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!


MarkeyMarkBeaty said...

That's fantastic hahaha "everybody off!" .... "never mind! everybody get back on!"

I experienced my first delay the other day on a flight up to Cheyenne from Boulder CO in a DA40 - w/three passengers. Spark plugs fowled on taxi - had to run on the mag on high throttle to burn it off.

A good experience for my passengers to really understand why it's so common for flights to get delayed.

Jordan Delaney said...

Lol. Sam, you have a really awesome blog here. I read through almost every post like a book. It is truly fascinating the daily operations of an airline pilot.

If you get a chance, take a peek at my blog, specifically my post about my private pilot checkride, I also have a bit of experience with worn tires, unfortunately. Lol.

Blue Skies and Tailwinds,

Anders said...

I've been reading through some aviation blogs in my spare time, and though I have many more to sample, I'll be back for more reading. You've got a very engaging writing style.

- Anders

Cory said...


To be brief, I am but a stone's throw away from entertaining my first job in the transport environment aboard a name synonymous with a chapter of your life - Ameriflight. Though excited, I can't help but to endure those fleeting thoughts of worry when faced with the unknown.

In flipping through the pages I conjoined assumption with hope that your line experience with AMF, for better or worse, may provide me with some insight in the spirit of bettering myself for the task ahead.

If you find yourself with time for which no assignment has been made, I would enjoy borrowing some of it as picking through your knowledge base may give way to that rare instance where I actually walk away enlightened :)


Cory - MSP

sewa mobil jakarta said...

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Sam said...

Cory - sure, not a problem, just drop me a line at samweigel (at) gmail (dot) com.

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