Lost in Memphis
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.
"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.
"Uhhh...is 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!