Friday, September 28, 2012

Curse of the Last Day

I reached up to the overhead panel and flipped on the taxi light, with pitifully little effect; the beam was swallowed whole by the night. The tarmac was dark and wet, with angry little puddles whipped into foam by raindrops and incessant wind. Low scud clouds scooted overhead, smothering any sign of the impending daybreak and reflecting very little light from the slumbering airport. Taxiway and runway lights cast soggy halos that smudged together in an impressionistic blur, and even yellow signage was indistinct, shrouded in mist. "Geeze, always darkest before the dawn, eh?" I remarked.

"Charlie Four is that way," countered the more practically-minded Rob, pointing to a half-visible sign on my left. I nudged the thrust levers forward an inch, and the 75,000 pound airplane crept forward into the inky void of a deserted Pittsburgh International Airport. It was 6:15am, eastern time.

Ding, dong.

I had groped my way out to Taxiway Bravo when the high-low chime of the cabin interphone sounded. Rob and I exchanged glances as he pressed the answer button on his audio panel. I could only hear his side of the conversation: "Hi, this is Rob...oh, way to turn them off?...oh, I see...okay, I'll tell him." Rob hung up and turned to me in the darkened cockpit. "That was Bill" - our lead flight attendant - "and he says the cabin lights are completely screwed up. They turn off when he turns them on, and vice versa, except that sometimes only half of them do it, and they won't dim." I grimaced - such a typical JungleBus malfunction. In older airplanes, lights just burn out. In this one, they become possessed.

We told ground control we needed to pull off to the side to sort some things out, and he diverted us onto the even darker Charlie deice ramp. I set the parking brake, powered up my cell phone, and dialed Maintenance Control. As I suspected, the only reset procedure for the cabin lights was to power down the airplane and power it back up. This had to be accomplished at the gate. Rob called operations while I gave the passengers the bad news, and then we fumbled our way through the dark back to the terminal.

As expected, a three-minute power reset exorcised our electrical demons, but it took longer to sign off the logbook, re-enter our flight plan and performance data in the FMS, and realign the IRS. By the time we pushed back the second time, 45 minutes late, the clouds had lightened to a grim steely grey. We were engulfed almost immediately after takeoff, and didn't break out into bright sunshine until FL220. We were hoping to make up a little time enroute to LaGuardia, but New York Center slowed us down and then descended us early, back into thick, moisture-laden clouds. It was raining heavily at 10,000 feet; fat raindrops slapped the cockpit windows noisily. The usually spectacular Manhattan skyline swept by unnoticed, dank and sullen, as we strained to see LaGuardia Airport for the Expressway Visual. We spied it seven miles out and were immediately cleared for the sweeping arc around Citi Field that is spectacular fun on a nice day, but a bit stressful when you're struggling to see through the rain. Rob made a fine approach and landing.

After the usual stuttering LaGuardia taxi to the gate, we arrived nearly as late as we departed Pittsburgh. At least the gate agents were motivated for a quick turn: they began boarding within two minutes of the last passenger deplaning. I retrieved the paperwork from the gate podium and returned to the cockpit to begin preparing for our flight to Dallas. Just then a blue-shirted mechanic burst in through the cockpit door.

"We're changing your number four tire. We need everyone off the airplane."

Rob and I exchanged quizzical looks; he had just done the post-flight inspection and had mentioned nothing about a bad tire. "Show me," I said, and followed the mechanic out the door. The tire was indeed fairly bald, with little if any tread remaining in places, but there were no cuts and no cord showing through, which is usually the criteria that prompts a tire change. "They tell us to change them when there's no tread," the mechanic insisted. Fair enough; I wasn't going to argue with a mechanic taking the conservative course of action for once. I returned to the jetbridge to herd all the passengers there back up to the terminal, told the gate agent to stop boarding, then went back to the airplane and made a PA requesting that everyone on board deplane. The frustration on many of the passengers' faces was evident.

Nearly everyone was gone when the mechanic came bounding back up the stairs from the ramp. "We're not going to change it after all!" he exclaimed. "Maintenance control didn't realize you're taking it to Minneapolis today, we're just going to put it on RT for three flight cycles." I thought a minute; long, dry runways were awaiting us in both Dallas and Minneapolis. "Yeah, let's go."

The gate agent threw up his hands and laughed almost manically when I told him we were good to board after all. Bill had a crooked grin on his face when I returned to the airplane. "You know it's the curse of the last day, don't you?" Yeah, the thought had crossed my mind. This was day four of a four-day trip, and we were all eager to go home. It's pretty uncanny just how often that's a recipe for things to go wrong. The vast majority of my diversions and major mechanical events have taken place on the last day of a trip. I'm not very superstitious, but I've almost come to expect it.

But this time, our luck apparently turned.  The tire episode, while frustrating, didn't delay us by much. We still managed a 35-minute turn. After a relatively short-for-LaGuardia 30 minute taxi out, the flight to Dallas was pleasant and, with only 40 knot headwinds, a mere 3 hours 10 minutes long. Dallas gave us a good turn, we didn't get stuck behind any American jets being taxied by the bankruptcy judge, and we made it to Minneapolis only a few minutes late to enjoy the remainder of a stunningly beautiful autumn day at home. Not much of a curse, I thought...this time!

Friday, September 21, 2012


I haven't made the jump to an electronic logbook just yet. I want to, particularly every few months when I drag out my paper logbook to laboriously copy in entries, but the unenviable task of manually keying in my previous 9000 hours has thus far kept me from making the leap. But if I did have a fancy electronic logbook, I could whip out fun statistics like which airport I've landed at the most. I'm almost certain it's MSP. I suppose PDX and SEA would be close seconds from my time at Horizon, with the various other Alaska and WidgetCo hubs well represented.

But of non-hub airports, I'm guessing that I've flown into Vancouver BC (YVR) the most. It was a frequent Q400 destination from both Portland and Seattle, and it was one of NewCo's very first destinations; we've been flying there nearly continuously since 2007. I've bid it as much as possible, partly because it's one of my favorite destinations, and partly because the distance from Minneapolis makes for efficient pairings.

I've been back in Minnesota nearly five years now, and while I've come to a new appreciation of my native state, I do still miss living in the Pacific Northwest. The flight to Vancouver - across the Rockies near Helena, passing over Spokane, crossing the Cascades by Lake Chelan and descending just south of Mt Baker, then turning northwest over Bellingham - feels like a homecoming. Seeing the jagged peaks and emerald valleys of the North Cascades, the fir-carpeted islets of the San Juans set in the glittering Rosario Straight, and the snowcapped dome of Rainier floating serenely above it all puts a lump in my throat.

The city of Vancouver is one of my favorites anywhere in the world, the very image of what a modern world city nestled between the sea and a rugged wilderness should look like. Yeah, it's expensive, and you have the hassle of customs, and it's a bit of a hike from our crew hotel to downtown - but it feels like we've actually flown somewhere. Waking up in Omaha or Dallas or Louisville, you might as well have been teleported. If the layover is long enough, there's no shortage of things to do in Vancouver, whether it's barhopping downtown or walking in Stanley Park or hiking the Grouse Grind or watching seaplanes take off and land over a pint at the Flying Beaver. Even if you don't want to venture very far from the crew hotel, there's a lot nearby. I've never been bored in YVR.

The other thing about Vancouver is that the airport is quite easy to fly in and out of, considering it's the third largest city in Canada and its airspace is somewhat constricted by terrain and ubiquitous GA traffic. The downwind is seldom longer than 10 miles. They usually land us on 26R/8L, even when coming from the south, making for a short taxi straight into the gate. For some reason they restrict departures to 26L/8R, making for a somewhat long taxi out, but once you get to the runway you seldom wait more than a minute or two to depart. The departure off 26L is always gorgeous, with a big sweeping left-hand turn that takes in views of the Georgian Straight, Gulf Islands, Vancouver Islands, and Puget Sound to the south. Our usual departure takes us right over Mt Baker; I occasionally request a few miles deviation either side and give the passengers a nice view.

I had a regrettably short Vancouver layover last week, but the morning departure was as clear and beautiful as I've ever seen it. The sun was just peeking above the Cascades as we turned eastward, and by the time we were over Mount Baker all the snowy peaks were turned pink in the morning alpenglow. You could see as far south as Mt Adams, despite smoke from fires in that area. This was particularly exciting because that night, after my trip was over, I was flying back west once more for a weekend of hiking, dirt-biking, and beer-drinking with friends in Portland. The Pacific Northwest has had an exceptionally nice late summer; at one point Portland went 53 days without recorded rainfall.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other thing I like about YVR: our ground staff. The rampers, who are contractors and have been through some turmoil the last few years, are diligent, hard-working, and always ready to marshal us in when I taxi up. The WidgetCo gate agents are a friendly, helpful bunch, even for Canadians. Several are even readers of this blog. It's really nice to pull into gate 86 and see a smiling, familiar face at the jetbridge. This was a more common thing when we were a small airline and flew only a few places, but now we have so many destinations - and my trips are so varied - that there aren't many gate agents I'm on a first-name basis with anymore. YVR is a happy exception. 

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Being a morning person is a tremendously helpful attribute in an airline pilot, and I'm just not. Ever since adolescence, I've been a pretty serious night owl, with my peak hours typically occurring between 8pm and midnight. This worked well when I was freight-dogging, and may yet prove fortuitous to flying red-eye transcons and ocean crossings. In my present incarnation as a regional airline pilot, though, it's a bit of a handicap. We have a lot of early morning report times, especially in the ultra-efficient trips I like to bid, and I have to work to adjust my body clock accordingly. I can usually function well on six hours of sleep, assuming I started the trip without a sleep deficit, sprinkling in short naps as needed.

Even this means that those really painful 3am wake-up calls for a 4am showtime require getting to sleep by 9pm, which is quite early for me.  Last week I had one of those in Bismark, North Dakota, for a 5am flight to Minneapolis followed by an east coast turn. I was in bed by 9pm, and tossed and turned for hours on end before finally falling asleep, only to be jolted awake by my alarm clock seemingly only minutes later. A hot shower did little to clear the fog. I fought the nods during the 15-minute van ride to the airport. I chugged two cups of coffee before departure time. By the time we pushed back, I was wide awake and ready to assume my Captainly duties of groping around a dark, uncontrolled field under construction and then taking off into inky skies and darting around a large line of storms - but the fatigue was still palpable, a slow steady hiss in the back of my head that grew louder as the flight went on. By the time we were descending into Minneapolis, I was contemplating the possibility of a fatigue call to crew scheduling. They wouldn't like that this early.

 Minneapolis was appropriately quiet at 6am and approach control almost immediately cleared us to 4000 feet; I hustled down, anticipating a short approach. As we leveled, I spun the speed selector back to 200 knots, and at an appropriate speed commanded "Flaps 1." The FO reached for the flap handle and slid it back into the first detente. Normally this results in a 10-second sequence of the slats moving 15 degrees down, followed by 5 degrees of flaps, during which the airplane pitches down appreciably as the lift devices enable a lower angle of attack. Instead we were immediately rewarded with a loud "ding!," flashing yellow master caution lights, and four messages displayed on the EICAS:


As I reached to press the caution switchlight to cancel the alarm, the first thought that sprung into my head was "why now!?" Readers who have flown the CRJ series will laugh at this, but I've never had to do a real-life zero-flap landing in the JungleBus. I've had a few friends who've done it, and they said it wasn't too bad, but things happen pretty quickly and you touch down uncomfortably close to the JungleBus' 195 knot maximum tire speed. It didn't sound like something I really cared to do with my brain fogged in from lack of sleep and the still-early hour. This indulgence lasted for maybe two seconds before a deeply-seated imperative forced its way up through my sleep-clouded consciousness and crowded everything else out: "QRH!"

"I have the airplane and the radios. Slat Fail QRH, please." The FO already had the spiral-bound, plastic-tabbed rectangular booklet that is the JungleBus' Quick Reference Handbook out and was thumbing to the appropriate page. The Slat Fail checklist seemed like the natural place to start, as the failure happened while we were deploying slats and the other messages were all related to them. I spun the airspeed back up a few knots to give us more margin from the now-undepicted stall speed. While the FO began reading the checklist, I told Minneapolis approach that we had a malfunction we needed to diagnose and requested an extended downwind. No problem, the controller said, and asked if we were declaring an emergency. "Not at this time, but we'll keep you posted." A zero-flap landing would likely merit the precaution of rolling the trucks. 

It turned out to be unnecessary. The very first step in the QRH was to return the slat/flap handle to its last position - UP - and see if the messages cleared. They did. The second step was to extend the slats again and see if the messages returned. The slats and flaps deployed normally this time. "Proceed with normal operations." QRH complete. We thanked Minneapolis Approach for their assistance, and they turned us onto a 25 mile final for an easy visual to 30R. 

So it turned out to be a complete nonevent, one of those things that happens pretty routinely when flying an electronic airplane like the JungleBus, a quick control-alt-delete fix-it. It's doubtful any of our passengers even noticed the extended downwind. It was part of the "almost nothing worth blogging about" I mentioned in my last post. It didn't even interrupt our trip, for although I wrote up the malfunction and it almost certainly required computer replacement as it was the second occurrence in four days, we were scheduled to swap to another airplane anyways. The primary, rather agreeable result of the incident was to provide just enough of a diversion to jolt me into full useful consciousness. I didn't feel the least bit tired afterwards, and flew a pleasant turn to Hartford and back to finish the trip. 

But that's really the point of the procedural, aircraft, and training safety systems we have in place. They turn most potential events into non-events, because there's seldom any doubt about what to do. Even a fatigue-addled brain automatically knows through repetition to fly the airplane, call for the QRH, and coordinate with ATC while the non-flying pilot runs the checklist. Had the slats not healed themselves and we actually had to perform a zero-flap landing, even this would have been relatively easy because the guidance on how to do it is quite explicit, and I've done it a number of times in the simulator. Over the years, I've occasionally decried the lack of emphasis on stick and rudder skills and common sense in pilot training, but the flip coin to that is that turning airline pilots into checklist-reading automatons has itself undoubtedly done a great deal for safety.