Jumpseat: Groundhog Day Intermission

A break in the normal trip routine.

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After months of flying the same two-day London trip on the 777 from JFK, Les Abend's Groundhog Day finally became tomorrow.Alamy

The 1993 movie Groundhog Day is an American classic. The film has become synonymous with routine and repetition. Recalling the final scene, Bill Murray wakes up to the radio alarm clock when the last digit clicks to 6:00, just as it had done hundreds of times before. The same Sonny & Cher lyrics of "I Got You Babe" blare from the speaker. Instead of Murray mashing the off button, Andie MacDowell reaches across him and silences the alarm clock. Murray's today had finally become tomorrow. Time had moved forward. The routine had been broken.

Because of the movie, characterizing an event as Groundhog Day suggests that circumstances are exactly the same as they were during a prior time period. After months of flying the same two-day London trip on the 777 from JFK, my Groundhog Day finally became tomorrow. Granted, my Groundhog Day is self-induced. This particular trip is highly desirable because it leaves midmorning on the first day and returns the following evening without body-clock disruption.

I have absolutely no complaints. That being said, I know the dining menu at the hotel better than the contents of my own refrigerator. The scratches on the bureau in my room have been etched in my memory like a fine mosaic. And I know that a good kick to the mini refrigerator in just the right spot ceases its annoying rattle. Operationally, for the most part, the departure procedures, the arrival procedures, the North Atlantic track procedures, the frequencies and the assigned gates rarely deviate from the routine. Even the controllers sound the same.

So what changed on this particular trip? First, my friend Jay Rud was meeting me at the Heathrow Airport layover hotel. Jay is a former chief pilot at our Chicago crew base and is now a 787 check airman. He would be requalifying a captain for North Atlantic procedures.

Interestingly enough, the captain who needed the qualification was highly experienced in both the 787 and 777, but had spent the past several years as a technical pilot involved with flight tests, maintenance ferry flights and new aircraft deliveries, among other duties. But the assignment falls under Part 91 flight rules, which translates into the need to requalify under air carrier, Part 121 rules when returning to a regular line-pilot schedule. Who would’ve thought?

Our scheduled arrival into Heathrow is approximately 30 minutes prior to the Chicago arrival. So, after hearing Jay on the radio as we tracked eastbound across the North Atlantic, I impressed upon my copilot, who was flying the leg, that it was imperative that he remain ahead of “that little plastic twin.”

My copilot accomplished the task without difficulty. Having already changed into civilian attire, I met Jay and his crew in the lobby as they checked into the hotel, admonishing my friend for his tardiness. And for good measure, I added the fact that it required the skill of only two of us to complete the mission from New York, as opposed to the three pilots necessary on his trip. I received no rebuttal. (Actually, the scheduled flight time between Chicago and London exceeds eight hours, legally requiring a relief copilot.)

After giving Jay the opportunity to change out of his stripes, we reassembled at the designated unofficial Chicago-base crew dining table. The fact that I would dare to integrate with another domicile was cause for my New York crew to make disparaging remarks regarding loyalty. During dinner, I had to suffer the disapproving glares of our JFK flight attendants. Tough crowd.

The following morning, Jay and I reconvened for breakfast. Normally, because of convenience, a nice discount and the fact that there are very limited restaurant choices near the airport, I eat at the hotel. But on this occasion, we decided to dine at the neighborhood pub located just around the corner. Good food. Pleasant atmosphere.

The venue also provided us the opportunity to discuss the logistical loose ends of our upcoming trip to New Zealand. The trip was to be a celebration of our mutual wedding anniversaries. The visit to the North Island was a self-guided driving tour, while the visit to the South Island would be via an airplane tour company called Flyinn. It operates two Cessna 172s from a working sheep farm. We would be flying supervised day trips to various destinations. More on this subject in a subsequent Jumpseat column.

Because of the movie, characterizing an event as Groundhog Day suggests that circumstances are exactly the same as they were during a prior time period.

For our trip home, the copilot and I arrived early to our airline’s Heathrow Operations. The WSI weather picture indicated numerous areas of moderate turbulence in the midlatitude tracks across the North Atlantic. To avoid the turbulence, dispatch had planned a very northern route, which would take our flight across northern England and into northern Scotland, and then across the ocean to the southern tip of Iceland, near Keflavik. From Keflavik, the route had us continuing on a westerly heading to cross the very southern tip of Greenland.

Unfortunately, the route added 35 minutes to our scheduled flight time. But an uncomfortable ride is not an enjoyable experience for passengers, nor is it pleasant for flight attendants. Although our 777-300 can carry 775,000 pounds of airplane using 115,000 pounds of thrust per engine, the wing doesn’t support it as well as its shorter and less powerful 777-200 brother. That fact translates into having to start out most London trips in the low 30s flight levels, which doesn’t get us above most forecast jet-stream-type turbulence.

As my copilot marked the latitude/longitude points of our atypical route on the plotting chart, Jay strolled into ops with the newly qualified captain. Remarking about our scenic route to New York, I queried Jay as to whether his plastic 787 would be capable of handling the turbulence. His response was simple. Their flight was capable of FL 420. End of discussion. In addition, the 787’s fuel burn would be nearly half of ours even with the extra distance to Chicago, an average of about 8,500 pounds per hour versus 4,700 pounds per hour.

With salutations to Jay, my copilot and I departed. Although we were afforded the opportunity to catch glimpses of the Scottish Highlands, Iceland disappointed us with its typical white blanket of stratus cloud cover. However, Greenland surprised us with a great view of its forbidding terrain. Even at the end of August, the mountains were capped with a layer of virgin snow. Icebergs were in abundance. Cool stuff.

Although we arrived tardy to our gate at JFK, I was grateful for the atypical experience. Not everybody can say they have seen England, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland all in one day from the vantage point of a 777 cockpit. Groundhog Day had disappeared. Today had become tomorrow — well, at least until my next trip.