Walking down the jet bridge to the plane, flight plan in hand after outwitting two balky printers, and I overhear a man telling a woman, “It was something to do with the plane coming in.”
Maybe a touch of skepticism, or maybe I’m over-thinking because I’m a little defensive since I’m the one who flew it in. Late.
“This flight’s late because of something with a plane in Dallas?” she asks.
And also, I’ve already taken a load of crap from the Number 4 flight attendant, urging me to take whatever shortcuts I can to speed up this turn-around so she won’t miss her 2-day New Orleans trip, which she really wants to do.
I want to un-hear that: I don’t take any shortcuts, ever, and it’s difficult for me too–I have a life, and a body clock that doesn’t care for flying after midnight. But that’s the captain double-down: tired, late–you don’t rush, you take extra care to not mess something up.
“The jet we were supposed to fly out of DFW took a few birds in an engine on their approach,” I interrupt, breaking my own cardinal rule of maintaining invisibility, “So we had to swap planes.”
“Oh,” she says, still not sounding convinced. I can’t really blame her for that, because it does seem like a pretty simple thing, a swap, right?
You tell me.
Flashback: I meet the inbound crew as they deplane. This is where captains exchange a look that usually tells the story. Normally, at that moment, the captain handing over the aircraft says something preemptive like, “Good jet.”
This time, silence. Then the “other” look. “We hit a bunch of birds on the approach.”
“Where?” I ask.
“Mostly the nose.” Mostly. I know what that means. I have to ask.
“Any adverse engine indications?”
He shrugs. “Not that we noticed.” Good–maybe it’s just a guts clean-off and a thorough exterior inspection.
But I know better. “Well,” I say, making a lame attempt at levity, “that’s what they get for indiscriminate flocking.”
He laughs weakly, giving me a “you’re screwed” look as he walks off. Guess I’ll save the “canary-al disease” joke for another bird strike.
I drag my flight gear down the jet bridge and park it near the door to the ramp. Down the stairs to the ramp, then over to the nose gear.
Yup–bloody skid marks, guts on the strut. But not a real problem. Two maintenance techs are already on the ramp, flashlights in hand, meaning they’d just done a close-up inspection of an engine. One is shaking his head. Crap.
He jerks his thumb toward the right engine. “It took a few,” he says.
I check for myself: shiny spots on the huge N1 fan blades, meaning they’d been “shined” by a semi-soft impact at 30,000 RPM and 160 mph. Some down-ish debris in the first and second stages, and the final clue, the exhaust area smells like burned kerosene and rotisserie chicken. Actually, the latter makes me a little hungry.
“Well,” I ask, “what do you think?”
One tech shakes his head. “They’re probably going to have us bore-scope the engine. But even if we don’t, it’ll take at least an hour or more to get inside to make sure there’s no debris blocking the oil cooler.”
Or any of the other gazillion probes and moving parts. The engine can eat birds no problem, but it’s the fine tolerances for moving parts and intakes that demands close inspection: even dust-fine volcanic ash can trash a jet engine.
My internal clock calculator runs: it’ll take a few minutes for the techs to report their findings to Maintenance Control in Tulsa. Give them fifteen more minutes to come up with a plan: clean? Clean and bore scope? If the former, expect a 1:30 delay; the latter means taking the aircraft out of service.
I could be fine with the first option if the two mechanics are (any of them who haven’t been laid off are super-experienced) but if I were Tulsa I’d insist on the second–and I’m sure they will.
So I’ll shortstop this by calling Flight Dispatch.
“We haven’t been notified of an engine problem yet,” he says, sitting in the War Room two miles south of the airport. “But I’ll go talk to the equipment desk to give them a heads-up.”
They’re the folks–also in the war room–who reassign jets to meet needs such as this. The ramp crew is milling around with questioning looks: do we load bags and cargo, only to have to unload and reload them on another? That takes time.
The techs shrug. “We have to call Tulsa.” They head for the jet bridge phone.
“Just hold off,” I tell the Crew Chief, rolling the dice. If I’m right, this will speed the process of switching planes. If I’m wrong, we’ll be late and it’ll be my fault. But I’m betting that once Tulsa works their decision tree and passes it along to the Equipment Desk, we’ll be getting assigned to a new “tail number.”
Back up to the gate podium where my crew is milling around, trying not to act like they’re dreading their 10 hour workday going to twelve or more. I am too.
“I’m betting on a change of aircraft,” I tell them. “I’ll let you know.”
“Can you call catering?” our Number One asks. “I don’t want to have to do a First Class meal service with the leftovers from some other catering.”
“Sure,” I answer. We can take whatever extra fuel there is on board, though I make a note to subtract the max landing weight and fuel burn first, but she wants to do a decent service.
I type the code for our flight into the computer and instead of departure time, it says “DCN 13:40.” Good–that means Tulsa has put a maintenance hold on the flight, saying they’ll have a “decision” by 13:40. We’re supposed to push at 14:05, so we know this one’s going “off-schedule,” but at least the Equipment Desk can line up a spare.
We’re at pushback time. I call Dispatch back. “Any word yet?”
“No,” he says, “but call me back in ten minutes and maybe they’ll have something for us. But I do know they’ve burned all the 737 spares today.” Meaning there have already been several maintenance swaps today. Some days are like that, and it has more to do with the birds’ bad planning than the airline’s.
That elicits a line of people asking if they can be put on another flight. I say nothing, but would warn them that they’ll end up standby on a later flight–better stick with this one. Glad I’m not an agent, because people are demanding to know what we don’t know ourselves: decisions are unfolding, not some hidden secret.
My cell phone rings: Flight Dispatch. “Looks like the Equipment Desk is stealing the 6 o’clock’s bird. It flew in from LaGuardia.” That means a later flight will be delayed outbound. But likely, that’ll be a flight terminating at its destination, not bringing back 150 people (for a total of 300 waiting on this one, counting both legs) as we are. “It’s two gates down.”
It’s not official yet, and I don’t want to start a stampede. But I can get down there and determine what we need on board, plus get the F/O busy preflighting the aircraft. “Looks like gate A-17,” I tell the Number One quietly. I remember the call to Catering, but they can’t start swapping until the word filters down.
The pilot’s signature date in the new aircraft’s logbook is yesterday–Dispatch says it flew in from LGA. Did the captain forget to sign it? Or has it not flown yet today? If the latter, that means a longer origination preflight rather than just a quick through-flight checklist.
“Just do the full origination,” I tell the F/O, who’s already grouchy, but too bad. Better safe than sorry. “I’ll do the outside,” I tell him, throwing him a bone. I actually like the outside–I like the jet, it’s beautiful: high wing, graceful 7′ winglets. The smell of jet fuel–and I’m still thinking wistfully of rotisserie chicken.
Two gates down, I see the catering truck pull up to our old jet. Good–that means that if the catering company has gotten the word, the assignment is official so now I can get a new flight plan (they are aircraft specific) and flight release from the computer on board and the paperwork from the gate printer. Time to wrap up the exterior admiration and get the release done upstairs.
As I fold up the new flight plan, up stairs in the terminal, a young woman, a passenger, approaches me haltingly.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You just did,” I answer, then kick myself: a nervous flyer, stupid. You’re such a smart ass.
She brushes it aside. “Is it dangerous when birds go into an engine?”
“No,” I answer honestly. “Not unless they’re really huge. The inbound crew didn’t even notice any engine effects.” I consider telling her about the homey baked chicken smell wafting from the tailpipe, but I shut up.
I fold my stack of flight paperwork and head for the cockpit as boarding starts. The door warning panel shows both cargo doors open, which means they’re at least loading stuff–I can hear the tumult of bags and cargo from the forward hold–and the aft catering door is open, so at least that swap is underway, too.
We finish our preflight, verify the route and refile an ATC clearance twice before the ATC computer accepts us, having timed out the original clearance.
The F/O is grumpy again because I overruled the high Mach number he wanted to use at cruise. But that makes little sense: we’re pushing back an hour and twenty late; the higher Mach number might shave 5 minutes off, but for a thousand pounds of fuel? Really? I’m all about arrival fuel, which means time and options.
“You ready for me to close up?” the agent asks, poking his head into the cockpit.
“Not yet.” I have one eye on the fuel totalizer–they’re still pumping fuel aboard, and that requires at least one escape path for passengers in case of fire. And it’s pumping slowly.
Finally, the total reads 19,400 pounds. “Go ahead, pull the bridge,” I say.
With the jet bridge gone, the ground crew begins our pushback. Going to be late into the west coast, even later back here. After midnight, driving home.
Worry about that later–there are over two thousand miles and an equal number of details to be managed to exacting standards between now and then.
Back to the present.
“Why does a simple airplane change take so long?” the woman on the jetbridge repeats.
I’m back to my cloak of invisibility, heading for the cockpit. You explain it to her, I tell her travel companion, in my head. I still have one more set of everything to accomplish before we all get to drive home.