Monday, January 21, 2013

The Check Ride

By Mark W. Danielson

Passengers should find comfort in knowing airline pilots are constantly being evaluated and receive simulator training twice a year.  Since many of the cargo planes are much larger and fly longer legs, it is only logical that the same rules would apply to its pilots.  But regardless of whether you fly passengers or cargo, you can count on odd things happening whenever a Check Airman is looking over your shoulder.  Such was the case for my last line check.

The flight began with an ugly band of weather extending from the Gulf Coast to Canada, directly in my flight path from Memphis to Indianapolis.  To make matters worse, the temperature difference split Indianapolis right down the middle with rain to the east and freezing rain and snow to the west with gusty crosswinds to look forward to on landing.  As if this wasn’t enough, we had a cargo door warning light shortly after takeoff indicating the cargo door may not be locked closed.  Since our ground crew had similar problems on the ground and none of my four passengers in the back were screaming that the door was open, I was certain it was a sensor.  Still, it was something I had not seen so I naturally blamed it on my [good natured] Check Airman.  Thankfully we were late leaving Memphis, so the actual weather was not as bad as what was forecast and my landing was uneventful.

Our return flight the next day was more challenging though because the freezing rain from the day before had frozen our engines to their cowlings and would not spin.  Maintenance worked for over an hour while we sat in a 23 degree cabin waiting for them to get the fan blades moving with de-ice fluid.  We begged Ramp Control for an external heating cart, but it never came.  We started our auxiliary power unit as soon as we were allowed and welcomed the heat from its air source, but every time the cockpit started to warm up, maintenance had to turn our air off while they tried to see if the engines would spin.  When they finally broke free, our middle engine had an erratic fuel flow indicator.  Maintenance did not have time to fix it so they deferred it in accordance with the FAA approved manual.  About the time we were ready to get off the airplane, maintenance said we were good to go, so we kicked them off the aircraft, started the engines, and once more I blamed this on my Check Airman.

It goes without saying that when your engines are frozen solid, it only makes sense to de-ice the airplane.  This process took another thirty minutes, but after confirming all of our flight controls moved freely, our airplane wouldn’t budge, even with all three engines at maximum taxi power.  Having to get a ground tug to push us back caused yet another lengthy delay.  As it turned out, our brakes had frozen while we were being de-iced.  By the time we were ready to taxi, our left engine’s fuel flow became erratic, and since the maintenance manual says we can only go with one fuel flow indicator inoperative, we now had to return to the gate after wasting forty-five minutes of fuel with no forward progress.  Since it now appeared they would have to trans-load our cargo to another aircraft, we went inside Flight Operations.  Curiously, within minutes we were told they found the problem with a connection, our airplane was fixed, and we were good to go.

Although the problem with our middle engine’s fuel flow still existed, we found the left engine problem was indeed fixed, but now we had traffic delays from other aircraft that were inbound to the ramp.  Once again, the delay worked to our advantage and the only weather problem was flying into a 150 mph headwind.  Three and a half hours after our scheduled arrival, we taxied to our gate in Memphis still in time for our cargo to be sorted and our Check Airman told my first officer and I that we did a fine job.  Throughout our ordeal, I kept thinking how fortunate I was not to have passengers and flight attendants in the back.  No doubt they would have been less understanding than my cargo.

Besides telling it like it is from a pilot’s point of view, it should be assuring that whether flying people or cargo, no commercial airline pilot should ever compromise safety to meet a schedule.  It should also be noted that if there is an odd event causing a delay, it’s probably because a Check Airman is on board evaluating the captain.  I suppose that’s God’s little sense of humor, so you just have to deal with it.  As for me, I still have two days simulator training to look forward to this week, but I can’t think of many things that could be more unpredictable than what I just faced.  Coffee, anyone?   


Bill Kirton said...

I loved this, Mark. Since I'm not in any way technical or technological, I find the matter of fact way you deal with the intricacies and challenges of your job fascinating and (to use that much-abused word in its correct sense) awesome. I have a pilot friend in England who's equally impressive when I ask him stupid questions about his job. You're the sort of people I want on every flight deck behind which I sip my gin and tonics.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Bill. To many of us, flying is as much of a passion as it is a job. Regardless, we do try to fly as though there are eggs (or nitro) riding in the back. :)

Chester Campbell said...

Fascinating description of the challenges a commercial pilot faces, Mark. Good thing you're a lot younger than me. I don't think I could contend with all those miscues.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Chester. Flying does have its own ups and downs. (pun intended) But seriously, experience comes with practice, and practicing worst-case scenarios in simulators makes us better prepared should they come to fruition. In dire situations, the best thing one can do is remain calm and deal with the problem, just as Sully did when he landed in the Hudson.

Jaden Terrell said...

Pilots are my heroes. I avoid flying as much as possible, but when I have to, I console myself with the thought of Sully landing that plane in the Hudson. You really did a good job of explaining the simulators, and you're right; it is comforting information.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks, Beth. Heroes emerge in crisis situations, but I do believe you're in good hands when flying in any commercial aircraft. Recently a pilot had to ditch her new-to-her six-seat Piper in the Hudson much as Sully had done with his stricken Airbus. She and her passenger walked away with no injuries because she kept her cool and flew the airplane all the way down. That's exactly what this blog was all about.