I wanted to write another trip report a while ago, and was waiting for an interesting trip to come up when I discovered the truth in an old saying:
Be careful of what you wish for.
My original plan was to write about a four-day trip I was going to fly in the last part of September. The trip was LAS
(day 1), CLE
(day 3), and PHL
(day 4). The problem was that the first leg was a LOT more exciting than I had expected. It was my leg to fly, and on takeoff out of LAS
we had a near miss with an Air Canada Airbus. Because the investigation is still ongoing I can’t say any more about it than that. There was some discussion about the event on A.net here: America West Near Miss At LAS Last Night (by Ca2ohHP Sep 29 2005 in Civil Aviation)
Other than confirming the fact that I was flying and that nobody was hurt I shouldn’t say any more now. Maybe someday when the dust has settled and the investigation is complete I’ll get a chance to fill all of you in on what an inflight emergency is really like.
So on to my next trip. It was another four-day followed immediately by a two-day, so this was in essence a six-day trip for me, and I will report it like that.
I had eleven days off after the ‘eventful’ trip I mentioned above so it was nice to get home and relax. The week and a half went by way too fast, and before I knew it, it was time to get back to work. Since my wife was at work that day and my son was at preschool, it was much easier to get packed and ready to go. I threw my bags into the pickup and drove over to have lunch with my wife. Even with a leisurely lunch, it still put me at Sea-Tac airport more than two hours before departure for my commute to LAS
. I wandered around the B concourse for a while talking to a few of our gate agents. When you commute once a week (or more) you get to know the station personnel very well. We talked as usual about the now-official merger with USAirways and how it might affect our operations in SEA
. We still don’t know which gates we’ll be using once we combine operations with USAirways, so for now we former America West people go on as usual, flying out of the B gates.
About an hour before departure the gate agent and I both heard a walkie-talkie go off saying something about a security breach. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. I wandered back toward the main terminal area, and sure enough they had the security gates down so nobody could come in or out of the concourse area. They had even blocked off access between the center food court area and the A/B gates. Our plane was at the gate, but the outgoing crew was stuck on the far side of security, so we weren’t going anywhere until the event was over.
Fifteen minutes after it started I heard a big cheer from down the corridor and a minute later a steady stream of passengers started running down to their gates, thinking they may have been left behind. Things rapidly got back to normal and the agents soon started boarding the plane. The crew showed up about thirty minutes before scheduled departure, signed my jumpseat form, and got on board. This being a Friday afternoon, that plane was packed with people getting ready to party in Vegas. All the seats were taken so once most of the passengers had boarded, I took my seat up front in the cockpit.
It was an Airbus A320, N674AW. Both the Captain and FO were based in PHX
and were in the middle of their own four-day trip. The weather had been rainy for a few days, as we had just been through our first autumn storm of the season. The post-frontal instability gave us some peeks at a brilliant blue sky, surrounded by a lot of tall showery buildups in the area. It would probably be a bumpy ride up to altitude.
Because of the security breach and the associated delay, about a dozen aircraft were ready to go at the same time we were. We pushed back just a few minutes past our scheduled time, and took our place in line. Departures at SEA
can sometimes be a long wait, but the arrivals were light so they could use both runways for takeoff. It didn’t take very long to work our way north and into position on runway 16L. It was the FO’s turn to fly and when the clearance came he pushed up the power and we were on our way to LAS
When you ride on the jumpseat, you are considered a member of the crew. So I kept watch on what the other two pilots were doing as we rumbled and bumped our way out of the overcast. We popped out above the clouds to see the peak of Mt. Rainier off to our left. New snow covered the mountain, another sign that winter was fast approaching.
Once we had leveled off we talked a little about where we had all come from and what we expected to happen with the merger. The FO had actually been with USAirways for seventeen years and had resigned a year-and-a-half ago when he saw the writing on the wall about the imminent demise of that airline. Little did he know he would be back there again in such a short time. There is not much in this industry that is stable these days and for the most part we can only do our jobs as best as we can, and hang on for the ride.
The sun dipped below the horizon as we worked our way past Reno and toward Las Vegas. It didn’t seem that two hours had passed, but we were soon being vectored south then east of the airport, and finally turned back to the west to land on runway 25R. We pulled up to gate B6
and I said thanks to the pilots as I got off. They were continuing on to Columbus Ohio in a couple of hours so they also had a red-eye flight to look forward to.
I went to the crew room, checked in, and pulled out two weeks worth of memos, updates, revisions, and flyers out of my mailbox. Some of it dealt with the incident I described above, but most was the usual pile of paperwork that no airline can fly without.
Those of us that commute have different ways of surviving at our base. I choose to bid for four-day trips to minimize the number of times I have to commute. I also bid for trips that are commutable on both ends of the trip. Others don’t worry about that so much and keep a car at the airport and have a ‘crash-pad’ where they can stay the night – usually a room shared with other pilots in someone’s house or apartment. Another Seattle commuter that had come down on the same flight I had been on had a car at the airport, but because of her schedule, she hadn’t been out to it in several weeks. She said that she’d had some battery problems in the past and wanted to see if it was dead after sitting in the parking lot for so long. So we went out to the employee parking lot and sure enough with all the accumulated dust (and dead battery) it more closely resembled a rock than a car. We called the parking lot attendants and within a few minutes he had jump-started the car and it was back running again. We drove around the airport area to recharge the battery and to look for something to eat, but time was getting short and neither of us were familiar with the local area. We ended up going back to the parking lot and dashing in to grab a bite in the terminal before going to our planes – she was heading off to Boston and me to Washington DC.
With my suitcase and flight bag trailing behind me, I went to gate B1 to start the preflight preparations. Flight 852 to Washington – Dulles was on an Airbus A319, N819AW. I got into the cockpit about 55 minutes before departure, stowed my bags, and started my flows and procedures. The exterior inspection turned up nothing wrong and I went back in to start loading the computer. The Captain showed up and introduced himself, as we had not flown together before. He went downstairs to the operations area to get our flight plan and weather paperwork. He came back just as we started boarding the passengers. From the paperwork I entered our flight route information and performance data. The Airbus has a large database of all the airports, airways, intersections and navigational aids in North America. If our route is along a defined airway all I have to do is select the beginning fix of the airway, enter the airway number, and the ending fix. The computer then puts all the intermediate fixes into our route plan and they show up on our screens. In other cases our dispatch people may have given us an ‘off-airway’ route because of weather, airspace conflicts, or other reasons. In that case we just enter each of the fixes – usually VOR navigation stations – one after the other. That was how this flight had been planned, departing LAS
on a predetermined departure route that ended at Dove Creek Colorado. From there we were planned over Thurman Colorado (70 miles east of Denver), Lincoln Nebraska, Bradford Illinois, Appleton Ohio, Morgantown West Virginia, and on into Dulles. If some of those names are unfamiliar, don’t worry. The VOR navigational aids are often named for whatever small town is nearby, usually someplace nobody has heard of outside the local area. They are familiar to us as pilots, but only as places we fly over on the way somewhere else.
As for the weather in DC, well, there’s no way to say it other than - it sucked. What remained of tropical storm Tammy was dumping inch after inch of rain on the area. There weren’t many thunderstorms left, but there was a lot of water flushing out of the sky. From our weather data it looked like we would have a nice clear flight for most of the way, only encountering some turbulence during the last hour, and then into the rain once we started our descent. We had an alternate of Columbus Ohio included in the flightplan because of the forecast low clouds and poor visibility at our arrival time at Dulles. There was no reason to believe we wouldn’t make it into Dulles, but if the forecast ceiling and/or visibility are below a certain conservative number, we are required to have it in the flightplan.
The agents in LAS
did their usual efficient job, and we were ready to go a few minutes before our scheduled time. We pushed back at 10:42pm PDT
, three minutes early. The Dulles flight is one of the first scheduled out in the 11pm bank, and pushing ahead of schedule meant there was no backup waiting for departure. We were able to whip through the engine start and taxi checklists and were ready to go when we got to the end of runway 25R. The Captain had decided to fly this first leg, so when the tower cleared us for takeoff, he steered us into position, and pushed the throttles up. We were fairly light for such a long flight. About two-thirds of the seats were filled, plus we carried enough fuel to get us to Dulles, hold, then go on to Columbus if necessary. We had just over 34,000 pounds of Jet-A fuel onboard when we pushed back, bringing our takeoff weight to about 140,000 pounds, against a maximum allowable weight (for this particular flight) of about 152,000 pounds.
We accelerated quickly down the runway and pulled up into the black night sky. The amazing neon glow of the Las Vegas strip slid past my window, then we turned south, then east on the assigned departure path. The air was nice and smooth, and we kept the cockpit and instrument lights down low to be able to see outside better. It was a moonless night and the stars were brilliant in the sky. Once we had leveled off there were just a few minor housekeeping tasks for me, including filling out the aircraft logbook for the flight, which shows our times for pushback, taxi, takeoff, landing & shutdown, our employee numbers, and any maintenance items we might find. Shortly after we leveled off and before we reached Dove Creek, ATC asked if we wanted to go directly to Dulles. Because we didn’t expect any bad weather on the route we accepted the clearance and a moment later were heading directly to IAD
, half a continent away.
As we crossed the Rockies we kept the cockpit lights off and I watched the constellation Orion and the brilliant star Sirius rising in the sky. There were quite a few meteors too, something that is hard to see at night against the lights of a city. Once we crossed past the mountains and were over the great plains, I could see a regular pattern of lights below. Even in the remote farm country of Colorado and Kansas, the dirt roads have streetlights at the intersections. Those roads are mostly set up in a regular grid pattern, giving the land below an almost unreal look as the faint bluish-white lights march off mile after mile in precise rows and columns.
Our direct routing to IAD
passed south of our original route, going over northern Missouri and Springfield Illinois. Small towns like Champaign Illinois stood out like beacons for hundreds of miles before we passed over them. As we passed over the Mississippi River we could see that fog was forming in the river valley, making the lights of the towns below turn into ghostly white blobs shining through the mist. By the time we passed into Indiana the cloud cover became much more widespread, giving Indianapolis a misty, wraith-like look that seemed appropriate as we approached the Halloween season. Once over Dayton Ohio, we started brushing up against the edge of the jetstream and the turbulence began to intensify. We were cleared from our original altitude of Flight Level 370 (37,000 feet) down to FL310 (31,000 feet). It was a lot smoother down low. Up until that point the radio had been very quiet. Night flying is a whole different world compared to the busy daytime effort. We can go ten or more minutes with nobody talking on the radio and nobody worries about it too much. If there is more than a minute of radio silence during the daytime, someone always pipes up, checking to see if ATC is still there. How do we occupy ourselves on a night flight like this? If I were to tell you that we looked out the window or talked between ourselves, that would be true. If I said we also did things like update our navigation chart manuals, or read some of the mail from our company mailboxes, well, I would (officially) have to say that we wouldn’t do that.
The flight attendants also check on us once an hour, asking if we need anything to drink or if we need a bathroom break. But for the most part it is very quiet and relaxing on a red-eye like that.
Once we got within range of our destination – which usually happens around 160 mile out – we started getting busy. I listened on the radio to the automated weather information. IAD
was reporting rain, ten miles visibility, and scattered to overcast skies beginning at 500 feet. ATC cleared us direct to the Armel VOR, which is located at the south edge of the IAD
airport, and also cleared us to begin our descent. By listening to the weather report and the recorded airport information on another frequency we had assumed we would be landing to the south on runway 19R. Instead, approach control cleared us for runway 12, directly in front of us. The Captain put out the speedbrakes and we came down through the rain like a big wet rock. As we descended he briefed the approach we would be making and we ran the appropriate checklists. He did a good job slowing the airplane, and lined us up on the ILS (Instrument Landing System) for runway 12. The short approach meant the flight attendants didn’t have as much time to clean up as expected, but we heard them sitting down while we were still more than ten miles out. With so few passengers (and it being a night flight) it didn’t take them long to get the cabin cleaned up. We tracked inbound on the localizer radio beam that kept us lined up with the runway, and then started descending on the glideslope radio beam which would bring us to the right altitude over the runway threshold. As the non-flying pilot, it was my job to call out altitudes remaining before the missed-approach point. If the Captain did not see any part of the runway or approach lights when I called out “Decision Height” at 200 feet above the runway he would have to initiate a go-around.
As we followed the ILS system down through the storm toward the runway, the landing lights illuminated the clouds and rain whipping toward us like shreds of linen in the still-dark sky. We kept descending, putting out the landing gear, and extending the flaps in increments until they were fully deployed. I called out 500 feet above decision height, then 100 above. The clouds were obviously lower than expected because we still could not see anything outside. My next call would be decision height (DH). A few seconds later, at about 50 feet above DH
the approach lights came into view, then the beginning of the runway as I called out DH
. The Captain said “landing”, and turned off the autopilot, putting us down gently on the rain slickened runway. The tower allowed us to roll out to the end, where we turned left and taxied north to our gate. We parked in a heavy downpour at gate D-30 at 5:56am EDT, for an elapsed time of 4:14 from pushback to shutdown.
This trip was an odd one, with a 38 hour layover in DC. The Captain lives in northern Michigan, so he decided to go home for a day instead of staying in a hotel for that long. We finished our short post-flight checklist, and he dashed off to catch a 6:30 flight to Detroit. The flight attendants and I got on one of the people movers back to the main terminal, and found the hotel van waiting for us – always a nice treat. Less than an hour after we landed I turned out my light and closed my eyes, ready for a good night’s sleep.
TWO: Washington DC.
Like I said, this was an odd trip. You could say that day two included the landing at IAD
. However as a pilot with a screwed up flight schedule like this, I go by sleep periods. So for me, day two started when I woke up around 2pm Saturday afternoon. For some people it is hard to adapt to a schedule like this, and their circadian rhythm gets all messed up. As for myself, I am getting used to it. I have been doing this since February when the LAS
base opened up, and after a few month of flying these schedules my own circadian rhythm gave me the finger and left to join a salsa band.
I wanted to get back to as normal a schedule as I could so I didn’t plan on doing much for the day. It was still pouring down rain so doing a lot of sightseeing was out of the question. I tried getting online to check my e-mail but the hotel phone system was having problems and wouldn’t let anyone call out. Yes, I’m still stuck in the dial-up era. So I settled for going to a movie after lunch. I went to see the Jodie Foster flick “Flightplan”. I have to give that one thumbs up as one of the better – and more technically accurate – aviation films that I’ve seen.
The Captain was home in Michigan, and the flight attendants we came in with were going out on a flight early Sunday morning, so it was just me for the day. If you don’t learn how to entertain yourself on long layovers it is your own fault. I read a book, wrote some e-mails (after the phones started working), and finally said to heck with the rain and went for a walk. It felt good to get out and stretch, and the rain had turned to mist so at least I didn’t get drenched. I came back and munched on a few snacks I had brought with me. One word of warning – dark chocolate M&M’s are VERY addictive!
The forecast called for better weather the next day so I planned out how to get to downtown DC using the bus and Metro system, watched the evening news, and called it a day.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
When I woke up the rains had returned, so I reluctantly decided not to go into downtown. I didn’t have the appropriate clothing with me, and since I would be repeating the trip again twice over the next two weekends, I would have other chances to go see the sights of DC.
Instead, I started working on this trip report, watched the news, and went to the gym to workout. There was almost another complete day to kill before I actually had to start working. Time passed as it does while sitting and waiting – slowly. The time to leave eventually rolled around however, and with everything packed I went downstairs to catch the van. It was well past sunset – so naturally it was time to go to work!
The plane had arrived early, and I waved to the incoming crew as they got off one of the people movers. My Captain had arrived early at IAD
from Michigan and had been killing time waiting for our flight too. We went on to the plane and said hello to the flight attendants. They had arrived earlier from the hotel so that they could get something to eat. Unlike the pilots, the flight attendants at America West do not get crew meals provided to them. They have to bring onboard any food they intend to eat for the day. That is why you see so many FA
’s wheeling around small flexible coolers along with their suitcases.
I went through my normal preflight duties, and the plane, another A319, N818AW was in good shape. The lead flight attendant told us that there would be some celebrities onboard – at least according to the passenger list. As it turned out, they were just people with the same names as some celebrities.
With the people onboard and the door closed, we called for our push. We were parked at the far west end of the D concourse, so it was just a short push to where we started both engines, then a short taxi down to the end of runway 30. There was no other traffic for our runway, and we were cleared to go as soon as a FlyI (Independence Air) plane crossed over our runway to land on runway 1L. It was my turn to fly so when the clearance came I released the parking brake, and brought the thrust levers up partway to start the engines spooling up. As soon as I saw that both engines were working normally I brought the levers to the Flex position which provides enough thrust for takeoff while not making the engines run at absolute maximum power. Each airline does their takeoff procedures a little differently. At AWA the Captain is in charge of making any aborts on the runway, so as the FO, once I have set the takeoff power I release the thrust levers and the Captain puts his hands on them so if we do have to abort the takeoff he has control of the engines.
The rain had stopped a few hours before our departure, so the runway was essentially dry. The low clouds remained however, reflecting the orange glow of all the sodium vapor lights around the airport. We accelerated quickly to our rotation speed, and I pulled back on the sidestick to rotate the plane at about three degrees per second. When I could tell that we were climbing I called for the gear to be retracted and a moment later we punched into the low-hanging clouds. The tower gave us a slight turn to the left, and we were aimed right at our first fix as they turned us over to departure control. I turned on the autopilot and let ‘George’ take care of the maneuvering. As we climbed out of 11,000 feet we came out of the tops of the clouds into a beautiful landscape of moonlit cotton. The stars were clear and bright, and the quarter moon hung partway up the western sky ahead of us. The strong winds that had pushed us quickly to IAD
on Friday had moved south leaving us with another shorter-than-usual trip back to LAS
. The lack of winds also kept the air smooth and we soon leveled out at 34,000 feet with the lights dimmed, chasing the setting moon westward.
We stayed on our preplanned route across the heart of the country, passing directly over Denver, where the clouds had finally dissipated, making it the first city we had seen since takeoff. Cruise is a very quiet part of the flight, both literally and figuratively. There is little to do except monitor the instruments to ensure that the plane is doing what you want it to. The Airbus is especially easy as almost anything that goes wrong will be noticed and the crew alerted. It is also pretty quiet in the cockpit with just the wind noise as the air flows over the front of the plane. The engines are noticeable only as a very quiet grinding rumble in the background.
A cold front had passed Las Vegas earlier that day, and the winds were howling out of the north. That meant we would be landing to the north on runway 1L instead of the usual westerly landing on 25L. As we descended through about 15,000 feet we started getting hit with some unpredictable turbulence as the wind blew over and around the mountains that ring LAS
. We made sure that the FA
’s were in their seats as we descended through 10,000 and the bumps increased. ATC aimed us directly at the airport as we arrived from the northeast. A few miles before crossing the airport they turned us south on a right-hand downwind for the runway. There are quite a few high hills and low mountains south of LAS
, and the turbulence increased as we descended. Soon enough we turned west, then back northwest to intercept the final approach course. As we descended we also slowed down as appropriate, so that we arrived on the final approach course at the right speed and configuration. The ‘go-down-slow-down’ is one of those things you just have to learn by doing: You don’t want to slow down too early because that causes more planes to stack up behind you and slows the arrival rate. Too fast however and you may end up doing an unstable approach as you are still trying to slow down and get your flaps below the ‘approach gate’ at 500 ft above the ground. That is the altitude where you are supposed to be in a stable final landing configuration and speed.
We were in a good position however and the closer to the ground we got the slower the wind was and therefore, the less the turbulence. I clicked off the autopilot at about 500 ft, and hand flew to an OK
touchdown. In gusty conditions like that, you can never count on a smooth landing. We taxied back to gate B-14 and shutdown the plane.
Following in the vein of this being a strange trip, we didn’t fly ourselves to our next destination that evening. This trip had us ‘deadheading’ to Phoenix, where we would start flying the next day. So we stood in line like the rest of the passengers for flight 57, the late night crew hauler down to PHX
. It’s called that because there are so many pilots that are sent as passengers to and from LAS
where their actual flying begins. Some of that has gone away since we opened the base in LAS
, but there are still more flights than pilots there, so the tradition of the crew hauler continues. The flight was on a 757, N908AW, the plane that is painted in the eye-catching red and white Arizona Cardinals design. It was also the first time I had flown on one of our 757’s since being hired at AWA more than a year earlier.
I took my seat and waited while they delayed the pushback a little for connecting passengers who were just arriving in LAS
. Since it is the last flight of the night to PHX
, it is often delayed for connections rather than having to put those people up in hotels in LAS
. We left about 30 minutes late at 12:30am. I was in seat 27A, which is in the exit row with the smaller ‘emergency exit’ door. The seat was fine, but I discovered that the big box that houses the escape slide was right in front of my seat, right where my knees should have been. So my legs were squeezed off toward the middle of the row. It was quite uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine anyone taller than about 5’6” would be able to stand that seat for more than an hour.
But this flight was just 45 minutes long, and before the FA
’s had even finished their drink service we were descending into PHX
. I watched downtown go by as we landed on runway 8 and taxied to gate A-14. It seemed a little strange coming back into PHX
where I had been based for my first six months at AWA. The schedules I had been flying recently almost never came through PHX
, so it was like seeing an old friend after some time away. We took the van to the hotel and went right to our rooms. The next day would start early so there wasn’t much time to anything other than check my e-mail and turn out the light.
I woke up to a scorcher of a morning – at least to my Seattle biased senses. Actually it was more like a nice fall day in Phoenix, but anything above 80 degrees is too much for me.
I ate a granola bar provided by the hotel while I re-packed my suitcase and got dressed. The van was waiting and the Captain and I left for the airport. He had woken up early so that he could go a few blocks up the street to our company headquarters and see what he could find at the company store. Since the merger was announced there has been a run on America West merchandise, and he wanted to see what was left. Not much, it turned out. The store had been mostly cleaned out and they were waiting for the new USAirways merchandise.
We left the hotel a little earlier than needed, so we would have enough time to get something to eat. I grabbed a Thai Chicken Pizza at the California Pizza Kitchen restaurant and took it to the crew room. Since I hadn’t been through PHX
in months, I was hoping that I might see some of my classmates that were still based there, but no luck this time.
With the pizza finished I watched our plane pull up to the gate which happened to be right outside the window of our crew room. I pulled my bags up the elevator and across the concourse to gate A-25. The plane was an A320, N645AW, and we were flying as AWA flight 614. This would be the longest flying day for the trip by far, and I was ready to get it started.
The plane was in great shape and the preflight inspection and cockpit setup went without a hitch. We pushed back at 2:45pm MST
, exactly on schedule. Despite this being the low season for travel we had a full load of 150 passengers going to Atlanta. There is extensive construction going on at the Phoenix airport with a couple of major taxiways being rebuilt, as well as a new control tower going up. There are frequent changes in the standard taxi routings that we use, and since neither of us had been there recently we made sure to study the new taxi charts before moving the plane. Once the engines had started and the tug disconnected, we taxied north out of the alleyway, then east to parallel the large Terminal 4 that we occupy. Another turn south around the end of the terminal pointed us to the departure end of runway 25R. There was only one aircraft ahead of us, a Mesa CRJ900. He pulled onto the runway just as we reached the hold line, and there was only a momentary pause before we got our clearance to takeoff.
The Captain was flying this leg so my job again was to talk on the radios, and make the appropriate callouts as we accelerated down the runway. We were quite heavy, but the runway was plenty long enough and we climbed out smartly, making a big looping turn to the left, eventually heading back east toward Atlanta. One of the many things that needs to be carefully thought out before a flight is the weight and balance. In this case we had a heavy payload of people and baggage. One of the most important items we have to ensure is that our weight on landing in Atlanta is less than our maximum allowed landing weight. In all transport aircraft, you can takeoff at a weight that is significantly higher than your landing weight. So the dispatcher – the person that plans out the flight for us – must work backwards from that maximum landing weight to figure not only how much fuel we have to carry, but how much extra baggage and cargo we can take. Based on the weather conditions at our destination, we may have to bring a lot of extra fuel in case we are required to have an alternate airport listed on the flight plan. All these considerations are based on the FAA regulations that govern airline flying. In our case for this flight, we had a maximum amount of fuel we could carry, and no more. It was enough to satisfy the FAA and company regulations completely, but since the company wants to carry as much money-making cargo as it can, we were maxed out on our weight, so any fuel over the required would put us over our legal landing weight when we arrived at ATL
. Almost all this goes on behind the scenes, even as far as we are concerned. All we see are the numbers on the flight plan, and our job is to ensure that the plane is within all required limits.
We leveled out at 35,000 feet over east central Arizona, and at about the same location the clouds were flying over became a solid undercast that didn’t dissipate until we were almost past Texas. Shortly after we leveled off, ATC told us about some traffic we would cross over, about 15 miles ahead and coming toward us. I saw it right away, but couldn’t quite figure out what it was. It was either a very large plane, or it was moving very slowly. As it got closer, I could see it was huge, but it still looked different. It looked like a high wing plane – but what big plane has a high wing? In the last few seconds before it passed under us I recognized it for what it was. It was an Antonov AN
-124, the enormous Russian cargo hauler. I have seen it a few times before on the ground, its blue and white paint job familiar from those occasions. But this was the first time I had seen it in flight, and it was very impressive.
Since this was daytime flying the radio was a lot busier, and I had to pay close attention to the controller to make sure I didn’t miss a call. We raced away from the setting sun, and as we passed over eastern Texas we could see a line of thunderstorms to the south, drenching the area already hard hit by hurricane Rita. It was a beautiful sight though, as the setting sun was just a little below the horizon and the lower parts of the storms were in the shadow of dusk. The upper anvil portions of the storm cells were still in the sunlight however, and were glowing like huge incandescent orange fingers, pointing southward as the wind blew the tops of the storms away. It was a very impressive sight.
Still moving away from the sun we raced through the dusk, past twilight, and on into the night. Atlanta soon appeared at the top of our navigation display, and we began to get ready for the descent. It had been raining earlier in the day, and although the rain had stopped, the clouds were still thick and wet. We descended through the relatively smooth clouds and joined the mass of planes converging on ATL
. Approach control had to turn us this way and that a couple of times to space us out properly for the approach. Soon we were lined up for runway 9R
. When we joined the final approach path, were strung out for almost 30 miles behind the rest of the arriving traffic, and we were slowed down to keep pace with the other planes. So we dawdled along at 3000 feet like that for several minutes until we were finally close enough to start the descent to the runway. We went down through the thin clouds and the runway appeared ahead of us just as the aircraft ahead was turning off to the taxiway.
The Captain made another nice landing, and we also turned off to the taxiway between runways 9L
&R. The tower made us wait a few minutes while he launched a number of planes off of 9L
, then gave us clearance to cross. We were aimed right at our gate and were parked and shutdown in just a minute more at 9:16pm EDT.
Because of the light tailwinds, the long approach, and the wait to cross the other runway we were a few minutes late arriving. Since we only had 45 minutes scheduled to do the turn, time was going to be tight to get out on schedule. Our station manager in ATL
however is one of the best in the business. As soon as the door opened he had our paperwork ready for us so I could do a quick walkaround and start loading the flight information into the computer. The passengers got off, the cleaners cleaned, the FA
’s prepped the cabin, and the new passengers boarded. It was a good effort by all, so we only left six minutes late at 10:04pm as flight 619 with another full load of 150 passengers. The now-familiar procedures were followed for engine start and soon we were taxiing north for a departure on runway 8R. Surprisingly there were no other planes lined up for takeoff, something very unusual compared to my other visits to ATL
. We were cleared to go and I launched us down the runway.
The flight west to Las Vegas was as uneventful as the flight out from PHX
– only longer. The clouds again prevented us from seeing anything on the ground, and the moonlight was washing out most of the fainter stars in the sky as it also cast a beautiful bluish white glow on the cloud tops.
Although we were approaching our legal limit of eight hours of flying for the day, it wasn’t too difficult a day since we only had the two legs, and soon we were getting ready to descend into LAS
. In the old days before Flight Management Computers (FMC’s) were standard equipment, it was up to the pilots to determine when to begin descending toward their destination. The old rule of thumb was 3 to 1, meaning that for every thousand feet you had to lose, you needed three miles to do it. For instance if you were at 35,000 feet and needed to be over a certain waypoint at 10,000 feet for the approach, that meant you had to lose 25,000 feet. 25 times 3 is 75, so you started your descent 75 miles out from that waypoint. The problem came when things like headwinds or tailwinds came into effect, which changed your ground speed, and therefore the time it took to get to that waypoint. We became pretty adept at adjusting for those variables, but it was never perfect. Then the FMC’s came around and did all the hard work for us. If we input the forecast winds at various altitudes before we started down, the computer could figure out what path we would need to follow at idle thrust to reach the waypoint at the desired altitude and airspeed. For maximum fuel savings we stay up at altitude as long as possible where the engines are most efficient, then descend at idle power. This is the normal operating procedure for all jet aircraft, but not many passengers know that the last 15-20 minutes of their flight is done essentially as a glider. It is not until the flaps and landing gear come out on final approach that the engines normally spool up again to push the plane forward against all that drag.
Unfortunately that works great in the ideal world, which this most definitely isn’t. The airspace around the Grand Canyon area is very busy. There are a lot of flights going into and out of Las Vegas, more flights coming north and south to and from Phoenix, and a lot of overflight traffic in and out of Los Angeles. In order to separate the traffic and prevent conflicts, traffic going into Las Vegas has to descend below optimum altitude quite far out, sometimes 200 miles or more. The lower altitude causes the planes to burn more fuel, but since it is well known that we will be descending there, our dispatchers have figured in the extra fuel burn already. It is not a surprise although it is inefficient, but with all the air traffic in that area, it is necessary.
From our cruise altitude of FL360 feet we went down first to FL320, then FL280 over the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The winds were a lot lighter than the previous night, and LAS
was landing on the usual 25L. We were also among the last of the 11pm bank to arrive and there was enough space ahead that we didn’t have to slow down much. The orange glow of Las Vegas could be seen on the horizon long before we began our final descent, and as we turned onto the runway path over a black Lake Mead, the truly spectacular vision of Vegas glitz was directly ahead. I ended this part of the trip with a glassy smooth landing, and we taxied to our gate to call it a night.
Normally, this would have been the end of my trip. I try and bid only for four-day trips to minimize the number of time I have to commute from home. Being in the middle of the seniority pack at my base however, sometimes I get what I want, sometimes not. This month the computer had given me a two-day trip that started the next day. I could have gone home, getting in around 3:30am, and left again early the next afternoon, but because of the hassle of commuting, it would have been more work to do that than stay in Vegas. I had known about this schedule for over a month, so I had booked a room over expedia.com, rented a car, and spent the night in LAS
. Because the trip the next night was also a red-eye, I tried to stay up a little late by going to the casino. Yes, I lost $20 at the blackjack table before I went to bed, but that was all I could bring myself to spend, and I left the rest of the Vegas tourists to their gaming and collapsed into a nice long sleep.
The only flaw in my plan was that hotels do not let you stay all day. I had to check out by 2pm, but fortunately I had a car so I could go elsewhere. I put on my uniform shirt and pants, but left off the epaulets, tie and ID
badge, so I looked like a slightly geeky door-to-door salesman, rather than an out of place pilot. I visited the Airplane Shop just off the southwest corner of the airport, and was boggled by the number of aircraft display models they have. After leaving there I saw a nice BBQ restaurant, but then looking at my bright white shirt (and remembering my aptitude for spilling something just about every meal) I gave it a pass. I found a nice soup & salad bar place, but someone should have reminded me that salad dressing can splatter just as well as BBQ sauce. Oh well, at least it was low-fat ranch dressing.
I turned in the car and took the shuttle to the terminal. Back in the crew room I still had four hours to kill before departure so I updated my schedule bids for November, read my e-mail, and worked on my seemingly endless novel project. I had plenty of time to go over to the new ‘D’ terminal as they have a much better selection of restaurants than our older A & B gates do.
Well fed and rested, I was still dragging a bit with this being my fifth day in a row of flying. I think it may have more to do with being on the road rather than the actual flying. Before I was hired at America West in the summer of ’04 I had spent ten months based in Fairbanks flying Piper Navajos around Alaska. I flew five days a week there, and usually was up in the air from six to seven hour a day. That flying did not tire me out as much as this kind of trip did. The difference was that in Alaska I could come back to my apartment each night and relax instead of heading off for a hotel like I do now.
Whatever the reason, I was happy when the Captain for this flight decided that he wanted to fly the outbound leg to Boston. We were flight 66, on an A319, N833AW. The plane was in great shape, and after the Captain dropped off his bags he went to the operations room to get our paperwork. I got the plane set up as far as I could without the flight plan, and waited. And waited. And waited. I stood up and chatted with the flight attendant and passengers as they boarded, still waiting. There was no direct way for me to contact the operations room and find out what was happening so I decided to wait a little longer before calling the company. Finally, five minutes before departure time, the Captain came running back with the paperwork. He was pretty angry because the dispatcher that puts our flight plan together had for some reason not gotten it out on time. The Captain had to wait while all the other pilots got their paperwork from the printer before his came out.
Since I had everything else ready I whipped through the data input, the Captain checked it, and we ran though the short preflight briefing and checklist. The passengers were all on board and seated so the FA
’s closed the doors as we finished. We pushed back at 11:03pm, only six minutes late. We sat in the normal backup for takeoff, and were airborne at 11:25pm. The winds were beginning to pick up to their strong winter pace, and we caught the edge of the jetstream across the country. I’ve described what we do in cruise before, and this flight was no different; monitor the instruments, check in when called on the radio, and watch the stars go by. Shortly before beginning our descent we could see the sky starting to get light. We started downhill before the sun came up over the horizon, and were soon into the clouds. The northeast was getting slammed with a strong storm, the same one that kept me indoors in DC at the beginning of this trip. We told the FA
’s to stow their carts and sit down for the rest of the flight, as ATC was telling us it would be bumpy. We plowed through the rain and wind in the early morning light, flying directly over the airport at 5000 feet, yet seeing nothing below us. We were turned southwest, then a right turn back northeast to line up for the approach to runway 4R. Even at our low altitude the winds were doing over 50 knots, and the airport was reporting winds at 30 with higher gusts. Fortunately the wind was mostly straight down the runway. We came out of the base of the clouds at about 1500 feet as we passed over the south edge of Boston Bay. The airport grounds ahead of us were still obscured in the mist and rain, but the runway lights stood out as a bright white rectangle stretching toward us, the approach lights beckoning us closer. The turbulence made for a wild ride, and I could see the whitecaps on the waters of the bay below us while the dark gray pre-dawn clouds whipped by above. We slowly pulled our way toward the runway and the Captain put us down firmly on the wet asphalt and brought us to a stop.
America West had recently started sharing the gates that USAirways operates out of, and this was my first trip to BOS
since the change. We parked out at the far end of their line of gates on the B concourse, at gate 21. The weary passengers de-planed, and we followed shortly behind. It was just a short ride to the hotel where I again closed my eyes as the world brightened outside.
I was looking forward to getting home even if it was just for a short stay. The wind was still howling when I woke up, and the intermittent rain made going outside a game of chance. I had brought a lightweight rain jacket, so I took that chance and stepped out to get some exercise and lunch. The rain was only occasionally spitting sideways in the wind, and the exercise felt good. There is a great family owned Italian restaurant behind the hotel and I look forward to getting to eat there. We were scheduled to get a crew meal on the flight home, but I had learned the hard way not to expect it. One of the few areas where AWA needs some work is coordinating with the caterers to ensure that if we are scheduled for a meal, that it is there. So I ate well at the restaurant, not expecting to eat on the plane.
It was a short layover and after eating I went upstairs to change and pack. The van took us back to the airport and we whisked through security. The plane had not arrived yet so we stood by the gate talking to our agents there. A Captain for USAirways who lived in Portland Oregon came over and asked for a jumpseat ride, and we were happy to say yes. Being able to jumpseat on other airlines (or even your own) is an important privilege for pilots. Being able to live in one place and commute instead of moving every few years whenever a base opens or closes, or when you upgrade your seat or plane, is a big part of having a somewhat stable family life in this bizzare career.
As the plane approached the gate we only had about 35 minutes before our scheduled departure, so I waited outside next to the marshallers as they waved the plane into position at the gate. I started the exterior preflight inspection even as the engines were winding down and the jetway moved toward the plane. We got the passengers off, the plane catered, and did our preflight setup in record time. Unfortunately the USAirways rampers we are using now are still not used to our procedures and there was some confusion in loading the baggage and filling the drinking water tank. What it all meant was that we finally pushed back at 8:46pm, 23 minutes after our scheduled departure. The jetstream was still howling across the middle of the country, so our dispatcher had planned a very northerly route for us. From Boston we would fly west-northwest to pass north of Toronto, then over Traverse City Michigan, Green Bay Wisconsin, Sioux Falls South Dakota, Meeker Colorado, and Bryce Canyon Utah. Even though the planned track was considerably longer than a straight line course, it would take less time than flying into the teeth of the jetstream.
We pushed back, started both engines, and taxied out to runway 9. It was a short taxi and we had barely finished the checklist and told the FA
’s to be seated when we were cleared for takeoff. It was my turn to fly on this last leg of the trip. We rolled down the runway in between arrivals on the intersecting runway 4R. The rain had stopped, but it was still blowing hard, with a crosswind from the left. As soon as we were airborne the plane started bucking around in the turbulence, but we quickly climbed out of the bumps and within a few minutes were above the clouds and the ride smoothed out. We called ATC to check on the ride ahead, and they had no reports of turbulence at our planned altitude. As we climbed through 30,000 feet the Captain turned off the seatbelt sign and gave the usual talk about keeping the belts fastened when in your seats. We leveled off at 34,000 feet a few minutes later. As the vertical speed returned to zero I pushed my seat back to stretch my legs and was reaching back to get the logbook when… ding, ding, ding, ding…
I looked up to see the red Master Warning light flashing along with the sound of the bell. On the lower center display screen there was a message in bold red print saying: Lavatory Smoke. The Airbus, like all other current airliners, has smoke detectors in the lavatories. In the Airbus however, the smoke detector is hooked up to our master warning and caution system. If something catches fire in the lav we need to know about it right away, so we don’t end up like the Air Canada that burned on the runway in Cincinnati many years ago. The Captain and I looked at each other, then a second later the call chime went off indicating that the FA
’s were calling. He answered and the FA
said that they heard the smoke detector too, and that they believed someone was smoking in the lav. I relaxed a little, since it meant we probably wouldn’t have to execute an immediate emergency descent. Over the interphone we heard the FA
asking the guy through the lav door if he was smoking. He said no, then the FA
in the rear of the plane came on the line and said it was someone in the aft lav. The Captain told her to make sure he knew that he was in trouble and to keep us informed. A minute later she called back saying that it had been a young man, probably just out of his teens, and he was scared out of his mind by the attention he had suddenly brought on himself. The Captain told the FA
to inform the passenger that if it happened again we would be landing and having the police remove him from the plane. The FA
also gave him the warning card about not smoking and filled out an event report. She called back again and said that she didn’t think he would be causing any more problems.
The rest of the flight went much more smoothly. Our dispatcher did a good job and we didn’t have to fly into the strong winds that were blowing to the south of us. The clouds thinned out over South Dakota, which was around the time we found out that we didn’t have any crew meals onboard. It was a good thing I had eaten before we left! Just south of Cheyenne ATC cleared us direct to Bryce Canyon, and on to the arrival for LAS
. Approaching Bryce Canyon we were given the usual descent to 30,000 feet, and 200 miles out we could start to see the lights of Vegas. The Captain called our operations in LAS
and got our gate information. Despite the late departure we would be landing close to on time, which was good for me because I would be able to catch the flight home to Seattle.
We went down according to the path that the FMS calculated, slowing to 250 knots as we passed through 10,000 feet. We were coming in from the northeast this time, and over Lake Mead once again, we turned west onto the final approach path for runway 25L. As the tempo of the approach increases, any fatigue I might have been feeling went away and I focused on the task of landing. The winds were mercifully light and the approach path was nice and smooth. Down over the end of the runway we went, and I flared at just the right point to give us a great smooth landing. We pulled off the runway – making sure to check for departing traffic before crossing 25R – and pulled up to the gate and shut down the engines at 11:06, eight minutes ahead of schedule. The Captain lives in Las Vegas, so he let me go as he took care of the postflight checklist and inspection. The plane was turning right around and flying to Ft. Lauderdale and the crew was waiting in the jetway as I got off. The more the plane flies each day the better – and more efficient – it is for the company. My flight to Seattle was parked right next door, and there was plenty of room for me to get onboard. An hour after landing in LAS
I was rolling down the runway, comfortably ensconced in a leather first-class seat onboard one of our newest A320’s, N675AW. Two hours later we landed in Seattle, and another 45 minutes after that I walked into my house, the long trip over. I had left my house at 3:30pm on Friday, and returned at about 3:00am Thursday morning. In six days of flying, I covered 10,593 miles (straight line distance) and logged 27.0 hours of flight time. I was scheduled to fly the same four-day trip (LAS
) again starting Friday afternoon, and in fact that is where I am now, at the hotel near IAD
, finishing this report.
So what have I done in these 10,000 words? Hopefully given you an insight into what the life of a US domestic airline pilot is in today’s world. This was a fairly typical trip, even if it was a bit longer than normal. Despite the (sometimes extreme) detail I included, I don’t think there was much unusual about these six days compared to almost any other trip I have flown recently. Our primary job is to safely fly people from one place to another. It is a job made easier by modern technology, but it is not that much different from what airline pilots have been doing for more than 80 years. Yes, pilots complain about the problems with management, the TSA
, and with the problems facing the industry. But there have been challenges like those since the first paying airline passenger went from Tampa to St. Pete in a rickety seaplane so many years ago. The people that make this industry work today are still incredible, and I am honored to be working with such a passionate and talented group like we have here at AWA. I still love the job, despite the stress it can sometimes put on my life. I can’t imagine anything I would enjoy doing more than this, and am thankful to be able to do it.
[Edited 2005-10-16 08:22:32]
One smooth landing is skill. Two in a row is luck. Three in a row and someone is lying.