Christmas Lift 2011

Position: 100 miles south of KMSP
Altitude: 37,000 feet
Groundspeed: 515 knots (592 mph)
Equipment: A320 V2500-A5 engines
Pax-on-Board: 150 + 2 jumpers
Local Time: 0220 hrs

Airborne... Compass heading 091 degrees

It's the beach thing again... Think I am looking west (for as the Led Zeppelin song goes: there's a feeling I get when I look to the west...)

The wife-of-my-youth, laying beside me in the ridiculously skimpy bikini I bought her last summer, is the quintessential, semi-professional, non-revenue, sun bunny. The beer is iced down in a battered but still functional airline-issued six pack cooler (Yep, back in the un-PC days it was SOP for the Chief Pilot's office to give us atta-boy prizes for behaving longer than a couple months; beer coolers, pens, wind breakers, etc.). Little trinkets dropped from Cloud City where the F-4 Gods of Thunder lived... I remember.

How did I get to this beach? Well, obviously I have made it to the top of the seniority mountain where the wise old captains fly day trips, or an occasional run to the sun. A Chicago overnight? You must be kidding!

Reality check... 37,000 feet

The noise of the slip stream is back in my head again. What happened to the world's smallest bikini and coldest beer? Am I awake? Yes, I am awake... The thin air beach fantasy runs wild in the middle of the night. My co-pilot looks like he is awake, but you never know. We are operating a trans-con red-eye in the deepest part of the night. Even though I am a high-time night pilot, my body wants to sleep. It is called circadian rhythm and trying to defy it is most difficult.

My left hand reaches behind the seat and brings the oxygen mask out of its storage box with a loud hiss as the regulator charges the head-gripping harness. The co-pilot jumps when the mask hisses... I laugh and tell him, "Need to wake up. Going on the Os."

The alien-inspired harness slips over my head; I release the finger-pinch valve and the harness squeezes my head sealing my consciousness from the outside world. Automatically, fingers feel for the 100% valve under my chin. It is ON... Pure aviator's oxygen. A deep breath of the cold, gaseous elixir... And I feel better instantly; will stay in the mask until my throat gets too dry.

Overhead, the star fields of the Milky Way are bright and clear. Consider that I am looking through an oxygen-mask face plate and one inch of heated Plexiglas with old eyes. Imagine what the stars must really look like... It is a humbling thought. One hundred miles north, I can see a yellow smudge on the horizon. That is Minnie under a layer of fog.

Underneath, appearing sporadically through a broken cloud layer, the homes of sleeping farm families are disappearing in our six. If they are awake, the faint whisper of V2500-A5 engines passing overhead in their ears...

First hints of twilight...
Finally, the morning light ahead of us.  It is a beautiful pale blue... The pale blue light of Christmas Eve 2011. Payloads are heavy, open seats are non-existent as we haul the kids to Grandma's once again.

Tonight, westbound and looking for Rudolf's nav light...

Life on the Line continues... Crew O2 pressure is 1400 psi.

Elevator to Heaven

Position: Fifty miles southeast of KOAK (Oakland)
Altitude: 18,000 feet and climbing
Groundspeed: 370 knots
Rate-of-climb: 2,800 fpm
Equipment: A319
Pax-on-Board: 123


It has been one of those weeks... Juggling a heavy flight schedule with family matters taking place away from the domicile. I am glad to be back in the cockpit where I am in control, more or less. The ascension feels good to these old bones! After clearing inbound SFO traffic, our 319 is climbing to the thin air like an elevator to heaven.

The right-seater is an experienced Electric Jet pilot. He is a sharp kid and does not mind babysitting a semi-crotchety captain. I flew with him a few times when he was a newbie and showed him some of my get out of jail free techniques for handling this electrical entity which we fly. He has always remembered those days and treats me with respect, which, naturally, I take advantage of in my pre-geezer state.
I know... It's bad, but I've got to keep my reputation intact. There seems to be no shortage of co-pilots who want to fly with me, so I must be doing something right. And this in spite of the wild stories my low-life buddies spread about me.

Such as:
  1. The wife-of-my-youth is an ex-stripper. Totally false, but she thinks it is funny.
  2. The Chief Pilot has my iPhone on his speed dial. Unlikely, but possible...
  3. I have inside knowledge of the infamous three-crew 2003 Orlando Hooters Incident. Where? Who?
  4. I am hard to get along with and "write up" co-pilots. I have never written up anyone in my life and certainly am not hard to get along with... Under any circumstances.
And on it goes... But, I must admit that I love it.

22,000 feet...

The winter sun is rising above the cloud deck giving light to a new day on the Line. This morning, underneath Fi-Fi, it was dark, wet, and cold as I pre-flighted her at the Oakland gate.

Yesterday, when I checked in for this trip, I saw two more pilots on the bulletin board... Yes, that bulletin board. The one we will all, one day, have our photo pinned in the upper right hand corner.

As I was shining my flashlight on Fi-Fi's smooth belly, I could not help but thinking about those two pilots. They were down here, where I am, not so long ago, and now they are gone... Flown west. Two photos, enlarged from their IDs, pinned to the bulletin board by an assistant Chief Pilot. We regret to announce...

28,000 feet...

The two V-2500 A5 IAE engines are in their element now as we soar high above the undercast. The fuel flows are falling as the altitude increases along with the groundspeed. Winds on our tail and sunlight in our faces... It is better up here. The early morning trepidations are gone.

39,000 feet...

The auto-pilot captures the altitude at 38,700 feet and begins to lower the nose and reduce the thrust to level at exactly 39,000 feet.

Mach number- .79
Groundspeed- 560 knots
Seat-belt sign- OFF
Starbucks Christmas Blend- Excellent
Cabin Altitude- 8,000 feet

Seven more days until Christmas Lift 2011 begins. I am working it, of course. Not complaining, just saying...

Life on the Line continues...

Unintended Consequences... Glory

That rushing sound, is it the crowd at Le Bourget,
Swarming past the barriers and lights
To scavenge my Spirit; to lift me up
Into the air that only heroes breathe?
Or is it the age-old sigh of sea on stones,
Known to those who pace the shingle
And the swirled black sands that wrap
These impossible islands in a shawl of waves?

excerpt from "At Lindbergh's Grave"
-Gerard Van der Leun

Lindbergh was into motorcycles and surely had his favorite coffee shops, pre-Starbucks, where he read the newspaper and shook his head at the blundering folly of humanity while his two-cylinder, air-cooled, nine horsepower machine ticked and clicked as it cooled in the hard scrabble parking lot.

When his eye caught the one column article on the Orteig Prize his life changed forever, although he did not know it at the time.

Think about that for a moment... A 24 year old, no-name, flat broke air mail pilot is reading the newspaper in a coffee shop after surviving another all-nighter hauling the U.S. Mail in a fabric covered bi-plane. The Orteig Prize... What the heck is this all about?

May 20, 1927... 0750 local

"Switches ON!"

"Clear prop!"

One of Lindy's ground crew, a pre-airline ramper, grabbed two handfuls of ham-stan (Hamilton-Standard) polished propeller and pulled it as hard as he could...

Cylinder number seven fired with a cough and a thick puff of blue smoke, followed by cylinder two, then five, then one-three-six-eight-nine-four... All nine Wright-Whirlwind cylinders fired in a rumbling staccato of blue smoke and an occasional backfire of yellow flame whirled away in the prop wash.

The Spirit's airframe was heavy with fuel... A lot of fuel. The moment of truth for the 25 year old air mail pilot; life or death in the next few seconds... A muddy runway and trees at the far end.

There had to be some Oh Lord, what have I done at that incredibly sweet moment of time so long ago.

Thirty-three hours later...
Le Bourget aerodrome is in sight, sort of... Lindbergh is so tired he cannot understand what is happening. There is a mass of humanity, estimated at 150,000 to 250,000 people, waiting in the dark for the Lone Eagle, as the newspapers were already calling him.

The Spirit, after crossing the North Atlantic, touched down on the grass runway with enough fuel to fly another two hours... Amazing!

The French police could not hold back the surging wave of admirers... Lucky for the first few that Lindy had the presence of mind to kill the fuel flow to the whirling ham-stan scythe. The mob ripped the young American air mail pilot out of the cockpit and carried him above their heads for twenty minutes before he was rescued... Unintended consequences.

Glory, sweet glory from a world wrapped in the arms of financial depression.

Who was this young American and who built this beautiful aircraft? Was this the light at the end of the dark tunnel?

Glory... Millions would see this handsome air mail pilot in the next few months. In the United States alone, one third of the population would see Lindbergh as he toured the country in the Spirit...

Glory... And fame for the rest of his life.

Glory... A newspaper, a motorcycle, and a cup of coffee.

Unintended consequences... Glory.

Around the South End

Position: Over KAMA (Amarillo)
Altitude: 33,000 feet
Groundspeed: 554 mph (482 kts)
Equipment: A321
Pax-on-Board: 183 + 4 jumpers
Destination: KBOS


Earlier, my dispatcher was nervously clearing her throat while describing the weather north of Amarillo, extending all the way to Casper. She told me about thunderstorms with tops in excess of 65,000 feet. We have eyes on them now and she was not kidding. They are not at 65,000 feet anymore; I wag them at only 55,000 feet in the cooling night atmosphere.

These level 6 aircraft killers punched through the tropopause with ease and exploded into the stratosphere. It is not unheard of for aircraft to inadvertently fly through hail columns twenty miles away from these monsters. I have chosen to fly south and upwind of the storm line.

We are in a 321 stretch Fi-Fi with every seat full, including jumpseats. The two pilots in the cockpit jumpseats are buddies of mine, one going home after a four day trip and the other being positioned for a flight later in the day. The three of us belong to a small band of misfit, politically incorrect, grumpy old captains who have formed a Lufbery Circle at work, helping each other with family matters, scheduling conflicts, alibis, etc.

To run with this pre-geezer gang, one must have thick skin. These two have been harassing me since they sat down in the cockpit. They have been telling the co-pilot outrageous stories of my (alleged) involvement in past incidents on the Line. Thankfully, we are ninety minutes into the flight and they are getting sleepy and talking less; important in case we have a statute of limitations problem here.

The wing tanks and center tanks remain mostly full, being replenished from the aft center fuselage tanks. We are step climbing tonight, currently at 33,000 feet waiting for fuel weight to decrease. Fifty miles northeast of our track, huge thunderstorms with tops at least 20,000 feet above our cruise altitude. The lightning is continuous and bright, a sure sign of very dangerous storms.

Industrial strength flying is the name of the game tonight. No exotic destinations on this trip; just hardcore east coast airports with fast talking controllers, extended taxi times, and short overnights.

Life on the Line continues.... Over the Texas panhandle.

Bleed Air

Position: Over FMG (Mustang) VOR
Altitude: 31,000 feet
Fuel Flow: 5,400 lbs./p/hr
Equipment: A320
Compass Heading: 150 degrees
Pax on board: 134


Two days at home, and then sent back to the cloud mines.

When I was a kid, my mother used to say, "No rest for the wicked." Yikes! I hope that does not apply here. I try to be a good person, even when no one is watching.

We have just crossed over the Mustang VOR on our way to KPHX for a 52 minute stop en route to KDEN. As we were climbing out of the KSEA area, Fi-Fi's diagnostic computers went ballistic when a bleed air line in the left wing ruptured or split. Just like the simulator, it happened at a time when both pilots needed to be concentrating on the flight path, energy state of the aircraft, and other aircraft in our vicinity.

I have been here, done this before... Several times. Reaching over my head, I shut down all sources of bleed air to the left wing, and then isolate the left side pneumatic plumbing. That took my attention out of the flight path for about ten seconds. The co-pilot and I agree that we can deal with the problem down the airway in safer airspace.

Fi-Fi is nervous about the left wing having no anti-ice capability, though. She reminds me (twice) that the left wing has no ice protection and that it would be inadvisable to fly into icing conditions. Gotta love this airplane... Nothing but blue skies ahead.

Climbing out of 25,000 feet, I started the email chain to Dispatch and Maintenance Control, subsidiaries of Mother, advising them of the left wing bleed air leak and my intentions to continue the flight. In a few minutes, my dispatcher says everyone agrees with my plan to continue. Because I closed the left engine bleed air valve, our pressurization system lost some of it's redundancy. Common sense dictates that a lower cruise altitude is in order.

My stubby number two pencil and $10 hand calculator backs up Fi-Fi's twin $5,000,000 navigation computers estimate of a 1200 pound increase in fuel burn at 31,000 feet. We can do that... I send my cheap fuel figures to Dispatch and ask them to please check my math.

The atmosphere is smooth at 31,000 feet. This is an altitude that we do not operate at much, except for climbing/descending. Most contrails are above us and above them is the sun's brilliant white orb. All of this set in a dark blue sky. My God, it is beautiful.

We are probably going to be late arriving KDEN, unless the maintenance techs can find the problem immediately, or, possibly, we get another aircraft. Fingers crossed...

Life on the Line continues...

Midnight Under the Star Dome

Position: Underneath Vega and Over Lincoln
Altitude: 35,000 feet
Groundspeed: 632 mph (550 kts)
Winds Aloft: From 240 degrees at 120 mph(104 kts)
PAX on board: 150
Fuel Flow: 5200 lbs/p/hr

Vega is burning overhead like a bright heavenly beacon reminding me what a tiny, insignificant aluminum entity we are as we pass far underneath this mighty star. Oh Lord, thank you for letting me be an airline pilot. I surely do not deserve it.

We are in an experienced A320 with the small engines, but she is a good aircraft and I have a lot of miles in her... We are kind of like old friends, if that is possible. Our altitude was reached after burning off several tons of kerosene at 31,000 feet; the co-pilot will coax her up to 37,000 feet before we start our descent into KBOS (Boston).

Seven miles beneath her baggage stuffed belly, Lincoln slides past at 10 miles per minute. My face is close to the left side Plexiglas as I strain to see the Lincoln airport's beacon. In the bad old days, I used to co-pilot 737-100 Steam Jets into Lincoln. During the spring and summer you could count on some of the biggest, meanest thunderstorms on the planet being in close vicinity of the airport. During the winter... Intense cold, low visibility, and blowing snow. I had some great Captains (capital C) in those days who taught me valuable lessons about dealing with storms that I still use today.

Now, Omaha is sliding under our nose. The coldest I have ever been on the Line was pre-flighting a Steamer in Chicago, the second coldest was pre-flighting in Omaha.

And then there was that time I was a newbie co-pilot descending into Omaha with one of the most feared captains on the Line, a.k.a. Captain Hatchet. He was the airline's co-pilot weeder during their first year of probation. He worked for the training department and looked for weak pilots before their year was over. It was easy for the airline to get rid of a co-pilot during that year of probation.

I remember it well... 200 overcast, half-mile visibility, snow flurries, and polar air. As we descended into the top of the snow storm our Plexiglas began to fog over on the inside of the cockpit. Captain Hatchet had forgotten to turn ON the heating elements before we departed. From the left seat, the cursing switch tripped. I tried to become as small as possible, but there was not much room in those old jets. In a few seconds, he started laughing as he realized the hilarity of going on instruments from the inside. The embedded Plexiglas heaters cleared the fog quickly... I flew with that captain many times over the following ten years and never had a problem.

I remember...

Back in the flight deck, the co-pilot is looking straight ahead into the black void, that midnight stare of lets see now, what time zone are we in and what time is it at home?. Soft green light from the cathode ray tubes illuminates our world. The slip stream is noisy in this old girl and it seems that night air is more so than sunlit air; probably just my imagination, though. About 1200 miles to KBOS, give or take a 100. We should be arriving twenty early with fifty minutes of Jet-A in the tanks. Not bad...

Life on the Line continues.... 

IFR Range

Position: 50 miles west of Billings, Mt
Altitude: 34,000 feet
Groundspeed: 480 mph (417 kts)
Pax-on-board: 150
Destination: KSEA (Sea-Tac)

Maximum landing weight is still 2,600 pounds away. That, in itself, is interesting since we have been airborne five hours. We rolled out of the sack at 0200 hrs. (circadian time) and will arrive, knock on wood, at 1100 hrs.

Fuel burn -vs- landing weight... Fi-Fi's powerful nav computers are whispering to me, "Don't worry captain, we've got this under control."

Maybe... All the same, my stubby No.#2 pencil and pocket calculator are in the stand-by mode.

The Electric Jet has an IFR (instrument flight rules) range of about 2,300 nautical miles, plus or minus a few. That means that she can fly a leg of 2,300 nautical miles, hold a few minutes (or make one approach), then bug out to an alternate 200 miles away. This morning, our leg is 2,250 miles with light winds. The performance engineers (bless 'em) add miles, instead of time, for headwinds. With light and variable winds at altitude, our fuel burn miles remain steady at 2,250.
Even so, we have to be very careful with the fuel load, since we are at the IFR limit. We fly these aircraft at the performance limits on a regular basis, something I would never do with a personal aircraft.

Imagine, if you will; I have won the lottery, i.e., the Big One... I can now afford my very own A320. I will have my wife's nick-name painted on the nose and hire my favorite flight attendants to crew the cabin (on their days off, of course...) at $500 per hour. Why don't we load my new A320 to max gross weight with friends and family and fly it to an exotic destination with a short runway at the end of the fuel range? How about some nasty weather at our arrival time; blowing sand and thunderstorms?

Say again, please... Uh, I don't think so. Not in my new airplane.

Back to reality... Well, we can all fantasize, right?

Air Traffic Control offers a more direct routing, but I decide to remain on the flight plan for the wind forecast. Believe it or not, a direct route will (sometimes) burn more fuel, something we cannot afford this morning.

How much do we actually weigh? No one really knows. The gross take-off weight is calculated using average pax and bag weights, plus cargo weights of unknown accuracy, so it is an educated guess. We could easily weigh plus or minus 2,000 pounds (or more) from calculated weight. The only thing that matters is the landing weight (zero fuel weight minus fuel burn) which is recorded on the optical disk, whether or not it has any basis in reality. Fi-Fi can actually sense her own weight, which can be 10,000 pounds (or more) different than our load sheet. Is that weight accurate? Depends on which expert you talk to... Our performance engineers seem to think theirs is closer to the mark, and I agree. Still, it is interesting to look deep into Fi-Fi's mind and see what her little electric brain cells are thinking. She is an amazing flying machine.

This is day number two of a four day trip. Early tomorrow morning, it is back to the eastern edge of the Empire.

Life on the Line continues...


We have 48 minutes down here to unload, reload, refuel, and blast-off for points north... Way north. There is something about this geographic location that renders our Mighty and Expensive airline communication network inoperable, i.e., Mother cannot talk to us or even email us directly. She has to go through operations down here via a land line. I love it! It is like the old days. My cell-phone has no signal either. Mother has been known to call individual pilots on their cellphones if she really needs to talk. So, for a few minutes I can stand out here on the air-stairs and take it all in; the cool ocean breeze and the sound of the wind through the palm trees... Well, the screaming APU is drowning that out, but I can see the palm fronds moving.

This is a little airport with a single runway and no taxiways except to the ramp area. We came over the top of the airport at 8,000 feet (staying clear of terrain) and were cleared for a non-precision approach. Those are exercises in geometry and timing to position the aircraft close to the airport to pick up the runway environment visually. We could look straight down, over the nose and see the runway 8,000 feet beneath us through the broken cloud layer. The Electric Jet has very good vertical capabilities, especially down. I called for the landing gear to be lowered over the airport and raised the wing spoilers to full extension. It is really cool to watch Fi-Fi start shedding altitude.

At 6,000 feet we are underneath the cloud layer and heading toward the beach. The airport is now behind us. The object here is to only use gravity for motive force until rolling out on final approach when chemical energy (kerosene) will be re-injected into the flight profile to stabilize the path for a safe landing. So, if the airport is behind us, I have to bank/turn left 180 degrees to point toward the airport, then another 90 degree left bank/turn to line up with the runway. I can use each turn as a bonus bucket to throw off more energy (altitude). Then, I guesstimate how long my straight legs will be between turns and throw in a pinch or two of crosswind coming off the ocean. Most pilots are very good at mentally compartmentalizing flight tasks, i.e., I am flying the aircraft while the nav section of my brain is subconsciously calculating a turn point. That ought to do it... Time to lower the left wing.

Back on the airstairs, the ocean air smells wonderful. The operations manager handed me my flight plan a few minutes ago. We keep this same aircraft all the way to CYEG (Edmonton) where it is freezing cold and snowing. Yikes!

At 1500 feet, I pull the thrust levers back to climb power and lower the nose to accelerate. We are feet wet over the blue-green waters of the Pacific as we leave the beautiful Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo airport behind. We were only there for 48 minutes but it was excellent. It was one of those little brief moments in time that are so sweet, but hard to quantify.

At 2,000 feet, the Mighty and Expensive airline communications system comes back on line. The mini-printer starts spitting out messages from Mother that were backed up. The email alert light starts flashing... It is my dispatcher. He welcomes us back and wants to know if we know how cold it is in CYEG. That is a good one. I will have to think of a worthy reply as we climb back into the cold blue.

Life on the Line continues... 

Continental Divide

Position: Six miles above KASE (Aspen)
Groundspeed: 450 mph (393 kts)
Magnetic heading: 270 degrees
Destination: KSFO
Passengers on board: 147

Day two of a four day...

It looks cold down there, even with the warm rays of the low winter sun illuminating the peaks of the Continental Divide. Below, in the shadow of those peaks, lies Aspen. It is a beautiful evening aloft as we proceed at, seemingly, a snail's pace toward the west coast. Our nose is in the wind...

Yesterday, our groundspeed was so high eastbound that our wrist watches started running backwards, or as my co-pilot said, "We almost landed before we took off." It was scary fast; we arrived 75 minutes ahead of schedule in Boston.

We are paying for it this evening, though. My dispatcher figured we would be better off staying low, trying to slip underneath some of the wind. The fuel flows are obnoxious, but the ground speed is almost 400 knots, which is acceptable against the wind. This route, with the weather requiring a landing alternate, is about the limit of Fi-Fi's fuel range. The co-pilot is flying this leg, so during the pre-departure briefing I impressed upon him the need to pay attention to the flight plan like a dog looking at a milk bone, or else we would be landing in KSLC (Salt Lake City) for more fuel, i.e., we can not go in a straight line at Warp 6, although I understand his need for speed... He is young, single, and in a hurry to meet a girlfriend at SFO.

We just passed over DBL (Red Table VOR) on time and on fuel burn. I need to call my dispatcher when we land and tell him he is a veritable genius.

Life on the line continues... 

Sun Dog

Position: 70 miles southeast of PANC (aviation shorthand for Anchorage; P= Pacific)

Altitude: 25,000 feet and climbing at 2,000 feet per minute

Groundspeed: 506 mph (440 knots)

Destination: Lost Wages, and then on to LAX for the overnight

The sun is hanging low in the southern sky as we blast out of Anchorage for the lower 48. (Earlier, at noon, I was walking around town and noticed very long shadows; it is that time of year up here.) The co-pilot spotted a sun dog, so I gave him my camera for a quick photo. The result was surprisingly good. A sun dog is refracted sunlight through ice crystals aloft which creates little bright spots close to the sun's orb. Sometimes they show a bit of halo, which this one clearly does.

On the left side of the aircraft, no clouds over the land mass, but beautiful orange light on the snow. I love this job!

Two hours and 11,000 pounds of fuel later, we are under a canopy of stars. To our left, the undercast is illuminated by the lights of Seattle, a pale smudge of yellow penetrating the cloud layer. The crosswind is tremendous, as in 151 mph (132 knots) from the west. Fi-Fi's navigation computers are commanding the number one auto-pilot to fly a heading 18 degrees right of the course line to maintain the correct track across the surface. Yikes!

Imagine trying to stand in a 151 mph wind... 

Overlapping Rotor Blades

Three days off-duty...

I am at the holding fix (Starbucks) waiting for two amigos, both company Captains, and, also, riding Japanese death missiles. There used to be five of us, but the other two were riding in tight formation, overlapping rotor blades, negotiating a tight left curve at the limits of their tires and suspension, when from the opposite direction, came a large SUV over the centerline.


Number one hit the driver side mirror, lost control of his R-1 and slid into number two's CBR-1000. They ended up in the bar ditch; a pile of smoking metal, rubber, and plastic. Fortunately, both survived with only a few broken bones and abrasions. Thankfully, they did not lose their aviation medical certificates.

The worst part of the accident was their wives reaction, who were, uh, very unhappy with the "juvenile behaviour" from two supposedly mature airline pilots. Yikes! I was worried about blowback at my house, but the wife of my youth was cool. My two friends did not fare so well... Number one: No more crotch rockets. Number two: No more motorcycles until the kids are out of college.

As I sip my $1.90 cup of coffee, I remember these guys used to tease me about my inability to keep up with them. Well, there is some truth to that... I have only 145 horsepower to their (previous) 165 plus. I am ten years older than they and at least that much wiser. But, most importantly, I've still got my FZ-1 keys.

Lights Out

Anchorage winter operations continue... Tonight, freezing fog. It is an amazing meteorological phenomenon; fog that freezes on everything. We pushed back on schedule with 119 passengers and prepared the aircraft for de-icing/anti-icing. The engines were not running, so the APU (little turbine engine in tail) was supplying electricity and pneumatics. The de-icing truck pulled up to the aircraft and after I spoke with the ice boss on the intercom, they prepared to spray glycol on Fi-Fi. Then, their truck died... No problem Skipper, "We'll be right back. We have another truck."


I picked up the public address handset and was about to relay this information to the passengers when the APU died; no faults, alarms, or warnings. It just quit running... Our world was plunged into darkness and silence. All the Star Trek stuff said "See ya!"

Immediately, looking at the co-pilot, I said, "What did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," he replied. "I didn't touch anything, it just quit!"

The Airbus is a very complex aircraft. Occasionally, it will surprise the pilots with weirdo events that cannot be explained or duplicated. I was hoping this was such an event. The co-pilot configured the aircraft for a battery re-start of the APU. I kept my fingers crossed as he pushed the start button. I watched the battery voltage being pulled down as the APU began it's start sequence. Finally, we could hear the little turbine winding up. When it reached operational rpm, it's connectors closed and flooded the electrical system with power. All the smoke and mirrors came back on line.

Thank you little APU! Welcome back...

The ice boss returned with a working truck with which he made quick work of the freezing fog residue. A few minutes later, with both engines running, we began our taxi through the snow. Before we reached the end of the runway, the visibility plunged to less than 1/4 mile. Our night just kept getting more interesting.

The tower turned the runway lights to maximum intensity as we began our take-off roll. The visuals were surrealistic as the center line lights popped out of the fog ahead of us. We could see two lights ahead of the aircraft, or not much. The thought of moose on the runway flashed through my mind. Yikes! At 170 mph (147 knots) the nose lifted off the runway and all visuals disappeared except for a dazzling reflection of the aircraft lights caused by ice crystals. A few seconds later, we flew out of the top of the fog layer into a clear, black sky peppered with stars.

Two hours and twenty-nine minutes later, we are approaching the half way point.

Fuel on board: 20,000 pounds
Fuel flow: 5,200 pounds per hour
Groundspeed: 560 mph (487 knots)

Geometry of the Night Sky

Position: 40 miles south of Chicago
Altitude: 39,000 feet
Groundspeed: 610 m.p.h.
Destination: New York City
Time: 2:30 A.M. local

The half way point is ten minutes ahead; thank goodness. Day number one of a night trip is always the toughest, because the pilot must switch the internal clock to the vampire mode after living in the sunlight for a few days. One's circadian rhythm starts kicking in about this time, though, and it is a mental battle to stay awake. A few minutes ago I visualized drifting over the center-line on my Japanese death missile and hitting a truck head-on; good-bye Captain Dave. My next thought: My buds lined up at the front door offering condolences to my beautiful wife, suddenly a beautiful widow. I am not sleepy anymore, because I know how pilots operate... Must make a note to myself... Slow down more in the curves.

Outside, soft white moon light bathes the air frame and the cloud deck far below. The air mass has been smooth this morning, so far. The moon is directly above the flightdeck, out of sight but not out of mind. I can see some of my favorite asterisms (constellations) overhead, showing me the way, as they have been showing Captains for centuries. Oh, how I love the geometry of God's night sky.

All systems operating normally... Fuel situation is acceptable: 50 minutes at JFK. The big aluminum bird is happy. The Captain is happy... Life is good. 

Trip Trade

My airline has scheduling software that will allow pilots to trade trips within certain parameters, so I posted one of my trips, with two very early morning departures, on the trade board. Sure enough, another Captain wanted my trip over his assigned trip. I was ecstatic to dump 3:00 A.M. get ups. I have flown the vampire schedule for too many years and have become accustomed to night flying.

I finished the first day of my new trip about an hour ago. We flew all day in the western reaches of the Empire with the longest flight time being 1 hour and 32 minutes. Most legs today were less than 45 minutes in length. I love this kind of flying in a big jet. It is a real kick in the pants!

I am very tired, in fact, my face is about to fall on the keyboard. Our duty day was 12 hours with 7 hours and 50 minutes flight time; 10 minutes under max allowed. Must sleep...

Posted by Captain Dave at 10:32 PM