September 30, 2010

An Unexpected Ferry

I was scheduled to finish my three day sequence by 8pm and, assuming all went as planned, should be relaxing at home by 9.  We started on Sunday afternoon with a pretty long 3 leg day and just under 8 hours of flying followed by a slightly shorter 2 leg day with just over 5 hours in the cockpit and finished up with one 3 hour leg home. We call these 3-2-1 trips and they’re usually difficult to get, especially for someone junior like me. Day three started out in Detroit, Michigan in a pretty nice hotel across the street from a mall with good restaurants and a movie theatre…not a bad layover. It was a nice fall day with rain in the morning and a cool cloudy afternoon. As a Texas boy, I appreciated a break from the heat and was happy that I had remembered to pack something warm.

We left Detroit on time, even though our jet came in a little behind schedule, and made good time with a tailwind of almost 120 knots for much of the flight. (The image above shows the wind in the bottom right hand corner as we approached St. Louis). About 30 minutes before landing, I sent a “changeover” report to the company. The changeover is an electronic report used to advise the company of our expected touchdown time so the ramp personnel know when to expect us. As usual, we got a printed response that listed our arrival gate and connecting gate information for the passengers and crew. This is the same gate information you hear the flight attendants read over the PA system during an arrival. Since this was the last leg of our trip, the words “No Crew Connect Info” were listed for the pilots and flight attendants. This was good news since it isn’t unusual to get a re-assignment at the end of a trip when the company is short of pilots and or flight attendants. As you can imagine, it is incredibly frustrating to be headed home with the family expecting you for dinner only to find out that you are needed for another day or two or work.

We landed on runway 35C at DFW and crossed 35L before contacting the ramp tower for taxi clearance to our gate. As we entered the ramp, we heard the words no pilot wants to hear in the last 5 minutes of a long trip…”1941 you need to call operations, they have a message for you.”

Long story short, 30 minutes later instead of sitting on the crew bus on my way to the parking lot, I was sitting in the right seat of an MD82 bound for our maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We were probably drafted for the ferry assignment because we were conveniently arriving home when Crew Tracking realized they needed a couple pilots for an unscheduled flight. We were easy pickings.  Our assignment was to fly the jet, empty, to Tulsa, spend the night, and deadhead home in the morning on the first flight we were legal to take. If you consider that we spent a little over an hour in the cockpit and were paid 5 hours for the extra day, it really wasn’t such a bad deal.

The really interesting thing about the evening was how the aircraft flew when it was empty. On a normal flight, the maximum takeoff weight for an MD82 is 149,500 lbs…but minus 140 passengers, 3 flight attendants, catering and enough fuel for an average flight, the aircraft weighed just over 100,000 pounds as we pushed away from gate A26.

It was my leg and as we taxied out onto runway 35L for departure, the Captain told me he would help me steer around the corner and that I had the brakes and throttles. The tiller, or steering wheel, is located on the Captains side of the cockpit which leaves only the rudder pedals on my side to steer and the pedals don’t have enough authority to get around a sharp corner. There was a heavy UPS MD-11 taking off in front of us so I elected to come to a full stop on the runway and set takeoff thrust on the engines before releasing the brakes. We are actually required to do this if we come to a complete stop on the runway before being cleared for takeoff, but tonight I really just did it for rush of acceleration I was expecting. After being cleared for takeoff, I pushed the throttles up to about 1.4 EPR and allowed the engines to stabilize before calling for the auto-throttles to set takeoff power. Once we had achieved takeoff EPR, I released the brakes and felt acceleration like you rarely experience in an airliner. Without that extra 50,000 lbs, the aircraft accelerated to rotation speed in no time and as we reached V1 and VR I smoothly pulled the nose up to almost 25 degrees to maintain V2 (minimum flying speed) plus 20 knots for the first 1000 feet of our climb before accelerating to a normal climb speed.

In that first 1000 feet, the VSI (vertical speed indicator) was pegged out at 6000 fpm and as I lowered the nose and accelerated to 240 knots as per the departure procedure, our climb rate never got below 4000 fpm. Once established at 240 knots, we were able to maintain at least 5000 fpm all the way to 10,000 feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an MD80 climb that fast and I was a little surprised the departure controller didn’t make a comment about how light we must be.

We made it to our cruise altitude in record time and had a few minutes at cruise to contemplate the most unpleasant part of flying a light airliner…the landing. I’ve been on the MD80 my entire airline career and don’t have anything to compare it to, but I can tell you that this aircraft is a bear to land when it’s light. Nothing feels normal…the controls are light and touchy and the engines don’t like the power band required to fly an approach at this weight so you always seem to have a little too much or not quite enough power.  The touchdown is often not a pretty sight. The struts are designed to withstand a hard landing at 130,000 pounds (the max landing weight for an MD82), so without the extra weight to smooth things out, the touchdown is either going to be a greaser or it’s going to hurt your back side…nothing in between. I began making excuses for the landing as we joined the final approach course. I’m a little tired…big bug on the window…sure are light tonight…joking of course, but excuses don’t count after the fact, so you have to make them early and often. My landing was smooth and while I would love to claim it was the result of great skill and experience, I must admit that it was more about luck than anything else as I actually misjudged the runway and touched down a little earlier than expected. The Captain made some off handed remark about a blind squirrel finding a nut every now and then. He was just jealous.

We cleared the runway to the east and got in behind a “follow me” truck that guided us to a parking spot on the maintenance ramp in unfamiliar and alarmingly dark territory. You can't see the wing tips on an MD80 from the cockpit, so taxiing through tight and unfamiliar locations, especially at night, can be a bit unnerving.  As we completed our parking and shut down checklists, a mechanic appeared in the cockpit behind us. He had lowered the aft stairs and walked up to greet us. He was a friendly guy and also our ride back to the terminal where we would catch the hotel van for our nights rest.

This was a fairly old jet, built in the mid 80s. At first I though maybe it was being moth-balled. We’re currently parking 2-3 MD80s per month as we replace our older equipment with newer and more efficient 737s. We were happy to learn that the old girl was just in need of a few inspections and would fly again soon…maybe just not this light.


  1. The comment about the blind squirrel finding a nut made me laugh...Why does the company require you to hold the brakes when you come to a full stop? I figured that you would want to hold the brakes though- gotta have fun with no pax aboard!
    (you guys were really at 25 degree pitch up? Thats amazing...)

  2. Holding the brakes is a performance legality. I may have said it was a company requirement in my post, but it's really an FAA requirement. Takeoff performance is either computed for a rolling or a static takeoff. A rolling takeoff is when you taxi out onto the runway, push the throttles up and takeoff without stopping. In this case, holding the brakes is not necessary. A static takeoff occurs when you taxi out onto the runway and stop, like when you are in position waiting for a takeoff clearance. In this case, the takeoff data assumes that the engines were spooled up before releasing the brakes.

  3. Ahh, ok- I just assumed it was company.
    (When you say spooled up, does that mean takeoff power setting or just stabilized at an EPR setting?)

  4. By spooled up, I mean stabilized at about 1.4 EPR. On a static takeoff, we are required to stabilize the engines at about 1.4 before releasing the brakes.

  5. During my college days, I worked as a mechanic for the last European airline to fly the old De Havilland Comet 4, at their main engineering facility in Lasham, Hampshire. One of our treats was to see the Comets heading back to the line empty, with no pax or cabin crew, and minimum fuel. It was like watching a motorcycle do a wheely - those front wheels were off the ground within a 100 yards.

    This week I flew my Sundowner from TKI to AeroCountry for its annual - 10 gallons of fuel, and just me onboard. Same experience, just less of it.

  6. always love to see empty airliners take off.
    Shows just how agile those big birds can really be.

    Few years ago at Farnborough they flew the A340-600 and A380 for the crowds.
    Empty, those lame ducks aren't lame at all, they are rockets on takeoff, and then can be thrown into hard turns, almost stood on their wing to give everyone a good view.

    But the most impressive display of that I've seen was in the 1980s, when the Soviets flew their An-225 with the Buran shuttle on its back at the Paris air Salon at le Bourget.
    They flew circuits within the airport boundary with the weight of your MD80 on its back.

  7. Thank you so much for taking the time to write all this down and share it with us! I want to be a commercial pilot also, but now I am wondering about automatization on aircrafts: Do you think things can get more automatized(that they are now) in future aircrafts? Wouldn't that be dangerous? I'm concerned about that, since automatization can get things very boring for pilots if it is increased, can't it?

  8. Do I think aircraft will become more automated in the future? Absolutely. Is automation a bad thing? That is a great question that I can't fully answer in this forum. I think I could probably write a few hundred pages on the subject and not do it justice. I do believe too much automation can be a bad thing, especially if the pilot cannot override the computers. However, when used properly and working correctly, automation provides a significant enhancement to safety.

    Regarding being bored in the cockpit...I divide my attention between navigation, communication, fuel management, performance and monitoring other onboard systems. If you're doing everything you should be doing, bordom is rarely an issue.

    Thanks for your comments and questions.

  9. Ignacio

    I think you have at least your career in aviation until pilotless aircraft would be accepted by the general public. I had a guy on the jumpseat recently who flies drones for the US Air Force. He told me that they occasionally lose contact with the drones. Sometimes they crash, sometimes they never know what happened to the drone, sometimes they regain contact before a crash occurs. Would you tolerate this as a passenger? Me either. That technology has a long way to go.

    Also, on most aircraft, you can use as much or as little of the automation as you like. Personally, I like to mix up the level of automation from one flight to the next to keep my skills current with all the options. On one leg I will turn the autopilot on at 500 feet in the climb and leave it on until minimums on the approach. On the next leg I will hand fly the entire leg with autothrottles, autopilot and flight directors turned off. Granted, I usually do this on the short legs. Then I will fly a leg with a mix...hand fly to around 10,000 feet and turn the autopilot off before the approach.

    Point is, you can use the automation or not. It's your choice. All opinion here of course.