Piece of Cake


Newark is not my favorite airport. The drive from my home in Connecticut is long and can be fraught with the horrors of standstill traffic. The scenery on the New Jersey turnpike has all the appeal of a trip to the local landfill. The airport itself is famous for its "blue sky" departure and arrival delays.

I was pleasantly surprised that morning when Carol and I pulled up to the curb at the terminal unscathed and ahead of schedule. Carol was flying out to visit her family in Minnesota. I was flying out later that afternoon to begin a turnaround to Miami. I would be the check airman for Linda Wackerman on her first operating experience (OE) trip.

Linda was upgrading from the right seat of the Super 80 to the right seat of the 757/767. She and her husband were still active in the Navy Reserves. The husband flew for the Navy, but was not an airline pilot. They lived in Pennsylvania with their four children.

Over the phone, Linda had been enthusiastic. Having completed the rigors of simulator training, she was eager to fly the actual airplane. She had no problems arriving early in order for us to attack an agenda that included a 757 walk-around inspection.

Our equipment was scheduled to reach the gate an hour and a half prior to departure. Plenty of time to stroll around the airplane. Plenty of time to help Linda become acquainted with the cockpit of a 757.

In addition, the weather along the eastern coastline was cooperating. No problems anywhere. The day was shaping up to be a piece of cake. I should have known better. Because of circumstances, cake would be taken off the menu.

Linda's greeting came with a broad smile, but was accompanied by an occasional throaty cough. She had picked up the latest virus du jour from her youngest son. She insisted that despite the cough, she felt 100 percent up to the task. She extended her hand. I had just recovered from my own malady. I thought of Carol and her susceptibility to the latest germs. I hesitated for a moment and then gave Linda's hand a shake.

We shuffled over to the computer area. I typed an entry on the keyboard. The information that appeared on the screen indicated that our airplane would now be arriving late. The best laid plans … . I tapped another entry onto the keyboard and waited for the printer to clatter out our flight plan information.

After reviewing the paperwork, Linda and I walked out of Operations with the intention of being at the gate the moment our 757 came to a stop. We were successful. A steady stream of deplaning passengers flowed past us as we stepped through the door and outside onto the jet-bridge stairs. The tardy arrival would create a tardy departure. That was okay. I wouldn't have to guide Linda through preflight preparations at warp speed.

The walk-around inspection proceeded without issues. Linda was all smiles. We climbed back up the jet-bridge stairs and into the airplane. We introduced ourselves to the flight attendants gathered in the forward galley. We dragged our bags into the cockpit. I instructed Linda to get comfortable and then to begin programming the FMC. The first order of business was to give my standard mission briefing to the flight attendants. I promised to help Linda with any stumbling blocks once I returned from the cabin.

With the briefing complete, I stepped back into the cockpit. I was pleased to see that Linda had progressed through a good portion of the programming. As I organized my side of the office, I offered her some additional tips.

By the time the gate agent leaned into the cockpit to check if we were ready for departure, Linda and I had begun the Before Starting Engines checklist. The agent wished us a safe flight. The forward entry door was closed. The ground crew announced that they were ready via the interphone. We completed our checklists and began the pushback.

Earlier, I had asked Linda if she wanted to fly the first leg of our turnaround. The word 'yes' rolled off her tongue without hesitation. Unless external factors, i.e. challenging weather conditions are an issue, I offer the pilot new to the airplane a choice.

Some pilots would rather observe the first leg, while the majority are eager to jump right in. One could argue the decision either way. Perhaps it is preferable to allow a new kid the opportunity to observe an experienced pilot set the standard. Personally, I would rather a new pilot learn from his own attempt. An OE trip for a copilot with our airline involves only 15 hours before being released to line flying. Oftentimes, those 15 hours may only include four landings in which to practice. The simulator provided enough background to at least have a feel for the mechanics of flying the airplane. If mistakes are made, they are usually correctable by a briefing. If a briefing doesn't help, a demonstration can be performed on a subsequent leg.

In Linda's case, a demonstration was unnecessary. Her takeoff into a cool November night sky elicited a grin that I could easily distinguish despite the faint glow of a dark cockpit. The typical awkwardness of flying a new airplane was absent. Linda maneuvered our 757 with the deftness of a butterfly.

Our arrival into Miami was no different. Linda knew her procedures. She slowed the airplane, requesting flap settings at the appropriate time. Her situational awareness was not hampered by her unfamiliarity with a new machine. I was impressed.

But then all good things must come to an end. In this case, it was the last 50 feet. Linda began her flare a little bit earlier than Super 80 height, but not quite at 757 height. Although I blame myself for describing an almost flat attitude required for touchdown, Linda took it a little further. Our contact with the ground was similar to that of a flying pancake. Only a small amount of air existed between the nosewheel and the runway. The nosewheel was on the concrete only a second or two behind the main wheels. Needless to say, it was a rather firm, but safe arrival. That was okay. Learning was taking place.

We crossed the parallel runway and taxied toward the gate. In retrospect, through no fault of Linda, I would reflect on the fact that our flight from Newark would be the highlight of the trip. The downhill slide began about 50 yards away from our parking position, where I was forced to stop the airplane.

We were 20 minutes late. Apparently that justified the lack of ground personnel. Linda conveyed the absence of human life to our company ramp control over the radio. We waited. And waited. And waited. Ten minutes later, a crew chief assigned to an adjacent gate unloading a 777 had a customer service moment. He rallied his team together and marched over to our ramp area. With orange wands in hand, we were guided into the gate. Later, I would thank the 777 crew chief for his initiative. I didn't want to imagine how much longer it would have taken for our assigned ground crew to show up for class. And I don't blame the crew. In the current atmosphere of minimal staffing, a manager probably utilized them to plug a hole in the dike elsewhere.

Unfortunately, our problems were just beginning. As Linda and I progressed through the parking checklist, the APU decided it was time to take a break. We groaned in unison as the cockpit and cabin went dark. I gestured at the switch on the overhead panel and asked Linda to restart the APU. I reached for my microphone and pressed the PA button on the audio panel in the center pedestal. I explained the problem to our passengers.

Although the APU returned to life, it decided to give up a minute or so later. Our calls to ramp control requesting external power did not inspire a timely response. I wasn't surprised. Our original ground crew heroes had returned to their task on the 777. Our assigned crew was still absent. When power was eventually restored, Linda made a radio call to maintenance.

I exited the airplane to retrieve the flight plan paperwork at the gate podium for the return to Newark. An elderly couple stood on the jet bridge just outside the forward entry door of the airplane. The couple shared furrowed brows. The man offered me a stern look. Apparently, the appearance of a uniform invited a reaction similar to a bull eyeing a red cape. The man admonished me for not allowing his wife to stow her walker in an overhead bin, something one of the agents in Newark had allegedly done. The couple had been told to wait for the baggage handlers to bring up the walker from the cargo compartment once they arrived in Miami. It wasn't happening.

The fact that our assigned ground crew still hadn't reported for duty was one reason for the delay in retrieving the walker. Another reason was a Boeing system issue. The cargo doors require APU or external power to operate. Our power interruption prevented the doors from opening.

I could only apologize. It was a weak appeasement. The elderly man's face became redder. Fortunately, I was rescued by the appearance of the 777 crew chief. He had finished his duties next door and offered to locate the walker. I considered kneeling to kiss his ring, but decided a handshake would suffice.

A standing-room-only crowd of anxious faces was huddled around the boarding lounge. My attempts to relieve the tension of the lead gate agent with dry humor went unappreciated. His dour expression remained.

Apparently, the gate agent had infected our number one flight attendant. When I informed her that the APU was deemed inoperative by our mechanic, her response in a challenging tone was, "What does that mean!?"

Despite the chilly environment, our passenger boarding progressed without issues … right until the forward entry door was closed. Our ground crew advised us via the interphone that another 20 minutes would be required to load bags. When questioned as to the status of our two air start carts that were required because of the inoperative APU, the response was a resounding, "Huh?"

At some point during the loading process, the PCU (Pre-Conditioned Unit) air was removed without warning. The airplane was becoming an unventilated aluminum tube. I crossed my fingers for the ground crew to connect the air start carts, which would supply our air conditioning packs. My expectations were too high. A glance up at the digital gauges in the overhead panel indicated that the cabin was on its way from barely acceptable to uncomfortable.

I asked Linda to advise company ramp control of our problem. The crew chief got the message via his handheld radio about the time the first bead of sweat was beginning to form on my forehead. We heard the screaming whine of the air start carts. Linda reached up to the overhead panel and turned the pack switches on. The hiss of forced air rushed into the cockpit.

The voice of the ground crew member that crackled over my speaker gave us clearance to start both engines. That's when the circus began. Although the duct pressure gauge indicated acceptable pressure, it dropped to almost zero during the start. I snapped the start switch off and aborted the first in a series of attempts.

We tried the start with the other engine. No luck. We waited for the arrival of a replacement start cart. And then we waited for the arrival of a second replacement start cart. Still no luck.

** New 757/767 First Officer Linda Wackerman; engine start cart.**

Now I suspected a problem with our 757. I requested that the jet bridge be remated to the airplane. Maintenance needed to get involved. I made a PA explaining the problem to our passengers and then marched out the cockpit door. I walked down the jet-bridge stairs onto the ramp. A crowd of perplexed faces surrounded the two air start carts. A mechanic from automotive maintenance was studying the gauges on one of the carts. He indicated that it wasn't uncommon for the carts to have issues. Really?

I nodded and then walked over to the aircraft maintenance office a few paces away from the airplane. I stepped through the door and explained our problem to the manager on duty. I looked to my right. Two mechanics battled over a ping-pong table in the break room. Ping-pong? Given the situation, the game seemed appropriate.

As we were about to begin another start attempt, this time with maintenance supervision in the cockpit, a woman approached me in the forward galley area. With a distraught expression and a plastic cup filled with an unknown liquid ingredient over ice, she told me that she felt unsafe and that a friend seated next to her was "freaking out." Although I had made numerous PA announcements explaining our predicament, it didn't seem to matter. The woman was not satisfied. She followed me into the cockpit without an invitation. When I offered her a more detailed explanation, she indicated a desire to deplane. I assured her that the problem did not render the airplane unairworthy. She could deplane if that was her option. Although she was astonished by the fact that we wouldn't incur an additional delay to locate her bag among the bags of 187 other people, she summoned the courage to remain on board. I smiled, slid into my seat, and politely excused myself to attend to less important matters … like starting an engine.

I glanced over the top of the glareshield and into the terminal. Another flight crew had been waiting just outside the entrance to the jet bridge. They were now assembling their belongings and leaving the area. The crew had probably been assigned our gate under the assumption that we would be leaving within a reasonable period of time for their airplane to arrive. Judging by the disgruntled expressions, we had exceeded that time.

It was my fault. Had I not briefed Linda on non-normal starts, none of this would have ever happened.

Apparently, trying four start carts was the answer. I never would have guessed. We departed Miami a mere hour and a half late.

We began our approach to Runway 22 Left at Newark a little after 0100. Linda showed improvement with the landing flare. The second attempt was more of a floating pancake than a falling pancake. She would have more opportunity to practice. We were to fly together again on a trip to San Diego in about 15 hours.

The next day ('day' being the operative word) started with a minor problem. My directions had brought Linda to the wrong JFK employee parking lot. She arrived in Operations ahead of schedule nonetheless.

Once again, I had hoped to guide Linda through an early walk-around inspection -- this time on a 767. Once again, circumstances would thwart my intentions. On this occasion, it was the Port Authority. Flight crew members are not issued the magnetic cards that allow access to the jet bridge from the terminal. We have to wait for an agent. The only agents available were busy working other flights. Our agent hadn't reported for duty.

Using the gate computer, I attempted to find phone numbers in order to locate someone that could help with airplane access. Of course, my presence behind the podium invited the typical passenger questions. Can I upgrade to first class? Can I change my seat? Is there a meal on this flight? Etc, etc.

The interruptions delayed my purpose long enough to coincide with the arrival of our gate agent. I smiled a greeting and bit my lip. The agent slid her access card and reached for the jet-bridge door handle as the lock electronically clicked open. Linda and I nodded our thanks. We walked onto the jet bridge.

As we slid our bags into the cockpit, a maintenance team of two stepped onto the airplane. They began to pull back the carpet just inside the forward entry door. The mechanics lifted the hatch that covered the engineering & electronics (E&E) compartment. I inquired as to their purpose.

Interestingly enough, the response that I received was not something I expected. I was told that it wasn't my problem. They were only troubleshooting a cabin issue. That prompted a rather unfriendly discussion. In the interest of Linda's OE, I tabled the discussion. A supervisor would best handle the less than professional attitude.

Linda and I stepped around the mechanics and the open floor hatch. We walked out the jet-bridge door and down onto the ramp. I took a few deep breaths and proceeded to guide Linda through a 767 walk-around inspection.

With the walk-around inspection complete, we left the ramp and returned to the cockpit. Despite Linda's unfamiliarity with the upgraded FMC installed in the airplane, she excelled. We completed our checklists and pushed back on schedule. Our flight to San Diego had no further drama. Except for the fact that I succeeded in locking myself out of the jet bridge, the return home to JFK the next day also progressed without issues.

The only problem that reoccurred was Linda's nagging cough. With a grin I congratulated her for a successful OE completion, but threatened to remove Linda's qualification if Carol and I found each other sipping teaspoons of Robitussin.

A piece of cake? Not.