Saturday, November 28, 2015

Across the Sea

(Originally written back in August)

"So, you're an airline pilot, huh? Do you fly the big planes?"

"Eh, more medium-ish. 149 to 160 passengers."

"I see. What's your route?"

"It changes from week to week. I go all over the U.S., but probably 75% East Coast."

"Oh. Any overseas routes?"

"No, the plane I fly is pretty range limited. I do a little close-in international."

"Like South America?"

"No. Like Nassau."

Such is cocktail party conversation as a Mad Dog pilot. My 757/767 friends talk of Paris and Palau and Rio, and such exotic ports of call may well beckon in my near future, but for now I mostly ply my trade to places like Huntsville, Buffalo, and Columbus. I have not yet landed in the Great White North with my new company. I have flown turns to Nassau several times, but was rerouted out of my one overnight there. I've laid over in Kingston, Jamaica; a tropical paradise it is not. Atlanta-based Mad Dog driver friends report dreamy wanderings to Providenciales (Turks and Caicos), Montego Bay, and Grand Cayman, but I do not believe any MSP Mad Dog wrangler has ever laid eyes on those bejeweled realms. We do, however, fly to Cancun, Mexico, and in fact I have gone there twice, most recently this past week.

Cancun is actually about as International as our humble fleet gets, for it involves legitimate "offshore" flying. Our other Caribbean destinations involve going "feet wet" (our New York-Florida routes also go offshore more often than not), but always within 162nm of land. This is as far as we can go without life rafts, with which only a handful of the Mad Dogs are equipped. The Cancun route nearly always goes further out and thus requires the raft-equipped aircraft. I'm not sure how 162nm came to be the magic number, as it seems somewhat arbitrary, but I surmise it must somehow relate to the offshore capability of rescue helicopters. I'm not certain that I would want to be 161nm from land with nothing but a life vest keeping me afloat and marginally visible to would-be rescuers, but don't ever plan on testing this scenario in depth.

Our jaunt across the Gulf of Mexico also exposes us to the world of Class II navigation, meaning outside of the reception area of most VORs. Not to worry, the Mad Dog's modern navigation equipment frees it from dependence on obsolescent land-based navaids. No, not GPS, silly! A $50 burner flip phone may have GPS accurate to within a couple feet, but not the Mad Dog! We use Inertial Navigation System, or INS, for long-range navigation. We have to do a full realignment before such a long flight, and then check it against a trusty ground-based NavAid before launching out into the trackless ether.

We also fly outside of the reach of radar for a short stretch, right around the changeover from Houston Center to Merida Center. Thus, we get a little practice in making position reports, usually on first contract with Merida southbound or Houston northbound. This still takes place within voice VHF communications range - we don't have HF radios installed, much less the CPDLC datalink systems now commonly used for trans-oceanic communications. The only communications challenges on Mad Dog international flights are of the linguistic variety: Mexican and Cuban controllers converse with local pilots in Spanish, making it a bit harder to keep track of who's doing what (my high-school/traveler smattering of Spanglish helps); their accents when speaking English also vary considerably, from slight to barely comprehensible. You just have to listen carefully and make inquiries if anything isn't perfectly clear. Recording the ATIS usually takes a few loops, and you definitely want the captain listening in before attempting to transcribe your clearance.

On my next fleet, of course, there will be far more opportunities to do overwater flying. This is an airplane that we operate to five continents, and I see all five represented in the MSP bid packet. Of course I'll be fairly junior so it's likely the majority of my flying will be domestic, but I think I'll be able to occasionally sample trips that take me further afield. The variety of flying was one of the reasons I bid the new category. Dawn and I have traveled to many of the places that the Boeing flies, so it's not necessarily the attraction of visiting new places, but moreso the appeal of doing something completely different than I've been doing for the last twelve years. I'm both a night-owl and able to sleep almost on command, so I think I'll be able to adjust well to the schedules (fingers crossed). And, of course, far-flung flying adventures always make good fodder for blogging!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Not Quite Dead

Well, uh, sorry bout that folks - I went NORDO for a couple months, which had readers wondering and querying whether the blog was dead. Nope, it's not dead - it's just restin'! But I think its rest is just about over.

Here's the long and short of it. You may have heard that my airline had a minor labor kurkuffle this summer when our pilots - for the first time ever - turned down a tentative agreement (65%-35%) and subsequently pretty much overturned the apple cart at our chapter of ALPA. I took an active and somewhat visible role in the fight against the TA, heard through the grapevine that my name had come up in high places, and decided I'd better lower my profile for a little while. I wasn't about to stop writing for Flying, but figured I could take a little break from blogging until things settled down. Well, now that the dust has cleared, we have a new MEC Chairman, a new Negotiating Committee, and a lot of new reps - all this a full month before our current contract becomes amendable. I suspect the more traditional contract negotiation process we're about to enter will drag on for several years, as it has at other companies. I'm not going to refrain from blogging that long. Writing has a certain intertia to it. Start writing, and you'll tend to keep going. Stop writing, and you tend to stay inert. In reality I probably could have resumed blogging a month or two ago.

The good news is that I have a bit of a backlog of things to write about. I actually have a few already-written posts that I'll release over the next couple days, and then I'll reflect on my last days on the Mad Dog and the preparation for and first several weeks of 757/767 training (I'm about halfway through right now). In the meantime, you should definitely check out Flying's December issue. Besides my usual column, I have a six-page feature about the flying/sailing trip to the Bahamas that I think turned out really well. Enjoy!