back yard, under the eaves of the house, as a thunderstorm passes over the field. A handheld radio and a martini make this ritual extremely enjoyable and sometimes very educational. Recently I could hear two Delta jets as they negotiated with the tower. "We'd like to taxi onto the runway and see how it looks," said one. I had a brief moment of thankfulness for our Avidyne EX500 because our airplane has Nexrad, making alignment of onboard radar less of a factor in judging the weather. A minute later the Delta pilot decided a takeoff did not meet his company standards. "Taxi down the runway and exit Whiskey Six," said the tower. And so he did, following the rules and maybe saving him and his passengers from a fate much worse than a rain delay.

That night I learned another trick about fuel rules when I heard a FedEx flight come onto the tower frequency. Though he was in a hold out over the Gulf of Mexico at Tabir intersection and most likely talking to approach or, if high enough, Jacksonville Center, he was calling the tower directly for a weather report. Knowing that things were changing rapidly, this cagey pilot was not waiting for the ATIS to be rerecorded, he was going to the horse's mouth. When told that the visibility was still less than a quarter of a mile, he thanked the tower and said, "Well, we're at bingo fuel right now, so I guess we'll mosey over to Orlando." He was following the rules.

Sometimes rules that seem silly aren't. I am sure that my ability to practice medicine is not dependent on a shirt and tie, but the patients I serve expect that dress code of me. They reason, not without some justification, that if I show up unshaven and in a golf shirt that I might have my mind on something other than their health. Same goes for the captain on the airliner I am strapped into. Give me the classic look, please; the captain who looks open yet vigilant, the one who wears a hat onto the airplane. It is a rule about how you treat other people.

On this late night flight from Manchester, we did some major deviating and I started to wonder about fuel reserves. I know that on our airplane when we're down to 400 pounds of fuel, the gear better be down and the runway in sight. After we landed that hot and humid night, I asked the first officer about how much fuel was left (3,000 pounds is the minimum number for a Southwest 737). "Oh, plenty, about 9,000 pounds," he said. "Somebody in dispatch had the big picture." Or followed a knowledgeable rule book.

The next day I query a friend at Southwest. He confirms that an obstruction some 191 feet above the ground 5,500 feet off the departure end of 17 at Manchester was the problem. Matters not to the 700 series, but with a fully loaded 300 at that temperature, there's 10,000 pounds of weight difference for Runway 17 versus 35 in a calm wind. I think for a minute, then suddenly realize that these "rules" have been worked out for every airport that every airline serves. Sometimes a good rule book is a good thing.