I Learned About Flying From That

windshield.jpg

One of the great things about flying for an airline that is taking delivery of new aircraft is that you occasionally have the opportunity to fly "right out of the box" a brand, spanking new jet.

That was the case one morning when, as a relatively new first officer still in my probationary first year with my company, I reported for duty at Tampa International after a short night's layover. It looked to be an easy day, with just one leg from Tampa back to our home base in Philadelphia to wind up three days of criss-crossing the country. Skies were clear at both departure and destination, with high pressure dominating the eastern half of the United States making for some beautiful late fall weather. And adding to the pleasant scenario, I arrived at the airport along with Rob, who was the captain, and our four cabin crewmembers, to find that we had been provided with a shiny new Airbus A-320 with which to complete our mission. In fact, the morning's flight was to be its very first in passenger service. The airplane had recently been ferried from its birthplace in Europe to our maintenance facility in Tampa, where it was given a final check and stamp of approval before being towed over to the terminal to begin its life as an airliner.

We were in a light mood as we went about our preflight duties. The new airplane showed not even the slightest smudge of dirt or sign of normal wear anywhere, inside or out, and the modern flight deck with its well-placed controls and glass displays seemed to sparkle like a photo in a glossy magazine. It even had that "new airplane smell."

It was my turn to fly and Rob handled the radios and non-flying duties as we completed the departure phase and climbed to our cruising altitude of Flight Level 370. Checklists complete, we settled in for the flight home, enjoying the unusually good visibility across the Florida peninsula in the crisp November air. Having such a nice view prompted a bit of sightseeing and we searched for the tethered radar balloon, which was familiar to those who flew frequently along the western coast of Florida during the 1990s. It was notam'ed to have been extended that day to an altitude of 15,000 feet and would have been located just to the west of our route of flight.

"Do you see it?" I asked Rob, who was on his first trip as a fully qualified captain. He had recently completed upgrade training, and then a course of Initial Operating Experience with an IOE check airman in the right seat. I was his first "real" copilot, so to speak.

"I'm looking … yep, there it is," he said, pointing to the uniquely shaped structure floating in the air nearly four miles below us.

As I leaned over to get a better look off the left side of the airplane, there was a loud "Pop!" and we both looked up to see that the entire windscreen panel directly in front of my seat, while still remaining in place, had nevertheless shattered into countless tiny fragments.

"Holy $%@#!" exclaimed the captain.

"What the … " was my first reaction.

There was a moment where time was suspended and the airplane flew on just fine as though nothing were amiss. The basic structure of the glass window seemed to be holding, at least for now. The pressurization seemed unaffected. Everything was as it should have been, except for the slightly surreal anomaly of staring straight ahead at a shattered windshield in an otherwise pristinely perfect, brand new $40 million airplane.

Rob keyed the mic and requested a lower altitude from Jacksonville Center, who then cleared us to descend and maintain Flight Level 330. As I initiated the descent, my pulse began to quicken. This was real, not one of the myriad emergencies practiced innumerable times in the simulator over the course of an airline career.

"I vote that we declare an emergency and land as soon as possible," I offered somewhat overly enthusiastically. Rob was already on the case, alerting center that we needed further descent. We saw on our navigation display that Jacksonville International was 75 miles to the northeast, and quickly decided that we would go there. Since I could no longer see through the windshield, we transferred control and Rob became the flying pilot. We also donned our oxygen masks and I moved my seat to its lowest and most forward position, effectively placing myself below the level of the top of the instrument panel. It was impossible to tell if the damage to the window was extensive enough to cause it to fail completely, or whether only one layer of the glass was affected. I tried not to think about what would happen if it suddenly decided to blow out at a speed of over 250 knots. Our Cracked Windshield emergency checklist provided some guidance, directing us to revert to manual pressurization and maintain a one psi differential, which I attempted to do using the controls on the overhead panel. Normally, the automatic system works great, so one doesn't get a lot of practice controlling the pressurization manually. Thus, I had a bit of a learning curve to overcome while I toggled the switches that directly move the outflow valve, and this was evident by the swifter-than-normal pressure changes felt in our ears and sinuses.

It was a busy cockpit during that descent. We had to communicate with our cabin crew, who were in the middle of serving breakfast, and bring them into the loop. We needed to make a thoughtfully-worded announcement to our passengers. And we had to notify the company (through ACARS, our onboard datalink system) of our diversion to JAX. These tasks were made more difficult by the nonstandard procedure of communicating while wearing oxygen masks. Each time Rob and I needed to talk to each other, we had to select the intercom on, whereby our voices would be piped over the speakers in the cockpit. We then had to select the intercom off immediately after speaking, lest we have loud breathing sounds as an irritating distraction. To talk to ATC, we had to push the same intercom switch in the other direction. In the heat of the battle, there was an easy potential for communication snafus to occur, adding to the task saturation.

To make matters more interesting, glass fragments began separating from the window, and some of these splinters were falling on my head and arms.

We came up fast on Jacksonville and found ourselves in a state of excess energy on final. In other words, we were too high and fast to make a stabilized approach. Unable to stabilize the approach within safe parameters, we had little choice but to abort the landing and go around for another try. So there we were, climbing away from the runway-back up into the sky-as slivers of glass rained steadily down from the broken window.

The second time around, we made sure to get it right, and took our time with a nice wide visual pattern back to the runway, allowing ample room to slow and configure the aircraft for landing. Finally we touched down and rolled out. As we exited the runway I removed my mask with a sigh of relief.

When we taxied up to the gate, I could see people inside the terminal looking out and pointing at the somewhat alarming sight of an airliner arriving with such obvious damage. We soon discovered that it had been only the inner pane of the multi-layered window that had failed, most likely due to an impurity in the glass that hadn't been discovered during the flight-test phase of the new aircraft.

To see more of Barry Ross's aviation art go to www.barryrossart.com.