November 1, 2010

Delay After Delay on top of More Delays and Rough Air

Ok, so here’s my disclaimer.  Yes, there is a tone of sarcasm in today’s post…a slightly dark side to my personality maybe…but no, I do not have anything against RJ pilots.  That’s not to say that I don’t have anything against RJ’s, but that’s an entirely different subject.  As a matter of fact, I crawled my way up the aviation ladder at a regional airline and have nothing against those who did the same.  So please resist the temptation to fire off that email.  Yes, today the object of my frustration is an RJ and to some extent, those piloting the beast, but it could easily have been a much larger jet with far more experienced pilots.  Oh, I did it again.  Please forgive that last jab as well.

Have you ever had one of those days when absolutely nothing went as planned?  Sometimes I have flights like that.  I’ve noticed over the years, that once a particular flight starts going bad, that things are only going to get worse.  I started out the day at a quiet little airport in the south.  Generally speaking, I enjoy flying into small airports where my MD80 is the big man on campus.  Security lines always seem to be short and are usually staffed by kind and helpful TSA agents…there’s rarely a delay for taxi…no lines for takeoff…and you’re almost always first for the approach…easy in, easy out.  Pleasant.  But not today.

We started out on the wrong foot at the hotel, where on top of dirty rooms, questionable food and rude personnel, the van to the airport was nowhere to be found at our scheduled departure time.  A crew of five leaves this hotel every morning at this time, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, but for some reason we caught them completely by surprise with our request for transportation.  Go figure.  We waited around 15 minutes past our scheduled departure time before hailing a couple of cabs and making our way to the airport at our own expense.

I don’t like getting to the airport late.  In the end it really isn’t that big of a deal if everything goes as planned, but it rarely does when you're running behind.  We arrived at the gate about 35 minutes before departure, which translates to about 25 minutes late.  The gate agents typically want to begin boarding 30 minutes prior to departure to facilitate an on-time departure, so the flight attendants needed to work fast to get things ready in the cabin.

I made my way to the cockpit while the Captain pulled up our paperwork at the gate.  Upon inspection of the logbook, I found that the fuel quantity indicator for the right main tank was deferred.  This is the sort of thing that really complicates my job, especially when I’m running behind.  On a good day, when everything is in order, I can pre-flight the aircraft, set and check the various cockpit instruments and program the computers in about 20 minutes.  The issue with the fuel tank was going to add a good 15 minutes to my duties.  Have you done the mental math?  An on-time departure wasn’t looking so probable at this point.

I pulled out the MEL (Minimum Equipment List) and flipped back to the appropriate page to determine what exactly had to be accomplished to verify our fuel level…few things will ruin your day like running out of fuel.  Of course, everything I needed wasn’t in one book, so I had to flip through another manual to find the procedure and charts I would need to “stick” the tank and verify our fuel.

“Sticking” the tank, involves dropping a measuring stick from the bottom of the wing that has a float on the other end inside the tank.  The stick drops down until the float is floating on top of the fuel inside the tank and I read the meter on the stick (it looks something like a ruler), then go to the charts to verify that we are fueled to the proper level.  The whole process is a major pain in the you-know-what and takes a lot of valuable time.

*In the top picture, you can see that there are four "sticks" on each wing.  Also in the top picture is a visual depiction of a "stick".  The chart on the bottom shows a typical Verification Chart.  As an example, an indication of 6.5 inches in stick number 1 on either wing (outboard stick) would equal 9,212 pounds of fuel in the tank.

With the help of a good Captain who did most of the work inside the cockpit, I was in my seat, ready for departure and confident in our fuel quantity within a few minutes of departure.  We would leave the gate a few minutes late, but I was sure we could make up the time en-route.  I sat down, adjusted my seat and put on my headset as the Captain asked for the Before Starting Engines checklist and we were on our way.

I called for push back clearance and as we were moving back from the gate, I could see that an RJ had already pushed from an adjacent gate.  The RJ was blocking our exit from the ramp, but I assumed since he had pushed before us that he would be long gone by the time we were ready for taxi.  I was wrong.  In anticipation of a short taxi, we started both engines at the gate (as opposed to starting one and then starting the other during taxi) but as we finished up the starting process, the RJ was still blocking the ramp…so we sat there…for 10 minutes.  I haven’t the foggiest idea what was going on in the cockpit of that little jet.  Ground control couldn’t raise them.  We couldn’t raise them.  In a “have your people contact my people moment” we even tried to get our gate agent to call their company in an attempt to get the guys moving, but nothing worked.  So we just sat there needlessly burning kerosene.  In hind sight, 10 minutes doesn’t seem that long, but it was an eternity at the time.

Finally, mercifully, they finished whatever it was they were doing and called for taxi.  I really do hate to talk badly about another pilot, but these guys seemed really out of the loop.  I suspect that one of the guys in the cockpit, probably the FO, was getting his IOE (Initial Operating Experience) with an instructor.  Whoever was working the radio, (again, probably the FO) had difficulty with even the simplest of instructions.  First he wouldn’t answer at all, and then when he did he didn’t get the instructions correct.  “Taxi runway 17R via Juliet, Whisky, Whisky 1” …it seemed so simple.  (I should be ashamed for making fun of the guy…we’ve all been new)  Painfully, excruciatingly, they started to move and we followed them to the departure runway where they apparently got lost in their own little world again.  We sat behind them at the end of the runway for another 10 minutes until they finally realized they were on the wrong frequency and called the tower ready for takeoff.

Once airborne, you would think the whole thing was over, but it was just beginning.  The RJ took off in front of us and we were cleared for takeoff a few minutes later.  As soon as we contacted the departure controller he advised us to maintain 250 knots until further advised and amended our altitude from 10,000 to 5,000 feet.  Apparently the RJ wasn’t climbing very well.  We got a stair-step climb…one thousand feet at a time…all the way to FL280 (Flight Level 280 or 28,000 ft).  “Climb maintain 6,000”…”Climb maintain 7,000”…you get the idea.  About the time I would level off, the controller would clear us to climb another thousand feet.  We did this all the way to FL280 until the RJ finally leveled off and we were allowed to climb above him and resume normal speed.  Don’t ask me why we couldn’t level off and pass the guy or go around, but the controller wouldn’t go for it.  To make matters worse, the guy climbed at 250 knots all the way to his cruise altitude.  I don’t fly that type aircraft and I am not sure what a normal climb speed should be, so maybe this was normal, maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know.  But normal climb speed in our jet would have been around 310 knots, so 250 was really going to hurt our attempt to get back on schedule.

Once clear of this particular thorn in our side, we were given normal speed and an unrestricted climb toward our planned cruise altitude of FL360.  We were planned at that altitude because the cloud tops were around FL340 and the ride was reported to be rough at that altitude.  But as we continued our climb, we were told that FL340 would be our final altitude for traffic.  This isn’t that uncommon, ATC is often unable to clear us to our flight planned altitude for one reason or another.  It usually isn’t that big of a deal except on a day like this one when the altitude they offer is unpleasant or all-together unusable.   After trying to make FL340 work for a few minutes, we gave up and requested a lower altitude to get out of the clouds and rough air.  We eventually had to go all the way down to FL260 before we found any smooth air.  Frustrating, given the effort it took to get to FL340.  At least we were in front of the RJ.

Delay after delay on top of rough air and more delays.  This was a fairly short flight, and after we leveled off at FL260, we found ourselves in a traffic jam of planes trying to line up on the arrival.  The controller at Ft. Worth Center directed us to turn 30 degree right and slowed us to 250 knots to make some room between us and the traffic ahead.  A few minutes later he turned us back on course and handing us off to the next controller.  As soon as we checked on with the next controller, he turned us 30 degrees left “for traffic.”  This went on for the next four frequencies, one guy turning us off then back on course only to be vectored off course again by the next guy in line. 

Once we were handed off to Regional Approach Control, we found ourselves properly spaced and the delays came to an end.  We were vectored for a visual approach and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the sunset reflecting off the surface a lake just north of the airport. 

The thermals from earlier in the day had subsided giving way to smooth evening air and an effortless approach and landing.  When the air is that smooth, you can configure for landing, set the power, trim the controls and just sit back and watch.  Our patience during the last two hours was rewarded with a truly enjoyable approach and landing enhanced by an equally amazing view.  Our next leg was back to the same airport from which we had just come.  Hopefully we would be more successful with our second attempt.


  1. Sorry for your frustrating day. I once asked a controller why they couldn't hold an aircraft at a lower level and let it accelerate past a slow climber (I think it was in response to someone who had a similar experience coming out of the NY area in a G5 to Europe behind a slow climbing A340). His response was something about how long it would take to pass and airspace restrictions ahead - he had to hand off in a particular gate or altitude and location to the next ATC region.

    Nice picture of Lake Lewisville!

  2. D.B. Often my picture isn't quite as big as the controller's. I'm sure he had his reasons for the way he handled my flight.

    One thing I may not have accurately conveyed in the post is my impression that one flight often seems to be the target for ATC spacing delays. I can't tell you how many times FTW Center has vectored me off course to make room ahead for another flight, just to have the next three or four controllers do the same thing. By the time we landed on this flight, I'm pretty sure they had managed to put at least four jets in front of us on the arrival. Happens a lot.

    Again, I'm sure they have their reasons...they just don't share them with me :)

  3. I'm fascinated -- I had no idea that it would be possible and at times necessary to "stick the tanks" on an MD-80! Thought that was only for those of us flying the small birds.

  4. The climb at 250K is a fuel saving climb. So blame the RJ company for their procedures on that one.

  5. My Dad flew 737-200s for Delta when he first upgraded to Captain. He had a sense of humor when it came to that little airplane and often referred to it as a FLUF...Fat Little Ugly F#%$. He also commented that the little FLUF, which he loved, was the "plaque in the arteries of the ATC system." I think that sentiment could accurately describe many RJs of today. a reminder, this post was not intended as a slam on RJs or those who pilot them.