Operating Experience for Two

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One of the cool things about my new position with the airline is that the job is rarely routine. The trips are different. The people I fly with are different. The qualification requirements for each pilot are different. The side of the cockpit that I fly from is different. But what I hadn't anticipated was the fact that my own learning experiences would be different.

In that regard, when I shook hands with Leon in Operations, neither one of us had a clue that the evening would become a learning experience for both of us. Leon was flying his first trip as a new international 767 captain. I was his check airman. We were beginning the first leg of a three-day sequence that was scheduled to depart JFK for Bermuda at 1720.

Leon had been an international 737 captain for a few years and was upgrading to the 767. He commuted from the Washington, D.C., area. His last flight on the 767 was 17 years prior as a copilot. He had just completed simulator training at the flight academy.

Since Leon was already a seasoned veteran of Caribbean flying, my discussion in Operations was a quick review of pertinent flight planning subjects. Leon's eyes never glazed over, so I assumed my brief was worthwhile ... or perhaps he was on his best behavior.

When we arrived at the departure gate, passengers were just beginning to deplane from the previous flight. Since we wouldn't be able to access the cockpit for a few minutes, I suggested that Leon accompany me for the walkaround inspection on our 757. Except for a flight academy computer program, the opportunity to complete a walkaround inspection on the actual airplane is not available while in training. It has to be accomplished during operating experience (OE).

Leon and I walked into the jet bridge and squeezed past passengers still deplaning. I punched the code into the keypad on the jet bridge door. Leon and I walked down the metal steps and onto the ramp ... and into a gigantic toaster oven. The Northeast was in the midst of a June heat wave that would last almost a week. The outside air temperature at JFK in the late afternoon was hovering in the low 90s. I'd take bets that the ramp had exceeded 100°.

As I spewed out information about the airplane, Leon and I noticed that the ground crew had not made passenger comfort a priority. The pre-conditioned (PCA) air hose was coiled in the large bin below the stairs of the jet bridge -- its usual resting place. The ground crew was in the process of off-loading the arrival bags, a typical priority on a normal day. (Maybe none of these guys had ever experienced the joys of being seated in the last row of coach on a 188-passenger 757 when the A/C is shut down.)

The source of PCA air is external. It originates from a heating/cooling unit below the bottom of the jet bridge cab. Through an access panel, the hose from the heating/cooling unit connects directly to a large hole at the bottom of the fuselage, which sends the pre-conditioned air into the cabin.

Unfortunately, we had one minor problem. The one minor problem would plague the entire operation, costing the airline thousands of dollars, notwithstanding the potential loss of future revenue due to passenger frustration. The APU had been rendered inoperative by maintenance. Maintenance had their priorities too and it wasn't to fix the APU. (With all due respect to my maintenance colleagues, their priorities are dictated by the policies of superiors.) The repair of the APU had been legally deferred through the MEL.

One of the hardest parts of the check airman job is to allow the new captain an opportunity to make decisions, no matter how simple. But for some reason, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. This was the beginning of the trip's learning experience for me. I took aside one of the ground guys and diplomatically emphasized the immediate need for cool air ... like right now. The ground guy diplomatically informed us that PCA air was inoperative at our gate. Wonderful.

The ground guy shuffled his feet and then looked over my shoulder and glanced at one of the baggage carts stuffed full of off-loaded bags. A well-defined bead of sweat outlined his forehead. The ground guy was probably hoping that I would just go away and take the other captain with me. I explained the inoperative status of the APU. Our only choice was to connect the two mobile air carts that we would require for starting. In addition to providing air for starting the engines, the carts also pressurize our air conditioning packs. This fact is often lost on the ground crews. The distinction between PCA air and start cart air is probably not explained. Nonetheless, our ground guy appeared to be getting the message. He walked off in the direction of the carts.

Leon and I completed the walkaround inspection. We climbed up the jet bridge stairs and back into the cockpit. We began our preflight preparations. When I heard the screaming whine of the air carts, I moved the pack switches to AUTO. I made periodic glances up at the overhead panel and the digital displays of cabin temperature. Despite everybody's best efforts, the coolest section of the cabin was 79° at boarding time. The sooner we got our customers onboard the sooner we could start the engines and the sooner we could cool the airplane. It was not meant to be.

Although the airplane had arrived to us slightly late, it didn't seem to warrant the 30 minutes past departure time that it took to close the forward entry door. The worst was yet to come.

As minutes ticked away without contact from our line crew, Leon and I grew curious. We scanned the reflection of our airplane in the terminal windows for signs of human life. We searched outside the cockpit windows. Nothing moved. Our line crew had vanished into the Twilight Zone.

As predicted, the electronic chime sounded in the cockpit. The forward flight attendant call light illuminated in blue on the overhead panel. Leon and I glanced at each other, sighing in unison. Leon squeezed the press-to-talk switch on his control wheel. I cringed, listening to the conversation over the speakers. The purser, a colorful take-charge type, indicated that not only was the cabin temperature rising, but so was the temperature of passengers.

I nodded to Leon and keyed my mic switch, transmitting on company ramp control frequency. I inquired as to the location of our ground crew. 'Standby' was the response. The radio was silent. I rolled my eyes. When the ramp controller returned with a reply, it was not a good answer. Our ground crew had been reassigned to park an airplane that was returning for maintenance issues. Great ... another airplane full of happy customers.

I explained the situation regarding the inoperative APU and the temperatures in the cabin. The response was a simple 'Roger.' A ground crew would be out shortly. The check was in the mail ... .

Fifteen minutes later, a ground crew began to assemble beneath the airplane. We were cleared to start the right engine only, a nonstandard sequence. The air start carts and hoses are located too close to the left engine to allow for a safe start on that side. The left engine is started via a crossbleed procedure after all the hoses are disconnected and the pushback is completed. Although I would prefer the first leg for a new guy to be normal, our APU status was a common nonstandard situation and a great learning opportunity. Leon handled the procedure without problems.

Performing to the best of my abilities as a good copilot, I called ramp control for taxi clearance. I switched to JFK ground control frequency and was given another frequency to monitor. 'Monitor' is usually the code word for delay. Judging by the nonstop chatter and the fact that the taxiways were covered with airplanes, my delay theory was correct.

It was international push time. In addition, the western sky was turning a charcoal black. An occasional flash of orange announced what was soon to come. The weather would be the catalyst that would bring departures to a crawl and eventually to a complete stop. We weren't going to move anytime soon. For that matter, nor were the airplanes that we were blocking on the company ramp. Checkmate.

Knowing that Bermuda had established a curfew because of airport construction, Leon requested that I contact dispatch with an update on our delay status. Dispatch was well aware of the situation and had some interesting information. First, an arrival past the curfew time would incur an automatic $50,000 penalty. Second, ATC had been contacted on our behalf regarding the curfew. We should be receiving priority taxi clearance. 'Should,' of course, was the operative word ... .

Twenty minutes later, ground control prattled off a taxi clearance. The taxi clearance was only the beginning of the evening odyssey. As we rolled out onto taxiway Alpha behind a company 767 going to Paris, the sky unleashed a waterfall. All movement froze in time. To add insult to injury, because of similar call signs, the ground controller had confused our flight with the Paris flight. This fact wouldn't become apparent until later when we realized that a priority taxi clearance wouldn't be forthcoming.

Almost as dramatic as when the deluge began, it was over. When we could see beyond the nose of the airplane, the ground controller began to issue new taxi instructions. The conga line began to move forward. The new taxi instructions put us behind an estimated 25 airplanes for a Runway 22 Right departure. Considering the fact that we needed to depart in 15 minutes in order to arrive prior to the Bermuda curfew, our takeoff sequence wasn't going to be much help. It was time for some creative thinking.

I suggested to Leon that we recontact our dispatcher and advise him of our dilemma. He agreed. I was finding it difficult to sit on my hands. The dispatcher was frustrated that the ball had been dropped regarding our priority taxi clearance. He asked if we had access to escape the conga line. If we didn't, then we were dead in the water.

I scanned the taxiway ahead. Our company 767 immediately in front was blocking a potential exit. But ... if he moved forward, closer to the airplane in front of him, just maybe ... . I advised our dispatcher that I would attempt to orchestrate an escape.

After returning to the ground control frequency, I inquired as to whether anyone had been advised of our Bermuda curfew. Nope. Not a clue. But if we could get ourselves away from the pack, they would do their best to accommodate our departure. Cool.

Unfortunately, none of the controllers seemed to be able to get our Paris flight's attention. In addition, in an effort to conserve fuel, the crew had shut down both engines. In order to move, at least one engine had to be restarted. I had an idea.

After another call to our dispatcher, I suggested that he send an ACARS message to the Paris flight with a request to move forward on the taxiway. It worked. A curious voice from one of the crewmembers on the flight asked the tower controller for confirmation. Once the request was understood, an engine was started and the airplane inched forward. But as I suspected, the movement wasn't quite enough to allow us access. It didn't look like Bermuda was going to happen.

During the process of our adventure, Leon was doing his best to inform passengers of our progress via the PA. As a matter of fact, he was probably informing them too much. What do I mean? Well ... let's just say that sometimes an abundance of details can create unnecessary anxiety. Honesty is always the best policy. But in our particular circumstance the dynamics seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Although it appeared as if Bermuda was not in the cards unless we could collect an extra 50K from our passengers, the dispatcher sent us an ACARS message that he had managed to renegotiate the curfew time. As long as the wheels were off the concrete by 2020 local time, we were good for a launch.

But Leon had informed our customers that we were up against a curfew in a prior PA. Many people were probably already staring at their watches, preparing to be frustrated. I like to wait until the inevitable has actually occurred before announcing the bad news. For instance, if I am given holding instructions, I won't make a PA regarding the potential delay until at least entering the hold. Very often, the holding instructions are cancelled. But in defense of Leon, he did nothing wrong. He was making an admirable attempt at keeping our customers aware of our situation -- which was better than doing nothing at all.

With the curfew pressure off, we had a whole new ball game. Unfortunately, the new ball game had its own issues. And the issues were all related to the inoperative status of the APU. We had been taxiing on one engine to conserve fuel. One engine does not cool the cabin as well as two, especially without the added assistance of APU bleed air on a blazing hot day. And for some unknown reason, the temperature controllers were not functioning in unison whether I positioned the switches to manual or automatic. Although I was ready to blame the malfunction on my poor copilot abilities, I suspected that a sensor or two had problems.

In addition, without the APU we had been unable to shut down both engines when departures had completely stopped. Our dispatched minimum fuel quantity was fast approaching. Leon and I shared glances at the overhead panel, checking the digital display. It was becoming apparent that we would have to reevaluate.

Another call to dispatch. A re-crunch of the numbers allowed us to use some of the fuel originally allocated for en route weather deviations. It appeared that the deviations wouldn't be necessary. The storms would be clearing from the New York area once we departed. But I wasn't comfortable with our dispatcher's minimum fuel quantity. Once again, I had to open my mouth and share my opinion with Leon. Leon and I agreed upon our own number.

Meanwhile, back in our section of the airport, Runway 22 Right takeoffs were moving at a snail's pace. The weather was still affecting those departure sectors. On the other hand, Runway 31 Left airplanes were having a better day. Once the weather moved further east, the line of airplanes in front of us began to get smaller. And once again, some things are just not meant to be.

After reaching the No. 3 position, our departure gate shut down. Along with a handful of other airplanes, we were taken out of the line, banished onto a separate taxiway never to be heard from again. Leon and I performed the now too familiar eye dance at the fuel gauges. Not good. We were barely 300 pounds away from our pre-determined number.

But our odyssey was far from over. The evening would provide more operating experience for two than I had imagined. Unfortunately, I have to save the rest of this story for next month.

To be continued...