As my copilot kept to the business of flying the airplane, I methodically began to type entries onto the keyboard. A change in North Atlantic tracks may not sound like an arduous situation on an airplane as sophisticated as a 777, but the consequences of not entering the data properly have the potential to lead to a gross navigation violation at best, and a catastrophe at worst. My airline has systematic procedures for reviewing, entering, verifying and flying the route. Although the procedures reek of busy work, they do reflect a method developed from bad experiences.
While entering the data, I was rewarded with a call from the cabin. Of course, flight attendants have no idea of the workload level occurring. But they do have an uncanny timing ability. Not wanting to dismiss a potential problem, I gestured for my copilot to take over ATC communication while I put the intercom handset to my ear.
Of course the problem from the cabin was that a passenger needed an answer as to our location. I gritted my teeth through a thin veneer of a smile and offered a very specific answer: "Ireland." The answer seemed to suffice.
Once the chore of redirecting our navigation was complete, I informed dispatch of the new route via a free text message. I requested flight plan data that reflected the change. The data are needed in order to verify that the change in tracks can still be completed without altering the fuel required because of a potential difference in traveled distance. In addition, headings and distances between waypoints over the ocean require verification upon passage.
Time marched on without a word from dispatch. At 100 miles from our oceanic entry point, the moment had come to use satcom. The voice of the dispatcher was heard through my headset as though he was standing behind me. He apologized for the tardiness of the data and explained that it had to be entered manually. No problem. We could wait.
It wasn't until after disconnecting with the dispatcher that I realized yet another message had been masked by the EICAS "comm" display. I selected the print option via the mouse pad. Our new flight plan data rolled out in a long curled sheet. Unfortunately, because of the format, the information required extra effort to interpret. At least it was available.
Soon, ATC dismissed us to check in with Shanwick Oceanic via an HF radio, SelCal (Selective Calling). It was then that I realized that, in the heat of the battle, we hadn't logged on with our CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication) system. The CPDLC system is a scripted version of airborne texting. It eliminates the need to verbally contact ATC with position reports. The computers make the reports automatically. I rushed to make the appropriate entries. The EICAS screen displayed a message that indicated our log-on was successful.
While completing the required SelCal check and verbal confirmation of our CPDLC status, the cabin interphone chimed. My copilot nodded and picked up the intercom handset. A flight attendant was requesting our all-important meal selection request. Priorities …
Despite my frustrated efforts in trying to eliminate the never-ending loop of sending our operative printer status, the comm display remained. During the satcom call, our dispatcher had connected us with maintenance in an attempt to remedy the problem. Maintenance offered that the only solution was to reset the circuit breaker, but it couldn't recommend it because the procedure was an in-flight no-no. Besides, the circuit breaker was located within the scary depths of the E&E (electronics and engineering) compartment below the first-class cabin. (Later in the flight, I would stumble on the solution. The solution wasn't in the manuals, and it didn't involve pulling circuit breakers.)
At some point after we passed our oceanic entry point, the EICAS screen indicated that we had two mechanical status messages. A status message is a statement of a system problem that is not classified as an emergency. Apparently, our APU starter and a valve that regulates warm air to the passenger cabin had issues. No checklist procedure was required.
When we caught up with our navigation procedures and paperwork, I reflected on the very quick first hour. Had we not established priorities and delegated duties, a real crisis may not have been manageable.
I'm thankful for my training and the cockpit administration systems that are an integral part of the 777. The systems always help to keep the blue side up. Certainly, nothing else really matters in the midst of an actual crisis.