Operating Experience for Two ... Again

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Leon and I shook our heads as we stared at the line of airplanes in front of us that we had been instructed to follow. In contrast to the other line for JFK's Runway 22 Right, our line wasn't moving. The weather on the initial route was preventing our departure. The frustrating part was that we had reached the number three position up until being banished to the other kingdom.

The trip hadn't started out well from the moment we began boarding our passengers. The June heat wave was taking its toll. With our APU rendered inoperative, air conditioning was only available through the jet bridge-supplied pre-conditioned air (PCA) unit. And as luck would have it, the PCA unit was also inoperative. The only source of air was the two air carts used for starting. The carts externally pressurize the airplane bleed system through the packs. The packs were doing their best just to cool the cabin down to 79° ... and that was only in one section. Judging by the matted hair and glossy sheen on the cheek of our purser, we hadn't been very successful in the forward part of the airplane.

For almost two and a half hours, mostly due to weather and congestion, we had occupied space on the taxiways. And now we were facing another problem. A glance at the fuel gauges on the overhead panel indicated that it would be only a matter of minutes before we would have to taxi back for fuel.

As a supplement to the story, I was acting in the capacity of check airman, performing copilot duties in the right seat. Leon was beginning the first leg of his captain's operating experience (OE) on the 757 since completing simulator training. He was a veteran of the left seat, having been a 737 captain prior to the upgrade. The trip was proving that it wasn't just Leon that was gaining experience. The OE was also becoming part of my training. I discussed some of these details in last month's Jumpseat column, Operating Experience for Two.

My stare at the fuel gauges was joined by Leon. We had reached the minimum takeoff quantity. And it had already been adjusted previously during a prior consultation with our dispatcher. The lengthy delay had also prompted our dispatcher to negotiate a later curfew time for our arrival into Bermuda. The airport was performing night construction. A landing past the curfew incurred a $50,000 fee. The fee was beyond my debit card limit.

It was now a certainty that our need to refuel would force us to arrive past the renegotiated curfew. In fact, we reached our fuel limit at almost the same time that we reached our departure delay limit. An unfortunate part of the equation was that our company had subjected some of our passengers to a similar issue the night prior. The flight had cancelled for mechanical reasons. And it looked like we would have to cancel again.

During our entire taxi adventure, Leon had been very forthcoming in explaining each issue as it transpired via the PA. That's a good quality. But sometimes too much information can lead to passenger anxiety. In addition, the information can be premature. Such was the case in this circumstance.

Although it was necessary to explain our need to taxi back to the gate for fuel, the curfew dilemma was another matter. It had been renegotiated once already. Perhaps we could be successful again. Regardless, Leon decided to announce the bad news to the passengers. Interestingly enough, during the course of our travels on the taxiways, the purser had informed us that one of the passengers was dating a Bermuda air traffic controller. The passenger had contacted his controller friend via cell phone in hopes of helping with the curfew. I hadn't discouraged the creativity, but I wrote the information off as fun but not quite worthwhile.

I contacted the dispatcher regarding our return while Leon taxied us back to the gate. I was incredulous after being informed that the curfew had been eliminated. Amazing. There was no doubt that our controller-dating passenger had his own motives, but no one could argue with the fact that he had saved the day. I only hoped that our airline would reward him appropriately. We would complete the mission after all. But we wouldn't do it without more problems.

Company ramp control assigned us a gate with an operating PCA system this time. A ground crew was available to park the airplane. A fueling truck was nearby. An agent moved the jet bridge cab up to the forward entry door. On the ramp, one of the ground crew began to lower the external power cord and drag the PCA hose out of the bin. So far, so good.

With the completion of the parking checklist, Leon and I slithered out of our seats. We discussed the need to allow passengers an opportunity to deplane temporarily in order to stretch their legs. They had been cramped in their seats for almost three hours.

When the forward entry door was opened, Leon escaped into the jet bridge and the terminal in order to retrieve revised flight plan information. Unfortunately, his exit activated the terminal door alarm. It shrieked enough to clear my head of any residual earwax. The agent shrugged her shoulders and indicated that the noise would have to be silenced by someone else. I was left to negotiate the logistics of deplaning the passengers. I would have preferred to defer the negotiations to Leon as part of his OE, but it wouldn't have been an efficient utilization of crewmember duties.

We were now challenging the three-hour passenger bill of rights rule. I didn't want to be the first pilot to test the rule in court. Regardless, our customers deserved a break. And the fueling/re-catering process would take time anyhow.

Although our gate agent was friendly and accommodating, she wouldn't initiate a quick deplaning and reboarding without authorization from a supervisor. Phone calls were made. Time passed. Nothing happened.

I couldn't sit on my hands or bite my lip any longer. I was compelled to take off the check airman hat and make a decision with or without my new 757 captain. As I unsnapped the jet bridge phone off its cradle, I asked the agent for the company ramp tower number. With a firm press of buttons, I dialed.

As the phone rang, I thought, "Hell ... maybe the title of supervisor next to my name on the crew list actually means something."

The person that eventually took the call was not quite prepared for my decision. I heard more silence than actual words from the other end of the phone line.

In a firm tone I stated my name, rank and serial number. I recapped the events of the evening, including the warm cabin temperatures that were a result of an inoperative APU. I indicated the length of time that passengers had been aboard the airplane. The fact that the inoperative APU had prevented us from being able to shut down both engines during our delayed departure was the very reason we had taxied back for fuel. I explained that with the assistance of the gate agent, I would be deplaning passengers for a seventh inning stretch lasting for 15 minutes.

The matter-of-fact response that I received was neither adversarial nor agreeable. Decision made. Case closed.

I walked back onto the airplane and made a PA announcement about the logistics of the temporary deplaning process. Passengers shuffled past the cockpit door where I remained standing. Some smiled. Some grunted. Some commented with a word or two. Most passengers maintained a neutral expression, probably hoping that there would be a positive conclusion to the adventure.

With more fuel on board and the airplane re-catered, I brought Leon into the loop. He nodded and slid back into the left seat. We began another round of cockpit preparations and checklists.

In the meantime, the weather had its own plans. A glance outside the cockpit windscreen saw sporadic blue flashes beginning to accent the night sky. The inevitability of a ramp closure was imminent. Regardless, the gate agent, now joined by her supervisor, attempted to close the forward entry door. But she was thwarted in the act by a passenger.

A passenger claimed that her asthmatic condition (for which she had brought no treatment) was now an issue. The passenger not only wanted off the airplane, but she wanted her bag from the cargo compartment. The supervisor explained that her bag was going to Bermuda with or without her. We couldn't inconvenience almost 180 passengers to search for her luggage based on a last minute decision. When the passenger finally accepted the circumstances, the drama ended. She remained on board.

The forward entry door was closed in a whirl of frantic activity. Our purser announced the status of her cabin and closed the cockpit door. The jet bridge remained attached to the airplane because the external power cord prevented its movement. The external power cord was needed because of our inoperative APU. And because of our inoperative APU, we once again required two start carts. The start carts' hoses were attached but the units were not running. A ground crew was required for their operation. The ground crew was nowhere to be found. Why no signs of human life?

Lightning had been reported within a five-mile radius of the airport. The ramp was closed. No airplanes would move. The fun began all over again.

We sat idol for 15 minutes and then the flight attendant call chime rang in the cockpit. The "FWD" blue light was illuminated on the overhead panel. Leon keyed his mic switch on the yoke and answered as we both glanced at the cabin LCD temperature displays. I listened over my cockpit speaker.

Passengers were complaining how hot it was again. No surprise there. And one passenger was feeling ill. My adrenalin started to flow. Killing one of our customers was not my idea of a successful trip. Once again, I couldn't sit on my hands. I apologized to Leon, but somebody had to take action.

In a flash of temporary insanity, I keyed my mic switch and transmitted to company ramp control. I explained our situation. The voice that answered was the same voice that had been on duty since our first departure from the gate. The voice now had a frustrated and weary tone. If our cabin temperature issue remained, I stated that we would be deplaning the passengers again. In the meantime, I requested maintenance. Perhaps they would fix the APU.

As I popped out of my seat in the cockpit, our purser disarmed the forward entry door. As the door cycled open, we were greeted by the same gate agent that had participated earlier. I shook my head and explained our problem. The agent nodded. We both exchanged eye rolls.

Although the ramp was still officially closed to ground personnel, I saw no threatening activity in the form of rain or nearby lightning. Perhaps the PCA hose had a kink that I could adjust. I trotted out the jet bridge door and down the stairs to the ramp. The PCA hose did have a kink, but I could only make a minor adjustment that probably wouldn't help.

I stared at the two start carts. Hmm ... could I? I wasn't a brain surgeon, but certainly an airline pilot might be able to crack the code of a start cart. The controls and labels of the first cart were barely visible in the dim light. I hadn't brought my flashlight down from the cockpit, so I pressed the ON button of my cell phone and illuminated the control panel. Let's see ... start button here. Throttle there. Shut-off over there. No problem. Within moments the start cart shuttered to life. The familiar scream of the engine overshadowed the normal drone of airport noise.

A small pickup truck pulled alongside the air cart that I hadn't started yet. A mechanic stepped out. I smiled and explained the need to attempt a repair on the APU. The mechanic promptly informed me that he was off the clock in one hour. A repair wasn't going to happen. I refrained from expressing my gratitude.

I walked away from the young man and began the process of starting the second air cart. My success was reflected in both the reduced temperatures indicated on the displays in the cockpit and a small smile from the purser in the forward galley when I returned.

As we awaited the reopening of the ramp, I took the time to discuss some international procedures with Leon. It was a discussion that I had leisurely planned over the course of our original three-day trip and four legs of flying. Our late arrival into Bermuda would require a rest period that would take us past our next day's connection to St. Martin back through JFK. Our trip would be shortened to only two legs.

As an added bonus, the Western Atlantic Route System (WATRS), which encompasses eastern U.S./Caribbean flights, had just been renovated a day prior. Familiar airways and intersections no longer existed. Bermuda had since published new ILS approach procedures probably as a result of the WATRS renovation. We would discover that only one was listed in our FMC database. Even the controllers did not seem familiar with the new procedures.

At 2305 New York time, we finally began our second pushback of the evening. We arrived in Bermuda at 0305 local time. Mission accomplished, but not same-day service. Although it was Leon's OE, I felt as though it was mine. It was not an episode that I cared to repeat, but it was indeed a valuable experience. Once again, my profession has lessons to be learned regardless of the years already involved.