Thursday, June 29, 2006

Jetways are for Jets!

When I jumpseat on other airlines, it's usually to get across the country, so I go in 737's or bigger. It's pretty rare that I ride in an airliner that is smaller than the one I fly for work. When I do, I enjoy noting the similarities and differences between other operations and our own.

Earlier this week, I rode a Saab 340 between Minneapolis and Watertown, SD. It was my first time in the SF340, and it seems like a neat little plane. The airplane says "Northwest Airlink" on its side, but the actual airline is Mesaba. They do all of Northwest's Saab and Avro RJ85 express flying. Pinnacle Airlines also operates under the "Airlink" brand name; they fly only CRJ-200's.

At Minneapolis, both Mesaba and Pinnacle operate out of the A and B concourses. The setup is very different from what I'm used to. The concourse is set up to look like a "regular" (ie mainline) operation. You have regularly spaced gates, each with its own waiting area that looks like all the other waiting areas at the airport, except in miniature; each one only holds 20 or 30 people. The gate itself leads to a comically short jetway, from which you board your airplane, whether it's a Saab or a CRJ. The effect is one of progressive claustrophobia: you go from a bright, airy hall to a smallish boarding area to a small jetway to an even smaller aircraft interior.

Now, I never thought I'd have an opinion on anything so trivial as how to board an airplane. But seeing the way Mesaba does it made me appreciate the way my own airline has it set up, at least for our turboprops. At our bigger stations, our gates tend to share large, open waiting areas. After the gate, you walk outside to your airplane; if it's a ways out on the ramp, you'll walk most of the way in a glass-paneled covered walkway. When you get to the plane, you'll board using the aircraft's stairs or ramp. At some airports we do use jetways, but you'll usually find stairs at the end of the jetway bringing you to ramp level, where you board the airplane.

Now I know some readers are scratching their heads, wondering why I would think our method is better. You end up with massive packed boarding rooms giving off a third world vibe, and then you have to negotiate a bunch of stairs, and go out into the elements, and then climb more stairs into the airplane. So you're right, from a practical standpoint, Mesaba has it set up much more practically - particularly for Minnesota winter conditions. But I'm thinking from an aesthetic standpoint.

My problem with jetways is that they insulate the passengers from realizing that they're about to strap on a thin aluminim tube and go blasting through the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Consider how you travel: you go from standing in line at the gate to standing in line on the jetway, then you duck through a little door into a jet cabin where you shuffle to your assigned seat. Some hours later, you shuffle back out the door, up another jetway, and into another airport terminal. The only indication that you just flew thousands of miles is that Grandma is there to pick you up. And really, most passengers like it that way.

In a turboprop like the Saab, you know you're flying. There's wind noise and engine noise and propeller noise, there's lots of vibration, you feel every gust and eddy, you can feel every sharp control movement. On every takeoff, you know whether the plane is light or heavy from its performance or lack thereof. There's no use pretending that you're doing anything other than flying.

And if you're going flying, you might as well get in a good look at the machine. Approaching from ramp level gives you time to appreciate its symmetry from various angles, to marvel at the engineering that goes into even "little planes," to get to know the quirky personality that all turboprops seem to have. Down here on the ramp, you can shake the hand of the mechanic that last turned a wrench on your craft, and say good morning to the ramper who will load your bag. Then, you step onto the airstairs, take one last look down the shimmering fuselage, and pull yourself up into the beast. There's no doubt about it - you're going flying!

Basically what I'm saying is that what most passengers consider to be turboprops' faults, I consider glorious features that do their little bit to connect us to a time when airline flying wasn't so commonplace or sterile or comfortable or even safe. If people embraced turboprops this way, they might discover that they actually enjoy flying without the adventure sucked out of it.

Wow, I kinda went all nostalgic on ya'll there, didn't I? Ironic given that the Megawhacker really has more in common with jets than turboprops. I doubt I'd be waxing poetic if I had to do 8 legs a day on the Saab.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Big Picture?

Today was supposed to be a tough day to begin with; it ended up being nearly three hours longer than scheduled.

The airplane we started with this morning had its antiskid braking system deferred. It's really not a big deal, because the anti-skid only comes into play when heavy braking is used, and that's pretty rare for the airports we fly into. Inoperative antiskid, however, does affect takeoff and landing performance tables rather significantly.

Early in the day, I mentioned to the captain that this could potentially cause a problem on our fifth leg, when we'd be landing in Great Falls. That airport is undergoing a huge construction project; the 10,500 foot Runway 3/21 is completely torn up, so we've been using Runway 34/16 - 6300 feet long. With the right combination of temperature, winds, and aircraft weight, I realized that we might not be able to land in Great Falls. However, I had done this trip a number of times the last month, and we always had an airplane swap after leg four. I assumed this would be the case again, particularly since the short runway would prompt the router to send an airplane with operative antiskid.

Inbound to Seattle on leg four, we got a message from dispatch. My earlier fears turned out to be well-founded: the temperature and winds at Great Falls were such that our antiskid-less Megawhacker would be extremely weight limited for landing - and we had a full passenger load. Despite this, we were slated to keep the same airplane. Once we got on the ground, the captain called dispatch and sorted through our options. Maintenance could attempt to fix the antiskid system; minimum wait time, three hours. We could accept the weight penalty, and leave 30 passengers behind. We could just fly into Helena, our final destination for the day - but a bus for the Great Falls passengers couldn't be arranged soon enough. Or, we could wait for the next Megawhacker inbound to Seattle, and swap planes then. This was what we ended up doing, and it cost us about 2.5 hours.

Now, the antiskid system had been deferred for five days. One of the infuriating things about this situation is that you'd think someone would've seen it coming down the pike. I considered it obvious enough that I didn't think to alert anybody. Yet, the problem was not discovered until one hour before our scheduled departure, when the dispatcher tried to work up landing performance for Great Falls. Now granted, until she actually inputed the temperature and winds, nobody knew just what the performance restriction would be. But even the most favorable scenario would've made us leave passengers behind. You don't need exact numbers to realize that inop antiskid + short runway = weight restricted performance. It just seems that nobody outside of our crew realized that an airplane with inop antiskid was scheduled to fly to a short runway today.

When flight crews question puzzling decisions made by crew scheduling, dispatchers, and aircraft routers, we often hear the admonishment, "You just don't have the big picture." Okay, fair enough, we usually don't. But if you're going to tell us that we don't have the big picture and should therefore mind our own business, it'd be comforting to know that someone has the big picture!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Into The Woods

This last week, Dawn and I took our first backpacking trip of the year. The idea was to do a strenuous hike that'd help prepare us for the vertical-intensive hiking in Switzerland. Instead, it left me hobbling around like an old man.

On Monday, Dawn picked me up at the airport after my trip, and we drove out to the Columbia River Gorge. We hiked an easy five miles on the popular Eagle Creek trail and pitched tent along the banks of Eagle Creek.

The next morning, we walked another mile up Eagle Creek to the Eagle-Benson trail. Even if well maintained, this would be a fairly strenuous trail; it gains 3500 feet in 3 miles on its way to the 4000' elevation Benson Plateau. For much of the way, though, the trail was little more than a goatpath. This wasn't a big deal until we reached an area that appeared to have been burned within the last 10 years; here, undergrowth choked the trail, and there was lots of fallen timber to climb over. It was infuriatingly slow going. At one point, I climbed a pretty big log and jumped off the other side - and felt a sharp twinge of pain in my knee. We had about 4 miles and 1000' vertical left until our intended campsite, and my knee steadily got worse the entire time. I spent that night wondering how I was going to get off this mountain with a bum knee. It was exactly like the situation with my Dad last September.

The hike out on Wednesday morning was only 6 miles long, but it included a loss of 3800 vertical feet. My right knee was hurting worse than the day before, but only when I bent the leg. By keeping my right leg perfectly straight, I could minimize the pain. Of course, this resulted in a weird lope that made some of the steeper sections rather awkward. I was awfully glad to get to the bottom of the trail.

Three days later, I'm still limping around with a straight right leg. Fortunately, I'm able to operate the Megawhacker's rudder pedals without pain, so I haven't had to call in sick. I'm just hoping that it's better in time for Switzerland - we depart on 6 July.

My dad had success with taking Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate to strengthen his knee joints. I'm going to pick some up when I can get to a GNC. Does anybody have any experience with this?

Friday, June 23, 2006

Live from the Crew Room

Well, our summer has been officially kicked off with a backpacking trip that left Dawn and I more or less lame; all the brutal details with accompanying photos will probably be on the next post. For now, though, Dawn is taking the NWA redeye flight to MN, where she'll be helping her parents build their home's new addition over the next week and a half. As for me, I have a four day trip that ends on monday, when I head out to MN to hang with Dawn and in In-laws for a few days before coming back for my next four day trip. Once that's done, I'm home for a few days and then we head to Europe for three weeks. Sheesh, the summer hasn't even started and the schedule is making my head spin.

Because I had to drop Dawn off for her flight fairly late, and my trip has an early showtime tomorrow, I'm bedding down in the crew room at PDX. It's no big hardship.

Overstuffed La-Z-Boy? Check!
Blankets & pillows? Check!
Coke machine? Check!
Computer with internet access? Check!
Free breakfast? Check!

Well then, I'm as snug as a bug; just gotta set the alarm clock for 6:20am, at which time I'll stir myself awake enough to stumble across the hall to check in for my 6:25 showtime, jammies and all [grin].

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

25th Anniversary

You'll never get me to admit flying for the carrier whose livery is on this airplane, or flying the type of aircraft pictured, but you should check it out anyways. My initial reaction was "that's the coolest ugly paint scheme I've ever seen!" Or maybe it was "that's the ugliest cool paint scheme I've ever seen."

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Butte Revisited

In response to my rather derogatory recent post about Butte, someone commented that they would've spent their layover "appreciating that which can never leave or be taken away from Butte- the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys." It's a good point. Until recently, our Butte layovers were quite short, which precluded much outdoor recreation. I had done some hiking on the hills west of town, but never had an opportunity to hike the big mountains to the east - until this week. Finally, I had a nice long Butte layover with good weather. It was time to make a date with Butte's most prominent landmark, Our Lady of the Rockies.

"Our Lady" is a 90 foot statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks Butte from 8500 feet on a ridge that defines the continental divide in this area. At night the floodlit statue seems to float above the city. At my airline, she is often known as "Our Lady of Full-Scale Deflection" or "Our Lady of No Left Turn" because when shooting the ILS 15 approach at Butte, she is just to your left and above you. One of our captains tells a story from the Metroliner days. It was a dark and stormy night, and he was on the VOR-A approach, which takes you over the ridge a few miles south of Our Lady. Somehow they ended up off course, and through a break in the clouds he saw the statue just off their right wing. "I saw the Virgin," he says, "so I started praying!" Indeed.

Less intense encounters can be arranged through a tour company in Butte, which takes busses up the private road to Our Lady and the nearby chapel. Another option for the self-flagellating or the cheap is to climb the 3000 foot ridge on foot. I figured I'm doubly qualified, so I packed a lunch and got a ride to the outskirts of town from the hotel van. "There's an old Boy Scout trail that you should be able to follow," the van driver assured me as he dropped me off on a steep dirt road. "Just go up the road until it ends at a house, and follow the ridge next to it." Sounded easy. I walked a quarter mile up the road until it apparently deadended at someone's house, and duly started climbing a nearby ridge.

As I crossed this meadow, I thought I found the trail. As it reentered the trees, however, it quickly tapered off. I thought I picked it up again several times, but in each case I realized I was seeing many more deer and elk tracks than human ones. If there really was a boy scout trail, it wasn't on this ridge. Still I was able to make pretty steady progress upwards through an old burn without too much scrambling.

I knew that the line I was taking up the ridge would put me a ways south of the Lady, and I'd eventually have to traverse over. However, a large rock spine to my left kept the Lady out of view after I snapped the picture above. I appeared to be approaching the top of the ridge when I spotted a gap in the spine that was easily climbable.

I scrambled up the gap, expecting to see the Lady at my elevation on the other side, a short traverse away.

D'oH! I had a good 500 feet elevation left. I gingerly climbed down off the spine and continued my slog up the ridge. Once I reached the top, I realized I was standing on the continental divide. Expansive views to the east included a highland meadow that looks like a heck of a camping spot:

A short traverse later, I was up close and personal with Our Lady of the Rockies.

The Berkeley Pit: Superfund Site, Tourist Attraction.

I sat for a while, taking in the views and eating my lunch. From this vantage point, I could see my mistake: the road I started on did not deadend where I thought it did, but continued into a valley. The actual deadend was almost directly below the statue. The slope below the statue looked passable, and if there was a Boy Scout trail, I figured it'd be there. The first portion of the slope consisted mostly of loose dirt and scree, and I rather gingerly worked my way down. After a few hundred feet, the trees thickened, providing more footholds. At one point, I realized that I was following what looked an awful lot like a trail, and then I saw boot prints, and then I saw orange ribbons tied on trees along the way. I'd found the Boy Scout trail.

And what a trail! I gotta hand it to the Boy Scouts, they didn't waste any time in getting up and down the mountain. Their scant path makes no concessions to topography except to skirt sheer cliffs. I lost the trail quite a few times, but by following the fall line and looking for orange ribbons I'd pick it up again. Eventually it deposited me next to a prominent ridge at the end of the road, just like the van driver had said. There was a lot of old mining equipment scattered around the last house. I stopped at the house to chat with a woman watering plants outside; it turns out her husband founded the local mining museum. After that, it was a three mile hike back to the hotel.

So...anonymous commenter, thanks for the encouragement to get out and hike Butte's surroundings. While I still consider the town to be a rather dismal place, the prospect of further explorations in the mountains has me excited for my next Butte layover. Next time I think I'll check out that meadow on the east side of the ridge. It looks like a good place to see some elk.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Standing Firm

This recent post by Aviatrix reminded me of a similar failure I had three or four years ago when I was flying the Weedwhacker for AEX. A little systems background on the Weedwhacker: Fuel is normally fed to each engine via an engine-driven fuel pump. If this fails, there is an electrically powered emergency boost pump. For normal operations, the boost pumps are used for priming before engine start. They are also required to be on for takeoff and landing; they are not deferrable items. When they're broke, you're grounded.

This particular incident happened in the middle of the night at the North Las Vegas airport. My first flight of the night repositioned the airplane there from my home airport in Southern California; then, having picked up about 1200 lbs of cancelled checks in Las Vegas, I was to fly them to Burbank. While doing the before start checklist, however, I discovered that the #1 emergency boost pump was inoperative. I checked circuit breakers and cycled the switch several times, but nothing happened. I reluctantly pulled out my cell phone and called the chief pilot. It was 3AM.

"Ummm....ahhh....hellooo?" mumbled my boss when he answered on the fourth ring. Once he woke up enough to remember who Sam was, he was obviously unhappy about me calling at 3AM.

"Hi Ari, I'm sorry to call at this hour," I began, "but the #1 fuel boost pump is inop. I'm in Vegas."

There was a pause at the other end of the line, and then: "Umm, do you need it for starting? You could use the crossfeed valve and the other fuel pump."

I didn't like where he was going with this. "Well, Ari, it's required for flight."

Again, a pause. "Hmmph. Well...there's no maintenance this late...Would you be comfortable flying one leg to get the plane back home?"

I really didn't like that question. First, it would be illegal. More importantly, I was about to take a Weedwhacker near max gross weight over the mountains and desert in the middle of the night. I was most assuredly not going without a backup fuel pump. I chose my words carefully. "I'd really rather not, Ari. The airplane is unairworthy."

"Fine," Ari grunted. "I'll be there in a few hours." Click.

I had a few hours to reflect on how PO'd my boss would be when he got here. The eastern sky was beginning to get light when another Weedwhacker landed and shut down next to mine. My boss clambered out and wordlessly began throwing bags out of my plane. Finally he spoke: "Take that airplane to Burbank. I'll fly your airplane home." He brusquely climbed onboard the broken aircraft, started up, and taxied out for takeoff, leaving me alone to load the new airplane and reflect on what the consequences would be for me. As it turns out, there were none. I never heard of the incident again.

There are three sources of pressure for professional pilots. Company pressure, like I experienced, is only one. It is most widespread in the lower echelons of aviation, particularly in the FAR 135 freight world. What I experienced was actually a pretty benign example of "pilot pushing." Other pilots have been fired for refusing unairworthy airplanes or flights into hazardous weather.

A second source is social pressure from fellow pilots. While nobody wants a reputation as the company daredevil, neither do you want to be known as the pilot who scraps flights at the drop of a pin. You run into situations where doing the right thing is sure to cause more work for your fellow pilots. Sometimes they will be pressured to take the same unairworthy airplane that you refused. You feel bad about putting them in that position.

Perhaps the most common source of pressure is not external, but internal. Pilots tend to be very goal-oriented people. We want to find a way to complete the mission. Additionally, saying "no" is bound to cause a lot of inconvenience and perhaps even conflict; it's just a lot easier to say "yes" and go with the flow even when it's not the right thing to do.

According to the FAA, it is always illegal to fly an airplane with anything broken until it gets fixed or deferred in accordance with an approved Minimum Equipment List. The reality is that if it doesn't affect safety of flight, most pilots will conveniently "discover" the inop equipment on the leg that they're inbound to a maintenance base. So there are a lot of grey areas, and knowing when to put your foot down takes good judgment born of experience.

When you've made a decision, you need to stick with it. Don't let yourself be talked into doing something you don't want to do. If you've made an exception once, you'll make it again and again, and you'll find it harder and harder to say "no" when you're asked to do something that's truly a bad idea.

I know that a lot of people who read this blog are in the process of becoming professional pilots. Someday, you will find yourself in a very uncomfortable situation where doing the right thing may cause a lot of inconvenience to yourself and others, may bring the scorn of coworkers and the wrath of your boss, may even cause you to lose your job. Standing firm will carry a price. It is important that you accept that right now as the price of being a professional pilot.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Day Four

Monday morning: We started our day in Helena, Montana. The first leg was a short 50-nm hop to Great Falls, with a subsequent flight to Seattle. The weather in Helena was overcast, with patches of fog seen around the valley. The weather in Great Falls was still good, but the temperature and dewpoint were very close, with a forecast for dense fog within the next two hours. Complicating the matter was the ongoing construction at Great Falls' airport. The main runway, 3/21, is closed, and the ILS out of service. Now, the primary runway is the 6300' long Runway 34/16, which is served by a GPS approach with a minimum visiblity of 1 1/4 miles. The forecast was calling for 3/4 mile visibility in fog.

As the captain and I were looking at this, a Helena gate agent boarded the airplane and told us that an FAA inspector was going to ride along today. I looked at the captain in disbelief. Two line checks in two days? Unheard of! The captain reluctantly told the gate agent to bring the inspector out, and we turned our attention back to how we would get into Great Falls.

Under FAR 121, it is illegal to take off for an airport that is below landing minimums or forecast to go below minimums. My airline, like most, has a way of getting around this provision. We used a "pre-planned amendment" to the flight release. We would be dispatched to Seattle rather than Great Falls, but via a circuitous route that would take us over Great Falls. If Great Falls turned out to be above minimums after all, we would contact dispatch to amend our flight release for a destination of Great Falls. Of course, that's one extra duty in what is already an extremely short flight, particularly with an approach to prepare for. It would be stressful enough without a Fed looking over our shoulders.

Thankfully, the inspector said he'd sit in back for the first leg and line-check the flight attendants. That was a good sign. A real jerk would've seized on the opportunity to sit up front on a tough leg, looking for the smallest screwup to ding us on. He took his seat in row 19, and we continued preparing for the first leg. Knowing how short on time we would be, the captain briefed the GPS 34 approach before we left the ground.

Upon completion of the After Takeoff checklist, I tuned up Great Falls' ATIS. It reported visibility 3 miles, but the remarks included a fog bank just north of the airport. Ok, great. I told the captain I'd call dispatch to amend the release, and punched the appropriate code into our SELCAL keypad. Hmm, no answer. I tried it again. Nothing. Great, we were rapidly approaching the initial approach fix and I needed to talk to dispatch. I called Great Falls operations and asked them to quickly call dispatch and tell Desk 27 to call us ASAP. Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher called us on company frequency with the amendment.

I got back from talking to the dispatcher in time to hear Great Falls Approach tell the captain that the visibility was at 1 mile, below minimums for the GPS 34 approach. The captain told them we needed 1 1/4 miles; after a short pause, they replied "Ya know what, that is 1 1/4 mile visibility." Heh, I was soooo glad the FAA inspector was in back! I banged out the descent and approach checklists just in time.

The approach turned out to be a non-event. The fog bank covered the north and east sides of the airport, where the control tower was located; our own runway was quite visibile shortly after we began the approach. After we shut down, the Fed came up to the cockpit and took the jumpseat as we ran the Before Start checklist for the next leg.

The Great Falls - Seattle leg had no surprises. The FAA guy didn't say much, although the captain tried to engage him in small conversation by showing him our logbook and MEL procedures (!?). In my experience, the less a FAA guy says, the better. They'll speak up if they see something askew. After we got to Seattle, he simply said "Great job, guys, I'll see you around" and left.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Day Three

The white-knuckle VOR approach into Butte didn't end the adventures this trip had in store for us. On Sunday we were in Spokane, preparing for leg #4 of 6, when I spied KH, a check airman on the Megawhacker, coming down the jetway. "Crap, we're getting line checked!" I exclaimed. The captain let out an exasperated sigh and pointed to my laptop and speakers on the glareshield. I quickly silenced Bob Marley and stowed them before KH made his way to the flight deck.

Turns out that he was there to line check me. There is no regulatory requirement to line check first officers, but at my airline they choose to do so every twelve months, just like captains. And I was due.

Even a consciencious, standardized pilot tends to have a lot of little habits that technically are at odds with the flight standards manual; you just don't realize it until you fly with a check airman. For example, when hand flying, the pilot not flying (PNF) is supposed to set all flight director modes at the Pilot Flying's command. It's pretty standard practice, though, for the PF to just punch the buttons for themself - at least in good weather. There were a few times where I went to push "VS" or "HDG" or "STBY," stopped my hand halfway there as I realized I wasn't supposed to do that, and told the captain, "Um...push vertical speed...command 1500 feet per minute upwards...."

Other than Seattle Approach vectoring us all over Puget Sound for traffic saturation, it was a pretty easy ride. The check airman said I did a good job, but then asked me when I'm supposed to have landing flaps set. "Um...1000 feet above airport elevation?" He nodded: "The flaps were in transition at 1000', they didn't get to 35 degrees until 980', so you were 20 feet low." He didn't dock any points so I just smiled and nodded. A successful ride is a successful ride - but still, that was pretty anal. The pertinent section of the Megawhacker FSM reads, "Landing flaps must be 1000' above the airport elevation." Hmm. Okay, is "set" a verb or an adjective in that context? We had set the flaps by 1000 feet, but they weren't set yet. Heh, that sounds almost Clintonian.

So, nit-picking aside, we survived the line check just fine. The rest of the trip should be a breeze! Right...?

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Bad Day in Montana

In my post about Butte, I mentioned that we had "a heck of time" getting in on Friday. It was a pretty ugly day to be flying in Montana, and we were definately glad to be done by the end of it.

We were supposed to do two legs on Friday, Portland to Seattle and Seattle to Butte. There, another crew would normally pick up the airplane and continue to Bozeman and then back to Seattle, since this flight is always operated as a triangle.

As we prepared for the flight to Butte, a few items in the NOTAMs (notices to airmen) caught my eye. First, there was no fuel available in Butte - the fuel truck was broken. Therefore, under no circumstances could we land there unless there was enough fuel for the next crew to get to Bozeman. Indeed, our dispatcher put a note on our release informing us that the next crew needed a minimum of 4800 lbs onboard. Secondly, the ILS and LOC-DME approaches at Butte were out of service, as was the RNAV approach and GPS overlays. The only approaches available to us were two non-precision circling VOR approaches. The weather in Butte was OK, but the forecast noted the possibility of thunderstorms.

While we were still about 100 miles from Butte, we heard another airplane on Salt Lake Center's frequency as they twice attempted VOR approaches at Butte, went missed approach, and ended up diverting to Bozeman. Butte's AWOS was reporting three miles' visibility and a broken ceiling at 1500', which is above minimums for the VOR-B approach, but they were also reporting a thunderstorm overhead. We weren't too interested in trying an approach during a thunderstorm, particularly after our weather radar painted heavy rain directly over the airport. We began holding over Coppertown VOR and waited for the storm to pass.

We'd taken plenty of fuel from Seattle, and could've held for over an hour before dipping into our alternate and reserve fuel. However, the unavailability of fuel in Butte meant that we couldn't risk beginning the approach with less than 5200 lbs lest we turn the airplane into a pumpkin upon landing. We held for nearly a half hour, watching the storm slowly move southward. Finally, our fuel state reached the point where we had to land in Butte now or go somewhere else. The airport looked like we could maybe get in, and it was tempting to try, but we both knew it'd be foolish. We diverted to Bozeman, zigzagging around several thunderstorms on the short flight there.

Upon arrival in Bozeman, we began crunching the numbers. We needed to put on enough fuel to get to Butte (around 1000 lbs) plus enough fuel for the new crew to get to Seattle - nearly 8000 lbs of fuel. We had 55 passengers going from Bozeman to Seattle, plus 15 of our original passengers who were going to Butte. A full load of passengers and bags plus 8000 lbs of fuel puts the Megawhacker very close to max takeoff weight. The problem is that there is a 2750 lb difference between max takeoff and max landing weights, and we'd only be burning off 1000 lbs on the way to Butte. We couldn't leave behind fuel, so the only option was to offload passengers and/or baggage.

Skywest Airlines came to the rescue by offering to let our Butte passengers ride along on a bus they had chartered for one of their own flights that had diverted from Butte. With those 15 passengers gone, our landing weight was below the maximum. Butte was reporting good weather again, so we did the paperwork, closed the doors, fired up, and took off for Butte.

Once airborne, our weather woes weren't over; we had to dodge several big cells on the airway. The captain listened to Butte's AWOS over a period of several minutes, which painted a picture of rapidly deteriorating weather. Although there were no thunderstorms, the clouds were getting lower and rain was reducing visibility. By the time we began the VOR-B approach, it was down to 3 miles' visibility - the minimum for the approach - with a 1400' ceiling.

Of all the things I wanted to do this week, a "dive-and-drive" non-precision approach to minimums in the mountains definately wasn't on the list. Ameriflight lost a Beech 99 on this particular approach a few months ago (they apparently continued on the 127 radial after Coppertown rather than turning to the 097 radial); that thought contributed to the white-knuckle factor. As we reached minimums, we weren't seeing anything other than I-90 beneath us. We kept trucking along through the driving rain, waiting for 5 minutes to expire on the timer. Eventually, recognizable landmarks around Butte began appearing in front of us, and the forward visibility increased a bit. Finally, the airport appeared three miles ahead and slightly to our right. We both breathed a sigh of relief as the Captain began the final descent to landing.

It's funny how my perceptions have changed. As a flight instructor and freight dog, I shot non-precision approaches to minimums fairly regularly. Now it's a rare event. This approach induced enough adrenaline that we were almost shaking after we got on the ground. "That was one tight approach," my Captain exclaimed to the crewmembers taking the plane over. They shrugged indifferently, as if to say "Well, at least you finally brought us our plane."

That was day one of this trip. I figured after that, the trip would go smoothly. Right? Right.....?

Update: Airline flying really has turned me into a total wuss. I'm catching up on Aviatrix' recent postings and I'm getting embarassed that I actually whined about shooting a real VOR approach. I think Aviatrix is a good hundred miles from the nearest VOR.


Given that the World Cup is really the biggest sporting event in the world outside of the Olympics, it's pretty sad that you won't find it on network TV in the US, excepting perhaps the Final match. Fortunately, Univision is one of the few cable stations that we get, so I'll be able to tune in for a few "Copa Mundial" matches.

Just finished watching Italy's win over Ghana, 2-0. Good game. Was a little disheartening to see USA lose 3-0 to the Czech Republic today, but the Czechs are the strongest team in what's already a tough group.

Dawn and I will actually be in Europe during the Third Place and Final matches; it'll be fun to watch in a place where soccer (ahem, football) is the #1 sport.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Butte, Montana

Kevin Garrison of Avweb recently had a nice article about layovers in which he claimed that "a good layover isn't a place, it is an attitude." I can get behind that statement. My best layovers have had little to do with where we were staying, and everything to do with my crew and how we decided to spend our time. With a cool crew and/or something interesting to do, you can be staying in a pigsty in Cowpoke, Iowa, and still have a great time.

That said...most places you go have attitudes of their own that can't help but affect the way you feel about them. Some cities burst with energy and ambition; some towns happily laze along through the decades; a few are content to stay as nondescript as the Holiday Inn rooms the airline rents. And then, there are locales that exude the bittersweet wistfullness of a has-been that time left behind, slowly sinking into decay as ever greater numbers of scornful youngsters flee to the big city. Butte, Montana, is one of those places.

Butte was once one of the great mining towns of the west. It got its start in the 1870's with the discovery of silver and gold in the area, but it was ultimately copper that brought fame and fortune to Butte after production tapered off in erstwhile Copper Kings like Great Britain and Chile. In the early 1900's, around 1/3 of the United States' copper came from Butte. World War One, in particular, proved to be a boon to the town as bullet production quickly spiked demand for copper. At one point, the local Anaconda Mining Company was the fourth largest corporation in the world.

The abundance of mining work ballooned the city to 115,000 inhabitants at its peak in 1915. It was a notorious law-free zone in the best (or worst) boom-town tradition, with hundreds of saloons, bordellos, and gambling parlors lining the mud streets. Recent immigrants formed the majority of the mining workforce, with Irish imigrees particularly well respresented: Butte was once called "Ireland's Fifth Province," and Irish remains the prominent ethnicity among today's residents. In fact, the President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary McAleese, recently paid a visit to Butte.

Butte's long decline began in the 1950's with the introduction of open pit mining. Although safer and more profitable than underground mining methods, it was far less labor intensive, and the town began shrinking as the steady supply of work dried up and the mine companies razed large portions of the town for pit mining operations. Alas, open pit mining proved to be enormously damaging to the environment, and the gigantic Berkeley Pit ceased operations in 1982.

These days, there's not much copper money left in Butte. The monsterous gash north of town that once provided so many miners' livelihoods now silently fills with toxic water in etherworldly swirls of aquamarine, amber, and indigo. While this has made the Berkeley Pit the town's biggest tourist attraction, it is also the nation's largest remaining Superfund site, and high lead and arsenic levels have plagued the area for years.

While I haven't found any bordellos recently, Butte still has a disproportionately large number of drinking and gambling establishments for any town of 36,000 souls. Sitting with a cocktail in a dark and smoky lounge, you'll look hard for the ghosts of exhuberent miners celebrating their newfound prosperity, but it's hard to see them among the knots of tired and haggard looking citizens gloomily plunking another quarter into the slot machines. Saint Patrick's Day puts a more festive face on the town as denizens both Irish and Irish-For-A-Day go into hardcore celebratory mode, but most of the year it's pretty grim in Butte's leftover dens of vice.

Today, after meeting my captain in the Best Western's cocktail lounge (and casino!) for drinks and conversation, I took a walk over to the mall. Butte's mall has always been a kitschy throwback that simultaneously evokes nostalgia and distaste. You'll find a number of chain stores that have long since shuttered in any prosperous city (Herberger's!?), and it has the best used book store I've found in any mall anywhere, but you'll also find a strikingly large percentage of stores that are closed or in the process of closing. This time, both the Sam Goody and the Radio Shack are on their way out the door, shut down by the WalMart down the street. I'm not too heartbroken - after all, it's just one corporate monster snuffing out two others - but it's hard to walk through a poorly lit mall with dingy 1980's decor and newly shuttered stores among bored youths and frantic mothers with gaggles of small children in tow and not feel mildly depressed.

So - am I saying Butte is a bad layover? Nah, not neccessarilly. It was pretty good this time. We had a heck of a time flying in here today - more on that tomorrow - so the captain and I spent a few hours in the lounge decompressing over good drinks and pleasant conversation, and that always makes for a nice layover. Plus, I picked up a music CD and laptop speakers on clearance sale for a grand total of $11.26! Now, if you'll excuse me, the good Irish brews have left my throat a little dry, so I'm going to quench my thirst with some good 'ole arsenic-laced Butte city water!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Successful Ride

As I mentioned in my last post, I had my annual ride in the simulator on monday. I'm happy to report that the ride was successful and I'm still employed as a pilot.

Part 121.411 of the Federal Aviation Regulations requires that first officers satisfactorily complete a proficiency check every 24 months and complete either a proficiency check or other simulator training every 12 months. I've been flying for my current airline since 2004, so last year I did "other simulator training," which we call "training-in-lieu." This year I was required to do a full-blown proficiency check. These are "pass/fail" events, with continued employment based on "passing," so pro checks are stressful to many pilots.

That said, almost nobody gets fired based on a single failed pro check, and in a certain way they are much easier than training-in-lieu. TIL is done with an instructor whose goal is to teach you, not test you, and therefore you're sure to be subjected to a wide array of surprise equipment failures - often uncommon, sometimes mindbogglingly complex, usually combined with horrible weather. A pro check, however, is very predictable, as it follows a checklist laid out in Appendix F of Part 121. A first officer can expect the following:
  • Normal, Instrument, and Crosswind Takeoffs
  • Rejected Takeoff
  • Takeoff with Engine Failure at V1
  • Holding
  • Normal ILS
  • Single-Engine ILS, hand-flown
  • Two Types of Non-Precision Approaches
  • One Missed Approach
  • Approaches to Stalls
  • Normal Landing
  • Single-Engine Landing
  • Go-Around from 50'
  • Normal, Abnormal, and Emergency Procedures
Most of the stuff, I did pretty well. My V1 cut in particular was a thing of beauty - I don't think my heading varied more than a degree, I held V2 +/- 1 knot, and we did all the clean up callouts and procedures perfectly. I did make a few boneheaded calls, though. We had just entered a holding pattern after a missed approach when the FADEC on our #1 engine failed, shutting down the engine. Rather than stay in the holding pattern - the autopilot was flying the airplane fine, and we were well above Vse so the bank angles while single engine really weren't a problem - I immediately broke out of the holding pattern and requested a vector towards the ILS. It wasn't dangerous, but it was unneccessary.

Then, when we were shooting the ILS, I planned on landing Flaps 35 rather than Flaps 15, which required like 50% torque on the remaining engine. That, in turn, required a lot more rudder and aileron input, which made the approach a lot less stable than I would've liked. At decision altitude I didn't have the runway in sight, but I did have the approach lights, which allows you to descend to 100' above the runway. However, at my airline, First Officers aren't allowed to use that provision unless the approach has been briefed as a "captain monitored approach." Therefore, at DA I went missed approach...on a single Flaps 35. Both the FOM and the regulations give you leeway to ignore them when you need to do so in an emergency situation, which a single-engine landing definately qualifies as, and using the approach lights to descend to 100' would've been a safer option than the single-engine missed approach. For what it matters, I flew a gorgeous missed approach, but it should've been unneccessary.

Most pilots will agree that the best checkrides are the ones where you walk away feeling like you learned something, and this was one of them.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Return to The Torture Box

I have my yearly trip to the simulator on Monday, just after I get back from a four day trip on Sunday night. Today I'm scrounging around for study materials to bring on the trip with me, because I just haven't been able to motivate myself to study so far.

And I need to study, because this year I have a full-on proficiency check. Every year we alternate between "training-in-lieu," which is more of an intense training session, and "pro check," which is a full checkride, including oral exam, that you can very much fail.

I think the problem is that I've lost my fear of checkrides. I've had quite a few of them at this point in my career, and have yet to fail one, so I'm just not that nervous about them anymore - and nervousness would be an excellent motivator to study! Of course, my procrastination thus far is giving me concern, so I think I'll be able to hit the books hard during this four day trip. I'm bringing all the manuals and all the study guides and gouges from during my initial training along, and I'm bringing a pack of 4x6 index cards to make flash cards with.

It does help that I'm fresh out of recurrent ground school. Last year, they sent me to the sim first and then to ground school. This time around the knowledge will be fairly fresh when I review it.