Posts Tagged ‘crew life’

Scatter plans and diversions, Part Three: On the ground at EWR

Monday, March 14th, 2016

This is Part Three of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Read Part One here. Read Part Two here.—Ed.

Finally, after an hour on the ground, we got airborne from ALB, going to EWR, for what was scheduled for a 25-minute flight on paper. We had added a few thousand pounds of extra fuel to pad our margins, and it turned out to be a good idea. The ride to EWR at 12,000 feet was awful. Everyone was getting vectored all over the sky. It was bumpy, rain was pouring, and the radar display didn’t show any  good options. Nearly every flight was refusing some of the assigned headings. To add to the fun, one of our controllers suffered a headset failure, leaving us with no communication for a few seconds while controllers switched stations, then switched back. At least we didn’t have to take a bad heading for a few seconds. That said, the turns and altitude changes that came were of the urgent variety.

At long last, we were vectored over Teterboro for the ILS 22L. Unfortunately, some of the worst weather was between us and the airport. We discussed and reviewed the wind shear escape maneuver, and we both expected to have to use it. It would probably add another 30 minutes to the flight get re-vectored for an approach while waiting for the weather to clear the final, but so be it.

In the rain, the airplane just didn’t want to descend. It felt as if we were suspended from puppet strings thanks to an updraft.

Finally, we moved forward and started down. We’d been told to expect significant airspeed fluctuations at 900 feet. But as is usually the case in aviation, any news is old news. The weather was moving toward the airport. The airspeed fluctuated 10 to 15 knots in both directions all the way down the final. The captain handled it with aplomb, and this time we were in the clear at around 700 feet. It felt like VFR after our approach to ALB.

We finally landed almost an hour after we had taken off, and as we taxied to the gate, reports of wind shear on the final began to pepper the radio. I don’t know if anyone else had to divert or go around, and by that point I didn’t care. We were on the ground at our destination. We’d earned a year’s pay on two flights. We were tired. We shut down the airplane and packed up our stuff.

I was the last one off the airplane. As I walked into the terminal, one of our passengers said with genuine appreciation, “Thanks for getting us here.” Our experience had helped us make the safest decisions. Our skill had helped us in flight. The company scatter plan had worked to minimize the disruption, big though it was. Our work had paid off. I was suddenly consumed with exhaustion, but I looked at our passenger and said, “You’re welcome.”

Our trip wasn’t in the brochure, if you will. But it’s a necessary part of the job. And we had completed it legally and safely, if not expeditiously. The entire system had worked: the airlines operation, ATC, you name it—all the pieces had come together. My flight home had cancelled, so I crashed for the night, took a shower, and left in the morning…on time.—Chip Wright

Scatter plans and diversions, part one

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

This is Part One of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Parts two and three will appear in the coming weeks.—Ed.

StormI was recently working a trip that involved some bad weather at the destination. Further, because we were departing a geographically challenging airport (Eagle County Regional [EGE]), which is a high-elevation airport with a mountain at one end, we were limited in the amount of fuel we could carry so that we could maximize our payload. When the aircraft started holding for Newark, we were severely limited in the amount of time that we could spin circles in the sky.

Our scheduled alternate was Albany International (ALB), just a few minutes north of Newark Liberty International (EWR). However, our hold was on an arrival that begins closer to Cleveland. At this point on a flight, the perspective of the crew and the company often begins to diverge. When the weather is down and airlines know that diversions are likely, they need to be fairly strategic in choosing alternates. Otherwise, crews will all race for the same couple of airports. For instance, at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, the closest and often the “best” is Lovell Field (CHA) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unfortunately, CHA quickly gets overwhelmed, and it takes far longer than it should to get the airplanes refueled and on their way. Crews like CHA because its close proximity means they can hold longer, thus improving their chances for getting into ATL on the first try.

My company has been using a “scatter plan” in which computer software tries to selectively spread out the diversions so as to avoid overwhelming one or two airports while minimizing the risk of a diversion (and minimizing the turn time when a diversion occurs). Other factors may include selecting a diversion that also happens to be the final destination for a number of connecting passengers.

Scatter plans aren’t without problems. First, the weather needs to cooperate. Second, so does the crew. In our case, ALB was a legal alternate, but the weather wasn’t very good. It was right at legal minimums. We started collecting ATIS reports for Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Several had either great visibility with a low ceiling, and some had a poor selection of both (in the Part 121 world, visibility is all that matters). When we contacted the company about Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), the best option, we were told that the ramp was full. Getting to ALB also meant flying through the worst of the weather.

This brings up another issue: crew legality. The company also needs to take into account which crew members may run into duty time issues. One of our flight attendants had started so early in the morning that she didn’t have a lot of time with which to work. Second, I was on my sixth day of flying, so an abnormally long delay in PIT—a very good possibility—was going to strand me as well. Further, the airplane would be stuck until they could bring in another first officer, because I would not legally be able to fly the next day.

As we began studying the weather, we pushed for a change in the alternate. The ALB weather was dropping, as was our fuel load. But there were not a lot of options. Finally, our dispatcher, who had a much bigger picture than we did, sent us to ALB. So, off we went. Could we get in, and how long would we be there?—Chip Wright

When the company airplane is your airplane

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

One of the perks of being a pilot is the ability to do things that others can’t do—specifically, taking an airplane to travel in a fraction of the time that it takes to do so in a car, while enjoying a unique experience that can only be had in the air.

There are myriad reasons to want to make a career out of flying: the mental and physical challenges of mastering flight, the financial rewards, the opportunity to command some of the largest machines ever made. One of them becomes more obvious as you get more involved, and that is taking advantage of the free travel while working. Talk to any pilot or flight attendant, and one thing we all do is take full advantage of layovers to schedule our trips.

I grew up in Maryland, and my parents stayed there after my sister and I left, thus breaking the law that says all seniors must move to Florida or Arizona. In my regional days, we used to have quite a few layovers in the D.C. and Baltimore areas. I would bid the trips to see my folks. Some of the overnights were fairly short and didn’t afford time for much of a visit. Others were long enough that I could go spend the night in their house. On those trips, my wife and kids would often travel out ahead of me to spend some time with the grandparents. It was beneficial for all of us.

When I was a first officer at Comair and newly married, I used to bid five-day trips with all Florida overnights. My wife, a teacher who hailed from Jacksonville, would spend the summers at her parents’ house and would come to Orlando when I was in town, which was three nights a week. Instead of going home on the days I was gone, she’d stay with friends. Our company hotel got to know her so well that she’d walk into the lobby and they would recognize her and give her the key to my room. It was a great deal for us.

For a couple of years, I was able to get long overnights that allowed me to visit my sister and her kids.

I still take advantage of this little perk, bidding trips that take me to places where I can visit friends I haven’t seen in years. It’s one thing to keep in touch on Facebook or via phone, but it’s something else entirely to spend time together in person. If it’s someone whom the expression “a little goes a long way” (and let’s face it, we all know those people), short visits are a handy excuse for getting to bed early.

Recently, I was able to use an overnight to visit a good friend who has had a major health scare. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it was a reminder that this job is a real blessing when it comes to the ancillary benefits of what we do. Likewise for one of my flight attendants who was able to overnight in her home town and surprise her entire family with a visit on Christmas Day.

Often times, the fact that you’re paid to do this suddenly just doesn’t matter.—Chip Wright

So, what goes on up there?

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

I am frequently asked a lot of questions about life as a pilot. One of the most common is, “What do you actually do up there for most of the flight?” Most people understand that the autopilot is flying the airplane for most of the trip, and the crew is in more of a monitoring role, so the question is understandable.

The answer depends on the kind of flying. On short legs, we’re pretty busy on the radio, and we set up early for the approach, check our weights and speeds for landings, and make any special requests for the station to address (lav services, wheelchairs, et cetera). On longer legs with a lot of time spent in cruise, there is more freedom to do various things.

Back up to the first flight together as a crew. Especially at larger airlines, it isn’t uncommon for a pair of pilots to fly together only once. This means that the first time they meet for the trip may be the first time they’ve ever met, and they will spend some time getting to know one another. Pilots being pilots, it isn’t unusual to meet someone and hit it off like you’ve been BFFs since grade school. At other times one of the crew may be more reserved, but there is still a getting-to-know-you period. In no particular order, you can count on certain questions coming up: Where are you from? How long have you been here? How do you like it? Did you bid this trip? What’s your flying background? And so on.

The first leg or two usually consists of a lot of banter about company goings-on, rumors, new developments, or big announcements made or expected. There is a lot of chatter about family life, common interests, etc. Most pilots will try to avoid certain subjects, such as politics or religion, but some can’t resist the temptation. There are a lot of “Have you flown with…?” stories, and usually a few laughs get shared about someone doing something funny or dumb.

But very personal information gets shared as well. If you spend three or four days or longer in a room the size of a phone booth with someone else who has a tendency to dress like you do, it’s inevitable that you get to know—and share—more than you ever thought you would. Personal fears, secret desires, or just plain secrets get shared. I’ve heard stories of affairs, unplanned pregnancies, crazy tax schemes, you name it. The unwritten rule is that what is said behind that door stays there (except for anything criminal), and most of the time it does. There is a certain sanctity within the cockpit.

And, as you might expect, locker-room style talk and behavior takes place as well.

On longer legs or trips, it isn’t all chatter. There are certain record-keeping requirements for fuel or certain minimum equipment list (MEL) procedures. On long international legs, it isn’t unusual for pilots to read or do crossword puzzles just to keep themselves alert.

But, like the proverbial light switch, when the situation calls for professionalism, that’s what you see. Whether it is a mechanical problem that becomes apparent, or a regular checklist or a weather deviation, pilots never forget who they are and where they are, and when the situation calls for it, the shenanigans are discarded and attention is focused on the job at hand.

It isn’t always work and it isn’t always play…but most of the time, if nothing else, it’s fun!—Chip Wright