Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Left Seat

It was a strange feeling, to be entering the flight deck as I had many times before but then to turn left instead of right and to sling my flight bag beside the captain's seat. I took off my blazer, fourth stripe newly attached, and hung it up on the jumpseat folded along the cockpit wall. Then I reached across the seat to press the lateral tracking lever so I could get the seat out of the way enough to sit down. It didn't budge. I tried again. Nothing. I finally just climbed across the center pedestal and awkwardly plopped into the seat. Egh! How was I going to pass captain OE if I couldn't even work the danged seat!?

At most airlines, upgrading to captain is a fairly long process that involves classroom training, an oral exam, simulator training, a checkride or two, and then operational experience, or OE. This last step involves flying the line, with paying passengers on board, under the supervision of a check airman. At NewCo, I did all the previous steps as a newhire; most training and checking was done with me in the left seat, acting as Captain. Because I'd passed my checkride within the previous six months, the FAA allowed NewCo to upgrade me by sending me straight to Captain OE. It's an unusual situation at the airlines.

I'd been studying for the last several weeks. Most OE candidates have the benefit of having come straight out of training, so everything is fresh in their mind. For me it had been nearly six months since I did Captain flows in the sim, and I'd flown the line for 300 hours - more than enough time to gain some bad habits. Mindful of this, I spent hours in cruise flight reading the AOM and FOM. I started studying harder when I found out that a string of OE candidates had been washing out and getting sent back to the right seat. The night before my OE started I stayed up late, feverishly studying my flows. I still worried that I'd seem unprepared to the check airman.

Now, seated at last, I realized that the Captain's seat levers were reversed from the FO's, so the tracking levers were on the right rather than the left. That mystery solved, I set about doing the Captain's duties and flows I'd seared into my brain over the last few weeks. First, I read the dispatch release and flight paperwork, checking critical items, separating and folding the individual parts. Then I reached down for the aircraft logbook ("the can"); I verified that the required servicing had been completed, that the few items deferred had been done so correctly, that there were no open write ups, and any recurring write ups noted. I launched into the Captain's preflight flow, starting with the overhead panel and flowing down across the glareshield, main panel, and center pedestal. I initialized the FMS, entered the flight plan, and set up the performance parameters. I listened in while the check airman copied the ATIS and clearance, and then called for a clearance brief and preflight check. The flight attendants brought the passenger count and the rampers brought up the bag count; the check airman added up the weights as I worked the balance computer to figure our mean aerodynamic chord (MAC) and trim setting. That complete, we handed the paperwork to the gate agent, she shut the cabin door, the flight attendant closed the cockpit door, and I ran my before start flows and called for the before start check. The inbound flight had arrived late, so I had about 20 minutes to do all this; we blocked out on time.

After we pushed back and started up, the check airman called for taxi clearance. Moment of truth! Other than a few flights in light aircraft, I haven't taxied an airplane in years. The reason is that most airliners only have a steering tiller on the Captain's side. I pressed down the tiller and gingerly added power. To my surprise, the tiller was fairly smooth and easy to use (I was later to discover that the first several planes we took delivery of have extremely sensitive, jerky tillers). The main difficulty in taxiing was switching between the tiller and the rudder pedals. The pedals are easier to use on straightaways, whereas tiller use is necessary around turns. The tiller is active only when pressed down, and the pedals are only active when the tiller is released. It's one or the other. You get jerked around when you try to switch between them when they're not aligned with each other. Also, I found that you need to slow below 10 kts to make a smooth turn.

I discovered midway through the taxi that I hadn't turned on the taxi light. It is required during aircraft movement on the ground, even during the day. The switch is on the overhead panel and is easy to miss if you're not in the habit of flipping it every time you start or stop taxiing. I forgot it again several times on subsequent flights until I got used to doing it.

I'd been chair-flying the takeoff run the last several days because I really wanted to nail it. At most airlines, the Captain takes the thrust levers during the takeoff run regardless of who is flying. The philosophy is that it's the Captain's decision to abort or not and therefore he should have his hand in a position to do so. When the FO is the pilot flying, they set takeoff power but then withdraw their hand to allow the captain to guard the thrust levers. By now it's such a force of habit for me that I knew I'd have to consciously choose to keep my hand on the thrust levers after setting takeoff power, and take my hands off when the check airman called V1. The chair-flying paid off; the takeoff run went flawlessly.

Once airborne, the pilot flying and pilot not flying duties are the same regardless of which seat you occupy. Everything looks different from the other seat so you need to be conscious of exactly which buttons and knobs you're reaching for, but reprogramming your hands doesn't take that long. Likewise, flying the plane with my left hand felt awkward at first but the novelty wore off after a few legs.

My first landing in the left seat was embarrassingly hard; I pretty much just failed to flare. I don't think being in the left seat had anything to do with it, I just didn't pull back aggressively enough. It happens. Bad landings in the JungleBus are still a whole lot nicer than bad landings in the Q400. My taxi in to the gate at Dulles was smoother than my taxi out at MSP.

I got smoother and more comfortable over the next several days of OE. Day three, on my birthday, was a 13.5 hr duty day with 5 legs. Our auto-throttles were inoperative that day, which doesn't sound like a big deal unless you've flown with them - then you know how you miss them when you don't have them. I try to do at least one approach per trip without auto-throttles so I don't get dependent on them, and that paid off on the long day. After the four day trip, I had two day trips: one to Vancouver yesterday, and one to Salt Lake City later today. That will bring me up to the required 25 hours; my line check and "fed ride" is scheduled for Monday. Assuming I pass, at that point I'll be a fully qualified Captain.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Divert

Spring has, it seems, finally decided to show up and stay a while. There've been many reported sightings and tantalizing clues of its return over the last month, hopes always brutally squashed by another fierce winter storm dumping another nine inches of snow on the winter-weary citizens of Minnesota. This time I think it's real, although should winter decide to make a curtain call in May it certainly wouldn't be the first time.

Yesterday it was 70 degrees in Minneapolis and everyone was out and about, in shorts no less. There were people on the beach at Lake Calhoun despite it being ice-free for less than a week. Swarms of motorcycles cruised up and down Hennepin Ave, blowing off the winter cobwebs. Dawn and I made an ice cream run to Dairy Queen at dusk and it was hopping.

Winter took its last big swipe at the Twin Cities, and much of the upper midwest, the Thursday before last. I was flying the day the storm hit. It wasn't without warning - the 10 o'clock newscast was full of doom the night before, and the crew room was abuzz when I checked in for my day trip to Vancouver. The weather was still decent when we left, but the MSP aerodrome forecast was calling for high winds and heavy snow around the time of our return. Even before we landed in Vancouver, we were negotiating extra contingency fuel for the return leg with our dispatcher.

On the way back from Vancouver - which appeared to be in the midst of a fine Pacific Northwest summer - we monitored the deteriorating weather in Minneapolis. The winds were howling out of the northeast and increasing in velocity. Minneapolis usually uses its two parallel runways for most arrivals and departures, but they are oriented northwest-southeast. The crosswind component on those runways was approaching 31 kts, the JungleBus' maximum crosswind limitation for a wet runway. It must've posed a problem for other aircraft types as well, because ATC made runway 4 the active runway when we were an hour from landing. Although this eliminated the crosswind problem, it cut Minneapolis' arrival rate in half. Runway 4 also lacks a precision approach; the localizer approach to that runway has a minimum visibility of 3/4 mile, which was exactly what the airport was reporting. Even before Minneapolis Center issued us holding instructions 60 miles northwest of the airport, we were preparing for a possible divert.

We'd been conserving fuel the whole way back by flying higher than planned and throttling back to Mach .74 to take advantage of a tailwind. Our dispatcher had assigned Brainerd, MN as our alternate airport. Our fuel planning was contingent upon one approach at Minneapolis followed by a missed approach and subsequent diversion to Brainerd; this, plus the legally required reserve of 45 minutes gave us minimum landing fuel of 4500 lbs. The Captain added on several hundred pounds of fuel for delays we'd likely experience while being vectored for the approach, and from this calculated our "bingo" fuel for every point on our flight plan. When we were assigned holding, we already knew our minimum fuel to leave the hold: 5600 lbs. We entered the hold with 7500 lbs fuel, enough for about 45 minutes of holding. We were told to expect a hold for at least an hour.

We were holding quite near Brainerd, our alternate airport, so we listened in to their ATIS. They were reporting 1 1/2 miles visibility in moderate snow. That's well above the minimums for the ILS approaches to runways 23 and 34, but barely above the minimums for the GPS approach to runway 5, which the winds were strongly favoring. The winds were barely below the crosswind limits for runway 34...assuming it was merely wet, and not yet contaminated by snow or slush. This was setting off all sorts of alarm bells in my head, and I was happy to find the Captain on the same page. I text-messaged our dispatcher requesting a new alternate, and, mindful of their lack of assistance during my last divert, started pulling up weather for potential airports myself.

This time the dispatcher did return our message promptly, but we didn't like his suggestion of LaCrosse for a new alternate. Once again, the winds strongly disfavored the single runway serviced by an ILS approach, the marginally better runways have much higher minimums, and the one (rather short) runway that the winds favored most has no instrument approach at all. Besides, the storm was coming from the south and LaCrosse was right in the thick of it. I suggested to the Captain that we take a look at airports further to the north, ahead of the storm. I recalled from long-ago experience that Duluth's main runway has an ILS in its easterly direction, so I checked the weather there. Sure enough, although the winds were even stronger than Minneapolis, they were aligned with the 10,000 ft runway and the weather was otherwise excellent. Duluth isn't much further from Minneapolis than Brainerd so changing our alternate wouldn't greatly impact our fuel. I messaged our new plan to the dispatcher; he quickly agreed and sent us our new fuel numbers. Our new bingo fuel was a few hundred pounds higher but we realized it wouldn't matter in the end; it was obvious that rather few arrivals were making it into MSP.

When we decided on Duluth we still had about 20 minutes of holding fuel remaining, which we passed along to Minneapolis Center along with the change of alternate. The controller said he was doubtful we'd make it but he would put a bug in Minneapolis Approach's ear. While we waited we used a company frequency to talk to another NewCo flight holding 1000' above us; they were on the verge of diverting to Fargo. When we had five minutes holding fuel remaining, we again informed the controller and he told us to fly heading 360 - away from the airport - while he made one last entreaty to approach control. Shortly thereafter he told us we could expect the turn direct to MSP in two minutes, but one minute later reversed himself and said they weren't accepting any more arrivals from the north. He turned us direct to Duluth, now less than 50 miles away.

A divert is one of the more stressful things airline pilots do (short of actual emergencies), especially when the airport is nearby. The key is to slow down and give yourself time to do everything without rushing so much that you make mistakes, and to have a clear division of duties between the pilots. While the Captain flew and set himself up for the approach, I text-messaged our dispatcher to confirm the divert, briefed the flight attendants, made a quick PA to the passengers, and attempted to contact Duluth station operations. When I came back the Captain brought me up to speed on what had changed since I was gone, such as ATC clearances and his setup for the approach. I gave him a quick rundown of what I'd done, set up my instruments for the approach, and then we briefed the approach plate together. At this time we were rapidly approaching the final approach fix, so the Captain requested a 360 degree turn so we could complete the descent and approach checklists in an unhurried manner. We were finished by the time we were halfway through the turn, and then we broke out of the clouds and saw the airport. It was a rather leisurely visual approach since we had a 70 knot headwind at 3000 feet. The last few miles were pretty turbulent but the Captain made a graceful landing.

We weren't alone in thinking Duluth made an excellent diversion spot; several other diverted RedCo flights landed just before and after us. Seven airplanes quickly found themselves in competition for the airport's three gates. The ground controllers obviously weren't used to this and got pretty flustered rather quickly, giving us taxiing instructions that would've put us nose-to-nose with a A320 on a narrow taxiway. We challenged their instructions three times, becoming increasingly strident until they realized their clearance would've resulted in total gridlock in the terminal area. We requested and received clearance to taxi clear of the terminal ramp and await an open gate from a ramp across the airport. When the gate opened up an hour after landing, ground control gave us clearance to taxi to it as soon as a DC-9 under tow passed us on the taxiway; however, the tow crew was intending to drop the DC9 at our spot on the ramp and refused to tow further until we moved out of the way! The ground controller came to the verge of hysterics in compelling the tow crew to get their plane out of our way, and the comedy of errors had the Captain and I laughing to the point of tears.

By the time we got to the gate, the passengers had been on board for six hours; they were anxious to get off the plane. Then the ground crew told us that TSA had gone home so nobody could go outside the secured area, and there were no restaurants, shops, or even restrooms inside security. The Captain was told them that was utterly unacceptable; with Minneapolis' weather still down there was no telling when we'd be able to depart, and in the meantime we could have a JetBlue situation on our hands. The station manager said he'd call the TSA manager and try to get some screeners back to the airport; meanwhile we called the chief pilot and he said he'd make some calls. In the meantime we had to wait for our dispatcher to generate our release for the return to MSP; he was pretty overloaded so it took quite some time. Once we got the release, we called ground control for our IFR clearance and were told the earliest departure slot to MSP was in 90 minutes. By this time the winds had died down somewhat in MSP so they were back to 2-runway operations but they had a huge backlog of arrivals to get in. The Duluth station manager called the ATC liaison at RedCo's system operations control (SOC) and asked him to intervene on our behalf for an earlier slot time; he said he'd try but he was doubtful it'd make a difference. At an hour before our slot time, the TSA manager said he could have a security checkpoint open in a half hour, but by that time it wouldn't make sense to deplane because we'd be just about ready to depart - and if we missed this slot time there was no telling when another would be available. It was a pretty miserable choice to make but the passengers took it in stride when we told them. We'd been giving updates at 15 minute intervals ever since the diversion, and they seemed to appreciate being kept in the loop.

Fortunately, the flow control to MSP was cancelled 30 minutes before our slot time; we quickly completed our paperwork and closed up for pushback. It was Duluth's first time handling a JungleBus. They'd received the appropriate towbar only 2 days earlier and it was sitting in a box, disassembled, when we arrived. They did an admirable job getting us out quickly and smoothly. We fired up, taxiied to runway 9, and took off in winds gusting to 47 knots just as it began snowing. Two hours after we left it was 1/4 mile visibility in heavy snow.

The hop to MSP was just about the longest 45 minute flight of my life. It was turbulent, the radar was filled with yellow returns, heavy snow alternated with a deafening rain of ice pellets, St. Elmo's fire danced up and down the windscreen, and ATC was barely audible above all the static in the radios. We kept the cockpit floodlights up high in case we took a lightning strike. We diverted around the heaviest precipitation and then ATC turned us around and vectored us for a 40 mile final. It was rather anti-climactic when we spotted the approach lights several miles out and made an uneventful landing on a mostly uncontaminated runway.

I logged over 10 hours of flight time that day, which is legal since the 8 hour limit only applies to scheduled flight time. I really got off rather easy, as I only had two scheduled legs that day and was done when I got to MSP. My roommate Dan was the FO on the flight that diverted to Fargo, where his crew went through a saga rather similar to our experiences in Duluth. When he finally returned to MSP, he still had to fly a leg out to Kalispell, and logged even more flight time for the day than I did.

In the end it worked out for me. The extra flight time would've made me illegal for my scheduled start of Captain OE the next week, so crew scheduling dropped my scheduled day trip on Saturday, giving me the whole weekend off. My last day as a first officer was a Salt Lake City roundtrip that Friday, and I started Captain OE last Tuesday. More about that in my next post....

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Found Summer Part II

...Continuing the photo-blog of our spring break trip to Singapore & Malaysia...

On Monday afternoon, after a full day of sightseeing in Singapore, we collected our backpacks from the hostel and took the MRT to the north side of the island. Actually we stopped at Orchard Road first to buy beach towels, since we had neglected to pack ours. They were harder to find than you'd think...none of the department stores we tried stocked them. We ended up finding a RipCurl store that had a few in stock, for S$60. Ouch...I'll not forget to pack that next time!

After that we took the MRT to Kranji and a bus to the Causeway, where we cleared Singaporean and Malaysian customs. From the Malaysian side of the causeway we walked the half mile to Johor Bahru's rail station.

The great beach towel search delayed us enough that by the time we got to the station, the sleeping berths were all sold out and all that was left were 2nd class seats for the 13 hour overnight journey. Total cost for the trip from Johor Bahru to Kota Bharu - from the southern-most city in Malaysia to the northern-most - was RM 78 for both of us, or $25 USD.

The train was delayed for about an hour so we bought "dinner" (potato chips and hoho-like snacks) at the station's mini-mart and people-watched. The train arrived around 8pm. The 2nd class seats actually proved to be pretty comfy; they reclined pretty far. That, plus the long day and the rocking of the train, put us to sleep almost instantly. I love traveling by train, even though it's slower than other modes of transport in Southeast Asia.

The late train was actually a good thing because it meant we were still in the mountainous jungles of southern Kelantan when daylight arrived. We'd originally planned to ride the Jungle Line during the day, but our one day delay in Portland made it necessary to take the night train. The last four hours that we saw in daylight took us from the sparsely populated highlands on the Pahang border to the fields and villages surrounding Kota Bharu. The air conditioning in the rail car was downright chilly so I walked to the end of the car where the doors were open to let in the warm morning breeze. I chatted with some Malaysian guys having their morning cigarette; most were from around Kota Bharu or Tanah Merah.

From Kota Bharu's train station we took a taxi 80 km southeast to Kuala Besut, where we got in a speedboat to the Perhentian Islands, 25 km offshore in the South China Sea. With two 250 hp outboards on a 26' boat, it was a quick trip!

Pulau Perhentian is actually two islands: Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil (the Malay words for big and small, respectively). They're both rather small islands; Besar is no more than 10 sq km. Both islands have a mountainous interior with thick vegetation but are ringed by gorgeous white sand beaches. There are no roads and only a few scant footpaths around the islands, so transport is mostly by water taxi. There's an extensive healthy coral reef system surrounding the island, with abundant marine life including sea turtles and reef sharks, making for excellent snorkeling and diving.

There's one fishing village Kecil; otherwise all the development on the islands is made up of chalet operators, cafes, and dive shops. The swankier digs are on Besar's west side, while most of the budget places catering to backpackers are either on Long Beach on Kecil's east side or Coral Bay on the west side. Dawn and I stayed at Moonlight Chalets on the north side of Long Beach. A chalet with air-con and a private bathroom was RM50 per night (US $16).

There's not much to do on the island but sunbathe and snorkel or dive...which is how we got fried to a crisp our second day there. The full extent of Dawn's burn didn't become apparent until we were on our way home so we were still able to enjoy our remaining time on the island, albeit while seeking out shady places.

We stayed on the island from tuesday until friday, when we took the speedboat back to the mainland.

From Kuala Besut, we took a taxi to the Kota Bharu airport, where we non-revved on Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur and then on to Tokyo. The first flight was wide open but the 2nd was pretty iffy. Fortunately we got seats about 50 minutes before departure. Actually, we got seats together on all six flights we took during the trip (MSP-PDX-NRT-SIN and KBR-KUL-NRT-MSP). Our non-rev luck held out quite well, with the exception of the screwup that kept us from getting on the PDX-NRT flight the first day we tried it.

When Dawn got off the plane in Tokyo her feet had swelled up and blistered so bad she could barely walk. I was a little sore but otherwise no worse for the wear. It's weird, I'm usually the one who burns instantly, and I did a lot more snorkeling than she did the day we got burned.

Sunburns aside, it was a really nice trip, and a much-needed vacation from the Minnesota winter. Minneapolis got 9 inches of snow while we were gone, and another several inches of snow, rain, ice pellets, and slush last week. I was flying when that storm hit, but that's a story for another post.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Looking for the Silver Lining

I'm starting Captain IOE later today and am fighting to stay focused with all the hubbub surrounding Monday's announcement of the merger between RedCo and WidgetInc. I'm trying to stay positive. I'm pretty tickled to be upgrading, that's a good start. I figure I'll get in a decent bit of turbine PIC before the negative effects of the merger trickle down to NewCo. That was pretty much the goal. There's a strong worldwide demand for JungleBus-rated expat pilots, with some fairly lucrative contracts out there. That's reassuring.

And then I came across this little nugget at the merger website:

Will employees have reciprocal pass privileges on both airlines?

Employees will enjoy reciprocal pass privileges on both airlines’ worldwide networks, beginning as soon as possible during the regulatory review process.
WidgetInc has a much superior worldwide network everywhere but Asia, so I'm pretty psyched about that. Hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of the expanded bennies a bit while I'm still an employee!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Found Summer. It Hurts!

So that bit about wanting to "roast in the tropical sun blazing directly overhead" two posts ago? We took it a bit far. We returned from Malaysia today looking like that tropical sun got the best of us. In my case it just looks bad, but Dawn's feet got sunburned so bad they swelled up massively and she can barely walk. Last year we got mildly burned in Thailand but nowhere near this bad. Most of it happened in one long day on the beach where we didn't use quite enough sunscreen and didn't reapply quickly enough after snorkeling sessions. Oh well - it was still a good, relaxing trip. What little I saw of Malaysia interested me enough that I'd like to go back and spend more time there. Singapore was a pretty cool city, too, if a little freakishly clean and with more malls than you can shake a stick at.

I have quite a few photos to post; I'll break it up into a few posts.

Departure from Portland. The flight from Portland to Tokyo was wide open, but the flight from Tokyo to Singapore was oversold. We didn't know whether we'd be headed to Bangkok or Singapore until just a few minutes before departure. We got seats together the whole way, though.

We arrived in Singapore's Changi airport at 1:30am and decided to hang out there until the trains to the city started running in the morning. We tried to sleep but were mostly unsuccessful as we'd slept on both flights, so we got up and explored. What an airport! It's easy to see how SIN consistently wins "World's Best Airport" awards year after year. There are lots of comfy public lounges, dark corners with chaise loungers for sleeping, indoor and outdoor gardens like the Orchid Garden (top), tons of free internet terminals, and even free foot massage machines scattered about. Several gaming lounges (middle) offer free use of gaming PCs, X360s, and PS3s. Before heading into the city we refreshed by taking showers at the Rainforest Lounge (bottom) for about USD $5 apiece. I can only dream of such an airport in the US. I'm guessing it'll be built about the same time the US carriers start offering a Singapore Airlines level of service!

We took the MRT to the city at daybreak, rented a bunk at a hostel so we could stash our packs for the day, and headed out to explore. Our first stop was the Raffles Hotel, an oasis of colonial opulence built in the late 1800s. We even managed to hobnob in the lobby for a bit without getting thrown out. Perhaps the staff was feeling uncharacteristically egalitarian, as I don't think we look like the kind of people who are willing to plop down S$750 a night on a room, colonial opulence or no! Unfortunately the Long Bar was closed so I couldn't pass myself off as an alcoholic writer by ordering a S$18 Singapore Sling at 8am.

View of the Colonial District from Marina Bay. The building on the left is Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, a performing arts center that's a fairly new addition to Singapore's waterfront. Singaporeans themselves are rather split on the design's aesthetic merit - many refer to it derisively as "the Durian" - but I think it's about the coolest thing ever. Not only do the aluminum shades give the building its distinctive look, they have a very utilitarian purpose: without them, the building would cost much more to cool as the glass domes would create a greenhouse effect.

The CBD (central business district) is on the opposite side of the Singapore river from the Colonial District; it also fronts Marina Bay. At the river's outlet is the Merlion, commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board in the 60s as a way to marry Singapore's "Lion City" moniker to its nautical heritage.

We took a bumboat ride up the Singapore River a few miles from Marina Bay. It was touristy but still a rather cool & relaxing way to see the CBD & the old quays. The warehouse in the first picture is about all that remains of the miles of warehouses that once lined the Singapore River. For years they were the very epicenter of the city; as the river's importance to commerce declined the quays became one of the city's seedier areas. Now they've all been razed for or incorporated into the development of trendy shopping & entertaining complexes like Clarke Quay (middle) & Robertson Quay.

There's not much room left to build anything new around the river so the cranes have moved. The bottom photo is of the west side of Marina Bay; the city rather understatedly says that it's in "redevelopment."

The British, either to tamp down racial tensions or foster obedience in the natives (or both), separated Singapore's various ethnic/religious groups into their own enclaves: Chinatown for the Taoist and Buddhist Chinese, Little India for the mostly-Tamil Indian Hindus, and Kampong Glam for the Muslim Malays. These communities survive today although they are not quite as segregated as they were in colonial days. Each is dotted with fine old temples and mosques, as well as more recent churches as Christianity has made inroads among the younger population.

Next post: Our trip through Malaysia on the Jungle Line and visiting the Perhentian Islands in the South China Sea.