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!


Sam said...

As an MSP/GFK based pilot in training, it is always a treat to see new posts! Your post help me keep my eye on the larger picture when I occasionally forget what I am working for, so thank you very much. Hopefully you have some posts coming on your new aircraft, because it is a childhood favorite of mine. Take care!

typingtalker said...

162 nm = 300 km.

Don't know where the 300 km came from.

Ron Rapp said...

Glad to see you blogging again! For a while I thought that you had given it up when the Flying gig came along. Not that I'd blame you, of course. If you're anything like me, time is in short supply. :)

Anonymous said...


Great to see the quill isn't dry! Dude, you'd think I'd be bored to read about something I already do, but I'm not. You capture airborne life and all of it's intricacies incredibly well and are able to keep the interest of the lay person as well as the pro's. Keep it coming brother!

I got my tailwheel endorsement at Stanton in N3785M, the PA12, during the summer of 2001. Slipping over the July cornstalks with the window open for a 3-pointer on 18...something that only someone with your talent with words can accurately convey.

Keep writing Sam. Whether it's here or for Flying, keep doing it.


Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, a lot of us were worried you had left us!

Flyboy said...

We regularly operate 400nm offshore here in Oz, in the Southern Ocean, without life rafts. Our(my) brief is that if ANYTHING at all goes wrong, we turn 90 degrees, to North and make for the mainland before pulling any QRH! There are a lot of big Noah's Arcs in that water!
Great to see you back blogging.