November 23, 2010

Back In The Seat


I’m not sure if there is a way for me to explain all the events of the last two days without writing a book. I thought of naming this post “Two Days of Hell” but decided while accurate, that it sounded a little too melodramatic. Late aircraft, fog, freezing fog, a near miss on the arrival to Austin while preparing for a CAT III approach, maintenance issues on the ground and in the air all topped off with irate passengers and a tired and ticked off crew…it was an exhausting two days.

If you’ve been following along, then you know that I’ve been out on vacation for a while. I don’t know if it was a much deserved vacation, but I can tell you that it was much appreciated. As a result of some creative bidding, I was able to turn a two week vacation into a four week break from anything and everything airline. I walked to the employee parking lot one month ago today and didn’t step foot on the airport grounds for an entire month. It was good for my psychological well being to separate myself from the sometimes hectic life of an airline pilot, but I’m thankful to be back in the air and hoping for a few good stories to share with you. That said, my first two days back were a tremendous nightmare in just about every sense. As I sit here the morning after, it’s difficult for me to believe that this all transpired on a single two day trip.
I arrived at the airport around 7am on day one and made my way to pilot operations and, as expected, found a mailbox full of revisions that had been piling up over the last four weeks. It took almost an hour to update my manuals before I signed in on the computer and noticed that my jet was due in at 8:44 (my flight to Austin, TX was scheduled to depart at 8:45). I wasn’t paying close enough attention and mistook 8:44 for 7:44 and left the comfort of operations for the hectic environment of the gate and a late flight.

Once at the gate, I realized my error and started looking into the reason behind the delay and took a closer look at the weather ahead of me for the day. The weather in Austin was below takeoff minimums with RVR hovering around 400 ft. and takeoff minimums of 500. The aircraft I was scheduled to fly to Austin was actually still sitting in Austin where it had spent the night. The visibility eventually crept above 500 an hour past their scheduled departure time and my airplane was finally on its way.

With a little extra time, I took a look at the weather in all three cities I was scheduled into for the day. Austin was going to be interesting. I was expecting a very low visibility approach, probably a CAT III ILS. Denver was next where they were reporting equally low visibility with freezing fog and moderate turbulence thrown in for good measure. Dallas was forecasting strong and gusty crosswinds all day which left Nashville as the only bright spot with mild weather and a pleasant forecast.

Once the jet finally arrived, we did our best to get turned around in a hurry. Everyone did their jobs, the Captain and I split responsibilities and we were able to make up 15 minutes, pushing back from the gate 45 minutes behind schedule for the first of five legs. As we came to a stop after the pushback, the crew chief cleared us to start engines…I prepared for the start by turning off the packs (air-conditioning system) and opening the cross-feed valves and the Captain turned on the ignition and pressed the start switch…nothing. I looked at him; he looked at me, both with that “what did we forget” look. APU air switch on, packs off, cross-feel valves open, ignition switch selected to continuous…we were doing it right, it just wasn’t working. It turns out that the load control valve on the APU was not working properly and would not open to provide air to the start valve. (jet engines do not start using a traditional starter like you would find on a car or a small piston engine aircraft…jet engines need air to start, and we weren’t getting any) The valve in question had been working only minutes earlier, but it wasn’t working now.

Unable to start the engines, we were towed back to the gate where we contacted maintenance and explained the situation. A company mechanic showed up quickly and elected to defer the APU instead of taking time for a repair since the flight was already over an hour late. With the APU deferred, we would need a “start cart” to provide air to start the engines, a process that would take place at the gate before push-back. We would also need air pumped into the aircraft while at the gate to keep the cabin cool…or warm depending on our location.

By the time all the paperwork was in order and the proper equipment for starting the engines was in place, we were already an hour and a half past departure time with five legs to go. It was going to be a long day. We eventually got underway and took off for Austin where the visibility was just above landing minimums when we arrived. Austin approach is not typically over-tasked with traffic, but as a result of the poor weather conditions earlier in the morning, the airspace was saturated with aircraft of all sizes attempting to land. We typically come in from the north and land to the south without incurring a delay. Instead, we came in from the north and were vectored south of the airport, then back to the north to put us in sequence with other aircraft before being vectored to intercept the ILS approach to runway 17L. There is only one runway in Austin that is equipped for low visibility approaches, a fact that was not helping with the traffic congestion.

To add insult to injury, just as we were abeam the airport and level at 5000 ft, the arrival controller apparently lost track of a small plane that had just departed Austin. Our onboard Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) announced “traffic, traffic” and we turned our heads to visually acquire the traffic. Shortly thereafter TCAS announced “monitor vertical speed” and the Vertical Speed Indicator (VSI) displayed green and red arcs to emphasize where we should and should not be. Apparently unaware, the controller then issued us a clearance to descent to 4000 ft (into the traffic) just as TCAS announced “climb, climb” and we notified ATC that we were responding to a TCAS Resolution Advisory (RA) and that we were climbing out of 5000 ft. We only climbed 300 ft. before receiving the “clear of conflict” call from TCAS as the conflict aircraft passed behind us out of harms way. We had the traffic in sight the entire time and were never in any real danger of collision, but the added excitement was not what we needed.

We managed the rest of the approach without any further drama and arrived at the gate an hour and a half late. Austin turned us around in good time, especially given the extra work associated with our deferred APU, and I took the controls for the first time in a month for the flight back to DFW. Other than gusty crosswinds at DFW, the flight home was normal; however, once at the gate at DFW, we were still well behind schedule and in danger of exceeding our duty day limits if we were not able to make up any time.

As I mentioned before, the weather in Denver, our next destination, was much the same as Austin with the addition of colder temperatures, freezing fog and reports of moderate turbulence on the arrival. However, the forecast for improved conditions proved correct and by the time we found ourselves on the arrival at Denver, the weather had improved enough for a visual approach and the airport was clearly in view 20 miles out on final.

With a quick turn in Denver, an 85 knot tailwind and a few short cuts, we reduced our tardiness to one hour by the time we arrived back at DFW. Our time on the ground there was uneventful except that we had an issue with a passenger just before departure who was frantically searching for a lost earring. Blaming and cursing at those around her the flight attendants took control of the situation and were able to move some people around in the cabin and calm the passenger down. Even though her frustration was understandable, it would not be at all unusual to leave a passenger behind who was acting out in this manner, but with the advice and consent of three capable flight attendants, we elected to show some grace and understanding and departed for Nashville for the night. With five legs, 13 hours and 13 minutes on duty and 9 hours and 6 minutes of flight time behind us we arrived in Nashville 53 minutes late.

Nashville was a nice treat after a long day. I got to my hotel room around 9:30 pm, changed clothes and went out for a cold drink and some live music. Our hotel is one block from Broadway, with a plethora of music choices. The Captain was tired and went straight to bed, so I went out alone and spent about an hour enjoying surprisingly good country music and the company of strangers before retiring for the night.

The second day of our trip started off looking good…relatively speaking. Our transportation to the airport arrived on time, we were paired with a friendly group of St. Louis based flight attendants, we had favorable weather ahead and the jet we would fly to DFW was waiting for us at the gate when we arrived. That was pretty much the end of anything good for the day. Once in the cockpit, I found that there were a number of deferred items that we would need to research and understand before departure. There was a problem with the fuel pumps in the center fuel tank, not a factor on this flight since we would not have center tank fuel on board. There was also a problem with the auto spoiler system, which meant we would not have auto spoilers in the event of an aborted takeoff or auto spoilers for the landing. The auto spoilers on landing would be missed, especially with gusty crosswinds back at DFW. We’d make do, and I’d have something to blame a bad landing on…but of course, I don’t make bad landings. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) In addition and as a result of the deferred auto spoiler, the aircraft was not capable of flying a CAT III approach, but with agreeable weather ahead, that too was not going to be a factor. Honestly, none of the deferrals had any huge affect on the operation; they were just another pain in the neck on an already fatiguing trip.

We flew to DFW where we were scheduled to swap jets before continuing on to Houston. Swapping jets is common, especially when passing through one of our hub cities and it’s at least as inconvenient for the pilots as it is for the passengers. We gathered up our things, packed our bags and began the “bag drag” between what seemed like the two farthest points of the airport. Of course, nothing could possibly go as planned on this infernal trip, so when we arrived at our new gate, we were informed that the jet would not arrive until just before scheduled departure time. We just couldn’t win.

We pushed back from the gate 35 minutes behind schedule, taxied away from the gate and contacted ground control at our assigned ramp exit spot. Ground informed us that there was a 20 minute ATC delay due to traffic congestion in Houston and cleared us to a holding pad at the end of the runway. I must admit that I was becoming a bit numb to delays at this point. We waited out the delay and were finally cleared for takeoff on runway 17R for the last two legs of the sequence. Climbing through 10,000 ft, I accelerated to 330 knots in an attempt to make up a little time. Unfortunately, ATC had other plans and instructed us to slow back to 250 knots. I wish I had had my camera handy to document our climb rate as I pitched the nose skyward to bleed off all that extra speed. We were at 330 knots, climbing through 21,000 feet with a clearance to 29,000 feet when we got the instruction to slow. With the nose nearly 20 degrees up, the VSI indicated a climb rate of 6,000 feet per minute as we traded speed for altitude. Regrettably, the reduced speed wasn’t creating enough space for the controller’s needs, so we received multiple vectors off course before finally being cleared back to a point on the Houston arrival.

Our ground time in Houston was short and mercifully uneventful and before we knew it we were in the air again on the “go home” leg. Somehow, after all the events of the previous 38 hours, we managed to block in only 10 minutes late and I walked in the back door of my house within 5 minutes of the time I had given my wife before I left. What an amazing two days…eight legs, twenty one hours on duty and fourteen hours of flight time.

A friend of mine commented that “any vacation induced rust had been cleaned away after this trip.” I think that was an understatement. One month off followed quickly by bad weather, maintenance and equipment challenges, passenger issues and a near miss on top of the normal challenges of this job was enough to get me right back into the swing of things. Here’s to hoping I’ve got all that negativity out of my system. Cheers.

3 comments:

  1. Wow what a welcome back eh?

    Thanks for sharing. I always think the grass is greener at the airline level... After reading that I think I'll stick with aerial photography ;)

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  2. Amazing story again. I really enjoy reading about life on the (air)line.

    You've got fans all the way in The Netherlands now!

    (For others: no, Holland (The Netherlands) is not the capital of Denmark. We are actually a country (invented Compact Disc and Video recording) with a nice captial named Amsterdam.) ;-)

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