Jumpseat

A London Superbowl Snowstorm Chess Game

After writing the title for this month's Jumpseat column, I chuckled to myself. I hadn't meant to create a tongue twister. But the title summarized the trip. I'll explain why.

In February Carol and I had planned our annual ski vacation to Park City. Prior to our departure, we had been entertaining guests nonstop in our Florida home for over a week. Carol had been the consummate host. She would be ready for a well-deserved break.

When my cell phone warbled a familiar distinctive ring, we raised our eyebrows in unison. Flight standards was calling. We both knew that a change in my schedule was about to occur. The change: Would I consider sliding my vacation back a day? The chess game of moving pilots and trips was about to begin.

The original plan had me deadheading to Boston on Saturday and laying over at one of my favorite downtown hotels, the Omni Parker House. The following morning I would fly to Miami with a first officer that was requalifying on the 767/757 after spending five years on the Super 80. We would continue on to Cancun that day, remain overnight, and then return early Monday evening to Miami. The captain that had originally been assigned to the trip would deadhead to Miami on Monday and then fly the last leg of the sequence, with the now-qualified first officer, back to their base in Boston.

In the meantime, Carol would drive up from our home in the Keys and meet me at a Miami airport hotel on Monday night. We would travel together early Tuesday morning on my airline through DFW to Park City. Are you dizzy yet?

The coordinator was now telling me that the first officer, who was just completing his final day of training at our flight academy, had made a personal visit to the flight standards office. He had indicated that his prior experience on the 767/757 involved primarily Latin America and Caribbean flying. He lacked North Atlantic experience. Since a North Atlantic line check automatically requalified him on most of our international routes, why not fly a trip to Europe instead?

Our flight standards department typically holds the big picture. Oftentimes, there is a greater logic to a particular plan. But in this circumstance, the first officer had a point. I was impressed.

The new strategy was for me to fly with the first officer to London from his base in Boston. I would return to Boston on Tuesday afternoon, one day into the original start of my vacation. Well … okay, but I had to consult with Carol and our friends in Park City to determine if they wouldn't mind an itinerary change. I hung up with flight standards and began the negotiation process.

Carol shrugged her shoulders with a 'whatever' grin. She had been to this dance before. After a phone tag or two, my friends in Park City indicated that they were flexible. I had also mentioned the possibility of us arriving on a late night flight; just let them know the real plan and don't bother them with details.

I returned to Carol for a final consultation. If I deadheaded back to Miami to meet her from Boston, it would add an extra leg and the possibility of extra connection problems to my journey. Would she agree to meet me in DFW instead? She displayed another 'whatever' grin. I called the flight standards coordinator back and agreed to the change. But wait … there's more.

A few minutes later my cell phone warbled again. Uh … which trip out of Boston to London did I want? Morning or evening? A lightbulb illuminated above my head. The morning trip on Sunday would get me back to the States on Monday evening. Carol and I could travel to Park City on Tuesday as per the original plan. Done deal.

But … what if I just caught up with Carol in Park City rather than in DFW? I could use my jumpseat privilege with another airline and go direct from Boston, arriving before noon. Another final-final consultation later, Carol agreed.

While I packed ski stuff with slightly more urgency, I reflected on the dominos that had been set in motion. Had Carol and my friends in Park City not been able to make adjustments, London would never have happened. The original captain and first officer for the Cancun trip were now back on their original schedule. No deadheading except for mine was involved. The crew assigned to the morning London trip from Boston would be displaced from their trip with pay. The wheels were all set in motion because one person had a better idea. Very cool.

As events played out, the preparation would culminate as planned in Park City … but not without adventure. The adventure would begin upon my arrival in Boston from Florida.

Because of frigid temperatures in the Northeast, our assigned gate had been having issues. The jet bridge was not moving. As I sat in the very back of the coach cabin, I glanced at my watch thinking that tomorrow's wake-up call would come a lot earlier. It took 35 minutes before the jet bridge cooperated, but not before we endured some rather unorthodox PAs from the captain. Suffice it to say that some of us have a knack for communicating to our passengers while some of us … well … enough said.

I had called the first officer on the day the chess game had begun once the plan had been executed. I asked if he would consider meeting me in Operations earlier than the regular sign-in time of one hour prior to departure. My hopes were to review a walk-around inspection of our 767 in addition to reviewing other aspects of international flight planning. He agreed.

Boston is one of our smaller crew bases. It is a close-knit group of pilots and flight attendants. The loss of a crew on September 11th had a greater effect than at other bases. When I walked into Operations, the handful of pilots scattered among the computer terminals knew immediately that I was from elsewhere. The nametag pinned to my uniform jacket prompted a good-natured response.

"Attention on deck! Check airman in the room. Hats on!"

I smiled and shook my head. Mike, my first officer, chuckled. His expression indicated that he was slightly self-conscious that I had drawn extra attention. I tapped the codes for the flight plan onto the nearest computer keyboard and waited for the printer to make noise.

As I reviewed the flight plan with Mike, I noticed an interesting discrepancy. The dispatcher had planned for us to fly at .84 Mach. Considering the fact that .86 is our MMO, the speed was uncharacteristically fast. I picked up a company phone and dialed. The dispatcher that answered had relieved a colleague who had just gone off duty. Apparently, the off-duty man had the 777 on the brain and not the 767. A re-crunching of numbers at a slower speed saved us 5,500 lbs of fuel.

The time involved with the flight plan recalculation and some instruction with Mike put us behind schedule for my original plans. The walk-around review would have to wait until our departure from London on Monday. Instead, I would perform the walk-around solo while Mike involved himself with the more detailed preparation of the cockpit. Considering the fact that the FMC data entry procedures were less familiar, it was a better use of operating experience (OE) time. Mike's prior experience on the airplane assisted his efforts. We pushed back from the gate only a few minutes late.

Except for intermittent periods of choppy air, the North Atlantic crossing was routine. Our flight attendants were accommodating and friendly despite the less than optimum serving conditions.

We arrived over England with the standard greeting of a holding pattern about 30 miles south of Heathrow Airport. Adding to the normal delay was the earlier than forecast addition of snow. The white stuff had just begun to impact the airport. It wouldn't be until the following morning that London would understand the full effects of an inaccurate forecast.

Mike's flying performance was well-executed right up until the last 50 feet. He had an unfortunate memory lapse. His flare technique was better suited to his former life on the Super 80 than on the 767. The firm touchdown was more embarrassing to Mike than it was to me, but he took it in stride even when the flight attendants afforded him their typical critiques. They confided to me later that they had considered standing up in the crew bus with panties dropped to their ankles, but decided the new guy had suffered enough abuse.

Because of deicing procedures, airplanes were remaining at the jet bridges longer. Our gate was occupied for that reason. A half hour passed before we were able to proceed. Intermittent light snow? Not.

Next on the agenda was the Superbowl. To accommodate the desires of U.S. airline crews, its primary patrons, the hotel pub had made plans to remain open past 0200 for kick-off time. Although wide-screen TVs were in view from almost every corner, SkyNews just wasn't the same as good old American network television. The commentators were better suited for cricket than football. I missed John Madden.

As the game progressed into the second half, it appeared as though I wouldn't have to travel to Park City. I glanced out the pub windows. Utah had arrived in London. The sidewalks and the roads were covered with a thick layer of white. Snowflakes were obscuring the yellow glow from the street lights.

When morning arrived, the British city would confront the nightmare of winter's wrath. The news channels were calling it the storm of the century. Snowy video footage from Heathrow didn't bode well for flying airplanes.

As I walked into the hotel crew room, flight attendants were chattering about cancelled flights. An arriving cockpit crew mentioned the closure of the north parallel runway. So much for my vacation plans.

When our crew gathered in the lobby late Monday afternoon for hotel pick-up time, we were both surprised and relieved. Our flight back to Boston was still showing a scheduled departure. The local news had reported major shutdowns of public transportation and treacherous roadways. I clambered on the bus thinking that we would be moving at a snail's pace while dodging the carcasses of cars that had been abandoned in the snowstorm. Nothing of the sort occurred. London streets and highways were mostly clear.

A very light snow was falling when our crew bus pulled alongside our airplane. Unfortunately, the jet bridge had been rendered inoperative as a result of the weather. It could not be mated to the forward entry door. Instead, portable airstairs were required. Passengers would have to be bused from the terminal and boarded the old-fashioned way.

While the flight attendants waited on the warm crew bus for the arrival of the airstairs, I decided it was time to torture Mike. We trudged through the slush and began a walk-around inspection.

It is commonly accepted that for those captains who actually perform walk-around inspections they refrain from participation in less than ideal weather. In that regard, a few eyebrows were raised by assorted ground personnel as they watched not only a copilot, but a captain brave the sloppy conditions.

With the outside preflight completed, we began our cockpit preparations. I realized that it was an appropriate time to discuss deicing procedures. Mike proved once again that he had done his homework. We reviewed operational considerations and holdover charts. Through the holdover charts, we collectively determined that in the worst-case scenario, if snowfall increased from the current very light conditions to moderate conditions, 30 minutes would be the approximate limit before the anti-icing fluid rendered itself ineffective.

Armed with the holdover information, Mike advised operations personnel over company frequency that we were ready to begin the deicing/anti-icing process. Much to our surprise, the deicing truck arrived within five minutes of the call. Despite some communication issues, mostly due to a limited amount of English language skills from the deicer, the job was complete in about 20 minutes. Well … we had one issue.

During the walk-around inspection I had noticed snow accumulation just inside the right engine nacelle. I made an attempt … okay … several attempts to explain the requirement to remove the snow before we could start the engine. The message didn't seem to be getting through. I requested that the deicer put company personnel on the interphone. Message understood. Maintenance removed the snow from the nacelle using advanced British technology -- a broom.

We pushed back from the gate, started both engines, and requested taxi instructions. Although the taxi instructions to Runway 9 Right were straightforward, Heathrow's lighted guidance system made the directions a piece of cake. The guidance system is a controller-activated series of green and amber lights embedded in the concrete that illuminate in the direction of travel that corresponds to the taxi instructions.

Thanks to British Airways, airplane traffic on the taxiways was almost nonexistent. The airline had cancelled all of its departures until 1700 local time. We were cleared for takeoff almost a quarter mile before the departure end. Mike brought the power levers forward. Because of a light passenger load, we were airborne into a night sky using barely half of the runway.

Despite a tardy departure, our arrival at Boston's international terminal was only 10 minutes later than scheduled. A little less headwind. A little bit of luck. Only about 36 hours and one flight later, I was riding the McConkey chairlift on the way to the summit of Park City. Mission accomplished.

A Superbowl snowstorm chess game? No worries.