Never a dull moment
AIRLINE FLYING ISN’T ALWAYS ABOUT FLYING
I am always thankful for the days when the only major task performed is to safely fly the airplane — and the biggest decision is whether to have the chicken or the steak. Those days of pure simplicity rarely occur. My trip back from London in the middle of May was no exception.
The day began with the typical lively British banter between our company’s Heathrow Operations agents and myself. Another captain, flying our 787 trip to Chicago, conveyed a disturbing story about a 23-year-old seated in the first-class cabin the night prior. This successful young man (his status discovered through a Google search) had consumed more than his share of adult beverages and became belligerent enough for the captain to intervene such that he was forced to remain in Chicago until sober. Apparently, it wasn’t a fun experience for anybody, but the story did provide us with a bit of dark anecdotal entertainment.
Unrelated to the drunken story, the media had just reported that President Donald Trump provided the Russians with classified information related to intelligence that the Islamic State group might have developed technology that would allow the concealment of explosives in laptop computers taken aboard airliners. The technology discovery wasn’t news; flights flying to the United States from 10 Middle Eastern airports had already been required to ban laptop carriage in the cabin. My concern was that Trump’s disclosure might possibly persuade the terrorists to act sooner rather than later, forcing their diabolical hand. In that regard, I briefed my 13 flight attendants accordingly, asking them to maintain their vigilance for anything out of the ordinary. They acknowledged the potential risk with wide eyes and professional nods.
After the flight-attendant briefing, the preflight process continued, with the copilot exiting the airplane to perform the walk-around inspection while I prepared the cockpit for our flight to JFK. Having the luxury of ample time available prior to departure, I made the mistake of allowing extraneous matters from home to mix with airline-pilot duties.
One of the distractions was a phone call from my avionics shop in Hartford, Connecticut. Dave, the shop manager, wanted to professionally convey the status of my Arrow while it was being fitted with Garmin’s ADS-B unit, the GTX 345 transponder. A decision involving the antenna, along with some other minor issues, required my input. All good
I BRIEFED MY 13 FLIGHT ATTENDANTS ACCORDINGLY, ASKING THEM TO MAINTAIN THEIR VIGILANCE FOR ANYTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY. THEY ACKNOWLEDGED THE POTENTIAL RISK WITH WIDE EYES AND PROFESSIONAL NODS.
stuff, but I know better than to allow distractions into the cockpit, even while parked at the gate. My bad. The punishment was that various people and various issues required my attention all at the same time.
A handful of maintenance discrepancies necessitated a look into our M.E.L. to determine compliance and flightcrew action. The bulk cargo compartment in the aft end of the airplane had an inoperative locking mechanism that rendered it unusable. Before departure, we had to confirm that the compartment was empty.
A cooling supply fan for our electronics compartment, which also includes cockpit instrumentation, was inoperative. Boeing has numerous backup systems, so the fan’s status was only an awareness item for our purposes.
The last discrepancy involved one of the ground maneuvering cameras mounted on the horizontal stabilizer that provides a view of the main landing gear. The camera’s purpose is to help ensure that the wheels of the 240-foot 777-300 are not accidentally dragged through the mud while taxiing. Apparently, the issue was that the view of the left landing gear had been intermittent. Not anticipating that the Heathrow ground controller would grant a request for right turns only, it would be my responsibility to keep six tires on the concrete the old-fashioned way, using my experience and my own eyeballs.
In the middle of researching the M.E.L. items, a flight attendant took a step into the cockpit, astutely reporting that she had noticed the hoses on a couple of walk-around O2 bottles were disconnected. After thanking her for the discovery, I attempted to contact maintenance on the radio via my hand mic, but soon realized that my transmissions were not being heard. Frustrated, I reached over and snatched the copilot’s mic from its holder and relayed the information. Shortly thereafter, I exchanged the bad mic for an operable mic at one of the jumpseat positions. Problem solved.
Because of some unexplained phenomena, initiating the before-starting checklist seems to invite interruption. True to form, a parade of personnel attempted to squeeze into the cockpit. The gate agent, security agent and our purser all made appearances with various requests.
After a few minutes, the frantic pace slowed, the parade in the cockpit ended and the airplane entry door was closed. My copilot requested our pushback from the gate. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by a 747 behind us that blocked our exit. Once the 747 cleared our path we began our pushback. The taxi to Heathrow’s Runway 27L was pleasantly quick. We were airborne within minutes.
Because of convective weather, untypical for the U.K. in the spring, I requested various deviations to zig and zag around the ominous-looking cumulonimbus clouds while we climbed. London ATC always seems to enjoy instructing 5-degree heading changes under normal circumstances, so our weather avoidance foiled their usual plans. Nonetheless, the controllers were cooperative.
Adding to the trials and tribulations of the day, I had managed to break my personal boom mic on the flight over from New York. Unfortunately, the standard boom mics installed on the airplane leave a lot to be desired. Adjusting the metal band over my narrow head has always been problematic, never mind positioning the whole apparatus so it fits over my eyeglasses frame such that the generic earbud doesn’t continually fall out. In addition, the boom mic itself has an affinity to be heard as though one is talking through a tin cup while underwater. The last attribute was confirmed after our concerned purser indicated that the passengers couldn’t understand a word I said during my cruise PA. Crisis averted with the hand mic.
And last but not least, it appeared that our ADS-B (actually ADS-C for us airline types) was not talking to the satellite when reporting our position over the first waypoint. Updating the wind database, a solution that I still find mystifying, eliminated this emergency. The other solution would have been to provide actual voice reports over the high-frequency radios, an archaic procedure dating back to the days of Charles Lindbergh.
Interestingly enough, the airplane’s nose ID contained the letters of my initials. Perhaps this was the reason for the day’s bad karma? Thankfully, the flight home did have some dull moments. JFK Tracon vectored us onto a serene 20-mile final, allowing us the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the ride — well, at least for the approach segment.
And yes, I had the chicken.