I Learned About Flying From That: A Supersize Problem

** To see more of Barry Ross’ aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

Most lessons learned in this column arise from personal experiences in airplanes weighing less than 12,500 pounds. But every once in a while, pilots flying big airplanes weighing 870,000 pounds or more have embarrassing moments that are worth sharing too.

My two first officers and I were flying a routine leg in a Boeing 747-400 from Honolulu to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. It was a pretty day westbound over the Pacific chasing the afternoon sun. Upon arrival in the Narita terminal area, we were assigned Runway 16L, which is significantly shorter than 16R but more than adequate for a relatively light 747. The first officer occupying the right seat was the flying pilot and made a routine, albeit slightly firm, landing in consideration of the runway length.

After taking control of the aircraft, I taxied clear of the runway to the Y hold point, and the first officer switched to ground control. But we received no response. After repeated attempts, we were still unsuccessful. The first officer switched back to the tower frequency, but we had no luck establishing contact with them either. We knew something was abnormal, since we were not hearing feedback through our headsets.

We heard the tower controller on the No. 2 radio tell us to flash our nosewheel taxi light if we heard him, so I flashed the light. We received taxi instructions to move along taxiway B and hold short at the E5 intersection. At that point, while awaiting further instructions, I told the first officers to check all the mics while I watched for light signals from the tower. The two first officers were feverishly unplugging and plugging back in all the mics we had. Our upper engine indication crew alerting system screen showed an amber advisory light labeled “radio transmit,” which confirmed a radio was continuously transmitting and blocking reception. No sooner did I say that I’d watch for light signals than a large green dot appeared from the tower. Although it had been awhile since I last reviewed light signals in the Aeronautical Information Manual, I figured it was a pretty good bet that green meant go and red meant stop. I advanced the thrust levers, and after moving along the taxiway for a short distance, I received a red stop signal.

At this point, we figured out that we could receive on the No. 2 radio. The exasperated ground controller ordered us to hold our position and wait for a “follow-me” vehicle. While waiting, I looked around and noticed down by my left leg that my approach chart book had fallen off the flight bag, which sits outboard of each pilot. I immediately knew what caused our stuck mic problem and unleashed a few expletives. Talk about a subtle trap. Boeing installed the cradle for the hand mic down low next to the captain’s left leg.

As soon as I pulled the book up and off the hand mic, communication returned to normal. I surmised that since the book was resting on my flight bag during our arrival, it must have slid forward and fallen off the forward edge of the bag during the deceleration on the landing rollout. The approach book was wedged just perfectly, depressing the mic transmit button.

I keyed my mic and told the tower that we had solved our problem and all communication was back to normal. That would have been fine in most places, but not in Japan. Pilots who routinely fly in and out of Japan joke about it being the land of no plan B. Air traffic control is fairly rigid and seldom deviates from planned routings or taxi flows.

The tower was quite put out with us and said something to the effect of “too bad, you made two mistakes — you will wait for the follow-me vehicle.” The three of us looked at each other quizzically, wondering what mistakes we had made. We had a problem but did everything by the book. The harried controller rattled off something in broken English, and after several requested repeats, we figured out that he was saying we had tied up two of his frequencies. We were being punished. I felt like I was in a game of Monopoly: Go directly to jail; do not pass go, and do not collect $200. Although he gave us a taxi clearance, we had to wait for the follow-me vehicle to lead us to our gate.

I parked the jet looking forward to a big piece of humble pie. A couple lessons learned: Don’t put the approach chart book on top of the flight bag during landing and continue to remain vigilant for subtle gotchas. Another pilot gave me a good travel tip as well. Stow the hand mic upside down so the transmit button can’t be pushed by anything that may fall on top of it.

As I filled out my Aviation Safety Action Partnership report, I was reminded of a favorite statement often made by one of our former FAA operations inspectors who sat on the event review committee of the ASAP program. After reviewing a voluntarily submitted report where the pilot suffered a large dose of humility and embarrassment, my friend would state, “I think learning has occurred.”

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