Captain Who? Captain YOU.


You’re the captain: try it on like a pair of pants (Waist a little tight? Lay off the brownie sundaes the flight attendants sometimes offer) and walk around. Four big ol’ stripes, hat too with the scrambled eggs elaboration on the hat bill. You’ve arrived.

So, what’s the first thing you do when you get to the airport? Check the weather? The jet? Right?

Hell no. You sign in and get your per diem started, as cash flow is key. So, check the weather? Stupid. If you’re just now “checking the weather” you might as well be one of the passengers with the glazed doughnut look noticing with reasonable consternation that they will arrive into different weather many miles away.

Of course you checked it–departure, enroute and destination–as soon as you got up this morning, then probably an hour ago, so that now you can see the trend. You might have picked up a thing or two about the behavior of air masses after spending 30-some years working aloft, plus you’ve learned the peculiarities of particular destinations, how the topography casts an orographic effect on the winds and the weather. Where’s the weather data from: National Weather Service? NOAA? Nah–from “My Radar” on your iPhone where you get a complete depiction of the radar picture in realtime of the entire route of flight; back it up with the radar picture from FltPlan.com which also shows the full route and destination regional radar.

Okay, now the flight plan. What’s the most important thing there, the route, the altitude, the jet? Again, hell no.

The motion lotion: the fuel, the burn, the reserve, the loiter time. The rest of the junk? What evs–we’ll get airborne and see what’s what. You know from experience at every destination what kind of bingo fuel you’re going to be comfortable with. The route changes with traffic flow and Air traffic Control’s best guess at managing the crowd crisscrossing the national airspace. But unlike the old Air Force days, you can’t just fly up to a tanker, hold position, get plugged and tank a few thousand pounds. You sure miss that, don’t you?

Anyway, add your years of air sense to the weather trending you’ve determined is going on today, add in the time of day for traffic flow (how are the lines at the grocery store right around lunch time? get it?) and you get an idea of what’s the minimum fuel required.

So you make sure you have what you need and if not, a quick call to Flight Dispatch: “Could you add 2,000 pounds to the release, please?” Don’t know about other airlines, but never have had a dispatcher balk at my request. Once we agree, sign the flight plan electronically and print all ten yards worth of dead tree. Shame about the trees–all this information is being electronically uploaded to the flight management system on board via data link anyway.

Origami: fold that up in components–Take-Off Plan (speeds, weights, distances), Flight Plan (points, times, distances, winds, temps, ground speed, true airspeed, Mach, fuel burn) and the Other Ten Yards (temporary airspace notes, changes, aircraft systems notes, procedural changes, temporary restrictions) of stuff you might need to know and that a battery of attorneys after any incident will want to use as ammo to say, “You should have known this.” Now you do.

Next? The jet? Time for the jet? Yes and no.

You want to get there as the last passengers deplane so as to meet the pilots who flew it in for a quick, “Good jet” (you do the same when you pass a jet to another crew) or, an explanation of maintenance issues they may have noted in the logbook.

Fine. Once the other pilots and flight attendants leave, what? Stow your gear? Read the maintenance logbook? Start the preflight?

Not so fast. First, scrounge the outgoing catering for an unopened bottle–maybe two!–of water. Stash that (it’s just getting removed by the caterers anyway) in the cockpit first. Dehydration is a major physical stress of a career at altitude which affects a pilot’s ability to work as efficiently and smartly as possible. Can’t do much about jetlag or hotel sleep interruptions, but this is one issue you can influence directly.

Okay then, switch both inertial reference unit to “align” so that they can engage all three independent GPS systems on board to interrogate a dozen or two satellites and pinpoint our navigation starting point as accurately and as soon as possible. Stow your stuff–take your hat off first, because the Heads Up Display projector over your seat will knock it off your head for the thousandth time if you don’t, then lock the cockpit door behind you when you leave–don’t need any wayward caterers or cabin cleaners or passenger entertainment system techs milling about in the cockpit where they have no business.

Now what? Get lost. You’ve checked out the maintenance status of the jet on the computer, you’ve familiarized yourself with the Take Off Plan and the Flight Plan and are satisfied with both–so stay out of everyone’s hair. They all–cabin cleaners, flight attendants, copilot–have lots of stuff to do and they know what they’re doing, so let them.

Now’s your time to swing through Flight Ops to check your mailbox for any vital info stuffed there, but most of that you’re aware of from various electronic sources anyway. But always best to check.

By now we’re 30 minutes to pushback. Take your seat in the cockpit? Nah–first things first, or maybe better said, last things: coffee. Needs to be too hot to drink now, which means just right for taxi out, take-off and climb. There’s just something righteous about sipping a good cup during the early phases of flight that sets the upbeat tone, and even the upbeat heartbeat during a busy time.

Where do you get such a cup?

Mac D’s, honestly. The best–not the gourmet battery acid of Starbucks or “Whomever’s Best” (though you gotta love “Pike’s Perk” in Denver and “Brioche” in LAX) but good old, down to earth full taste McDonald’s coffee.

You sniff derisively at that? Fine, drink whatever you want in your cockpit on climbout. Okay, now you head for the cockpit. As the Big Cheese? El Hefe? Numero Uno?

Heck no–as invisible as possible. No eye contact, no glad handing. You have enough to do on the flight deck, so get it done. Just leave the marketing and PR for the departments getting paid to look after such things.

You wish.

Slide by the passengers on the jetbridge carefully, quietly. Introduce yourself to the #1 flight attendant–just your first name, they already know you’re the captain. Offer to help them in any way you can throughout the flight.

On the flight deck, thread your way into the fleece-covered left seat. Adjust the lumbar and thigh pads, the seat height, which needs to be just right to get all of the info on the HUD (“Heads Up Display”) projected on the glass before you. Comm cords and headset hooked up.

Set up your comm panel: flight interphone monitor and transmit, speaker on so the ground crew can contact you. All VHF radios off–no distraction between you and the ground crew during pushback.

Test the quickdon oxygen mask–clean it out with a Sani-Comm swab, set 100% oxygen flow, test the communications function. You want that thing working at altitude where your time of useful consciousness in a depressurization is limited to second without it.

Now your air sense check, start right above your head, yaw damper engaged (means it’s getting valid attitude info from the inertial reference units), switches normal on map display and nav functions; over to the pneumatics and pressurization, proper cruise and landing altitudes set;  the window heat on, probe heat off; turn on one electrically driven hydraulic pump to send 3,000 psi of pressure to the flight controls so a wind gust doesn’t yank the elevator column back into your gut. Switch to onboard electric power, assure airflow, decide which fuel boost pumps will go on before engine start based on the correct fuel loading–now’s the time to find a discrepancy there.

The office.

Then the challenge and response litany of preflight. Then the all-important (it damn well is) route check of every waypoint in the navigation system.

Finally, the ticket agent manning the jetbridge will step into the cockpit and say, “All bags stowed, all bins are closed, we’re ready to pull the jetbridge when you give the okay.”

“Is everyone down,” you ask in mock seriousness; the agent knows all passengers must be seated before the jetbridge is pulled away.

“Yes, they’re all down.” He walked right into that one.

“Well try to cheer them up,” you say, because you are such a smart ass. In a moment, you hear the main cabin door whomp shut and the door warning light panel indicates that now your jet’s buttoned up.

Ground power and air are gone. We pressurize hydraulic and pneumatic systems. The number one flight attendant checks in, “we have 16 up front, 144 in back, five working crewmembers, we’re ready,” then seals the cockpit door shut. At last .

Your headset comes to life as the Crew Chief below, seated on the pushback tug, notes the jetbridge clear of the aircraft and calls, “Ground checks complete, cholks removed, steering  bypass pin installed, cleared to release brakes and call for push.”

The F/O is on it, calling ramp. As we ease back, the Crew Chief calls, “Clear to start engines.”

Love it. Hack the clock to time the start sequence, then hit the Engine Start Switch and say, “Turning number two.” High pressure air whooshes through ducting and into the big hi-bypass fanjet and engine instrument depictions on both large CRT’s come to life.

Once both engines are humming along at idle, the ground crew signs off and gives you a salute, meaning they’ve cleared out and you can now roll the 80 ton jet without squishing anyone or anything .

You salute back, then nudge the 54,000 pounds of thrust gathered in your right hand and she begins to inch forward. Another sip of coffee as we taxi out, an inward smile through the litany of pre-takeoff checklist.

This is going to be a blast.

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11 Responses to “Captain Who? Captain YOU.”

  1. Captain Manno, this is the kind of post that made me subscribe and read all of your posts so far… You tell it in a way that make us feel like we’re there with you! Thanks and keep’em coming.

    • Good deal! I’m thinking some day I may want to look back and remember the little things that make the experience what it is.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  2. Whaow, loved it! Thank you Captain Manno, will be re-reading that one for sure!
    Bas

  3. Hello Capt Manno, I’m a retired USAF F-15 mechanic and “Chairborne” LDS 767 for FSX Jet Jockey. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I’ve learned so much about airline OPs from retired AA Capt Vallillo and from your postings. Your postings are very informative, and I like your wit and humor. Thank you for allowing us “ground pounders” some insight into the “real world” airline biz.

    Happy Landings,
    Tony De

  4. Great post – thanks so much. I’ll be thinking about it on tomorrow’s flight.
    (A private pilot who knows just enough to hang on for dear life when discussing jets).
    TP Lowe

  5. Captain–you didn’t mention doing an outside walkaround of the jet, but that’s something I see done quite often. Is that handled by the FO or is that something that’s not required? Thanks!

    • Yup: that’s an F/O duty. I used to do one now and then, but now you have to wear a safety vest which is one more thing to carry–so I don’t.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  6. Hello Captain Manno,

    You’ve used the picture of the weather girl a few times now. You’ve got to tell me at what channel she works at.

    • Hah! I don’t remember–either a Mexico City, Monterrey or Guadalajara layover. They all run together.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  7. blackwatertown Says:

    Enlightening and funny. In other words – the usual. Great stuff as ever. Loving your insights. Thanks for carrying on sharing them.

  8. Great blog.
    Just one of those self loading freight. Have chosen AA more often than the others for years. Even flew AA on the old DC7 once and the 707.
    Used to fly almost all MD80’s for frequent flights from LAX to PHL, ORD, DFW. Maybe one of yours. Never a real problem. Just a few delays. Have not heard much about international flying except Mexico City. Ever fly to TGU? If you did, you would have some stories.
    Happened to live near LGB in the 70’s and 80’s. Saw many of those Maddogs as they were being built at McDonnell Douglas. Some DC 10’s of your company also. Covered in a translucent yellow paint during much of the assembly process. Definitely some of the old birds you used to fly. Now only the C17 is made there.
    Keep up the good work. Like to know what really goes on up there.

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