The month of May was my first full schedule as the new kid on the 777. Priorities dictated that I have specific days off. My wife and I would be celebrating our anniversary. The seniority cards dealt a five-day trip to São Paulo, Brazil. I've never been overjoyed with the idea of flying all night on both ends of a trip, but it had been a while since I had participated in a good redeye.
The trip was manned with a third pilot. Our rest breaks were just under three hours. Having the option of using the crew bunk or the designated first-class seat was an added bonus. Perhaps I could grow accustomed to the life cycle of a fruit bat … or not.
In any case, my South America flying has been infrequent. The opportunity to operate a new jet in new territory would be a worthwhile experience. The trip left from JFK at 9:35 p.m. and arrived in São Paulo approximately 10 hours later. Once at the layover hotel, the typical routine for most of us is to sleep for a few hours. It's just enough time for the 80-grit sandpaper to fall out of our eyes. The objective is to maintain the fatigue factor at a level where enough energy remains to hunt for food and a frosty beverage while still being tired enough to sleep that evening. The following day, the schedule involved a 10:30 a.m. departure to Rio de Janeiro and a return to São Paulo that night.
It appeared to be an easy turnaround of approximately 35 minutes in both directions — except for the fact that somebody must have seen me coming.
Problems were encountered even before we left the hotel for the airport. The normal equipment for the trip was the inbound airplane that arrived from JFK — just like the one we had flown the night prior. Unfortunately, the airplane departed JFK late. The late arrival delayed our departure to Rio. Our reward for the domino effect was that an hour would be subtracted from our flight pay due to the reduction of our contractual on-duty-time pay rate. (It's a simple formula that only a computer can manage. I still scratch my head after 26 years of employment.) The upside of the reschedule was that we had limited exposure to São Paulo rush hour traffic, which can make the Grand Central Parkway at 5 o'clock look like the Indianapolis Speedway.
As I reviewed the flight plan in São Paulo Operations, I discovered that our fuel load didn't leave us with a lot of options if the trip didn't go quite as planned. My comfort level is not so much dependent on a fixed quantity remaining in the tanks upon landing but that we have just enough extra to burn in the event of any unforeseen contingencies. Because of current fuel prices and the economic climate, my airline has focused a lot of effort on conservation. Investment in winglets for some fleets, airplane performance reviews and historic trip analyses are some examples of this conservation campaign. Unfortunately, the campaign places a lot of pressure on dispatchers and captains to accept less fuel.
Considering the fact that the weather was IFR in both São Paulo and Rio, with each airport having special procedures for engine-out scenarios because of terrain, I elected to add a few extra minutes of fuel. With barely 50 hours of flight time on the airplane, my personal comfort level was not quite up to Chuck Yeager status. My decision would prove to be worthwhile.
Because of weather conditions, the wind was not behaving with its usual easterly flow. Untypical of São Paulo, the runway configuration was a west departure from 27 Right. The untypical departure required a different SID. No big deal, except for the fact that my well-seasoned copilot remarked that he had never experienced such an operation. I reminded him with a grin that he was flying with me.
Considering the limited amount of time available en route to reprogram the FMS course to Rio and the fact that numerous waypoints had specific altitude crossing restrictions and speeds, we collectively predicted the logical arrival before we left the gate. That, of course, sealed our fate.
It wasn't long after our quick climb to our low cruising altitude of 27,000 feet that ATC cleared us via a new arrival. Rio had changed its configuration from a normal Runway 15 operation to a west landing on Runway 28. A few finger pushes later, my copilot completed the appropriate entries into the FMC. I rebriefed new altitudes and a new approach and made a welcome/goodbye PA to our customers. Once again, we sealed our fate.