Never a dull mo­ment


Flying - - Contents - By Les Abend

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


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.

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