Tag Archives: late

Fourth time is the charm

It’s 11:30 at night and our passengers are probably about ready to kill us. Outside the plane, the tail end of the last departure bank is roaring off into the night sky as flashes of lightning illuminate the low laying clouds to the west. I’m trying to work two radio frequencies at once while still monitoring what the FO is saying to the ground controller. It’s turning into a big mess in my head and I take a deep breath while double checking the parking brake is set so we don’t roll anywhere.

My evening started 5 hours ago with a planned deadhead down to Charlotte. Several hours prior to that the captain who was scheduled to fly that flight called and asked if I would mind flying it as he wad supposed to deadhead up just to fly it back. That was fine with me so at 6pm, instead of taking my seat in the back I strapped in up front and we launched for Charlotte. An hour later we were taxiing in to the gate and the start of my planned 3 hour sit before going to Savannah for the night.

Walking through the terminal to the crewroom and eventually dinner I ran into the FO who I was supposed to be going to Savannah with in several hours. He, the Flight Attendant and the captain I would be covering for later had to do a turn to Tri Cities, TN (a quick 25 minute flight) before going to Savannah. The FO told me they had loaded up the plane to go and pushed back at 6:30 as scheduled but had to return to the gate and unload the passengers after they had problems starting one of the engines. They were now on their way to another plane. I immediately started wondering just how late I’d be leaving for Savannah. 

An hour later I was walking back from dinner and ran into the FO again. I commented that they had made a very quick trip to Tri Cities if they were already back but he just laughed and told me they still hadn’t left yet. Apparently plane number 2 also had engine problems which required them to return to the gate and unload the passengers for a second time. Maintenance was working the issue but didn’t have an update time for them. The captain had a sim ride in the morning (which is why I had gotten the trip in the first place) and was anxious to get the hotel. I offered to take the Tri Cities turn as I’d be sitting around waiting for them to get back anyway. And just like that it all became my problem.

Dispatch called and told me the plane would be good to go at 10pm. By 10:30 we had our passengers back on board and after a 20 minute wait for the fuel truck we were taxiing out into a giant traffic jam. After 11pm Charlotte closes their three north-south runways and utilize their single east-west runway to prevent aircraft from flying over noise sensitive areas. It cuts down on the complaints from nearby neighborhoods but it puts a large crimp in the operation. 

Sitting at number 10 in line to go, now 5 hours later than scheduled I had a thought, which is never a good thing for me. Tri Cities is a small airport and we get our fuel from the local Fixed Base Operator and since we were so late it was entirely possible that the guy driving the fuel truck there may had already gone home for the night. I assumed that this is something that dispatch would have checked up on but I decided to make sure. Charlotte has a radio frequency we can use to call dispatch and a minute later a dispatcher was assuring me that there would be fuel when we got there. Satisfied with the answer I went back to the monotony of releasing the parking brake, creeping forward one plane’s length and then setting the brake again.

30 seconds later we got a text message saying that there was in fact no fuel truck driver and that the flight was cancelled and to go back to the gate. I told the FO that we owe it to these passengers to get them to Tri Cities, that I was going to call dispatch on the second radio and to tell the ground controller that we would need a few minutes to work on an issue.

Somewhere behind us I hear a plane spool up, the sound a harsh whine that fades into the night. 5 minutes of negotiations with dispatch have gotten us approval to go back to the gate and load an additional 1000 pounds of gas on board so we can go and come back without refueling. I flip over to the local ops frequency and tell them we need a gate and a fuel truck and make it fast. They give us a gate (the one we left from 25 minutes ago) and promise a fuel truck. I let the Flight Attendant know what is going on and apparently some of the frustration I am feeling creeps into my voice because she reminds me to be nice when I tell the passengers. That taken care of we taxi back to the ramp where there is in fact a fuel truck waiting for us.

Ten minutes later we are pushing back again (my second time, the passenger’s fourth) and heading towards the runway. It’s midnight now and there are no other planes in sight. The ramp controller jokingly asks if we are really going to go this time. The FO looks at me a shrugs. That’s about how I feel. We make it to the runway without any issues and then after waiting a minute for a truck to finish an inspection downfield, blast off into the night. Lightning is still flickering in the clouds to the west as we turn north towards our destination. We will get our passengers there 5 hours later than scheduled and a full hour later than the last flight of the night got in, but we will get them there. And then we will turn back to Charlotte and then Savannah beyond. It’s going to be a long night. 

Golfing

I’m in a somewhat familiar position, sitting in the left seat, with my FO to my right, my left hand lightly gripping the wheel while we navigate our way across the Charlotte Express ramp with our bags stowed somewhere behind us. However, the wind blasting my face and the fact that I am using my foot on a gas pedal to make us go faster is a pretty good indication things aren’t as they normally are. A stray pushback tug looms out of the darkness ahead, illuminated by our one weak headlight and the full moon that is filtering through the broken cloud layer above. I turn the wheel to the left and our speeding golf cart loops around the tug. That’s right. Golf cart. I glance over at my FO and shake my head and wonder briefly how we ended up driving around the deserted Charlotte ramp at 2 in the morning in a golf cart.


4 hours ago

The Charlotte Airport is a zoo. I try to find a quiet spot behind the gate podium and stay out of the way. The last bank of the night is getting ready to leave and people are everywhere. I’m starting a modified high speed which is basically a trip where you fly out the last flight of the night and then fly the first flight back in the morning, ended up with somewhere between 2 and 6 hours of time at a hotel in between. The downside is you get very little (if any) sleep during the trip. The upside is that you don’t start your day until after 9 at night are done with your day by 7 or so in the morning. Despite the beating your body takes while flying them, high speeds are popular among a lot of crews and tend to go pretty senior in a bid.

My high speed is actually made up of three legs instead of two. I start the trip with a deadhead up to Akron where there is a plane that needs to be shuttled back down to Charlotte. Once in Charlotte I will go into the “rest” period of my high speed before heading back to the airport at 6:30 in the morning to deadhead back to Dayton and be done for the day. Of course I don’t really plan on going back to Dayton but rather head home on the first flight west in the morning. That’s the plan anyway.

The crew for the flight to Akron finally shows up and after they get the plane ready we start to board. 20 minutes later we are taxiing out to join the line for takeoff. 10 minutes after that the wheels are up and my eyes close as the plane picks up speed heading northward.


2 hours ago

I’m sitting in the left seat of the plane that brought us up to Akron while my FO organizes our bags in the galley. Outside two mechanics have the plane hooked up to a tug and are pushing us back across a rain streaked ramp towards the hangar where our plane is waiting. I’m “brake riding” for the mechanics which sounds way more glamorous than it really is. We are secured to the tug which is more than capable of stopping the plane’s momentum when they get to the hangar, however, just to be safe and just in case the tow bar gets disconnected somebody has to keep their feet on the aircraft’s brake pedals. Through the rain I see the lead mechanic make a kill it gesture and after warning the FO it’s about to get dark I reach up and flip off the auxiliary power unit which is providing power to the aircraft. The lights fade and then turn to darkness as the generator spins down. I flip the last several switches by feel and as the plane goes cold the tug rolls us back into the hangar, joining the three other airplanes already in for the night.

Once secured there the FO pops the door and we drag our bags back out into the rain to the plane we will be taking back to Charlotte. The thoughtful mechanics have powered it up for us and the cabin lighting looks inviting through the midnight rain drops. Once on board I start checking the systems and setting up for the flight south while the FO plunges back into the rain to do a walk around. By the time he’s back on board after pulling the chalks I give the ok to shut the door and we settle down to setting up the flight. It ends up being my leg and after running a few checklists I brief the departure and spin up both engines. A remarkably upbeat for the hour ground controller clears us to taxi and I pop the brake and start towards the runway.

Halfway there we are cleared for takeoff and we run the final checklist just short of the runway. Everything completed, I roll onto the runway, push up the power and start splitting my attention between the increasing airspeed indications and the rapidly blurring runway which is passing by through the rain splattered windshield. The correct speed comes and goes and I rotate the nose skyward into heavily laden rain clouds. The tower controller clears us to 15000 feet and tells us to turn to the south towards Parkersburg, West Virginia and then hands us off to Cleveland Center.

In the clouds the ride gets bumpy but with no passengers in the back I’m not overly concerned and roll to the right to turn south. The radar isn’t painting anything so I let the speed build up in the climb. At 8000 feet we pop out of the top of the clouds into an arctic looking landscape. The moon is full and directly overhead, illuminating the cloud tops like an ice field. Out to the distance in the east a few thunderheads rear up over the landscape, sullenly flickering in the moonlight. Our route to the south looks clear and through 10,000 feet I pitch the nose over and let the speed build up to 310 knots. It’s 1 in the morning and there is another airplane within 100 miles of us.


30 Minutes ago

Charlotte is reporting a broken clouds layer at 5000 feet good visibility so we set up for a visual approach as we descend back towards the dark earth. Dropping through the clouds we find ourselves at 4000 feet with nothing visible below us. So much for the weather report I think. While my FO lets the approach controller know that we will need vectors to an instrument approach I pull the approach plate out of my book and start resetting data for an instrument arrival. Approach Control spins us around to the localizer and I dump the autopilot to increase the rate of the turn. Things work out just fine and we end up riding down a radio beam in the sky towards a runway somewhere in the darkness ahead of us. The clouds break up at 2000 feet and the runway appears where it is supposed to be.

With no passengers or bags on board we are very light and I misjudge my flare and end up thumping down on the runway. Only the FO and my pride are there to judge it so I don’t worry too much. We clear downfield and taxi in towards parking. Ramp Control has long since gone home for the night so I call up Company on the radio and ask where they want me to park the plane. After a bit of discussion they tell us to put it in remote parking which is fine with me as that way we don’t need somebody to wand us in like we would if we were parking at a gate. At this hour of the night finding somebody to do that could take a while as all of the rampers are long gone for the night.

I roll to a stop on the deserted ramp and shut down. While my FO starts to put stuff away I jump out and find some chalks lying nearby to secure the wheels. That accomplished I shut down the plane and start bring my bag down the stairs. While waiting on the FO to finish his walk around a pickup truck pulls up with an operations supervisor. She says she’d offer us a ride back to the terminal but only has one seat in her truck. While she’s explaining this another ops person pulls up in a golf cart and she immediately offers us the golf cart and says she’ll catch a ride in the truck after cleaning the plane. I look across the ramp to the terminal and then think about the long walk through the terminal and immediately take her up on the offer. My FO and I throw our bags in the back of the cart and after reminding myself how to drive a golf cart (I worked at a driving range years ago) we take off across the ramp.

Now

The ramp is silent other than the quiet rumble of our little golf cart motor. I drive around the end of the express terminal and turn towards gate E1, the closest gate to the main terminal and our eventual exit from the airport. We pass underneath tails of darkened airplanes and around rows of empty baggage carts. The lighted jetways pass by in the darkness, looming like something out of Star Wars. I pull in next to gate E1 and turn off the cart. Our single headlight fades away while somewhere above the clouds a full moon continues to shine down.

Late Night

For the second time in three days we are blasting off into the dark sky with the flightdeck clock pointing to numbers well past midnight. Two nights ago it was the concrete of Runway 27L in Philly dropping below the wheels as we finally pointed the airplane’s nose towards Columbia and the end of the day. Weather had left us stranded in Akron for 3 hours before we finally were released to Philly, just 40 minutes away. Minus one small line of weather we pushed through over Harrisburg, the flight was fine, but once on the ground we became part of one of the traffic jams Philly is famous for as some planes tried to make it to their gates while others struggled to get out but were forced to wait after the airport ran out of real estate on which to park planes waiting for the runway. An hour after touching down we finally pulled up to the gate and unloaded our passengers 4 hours later than scheduled.

This evening has not gone as badly, but still, here it is 12:30 in the morning and the wheels are coming up into the wells and the FMS is showing 35 minutes back to Dayton. At least tonight we don’t have any passengers on board and the only people waiting for my FO and I are our respective better halves and the mechanics in Dayton who are waiting to get their hands on the plane for the night. Passing through 2000 feet the FO rolls the plane into a gently bank to the right towards the radio beam being generated by the Parkersburg, WV VOR 60 miles away. As the plane keeps climbing and rolls level the lights of Clarksburg, WV fade into the night behind us.

Over twelve hours ago I was on a deadhead flight down to Charlotte to start my day. After meeting up with the crew and loading our passengers we took off and headed west, settling in for the 2+ hour flight out to Fayetteville, Arkansas. Minus some weather west of the Charlotte area the flight was smooth, and 2 hours after taking off I settled the plane back on to the ground in Arkansas. Due to Scheduling forgetting to load Crew Meals on board we took a quick meal break there, where I managed to find a less than appealing turkey sandwich, before loading up 50 passengers to drag back to Charlotte.

The weather that we’d flown around on the way out had now taken up residence just to the southwest of the airport and was moving steadily towards the field. As we joined the final for the runway tower told us to keep our speed up as the storm was only 2 miles away and rapidly approaching. The radar confirmed this with a splotchy red and yellow blob displayed just to the south of the field on my MFD. Once below the clouds we could clearly see the rain line on the ground to the south. My concerns about gust fronts and heavy rain reducing visibility, and the potential lack of an escape path never materialized and we touched down just as the first rain drops started to fall. On the taxi in the storm hit and of course lightning closed the ramp, forcing us to sit and wait for 30 minutes until the weather passed and operations started up again.

Once at the gate and unloaded I grabbed my stuff and headed to another gate where my flight and crew back to Dayton was waiting. I’d originally been scheduled to fly with this crew all day, but do to some other issues I’d been reassigned the Fayetteville trip while they went to Louisville and back. Having arrived back in Charlotte well before the weather they’d had time to board the plane and get set up. Now they were just waiting on me and two other passengers who had also been forced to sit out the storm on the ramp. With the three of us on board we were shortly pushing off the gate and taxiing out. Due to the weather a lot of other flights were running behind and there was no line up for the runway. 5 minutes after pushing back we were rolling down the runway and blasting off. Tower gave us a turn to the west and handed us over to Departure who gave us another turn to the north and towards home.

Once back in Dayton, instead of heading for my car and home, I turned right and dragged my bag over to the hangar where another plane was waiting to head over to Clarksburg, WV for a yearly heavy maintenance check. In Clarksburg, another of our 50 seaters was currently waiting to come back to Dayton after having been almost completely taken apart, cleaned, repaired and put back together. It’s always interesting getting a plane right out of a Heavy Check, but doing it at the end of a 12 duty hour, 8 flying hour day, can be extra exciting.

The flight over was routine, with the airport appearing out of the hills as I turned the plane onto final. I learned to fly just to the north of the field, and I had to compartmentalize the memories of my early Cessna flights while trying to avoid the last ridgeline before the runway. With that taken care and the wheels back on the ground, I taxied the plane towards the Bombardier Maintenance hangar while my FO closed our flight plan with Cleveland Center. An escort was waiting for us and after we’d parked the plane and shut it down he walked us over to the plane we’d be taking back out and then waiting for us while we did a very thorough set of preflight checks and inspections to insure everything was where it should be. With everything in order we started up, taxied out and then took off into the darkness.

As the lights of Clarksburg dim behind us, the West Virginia hills give way to the Ohio River floodplain and the lights of Parkersburg. A very bored sounding Cleveland Center controller gives us direct Dayton and then goes back to doing what every they were doing before we interrupted their evening. I eat the packet of M&Ms I’d been saving all day for this moment. As I savor the last one, the lights of Columbus are sliding under the nose and we are handed over to Dayton who clears us directly to the airport for a visual approach. As we descend over the quiet Ohio countryside, out in the darkness to the south, a pair of strobe lights appears and the tired sounding voice of the FO on the last Charlotte to Dayton flight of the night checks in with Approach. My FO points out that they probably got caught up in the weather issues Charlotte had and hence are running almost two hours late.

We line up for the right runway while the company traffic aligns themselves with the left one. We touch down about the same time and while they begin their taxi to the terminal to unload their passengers, I take the plane back from the FO and taxi to the maintenance hangar. As we roll up out front a mechanic comes outside with some chalks to throw around on the wheels. Before the engines even stop turning a mob of mechanics are swarming around the airplane with flashlights to make sure that Clarksburg put everything back the way they should of. I trust them to do their job and turn away from the plane, dragging my bag behind me, through the hangar and Operations Control and eventually out to the parking lot where my ride is waiting and my day will finally end.