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!

17 comments: said...

Really enjoyed the post, and actually went to airnav to get the full MEM airport chart to print out and followed along with your "adventure" around most most of the taxiways at Memphis.

I do the FlightSim thing and every time one of my FlightSim friends tells me that doing a computer game is the same as really flying, I tell them this:

"You are nuts... we can always hit pause... stop to check a chart, we have the red dots (simulation) to tell us where to taxi if we want, don't have to be careful about fuel calculations (that a real airline would want us to abide by... to save fuel)..."

Please keep up the posts. Long time reader and very much appreciate all you have done to progress in your profession and what it takes to be a commercial airline pilot.

Anonymous said...

Had to happen once Sam, still, more experience for you.
Take care.
Bill au

PlasticPilot said...

At least you did not infringed a runway...

Sorry if I look a bit pedantic, but what about briefing ? My instructor always want me to know in advance where to taxi, and how.

About switching frequency, a "funny" airport is Zurich (LSZH). You land and vacate 14 with "Tower", switch to "Apron North" for taxi, then back to "Ground" to cross 28, and finally "Apron South" for parking... For convenience, and to mislead pilots, the two "Apron" frequencies differ by only on digit.

Thanks for sharing.

twominuteturn said...

I like the comment to the PAX! "I hope you've enjoyed the tour!" Very smooth indeed.

Also glad to see you write again. It's been a while =)

Pilot said...

It happens ...

Anonymous said...

Maybe if you treated your FO with a little bit more respect, he wouldn't be afraid to speak up when YOU are the one making a mistake. I guess this is what the flying public can expect with a $60 an hour captain and $23 an hour FO transporting them around the country.

Sam said...

Hello, anonymous. My name is Sam. Pleased to meet you.

Tom said...

really enjoyed your post, thank you for being so honest. It makes for a much more interesting read and good information for people like me who are private pilots aspiring to where you are. And don't listen to anonymous, he sounds like a dbag.

amulbunny said...

What is it with men, maps and directions?
Glad you found your gate. 8-)


ps ignore anonymous, he's just jealous you got the left seat first.

ERJ Driver said...

If you are ever in htown drop me a line....i might be applying at compass soon, and would like to pick your brain.


zb said...

Great post. Sorry if I am pedantic, but from the diagram it looks like the runway you were crossing after landing on 18L was not 18R but 18C.

I konw this is easy to figure out while looking at the chart at home, so no offense, please.

I do appreciate the honest stories appearing in some of these nice aviation blogs every once in a while.

Andrew said...

Hey....if turning the wrong way on the ramp is your biggest mistake so far then I think you're doing pretty well!

Keep up the good work. I am hopefully going to go through the command upgrade proces myself on the Jungle Jet this summer so I am reading your blog with great interest. Thanks for sharing it all...


Steve said...

Can I assume the "Jungle Jet" is the ERJ?
I am not in the business and do not know that term.

Additionally, thanks for this post. I fly privately and when I make a mistake in taxi instructions, it makes me feel better knowing that I am not the only person out there wondering around new airport taxiways.

Windsor said...

MEM can be a mess sometimes. Good thing is that the flow to the runways is pretty simple. Once you've been there a few times, it'll just come natural.

The only good thing to ever come out of MEM airport is CORKY'S!!! Lenny's is a distant second.

Tracy said...

You can be guaranteed that you are not the first to turn the wrong way while taxiing around an airport. You certainly won't be the last. MAYBE you're the most recent, but that's not even guaranteed. You're just the most recent to admit to it in writing!

Hang in there. You made a great recovery and learned in the process. Can't ask for more than that.

Anonymous said...


At 1400 hrs your FO should definitely know when to switch frequencies. That said: I'm a new FO, but after a long career in another industry and time spent in the service, be very, very careful with the "rolling eyes" and shaking of the head at the "tender" age of 26. It's hard enough to garner any sort of respect at that age as it is.

Now that we have that out of the way, thanks for the post ;)

Sam said...


Thank you for the constructive criticism, I think that's what the first anonymous commenter was saying but couldn't resist the cheap shot in the process.

Up until I took the wrong turn, I hadn't been sarcastic or abrasive to the FO over the frequency switch (the head shake was a simple "no" shake, not the slow sad sarcastic "what has aviation come to" head shake). Like I said, up until that one incident he'd done a nice job on the trip, inexperience notwithstanding. The fact that he didn't know something fairly elementary, however, did prime me to be skeptical when he started to point out that we were in the wrong spot. And yeah, maybe the knowledge that he screwed up a few minutes ago made him more hesitant to speak up (even though I did not treat him disrespectfully as the first anonymous suggested).

I thought about it afterwards and realized that I could have handled it better by simply having him switch the frequency back, and then waiting until the debrief at the gate to mention that you should never switch to ground until tower tells you to. That would've left us both focused on the taxi and given me more time to choose my words carefully. Lesson learned for next time.