Jumpseat: Monotony Interrupted

An airline captain's trip deviates from the mundane.

Jumpseat September 2016
A usually routine flight from Heathrow to JFK this time is anything but.iStock

Throughout the years of my musings with this magazine, I have espoused the attribute of mundane in regard to a safe and successful airline trip; the simulator is reserved as the venue for the exact opposite. None of my colleagues would wish for an inflight malady just to quell the monotony, but there are moments when we yearn for an elevated adrenalin flow accompanied by a higher frequency of electrical firing to our brain synapses. Most times, the moment is simply the act of landing or taking off in the airplane. Occasionally, we deviate from the mundane. We did just that on one particular flight.

Lately, my standard trip from New York to London and back is the epitome of routine. The trip departs JFK around 10 a.m. and returns the next day around 8 p.m. In the summer months, the sun is above the horizon for the majority of the flight time.

We fly. We layover. We have dinner. We sleep. We fly home. My circadian rhythm remains at peace. It’s a beautiful thing.

Although the first officer, Ann, and I arrived early from the hotel to our gate at Heathrow, the airplane had not. The flight was late from Los Angeles and had taxied up to the terminal only one hour before our scheduled departure — not a lot of turnaround time at an international destination for a B-777-300 that holds 310 passengers.

There are moments when we yearn for an elevated adrenalin flow accompanied by a higher frequency of electrical firing to our brain synapses.

As we rolled our bags toward the pointy end, the aisles were teaming with cleaning crews, catering personnel, agents and maintenance technicians, all attending to their assigned duties. Vacuums, extension cords, plastic trash bags, clipboards and Latex gloves had transformed the cavernous cabin into an aluminum beehive. Despite the labyrinth of activity, most people politely darted and weaved out of our way.

After offering a greeting to our mechanics while depositing our bags in the cockpit, an informal briefing regarding the status of the airplane began with typical salt-and-pepper British humor.

A cargo-door sensor wouldn’t indicate a closed position. A mechanic had to visually verify the door’s status just prior to departure. Second, one of the computer communication channels to the primary flight controls had been deemed inoperative. The inoperative channel didn’t require much participation from us as pilots; only the knowledge that our CAT III approach and resultant auto-land capability were slightly restricted in the event we encountered very low visibility on our arrival into JFK.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that the required temporary placards were not installed in the correct cockpit locations. New placards had to be printed. In any case, the maintenance issues translated into additional attention beyond that of normal preflight duties.

Adding to the mix, the previous crew had managed to collide with every suicidal bug within Heathrow airspace. The windscreen was splattered with insect remains. My request for cleaning got a prompt response but necessitated vacating our seats, which, of course, further 
delayed cockpit preparation.

Meanwhile, the flight attendants scurried aboard a half-hour before departure. They had been delayed the opportunity to board because of the cleaning crews scampering about the aisles. Even with 13 flight attendants, normal cabin preboarding preparation on a 777-300 takes almost an hour. Needless to say, their hair was on fire.

As a matter of fact, one of my favorite flight attendants arrived with blinking horns on her head. Well, the horns were from an AC/DC concert she had attended in London during the layover. But in a strange way, the horns foreshadowed the remainder of the trip. More on that later.

Despite the compressed timeline and a cockpit intermittently full of people all fulfilling their appropriate duties, Ann and I managed to methodically complete our checklists before the scheduled departure time. Unfortunately, because of the last-minute briefing in the cockpit with our purser, we missed our pushback window from the gate. We were delayed 20 minutes. In the end, the 
delay wouldn’t matter.

One of my favorite flight attendants arrived with blinking horns on her head from an AC/DC concert she had attended during the layover.

Having flown the stretch version of the 777 only once, Ann had requested the leg home. After taxiing onto Heathrow’s Runway 9R, with a focused and almost imperceptible grin, she pushed the thrust levers forward, pressed the auto-throttle button, and guided 115,000 pounds of thrust per engine into the air.

Across the North Atlantic we completed the standard duties of verifying the oceanic clearance, cross-checking waypoints, monitoring fuel consumption and eating lunch. We discussed the airline, relationships and even broached the taboo of politics. All mundane stuff.

Just prior to Kennebunk, Maine, and about six and a half hours into the flight, our monotony ended. The New York area was experiencing a thunderstorm event, as in SWAP (Severe Weather Avoidance Plan). Along with other international arrivals from Europe, we were given holding instructions. Unfortunately, our sophisticated automatic weather radar was displaying an unfriendly area of red despite the fact that other airplanes were holding in that exact spot over the Kennebunk VOR.

Even though manually finessing the tilt and intensity of the radar made the bad stuff disappear, I wasn’t comfortable. I refused the hold. We were given a deviation clearance … and then a different routing … and then a different holding fix. Ann’s fingers danced across the flight management computer keyboard as she entered the new waypoints. We engaged our personal overdrives. How long could we hold?

The answer became problematic for three reasons. First, one of our alternates was Pittsburgh, which required a good amount of fuel. Second, it seemed that ATC was not prepared for our deviation, directing us back to Kennebunk. With other airplanes indicating no adverse conditions while holding in the upper altitudes at Flight Level 380 where we were, I acquiesced in my earlier decision. Third, the new routing being assigned that redirected airplanes around the weather to as far north as Albany, New York, required even more fuel than our original flight plan.

We were given a deviation clearance … and then a different routing … and then a different holding fix. Ann’s fingers danced across the flight management computer keyboard as she entered the new waypoints.

I helped solve part of the problem by evaluating the storm movement via the aircraft communication and reporting system (ACARS) printouts of current weather. In that regard, Philadelphia became the new and closer alternate. Of course, this update required documentation from our dispatcher in the form of 10 feet worth of ACARS paper. In any case, Ann and I calculated that we could do it all, inclusive of a 63-minute hold. We were in it for the long haul.

Fortunately, after a few turns in the holding pattern, a few reassuring PAs to the passengers, a turbulence briefing to the flight attendants, and a circuitous routing with vectors, we landed on a wet Runway 22L at JFK.

Then, to add insult to injury for our customers, the taxiways were saturated with airplanes that had incurred departure delays because of the thunderstorms. Almost an hour after touchdown, and more than 10 hours of block time (for a flight that normally involves seven hours), we rolled to a stop at our gate.

Monotony interrupted. I’ve ordered mundane for the next trip.