March 13, 2010

Rush to Comply

Ok, before I begin I must admit that JFK is not common ground for me…I pass through every now and then, more often as a last minute divert from LGA or EWR than a planned destination. I possess a mental short list of airports that I avoid for one reason or another and JFK makes the list for a number of reasons. I was flying a “turn” this day…one leg out, one leg back, home at night. Not a bad deal if, like me, you savor the company of your wife and kids and are lucky and or wise enough to live where you are based. Our arrival, landing and taxi-in were unusually routine for New York. Beautiful winter day. No delays. Landed 31R. Short and simple taxi clearance to an open gate…arrived about 20 minutes early. Uneventful…just the way I like it. Getting the heck outa Dodge wouldn’t be so easy.

The 100+ knot headwind that yielded our early arrival would be a thorn in our side on the way home, so we made every effort to get underway on-time if not a little early. In spite of what the Captain may tell you when running late, it’s quite difficult to make up any measurable time en-route. That extra speed at altitude on a flight like this would cost the company at least another 1000lbs of fuel and would result in about 5 minutes saved…not a great return on investment. The best way to hedge our bet against the headwind was to get off the gate early and hope for a short taxi.

I can’t speak for the ramp crew, but for whatever reason they didn’t start paying any visible attention to us until about 20 minutes before departure. This would not suffice for our fully loaded flight home. We would leave the gate a little late. Strike one.

We finally requested push clearance about 10 minutes past departure, but the flight at the next gate beat us to the punch. We would have to wait for him to push, start and taxi out from behind us before we could move. Strike two…and here comes the fun part.

With pencil in hand, I requested taxi clearance from ever-patient JFK ground (yes, I’m being facetious). We got off to a good start with a clearance to taxi via Tengo and Alpha. “Follow the jet ahead to runway 22R” he told us. Great. Follow him…we can do that. We were turning onto Alpha when we got our first amendment. “Hold short Victor” he said, “I have a runway change for you. Standby.” So we pulled up and held short of taxiway Victor, hoping for something simple. Our new instructions were to taxi to runway 31L via Bravo. I read this back before looking at my chart and realizing that we could go left or right on Bravo and reach runway 31L. In hind sight, turning left seems more logical, but I still didn’t know for sure and needed clarification. But this is JFK ground and getting a word in is often more difficult than it sounds. So we sat there, not know which way to turn, until we were in someone’s way, got noticed by ground control and were finally asked what we were doing. Questions like “what are you doing,” “where are you going,“ and “say your altitude” are not favorites of any flight crew as they usually infer an error on your part. To add to my discomfort, the tone in the controller’s voice was not one of a nurturing parent, but one of a weathered schoolmarm. We were indignantly instructed to turn left and contact clearance for a re-route. Strike three.

We received a new full-route clearance comprised of numerous navigational points and airways with which I was not familiar. Jet this, victor that, intersections and VORs…it wasn’t pretty. I’m sure my read-back sounded something like a student pilot's first attempt at an IFR clearance, but I muddled through it with a bit of assistance and managed to get it all down on paper. Getting the new route into the FMS wasn’t any easier. Each fix and airway along our route had to be verified on a map before being entered in to the FMS. Just locating an unfamiliar fix in this part of the country is a chore. An airway map of the northeast looks a little like a plate of spaghetti. Everything is compressed and jumbled together, so finding unfamiliar points is a time consuming task...and the pressure of the clock was beginning to have its toll as we approached the departure runway. We pulled out of line to give ourselves some extra time, verified the new route and successfully entered it into the FMS. We then contacted dispatch to verify legal compliance and viability of our new clearance and left New York on our way home. Crawled into bed a little late that night.

Time seems to compress when you are feeling rushed, but the key to a safe flight is not allowing yourself to be pushed into what is know as a “rush to comply.” Pilots are proud beings...and an inability to comply with a clearance in what is perceived as a timely manner is an attack on that pride. We must resist the temptation to rush. There has never been an accident or incident that was not made up of many links in a chain. Allowing yourself to be rushed may be the quickest ways to add links to your flights chain of events. Breaking any one link could very possibly prevent a tragedy. On a good day, only checklists are completed between the gate and the runway. On this day, we had much more to do, but we took each step as it came and completed it in a safe and timely manner.

Forgive me while I paraphrase…A pilot lives in a world of perfection, or not at all. Not sure who said it, but I like it.


  1. As a PAX, JFK is a terrible experience. As a PIC, IFR in the NE is a challenge, but at 115kts I have a lot more time to get things right. But why, oh why, does almost every route from the BOS metro area, always start with "direct to
    CAM VOR"? Surely they can afford more?

    Enjoying the blog! Look down as you pass over KARLA at 11,000, and you will see my bid tied down at KTKI.

  2. it. Lots of memories at TKI Lost an engine there in a Piper Warrior while on downwind with a student. Good learning experience for both of us.