The poem was penned by Bavicca Bharathi (photo on left), who made news in 2010 when she became India’s youngest commander, flying on the ATR 72-500s with Kingfisher Airlines.
I received the poem as a sms from her, today, and genuinely found it worth sharing! Happy Sunday, everyone!
Oh my ATR!
High Winged, and tail propped,
T-Tailed, and Prop unstopped,
O Lover boy, with dorsal fin,
With your song, my heart you pin.
Fighting the weather,
Flying with the thunder,
Amid balls of butter,
Till you begin a stutter.
Racing the strong,
Until we’re told wrong.
Then laughing the bong,
Having planned this all along.
Pushing the ceiling,
For the familiar feeling,
My heart would be me killing,
If not for your healing.
This and much we’ve done you know,
So much, I could never stow.
Come back for you, I will fat boy,
Don’t think I’ll settle for some lame toy.
The Flying Engineer’s note: The ATR 72-500 is a ~72 seat turboprop regional airplane. The airplane is high winged as the wings are above the fuselage, “T” Tailed as the elevators are above the rudder, which looks like a “T” from behind. The “tail prop” is a small rod-like structure that is hung from the aft fuselage, to prevent the airplane from completely tipping in the event of poor load distribution (which can easily happen on board this plane with provision for boarding only from the rear). Not to be confused with “Prop”, which is short for propellers: 6 long blades per propeller, lending it a diameter of 13ft. The “song” is actually the loud sound from the engine which is music only to the ears of those crazily in love with the airplane, but otherwise is a passenger nuisance. “Fighting with weather”, “flying with thunder”, “amid balls of butter (clouds)”, “till you begin a stutter” reflect the ATR 72’s inability to cruise above the weather, and being a light airplane easily tossed around in turbulent air, in comparison to the bigger jets.
The ATR72, like other turboprops, has the ability to slow down very quickly, because of its huge variable pitch constant speed propellers that can offer significant aerodynamic resistance when the power levers are pulled to flight idle. Because of this, the airplane can fly at very high speeds until just a few miles from touchdown, after which it can retard quickly. Challenging the strong headed pilots of “stronger airplanes” by “Racing the strong”, she and her crew member, like others wanting some fun, approach the runway at a high speed while behind a bigger jet aiplane, which on the other hand has to plan an approach and fly slower. Sometimes perplexed air traffic controllers would request the jet to speed up and the ATR to slow down, telling the ATR crew it’s “wrong” to fly so fast. The cockpit would erupt in laughter, for their plan in embarrassing the jets and taxing the air traffic controller (most of whom are ignorant of the aircraft’s amazing aerodynamic braking) succeeded, sometimes with a cheesy line, “You should have given us landing priority, we’re faster”. Ofcourse, that is the only time they can have fun, for “Pushing” the ceiling is the thrill that most ATR pilots get when they can, on certain occasions, cruise at a higher altitude, which infact, isn’t much.
The ATR 72 provides ample hand flying opportunities for it’s pilots. With the controls linked directly (via cables) to the control surfaces, the pilot has quite an “intimate” relationship with the airplane (“This and much we’ve done you know”). No other class of airplane flying for scheduled operators (airlines) allows for the joy of hand flying. I still don’t understand why she called the airplane “fat”. She now flies the Airbus A320 for a well performing airline, and as most pilots say, the A320 may be a marvellous airplane, but at the end of the day, is a “toy” (the mere presence of a pair of “joysticks” is one reason for some; anti-Airbus and pro-Boeing men and women have more to say), with less flying and more systems managing.
An ATR72-500. Note the tail prop: the small, hanging rod from below the fuselage near the right-rear door (closed).
The ATR 72-500 has its idiosyncrasies. In the cockpit is a “seat position sight gauge", which are three small, coloured balls that allow a pilot to adjust his viewpoint to a position that ATR deems appropriate, allowing for a “correct view of instrument panels as well as runway environment". The photo above shows the ATR 72 cockpit, with the sight gauge enlarged in the inset. If the first officer is to have his viewpoint right, he must adjust his seat height and position such that when looking at the three balls, the left white ball is obscured by the red centre ball.
Eye Level Indicator on the Q400
Interestingly, this gauge is not found in the Boeings, where the recommended method of adjusting the viewpoint is different. The ATR 72-500/600’s competitor, the Q400, however, has something similar, called the “eye level indicator", as may be seen in the second photo. The Airbuses, not surprisingly, have a sight gauge similar to that found on the ATR.
Possibly one of the smartest first officers in India told me, after seeing me so diligently adjusting my P1 seat in an ATR 72-212A (500) to the correct viewpoint, that I was too high. Apparently, the seat position sight gauge does do its job well, but it isn’t something you’d want to level your eye with on an airplane like the ATR 72-500. Why? Visual perspective.
With the eyes adjusted, the view is good, and clean. But with the ATR 72, (and the Q400) one has to be very careful with the flare: the airplane’s fuselage is long and low, and a tail strike is easy. Another complication is the aircraft itself: having a constant speed propeller means that when you pull back on the power levers, the pitch angle of the propeller blades changes to “fine" (almost perpendicular to the direction of the airplane’s travel through the air), resulting in a significant increase in drag. If the flare is more than required, and the airplane balloons*, pulling back on the power levers is the last thing one would want to do, as the drag would make the aircraft drop to the runway like a stone! So one would add power to keep the airplane up, and this will eat up more runway: Messy indeed. And for him, with the ATR recommended viewpoint, comes the tendency to flare more than required.
*[The term “balloon" refers to a landing airplane that rises slightly before touching down. Ballooning is typically caused by excessive airspeed or excessive back pressure being applied to the flight controls by the pilot during the landing flare]
So what he does is to sit lower than the recommended view point: low enough to make him actually look up to see outside. This works well for him, and few others who have settled for this more comfortable, though not recommended, seating technique. Anything that works!
What can go wrong just because of an improper flare?
On 9th May, 2004, N438AT, an ATR 72-212, during the approach to landing, the captain stated to the first officer (flying), “you better keep that nose down or get some power up because you’re gonna balloon.". After the airplane crossed the runway threshold, the captain stated, “power in a little bit, don’t pull the nose up, don’t pull the nose up." The captain then stated, “you’re ballooning,". The airplane touched down with a vertical load of 1.3G, bounced into the air, touched down a second time, then bounced into the air with a nose up of 9°, climbed to 37 feet, and touched down a third time with a vertical load of 5Gs. After a fourth touchdown, the badly damaged airplane came to a stop outside the runway.
On 17th September, 2005, D-ANFH, an ATR 72-212A, Just prior to touchdown, the co-pilot pitched the aircraft nose up to an attitude of 6.5º. The aircraft landed hard on the runway and bounced; in the course of the initial touchdown, the lower rear fuselage struck the runway surface.
On 23rd May 2006, G-BWDA, an ATR 72-202, towards the conclusion of a brilliant approach, the first officer closed the power levers at 10ft and flared the aircraft. The airplane touched down, bounced into the air, and the attempt to arrest the sinking of the aircraft to the ground, pulled back on the control column, striking the tail.
And yes, I have also heard some of my friends say, “Oh damn, I forgot to flare!"
I was rummaging through my “precious" stuff, when I found two “in-flight forms" that I had prepared for the flight crew operating my flights. I knew the crew well, so it wasn’t an issue back then. Today, the story is different: requesting for technical information in-flight may not be taken in the right light, and those responsible for airport security may be waiting for you at your destination!
But if done carefully, you may be in for a technical treat! Below is the scan from an ATR 72-500 flight from Bangalore (VOBL) to Hyderabad (VOHS), via airway W57N, which was flown sometime in 2011. I got the F/O to fill the form for me, which he did with a nice smile!
[Background Information:W57N is a unidirectional airway that originates at BIA (VOR, Bangalore International), and terminates at HIA (VOR, Hyderabad International), as follows:
Making up in part for the poor representation of the Q400 in Asia is LEPL, the business conglomerate with a footprint in Infrastructure, Power, Entertainment, Education, Hospitality and Health Care, that announced on the 22nd of February a new regional airline catering to Tier II & Tier III cities using a fleet of 5 Q400 next gen Turbo prop aircraft.
Headquartered at Vijayawada and with hubs planned at Hyderabad and Chennai, the all turbo prop airline, Air Costa, plans to start operations in either May or June in preparation for which a newspaper advertisement was brought out calling applications from Captains, transition captains, first officers, cabin crew, aircraft maintenance engineers, and other ground staff.
The Q400 Next Gen’s direct and only competitor, the ATR 72-600 may have given the Vijaywada base airline’s decision makers a tough time in choosing the right aircraft for their operations. The ATR 72-600 is more economical, with the direct operating costs lower than that of the Q400. The ATR 72-600 consumes significantly lesser fuel than the Q400 per passenger, breaks-even at a lower load factor, costs 7-8 million USD cheaper to procure, and yet Air Costa chose the Q400.
Three reasons can make the Q400 more attractive than the ATR 72-600: its ability to carry an additional 6 revenue paying passengers, its high performance, and most importantly, its range.
Looking up manufacturer published range v/s payload charts, the Q400 and the ATR 72 can be compared on an almost level ground. Bombardier’s published data is unambiguous: They clearly specify the range is considering fuel reserves for a 100NM alternate airfield, 45 minutes of holding time, and 5% flight fuel contingency, and that the aircraft is flown in high speed cruise. ATR on the other hand puts these reserves under “JAR Fuel Reserves”. This conceals the assumptions: the distance to the alternate airfield isn’t known, and in previous brochures, an 87NM alternate was considered. This only means that the range indicated by ATR may be lesser than projected if one is to consider a 100NM alternate.
ATR 72 (left) and the Q400's (right) Range-Payload chart. Note that the Q400 chart is for High Speed Cruise, 100NM alternate, 45 hold and 5% fuel contingency, while the ATR 72's chart keeps the essential details hidden.
Nevertheless, ignoring the differences and pulling out the figures still puts the Q400’s range (High Gross Weight version: the Q400 variant used by Spicejet) a minimum 80NM greater than the ATR 72-600’s (the “OPTION” that ATR offers, which boasts off greater range and weights than the “BASIC” variant), at maximum passenger load (78 X 102 = 7959kg for the Q400 and 72 X 102= 7344kg for the ATR 72-600), this maximum payload considering passengers at 102kgs each (75kg adult + 20kg check in+ 7kg cabin baggage).
*Data from Bombardier. **Data from ATR
This 80NM makes all the difference in planning a flight from Hyderabad to Tiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). Considering the fact that Air Costa plans to serve Tier II cities in India, there is no reason why this sector wouldn’t be considered. Spicejet operates a daily Q400 flight direct from Hyderabad to Trivananthapuram, with a scheduled block time of 2hrs 15 minutes, with Cochin as the alternate, which is around 100NM away. The ATR 72-600 on the other hand will not be able to fly direct between the city pair with full payload. Deviations due to weather, winds, and flying airways that zig-zag in varying degrees add air distance: all this combined with the 100NM alternate (Cochin) will make things tough for a flight planned on the ATR 72.
The Q400’s range presents operational flexibility. A flight from Chennai to Mumbai, with Pune as the alternate may also be planned on the Q400, but not on the ATR 72.
Air Costa may settle for a cabin configuration similar to Spicejet’s: 78 seat, 30″ seat pitch all economy configuration.
With an all turbo prop fleet, Air Costa will enjoy the lowest fuel cost per aircraft per litre of ATF (Aircraft Turbine Fuel) amongst all scheduled operators in India, due to the non-applicability of sales tax on ATF for scheduled operation with regional aircraft of seating capacity less than 80 seats. Considering the sad fact that in India, ATF accounts for nearly 50% of operating costs, the savings cannot be overemphasised. The Q400’s flexibility in range and speed can potentially throw open an all new airline to the Indian traveller: an airline that can keep costs low, flexibility high, giving other airlines a run for their money.
The timing of Air Costa isn’t bad either. With Kingfisher Airlines’ flight and cabin crew applying outside to other airlines, there may be no dearth of experienced manpower. With 5 aircraft and an average estimated requirement of 10 pilots per airplane (commanders + first officers), at least 50 flight crew members and possibly about 50 cabin crew would be needed, all of whom may easily be “sourced” from Kingfisher.
In conclusion, Air Costa will operate an aircraft that will offer it immense route flexibility, while keeping costs very low. With good planning, strong political connections, and the introduction of frequent flights between Tier I cities (such as Bangalore-Mumbai, Bangalore-Chennai, Hyderabad-Mumbai, Hyderabad-Bangalore and Chennai-Mumbai), Air Costa may, if well managed, become the envied airline of tomorrow.