Jumpseat: Blue Moon

A morning London trip makes for some beautiful views.

Blue Moon

Blue Moon

** A blue moon viewed from a 777
eastbound over the North Atlantic.**

As I drove down our neighborhood hill at 05:30, a rust-orange glow interrupted my lethargic trance. The glow wasn’t the rising sun. It was actually the moon, a very bright blue moon, to be exact. Its larger relative size made it appear as though it would sink into the waters of our lake with a searing hiss. I smiled.

The only appropriate thought that immediately came to my head was, “Way cool.” Later, I would have a revelation … as would many other people: How appropriate that the phenomenon of a blue moon would occur on the same day that we honor the first human who set foot on its surface. Nothing else needed to be said.

I followed that blue moon for two days. As had been my routine for months, I was flying to London. But on this occasion, the flight left in the morning, as opposed to a standard evening departure. Through our trip-trade procedure at the airline, I had done some schedule reshuffling.

The wonderful aspect of the morning London trip was that it consumed only two days of work for the same pay. Scheduled departure was at 09:40, with a return on the second day at 20:10. The five-hour difference between the United Kingdom and the U.S. East Coast tortures the body’s circadian rhythm. But the two-day trip almost completely eliminates the issue. I can remain synchronized on normal body time the entire trip.

Why not fly this trip all the time? Unfortunately, the trip is a favorite among pilots senior to me. I lose the initial monthly schedule bidding war but win the occasional trade battle.

Because the 777 has a small fleet size relative to other airplanes at my New York crew base, the same pilots and flight attendants gravitate toward the same trips. Informal clubs are created. In that regard, I was an outsider. I remained on my best behavior.

When I began the process of retrieving the flight plan paperwork in Operations, I was pleasantly surprised by another bonus of the trip. A relief pilot was included. The evening trips I typically flew in the summer were crewed with only two pilots. I hadn’t realized that the seasonal schedule change had occurred in anticipation of the jet stream sagging to the south. Soon, greater headwinds across the North Atlantic would be experienced on the return home. The FAA’s eight-hour flying rule had the possibility of being exceeded.

Our relief pilot, Tom, was a seasoned veteran. Steve, the first officer, was of similar seniority vintage but was relatively new to the 777. Steve had been a Super 80 captain at our Boston crew base. When the Super 80 was eliminated from the Boston bid schedule, Steve elected to commute to New York from his home in Vermont. He returned to the right seat as a 777 copilot. The transition back to three stripes afforded him more control of his schedule.

As per customary protocol for the relief pilot, Tom excused himself to perform the walk-around inspection and the cockpit set-up procedure. Before he strode away, I gestured at our airplane parked at the gate. The gate was immediately below Operations. The entire airplane was visible from above. The top of the fuselage gleamed against the morning sun. Tongue-in-cheek, I suggested to Tom that he could complete the walk-around through the picture windows. Tom nodded with a sly grin, his eyes indicating that he would preflight in traditional fashion.

A short time later, Steve and I arrived at the forward entry door of the airplane. We introduced ourselves to a handful of the flight attendants who were scattered about the first-class cabin. As per my typical routine, I requested that the purser gather all 11 flight attendants for a quick briefing.

Although the primary purpose of my briefings is to discuss emergency procedures and contingencies, it also is a friendly form of introduction. Without the introduction, it’s not unusual for the cockpit crew to make the acquaintance of the coach cabin flight attendants on the bus that drives us to the layover hotel. And in this particular circumstance, I was the new kid. I wanted to make a favorable first impression.

With the briefing complete and the wary looks transforming into guarded smiles, I shuffled my bags into the cockpit. My first order of business was to review the maintenance logbook. Unusual for the 777, the logbook contained numerous MEL (minimum equipment list) items. One of the items involved a bleed valve. This particular bleed valve controlled the supplemental power for one of the hydraulic systems. Bleed air was the drive for these particular hydraulic pumps. The pumps operated during peak demand to move the landing gear and the flaps, primarily during takeoff and landing. Specific operating procedures were required to compensate for the non-normal function of this valve. Part of the procedure required the APU to operate as a back-up source of air.

Another MEL item involved one channel of the EEC (engine electronic control) on the right engine. The EEC is similar to a fadec system on GA airplanes. The system prevents engine-limit exceedance. One of the two channels that provide a signal to the EEC for that engine was deemed inoperative. Only one is required for normal operation. If the second channel were to fail, engine limits would have to be monitored manually.

The last major MEL item involved the inoperative electric function of a seat in the business cabin. Our airplane was full. One passenger would have to suffer the indignities of adjusting the seat manually.

All of these discrepancies required various degrees of attention. My multitasking skills turned into an art form when I combined the MEL items with the normal routine: Checklists. Takeoff briefing. Route verification. Clearance. Flight management computer button-pushing. Ground crew requests for electrical power removal. Flight attendant beverage requests and miscellaneous boarding issues. Cockpit banter. Fueler confirmation of proper fuel load and distribution. International documentation signatures and verification. Maintenance ETOPS (extended operations) inspections. Company ramp-control inquiries on our departure status. Gate agent requests.

The frantic pace just before our pushback paled in comparison with the most difficult task — I was departing from JFK in broad daylight. Months had passed since I had tested the limits of my day-flying abilities … well, on the 777 at least.

My successful launch from Runway 22R was proof that my skills were not impaired, despite the non-vampire hour. And I was rewarded with a rare treat: I hadn’t realized that the Greki Three departure brought me almost directly over our home. It had been many years since I had viewed the area from the perspective of 23,000 feet.

I stared out the cockpit windows and scanned our lake. It seemed tranquil. I verified that the blue moon hadn’t submerged itself into the darkness of the water. In a few hours I would discover that the moon had traveled elsewhere. Traveling eastward, the sky fades to black. And, once again, on the same day, the same moon greeted me as I traveled toward it at Mach .84 and Flight Level 390.

My other trips seem to time our arrival such that the rising sun aligns itself with my eyes and Heathrow’s Runway 27R. It was with great pleasure that the only glare experienced on this occasion came from the approach lighting system. The added bonus for our night operation was the taxi to the gate. The controller’s instructions were simply, “Follow the greens.” Idiot lights don’t get much better than that for an airline pilot.

A short bus ride and a few minutes later, the entire crew met in the layover hotel briefing room. Conveniently, the briefing room shared the same space as the beverage lounge.

Soon, the crisis of the trip was discussed. The crisis had been the ham-and-cheese croissant sandwiches served in the coach cabin. The sandwiches had thawed to the consistency of a hockey puck, despite the best innovative efforts of the flight attendants. Apparently, this was a common occurrence. A few shoulder shrugs later, no definitive solutions were forthcoming.

On the flight home the following afternoon, I discovered the only disadvantage to the trip: Sun visors, sunglasses and squinting are mandatory. Westbound, the sun never sets … at least not until about an hour from touchdown.

The only proverbial bump in the road was our hand-off to New York Tracon. Because of volume, we were given holding instructions at the Calverton VOR. The instructions were issued 6.5 miles from the fix as we screamed toward it at 270 knots. Despite radio fumbling on my part, Steve and Tom were the epitome of crew coordination. The hold was executed with time to spare.

Fifteen minutes later, Steve kissed Runway 22L with a flawless touchdown. I taxied us back toward the terminal. As we approached the ramp area, I smiled. The moon had repositioned itself just for my benefit. It hung just above the jet bridge.

Two-day London trip? I’m hoping that my application will be approved for a full-time club membership.