Tag Archives: fuel

Min Fuel

We seem to be barely moving. For about the hundredth time in the last few minutes I check our airspeed and then look back outside at the Georgia countryside, seemingly fixed in place, visible through ragged gaps in the clouds below us. All three airspeed gauges in the cockpit agree; we are in fact moving, just not very quickly. I briefly contemplate bumping up the thrust levers but a quick glance out at our project fuel an landing number makes me dismiss that thought and go back to listening to the abnormal quiet as we creep eastward through clear skies.

It’s the last leg of a four day trip. All that waits for me, 200 miles away in Charlotte, is a two hour sit and then a deadhead home where I am done for a few days. The FO and Flight Attendant are also both done in Charlotte, but only have a quick car ride to their respective houses. The joys of being outstation based once again rear their ugly head. Despite the slow speed we are flying and the 20 minute sit we just endured by the runway in Montgomery, Alabama watching Navy BeechJets fly practice approaches, we are still showing landing 15 minutes early thanks to an early push in Montgomery and favorable tailwinds. I’ve got no place to be but for the rest of the crew, ever minute makes a difference.

Due to a new fuel saving program, we are now being dispatched with less fuel than ever before. The thought is that “extra” fuel we used to carry around weighed a lot and actually burned even more fuel to carry it around. Spread across a fleet of 50 airplanes doing 8 flights a day, 365 days a year, the numbers add up. Apparently. The company brought in an “expert” who explained all of this to a number of captains and management pilots. I came away from the session understanding the reasons, but wondering about the specifics. After two weeks of flying under the new program I’m still wondering about the specifics.

The immediate effect of this program is that if we are planned for a certain speed in cruise, our fuel load is based on flying that speed. Flying faster burns more gas, and while in the past with larger margins we could bump up the speed if we needed to (or felt we needed to), it is no longer always feasible. We are currently showing landing right at our minimums. I check the weather report at Charlotte, guess which runways they will be using and mentally add that into the fuel burn calculation. The number doesn’t improve so I leave the thrust levers where they are and go back to watching the world slide by.

15 minutes will have to do.

Pawns

I’m beginning to feel like a pawn on a chessboard. We are being moved around the rainy darkness of the White Plaines airport by the invisible hand of fate, and I don’t like it at all. I set the parking brake, take a breath and check our fuel again. We have 300 pounds more than our min take off fuel, and as we currently are facing backwards down the taxiway, our tail pointed towards the runway, I seriously doubt we will be taking off before that 300 pounds burns away.

The rain beats down on the cockpit glass, running in rivulets down the side and then being blow backwards by the wind which is now gusting to 30 miles per hour. Off to our left a Net Jets Gulfstream blasts off from the runway amidst a cloud of water kicked up by it’s engines. As it disappears into the low clouds I watch the wing tip nav lights dance in the turbulence and think that maybe we should just go back to the gate and forget about trying to get to Washington. It’s been one of those days.

. . .

I picked up the trip in Charlotte several hours ago and got to the plane as a very light rain fell. Charlotte was just ahead of a large line of weather that was stretching from Alabama up to the east coast to about Vermont. It was moving east a good rate, driven along by almost 150 miles per hour of wind aloft. On the surface the gusts were hitting 40 miles per hour. Our planned route to White Plaines would take us right along (and at some points into) the leading edge of the front. Obviously this wouldn’t work, but as dispatch didn’t seem to inclined to work with us on a new routing, and plenty of extra fuel in the tanks, I figured we could just pick our way farther east if needed to stay out of the weather.

With that plan in mind we took off into a windy sky, bumping our way up to 31,000 feet. We were able to work our way to the east a bit and stay out of the worst of the weather, although we were in moderate turbulence for a good part of the trip. Fortunately, because of the hefty tailwinds the normal almost 2 hour flight took less than 90 minutes. Despite that, it was a physically exhausting flight due to the constant bumps, trying to avoid the cells, dealing with a way overworked ATC who was trying to vector too many airplanes in not enough airspace and an approach to minimums in the fog and rain when we finally got there. Thankfully we were 30 minutes early arriving so we had a little bit of time to catch our breath before the next load of passengers arrived for our flight to DC.

While waiting I called Dispatch to discuss the weather on route again. Having just fought our way through it heading north, I really had no desire to do so again heading south, and this time down low. Our dispatcher told us that most of the weather was well east of Washington now and the only stuff we would face was on the climb out from White Plaines, heading west until we got behind the front and turned south. The radar map on my phone showed about the same thing and when the FO picked up the clearance from ATC there were no delays anticipated so I gave the go ahead for the gate agent to start boarding.

It started pouring as soon as the first person got on board, leaving our other 41 passengers standing in the rain outside, trying to cover their heads with a mixture of bags, coats and newspapers. Some gentle prodding from our flight attendant got the line moving along and soon everybody was out of the rain and on board. ATC told us to expect no delays so we started up and taxied out, only to be told that we had a 30 minute wait. And thus our game of chess moves began.

We first were moved up to and short of the runway, then crossed over to the other side and told to taxi straight ahead and then take a right. Then we were told to instead, keep going straight ahead and then take a right on another runway, then a right turn off that runway and then turn into a holding pad in the middle of nowhere, which is what we did. After 30 minutes of sitting and waiting and watching the rain come down we were moved up to and short of the runway and told to expect to go shortly. They then change their mind and told us that all the west bound departures have been stopped due to turbulence.
The tower controller asked if we could turn around and go back to the holding pad to wait so we weren’t blocking access to the runway. I grabbed the radio call before the FO could and told them that we could turn around and then asked him how long the hold on west departures would be, which of course, he didn’t know. Once turned around I asked him if we could just stop where we were for a minute and figure out our plan. He said he had nobody else coming along so that would be fine.

. . .

The rain is beating against the glass now that we are facing directly into the wind, and I idly flip the wipers on, even though we are stopped with the brake set. The glass momentarily clears and then fills again with the splatter of water droplets. We have two realistic options, and neither one is too appealing and both require returning to the gate for more fuel. We can go back load up a small amount of fuel and then sit out the hold on the departures, which could be 15 minutes or could be several hours. Or we could also go back, add a bunch of fuel and try to get what’s called a tower enroute clearance which would keep us down low at 8000 feet, out of the busy Center Controlled airspace, and hopefully out of the bumps. I tell the FO to stay on the radios incase the ground controller calls us, and pull off my headset to make a PA to the cabin.

I quickly lay out the facts (departures stopped, not enough gas to just sit and wait, even if we shut down both engines) and the options (go to the gate, load gas and sit it out or attempt getting a lower altitude), apologize for the inconvenience and remind them that the Flight Attendant doesn’t know anything about their connections and to not bother her by asking over and over again. The PA complete I pull out my phone to call dispatch and inquire about fuel loads for a lower altitude and what weather we may end up facing down low.

I’m still trying to explain the situation to the dispatcher when my FO starts talking on the radio and gives me a thumbs up sign while mouthing the words “good to go”. I tell our dispatcher never mind, hang up and put my headset back on in time to hear the controller ask how quickly we can get to the runway. We still have both engines running and the FO tells her that we can be there just as soon as she can get us there. That unleashes a torrent of taxi instructions which we quickly follow.

I make one more PA to the cabin informing them that the hold has been lifted and we’ll be in the air in a few minutes. After click off the PA I comment to the FO that moments ago I told the passengers that we couldn’t go because it was too bumpy and we didn’t have enough fuel. Now I’m telling them that it’s not bumpy, we have enough fuel and we are going. I’m sure I’ve just instilled a boatload of confidence into all of them. I quickly put it out of my mind, listen while the FO briefs his departure and with a takeoff clearance in hand, center the plane up on the runway.

The climb out it turbulent to say the least. We are in and out of the clouds and through heavy rain and moderate icing most of the way up. All of the New York Area departures are complaining and ATC is ignoring it, not that there is much they can do anyway. Finally at 24,000 feet we break out of the backside of the weather. The ride smoothes out and in the clear air above the overcast we can see the fading light of the sunset on the western horizon. To the east a mass of dark gray and black clouds are illuminated by intermittent flickers of lightning. To the south the route looks clear. I ease by seat back and rub my temples. It’s been a hell of a day so far.

Always The Last Leg

The rippling Pennsylvanian countryside is sliding by underneath us as we head westbound with the late morning sun shining brightly in my window. I can feel a spot on my arm where I missed putting sun block on earlier today starting to heat up despite the tinted shade I have cliped to the rail over the window. At this altitude there isn’t much in the air to dissipate the light energy being blasted out of the sun and staying out of its potentially deadly rays is a constant effort. I slide my seat back a few inches, out of the beam of light, and contemplate the blue sky ahead.

It’s the last leg of a three day trip and we are headed back to Dayton. The FO I was flying with got pulled off the trip in DC to go do something else and a new hire FO was deadheaded in to work the one leg back to base. He’s been on line for a little over three weeks and despite not being very talkative, he’s doing fine. It’s my leg and despite missing a few radio calls the first time around, and not being familiar with some of the navigation fix names he’s successfully gotten us (verbally anyway) out of the busy northeast corridor and heading west.

We pass over the Bellaire VOR, located just south of Pittsburg and the plane banks slightly to the right, move the bright patch of light slipping by the sun shade up my leg and back on to my arm. A quick adjustment to the sun shade fixes that problem and I go back to looking at the blue sky ahead. Except it’s not so blue any more as a line of dark gray clouds is now covering most of the western horizon. Punctuating the line are several thunderheads rearing upwards into the haze layer above us. I take a quick look at our fuel state, the forecasted weather on the release and again at the line of weather forming in front of us and don’t like what I see.

Dispatch has turned over a new leaf and has decided that as a cost saving measure they want us landing with the absolute minimum fuel needed. This means that when an alternate isn’t required because of weather, we land with about 45 minutes of gas. Of course, this is negotiable between the captain the dispatcher, but mostly, as long as the weather is nice I take what they give me and go from there. That of course was the case today. The forecasted weather was showing nothing but sun and light winds all day long so there was no reason for me to think we’d need more gas. The nasty squall line on the horizon is saying differently of course. I flip on my radar to verify that what I am seeing is going to in fact be a problem, and the string of red and purple blobs sitting on the airport says that it will be.

I ponder over the situation while the FO in the right seat plays with his radar. This is his first time using it and while I’d like to walk him through the basics, I’m occupied with trying to figure out what to do. We are still about 80 miles away from Dayton and from the radar it looks like the south end of the line is right at the field. I ask ATC for direct a fix to the south of the airport, hoping we can make an end run around the bottom of the weather and then come back up behind it. The request is denied due to military airspace in use. Scratch that plan.

We get slowed to follow an AirTran flight heading the same way as us. Once the speed is back, ATC has us descend to 12,000 feet. As we drop out of the high layer of clouds the plane we are following appears in front of us, a small black speck against a white and gray background. Several minutes later Indy Center hands us both off to Dayton approach and the AirTran flight checks in with a request for a right deviation to the North to try to get through a hole in the line. I wager that their radar is better than ours and they see something we don’t and tell the FO to request the same. We get the turn approved and I switch over to heading mode and put the line running out to the heading bug right over the traffic target representing the AirTran plane in front of us on the display.

As we get closer to the line it starts to firm up on the radar display and I see that there is indeed a hole to slip through. Were as our radar could only paint (what I hope is) an accurate picture 20 miles out, their radar was showing the same thing much farther away. For about the thousandth time I wish that our radar worked better. I make sure the FO understands what just happened and the limitations on the equipment he will be stuck with for the next few years. The pointy end of jet with 50 paying passengers behind you isn’t the time or place for flight instruction but I try never to waste a teaching moment. The line is just 10 miles away now and I can see a small swatch of blue sky peeking through the hole.

Our fuel is holding up and as long as there isn’t any weather on the field once we break through the line we should be ok. Several miles back I had the FO advice the Flight Attendant that it may get bumpy. She’s been here longer than I have so I’m not too worried about her ability to stand up during the bumps, but I tend to be conservative about turbulence. I shouldn’t have worried though as except for some quick light chop we get through the line with no problems.

It’s clear on the other side. The airport is visible 15 miles to the south. The FO lets the controller know we are clear of the weather. He tells us to proceed direct to the field and I spin the heading bug in that direction. I check the fuel numbers one more time and am happy with what I see. Off the left wing as we head towards the airport the back side of the weather slides slowly eastward leaving a blue sky day behind it.

Rough Start

Location: 30 miles Northwest of Beckley, WV

Altitude: 31,000 feet and slowly climbing

Airspeed: 71% of the speed of sound

Temperature: -41 degrees Celsius

A 170 mile an hour west wind is blasting the left side of the airplane as we head north towards Detroit and our last stop of the day before we can head back to Charlotte and the end of the trip. To compensate for the wind the autopilot has pointed the nose of the airplane about 45 degrees to the left of our course, a number that has grown progressively larger over the last 5 minutes as the wind has increased. The good news for us is that we aren’t heading directly into it, and only about 30 miles an hour of that is pushing us backwards. The bad news is a combination of the wind and the high clouds are causing an incredibly rough ride.

15 minutes earlier and well south of the Beckley VOR we had leveled off at our planned final altitude of 30,000 feet but after getting slammed around for 10 minutes we had put our faith in a report of a mostly smooth ride from another airplane at 34,000 feet. We asked for 34,000 as well but the best ATC could do was give us 32,000. Now slowly clawing our way higher with a full load of passengers and both the wing and engine anti ice systems robbing the engines of thrust I was beginning to wonder if we’d make it to 32,000. The book said we could but a rapidly dropping airspeed indicator and a minuscule climb rate was making me wonder.

Finally, as we passed 31,400 feet the airplane decided it was ok with climbing and the airspeed started increasing again. Unfortunately the bumps did as well. After a particularly hard series of jolts I decided to make a quick PA, although verbally reassuring the passengers that we probably weren’t all about to die wasn’t help all that much with people who were suffering from motion sickness. Mission accomplished I went back to splitting my attention between the airspeed tape (which was now holding steady), the altimeter (which was creeping higher), the vertical speed indicator (which was bouncing all over the place in the bumps but holding a positive rate) and the weather radar which is all but useless at higher altitudes as it doesn’t paint frozen precipitation, which at -40 degrees is pretty much all there is.

The ride at 32,000 (once we finally got there) was a little bit better, but the next 30 minutes of flight time as we crossed over West Virginia and Ohio was mostly spent just holding on to something. ATC eventually started us back down again and as we passed between cloud layers the ride settled down. Once we descended below 26,000 the ride smoothed out completely, making me wonder if maybe we should have descended instead of climbed to find a better ride.

Now just 80 miles to the north Detroit was reporting light snow and 2 ½ miles of visibility with a 1000 foot ceiling. That wasn’t good news. The forecast had been for a mostly nice day and we hadn’t gotten an alternate were carrying just our minimum 45 minutes of emergency fuel. The situation got even worse when, as I was discussing options with the FO another weather report came out showing the visibility was now down to 1 ½ miles due to the snow which had picked up. A quick look at a map (I actually carry a Rand McNally road atlas to get a general sense of location) showed Cleveland or Akron were probably our best bets but with only 45 minutes of fuel, and even less if we actually shot the approach and had to go around, those would be long shots. If stuff got really bad I figured Flint or Grand Rapids would work, although we didn’t have approach plates for either place. I took a second to mentally kick myself for not requesting more fuel back in Charlotte but then moved on to dealing with what was rapidly turning into mess.

15 minutes out had us descending through 12,000 feet and breaking into clearer skies. A frozen over Lake Erie was visible below us, and in the snowy hazy to the north we could just make out the lake shore. Cleveland Center passed us off to Detroit approach who turned us towards the airport. Now down at 5000 feet the snow covered ground was clearly visible below us but there was a low layer of clouds to the northwest with snow squalls visible on the leading edge of them. Approach turned us on to the ILS and dropped us down to 3000 feet. As the needles centered up I could just make out the end of the runway 10 miles away, right at the edge of the cloud line.

Approach handed us off to tower who cleared us to land. At about 1500 feet the runway momentarily disappeared behind a cloud but seconds later we broke through and it came back into sight. I mentally thought through a landing on a partially snow covered runway (get it down, don’t worry about softness, get the reversers out and be gentle with the brakes) as the computer called out 500 feet. By 200 feet I could see enough detail to realize the runway was mostly clear although there was snow blowing over the surface. At 100 feet the power started coming out and by 40 feet it was gone. A last second correction for a gust of wind and we were down, on the centerline.

Rolling clear and on to the taxiway several thousand feet later I took a second to let out a long breath. We were down and the bumps and fuel worries were over. However, we were running over an hour late because of an earlier delay which meant we would be quick turning and heading right back into the bumps, the wind, and the ice and snow.

And the funny thing is I knew I was going to love every minute of it.

Number Crunching

I started getting worried after I finished breakfast in the hotel in Columbia. I’d just brought up the weather for Philly, where we’d be heading 7 hours later and it was showing 3 miles and snow. The good news was that at our time of arrival (around 8:30 that evening) it was supposed to be nice. The bad news was, this being Philly, we’d probably still run into problems. Later that day, after a lunch at a nearby Japanese place as we headed over to the airport to start our day I called dispatch to see how bad the news was. Somewhat surprisingly it wasn’t all that bad. Or plane was actually going to be in on time and they were only projecting a 30 minute delay for our departure.

It ended up working out even better than that. The plane came in on time and we taxied out (with 50 passengers) just 3 minutes late. We got to the end of the runway and just like that we were air born. Because the weather was better they’d given us enough fuel to get up there and then just our normal 45 minute reserve. For planning purposes that looked like it would work out ok as we’d gotten right off and after a slight turn to the west to clear some local traffic we were heading north towards Philly.

Stuff started going poorly almost immediately. Climbing through 13,000 feet the ride started getting rough. After leveling off at 29,000 feet I asked Washington Center if they had any ride reports and the news wasn’t good as they had nothing reported smooth below 37,000 feet, and in the 200 we can’t get up there. In attempt to find a bit better ride we started up to 31,000 but were stopped just short of it and sent back down to 29,000 because an aircraft higher up needed to start down due to the rides up there being so bad. And that’s pretty much how it went.

About 50 miles south of Washington DC the ride started to finally smooth out. One problem dealt with, another one popped up. ATC advised us that we could slow down if we wanted because the next controller had holding instructions for us. And on that note handed us off. The hold we were set up for was about 100 miles from Philly, just about 30 miles south of Baltimore. When assigned to a hold we get, among other things, an “expect further clearance” or EFC time which is the point in time when we can EXPECT to get released and be able to continue on our way. These times are subject to change (and they often do) but at least are useful for planning. The EFC we had for this hold was about 30 minutes in the future.

After some quick number crunching the FO (a downgraded captain) and I figured that if we held that full amount of time we would have just enough fuel to make it up to Philly and land with our required 45 minutes of reserve. That’s legal and all, but a little close for comfort. The other option was, when the fuel got low, was to head up to Baltimore (35 miles away with 4 miles and snow) or Harrisburg (70 miles away with 9 miles and light winds). Both those options were slightly better than PHL but would still have us landing with minimum fuel. The decision was made for us when, after two turns in the hold we were cleared on towards Philly but told to expect more holding down the road.

That didn’t really sound too appealing but at least now we were heading in the right direction again. 10 minutes later we were holding again, this time down at 12,000 feet, just 30 miles from the airport. In fact, we could clearly see both the airport and the city. The numbers now worked out that we could hold until our new EFC and make it to PHL but if the time stretched passed that we’d have to go somewhere else. The options were still Baltimore and Harrisburg and neither looked too appealing as far as fuel went. We decided to wait until the top of the hour (just 5 minutes before our EFC) when there’d be new weather on which to make our decision on where to go.

Once again ATC solved the problem for us by clearing us out of the hold and to the airport after just one turn in holding. 10 minutes later we were joining the final for 35, where my FO made a nice landing before I took the plane to taxied in, glad to be parking at the gate in Philly and not somewhere else.

Turbulence

The airline industry is in serious trouble right now. Fuel has almost tripled in two years and airfares have barely budged. Airlines are living off of the money they made over the past few years while life was (relatively) good. Of course, that can’t last very long and in order to attempt to make up the shortfall they are starting to cut services. Fewer flight to fewer destinations. No more free snacks. No more free drinks. Harder to earn/redeem frequent flier miles. They are also adding nickel and dime fees in the hope the passenger will still buy the initial “cheap” fare and then not associate the “extra” costs with that specific airline and still buy a ticket on them in the future. It’s a shell game really.

We are starting to feel the crunch here. Mainline is furloughing 300 pilots and our junior 27 guys are going to be on the street starting July 1st. Hopefully it ends there and nobody else gets the boot, but unless something drastically changes I just don’t see that happening. Personally, I am probably safe from furlough, unless we park about half our fleet, but it is very likely if there are any more reductions that I could be forced back to the right seat. Not much I can do about it so there’s no sense in worrying.

Yesterday was day 2 of a 4 day trip and for whatever reasons it just dragged on and on. We started in Gainesville, FL and managed to make it to Charlotte despite Jacksonville Approach trying to vector us into every thunderstorm possible until we got over the FL-GA border. Once in Charlotte we headed up to Charlottesville, VA. We had the door closed 5 minutes early but of course the ramp wouldn’t push us until 2 minutes prior to our scheduled departure time (in case any last minute bags showed up). Well, of course, no bags arrived, but in those three minutes our push crew wandered away and then when they finally came back (3 minutes late now) there was an airplane behind us so we ended up being 10 minutes late off the gate.

That translated into 20 minutes late into CHO (due to a huge line to get to the runway in Charlotte) but with only 8 passengers coming back to Charlotte we turned the airplane in 16 minutes and WOULD have been back on time except for the fact we had to sit by the runway and wait for a slot into Charlotte for 39 minutes. Despite being 15 minutes late (with a scheduled 35 minute turn) I managed what might have been might nicest landing ever in the airplane (I couldn’t even tell if we were on the ground or not) and then took a short cut to beat 2 Mesa 900s to the gate. Highlight of my night for sure.

We managed a quick break for dinner and then loaded up 45 people to head over to Newport News for the night. The timing worked out just right that Norfolk Approach handed us off to Tower, I checked and she said she was closed for the night as of 5 seconds ago and we were on our own. Oh boy. We survived a landing into an uncontrolled field (for the second night in a row as Gainesville Tower had been closed the night before) and taxied to the gate.

Today is a deadhead up to Philly and then a Charleston, SC turn followed by a flight down to Columbia, SC for the overnight. And the best part… Tomorrow is going home day.