Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Winter Ops

Anyone that has been following my posts recently would probably think that I'm pretty spoiled with all this nice Caribbean and Hawaiian flying. And they would be right.

But I was jolted back to reality the other day when I had to dust off the leather jacket... Destination Vancouver.

Looking out my hotel room window in the morning revealed a fresh layer of snow. The news was reporting temps in the low teens! That's nothing for some parts of Canada but it's a little cold for Vancouver. Even the locals were complaining!

From our slow drive to the airport to the slow security process to the slow boarding, everything seems to move slower in the winter.

It has been quite some time since I have heard an ATIS broadcast referring to runways and taxiways being plowed and sanded and to use caution for snowbanks. All taxiways were reported to be icy. So I guess we'd taxi slow also!

De-icing complete and we were ready to pushback and startup. But even the Rolls Royce engines were slow to wake up. And then while taxiing out ( at a snails pace), we had an engine limiter computer failure message. OK...so we ask ATC if we can pull over somewhere and work it out. Ten minutes later we have it fixed and are finally ready to launch for Texas.

Runway 08Right....Cleared for takeoff. Call departure control airborne....Have a good flight eh!Vancouver looks like a nice city. I wish we had more time to spend there. (In the summertime).
Very soon we were in US airspace and Mt Baker was approaching. Quite a sight in the morning sun.The Cascades would soon pass behind us...three and a half hours remained to DFW. Then a short break and on to Miami for the night. The cold weather ops were now behind us.
I wouldn't be needing that leather jacket in Miami.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Fire Down Below

Cruising high above the earth provides for some interesting sightseeing at times.

Much of my flying recently has been at night, so the photo opportunities have been limited. But a recent daytime leg from San Juan to DFW, along with clear skies, allowed for a few good shots of the landscape below.

Due to some major cutbacks in service from AA, the congestion at the San Juan airport has decreased dramatically. The airport is a virtual ghost town as compared to recent years when it was booming. The lines at security used to be endless.....nowadays you can get through in a matter of minutes.

Taxi times are short as well. We were airborne only five minutes after pusback.

Workloads in the cockpit are relatively easy on this leg. Radio communications are all VHF. The ATC controllers at San Juan Center speak impeccable English, and there is radar coverage along the entire route so no position reporting is required. And the sights along the way are pretty good too. It doesn't get much easier.

Weather permitting, routings from San Juan are almost always direct to Miami and then across the Gulf of Mexico to Louisiana and then on to DFW.
We climbed unrestricted up to 36,000 ft and settled in for the five hour leg to Texas. The island of Hispaniola with the neighboring countries of the Dominican Republic and Haiti were first in view. Then along came Turks and Caicos. After that came the Bahamas with it's countless islands and clear water.A few hours later we had burned off enough fuel to climb up to 40,000 ft and were passing over the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.Shortly after passing New Orleans we could see a multitude of smoke plumes coming from the fields down below. Having seen this many times over the years I knew that it was harvest time in the sugar cane fields.

Apparently part of the process of harvesting the sugar cane involves burning the fields of all the unwanted leaves and unusable parts but it leaves the stalks and roots unharmed. I hear that it smells pretty bad!
Not long after that, one of the cabin crew called up and reported that many of the passengers were wanting to know what was on fire down below and would I please make a PA to that effect.

I prefer not to make unnecessary PA's inflight since it interrupts the movie that is playing (and also wakes up many people) and some folks don't like that, so I just told her what was burning and asked her to relay that information directly. Shortly after, I heard her make a PA anyhow!
Not much to see after that. The sightseeing was over for the day and all that was left was the descent and landing at DFW.

Another good trip in the logbook.....

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Another V.I.P. Movement

In a recent post I discussed how a certain VIP aboard Air Force One could foul up the entire hub and spoke operation of any given airline in a single afternoon.

To contrast that episode, I flew a trip the other night that had a different VIP in question. In fact that person would be onboard our flight.

As we sat parked at the gate in Miami watching our passengers board for the city of Port-of-Spain in Trinidad, one of our flight attendants came up and told us that the Prime Minister of Trinidad would be on board tonight. It was interesting that neither our gate agent nor our dispatcher notified us about this. You'd think that they would want the cockpit crew to know about a high profile passenger being aboard. Sometimes we're the last to know!

So then off we went with Mr Patrick Manning and his entourage aboard for the 3 1/2 hour leg to Port-of-Spain. As we pushed back from the gate, we could see only one local Miami police officer on the jetbridge waiting to make sure that we departed safely.

I've flown numerous celebrities and athletes around before and it's always curious to hear from our flight attendants how they behaved while inflight. Occasionally these passengers expect preferential treatment due to their celebrity status. And when then don't get treated as such, they can get ugly.

I'm happy to report that Mr. Manning behaved like the true gentleman that I'm sure he is.As we descended for POS, Piarco Control ATC facility handed us off to POS tower and asked us to say "hello" to the President. "Consider it done" we replied. Then after landing, the tower controller asked us to "give our regards" to the President!

Sounds like a popular President we both thought.

As we finished up our shutdown checklists and were putting the plane to bed for the night, we saw Mr Manning and his entourage heading for Customs and Immigration along with the rest of the passengers. It was as if he were just a regular guy!

We both found it a little unusual that a Prime Minister of a nation (no matter how small), would be flying aboard a commercial airliner. Perhaps that's their policy...I don't know.

It was an interesting contrast as to what must go on behind the scenes of an Air Force One mission. Our flight was just business as usual even though we were carrying a head of state onboard. An Air Force One mission must take some intricate planning and coordination. The security details must be endless.

I'll bet the food is better too!

Coincidentally, on the return leg to Miami the next day, we heard Air Force One calling in a position report on the radio. They were headed from Lima to Washington. Good thing they weren't headed for Miami again.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

A Job With Benefits

A recent trip I worked allowed my cockpit crew and I to put aside for awhile all the bitterness and animosity we have for management and just enjoy the surroundings.

That's not to say that we didn't have our usual gripe session on our way there and back, but at least the layover was a good time.

I'm talking about one of the more senior trips on the 767 bidsheet in Dallas. That would be the Maui layover.

Our 3 PM arrival time allowed for a very nice happy hour with an all you can eat fish dinner at a local hangout near our hotel in Kihei. But the following day would be even better.

One of the benefits of being an airline pilot is the reciprocal jumpseat agreement we have with most other air carriers. In other words, we can fly on most any other air carrier (in their jumpseats) for free. And their pilots often ride on our jumpseats as well. If there is room in the cabin then we allow them to sit there instead of in the cockpit. They usually do the same for us.

One of those carriers we have an agreement with is Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. They are a helicopter sightseeing operator in the Hawaiian Islands.

And this day they had two extra seats on one of their tours around Maui. So one of the other pilots and I made our way back to the airport and soon found ourselves strapped in to an Eco-Star and climbing up towards Haleakala Crater.
After a few minutes at the crater we dropped down to the rainy side of the island. There are waterfalls everywhere you look.I have done the day long drive to the little town of Hana before. This day I was happy to see it from the air instead.No wonder people go to Maui for vacation!After the flight it was back to Kihei for lunch and some pool time before the flight back home.

Now THAT was a good layover!

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The 757...very nice!

One of the benefits of being rated on the 767 is that the rating also qualifies the pilot for the 757 as well.

It is a common type rating...meaning that the airplanes have enough similar flight characteristics so that a single rating is all that is required. The engines are different as are a few of the systems and some of the limitations are different as well, but the airplanes essentially fly the same and the transition between the two is very easy.

The 757 is an absolute joy to fly. Even though the pay scales are slightly lower than the 767, I don't know any of our pilots that don't enjoy flying it. It handles like a sports car as opposed to the 767 which handles like a big luxury car.

At AA, our domestic and international divisions include 767 and 757 flying co-mingled.

AA purchased their 757's with Rolls Royce engines. They produce almost 43,000 pounds of thrust apiece. Maximum takeoff weight is 250,000 pounds and max landing weight is 198,000 pounds. Maximum operating altitude is 42,000 feet.

When AA purchased TWA in 2001, their 757 fleet was integrated into ours, but they have since gone away. They all had Pratt & Whitney engines and were slightly incompatible with the AA fleet. Many of them are now being operated by Delta Air Lines.

So with all that being said, the day's trip would be from Ft Lauderdale over to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, back to FLL and then on to DFW. Our 757 was lightly loaded with passengers but heavy on fuel. We were carrying enough fuel for the return leg as well. Apparently since Hurricane Ike hit Haiti, fuel has been in short supply so the airlines are tankering in their fuel.

Also since the hurricane, radar coverage is non-existent. We would be making mandatory position reports and flying a full DME-ARC approach to the airport even though weather conditions were fine.We checked in with Port-au-Prince Control and started our descent over the northwest part of the island. There was no traffic inbound but they still cleared us for the full approach even though we had the field in sight about twenty miles out.The DME-ARC led us to a straight in landing over the Gulf of Gonave and a taxi in to our parking spot. No jet bridge today. The few jet bridges there were not working.

During our short stay we saw several UN helicopters delivering humanitarian supplies throughout the island.

Sixty minutes later we were on our way back to Florida.

Port-au-Prince cleared us directly up to flight level 400. It took just over 20 minutes. No time to climb record today like Darren but still respectable for an airliner.

The Bahamian island chain passed below and soon we were over the island of Bimini and descending for FLL.As nicely as the 757 flies, the landings are just as easy. Or at least that's what all the First Officers that I have been flying with have shown me. The FO today greased it on 9L at FLL. I have yet to plant a 757 on the runway but I'm sure the day is coming. I have already done so in a 767 so that square is filled.

My leg back to DFW and still no hard landing! What a nice airplane!

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

V.I.P. Movement

During our ride in the crew van from our hotel to the airport, the first officer and I were discussing how easy a day this should be. A little rain had kept us confined to our rooms for most of the morning but it was starting to clear up and all appeared to be going well as we arrived at the airport.

This day's trip would consist of just two legs. Cancun to Miami and then on to San Juan for the night.

It's interesting how many international destinations have a duty free shop immediately after the security checkpoint. Cancun is this way. All the passengers have to funnel through a gigantic duty free shop before reaching their respective gates. That's pretty good marketing. It worked on me....I felt compelled to buy a bottle of tequila for future consumption.

Arriving at the gate was our flight plan and all the other assorted documents already prepared for us and in a nice little folder. The plane had just arrived and a small army of cleaners had already begun to do their work on the cabin. They do nice work here in Cancun. Still looking good....

One of the first things I check on our flight plan is the arrival fuel at our destination. Today there was a little extra, so I looked down the page and saw that our dispatcher had put a note on it about adding extra holding fuel for a possible "VIP movement" right at our time of arrival. I smelled trouble.

"VIP movement" means a presidential or vice presidential aircraft would be at Miami. And that means that they have priority and all other air traffic will be cleared from the immediate area. In other words, nothing moves until the VIP is gone.

Having seen these VIP movements before, I knew that they don't always go as planned so I called our dispatcher and ordered 3000 more pounds of fuel. That should be enough I thought. So off we went towards the runway.
As we taxied out we had our eyes on a huge rain shaft extending downward from a very large thunderstorm that appeared to be heading our way. "Cleared for takeoff" said the tower just as the downpour let loose on the airport and visibility dropped to about zero. "Unable", we replied as I parked the brakes while we waited for the storm to pass. Did they really think we would take off in that mess?
A few minutes later and after an arriving AA 757, we were airborne, climbing out, and pointed towards Miami. Cancun sure has some nice beaches and very clear water.So far so good. Havana Center cleared us right on through their airspace and soon we were over Key West and ready to start downhill. But that's when we got the bad news. "Expect holding due to awaiting Air Force One departure from Miami...You may reduce your speed at your discretion."

So around and around we went in the holding pattern. A ten minute hold soon turned into twenty which then became forty! Good thing we added that extra fuel or we would have diverted a long time ago. But that extra fuel was running out on us....it was just about time to divert. Still no word on Air Force One. The airport was still closed to all air traffic!

I had just made another PA to our passengers that we would be diverting to Ft. Lauderdale in five more minutes if Miami didn't open up when we heard Air Force One call in on the radio. They were finally airborne and on their way back to Andrews AFB. Cleared direct of course!
And then we received our clearance to exit holding and to expect a visual approach to Miami. Wow, that was close. Our total hold time was just over one hour. Multiply the expense of that by the multitude of airplanes that had to hold that afternoon and then figure in the inconvenience to all the passengers with their connections, etc. What a pain!

As expected, the terminals at Miami were a mass of annoyed passengers as we hurried to reach our next gate in a distant terminal. As we arrived at our gate, sure enough, the flight to San Juan was delayed about one hour due to "VIP Movement".

All in all, it was just another day at the airlines. The delays could have been caused by just about anything....weather, ATC problems, mechanical problems, you name it. It just happened to be a VIP issue this time.
Ah, the joys of commercial air travel....

Lets hope our president had a good movement that day.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Visit To The Andes

As promised, my next trip would be to Santiago, Chile. There won't be much airplane talk in this post....mostly sightseeing. Sorry.

Another all-nighter I'm afraid. There's no getting around them if you want to go to South America non-stop from DFW.

I took my rest break during the middle portion of the flight so as to be rested for the approach and landing. The sun was beginning to rise as we started our descent about 100 miles from Santiago. The Andes were very close on our left wing. Our EGPWS (enhanced ground proximity warning system) was reporting some very high terrain in the neighborhood. The green numbers 224 indicate that an obstacle rising to 22,400 ft was in range. That would be Mt Aconcagua just inside the Argentine border. It's the tallest mountain in the Americas. That's it in the photo on the left.

A straight in approach from the north would require an full ILS approach due to some morning haze and fog. But the descent over the mountains to the north was clear and very impressive.
A short nap followed our drive into the city. The time zone in Chile is the same as the eastern US so there's not much jet lag to contend with.

Then it was out for some sightseeing around the city and later a nice dinner with the other two pilots. A huge steak, salad, side dish, dessert, and a beer only cost about $18. Not too bad! Sure beats the prices in Europe.

The next day we rented a car and took a drive up to the ski resort of Portillo. It was about a two hour drive north and east of Santiago. From ground level we could easily see how rugged these Andes really are. Most impressive!!
We encountered quite a bit of truck traffic on the way up. But we finally made it to Portillo.
The ski lodge overlooks a frozen lake.There was also a tour operator giving sightseeing rides in their Eurostar. Looked like fun.
But as the chopper flew off we knew we had to get back to town and pack up for the leg home. We only got lost once on the way back but still made it in time for the pick up from the hotel.

Nine hours enroute back to DFW this time. Yes, it was an all-nighter.

I'm looking forward to my next trip to Chile.

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Deep South

Most folks think of the deep south as the southeastern portion of the United States.

But the words "deep south" take on an entirely different meaning when us pilots at AA talk about it.

"Deep south" refers to flying south of the border.....WAY south of the border. South America to be exact.

One of the negatives about flying these trips is that they involve all nighters. These flights typically leave DFW in the evening and arrive at their destinations in the early morning. Same thing on the way back....they leave there at night and arrive at DFW in the early morning. Not much sightseeing gets done in flight. It's too dark out.

First up was a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil. AA currently operates two flights a day to Sao Paulo from DFW and they are both usually pretty full. This trip was no exception.

Another maximum gross weight takeoff from DFW with a climb out to the south was the plan for the southbound leg. We were flight planned just slightly west of course due to Hurricane Ike that was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico just west of Cuba.

Our routing took us directly to the Yucatan Peninsula and over Merida, Mexico. Off to the east we were able to see the leading edge of the hurricane rain bands on the outer most limits of our weather radar screens.

Pressing on we passed Honduras, Panama, Colombia and then finally Brazil. Just because you reach Brazilian airspace doesn't mean you're close....Brazil is huge. We had 4.5 hours to go.
I returned from my rest break at sunrise and we prepared for the approach and landing. Sao Paulo was reporting a 500 ft ceiling with visibility at 500 meters. We would all have preferred a visual approach after an all night leg but the airport at Sao Paulo sits in a small valley that quite often has fog and low ceilings.

We briefed the approach, flew it, landed, taxied to the gate, parked, cleared customs, found the crew bus, and then promptly fell asleep for the hour long ride to our hotel in the city.
And an enormous city it is! I made it out for a short walk that afternoon. The buildings seem to go on for miles.

That night we all met up for dinner. Apparently I had a bad meal because the next day I was sick as a dog. I spent the entire day in my room. What a waste of a 36 hour layover!!

By that night I was feeling better and ready for the trip back home. The hurricane was on everyone's mind and throughout the flight we kept receiving inquiries about it from many of the passengers and crew.

4 hours and 39 minutes after takeoff we passed over the equator over the country of Ecuador. Note our position on the FMS screen. Zero degrees latitude.

Due to Hurricane Ike we had to reroute well to the west. Our route eventually took us over Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and then northward up through Mexico. The hurricane was slamming the city of Houston as we passed over the Rio Grande into Texas. We could see plenty of lightning off in that direction as we continued northward.

DFW was still in good shape as we landed at 6:30 AM. A quick trip through customs and the trip was over.

Next up...Chile. Stay tuned.

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