By Robert Sumwalt
7:18 Friday evening, US Airways flight 1782, an Airbus A321, sailed 35,000 feet over America’s heartland at 610 mph. At the controls of the San Francisco to Charlotte flight was a 34 ½ year airline veteran, Captain Bill Weeks. Due to reaching mandatory airline pilot retirement age, Captain Weeks’ landing in Charlotte would be his last as an airline pilot.
Bill started flying at 16. After college he flew for the USAF for 6 years, followed by a distinguished airline career, where — in addition to his piloting duties — he served as instructor, check airman, air safety investigator, and air safety representative for the Air Line Pilots Association.
Bill was a mentor and role model for many during his 25,000 hours of flight time and 49 years as a pilot. One of those who was deeply influenced by his professionalism was me. In 1983, he and I were selected to be part of a small team to travel to The Netherlands to be trained on an airplane that our airline would be soon be placing into service. For six weeks, Bill and I grilled each other on various aircraft systems, limitations, and procedures so that when the final check flight came, our qualifications would be unquestioned.
My learning experience didn’t stop there, however. From that point forward, when faced with tough decisions as a new captain and years afterward, I would often ask myself, “What would Bill do?” Our paths continued to cross, as we were both detailed to work in the airline’s safety department.
I recently asked Bill to reflect back on his vast experience and provide three tips that he’d like share.
1) “When things get time-compressed, slow down.” Two of the most important controls in the cockpit are the parking brake and the microphone. When on the ground, the pilot can reduce the tempo by setting the parking brake and not releasing it until things are at a more comfortable pace. Likewise, use the microphone to request delaying vectors or a holding pattern. As the saying goes, “take time to make time.” When Bill and I did safety work together, we would review events where rushing was a factor. One of Bill’s mantras was, “Don’t let ATC fly your aircraft.”
2) “If you can avoid continuing an unstabilized approach or doing a high speed rejected takeoff, you’ll probably have a long career.” To further Bill’s point, this summer the NTSB completed two air carrier accident investigations where, if the crew had discontinued an unstabilized approach, the accident could have been prevented.
3) “Don’t take off or land when convective weather is on or near the field.” Bill relayed a recent flight where a thunderstorm was over the airport. ATC asked each flight in the queue awaiting take off if they were able to depart, and with the exception of one, each flight declined. Fifteen minutes later, the storm had passed over the airport and skies along the departure corridor were completely clear. His point is certainly valid: When the weather is questionable, it’s not worth the risk of trying to takeoff or land. Allow the weather to move through before attempting to go.
Good advice from someone who is a professional in every way. Wishing Bill and his family Godspeed.