When you become a pilot, there is all sorts of advice given to you: Be Prepared, Look Listen and Learn, Expect the Unexpected, Keep Your Options Open etc. Those are all great bits of advice, but when I became an airline pilot, I didn’t realize that they were all talking about dealing with the Crew Scheduling Department. At every airline they are given derogatory names, the most common being when you add the letter “S” to the beginning of the department name. I do have to say that they have a very unenviable job. They have to coordinate getting pilots onboard every plane that is scheduled to depart, and make sure the pilots are legal by FAA rest & duty regulations to do the flight. In theory every flight has a crew already assigned to it. But when someone calls in sick, or a plane has a mechanical problem that strands the crew away from base, or if the weather goes bad, the fragile daisy chain that is the airline’s schedule goes out the door. It is then up to the Crew Scheduling department to find someone to move the planes from where they are to where they need to be. Sometimes you get the shaft, sometimes you come out ahead. This trip was a little of both.
The plan was to fly another of my typical four-day red-eye trips. Day 1: LAS
. Day 2: CLE
. Day 3: SAN
. Day 4: EWR
. At least, that was the plan.
I caught my usual 5:30pm flight 131 from my home in Seattle to LAS
. The flight was running about twenty minutes late, but that wouldn’t be a problem for me since I had plenty of time in LAS
before I had to check in. There was one other commuter onboard, and the load was unusually light. The flight had recently switched from an Airbus A319 to a 737-300. That does mean a few more seats are available, (and I hate to say this, being from Seattle) but as a passenger I have found the Airbus to be a little more comfortable than the aging 737. Also, America West has twelve First Class seats on the Airbus, but only eight on the Boeing. Since the load was light though, both of us commuters were able to get seats in the front section. The weather was quite rainy but we quickly rose up through the light bumps and it was smooth once we leveled off. I prefer sitting in first class because there is more room for my laptop, and fewer people peering over my shoulder. I like to work on my novel at times like that, because on the few occasions I tried writing while sitting in coach, I inevitably found someone reading what I was writing from across the aisle or over my shoulder. Anyone who writes knows how personal a work-in-progress is, and it feels like being violated if a stranger is reading while you write.
I managed to get a couple thousand words down before the Captain dinged the seatbelt sign at 10,000 feet in the descent and the FA
’s told everyone to ‘turn off all portable electronic devices’. LAS
was landing to the south on runway 19R. The Captain elected to bring us in VERY close to the Stratosphere Tower on our descent from the west before turning a short final to the runway. I was sitting in the second row window seat on the right side. The other commuter was sitting directly in front of me, and we both gave a quiet whistle as the Captain made a sharp turn round the tower. The two forward FA
’s were just sitting down for the landing and they exclaimed their surprise at the sight too. They asked if it was normal and we just shrugged, not wanting to alarm the other two passengers with us in the front cabin. The landing was smooth and we rolled out and across 19L to the gate. Once the plane had stopped and the seatbelt sign off we had to wait a couple minutes while a trainee learned how to drive the Jetway up to the plane. Meanwhile the cockpit door opened and the Captain came out with a big grin on his face. He asked us if we like the view on approach and we nodded in appreciation. I don’t know if a ‘nervous flier’ would have liked it, but it certainly was spectacular.
I still had an hour and a half before I had to report so I went to the crew room and checked my mailbox. Once I had sorted through the usual pile of paperwork I went upstairs and walked around a bit. I had eaten before leaving SEA
so I just went around the concourses looking at the seemingly never-ending construction projects that have narrowed down most of the walkways in the A & B gate areas. Last I had heard it was supposed to be done by the end of November. From what I could see not much had changed in a couple months so I would take that completion date with a ton of salt.
An hour before departure I went to gate B-11 and found our plane already there. It was an A320, N678AW, and we were scheduled as flight 539, LAS
. It was one of our newest planes, having been delivered in June of this year. I always like working on one of these newer planes for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the ‘new plane’ smell. The newer Airbus planes also have LED
lights in most of the switches instead of the older incandescent bulbs. They are much cooler, and you don’t run the risk of singeing your fingertip if you push too hard on one of the newer buttons. The preflight inspection and cockpit setup went well, and the Captain showed up with the paperwork right on time. He and I had flown together once before and I knew this would be a good trip. He had the paperwork all ready to go, and after saying hello he complimented me on an article of mine that was published in the AOPA Pilot magazine a couple months earlier. We had been talking about that article on our last trip (before it had been published) but I was surprised that he had remembered it.
We had a nearly full flight, but the gate agents were doing a great job, and we were ready to go early. We pushed back at 10:42pm, three minutes ahead of schedule. The CLE
flight is one of the first scheduled out in the evening bank, and by pushing early we were first in line to go. After taxiing out to the end of runway 25R and lining up the Captain turned the plane over to me. Just as he did so the tower cleared us for takeoff and I brought the thrust levers up. Even though we were full, we didn’t require max power for takeoff so I put the thrust levers in the FLEX position and the computers set the power accordingly. Up we went into the now-familiar departure. This time however instead of a left turn south then east, they gave us a right turn, a 180 to the east directly to our first waypoint. This gave me a great view of the Las Vegas strip as we made the turn. The emerald green of the MGM Grand, the spire of light from the Luxor, and the neon pink and purple of the Rio hotel really stand out, but the entire Vegas strip is truly incredible from the air at night. I may not want to live there, but the view is always great.
Our route took us much farther north than usual. There was considerable thunderstorm activity over the Mississippi valley, and a lot of turbulence reported over the southern Rockies. So our flightplan had us going over Utah, northern Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin before turning southeast over Michigan and on to Cleveland.
Once leveled off in cruise we sat back to watch the world go by. I had been fighting a slight sore throat that I had picked up from my four-year-old son, (thank you preschool), and apologized to the Captain that I probably wouldn’t be very good company on the flight as I wanted to rest my voice. He had no problem with that so we watched the stars and moon rotate by. Of course there were minor chores to attend to – going through the large pile of paperwork from my company mailbox and filling out the logbook, but as usual we couldn’t bring ourselves to be distracted by things such as newspapers or magazines.
The Dispatch office did their usual great job and we missed most of the turbulence, while still catching a ride on the jetstream to speed our progress. The weather reports in CLE
were less than appealing though. The forecast was for low clouds and showers, with strong surface winds. The showers hadn’t appeared yet, but the wind had. As we crossed north of Milwaukee the clouds had parted, and I could see little sparks of light going off at random intervals on the ground below. At first I couldn’t figure out what they were, but then I realized they looked like transformers exploding – something I had seen a couple of times during windstorms here in Seattle. I pulled up the current weather for MKE
and sure enough they were reporting wind out of the south at 35 gusting to 48 - plenty strong enough to knock over trees into powerlines. Obviously they were catching the leading edge of the front that was causing all the nasty weather further south – the same weather that would be crossing CLE
about our departure time later that day.
In fact the wind was picking up at CLE
too. As we began our descent the Captain listened to the recorded weather and said that it was blowing at fifteen knots down the runway, but that another plane had reported winds of fifty knots at 2500 feet. Needless to say there was a windshear advisory in effect at CLE
. ATC brought us down over Lake Erie, then turned us toward downtown Cleveland. At 3000 feet the wind was in excess of sixty knots from the southwest. The good news was that it was straight down the approach path and runway. The bad news was that downtown Cleveland appeared to be moving sideways in my windshield as we flew southeast toward the approach path. ATC turned us onto the final approach path for runway 24L, and we could clearly see the airport. We could also see that despite our airspeed of 170 knots, we were moving across the ground at only 113 knots. The Airbus also noted this fact. As part of its programming, the Airbus can recognize when there is a strong wind on final by comparing airspeed to ground speed. What it does then is add speed to the final approach speed it originally decided on, so that if there is a rapid loss of headwind you don’t find yourself suddenly flying too slow. So as we turned onto final and I pushed the button to ‘manage’ the speed, (i.e. let the plane handle the throttles to fly at its calculated final approach speed) the plane actually increased its speed to nearly 180 instead of slowing to 128 as expected. That was even too fast to extend our final landing flaps. We asked the tower if there had been any reports of windshear and they said no. It was just a steady decline from 60 knots at 3000 feet to 15 knots on the surface. I put the airspeed control back in manual and dialed it down little by little to a more reasonable speed as we descended. What I didn’t want to happen was to have the plane keep us going too fast too close to the runway, and then not be able to get it slowed down to the right speed for landing. Automation is useful, but there always needs to be a human mind in the loop to make sure it all makes sense. We watched the airspeed, ground speed and wind closely as we descended. By 500 feet the wind speed was down to 27 knots and I re-engaged the ‘managed’ speed. It matched nicely with what we were already doing so I let it continue for the landing. With winds like that it is almost impossible to get a glassy smooth landing, but mine was acceptable for the conditions. We turned off, taxied back to gate A-9 and shut down the engines. The flight was three hours and forty-eight minutes long, and we shut down at 5:30am EST. After putting away my equipment I went outside for a postflight inspection. I was surprised at how windy it felt, and how warm the air was. I knew that would change though once the cold front moved in that evening.
The flight attendants were on a different schedule and had a longer layover than us. That meant they got to go to the hotel downtown while we stayed near the airport. After a short van ride we were there and a few minutes later I was fast asleep.
I woke up ready to go, despite the nagging cough. It was 2pm EST, and I had several hours to kill before going back to work. I went out for a walk, but the winds had picked up even more and were really whipping things around. I watched several Continental Express ERJs on final to CLE
bucking around in the wind. I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant ride for anyone aboard. With the wind blowing things around like that I decided not to go too far, and came back for lunch at the Dennys next to the hotel. I was surprised the restaurant was located there because we were not at a LaQuinta hotel, and apparently LaQuinta means “next to Dennys” in Spanish. (OK
, sorry, very bad old-airline joke).
The Captain and I arrived in the lobby at the same time for our van ride to the airport, and we left right away. Our flight attendants for the return trip were on a longer layover, having arrived the previous evening, and were staying downtown; we would meet them at the plane. After a quick trip through security we went to gate A7 where the plane had just arrived and the passengers were deplaning. We checked in with the gate agent and talked briefly with the incoming pilots. They had also been routed way north because of the winds, and we expected about the same back to LAS
The plane was a newer A319, N826AW. We were flight 538, CLE
. The F/As showed up a few minutes after we did, and we all introduced ourselves. We found out that they would be coming with us to LAS
that night, and back through LAS
the next day. It isn’t often we stay with the same F/As for two full days, but they were easygoing and fun to work with so we knew it would be a good trip. We settled down to our preflight tasks, and within a few minutes we were ready to board. It was a fairly light load, which was unusual for this flight. We pushed back at 8:11pm EST, four minutes ahead of schedule. I have heard many horror stories about traffic congestion at CLE
, but I always seem to be there at the slack times. We taxied straight to runway 24L and were airborne within five minutes of engine start.
It was the Captain’s leg and we bounced around pretty good for the first few thousand feet. But the turbulence quickly died down and we followed our track westward. Our plan was to stay high enough to avoid the worst of the turbulence, and stay south of the jetstream to give us a shorter flight back to LAS
. This ended up being a fairly straight shot back, going just south of Chicago, north of Kansas City, and over Pueblo Colorado. The nearly full moon was overhead, and as we crossed the Rockies the newly snow-covered ridges really stood out. We didn’t have a crew meal on this flight because we were scheduled for a two-hour stop in LAS
between flights. If it had been shorter we would have been provided meals. Nowadays I actually prefer crew meals, because the food choices at the LAS
terminal are very limited.
With the help of a couple Halls cough drops I kept my hacking at bay, and we had a pleasant flight back. I was looking forward to the rest of the trip because we had a long layover in New York City on day 3. In general short layovers are at a hotel near the airport, but on longer ones we get hotels near the city center. In the case of New York the hotel is just a couple blocks off of Times Square. I had been to EWR
several times before, but always on short layovers. This would be my first layover in downtown NYC. The Captain and I discussed what we might do during the day there, and before we knew it, it was time to start down.
The winds had died down and the Captain made an uneventful approach to runway 19R. Because of the long rest-time in LAS
, we were switching planes. This one was going back to Miami, and our plane for SAN
would be coming in later. Once we were at the gate and shut down, I packed all my gear up into my flight bag, waved at the outgoing crew, and went to our crew room. The flight time from CLE
was 4:34, and we shut down at 9:45pm PST, six minutes ahead of schedule. This being a Sunday, there wasn’t any new mail in my mailbox so I went upstairs and got a pre-packaged salad for dinner and brought it back down to eat. Our SAN
flight was scheduled out at 11:59pm so I sat and watched TV
. Several F/A’s were watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, so I didn’t have much choice in what to watch. At least the scenery is pretty good on that show.
At about 11pm I went upstairs and checked in at gate B6
, which happens to be just above our crew room. The plane was an A319, N834AW. I went onboard the plane and started the setup. Then things got interesting. The Captain came back early with the flightplan and weather paperwork, and had a strange look on his face. He had just talked to the dispatcher for our flight, and he had said that there was a good chance we would be canceled because of fog in San Diego. I did as much setup as I could, then went back to the cabin where the Captain was telling the F/As about the situation. The gate agent came down and told us the same thing, and said that they were informing the passengers at the gate of what was going on. This being the last flight of the night to SAN
(and an absolutely full one too), I knew the company didn’t want to strand a bunch of people and have to pay for their hotels. But as we stood around the cabin we also knew they couldn’t keep us waiting for too long because we had such a short layover in SAN
that night. If we had much of a delay it would start snowballing into our schedule the next day.
The Crew Scheduling (CS) department was apparently thinking the same thing. At 11:45pm one of the F/A’s cell phones rang. It was Crew Scheduling telling them that the flight was canceled, and to go to the hotel. Then the CS
staffer told the F/A to pass the phone to the Captain. They told him the same thing, and without comment he said OK
. Either the CS
person hadn’t noticed that we were LAS
based pilots (the F/A’s were PHX
based), or he was just being really nice to us, because we were not entitled to a hotel room as this was our home base. But since both of us commuted from elsewhere we welcomed the gesture. So five minutes later we all left the plane and were soon in a van on the way to the hotel.
The F/As were to have a short layover, getting up early enough to deadhead to SAN
to pickup the flight we were supposed to work back to LAS
. The Captain and I however had different FAA rest requirements, so we would have most of the day off, and meet the F/As as they came in from SAN
and work the flight back to EWR
. We got some good-natured kidding about not working too hard, but we took it nicely and waved goodbye as we all headed to our rooms.
It was then about 12:15am PST. The Captain and I didn’t have to report until after 3pm the next day, and he suggested a small amount of liquid refreshments would be nice. I agreed and said I’d meet him in the lobby in 10 minutes. I changed, went downstairs, and just as I entered the lobby I saw him walking quickly toward me, cell phone to his ear. He was grinning – which made me feel things were about to change once more. I was right again.
He hung up and said we just had gotten a better deal. Apparently the two pilots who were supposed to ferry our unused airplane to PHX
had not shown up. We didn’t know the reason, but suspected some crossed communications on the part of CS
. In any case, we were the only two pilots in LAS
still legal to fly the plane to PHX
, where they needed it in the morning. In exchange, CS
took us off the remainder of the trip; once in PHX
we were done. So it was back up to the room to put on the still-warm uniform. I zipped up my bag and by the time we were back in the lobby the same van driver was there to pick us up. It was now 12:50am. It was a short ride to the airport, which was almost empty. At the gate we couldn’t find anyone to let us down to the plane. Eventually we tracked down a gate agent who opened the door for us. I went through the same preflight on the A319 as I had when I thought I was taking it to SAN
. The Captain came back from the operations room with the paperwork and I started inputing the data. As part of the preflight I had started the APU which would provide us with electrical power until the engines started, and pressurized air to start those engines. About thirty seconds after seeing that the APU had started I heard a loud ‘thunk’ and all the lights flickered. I looked up to see that ALL
the lights in the airport had gone dark, including runway & taxiway lights. A few seconds later the airport generators kicked on and the runway & taxiway lights came back on. It took me several tries to get the clearance delivery people on the radio; apparently the power outage had affected their radios too. When I finally got hold of them they said they were having problems with their computers and couldn’t find our clearance.
To make a long story short, they had lost our flight plan. They asked us to call our dispatchers and have them file a new one. We did, but the dispatchers used the old original departure time on it, which had already passed. That meant that the ATC computers thought it was for the next day. Meanwhile we had a very tired ground crew waiting below to push us out, and we really couldn’t go without a flight plan in the system. Finally after the third attempt by our company, the controller put one in for us himself, and it worked. We got the plane ready, which meant arming the front two door slides, dimming the cabin lights, and ensuring that all the galley carts were locked in place. The Captain locked the cockpit door open and took his seat as I called for the pushback clearance. It 1:50am PST when we started moving, and the airport seemed almost deserted. The Vegas strip was still all aglow as usual, but the ramp was dark and silent. We started both engines and taxied our to runway 25R. Since the Captain had flown the leg into LAS
he gave me this one with a sly grin. I realized what he meant when he canceled the reduced power setting in the computer, meaning he wanted me to do a full power takeoff. With an empty airplane. With no baggage. With just a little fuel to get us to PHX
. I started grinning too. We quickly briefed the change in the departure and soon we were at the end of the runway. We actually had to wait in position as a Cessna was taking off to the south on the crossing runway. Once he was gone we got our clearance and I pushed the thrust levers all the way up. It wasn’t a neck-snapping acceleration, but definitely stronger than I had felt in the Airbus before. The airspeed tape whipped by and within seconds I was rotating the nose up and we were off: Really off! I had to bring the nose up to well over 20 degrees to keep the airspeed where it needed to be for the climb instead of the usual 15 to 17 degrees. Since there was no traffic and the hills were clearly visible in the moonlight I hand flew up to 18,000 feet before turning on the autopilot. It was a nice chance to really get a feel for how the plane flew. We were still climbing at over 2000 feet per minute when we leveled off at 29,000 feet.
The Arizona desert was almost pitch black below, with just a few lights from scattered homes. But once up at cruise altitude we could see the glow of Phoenix ahead. Every now and then I would catch a dim glow of light out of the corner of my eye, and turned to find the cockpit door open. The glow was the dim cabin lighting coming up into the cockpit – something I definitely wasn’t used to in this post 9/11 world. And it was very odd to look back into the cabin in flight and see it completely empty.
It was a very short stay at cruise and after just a few minutes I clicked off the autopilot to hand-fly the descent and landing. The Captain listened to the automated airport information, called for our gate info, and programmed the computer. Then it was just a matter for him of sitting back and watching the show.
At that time of the morning there wasn’t anyone else around, and we were cleared for the approach from a good 20 miles out. They were landing to the east and we were cleared for runway 8. I hand flew it on down, and out of 10,000 feet I turned off the autothrottles and flight directors too (for proficiencies sake, in case my chief pilot is reading this). Finally it was back to good-ole-fashoned raw data flying. I brought us in just west of downtown and turned east onto the final approach path. With such a light airplane the approach speeds were relatively slow, and in the flare the speed bled off pretty quickly so I wasn’t able to make the squeaker landing I had hoped for, but it was good enough. We taxied back to gate A18 and shutdown at 4:01am MST
, for a flight time of 1:11. With no passengers or baggage we got through the shutdown checks quickly, and there was even a gate agent waiting for us at the Jetway. We were off the plane in minutes and walked through the hauntingly empty concourse.
The Captain lived north of Phoenix and he had a car at the airport. So instead of calling for the hotel van we took the crew bus to the parking lot and drove there ourselves. CS
had done a good job arranging the last minute stuff for us, and we had rooms waiting. I said goodnight to the Captain and went up to my room; he would be taking off for home after a short rest so I wouldn’t see him the next day. I opened the door to my room and found all the sheets in a pile on the floor and the towels scattered across the bathroom counter. Obviously the room and not been cleaned. So it was back downstairs to find another room. The clerk looked worried, but finally found me one on the top floor. For the third time that night I went to my hotel room expecting a quiet night’s sleep, and this time it worked. I turned out the light at 5am, considerably later than I had expected when I had started the day. I was pleased that I would be going home that afternoon, but quite disappointed that I wouldn’t be getting any time in New York.
After the previous long day I didn’t expect to get up at the crack of dawn. In fact, that was about when I went to sleep. I got up just before 1pm and checked on my computer to see when the next flights home would be leaving. The next one was at 2:21pm, which wasn’t enough time to get ready and go. The one after that was at 5:15 so I listed myself on that flight and took a quick shower. The rest of the day was just as uneventful; van ride to the airport, checking in, and waiting for the flight were all quick and painless. The flight was way overbooked so it was obvious that I would have to ride in the jumpseat. The commuter’s mantra is “anything to get me home”, and this was typical of how we do it. After getting my name on the list I went to the main crew room to see if anyone I knew was there. I get through PHX
so infrequently that I only see some of my friends there once in a blue moon. But there weren’t any familiar faces there that afternoon, so I went back to the gate to wait. Soon enough we boarded and I took my seat in the cockpit. It was an A320, N645AW. I recognized the FO as someone I had jumpseated with before. We pushed on time and took off into the last vestiges of orange sky as the sun was already below the horizon. We talked about the merger with USAirways, about Christmas and how to schedule ourselves around it, and about my experience flying in Alaska. Before we knew it we were heading down past Portland and Mt. St. Helens. The FO flew a nice smooth approach and we landed on 34L two hours and fifty minutes after leaving PHX
. I had let my wife know what was happening when I woke up that afternoon, so she and my son were waiting for my call. As soon as we were down I let them know I was home and we all met for a late dinner at a nearby restaurant, a day and a half before I was originally scheduled to be home.
The good and bad of airline flying were present on this trip. I didn’t get to go to the layover in New York, which was the reason I had bid for the trip in the first place. But I did get home earlier than expected, and got to have some fun flying an empty airplane. If you want to be an airline pilot, expect the unexpected, and don’t get mad when your plans change from minute to minute. It will save a whole lot of money on antacid if you just go with the flow.
One smooth landing is skill. Two in a row is luck. Three in a row and someone is lying.