Ground­hog Day


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Les Abend

Ground­hog Day

The 1993 movie is an Amer­i­can clas­sic. The film has be­come syn­ony­mous with rou­tine and rep­e­ti­tion. Re­call­ing the fi­nal scene, Bill Mur­ray wakes up to the ra­dio alarm clock when the last digit clicks to 6:00, just as it had done hun­dreds of times be­fore. The same Sonny & Cher lyrics of “I Got You Babe” blare from the speaker. In­stead of Mur­ray mash­ing the off but­ton, Andie MacDow­ell reaches across him and si­lences the alarm clock. Mur­ray’s to­day had fi­nally be­come to­mor­row. Time had moved for­ward. The rou­tine had been bro­ken.

Be­cause of the movie, char­ac­ter­iz­ing an event as Ground­hog Day sug­gests that cir­cum­stances are ex­actly the same as they were dur­ing a prior time pe­riod. Af­ter months of fly­ing the same two-day Lon­don trip on the 777 from JFK, my Ground­hog Day fi­nally be­came to­mor­row. Granted, my Ground­hog Day is self-in­duced. This par­tic­u­lar trip is highly de­sir­able be­cause it leaves mid­morn­ing on the first day and re­turns the fol­low­ing evening with­out body-clock dis­rup­tion.

I have ab­so­lutely no com­plaints. That be­ing said, I know the din­ing menu at the ho­tel bet­ter than the con­tents of my own re­frig­er­a­tor. The scratches on the bu­reau in my room have been etched in my mem­ory like a fine mosaic. And I know that a good kick to the mini re­frig­er­a­tor in just the right spot ceases its an­noy­ing rat­tle. Op­er­a­tionally, for the most part, the de­par­ture pro­ce­dures, the ar­rival pro­ce­dures, the North At­lantic track pro­ce­dures, the fre­quen­cies and the as­signed gates rarely de­vi­ate from the rou­tine. Even the con­trollers sound the same.

So what changed on this par­tic­u­lar trip? First, my friend Jay Rud was meet­ing me at the Heathrow Air­port lay­over ho­tel. Jay is a for­mer chief pi­lot at our Chicago crew base and is now a 787 check airman. He would be re­qual­i­fy­ing a cap­tain for North At­lantic pro­ce­dures.

In­ter­est­ingly enough, the cap­tain who needed the qual­i­fi­ca­tion was highly ex­pe­ri­enced in both the 787 and 777, but had spent the past sev­eral years as a tech­ni­cal pi­lot in­volved with flight tests, main­te­nance ferry flights and new air­craft de­liv­er­ies, among other du­ties. But the as­sign­ment falls un­der Part 91 flight rules, which trans­lates into the need to re­qual­ify un­der air car­rier, Part 121 rules when re­turn­ing to a reg­u­lar line-pi­lot sched­ule. Who would’ve thought?

Our sched­uled ar­rival into Heathrow is ap­prox­i­mately 30 min­utes prior to the Chicago ar­rival. So, af­ter hear­ing Jay on the ra­dio as we tracked east­bound across the North At­lantic, I im­pressed upon my copi­lot, who was fly­ing the leg, that it was im­per­a­tive that he re­main ahead of “that lit­tle plas­tic twin.”

My copi­lot ac­com­plished the task with­out dif­fi­culty. Hav­ing al­ready changed into civil­ian at­tire, I met Jay and his crew in the lobby as they checked into the ho­tel, ad­mon­ish­ing my friend for his tar­di­ness. And for good mea­sure, I added the fact that it re­quired the skill of only two of us to com­plete the mis­sion from New York, as op­posed to the three pi­lots nec­es­sary on his trip. I re­ceived no re­but­tal. (Ac­tu­ally, the sched­uled flight time be­tween Chicago and Lon­don

ex­ceeds eight hours, legally re­quir­ing a re­lief copi­lot.)

Af­ter giv­ing Jay the op­por­tu­nity to change out of his stripes, we re­assem­bled at the des­ig­nated un­of­fi­cial Chicago-base crew din­ing ta­ble. The fact that I would dare to in­te­grate with an­other domi­cile was cause for my New York crew to make dis­parag­ing re­marks re­gard­ing loy­alty. Dur­ing din­ner, I had to suf­fer the dis­ap­prov­ing glares of our JFK flight at­ten­dants. Tough crowd.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, Jay and I re­con­vened for break­fast. Nor­mally, be­cause of con­ve­nience, a nice dis­count and the fact that there are very lim­ited restau­rant choices near the air­port, I eat at the ho­tel. But on this oc­ca­sion, we de­cided to dine at the neigh­bor­hood pub lo­cated just around the cor­ner. Good food. Pleas­ant at­mos­phere.

The venue also pro­vided us the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss the lo­gis­ti­cal loose ends of our up­com­ing trip to New Zealand. The trip was to be a cel­e­bra­tion of our mu­tual wed­ding anniversaries. The visit to the North Is­land was a self-guided driv­ing tour, while the visit to the South Is­land would be via an air­plane tour com­pany called Flyinn. It op­er­ates two Cessna 172s from a work­ing sheep farm. We would be fly­ing su­per­vised day trips to var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions. More on this sub­ject in a sub­se­quent Jumpseat col­umn.

For our trip home, the copi­lot and I ar­rived early to our air­line’s Heathrow Op­er­a­tions. The WSI weather pic­ture in­di­cated nu­mer­ous ar­eas of mod­er­ate tur­bu­lence in the mid­lat­i­tude tracks across the North At­lantic. To avoid the tur­bu­lence, dis­patch had planned a very north­ern route, which would take our flight across north­ern Eng­land and into north­ern Scot­land, and then across the ocean to the south­ern tip of Ice­land, near Ke­flavik. From Ke­flavik, the route had us con­tin­u­ing on a west­erly head­ing to cross the very south­ern tip of Green­land.

Un­for­tu­nately, the route added 35 min­utes to our sched­uled flight time. But an un­com­fort­able ride is not an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence for pas­sen­gers, nor is it pleas­ant for flight at­ten­dants. Although our 777-300 can carry 775,000 pounds of air­plane us­ing 115,000 pounds of thrust per en­gine, the wing doesn’t sup­port it as well as its shorter and less pow­er­ful 777-200 brother. That fact trans­lates into hav­ing to start out most Lon­don trips in the low 30s flight lev­els, which doesn’t get us above most fore­cast jet-stream-type tur­bu­lence.

As my copi­lot marked the lat­i­tude/ lon­gi­tude points of our atyp­i­cal route on the plot­ting chart, Jay strolled into ops with the newly qual­i­fied cap­tain. Re­mark­ing about our scenic route to New York, I queried Jay as to whether his plas­tic 787 would be ca­pa­ble of han­dling the tur­bu­lence. His re­sponse was sim­ple. Their flight was ca­pa­ble of FL 420. End of dis­cus­sion. In ad­di­tion, the 787’s fuel burn would be nearly half of ours even with the ex­tra dis­tance to Chicago, an av­er­age of about 8,500 pounds per hour ver­sus 4,700 pounds per hour.

With salu­ta­tions to Jay, my copi­lot and I departed. Although we were af­forded the op­por­tu­nity to catch glimpses of the Scot­tish High­lands, Ice­land dis­ap­pointed us with its typ­i­cal white blan­ket of stra­tus cloud cover. How­ever, Green­land sur­prised us with a great view of its for­bid­ding ter­rain. Even at the end of Au­gust, the moun­tains were capped with a layer of vir­gin snow. Ice­bergs were in abun­dance. Cool stuff.

Although we ar­rived tardy to our gate at JFK, I was grate­ful for the atyp­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Not ev­ery­body can say they have seen Eng­land, Scot­land, Ice­land and Green­land all in one day from the van­tage point of a 777 cock­pit.

Ground­hog Day had dis­ap­peared. To­day had be­come to­mor­row — well, at least un­til my next trip.

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