Menu

Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 27)

Human factors assumptions, part 1

As I write this, the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air Boeing 737 MAX accidents are still being investigated. While we know that the MCAS system is going to get the major share of the blame, there is also a push to change the way pilots are trained. One of the topics that has come up is one that was addressed in the movie Sully, the story of the USAirways dead-stick landing in the Hudson River, and that is some of the assumptions that go into aircraft and systems design.

Engineers—both hardware and software—creating a new design need to make some basic assumptions about pilot reaction time, knowledge, and experience. Reaction time delay is one of the most difficult things to predict. Modern aircraft are so dependable and so reliable that it’s easy to take them for granted. And that’s the problem: When something does go wrong, it’s critical that the time lag of a response be given adequate consideration. As Sully showed, when the crews in the sim knew exactly what was going to happen and when, and were allowed to respond immediately, they had no trouble getting the crippled A320 back to departure airport, especially when allowed to practice several times.

In reality, though, such events almost never go so smoothly—after all, who ever anticipates losing both engines to a flock of geese? Imagine dealing with the shock of some kind of a collision, followed by a marked change in the normal noise pattern of flight, and then the audible chimes and lights and other indications of an anomaly. Then, once that has begun to set in, the brain has to convince itself that what it is seeing or hearing is real.

Media reports indicate  this happened with the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crews. Additionally, it involved a system that the crew of the Lion Air flight was totally unaware of, and the crew of the Ethiopian Air flight was only marginally aware of. The noise of the stick shaker—which is extremely loud and distracting in the 737 by design—combined with the realization that the airplane was descending and trimming itself nose down must have been overwhelming. In both incidents, there was surely a realization at some point that the crew was unable to overcome the airloads in order to reverse the trim.

It’s one thing for designers to try to anticipate crew responses during the early phases of flight. But they also need to look at human factors from several angles, including crews that might be in the middle of a longer flight on the back side of the clock, such as a red-eye or a transcon. The effects of fatigue on sensory response need to be accounted for, which is another reason that some warnings are designed to be loud and attention-getting.

The type of fatigue matters too. Is the crew tired because it’s the last leg of a six-leg day, or is it because they are flying in the middle of the night? Crew experience also needs to taken into account. An experienced, well-trained crew is going to have a better response under virtually any circumstance, and there is reason to believe that at least one of the pilots involved in the Ethiopian Air crash may have been extremely low on the experience meter. Throw in a similar situation with fatigue or personal stress, and such an individual could easily be overwhelmed. It might impossible to account for every possibility, but realistic common denominators need to be established.

Manufacturers do what they can to test their theories and assumptions in the simulators, but there are limits to the effectiveness. Every pilot knows that during a sim flight, something will go wrong. They may not know what, or when, or where or how, but they are primed for a surprise, so even the surprise isn’t a total surprise. Further, when you know that you’re in a box, you know that you’re eventually walking away. That means that the effect of full-blown fear and panic is almost impossible to test for or measure.

There has already been much discussion about human factors assumptions moving forward as result of these accidents, and it’s a discussion that will go on for some time. Checklists and procedures are already being retested, rewritten, and studied. Pilots have complained for years that inexperienced cockpit inhabitants—usually first officers—are unable to cope with a sensory onslaught of often conflicting information. These accidents seem to bring some evidentiary data to that argument, though we must wait for the final reports to be written.

What we do know is that 346 people were killed in very preventable accidents, and the laws are written in blood. Changes will be coming.—Chip Wright

Sim seat-fill

No pilot wants to be under the scrutiny of an examiner or an instructor any more than is absolutely necessary. However, airliners require two pilots, and that means any training in the sim also requires two pilots. Most of the time, pilots are paired with another student, and each gets equal time to practice whatever is on the schedule.

But, as the saying goes, best laid plans… Occasionally, a pilot is not paired up with another student. This may be attributable to an odd number of trainees, or because one student needs to be held back for remedial training, or one quits or gets fired or is sick, et cetera. And some airlines—increasingly fewer do this, but it still happens—won’t let two pilots who have been training together take a checkride together. When this happens, the training department needs to use what is often termed a seat-fill, which is another pilot brought in to occupy the second seat and perform accordingly.

Most of the time, seat-fill pilots are stand-by instructors, but when they aren’t available, local pilots near the training center usually get the call. Sometimes the airline is required to use reserve pilots, but often, lineholders can make themselves available as well, using whatever sign-up process is available.

The immediate question is, why would anyone want to do this, and is there a jeopardy component to this? Well, yes, you are in a jeopardy situation, which means that if you perform in such a fashion that you would have failed your own checkride, you can find yourself effectively grounded until you’ve been retrained. That, however, is rare.

Most pilots volunteer for seat-fill because they consider it an easy way to make some extra money on a day off without having to go to the airport or spend a night away from home. It’s also a great way to stay sharp on procedures in the sim that you don’t get to do very often. Last, but not least, you get to know most of the instructors and examiners, and they get to know you, so when you go in for your training, you are much less nervous and more comfortable than you might otherwise have been. Taking that a step further, you might get the benefit of the doubt if you make a mistake or two during your own ride that might have been cause for concern previously.

Another benefit to doing a lot of seat-fill is the networking that can take place. If you’re interested in getting into the training department, this a great way to show your bona fides in terms of your preparation, readiness, willingness to help a new hire, and the like. The truth is, there is no downside to doing the seat-fill if you can. If your schedule is flexible, and you live near the training center, take advantage of the opportunities that seat-filling provides, especially as your own checkride approaches. Extra training, extra cash, and more confidence: It’s a lot more upside than down!—Chip Wright

Airline charters

As the calendar turns to winter, regional airlines will be doing more and more basketball charter flights, especially for colleges. RJs of all sizes are ideal aircraft for this particular mission, between the seating capacity, the ability to get into smaller airports, and the cost to operate.

From a pilot’s perspective, charters generally work in ways similar to regular flights, but there are some differences. A charter coordinator from the airline usually rides along. The coordinator is the primary point of contact between the team and the airplane. The coordinator’s responsibilities include making sure that meals are properly catered (this is a major part of a charter, and if this gets messed up, it can cost an airline the contract), that buses are arranged, and, in remote places, that the flight release is properly delivered to the crew. This last responsibility is less of an issue now with the widespread use of iPads, but it’s not unusual that a paper copy is produced as a backup.

The worst part about charters is the unpredictability, and perhaps the hours. While games are scheduled, they can go long, and when they do, things can get interesting in a hurry.

Many charters take place at night, so one of the concerns is getting the airplane in position for its next assignment. I recently worked a regular trip with a morning departure out of Miami. The airplane, however, was coming off a charter for the Tampa Bay Rays, and the game—in New York—had gone into extra innings, delaying the flight to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, which delayed the ferry flight to Miami. We had to wait for the airplane to be cleaned, given a security inspection, and then made available to us. Our delay was more than an hour. When that happens, the delays can ripple through the day.

Baseball and basketball charters also include a lot of late-night or red-eye flying. Football isn’t quite as bad, but Thursday, Sunday, and Monday night games can be rough.

I did a NASCAR charter years ago (we were carrying a pit crew). We had a mechanical issue that we could not legally defer, and owing to a comedy of errors, it couldn’t get fixed in time. We wound up canceling the flight as our duty time expired (not so comedic), which caused all kinds of mayhem. Companies and organizations pay an awful lot of money for charters, and their patience for delays and cancellations is minimal. Throw in disgruntled employee job actions and the challenges to the airline can be steep.

Some events cause a surge in charters. The NCAA basketball tournaments, the World Baseball Classic, the College World Series, even corporate mergers all can generate a surge in charter activity. It also isn’t unusual for an organization or a college or university to request certain crew members who are known to go above and beyond in their efforts to please. I knew a captain at a major airline who was highly thought of by several of the NFL teams that he flew, and discreet efforts were made to get him assigned to those flights. He considered it an honor and did whatever he could to get the trips onto his schedule. Of course, the opposite also holds true, and you can be banned from charters, if not outright terminated.

Some charters can be a lot of fun, and others can be more tedious, but they all require a fair amount of flexibility. Charters are also guaranteed money-makers for the airline, and the contracts are valuable. Treat them like the important asset that they are and provide the best possible service you can. Heck, you might even wind up with some free tickets to a game or a concert!

Airport reserve

If you’re new to an airline, you’ll soon find that not all of the assignments are of the type that bring fame, glory, and riches. One of the least desirable is going to the airport and just sitting there.

This particular assignment goes by several names: ready reserve, field standby, hot standby, airport reserve. Whatever you call it, 99 percent of the time it is boring.

Essentially, airport reserve is just that: You’re assigned a window of time to spend at the airport, in uniform, ready to go. Your job is to be immediately available to get to a gate and get a flight out that has a sudden shortage of a crew. Last-minute sick calls; mechanical problems; crews timing out on their duty day; diversions of an inbound flight; and ferrying airplanes are common reasons for Scheduling to call the airport reserve crew to save the day.

Most of the time, you’ll go to the airport and go nowhere but home, but as we move into the winter months, there is usually an uptick in the usage of the airport reserve crews. Flu season compounds the problem, especially if pilots wake up to find out one of their kids or their spouse is sick and need to stay home. The contagious nature of the flu also means that people will spread the virus without realizing they are sick themselves. The same is true of the common cold. Summer also sees an increase in airport reserve usage as thunderstorms wreak havoc and force Scheduling to pull out all the stops to keep the operation moving along.

Depending on the airline, airport reserve will last anywhere from four to eight hours. Regionals tend to use this tool more than the majors, but the majors have it as well. It’s also common among cargo carriers, which are very schedule-sensitive.

There may be some overlap from one shift to the next, and there may or may not be rules in place to determine the methodology Scheduling can use to determine if the airport reserve can be called out versus someone sitting reserve at home. Often, you’ll question the logic of how certain people are used when. More often than not, you’ll be right to question those decisions. Hopefully, there will be other rules in place as well to prevent pointless scheduling practices, such as not bringing in a pilot for a late afternoon/evening shift who can’t do an overnight, or bringing in a pilot who has flown enough in the previous several days that he or she can’t do any of the flights on the schedule. It also helps to have a limit on the number a pilot can do in a given month.

The best thing you can do to make the time pass is to bring books and magazines to read, movies to watch, or use the time to catch up on company-mandated training. While you will be technically required to be in uniform, it may be possible to put your uni on a hanger and wear your civilian clothes, as long as you can change in short order and not create an undue delay in getting to the gate.

Airport reserve is one of the least appealing things about being a pilot, but used appropriately, it can be a life-saver for the airline. Done poorly, it can be a waste of money and resources. On some fleets, airport reserve doesn’t make sense, either because the fleet is too small or, for wide-bodies, the duty time limitations prevent it from being used effectively. Your job is to simply be prepared, suitcase stocked, ready to go at a moment’s notice to save the day and get at least one flight completed.—Chip Wright

Learn your airplane on a different level

If knowledge is power, education is the fuel. Pilots have myriad avenues for increasing their knowledge. Before I got hired at my first airline, I had already devoured countless books on aviation safety, accident analysis, accident investigations, human factors, and related topics. I had an enviable library, to say the least.

Once I started flying, I became more and more interested in accidents that involved the airplanes that I was actually flying. Let’s face it: Accident reports on Cessna 172s almost never involve a problem with the airplane. They almost all have their roots in poor pilotage/airmanship, bad ownership decisions, and occasionally a maintenance issue. But by and large, the person flying the airplane does something they shouldn’t do, and the result is an accident or a fatality. Further, the systems are so simple that systems knowledge isn’t really a factor.

In turbine equipment, there are a lot more variables at play. The pilot is still the most important, but systems knowledge, fatigue, maintenance practices, and the like play a bigger role. As a pilot new to a particular airplane, some of what may be involved may be difficult to understand in great detail, but once you have a bit of experience, it will be easier to digest certain accidents or discussions.

With certain accidents or aircraft, it’s not uncommon to come across superstitions about how dangerous certain systems are or how difficult the airplane is to operate. The Mitsubishi MU–2 ran into this because of a relatively high accident rate, but there was a realization that a more rigorous training program could decrease the number of incidents and accidents. And guess what? It worked.

Given that I was flying a turboprop as my first airliner and my first turbine airplane, I wanted to know what was going on in the fleet as a whole. So, I continued by quest by downloading and reading a number of NTSB and FAA summaries and reports. I didn’t necessarily need to read every word of every report, but I did spend a lot of time reading the pertinent sections. I also did this when I got to the CRJ, and when noteworthy events occurred, I’d do the same thing. It was amazing how many errors or mistakes a well-meaning mainstream media reporter could make (it still is).

I’ve since read more reports and books on accidents than I can recall, and while most still come down to the pilots, not all do. But there are more pieces than ever before. Human factors is often much bigger than one would expect, and weather is still the beast we can’t tame. But one of the most fascinating things to me to learn about was how difficult the investigation process can be. For proof of that, just look at the USAir 427, or even TWA 800.

Whether you go into the regionals in the CRJ, ERJ, or E-Jet series, or eventually make it to the majors flying Boeings or Airbuses, it behooves you to educate yourself as much as possible on common causes of confusion or incidents on the airplane you fly. You’ll be surprised at what you learn, what you may not have been taught, and how the past changes what we do in the present or the future.

Plus, you’ll just feel better armed with as much knowledge as you can get.—Chip Wright

Your first trip

A pilot’s first trip with an airline is a combination of both stress and excitement.

The reasons for the excitement are obvious: new job, new airplane, new cities, new coworkers, even the new uniform can be a source of a thrill. The excitement is also equal parts stress, as you try to figure out or remember where to go, learn the protocols of the airline, introduce yourself to flight attendants, gate agents, captains, and other employees who seem like they’ve been around forever. And, of course, you actually have to do your job.

The first several trips, however, are a continuation of your training. The FAA does not allow green, fresh-from-training new hires to be thrown out on the line to fend for themselves. You will fly under the watchful eye and tutelage of a line check airman (LCA), who will introduce you to the day-to-day operation of the company and provide the finishing touches on your aircraft training. This is called initial operating experience (IOE), and you go through it with each new job, each new airplane, and whenever you upgrade to captain.

In some respects, the LCA has the easiest job, and in some ways the hardest, when it comes to training. The transition from the sim to the airplane can be a challenge, and it’s the first time you are truly dealing with all aspects of getting a flight off the gate: maintenance, fuel, catering, aggravated passengers and flight attendants. This is no longer an academic exercise in the schoolhouse. It’s real, and it’s real time.

And speaking of time, the LCA also has to keep the flight on schedule without compromising the instruction. As you might imagine, when it comes to dealing with chaos at the gate, there’s a lot that will generate a “we’ll talk about this in flight” comment or two. At some point, you also have to be signed off on walkarounds.

Once you get underway, you get to deal with a blizzard of radio calls that most pilots new to the airlines aren’t ready for. Ramp control and ground will not care that you’re new or in over your head. They will simply expect you to comply—correctly and quickly. Your captain will probably have to bail you out a few times, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Airborne, you may or may not actually fly the first leg. Some LCAs believe in a trial by fire and will let you get into it right away. When I was an LCA, I always flew the first leg with a new pilot just to give him or her a chance to observe and catch up. But eventually, you need to get your hands on the wheel, so to speak, and the best advice is to simply fly it the way you did in the sim. You will be required to log X number of legs or hours as the nonflying/monitoring pilot, but you can expect to fly the majority of the legs so that you can get comfortable with the airplane.

In the sim, you spend a lot of time either dealing with emergencies, doing air work, or practicing all manner of approaches. There is very little time to introduce you to flying as it actually is on the line, though you will take a checkride that features a flight that is representative of life on the line. Even then, you will probably get a minor system failure to deal with on the way.

Your first trip will be an opportunity to see what the airplane is really like with everything working. Further, you will be exposed to all of the little nuances of managing a flight, from energy management during climbs and descents to dealing with the flight attendants and making public address announcements to the passengers. You’ll also see how compressed the time can get as you prepare for arrivals, descents, and approaches.

As a new hire, you can expect a lot of time with the LCA on the ground and during layovers as well. There is a lot of material to review, some of which may be a new introduction to you, depending on how the airline structures the training. You’ll also spend time going over things you have done well as well as things you need to improve upon. The learning—and the teaching—never end! If you are hitting the line during the winter months, you can expect to deal with deicing and winter ops, which is challenging enough for veteran pilots that have been around, let alone for someone who has never had to deal with deicing, holdover times, et cetera.

The first trip is both exciting and exhausting. By the time it’s finished, you will begin to feel as if you are settling into a bit of a groove. By the end of the first day, you will be ready to collapse, and you should sleep well. Every time I’ve gone through OE, I’ve had some trouble sleeping the night before the first trip, and I always sleep well after the first day is in the books.

The end of the first trip is a sign that the training process is almost over, but it’s also a crucial point, as you are now being put into the pointy end of a multimillion-dollar machine and entrusted with all the lives behind you. The company wants to make sure that you are safe, competent, and ready. You want to feel … well, safe, competent, and ready. This is a final chance to ask a lot of questions and to perfect your techniques and procedures.

If the first trip goes well, the last trip (or two) will focus more on getting your required IOE time completed before you do your final line check. Once the LCA puts pen to paper and signs you off, you’re considered ready for the day-to-day grind, and your training is complete. Now you get to embrace life on reserve!—Chip Wright

Rejected takeoffs

As I write this, a business jet was just on the news for rejecting a takeoff at a small airport in California that led to a fire that, by all accounts, destroyed the airplane.

On the same day, I was evaluated during a flight by a check airman, and the rejected takeoff (RTO) procedure was a point of discussion—in our case because my captain, whom I have flown with before, does a more-detailed-than-typical briefing of the procedure. My airline requires a full briefing of the RTO on the first leg of a trip or during a crew change. The reason is simple: RTOs at high speeds are high-risk events.

The airlines typically use 100 knots as the threshold between “low” speed and “high” speed. In the high-speed regime, aborts are generally done for one of four reasons: wind shear; an engine failure; a fire of any kind; or the belief that the airplane is unsafe to fly.

Further, this procedure is practiced every time we visit the simulator, and we practice it during takeoffs from either seat. This is important, because it may be prudent for the first officer—technically the second in command, in a rare moment making a command decision—to initiate the maneuver. Most carriers would dictate that the captain will assume command of the airplane at a safe point in time. This is done not just because the captain is in charge, but also because the RTO checklist is very specific about who does what, and it is predicated on the captain being in control of the airplane as it slows down.

I don’t know what happened in the California event, but there are very few acceptable reasons for an RTO to lead to an airplane leaving the runway and getting consumed in a fire (in this case, thankfully, there were no injuries).

Further, I don’t have any idea what the background or training of the crew was. But that said, any pilot in a turbine aircraft of any kind should not only be proficient in the maneuver of an RTO, but also should brief the mechanical steps that will be executed in order to bring the aircraft safely to a stop on the remaining runway. Closing the thrust levers, activating the thrust reversers, verifying the deployment of the spoilers, and maximizing the use of brakes are pretty standard steps.

RTOs are high risk because they are likely to occur when the airplane is accelerating at an accelerating rate, and may even be close to V1 or rotation speed. Remember that once you reach V1, you are committed to taking the airplane airborne and troubleshooting in flight. In other words, the wings will be generating a fair amount of lift, and the weight of the airplane will not be fully set on the wheels. It’s important to destroy that lift as quickly as possible and get the weight back on the wheels in order for the brakes and the drag of the airplane itself to work to your benefit. Weight on the wheels also will allow the tires to better grip the runway, which will also slow you down.

The act of aviating is terribly unforgiving of indecision and delayed reaction, and arguably, the high speed RTO is the event with the smallest window of time in which a tremendous error in action and judgment can occur. Don’t let it happen to you. Prepare for it, brief it, and fly it.—Chip Wright

Winter is around the corner

If you’re considering a career in the airlines or even in the corporate world, this time of year is one in which you should get into the habit of moving your brain from summer to winter operations. As I write this, it is not yet Labor Day, but temperatures have started to cool after a difficult summer of unrelenting heat. In the northern states, the nights are much cooler, and by early October, there will be places that are getting regular bouts of morning frost, and that means that the deicing season has begun.

Hints of this have popped up already around the country, as I have noticed a number of airports have pulled their deicing trucks out of storage and begun to run them to make sure the truck portion works, to say nothing of the deicing equipment. Everything needs to be tested and calibrated, and each season there are new wrinkles added to deicing programs and protocols. These can include new fluid manufacturers, new procedures for both deicing crews and flight crews (a few years ago, a concept called “liquid water equivalent” was introduced, and to be honest, I still don’t totally understand it, but it is the new standard for determining deicing strategies and holdover times). New employees will also get trained, and that process is easy to recognize as you see deicing trucks spray water on airplanes.

Preparation by the airlines or even fixed-base operators for deicing operations, especially on a large scale, starts around June. But for flight crews, it is on the horizon as the school year starts, and winter ops present their own challenges. Getting sprayed to remove a layer of frost is generally no big deal, but it has to be done correctly and by people who are trained to do it. In the next few weeks, airlines will begin disseminating their annual revisions to the manuals across their systems reflecting changes for the upcoming season. While liquid water equivalent is the new standard for calculating holdover times, it isn’t available for everyone. However, with the proliferation of iPads and electronic flight bags, apps are available to help take some of the guesswork and error out of the process.

I personally make it a habit to review the Cold Weather Operations sections of our manuals each season, especially if I got lucky the previous year and didn’t have to deal much with bad winter weather (last year was one of those years for me—it was cold, but I managed to avoid most of the snow and ice). There are limitations for the airplane and the operation for cold weather ops, and some aircraft systems are used differently. Some airports have fairly simplistic deicing complexes, and others are straightforward and simple. The Canadians are masterful at deicing, but it’s up to us as pilots to know how their systems work in order to keep it moving; a good review of the appropriate Jepp pages well before you need them will go a long way.

The next few months offer some of the best flying of the year as summer storms give way to cooler weather and more stable air, but it is worth remembering that around the corner, Old Man Winter awaits, and he isn’t one to trifle with the rules. Study up, and be ready, because ice and snow are unique hazards all their own.

Remembering Capt. Al Haynes and CRM

As I write this, it has been less than 24 hours since the family of Capt. Al Haynes has announced his passing. Haynes was famously in command of United Flight 232 in the summer of 1989 when the DC-10 suffered a complete loss of hydraulic power after a fan blade on the number two (center) engine failed and caused the engine to disintegrate. Using differential thrust from the remaining two engines, the crew was able to exercise a modicum of control and bring the jumbo jet to a controlled crash in Sioux City, Iowa. While the accident resulted in 111 fatalities, 184 passengers and crew survived.

It didn’t take long for the stories about United’s cockpit resource management (CRM) training to make headline in the news. Historically, airline cockpits were run with concept of the captain being autocratically in charge, and there was no obligation to solicit input on anything from other pilots on the flight deck. It didn’t matter what their experience or perspective was. If the captain made a decision, that was it. Today, it’s hard to believe that such an environment not only existed, but was encouraged.

United was pushed into developing a CRM program from a previous accident involving a United aircraft. United Flight 173 crashed in Portland, Oregon, in 1978 after running out of fuel while the crew tried to troubleshoot a problem with the landing gear. The NTSB cited the crew’s inability to work together as a contributing factor to the accident. This accident followed the 1977 Tenerife collision between Pan Am and Lufthansa 747s, the worst aviation accident in history. With prodding from NASA, United began training its pilots on CRM, and eventually included the flight attendants as well.

I was fortunate enough to attend a few of Capt. Haynes’ presentations about the 232 accident. He readily acknowledged the value of the CRM training, and when asked if he or his crew could have been as effective without it, he quickly said, “I doubt it.” CRM encourages authority with participation by the captain, and assertiveness with respect by the remaining crew. In other words, captains are encouraged to solicit and genuinely consider input from other crew, and the first and second officers are encouraged to speak up when they see that something is wrong or unsafe.

In the years since, every U.S. airline has developed and implemented CRM training, and it often extends to dispatchers and mechanics as well. The Flight 232 accident has become a classic case study in numerous businesses and industries when it comes to dealing with time-critical, high-pressure emergency situations. Capt. Haynes was an early advocate for acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in noncombat traumatic events, because he openly discussed his own PTSD. He said giving his speech was the most effective method he had found for dealing with his PTSD and keeping it at bay.

The full effect and value of CRM was proven in the minutes after United Flight 232 suffered that engine failure. It has since been used to avert all sorts of incidents and accidents, large and small. Every pilot should be grateful for its inception, and they should definitely raise a toast to Capt. Haynes for his willing embrace and implementation of it in the summer of 1989.

The long wait to get home

I’ve touched on the challenges of commuting before. I recently endured a nightmare of an experience in trying to get home after a trip, and all I could say to myself is that I have been pretty lucky of late with respect to the (relative) ease of my commute to and from work. I was due for a “[t]here I was …” story, and this one more than filled the bill.

I finished a two-day trip at 12:15 p.m. in late July, and just missed a flight that was leaving at about the same time I was finishing. Not that it would have mattered, as it went out full with a jumpseater, but … still. I recognized a few of the names on the list of standby passengers, and I knew who would be trying the same strategies as me. Still, I headed to a different terminal for a different airline, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, one of the said pilots was already at the counter waiting for an agent so that he could list for the jumpseat on the 2:00 p.m. flight. All I could do was hope for the best. Unfortunately, this flight also left full.

My next option was a 3:45 p.m. flight, at my own carriers’ terminal. So, back I went and I was listed for the jumpseat. I should mention at this point that when I checked flights the night before the passenger loads weren’t great, but I was fairly confident about getting home. Unfortunately, that confidence was misplaced. Overnight I’m not sure what happened, but the loads went completely to pot, and getting home was going to be a challenge at best. The next day wasn’t much better.

In the meantime, I looked at alternative airports where I could either rent a car or have my wife drive and pick me up. They were even worse, with jumpseaters already listed (access is first come, first serve if it isn’t your own airline) and loads that were well over-sold due to flight cancellations.

Back to the 3:45 p.m. flight. Weather was the main threat, but I found out that the auxiliary power unit (APU) was broken, and while that normally would just be uncomfortable, in this case, it would be much more than that. Temperatures were in the upper 90s, which meant that the airplane would be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping passengers locked up for a long delay would be unconscionable. But, if they could fix it, I was assured of the jumpseat as long as the weight and balance didn’t become an issue on the E-145. I wasn’t the least bit confident that it would work out in my favor.

And then the weather hit. Rain. Monsoon-like rain. The airport ground to a halt. The 5:00 p.m. flight had no jumpseaters listed, and there was a possibility of one open seat. The downside is that it was far enough away that I was ultimately going to have to choose and gamble. I decided to go list for the 5:00 p.m. jumpseat, with the idea of coming back to the 3:45 p.m. flight in my back pocket if that would work out. Realistically, I knew I was basically changing my plans, but I had to get to that realization later.

Luckily, I got the jumpseat on the 5:00 p.m. flight, just beating out a friend of mine. About the time that occurred, the airport closed, and every flight was taking delays of no less than forty-five minutes. Then the weather went from bad to worse to nobody-may-be-going-anywhere worse. Rain, thunder, and lightning were the story of the day, but I’ll say this about the weather affecting the three New York area airports: Newark gets hit first, but it also reopens first. Finally, there was a break, and the public address systems were echoing with panicky gate agents trying to get wayward passengers back to their gates in order to board and leave. My flight was no exception, and we began boarding a bit after 8:00 p.m.

In the meantime, passengers that stayed the night or made alternative arrangements (thanks to a bribe) had left. Somewhere in the midst of all this my gamble paid off, as the 3:45 p.m. flight was canceled. My flight (the third option, if you’re keeping score) began to board, and I got on and introduced by myself to the captain, who it turns out was on his first trip as a captain and under the watchful eye of a line check-airman. My first question to them was how much duty time they had remaining. It turned out that they were legal until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. “The pilot in me feels your pain,” I said, “but the commuter in me is thrilled!” That got a knowing chuckle.

Oddly enough, there were enough seats that my buddy got on, as did a flight attendant who was also trying to get home, and I even got a seat in the cabin—I didn’t have to sit in the jumpseat! We weren’t entirely out of the woods yet, though, as we had to sit on the ramp and wait our turn to taxi, which took well over an hour. The ride was better than I anticipated. When I landed, the temperature was no longer pushing 100, but was instead struggling to hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I got home around 12:30 a.m., which meant that I had spent over 12 hours just trying to get home, eight of which were spent just trying to get on an airplane.

The adage was proven again: Don’t give up until you can be sure the aircraft will leave without you. There are three of us who can vouch for that.

Older posts