Jumpseat: Managing the Abnormal

On some occasions, circumstances arise that require a little extra attention. These circumstances are not always entirely covered by a checklist. iStock

The vast majority of my flights are routine and mundane — certainly positive attributes from a safety perspective. But on some occasions, circumstances arise that require a little extra attention. These circumstances are not always entirely covered by a checklist. Such was the case on one particular trip returning home from London, a city I frequent more than any other.

The professional challenge of confronting unusual situations can be as much a test of skill as flying the airplane ­itself. Experience is an absolute advantage, notwithstanding a supportive crew.

First (to begin this story on a lighter note), the professional challenge on a layover is to obtain a consensus among my colleagues for a satisfactory place to eat. On this particular occasion, I was pleased to delegate. A flight attendant that I have flown with frequently over the span of my ­career relieved me of this stressful duty. He offered a restaurant suggestion to go to an establishment I had never been. Fresh Italian cuisine. Impeccable service. Eclectic decor. Comfortable atmosphere. Lively conversation. It was an enjoyable evening.

Adding to the untypical nature of this trip, my copilot for most of the month was Terry Dietz. If you are a fan of Survivor, Terry was a contestant for the 2005 season taped in Panama, placing third at the end of the show. He was also a 2015 Survivor participant in Cambodia but left the taping before completion because his teenage son was diagnosed with a heart condition severe enough to require a transplant.

Our cockpit conversations revealed Terry to be a loving and devoted father, intently focused on every aspect of his son’s recovery. In addition, we occasionally compared ­media notes based on our separate TV experiences.

During the course of my standard pre-departure briefing in London to 11 flight attendants, it was conveyed to me that our 777-200 might have an issue. Apparently, the flight attendants had flown in the airplane from JFK the day prior and experienced a noticeable vibration between specific rows of seats. Veteran flight attendants are not normally alarmists, nor do they focus on mechanical discrepancies other than to advise us of items involving cabin problems that we record in the maintenance logbook.

Our purser, the lead flight attendant, expressed a restrained frustration that the captain inbound to London hadn’t noted the vibration discrepancy in the logbook. I sympathized with her frustration but suggested that the prior captain may not have been presented with enough definitive information. After listening to various descriptions of the vibration, I compelled them to be specific about their observations if it were to occur again.

Shortly after reaching our cruise altitude of FL 380, the flight attendant chime activated. Thinking that the call would be about the vibration, I quickly unsnapped the intercom handset from its cradle. I was wrong.

A flight attendant from the aft end of the airplane said, “I’ve got Matt, a friend of yours from the gym, back here. He says to try and not screw anything up.”

I grinned and replied, “I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises.”

The flight attendant chuckled and said, “I’ll let him know.” She clicked off the intercom.

As I discovered later, Matt was traveling with another pilot and a flight attendant. Matt flies for a large U.S. corporate flight department and was deadheading home. Small world.

Not long after consuming our mostly edible crew meals, the flight attendant chime activated again. Certainly this time it would be about the vibration. Nope. On this occasion, our purser indicated there was a strong electrical burning smell in the first-class galley. Electrical burning smells get my immediate attention. Fortunately, no smoke was observed, nor had the odor permeated into the cockpit. Without hesitation, I told the purser I would come back to investigate. I left Terry at the controls.

An acrid electrical smell was immediately apparent as I paced around the galley. I sniffed, isolating the strongest odor to be originating from an electrical panel on a bulkhead behind the cockpit. A touch test of the panel did not reveal any hot spots. Eventually, the odor dissipated. One of the flight attendants conveyed that at his first whiff, he had shut off a couple of the electrical switches, one of them to the ovens. It was a smart and appropriate action.

Unfortunately, about a half-hour later, the electrical smell returned. On this occasion, I asked Terry to ­investigate. I wanted a different set of nostrils to make an evaluation. Terry returned to the cockpit with the same inconclusive results. On the bright side, the odor dissipated and never returned. Regardless, I recorded the event in the maintenance logbook and coded the item directly to our dispatcher as per normal procedure for any discrepancy.

It wasn’t long before the discrepancy got our dispatcher’s attention. He sent us a message via the aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS), likely hoping that our flight wasn’t about to become an emergency diversion. Utilizing satcom, I offered a detailed account of the situation. He would convey the information to maintenance at JFK. His voice held immediate relief.

With Terry having exited the cockpit for his rest break, the adventure continued, this time with Bruce, our relief copilot. The flight attendant chime activated again. On this instance, I guessed right. The vibration had returned.

Leaving Bruce in command, I refastened my tie, adjusted my professional expression, and departed the cockpit for another investigation. A flight attendant led me down the aisle to rows 12 through 15, where the vibration was the most pronounced. Slightly skeptical, I stood and placed a hand on a passenger-seat console. No imagination required — a noticeable vibration was present. For those old enough to remember the low-tech, tabletop electric football game that shook the miniature football players across the field, that’s what it felt like.

The shaky rows were over the wings, just behind the 777’s Rolls-Royce engines. But none of the vibration indications in the cockpit displayed abnormal parameters ­originating from the engines, nor did the flight controls exhibit any abnormalities.

I continued down the aisle to the very aft end of the airplane and felt a similar, albeit less intense, buffeting that I did not consider unusual. But according to the flight attendants I queried, it was not typical. Regardless, I had enough information to provide a narrative for our maintenance team.

My return stroll back up the aisle toward the cockpit was met with curious eyes from my gym friend Matt. I provided an explanation. We exchanged smiles and shoulder shrugs.

Once again, I documented the event in the logbook and coded the item to our dispatcher. Rather than wait for another concerned reply, I sent a text message suggesting that our dispatcher call for details via satcom. Within a few minutes, the satcom chime activated. I provided my best explanation while the airplane chugged along over the North Atlantic at Mach 0.84 without complaint.

When I left the cockpit for my rest break, I was reasonably confident that our 777 would remain intact at least until my return 30 minutes before touchdown. Of course, sleeping with one eye open was always an option.

After my rest break, before heading back up to the cockpit, I conferred with the flight ­attendants who strap into the jumpseats nearest the most pronounced vibration rows. I ­indicated that we would be checking for their observations during descent and after landing. They nodded in ­concurrence.

The vibration disappeared during the descent, the engines remaining mostly at idle. This would be a tough troubleshooting for maintenance. My research later discovered that maintenance had determined the fix was to apply speed tape along a 6-foot section of wing over the panel seams just behind the slats and nearest the fuselage. This was an approved Boeing repair until the appropriate panels could be removed and readjusted … whatever that meant. As for the acrid electrical smell, maintenance could find no evidence of a problem after removing ceiling panels and inspecting the galley area. In any case, none of the discrepancies kept the 777 grounded. The airplane continued to fly without related issues.

Our final challenge for the trip was simply the act of being distracted. The winter air was crisp enough that our landing on Runway 32R presented a postcard-perfect panorama of Manhattan and beyond. It reminded us of one reason that we fly for a living.

At the end of the day, we persevered without a hiccup. Challenges or not, we turned an untypical flight into a typical flight. And that’s the goal of every trip.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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