January 30, 2012

Return to Base

I had one of those days on Saturday that started early, went bad fast and only got worse as the day went on.   One of those rare days when nothing seems to go right and in spite of great efforts to the contrary, everyone involved leaves dissatisfied and determined to utilize another airline for future travel. 

I signed in at 5am for the third day of a three day trip.  Go home day.  The day when everyone desperately hopes for smooth travel and an on time or early return to base.  We were scheduled for three legs, over 7 hours of flight time and 11 hours on duty.  We ended the day with closer to 9 hours of actual flight time and 14 hours on duty.  A long day by any measure.

Leg number one went as planned.  Our early morning departure out of Colorado necessitated de-icing and an extra cup of coffee, but we left the gate ahead of schedule and landed at our destination 15 minutes early.  One down, two to go.  We were originally scheduled to keep the same aircraft all day and even had the same flight number for the first and second leg, but upon arrival after leg number one we were informed that we would be changing aircraft before our next departure. 

Swapping planes…the bag drag…adds more trouble and complication to a crew’s day than you might think.  Pilots and Flight Attendants alike build what is often called a “nest” in the aircraft.  Bags, books, checklists, headsets and everything else in its proper place takes time and effort.  We all hate changing airplanes especially when you’re already on one that’s working properly.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve swapped to a new jet only to find that the new one is late, broken or both.  In this case, our original jet was working fine, our nests were built and dragging our bags from one end of the airport to the other was only going to add to the fatigue of an already long day.

As I began to settle into my new work space, one of my first actions was to check the aircraft logbook.  This is where the day started to go south.  An aircraft, especially a large jet, is a complicated piece of machinery and it’s not uncommon for things not to work properly.  There are multiple backups for all important systems and for the most part, the passengers on board are almost always oblivious to malfunctions.  This particular aircraft had been written up the day before for problems with a landing gear indicator light, an anti-skid issue and a problem with the automatic spoilers.  What we like to see as pilots is a balancing entry in the logbook that shows corrective action to repair the issue.  What we do not like to see in the logbook are the words “unable to duplicate, ok for service.”  Guess what was written in my logbook.

The jet had been flown since these words were added to the aircraft logbook, so I was hopeful that the issues had been resolved.  Sometimes, an airplane is a little like your home computer.  Turn everything off, remove all power and reboot…you’d be surprised how often that works. 

We pushed back from the gate on time, taxied out for takeoff and were almost to the runway before we had our first sign of trouble.  As we approached the runway, I was working through the Before Takeoff Checklist and was unable to arm the auto-brakes.  (In the event of an aborted takeoff, auto-brakes will engage the brakes automatically to help slow the aircraft)  Then I noticed that all four anti-skid inop lights were illuminated on the overhead panel.  We stopped the aircraft, worked through our checklists and were able to reset the system and extinguish the warning lights.  Problem solved, cleared for takeoff.

It was my leg, and as I climbed through about 5000 feet the Captain noticed the left main landing gear unsafe light was illuminated.  This light indicates the landing gear is not in agreement with the landing gear handle.  In this case, the light indicated that the left main gear was not all the way up and locked.  We decided to continue climbing while we ran the checklist.  About the time the Captain had started running the checklist, the landing gear door light illuminated.  This aircraft has gear doors that open to allow the gear to raise and lower and are always closed when the landing gear is either all the way up or all the way down.  The light was an indication that the door was open.  A little or a lot, we did not know. 

I turned the auto-pilot off and flew the aircraft by hand for a while hoping to detect some unusual control inputs that would help determine if the lights were correct.  It was a possibility that both the lights were in error and that the gear was up and the door was closed.  One step in the procedure was to turn the hydraulic system from low to high pressure to ensure sufficient pressure was available to raise the gear and secure the doors.  As we turned the engine-driven hydraulic pumps from low to high, we heard and felt a loud kathunk as the some portion of the gear or gear doors found their correct place and the warning lights went out.

Just about this time, I looked up at the overhead annunciator panel and noticed that the “Auto Spoiler Do Not Use” light was illuminated.  So here we were, no more than 10 minutes into the flight and all three previously noted issues had resurfaced.

After working through the various checklist procedures, were able to correct the issue with the landing gear.  The anti-skid issue was rectified on the ground, but the circuitry would not allow testing of this system while airborne with the gear up…so we really didn’t know if it would work upon arrival.  The only issue we were unable to address was the auto spoiler, which could be deployed manually upon landing.  No big deal.

We continued on course and climbed to cruise altitude as we continued to discuss the possible outcomes of what had occurred thus far.  The aircraft was safe to fly and could easily, safely and legally be landed even if all three of these problems resurfaced, so the immediate decision was made to continue on to our scheduled destination.  However, it occurred to us that the aircraft would have to be written up after we landed and might not be able to be fixed at an outstation.  To complicate matters, we were en-route to a destination outside of the United States where maintenance was going to be difficult to arrange.  If we continued and landed at our destination, it was highly probable that our return flight would cancel and we would spend the night.

Selfishly…we were en-route to a beach destination in Mexico where our all-inclusive hotel sits only steps from the ocean.  Spending the night would not have been a bad thing.  We decided that this decision should be made by someone else and called home to ask Mom.  Our aircraft is equipped with a phone that utilizes the aircraft’s on board Wi-Fi signal to place calls.  We dialed the number and in seconds were having a phone conversation with company dispatch.

Quoting company policy to continue the flight if the aircraft is in safe and airworthy condition, we were initially instructed to continue.  The idea is to get one plane load of passengers where they want to be and inconvenience the return group instead of both plane loads of customers. 

About ten minutes later, we received a message from the company that they had changed their mind and wanted us back home.  Apparently there were no facilities in place at our destination to repair the aircraft and they didn’t want to strand us and more importantly the jet at an outstation in Mexico.  I started a slow 180 degree turn to the right as the Captain picked up the PA and started to explain.  He offered to let me make that PA, but I declined.  We were 45 minutes into our flight at this point and even with a strong tailwind the ride home seemed like an eternity.

I was impressed with how the company handled our return.  This flight had become what is often called an OSO, or an off scheduled operation, and OSO’s are prone to falling into cracks.  We arrived back at home base and were assigned a gate next to the aircraft we were to turn around take back out.  The jet needed to be cleaned, fueled, catered and all necessary paperwork had to be re-calculated, re-filed and re-printed.  There were plenty of opportunities for something to get missed, but everyone did their job and we were back on the road in a surprisingly short time.

The rest of the trip was uneventful…just long.  I’m off to recurrent training next for my yearly refresher course.  Saturday was a good day of practice.

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