Thursday, October 22, 2009

New Kid on the Block

"Atlanta Ops, "NewCo Fifty-eight seventy-six."

The operations frequency is quiet.

"Atlanta Ops, NewCo 5876, over."

Still nothing. I wait thirty seconds before keying the mike again.

"Atlanta Ops, NewCo 5876, anyone home?"

Finally, the silence is broken by an anonymous jokester: "You must be new to Atlanta, generally call twice before giving up, landing, and taxiing around aimlessly until someone marshals you in!"

As a matter of fact, we are new to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world's busiest airfield and our new corporate overlord's largest hub. NewCo started service from ATL to CLT and SDF on October 1st, so this is the first time flying in for both my FO and I. In fact, this four day trip has us flying in and out of Atlanta multiple times; not until the last day do we see any of RedCo's hubs, a very rare occurrence indeed. When I first saw this trip, I tried to trade out of it simply because flying anywhere on the fourth day of service is begging for complications. I prefer to let other people work out the kinks and report back before I sally forth into the unknown. This time, though my guinea pig role was unavoidable thanks to inadequate reserve coverage to do any trip trading, a semi-permanent state of affairs at NewCo.

Flying to any airport for the first time is bound to get an airline pilot's blood pressure up just a little bit. I know there are dozens of corporate pilots rolling their eyes at that statement, and yes, we airline pilots have it easy flying into the same couple dozen airports most of the time. I think the fact that we rely on our routines so heavily is the only reason we even batt an eyelash at landing somewhere we've never been. Knowing little things like the preferred arrival routes, most commonly assigned crossing altitudes, vectoring patterns, common taxi routes, location of gates, operations frequency, availability of services, and where to get your paperwork all cut down on workload and generally make everything run smoother. The first few times into an airport, you're collecting all these tidbits for future use. If it's a small, uncongested field, there's little stress because if there's something you're not sure about, it's a simple matter of keying the mike and asking someone.

An airport like Atlanta is another matter. The workload is quite a bit higher to begin with, giving you less time to look up information and think through problems. Air traffic control frequencies are congested and the controllers much less disposed to answering neophytes' dumb questions. There's certainly some peer pressure involved in that you don't care to look stupid in front of so many other pilots, particularly when your company is brand new to the airport. The consequences of screwing up are higher; a minor error that might go unnoticed or unpunished in Minot is more likely to earn you a trip to the chief pilot's office or a call from the feds when made in Atlanta. So while I'm comfortable flying in and out of other busy airports like DFW, IAH, PHL, EWR, and JFK, flying into a place like Atlanta for the first time does spark some apprehension.

Thorough preparation helps. On the first leg down to Charlotte, I carefully studied the charts for Atlanta. There are quite a few arrival routes, so I only looked at the most likely ones for an arrival from the northeast. The airport familiarization plates indicated that when landing east, 8L, 9R, and 10 are the most likely arrival runways, while 8R and 9L are primarily used for departures. Our company-issued airport information chart (we call it the "ten dash seven" due to its Jeppesen indexing label, 10-7) indicated that NewCo uses gates B11 through B19, which would involve a taxi to Apron Two or Apron Three. I traced possible taxi routes on the airport diagram, memorizing the names of the major taxiways paralleling the runways. Of course we will consult the diagram when ATC assigns us a taxi route, but knowing roughly where to look for a particular taxiway reduces head-down time significantly. Ramp control frequencies are one of the few things whose location is not standardized on Jepp charts, so I looked up the frequencies for Aprons Two and Three on the 10-9B chart and jotted them down. Moving on to the approach plates, I looked over the ILS 8L, 9R, and 10 charts. I noted that each runway also has a ILS PRM plate for simultaneous close parallel approaches. We're authorized for PRM approaches, I've seen the training video so many times I can almost recite it verbatim, and have flown into a number of airports with PRM approaches - but I had never actually flown one. Our ten dash seven didn't mention to expect PRM approaches so I didn't think much about it.

The flight from Charlotte to Atlanta is a fairly short one. Before departure, my FO and I talked over our assigned arrival route into Atlanta and expected approach there in addition to our normal clearance briefing. I pulled all the charts that I expected to use out of my thick Jepp binders and placed them in the ship's clipboard behind the Charlotte charts. There was little left to do. The weather in Atlanta was kind of lousy. It had been raining all day, and the ceiling was hanging around 800 feet. We took off from Charlotte and turned westward, popping above the clouds into the glare of the evening sun. I realized that we would be arriving around sunset, which would make for a darkened airport under the overcast skies. A rainy night isn't exactly the ideal time to grope your way around an unfamiliar airport.

Now, 100 miles northeast of Atlanta, I come back from my one-sided conversation with Operations to find that Atlanta Center assigned us a new arrival in my absence. Our dispatcher had filed the WHINZ One arrival, and Center wants us on the FLCON Three. I make a mental note to call our dispatcher after the flight to inform him of the preferred route as I entered the new arrival, get a thumbs-up from my FO, and hit "Activate." We are soon cleared to cross DIRTY at 14000, and begin our descent shortly thereafter. We decide that an ILS to 8L is most likely from this arrival, and I brief the approach. I put it in the FMS and we each set the frequency, inbound course, and minimums. After completing the descent checklist, I make a short PA and call Atlanta Operations again. This time they answer, informing us that we can expect gate B18.

When I reselect VHF1 in my comm panel, my FO is just checking in with Atlanta Approach. They inform us that we can expect a ILS PRM Approach to 8L. We both pull out the plate and start reviewing it for changes from the normal ILS. There aren't many: the primary difference of a PRM approach is the requirement to monitor a backup frequency on your VHF2 radio. Controllers are carefully monitoring all aircraft to make sure nobody strays far from their ILS, and if one does blunder into the "No Transgression Zone" the controller will issue an immediate breakout to any other aircraft nearby. The backup frequency ensures that a stuck mike or long-winded pilot cannot prevent the controller from promptly issuing breakout instructions. There are a few other considerations; we quickly read a PRM briefing page to review all the procedures.

We are almost to the point of turning downwind for 8L when Atlanta Approach turns us to a southerly heading, clears us direct to BOJAA, and tells us to expect an ILS PRM to Runway 10. We hunt around the arrival plate for the fix, find it, punch it into the FMS, get the autopilot recoupled to NAV, put the approach in the FMS, and dig through our charts for the ILS PRM 10 plate. By the time we have set up for the new approach and briefed it, Approach is already turning us for a tight-in right base leg. I quickly note our likely exit taxiway and potential routes for the long taxi back to the terminal complex. We are cleared for the approach, and I select the backup frequency in VHF2 and our comm panels.

We break out of the clouds just above 1000 feet to the welcome sight of approach lights guiding us to the well-lit runway. It is indeed dark down here in the driving rain underneath thick clouds. I move the windshield wipers to "fast" and the view clears a little. My FO makes a beautiful landing on the wet runway and we decelerate evenly to a crawl before I take the controls and exit on Taxiway Sierra Golf 14. It's a high-speed exit but I'm paranoid about turning too fast off of a wet runway, particularly at night when it's difficult to assess whether the runway is doing a good job of draining the water and staying uncontaminated.

Tower tells us to follow a WidgetCo 737 westbound on Sierra Golf, hold short of 9R on Romeo Three, and monitor tower one one niner point three. The 737 is already a ways ahead of us and taxiing rather fast. It's still raining hard and I can barely see the taxiway centerlines; even lighted taxiway signs are a little tough to spot. I reach taxiway Sierra Juliet in time to spy the 737 at its end turning left onto Romeo. I figure he'll be long gone by the time we get to Romeo Three but the route to get there is now obvious. We hold short of 9R for several arrivals before tower clears us to cross and contact ground "point seven five."

That controller clears us "November, Papa, cross 9L, Lima to the Ramp." I stop for a moment to verify the route on our map and the ground controller barks at us to get moving, we have traffic crossing 9R behind us. My FO assures me that it's a left turn on November so I make the turn before glancing at the airport diagram. We're basically taxiing back to the departure end of 9L to cross there, since all the departures use 9L at Mike Two. I would later discover that the north complex has a similar arrangement, using taxiway Victor to route arrivals around the departure end of 8R without getting in departing aircraft's way. This is rather different from most airports with inboard/outboard arrival and departure runways, like LAX; there, arrivals are usually held short of the departure runway around midfield and then crossed during a pause in the takeoffs. Atlanta's system results in long after-landing taxis, but also allows them to sling out departures at a very high rate.

NASA once did an aeromedical study in which they hooked airline pilots up to a variety of sensors and then measured how much stress they experienced during the various phases of a normal line flight. As expected, cruise flight was very relaxed, takeoffs somewhat stressful, and the approach and landing phase considerably more so. The surprise was that taxiing caused stress levels only slightly below landing, and parking the airplane registered the highest stress levels of all! This may surprise outsiders but it meshes with what every airline pilot knows: airline ramps are busy, chaotic places where you stand the best chance of bending metal in your career. You are maneuvering much closer to a wide variety of other airplanes, are often assisted by less-than-attentive wing walkers, and there are suicidal tugs, catering trucks, and bag carts constantly darting in front of you. Meanwhile you're looking for your gate, which is quite often occupied regardless of what operations and/or ramp control said, and likely has at least one piece of ground equipment out of position in the safety zone. Managing all these threats can be stressful on a bright sunny day, much less a dark, rainy night.

As we approach spot Two South, my FO contacts Ramp Control and they direct us into the west lane to hold abeam gate Alpha Five for traffic. A B757 is pushing from A9, and a MD90 is waiting for his gate to open up abeam B6. The B757 crew tells their tug driver to pull them forward enough for us to slip over to the east lane between him and the MD90, and on to our empty gate. As we approach the gate, wingwalkers sprint out to their positions, to my astonishment. I would see this performance repeated at the B gates several times over the next few days. When I mentioned this to a WidgetCo pilot, he laughed and said he's never seen a ramper hurry in Atlanta. We just happened to have an exceptional supervisor with a motivated crew.

What we do not have, however, is a marshaller. We stop and wait. Nobody shows up. There is a green light above the gate. Do we use an auto-park system in Atlanta? Our company ten dash seven page doesn't say anything about it... but those pages tend to omit a lot of helpful details in the early stages of service to an airport. Eventually the light turns red and a marshaller appears and vigorously waves us in. Well, okay then. I throttle up, glide into the gate, brake to a gentle halt, and then we go through our parking flows and checklist. After the passengers have deplaned, the friendly ramp supervisor comes up and tells us how to use the auto-park system. Would've been nice to know that beforehand, but he's been dealing with enough puzzled NewCo pilots over the last few nights that he knew to jump in right away and marshal us manually. I later find details on the auto-park system in a bulletin that the company quietly slipped into the FOM.

When I walk out of the jetway, the gate area is a sea of humanity; it's going to be a full load to Louisville. The paperwork is still printing so I saunter up the B concourse, scoping out the food court and grabbing a coffee. I reflect on the short flight. It was a pretty normal leg, really, even with the weather and the PRM approach. It was only stressful because I didn't completely know what to expect beforehand. Over the next few days, I fly in and out of Atlanta several times, and it gets easier and easier as I learn how they do things. For an airport handling 2700 flights a day, everything flows pretty smoothly. Of course I haven't seen Atlanta during thunderstorm season yet; I'm sure that'll be the source of a few good blog posts come next summer.

Monday, October 05, 2009


"NewCo fifty-seven fourteen, holding instructions for you, advise ready to copy."

My First Officer looks up from the FOM he is studying in preparation for an upcoming training event and gives me a quizzical look. "Was that for us?" he asks.

"NewCo 5714, you copy Minneapolis Center?"

Well shoot, it was for us. NewCo recently switched their flight numbers from the 1800-2099 range to the 5700-5999 range, and I'm not quite used to listening for the new numbers. I grab the release and a pen. "Center, NewCo 5714, sorry 'bout that. Ready to copy."

"Minneapolis Center clears NewCo 5714 to SKETR intersection, hold southwest as published, twenty mile legs approved, expect further clearance two two five five zulu, time now two one five niner zulu."

I read back the clearance and begin entering the hold into the Flight Management System by selecting "Hold" from the NAV page, then entering it over SKETR on the Flight Plan page. This brings up a form where I enter the inbound course, leg length, holding airspeed and altitude, and expect further clearance (EFC) time. Punching the 6R line select key inserts the hold into the flight plan, displaying the proposed route in white dashes on my MFD's map display. My FO looks over to verify that the hold looks correct, gives me a thumbs up, and I hit 6R again to activate the flight plan. The FMS takes about ten seconds to recompute everything - I've become so used to it that I no longer make 286 processor jokes - and then displays the hold in solid white on the map display, signifying that it is indeed active. At this point, the FMS will automatically choose the correct holding entry, enter the hold, and continue until we tell it to do otherwise. It's a mockery of all that holding practice over NDBs in 30 knot crosswinds that I did as a young pup.

"Wonder what's going on in Minneapolis?" my FO muses. I shrug and request a new D-ATIS from the FMS' ACARS menu. It takes about thirty seconds to pop up; it's still the same ATIS I pulled up about 30 minutes ago. The weather isn't too bad: 2100 foot ceiling, eight miles visibility, winds out of the north at 15 knots. That last item is likely the cause of the delays. Runway 12L/30R is under construction, and Minneapolis is down to three runways that all intersect or nearly intersect each other: 30R/12L, 35/17, and 4/22. So long as the weather is nice and the winds are light or from the south, ATC can keep things humming along smoothly with approaches to runways 17 and 22 (land and hold short of 17) while they fire departures off 12R in quick succession. Meanwhile ground control lines up all the crossing traffic on each side of 12R and crosses them en masse whenever departures pause for an arrival to 22. It's a thing of beauty to watch when everything is running smoothly.

It doesn't take much to mess up the plan, though. Marginal weather takes away Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO) so that the arrivals must be staggered, or else ATC will use 17 as the sole arrival runway. If the ceiling gets much lower, it takes away both 22 and 17 for arrivals since those runways are served only by localizer approaches with fairly high minimums. In this case arrivals use 12R and departures use 17, which really gums up the works. Winds from the north, while not as problematic as a low ceiling, do also slow things down. Since the construction began in early September, ATC has become very good at predicting how the weather will affect the maximum arrival rate and issuing ground holds accordingly to make sure the arrival banks don't all arrive at once. This is only the second time I've had to hold so far.

Entering the hold into the FMS automatically changed the Estimated Time of Arrival and Estimated Fuel at Arrival display to reflect the extra 45 minutes of holding at FL240 and 230 knots. It's a nice feature that can make a captain lazy. However, I'm rather mistrusting of machines in general and of the JungleBus' Flight Management System in particular. If there's anything I've learned in two years of flying the JungleBus, it's to not believe a thing its computers tell me. Every software patch that fixes one bug seems to introduce two new ones. It's very reliable for navigating from point A to point B, it's just the theoretically labor-saving features like VNAV and fuel management that give us plenty of "what's it doing now?" moments.

Therefore I pick up a pen and paper to do some quick and dirty figuring. I conclude that this time the airplane is not lying to me and we will indeed land right at what I consider to be our minimum arrival fuel - 5200 lbs, enough to go to our alternate of Rochester plus 3000 pounds of reserve fuel. This is slightly more than the minimum fuel shown on the release, because their reserve is based upon 45 minutes of long-range cruise at 10,000 feet and is generally 2200-2400 pounds. I don't ever want to land with that little fuel in the tanks so I use a more conservative number. I add the fuel burn from SKETR to the airport to that minimum arrival fuel, throw in a few extra hundred pounds for vectoring, and write down our "Bingo" fuel number on the release after discussing it with the FO. We will reach it right at our current EFC time. Fortunately our dispatchers have been very liberal with holding fuel throughout the construction.

It's time to let our dispatcher know what's going on. I text him our holding point, EFC, altitude, fuel on board, and my calculated bingo fuel. A few minutes later he texts back an acknowledgement along with his own calculated bingo fuel, which of course is 800 lbs less than my number. We enter the hold and I make a short PA to the passengers about the delay.

After about twenty minutes in the hold, I start hearing Minneapolis Center extending other flights' EFC times. Several divert to their alternate airports. I query whether our 2255Z EFC is still holding up, and Center replies that it is - for now. I check the Minneapolis weather again. It's still good. The reality is that my bingo fuel number is a little more conservative than it needs to be, because it assumes that I'll be vectored for the approach, fly it to minimums, go missed approach, and then fly to Rochester. Diverting from SKETR - or even from any part of the downwind or base leg for Runway 35 - will require a lot less fuel. My FO and I discuss the fact that an alternate isn't legally required; we could have our dispatcher remove it and hold for a while longer, but still divert once we got down to 3000 lbs plus the fuel needed to reach Rochester. In the end, I decide not to officially remove the alternate, but to use our dispatcher's bingo fuel number instead of mine. The reality is that once we get past SKETR, the likelihood of a diversion drops to near zero and some 4600 pounds of fuel in the tanks on landing in MSP is plenty in this situation. The difference gives us almost twenty extra minutes of holding.

It turns out that we don't need it; as if to mock all my contingency planning, Minneapolis Center clears us past SKETR twenty minutes before our EFC, and we land with 6200 pounds of fuel remaining. It takes us a while to reach our gate on the G concourse because the departure lineup for 30L extends all the way to Runway 22! Thankfully, the backlog has mostly cleared out by the time we leave an hour later. I smile as we climb westward into the setting sun. We're going to Montana, where the beer is good, the gate agents are friendly, and even airports under construction are blissfully delay-free.