Jumpseat: All Dressed Up and No Place to Go

It goes without saying that safety has to be the first priority for any airline, but reliability certainly runs a close second. If an airline is perceived as unreliable, no amount of travel vouchers or complimentary cocktails will restore a negative image. A carrier's scheduled performance is a direct measure of its product quality. The resources committed to reliability consume a major portion of managerial efforts.

The very nature of operating complicated machinery will occasionally present itself with a sick day. Unfortunately, I had to participate in an evening of mechanical flu. It wasn't until later that I discovered the night had transformed into a 777 epidemic. Not only is it frustrating for our customers, but also it's frustrating for my colleagues when we fail to offer a quality product.

I had been assigned a three-day London trip. By luck of the draw, I'm embarrassed to say, the airline hadn't required my services while on reserve for almost four weeks. It would be good to fly an airplane again. Besides, my 90-day landing currency was approaching its shelf life.

Arriving early at Operations, I began the process of reviewing the weather and flight plan data. Because the trip left JFK at 22:25 local time and departed for the return home from London's Heathrow Airport at 10:05 of the third day, it touched an official period of circadian low. Translation: Our body clocks would be askew, working at a time that statistically involved fatigue. This required the trip to include a relief copilot, affording the three of us an opportunity to each have a break en route.

With paperwork in hand, the relief copilot and I left Operations. As the elevator door opened at the terminal level, the other copilot appeared. He offered a handshake and a mumbled greeting. Despite his tardiness of 10 minutes, he offered no apologies. An air of nonchalance prevailed as he disappeared into the elevator, presumably to retrieve the latest items deposited in his company mailbox.

It's customary for the copilot listed as the first officer to assist in preflight planning with the captain while the relief copilot conducts the walk-around inspection and other assorted supplementary duties. It seemed that my relief copilot would be assuming double duty with none of the glory. Regardless, he took it all in stride.

With raised eyebrows, the relief copilot and I exchanged quizzical ­glances, silently dismissing the lackadaisical behavior of the first officer as a temporary anomaly. We began our walk in the direction of the departure gate. After a quick march up the first-class aisle, bantering with flight attendants along the way, I shuffled my bags into the cockpit.

Having seen a couple of MEL (minimum equipment list) items printed on the flight plan, my first order of business was a review of the maintenance logbook. MEL items often have operational stipulations that deviate slightly from normal procedures. In addition, maintenance may have to perform an inspection in accordance with established guidelines for a particular inoperative system.

I grabbed the logbook off of its perch on one of the jumpseats. It soon became apparent that the MEL entries posted had no resemblance to the items listed on the flight plan. This should have been my first clue that something was amiss.

Just as I was to investigate further, a mechanic popped into the cockpit. He needed the logbook to complete the entries for an ETOPS (extended twin operations) inspection, a requirement for our overwater trip. An ETOPS inspection is more extensive than a standard maintenance preflight. Less than a half-hour remained prior to our scheduled departure time. Normally the inspection would have already been completed. This should have been my second clue.

The mechanic requested my seat in order to complete the rest of his duties from a better vantage point. Soon, a discussion ensued regarding one of the more involved MEL items, the PFC (primary flight control) interface. I was not familiar with the function of this interface. As it turns out, neither was the mechanic.

My concern was that part of the mechanic's check for this discrepancy involved a confirmation that our 777-300 main landing gear tilt function was operational. What exactly is a tilt function? Unique to the 300 model, the tilt system locks the initial rotation of the very aft main gear trucks to a level position so that the airplane can reach a higher angle of attack on takeoff without causing a tail strike. The higher angle of attack attained allows for greater performance, especially in the event of an engine failure.

If the tilt function is inoperative, takeoff performance is reduced, requiring a takeoff weight reduction. After a little research a week later, it turns out the gear tilt was related but indirectly. Feeling as if I had been absent that day in ground school, I was relieved to find that it was a knee-bone-connected-to-the-thigh-bone story. Ground school wouldn't have helped.

It turns out that another MEL discrepancy that rendered one of our two BUGs (backup generators) inoperative was the ultimate culprit. The BUG is assigned the primary task of powering the electronics for our fly-by-wire primary flight controls if the engine-driven generators and APU are not available.

Among other sources, the BUGs communicate directly with the PFC interface. One of the communications is to alert the airplane that it's on the ground in order to deploy the automatic spoilers on the upper surface of the wing upon touchdown. The ground logic is communicated by way of a pressure sensor attached to — and here is the aha moment — the main gear tilt system through the PFC interface.

If the sensor has the appropriate amount of pressure, the automatic spoilers will deploy via the hydraulic system. If the BUG can't talk with the PFC interface, the computer doesn't know if the ground spoilers will deploy. As long as the sensor has hydraulic pressure, all is well regardless of the communication failure. But this determination has to be made by maintenance prior to every departure until everything is permanently repaired.

Just to add a few more ingredients to the mix, the inoperative BUG removes the airplane from Cat III automatic landing status because the generator is also a source of power for one of the autopilots during the approach. Whew!

Amid the turmoil, my relief copilot returned to the cockpit from his walk-around inspection. The angst on his face indicated we had more issues. A fuel drip had been discovered underneath the left wing. Great. He was also perplexed that our passengers were sauntering onto our airplane blissfully unaware. He felt compelled enough to delay boarding and had communicated this to the gate agent, but apparently to no avail. Of course, he hadn't felt compelled enough to communicate this information to his captain, but I let it go.

Prompted by the relief copilot, I finally had the revelation that the discrepancy between the flight plan's MEL list and the maintenance logbook was due to the fact that dispatch had swapped airplanes. Because I had downloaded the paperwork early, we never got the change. This revelation required me to march back out to the gate agent's podium in order to obtain new data for the correct airplane. In the process of arguing with an uncooperative printer, I watched as my tardy first officer sauntered by onto the jet bridge. I silently thanked him for his assistance.

At the end of the day, the fuel drip did us in. It wasn't that the drip rate we suspected was too high for dispatch purposes but rather that the leak was occurring where it shouldn't be. That section of the wing was a dry bay over the top of the engine, designed so as to prevent fuel from igniting in a hazardous area. The vent hole at the lowest point of the dry bay where the drip was occurring had been engineered just for that purpose, providing a visual indication that something was wrong.

Once a formal evaluation was made, our airplane went immediately out of service. Of course, it wasn't until a seasoned first-class passenger had provided the information that we were aware our flight was officially canceled. He had been monitoring the flight's status via his iPhone.

Unfortunately, the airline had no other 777 to offer as a substitution. Apparently, two other airplanes were suffering from the mechanical flu also. Considering that my airline was providing only two out of the five 777 departures for the evening, reliability had taken a back seat. For our flight, almost 200 passengers were assigned hotel rooms that evening. They were given the pleasure of retrieving their bags with the hope that the following evening would hold more promise.

My crew and I were excused for the evening. I went home having been all dressed up, but now, with no place to go.

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Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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