Silver Wings, Then Other Things: Part 1.
It always starts with the wings.
They go on the shirt first–don’t ask me why, tradition, superstition. Maybe it’s just transition: the next thing that goes into the left breast pocket is the laminated pix of the family. It’s the “leaving behind”–the part I hate about flying–but then not really, because they’re there all the time, both figuratively and literally next to my heart. Hate the leaving behind, but also embrace it: you leave concerns on the ground, not as a palliative, but rather because you have other things that need to be 100% in the forefront of your mind.
Picked that handy habit up from skydiving in college: you acknowledge what might be a little unsettling–you will deliberately step into nothingness 2,000 feet up, tumble like a rag doll (be patient) till you regain control, plunging straight down–because you need to be completely focused on what matters in the air. Acknowledge it, then leave it on the ground where it belongs.
Same deal now. Clear your mind because you can’t have a lot of drag on your attention when you’re hurtling through the sky. Epaulets next–need to throw those in the wash, they’re getting dirty from the shoulder straps resting on them in the cockpit–then we’re good to go.
Leaving is always such a downer for me. I like my life, home, family–“the road” as a crewmember is solitude, anonymous hotel rooms; airports, waiting, then periods of intense concentration on details you’ve done a million times, but they have to be done perfectly each time.
A recent ATSA study showed that over one third of all airline accidents occur in the take-off phase of flight, even though that phase accounts for less than 10% of an aircraft’s flight time. What that means is beyond the aircraft being at the lowest end of its performance regime in speed and maneuverability, mistakes in calculations and automation input errors of those performance numbers becomes an immediately dangerous situation as you try to lift off. So the painstaking crosschecks before take-off must be thoroughly painstaking each and every time, no matter what the hour or how tired you are.
Driving to the airport, you can and should actually pay attention to the sky: south wind, they’re landing south; that’ll be a different clearance and since we’re going north today, an extra few minutes. Those are fair weather clouds, must be high pressure; hope it holds through tomorrow. See? Your head’s in the game, you’ve left home–because you have to.
I stay in a bubble from then on, a little withdrawn by choice. Not engaged in anything social, although yeah, I can be glad to see an old friend or say hello. But I like the bubble of isolation so I can save the peace as a backdrop for the work that is to come.
Now comes the first of a bunch of decisions. The route today–why this one? Seems kind of north-ish for our destination. Look further: winds aloft, rides, turbulence. But how old is this wind data? I have a hunch it’s out of date at this late hour–there’s seniority, I don’t do the early morning stuff–and there’s a good chance that the higher altitudes have settled down. Still, I’ll take the additional fuel and if we can cruise higher, we’ll be fat at the destination. Because in my little pilot brain, the only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.
Happy with the route? The fuel load? If not, a simple call to Flight Dispatch and it’s done. Check out the weather radar, first in Ops, but then right before stepping onto the plane on the iPhone app, “My Radar:” you can see the entire route of flight and the radar image of whatever’s going to be in your way.
Pushback’s in an hour–let’s not be too hasty here. No need to get on board and sit. The First Officer’s already there, doing the exterior preflight, then he’ll be doing the cockpit set-up. Better to stay out of the way, and to preserve the bubble as long as possible: just flight-related stuff now.
Lot’s of folks have been busy while you’re doing your preflight ritual. The cabin is usually a wreck from the inbound passengers, plus all of the catering has to be removed, then the new flight catering put into both galleys.
Time for a last call home to Darling Bride. She knows the drill, having been a flight attendant for 12 years: yes, you get to ‘travel,” woo-hoo, but it’s not like vacation travel. It’s more like being restricted: you don’t have your stuff, can’t do just what you want, and road slop–whatever you can forage at restaurants and the like–is the diet for three days.
Get that McDonald’s coffee now. That’s right, I like McD’s java, and now it’s a ritual. Sure, the number one flight attendant will make coffee if I ask when I board. But why board asking for stuff? Eighteen First Class passengers will be asking for stuff soon enough. Speaking of the number one, remember the first name. The number one takes care of the flight deck; the least you can do is say “please” and “thank you, [first name].” And maybe a cartoon on the flight info sheet.
Show your ID to the gate agents; “Yes, I’m the captain, let me know if I can help you with anything,” then board, squeezing past the passengers, one of whom will say something inane like “We’ll let you by, we need you” (gee thanks) or the like, but preserve the bubble, say nothing–except maybe “excuse me.”
Set up the “nest:” comm cords and headset plugged in, audio channels (flight interphone and PA only till taxi out), adjust the rudder pedals, then the seat height.
Now the painstaking part: glass to paper. That is, the copilot will read off of “the glass” (the display unit for the nav system) all of the route points for the departure, enroute and arrival. They’ve been data-linked to the aircraft, now he’ll read off what the aircraft has and I’ll compare it to the paper flight plan, plus the ATC clearance which has also been sent to us via data link. Verify that it all matches up.
Ditto the performance numbers in the flight management computers: correct gross weight, center of gravity, temperatures, power selection, bleed configuration, cargo, passenger and fuel weights. Did you read the ATSB article I linked above? It tells of a 747 crew in the middle east recently who input the gross weight as 300-and-some thousand when the “3” was supposed to have been a “5,” meaning the aircraft actually weighed 200,000 more than it was set up for–and no one in the cockpit noticed the typo. They all died.
Painstaking, tedious–every time, exactly correct. Do you “get” the bubble now? In the Air Force, most folks gave up trying to “chat” with me during pre-flight, for the same reason.
Then as now, as before jumping out of an airplane–leave all the chit-chat behind. There’s other stuff to think about and no clutter is better. As a buddy of mine said when we were brand new captains, “This ain’t a popularity contest.”
Preflight complete, catering off the aircraft, passengers seated, bags stowed, flight attendants ready and finally, the agent pokes her head in the flight deck doorway. “All set, Captain? Okay to close the door?” Me; “Yes ma’am, and thanks.” Ker-THUNK–that’s the entry door closing. Then “cabin ready,one-sixty, four flight attendants” from the number one. They want to be sure in an emergency evacuation you know how many of your crew to account for. That’s your job–accounting for everyone at all times: 160 passengers, 6 crew. Whump–that’s the armor-plated cockpit door sealed shut. “Souls on board,” which is the standard emergency info: 166.
Ah, now we’re on our own–just the way I like it. Full jet, full fuel load, ready to fly. My favorite time in the work day: the good part’s dead ahead: let’s go fly.
Coming next: Part 2, the take-off and more.