Every airline has areas where it lags behind others; baggage, on-time performance, customer service etc. But no airline is secure against problems caused my mother nature, especially when she turns her wrath against a major hub. America West doesn’t have to worry about blizzards at its Phoenix or Las Vegas hubs, but summer thunderstorms can wreak just as much havoc, as I found out on my latest trip. And there were other more individual problems that caused tension and frustration along the way too. I still love the job though, and hopefully I can describe here what the little aggravations are that we face on a day-to-day basis, and how we cope with them.
As always, I started this trip off with a commute from my home in Seattle to my base in Las Vegas. The weather had been beautiful at home – warm and sunny, and I was reluctant to leave. But this was also going to be my first trip after my one-year anniversary at America West, which meant I was off probation and getting a substantial raise. So with that in mind I said goodbye to my wife and son and made the short drive to Sea-Tac.
I had checked in at home and at the time it looked like I might have to sit in the cockpit jumpseat again. At gate B15 I found the plane was going to be late because it had been delayed coming out of LAX
earlier that day and had not caught up yet. I was booked on flight 131, which was scheduled to depart at 5:21pm. I had a backup also in the 7:30 departure because I did not have to sign in for my trip until a few minutes before 11pm in Vegas.
The flight attendants showed up, and we all chatted about the upcoming merger while we waited for the plane to arrive. In the mean time an earlier Phoenix departure was having problems because the Captain and FO for that flight had not yet appeared. Finally, just five minutes before scheduled departure they ran up, saying the van had become stuck at a train crossing. That seemed a little strange since the route from their hotel in downtown Seattle to the airport didn’t cross any railroad tracks. However they jumped onboard their 737 and started their preflight duties. There was only one gate available that afternoon, so they had to push out in order for our plane to pull in. Another thing slowing them down was that they had an inop APU and needed a ground start cart. I really don’t know exactly what happened, but after their passengers had boarded it seemed to take forever to start the plane. In the mean time our plane had landed and was waiting for the gate. The 737 finally got an engine running, but then it took at least another five minutes to unhook the compressor cart and push the plane back. I didn’t mind of course, but the gate agents are always thinking about the passengers and their connections. In this case there were several people on my flight who would probably miss their connections in LAS
, and were re-booked either on Alaska Airlines or on us on a direct flight to PHX
. This meant there were a few more open seats, and that I probably wouldn’t have to sit in the cockpit.
Our plane finally pulled in and the inbound passengers came off. The flight attendants I had been talking with did a great job doing their safety checks and getting the plane ready in short order. The pilots were not staying in SEA
, instead doing a turn back to LAS
. So for them it was pretty easy to get the plane ready in a hurry. There was room for me in first class, so I boarded early, stowed my bags, and said hello to the pilots. The plane filled rapidly and soon the door had shut and we were under way, about an hour late. The flight was uneventful, and I spent some of the time talking to my seatmate, a lawyer who had spent years flying on Delta, but had recently switched to AWA. He was very pleased with our service, and I thanked him for trying us. Like I said in my first trip report, so much of an airline’s success depends on the experience of the customers. Take care of them and almost everything else will fall into place.
Las Vegas had just been through a wicked heat wave earlier in the week, including tying their all-time record high of 117 degrees F (47 degrees C). When we landed though, it was an only slightly-less-obnoxious 108 degrees. I still had 2 ½ hours until I had to check-in, so I went down to our crew room. This is when I discovered that the construction in the A & B terminals at LAS
had closed off the normal access to our crew room. The airport authority is removing and replacing much of the ceiling in those terminals and has half or more of the width of the concourses blocked off for those repairs. The door to our crew room was behind some of that construction. We had been able to slip behind the plastic sheeting for a few weeks to get there, but the demolition had progressed to the point that we could no longer do that. I had no idea how to get there and was about to call our operations people when I saw a couple of our pilots heading into an elevator near the middle of the B gates. I followed them, and they told me this was the new path to the crew room. Once there I found a memo posted detailing the new route and the codes for the doors & elevators. The only problem was that the memo was posted in the crew room and nowhere else, so if you had been away for more than a couple days (like I had) there was no way to know how to get there.
I checked in and had plenty of time to get dinner and watch the last of the sunset. Our schedules are very regulated, and as a pilot you learn how to ‘kill time’ in a variety of ways. It was too hot to go outside so I wandered around the terminal, making my usual long stop at the bookstore and debating (for the hundredth time) whether or not to buy the new Harry Potter book, or wait for the paperback. Pilots are well known as penny-pinchers.
I showed up at gate B21 an hour before departure, and found our flight attendants waiting there. I introduced myself and checked on the incoming plane. It too had been caught in the bad weather earlier in the day and had left late for a LAX
turn. They had made up some time and pulled into the gate about 30 minutes before our scheduled departure. We were scheduled as flight 888 from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale Florida.
As soon as the passengers were off, I boarded and set up for the flight. A large part of the initial training in any aircraft is memorizing the procedures for getting the plane ready to fly. In the Airbus, once we have stowed our bags and pulled out our personal gear, we check the safety equipment (life vest, fire extinguisher, extra manuals etc), check the circuit breakers, review the maintenance logbook, and make sure the important switches are in place – like the gear handle and parking brake. These steps are repeated over and over in training until we can do them in our sleep. The logbook was clean and our plane, an Airbus A320 N660AW, was in great shape. Once I had done those safety items I initialized the inertial reference navigation units, telling them where we were and where we were going. Then I put the initial information for the flight into the Flight Management and Guidance System (FMGS – the main guidance computer for the plane). Next I went outside and did an exterior preflight inspection, checking to make sure the plane looked good and nobody had knocked off any probes or bumped into the plane on the ground. I also checked items such as the brakes, tires, vents, & lights. Back inside I listened to the current weather and called ‘clearance delivery’ to pick up our official clearance and initial route instructions. This put us into the ATC system, letting them know where we would be going. The Captain showed up and introduced himself, since we had not flown together before. He had the flight plan, weather, and release information. I used that to calculate our takeoff performance numbers – i.e. maximum allowable weight, speeds, and emergency procedures. Then I entered all the route information into the FMGS along with the calculated performance information. Lastly I entered the forecast winds aloft, allowing the computer to closely predict our flight time and fuel use.
By this time the passengers had already begun boarding, so the Captain and I ran through the before-start checklist. It is just a short list to ensure all the critical items are covered and that we agree the correct information has been entered into the computer. All our Airbus aircraft have identical configurations in the cockpit. So much so that you really have no idea which plane you are in until you look at the ID
plate on the forward panel. This makes it very comfortable no matter which plane you are flying. You get into the patterns and rhythms established in training and it soon becomes familiar, comfortable and easy to remember what you need to do. We often have people come up to look into the cockpit before a flight, and they always remark on how complex it looks. They almost inevitably say something like “How do you know what all these gauges mean?” The truth is that after so much training, and so much more time flying, it all feels familiar and comfortable – like a second home.
Since the plane had arrived late there was no way we could push back on time, but our Flight Attendants and the gate agents did a fantastic job, and they were able to close the door at 11:51pm PDT
, only six minutes late. We were still one of the first in the ‘midnight push’ to be ready and when we called ramp control we got an immediate clearance to push and start. The start sequence on the Airbus is extraordinarily easy compared to older jets. We just ensure that the compressed air from the APU (auxiliary power unit) is available, turn the ignition switch to the start position, and move the start lever up. From there the computers take over and it is all automatic. If a problem develops the computers will either abort or slow down the start sequence depending on the nature of the problem. But today’s engines are very reliable, and we rarely have problems.
Because we were heavy, and the heat-soaked asphalt was soft, we needed to start both engines to ensure we could taxi comfortably to get to the runway. If it were cooler or we were lighter we would have the option of starting only one engine at first, and starting the second as we taxied to the runway.
Once both engines were running we dimmed the lights in the cockpit, and the Captain told the tug to disconnect. Once we confirmed they were away from the plane I did my short ‘after start’ checks, lowered the flaps, and called for our taxi clearance. As we moved away from the terminal and toward runway 25R I could see flashes of lightning to the south and east. They were well away from the airport though, and from the radar images that came with our weather information packet we knew the cells were sparse enough that we could easily maneuver around them. After a short wait for two aircraft ahead of us we were cleared onto the runway. It was the Captain’s leg to fly so I stayed on the radio and made the ‘non-flying-pilot’s’ callouts. With a takeoff clearance from the tower the Captain applied full power and we roared down the runway, lifting into the black sky. Taking off on 25R meant that the Vegas strip goes by on my side just after liftoff. It is one of the more distracting sights with all those beautiful lights and buildings and it is hard not to steal a glance out that way no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. Just past the strip though we turned left, then left again, heading east toward Fort Lauderdale. We maneuvered around the sparse thunderstorm cells and by the time we leveled off at 35,000 feet we were above all the clouds. The crescent moon had just risen and illuminated the tops of the clouds with a soft white glow. Traffic is much lighter at that time of night so the radio was quiet and we relaxed, talking about the usual things for a new Captain/FO crew – where were you before America West, what do you think about the merger, etc.
Our route took us over Gallup NM
, Albuquerque NM
, Guthrie TX
, then just north of Dallas TX
, across northern Louisiana, Tallahassee FL
, down the west coast of FL
to St. Petersburg, then across the everglades into Fort Lauderdale. The undercast thinned out and disappeared around Dallas and we got a nice view of the cities of eastern Texas and Louisiana below. Enroute time is usually very quiet unless you have to work around storms, or ATC starts changing your route for traffic. Neither happened on this leg though and soon the eastern sky started picking up the first hints of dawn. At the same time we passed a line of thunderstorms just off the gulf coast from New Orleans to just past Pensacola FL
. They were far enough away that we didn’t have to worry about them, but they provided a spectacular light show off my side of the plane.
Since we were moving eastbound toward the sun, the sunrise happened fairly quickly. The sky went from black to violet, pale blue, red, orange, yellow, and finally the glaring orb of the sun appeared as we made the turn southeast toward St. Petersburg. We had to make two small deviations around some early-morning thunderstorms that had popped up in our path. Just before crossing St. Pete we started our descent and were turned directly toward the fix that designates the beginning of the final approach to FLL
. With the sun low on the horizon the humid air was just a glowing white mass around us. I could see (barely) the everglades directly below us, but in all other directions it was just a bright white haze. We lined up on the final approach path to runway 9L
, flying parallel to and just south of I-75, the ‘alligator alley’ freeway. For this west-coast boy the everglades look so very eerie and isolated with miles and miles of dark green uninhabited swamp. It’s a very different world from what I’m used to. The morning glare was so intense that although the airport was reporting eight miles of visibility we didn’t see the runway itself until we were only a couple miles away. The Captain made a nice landing and we turned off right in front our gate. We taxied very slowly to give ourselves the required three-minute cool down period for the engines. Once stopped at the gate we made sure the APU was up and running, and with the flip of two small switches both engines were shut down. We were two minutes ahead of schedule at 7:25am EDT, for a flight time of 4:34. We consumed 26,600 pounds of jet fuel, and traveled our planned route of 1938 miles with only a few small deviations.
We accomplished the short shutdown checklist, wrote our flight times into the logbook and packed up our belongings. I stepped outside to do the postflight walkaround inspection. The humid tropical air hit me in the face like a hot wet towel, and I marveled again at how modern technology can move us so easily and quickly just about anywhere we want to go.
I waited in the jetway for the rest of the crew, and the flight attendants got off with one of our passengers – a 14 year old boy, in tow. As an unaccompanied minor he has to be continuously attended by one of our employees until his parent or guardian shows up and signs the paperwork for him. Once inside the terminal we found that his mother was not waiting for him as expected. The lone gate agent told the FA
’s to take him through security to find his mom on the other side. Unfortunately the FA
’s are not allowed to do that because if the parent isn’t there they are stuck waiting until someone shows to claim the child. That could seriously disrupt the airline’s operations if they have a long wait and have to delay their next flight for minimum rest requirements. Company policy is that they have to relinquish custody to a station employee once they are off the plane, no matter how busy those employees are. Our FA
’s turned him over to the gate agent, apologizing to the boy. He understood and waited patiently with the gate agent. The agent wasn’t happy since he was the only one working there, but there was no other option. The FA
’s got the boy’s mother’s phone number and as we waited for the hotel van, they called her several times until she answered. She said she was stuck in traffic, and would be there in a few minutes. The FA
’s relayed that info to the operations people at FLL
just as the van arrived. A short drive later we were at the hotel for another short day’s (night’s?) rest.
Airline pilots spend a lot of their time in hotels. It is an unavoidable part of the job. Most airlines and/or pilot unions have a hotel committee to decide where we stay. There are certain guidelines that have to be followed in making the decision, although price has a large part of it. Most of the hotels we stay at are very nice, and a few of them are spectacular - either in amenities, location, or both.
In the past we had been staying at the wonderful Embassy Suites on 17th St, just a mile or so from the beach. Unfortunately the hotel made the decision not to have more than one airline staying there, and with fewer pilots than some other airlines, we lost out. Our new hotel is closer to the airport but that is about all it has going for it. For myself, I don’t put a lot of demands on a hotel, other than to be clean, follow through with a request, and be close to at least a few restaurants and/or have someplace nearby to walk to, like a mall. This new hotel was surrounded by a freeway & business parks with no retail businesses around, and the only road out of the area was closed off for construction. The only option for food was the hotel restaurant or room service. I woke up around 3pm very hungry. Then I found out that the restaurant was closed from 2pm to 5pm, so I ordered room service and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally I called back, and they had no record of my order, and promised to hurry up a new order for me. That took only 15 minutes (and I wasn’t charged), but I barely had time to wolf it down, shower, change, and catch the van to the airport. It is a small thing for sure, but it is something that could have an effect on the flight if I have to show up without having eaten. There’s always the chance that I could get food at the airport – or not – because with our oddball schedules in the LAS
pilot base the food outlets are often closed by the time we show up for a flight.
I did make our scheduled van at 7:30pm, and five minutes later we were walking into the terminal. The plane had just arrived, an A320, N640AW. It was one of the oldest 320’s in our fleet, but the maintenance logbook was clean and it was ready to go. I followed the familiar procedures to get the plane ready while the Captain went down to the operations room to get our flightplan, weather information, and release. There were several large thunderstorms around southern Florida, and the Captain came back saying we would probably have to do some deviating to get out of there. It was my leg so I briefed the departure information, weather, and initial route, then we ran through the before start checklist. The boarding went smoothly and we pushed back at 8:41pm, four minutes early, with a full load of 150 passengers in the back. We made the taxi back out to runway 9L
, watching the dark sky light up every few seconds from a large cell off to the west. We waited for two aircraft to land then were given clearance for takeoff.
From a pilot’s perspective the takeoff is one of the more challenging parts of the flight. It isn’t as technically demanding as hand flying an instrument approach, but we have to keep a lot in mind, especially the procedures required if an engine quits during the takeoff. It is a lot to think about, but it is also something we practice a LOT in the simulator because of the complexity and danger of an engine-out departure. But this was another normal takeoff, which meant that once we were cleared to go, I moved the throttles to the appropriate takeoff detent, said “Set TOGA” (takeoff/go-around power), and steered us down the centerline using the rudder pedals. As we accelerated the Captain called out “80 knots”, and I glanced down to ensure my airspeed indicator was matching his. At the appropriate speeds we had calculated earlier, he said “V1, rotate”. V1 is the speed at which we must continue the takeoff if an engine fails. I gently pulled back on the sidestick, moving the nose up at about three degrees per second. A moment later we lifted into the air. I checked the instruments to make sure we were in a climb, and said “Positive rate, gear up, heading”. The Captain raised the gear and pulled the knob that would set our path for the moment on the runway heading, as per our initial clearance. In seconds we had passed by the beach and were over the Atlantic. By 1000 feet ATC had started turning us back to the west onto our flight plan route.
We had turned on the radar just before takeoff, and as we turned west we could see two large cells out that direction. The radar image is shown on the same screen as our ‘moving map’ that also includes our route. We could see that our route would bypass the closer storm, but it looked like the larger storm near St. Petersburg was right on our path. We climbed slowly in the hot muggy air as we were within a few thousand pounds of our maximum gross weight. The lights of eastern Florida quickly disappeared behind us as we flew over the inky blackness of the everglades. As we approached St. Pete we were allowed to deviate east of course, taking us nearly over Orlando. Another small storm appeared on the radar near Tallahassee, but it was smaller and easier to maneuver around. We leveled off at 34,000 feet just before that cell and after the short deviation the turbulence settled down and we turned off the seat belt sign.
Cruise flight is usually very quiet for us, especially since we sit at the far front end of the plane. Because the Airbus has wing mounted engines, some of that noise does come into the cockpit – more so than in planes that have tail mounted engines such as the DC-9 or 727. That is actually one of the only ways I can tell a 319 from a 320 in flight. Since the 319 is considerably shorter than the 320 the engines are closer to the cockpit and the sound - especially on takeoff is noticeably louder in the 319. Otherwise they are impossible to tell apart. But whichever type I’m flying, it is still nice up there, with the noise from the avionics cooling fans competing with the outside airstream noise to see which is loudest. We normally remove our headsets once up a cruise, turn up the speakers in the cockpit and turn on the lights. It is easier that way to pass the time as we, ahem, certainly wouldn’t read unauthorized material such as newspapers or magazines during a flight, would we?
The time passed quickly although there was a solid undercast below us when we leveled off, so there wasn’t anything to look at outside at first. As we passed over Dallas the clouds started to disappear, and by the time we were over the panhandle of Texas it was a spectacularly clear night. The ground below was a carpet of deep black velvet sprinkled with bright flecks of gold, silver and green from the lights of the towns. Amarillo was on my side, Lubbock off to the left, and Clovis New Mexico was ahead. The stars overhead were equally bright as the moon had not risen yet leaving the stars unchallenged in the sky.
There had been reports of numerous thunderstorms in the Las Vegas area before we left Florida, but by the time we approached Arizona it had cleared up. We could see flashes from storms in the area, but none were on our path. As we got closer to Las Vegas we could see the bright lights of the city reflecting off scattered clouds above the strip.
I checked the FMGS to ensure the altitudes and speeds in the computer matched what we were expected to do on the arrival procedure. Flying modern planes – especially highly automated ones like the Airbus – is much more a matter of managing the flight computer than actually hand flying the plane. We followed ATC instructions on a couple of step-down descents as we got closer to LAS
, then we were cleared for the arrival. This one comes up from the southeast of LAS
, from over Peach Springs, as it then overflies Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and aligns the plane on the final approach course for runway 25L. I followed the ILS localizer and glideslope down to the runway to a nice smooth landing. As had been the norm for this summer, the headwinds had been lighter than normal and we were almost 25 minutes earlier than scheduled when we landed. Since gate space is at a premium for us in LAS
, we had to wait for our gate to open up. Ground control moved us to a hold pad – sometimes called a ‘penalty box’ – to wait for our gate. It finally opened up, and we pulled into gate B12 and shutdown at 11:07pm PDT
, almost 30 minutes after landing and seven minutes after our scheduled arrival time.
We got to keep the plane for our second leg of the night into San Diego so our preflight duties were shortened greatly without having to pack up and move to a new plane. We also said goodbye to our flight attendants because their schedule diverged from our in LAS
. They were heading back to PHX
, and we were scheduled for a new set of FA
’s. I went up to the gate area to see if they were waiting to get on, and found the gate area swarming with people. I found out from the agent that two microburst events had rolled across the airport in the previous hours, starting about the time we left FLL
. That had caused a ground stop for all incoming and outgoing flights, and completely trashed the schedules in our system. We had late flights all over the west coast, and our flight attendants were on one of those delayed flights. They had left Phoenix for San Jose, and had been sitting in SJC
for hours waiting for clearance to come back to LAS
. They had just left SJC
and would be arriving shortly after our original scheduled departure time of 11:59pm. I went back and informed the Captain of the situation and did as much of the preflight procedures as I could. Then I went back to the crew room to check my e-mail and grab a bite to eat. I had been back in the plane waiting for about 20 minutes when the FA
’s finally arrived. We were ready up front so it took only a few minutes for them to get ready and we started boarding. With everyone in place we pushed back at 12:58am, 59 minutes late. However a lot of other planes were pushing too so we weren’t the only ones to feel the pain of the delays.
We followed the pack to the runway and departed for SAN
. It was the Captain’s turn to fly on this short trip, and we had barely leveled off at 29,000 feet when we pulled out the approach charts for Lindbergh field and started back down. There was a thin layer of clouds at 1000 feet, but visibility below was fine. We were the only plane in the area as we leveled off at 4000 feet and turned onto the localizer for runway 27. The modern flight guidance system in the Airbus allows us to see an imaginary glideslope for localizer approaches like this one, even when they don’t exist. This allowed the Captain to follow a fairly precise path over the hills and houses that make the approach to SAN
so ‘interesting’. We went through the layer of clouds and the runway appeared right where we expected it to be. We passed over the neighborhood just east of the airport, and as people waived I read the headlines on their newspapers, and checked the expiration dates on the car tabs on the infamous parking garage just short of the runway (just kidding – it isn’t quite THAT close!). The Captain made a good landing and we rolled down to turn off near the end. A short taxi over to gate 33 preceded the shutdown at 1:56am, and we were done for the day. That leg lasted 58 minutes from startup to shutdown, with a flight time of 39 minutes. The hotel van was waiting for us and off we went. The unfortunate flight attendants had their already brief layover shortened further by the late arrival, while the Captain and I lost an hour off a long 19 hour stay in SAN
. I wanted to do some sightseeing the next day, so it was right to sleep for me.
One of the better parts of this job is having a long layover in an interesting town. I hadn’t had a long layover in San Diego since starting with America West and was looking forward to this one. It doesn’t pay to get up too early on a trip like this though, because of the red-eye flight looming later that night. So I slept in until about 11am, then took off for a long walk through town. The hotel is located right in the downtown area, and I went straight from there down to the waterfront. The Captain had told me about the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier museum and when I saw it moored at the foot of town I knew I had to do the tour.
It was an amazing place, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in aviation, military history, or just plain cool machinery. I still had a few hours to kill, and I walked back up past the hotel and up onto the hill above Lindbergh field. It was amazing to see just how close those aircraft come to the houses up there on final approach to runway 27. After doing all those approaches myself, it was impressive to see it from the perspective of those houses I had been skimming over.
Showered, shaved, and ready, I went downstairs at 7pm to catch the van for the short drive to the airport. As we got on the van the Captain informed me that we would probably have a short wait because the plane was late out of PHX
. He called scheduling again as we drove in and they told him that the plane had just taken off. At the airport we checked in at the gate then went to get some dinner since there wouldn’t be any service for us on either flight that night. I like the choices at the new terminal at SAN
, and decided that a Thai Chicken pizza from the California Pizza Kitchen would do the job.
We were scheduled to leave at 8:20pm, but since the plane arrived at 8:10pm, an on-time departure was seriously in doubt. It was an A320, N658AW. The inbound crew told us about the one deferred maintenance item – the avionics vent system wasn’t working properly. It wasn’t much of a problem from our perspective, and the rest of the plane worked fine. The gate agents and FA
’s did a great job turning the plane, and were loading the passengers as I called clearance delivery to get our clearance to Las Vegas. Unfortunately they had bad news for us. Another set of thunderstorms was rolling over LAS
and there was a ground stop for all traffic headed for sin city. After the passengers were loaded onboard and seated we had the choice of waiting at the gate, or pushing back and waiting out on the field. We waited at the gate for a while, until Clearance gave us the old good news/bad news story. The ground stop had been lifted, but our release time was for 10:30pm. It was coming up on 9:30 at that time. We decided to push back and taxi to a place where we could shut down again, freeing up the gate for another incoming flight. We did a normal push and start at 9:34pm, and taxied east toward runway 27. Just as we started moving, we were told that the ground stop was back on, and our 10:30 release was cancelled. So much for planning ahead. The plane was completely full, and we had a jumpseater in the cockpit. He was another LAS
pilot trying to get to work. He was on the phone to crew scheduling several times and they assured him that ALL
the flights were running late, so he and our connecting passengers would not have a problem. Ground control put us on a side taxiway and we shut down the engines just in time to watch the nightly fireworks show over at Sea World. We were on the south side of the runway, pointed directly at the end of 27. We got to watch several aircraft make the spectacular approach and landing there while we waited, and waited, and waited. Then at 10:15 ground control called and asked how fast we could get underway – the ground stop had been unexpectedly lifted. Since both engines were off we told them five minutes. They said that was OK
so we powered up, started both engines, finished our checklists and at 10:20 were lifting off for LAS
I was flying both legs that night and as soon as we leveled off I was preparing for the approach. We were told that we might have to hold before reaching LAS
because of the mass of planes converging there after the ground stop. We were slowed down, but fortunately didn’t have to hold. Because of the odd winds associated with the thunderstorms that had just passed LAS
was landing to the east using both 7L
and 7R. It was the first time I had landed that direction, but it didn’t look to be too much different. ATC had vectored another aircraft in from the east and I saw him heading toward us and a couple thousand feet below us. We were headed north, and he – an Allegiant MD
-80 – was headed west. It didn’t look like we could both fit in at the same time, but just then ATC told us to look out for him, as he was landing on the left runway, and we were to go to the right one. We called him in sight and we were cleared for the visual approach, and told not to pass the Allegiant plane. I had to slow us way down as the MD
-80 made a wide U-turn back to the airport, and I clicked off the autopilot as it is easier to maneuver this way than trying to dial in the instructions into the guidance panel. I put out the flaps, slowed more, and extended the gear as I made the final turn to the runway. We ended up right on the centerline of runway 7R, trailing the other plane by about 200 yards. It was kind of fun to do ‘formation’ flying like that. The wind was pretty gusty in the wake of the thunderstorms, but I made a very nice crosswind landing and we pulled right off at our expected taxiway.
The gate was ready for us, and we shut down at 11:11pm, an hour and 36 minutes late. Despite another day of weather induced chaos we managed to drop the passengers, exchange flight attendants, put on another load of passengers and push back in 44 minutes at 11:55pm, an hour and 13 minutes late. We went back into the short lineup for departure on 7L
and took off for Chicago. After all the stress and hassles of the first leg, the second was peaceful and serene. Once past the fading thunderstorms east of Vegas the air smoothed out and the flight to Chicago was nice and quiet. We took a mostly direct route over Denver and Des Moines enroute to ORD
, and watched the crescent moon precede the sun over the horizon by a couple of hours. The pale pink of dawn was just starting to brighten the eastern horizon as I began our descent. The clear skies of the previous night had moved farther east, and we didn’t run into any clouds until in the descent just west of the airport. Like I have said before, one of the nice things about flying at this time of night is the lack of traffic. We were vectored onto the approach path for runway 9R
and could see the airport once we broke out of the clouds about ten miles out. The wind was calm and the morning beautiful. I made a decent landing although it seems these red-eye landings are never as smooth as some others. Maybe it is fatigue, maybe something else. In any case probably half of the passengers were still asleep, and nobody complained so I gave myself a five on the one-to-ten scale and contacted ground control. There wasn’t anyone else moving on the airport (amazing for Ohare) and we were cleared straight to the gate. We shutdown at 5:20am CDT and watched the brilliant orange sunrise on the way to the hotel. We had made up some time enroute and were just one hour late.
Despite the late arrival in Chicago we had a decent layover of nearly sixteen hours. After a good night’s sleep I woke up and checked out the area around our hotel in Skokie. I went over to a nearby mall and had lunch. If I had been more aware of what was around I might have tried to take a bus down to the lake. But instead I took my time around the mall and neighborhood, returning in time to change for the last leg of the trip.
What I was hoping for was predictable, ordinary, and nominal. Just the way I like a flight to be. And this time I got it. We showed up at the airport and went through security very quickly. I grew up in an airline family and have spent countless hours in United’s old E & F gates at ORD
. UAL is now over at it’s modern Terminal 1 and several of the other airlines have taken over their old gates. It is always a strange feeling to walk through these corridors as a pilot where I had once toddled through with my parents. The place still smell like cooking hot dogs though.
Our plane was waiting for us at gate E-8, an A320, N624AW. It was one of the few remaining old A-1 powered planes left at America West. The engines aren’t quite as powerful as the newer A-5, and they max out at lower temperatures. But for shorter trips like ORD
they work fine. There weren’t any mechanical discrepancies despite the aircraft’s age and we pushed back only a couple minutes late at 9:14pm CDT because of a string of traffic behind our gate.
They were using runway 32L for departures, and intersection T10 (where the departures were occurring) was almost directly in front of our terminal. Despite Ohare’s reputation of long delays we barely had time to start both engines and run our checklists before we were cleared into position for takeoff. It was the Captain’s leg and he brought the power up and we were soon airborne. There was a lot of traffic coming and going around the airport, and ATC gave us a couple different vectors as we climbed westbound. The occasionally violent weather of the past few days had finally settled down and there were only scattered clouds along the whole route to LAS
. These last legs on a four-day trip are always a mixed blessing. Four days is just enough time to get to know a new Captain and learn his or her quirks. But it is also long enough for me to miss my family greatly and look forward to getting home. Having a quiet and uneventful last leg is always a blessing, and that is what we got. We flew back over Denver and the Rockies, and past Cedar City Utah. As we approached the Las Vegas area ATC was getting swamped with incoming aircraft and moved us off the arrival for runway 25L, vectored us north of town, and cleared us for an approach to runway 19R. A night approach to 19 is a great way to end a trip as we flew right along side the Vegas strip on my side as we made the last part of the approach. It is always a spectacular sight. The Captain set us down gently on the runway and we made our expected turnoff. Our gate was occupied but we only had to wait for about 10 minutes. We pulled into gate B14, shutdown at 11:01pm PDT
and cleaned up our belongings. The Captain and I were both commuters, so he went to catch his flight to Sacramento and I went to catch mine to Seattle.
As usual the flight to SEA
was packed so I took a seat in the cockpit jumpseat after introducing myself to the crew. We pushed back on time at 11:57pm and we were soon airborne. It is always interesting to ride the jumpseat to see how other crews interact. Our training department does an outstanding job at teaching standardized procedures so that no matter who you are flying with – whether you have flown with them or not – you should get the same responses and callouts every time. Some pilot’s personalities are boisterous and outgoing, some are quiet and retiring. But no matter what their personal style is, when it comes time to do the job everyone does what is expected and does it well. This crew was obviously familiar with each other and had flown together many times. They were relaxed, friendly, and very competent. Once we had leveled off in cruise we talked about our trips and some favorite layovers. It didn’t seem to take very long before we were heading downhill into Seattle. The moon hadn’t come up yet, but the starlight was brilliant and as we passed about ten miles west of Mt. Rainier I pointed out the faint outline of the huge snow covered mountain to the other guys. They were suitably impressed at the bulk of the mountain, and surprised that they had not seen it at all during the descent. It was only when I pointed it out that they saw it, which reminded all of us again the importance of situational awareness – knowing at all times where you are and what is around you.
The plane needed an autoland to be current for low visibility operations so the pilots set up for one on runway 16R. We were vectored over Puget Sound, then turned right back over the city and south onto the final approach course. The plane did its usual great job on the autoland and within minutes I was in the terminal and headed for my car, home again for another few days.
This trip lasted four days, covered six legs, and included 19:47 in flight time, all but an hour and a half of that at night. My flights covered a straight line distance of 6842 miles (not including my commute from Seattle). I flew in four different A320 aircraft and made three landings, all at night. Almost all the flights were completely full, meaning I helped transport nearly 900 people safely to their destination. And on top of it all, I enjoyed every minute of it. In a couple days I do another trip which includes layovers in New York, LA
, and Baltimore. To some it is a miracle that we can get so many people so many places so safely. For me it is enjoyable and satisfying to be able to call myself an airline pilot.
And if you have lasted this far through this nearly novel-length trip report, thank you for your interest.
One smooth landing is skill. Two in a row is luck. Three in a row and someone is lying.