Friday, May 23, 2008

Lost in Memphis

Or, the amusing anecdote of a new captain's dumb mistake....

Although NewCo has been flying to Memphis for several months, I finally made it there for the first time last week. The trip had me deadheading to Memphis, flying to Phoenix the first day, flying to Memphis and Jacksonville the second day, and finally flying JAX-MEM and deadheading home the last day. The first two days went smoothly; the weather was beautiful in Phoenix and Jacksonville, and the thunderstorms stayed out of our way. The last day we had a short connection to our deadhead in MEM, about 40 minutes from block in until our deadhead flight's departure. Fortunately we departed Jacksonville on time and, being lighter than planned, climbed to FL360 and kicked the speed up to Mach .78. We landed 15 minutes before our planned arrival time, despite a long vector for final approach.

We landed on Runway 18L; I took control of the plane from my FO as we slowed through 50 knots and turned right onto taxiway E. I stopped on the taxiway, waiting for tower to tell us to cross 18R. The runway was clear, but the clearance never came. I glanced down at the radios and realized we were already on ground control frequency.

"Hey, did you switch us over to ground?" I asked my FO.

"Yeah, why?"

"Uh, did tower tell us to?"

"Um, no. Don't we just switch on our own?"

"No. You're always supposed to wait for tower to tell you to switch, that's in the AIM." I flipped back to tower frequency; sure enough, the controller was saying irritatedly "Newco, if you're listening you're cleared to cross 18R and contact ground." I shook my head as the FO read back the clearance. He wasn't a bad FO at all, but quite new to the JungleBus and with somewhat low total time, around 1400 hours. I don't know, maybe I didn't know that either at 1400 hours. I'm still learning plenty with over 5000.

Ground control told us to taxi northbound on Charlie, then turn left on Papa and hold short P2. I glanced at my airport diagram. I wasn't very familiar with Memphis' layout but located the relevant taxiways quickly. We were going to gate B31, which is located in Memphis' west alley. Memphis has three gate bays: the west alleyway between the A and B concourse, the east alleyway between B and C concourses, and "The Courtyard," a broad V-shaped space between them formed by a split in the B concourse.

As we approached P2, ground cleared us to "continue on Papa and then follow the A320 northbound on November, contact ramp." I slowed my taxi to allow the A320 to pass well in front of us, then turned right on November. The A320 turned right onto Tango, and I suddenly realized I wasn't quite sure if I was still supposed to be following him. I slowed to a near stop at the intersection and looked across what I thought was the alleyway; I squinted at an open gate and thought I read "B31" above it. I turned right onto Tango and then left on P2 and waited for my FO to call ramp control. I glanced over at him and he was giving me a strange look. "Call ramp control," I said impatiently as I stopped short of the ramp.

" this the right place?" he queried.

I was about half way through rolling my eyes when I realized he was right. Something didn't look right. That gate I thought read B31 actually said B21. And now that we'd turned the corner, it was apparent this ramp was way too wide to be the narrow west alleyway. It suddenly dawned on me that I'd taken a wrong turn and was now at the entrance to the Courtyard. "Oh, crap!" I exclaimed. Just then, the ground controller spoke up: "Uhh, NewCo, where are you going? You did say B31, right?"

I thought it over for a split second. There really wasn't any way to talk my way out of this one; best to simply fess up. I keyed the mic. "Heh, sorry ground. I took a wrong turn there. We need to head back over to the west alley."

"Uh, okay. Contract ramp control for the Courtyard, he'll get you headed back this way."

This was a different ramp controller than the one we'd been expecting to speak to; we fumbled for the frequency a few moments and then found it. We got permission to turn right onto the ramp to taxi to P1, where we again called ground and got clearance to taxi via Tango and November to the west alley, and finally called that ramp controller. He cleared us to our gate, which we taxied down to...and then waited for several minutes until rampers showed up! I figured I'd better explain the situation to the passengers. But what to say? "This is my second time to Memphis and I got lost!"? The situation called for a white lie.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Memphis. I trust you've enjoyed your tour of the airport today. There was some confusion about which gate the company wanted us at, but now they've assigned us B31, which we'll be pulling into in just a few minutes. Thanks for your patience."

While the traveling public never found out their Captain got lost on the Memphis airport, everybody on ground control heard my escapades. It was a pretty embarrassing mistake but easy enough for an unfamiliar pilot to make given ground control's somewhat ambiguous instructions to "follow the A320 northbound on November" and the fact that a RedCo A330 at the end of the B concourse was blocking our view of the west alley's entrance. The bigger issue was that I didn't simply set the parking brake and consult the airport diagram or query ground as soon as I had any confusion whatsoever about where I needed to go. There's a lesson learned for next time.

We still made the deadhead flight, but barely!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Four Striper

My fed ride on Monday went very well. It was a short flight from Minneapolis to Madison, with pretty good weather on both ends, and everything was working on the airplane, so it wasn't especially challenging; I just had to refrain from screwing up. I mostly succeeded, at least enough to convince the check airman and ADP that I'm safe to unleash upon the general public. The return flight to Minneapolis was a deadhead for me so they could check another Captain candidate. It was my first time riding in the back of the JungleBus. Overall it's a pretty nice ride, albeit a little noisier than I expected. Also, the ride in mid-cabin - on top of the spar - actually seems a little rougher than the cockpit. I didn't realize the extra length of fuselage had such a dampening effect. That's something to keep in mind when deciding whether to turn off the seatbelt sign or not.

Today I had my first flight as a line-qualified Captain, from Minneapolis to San Antonio, TX. I wasn't very apprehensive beforehand. After all, during the latter half of my OE the check airman was just acting as a normal FO with little instruction involved, so this should be the exact same, right? I guess it was in execution, but it felt surprisingly different. The closest thing I can compare it to is my first solo. Nothing quite prepares you for the eerie sight of an empty right seat on your first solo, and "play-acting captain" on OE certainly isn't the same as being in charge. It's not that I haven't thought of the responsibility of command before, I've done a lot of thinking on the subject. I guess I just didn't realize how jarringly aware of it I'd be as I taxied onto Runway 17 and pushed the thrust levers up.

This being my first flight off of OE, I was hoping I wouldn't get a new FO fresh off their IOE. Normally, captains with less than 75 hours in type have a restriction against flying with FOs who have less than 75 hours in type, a condition known at my company as "green-on-green." However, our operations specifications actually have a waiver that allows green-on-green flying. As the company gets bigger and expansion slows, the FAA will likely take away this waiver. Thankfully, today crew scheduling gave me a FO who's been on the line a few months and knows what's up. It helped when San Antonio Approach slam-dunked us into the airport today.

It was actually fairly entertaining to watch the FO do my former job. Because I flew with a lot of different captains both at Horizon and NewCo, I got a pretty good feel for the different techniques used by various captains. At Horizon, I jumpseated on the Q400 enough to also see other FOs in action. It was a valuable experience: I picked up some tips and tricks and it also made me aware of bad habits I didn't even know I had. I haven't had the chance to ride the jumpseat on NewCo yet so today was my first chance to see a line FO at work. There were a few minor differences in technique but for the most part it felt like watching a play of a script I know by heart. I'm interested to find whether FO technique is more uniform here than at Horizon. If so, I suspect it's because all the FOs are relatively new. As an FO, I found Captain technique to be almost as varied here as it was at Horizon (although, I should make clear, adherence to standardization is excellent at both companies).

As an FO, you get good at being a chameleon. You constantly adapt to the different Captains you fly with, within reasonable limits. They all have their quirks and preferences; the way I saw it, adapting to those was one way I could make the flying part of their job easy and free them to focus on Captainey things. Now that I'm a Captain myself, I have the leadership role; I set the tone and the pace in the cockpit. Just like observing different FOs made me a better FO at Horizon, having flown with lots of Captains will make me a better Captain. I can incorporate the best of what I've observed into my own cockpit. That said, I think Captains need to retain a certain amount of flexibility with their FOs. I hated flying with guys who nagged me over every nuance of technique when both of our methods were completely within the boundaries of standardization. It's worthwhile to pass along tips and tricks to FOs - indeed, mentoring FOs is an integral part of a Captain's job - but you need to make a clear distinction between technique and holy writ.

Like I said, I've recently thought a fair amount about what being a Captain really entails, and I'll write about it more in upcoming posts. That is, what little I'll have the time to write this month: I finished OE too late to bid, so the company built me a schedule with 11 days off and 97 hours of credit!