Tag Archives: maintenance

Old Dog… New Tricks

The cockpit is feeling very spacious today. It may be the early morning light that is filtering through the windows or it could be the open flight deck door and empty 70 seats behind it. Either way, as we taxi out from the Maintenance Hangar in Dayton it feels like we are in a plane bigger than we actually are. Big plane or not, we are exceedingly light. With just two of us on board and less than 1/3 of a full load of fuel the plane bounces along the taxiway way more than usual.

10 hours earlier I was on this very plane, commuting back into base to start sitting reserve the following morning. The plane and crew were scheduled to return to Charlotte and then head on to Huntsville, Alabama for the night but due to the First Officer being fatigued (he’d started at 6 in the morning) the flights were canceled and the crew sent to a hotel. At 5am, just before a ready reserve crew was about to take the plane to Huntsville to get it back on schedule a mechanic noticed fluid dripping from the right landing gear.

Another airplane was quickly brought out (something only possible on Saturdays due to a reduction in flying) and the crew eventually headed on their way to Huntsville. Meanwhile the original plane was brought back to the hangar and put up on jacks while mechanics worked to replace a leaky seal. By 8am it was back in service and my phone was ringing at home calling me in to ferry the plane down to Charlotte.

On the taxi out the FO and I scramble to get the checklists done and the plane prepped for departure. Normally this is a simple task but due to several reasons we just received an entirely new checklist and this is the first leg that either the FO or I have flown with the new procedures. They are similar enough to the old ones to confuse you as to what you are supposed to be doing, but similar enough that most of the phraseology is the same. This is leads to moments of hesitation and long pauses while one of us would try to figure out what we were supposed to be actually doing when a certain checklist item comes up. Fortunately the company provided us with cheat sheets showing pretty pictures of the instrumentation with arrows from point to point that we can follow to make sure we are getting everything.

The original plan was to give us a month or so to get familiar with the new procedures before actually implementing but an Airworthiness Directive from the manufacturer (basically a change in maintenance procedures or a modification to parts on the plane) pushed the implementation date up. With no passengers on board and nobody taxiing behind us, I eventually decide to just set the parking brake so I can concentrate on the new procedures. Everything gets done finally and we start taxiing again and are cleared for takeoff at the end of the runway.

Once in the air most of the procedures are the same as the old ones so things rapidly start to feel more comfortable. It’s a clear morning but there is a layer of haze covering parts of the ground. The sun is reflecting on the lakes and rivers and ponds across the area, turning the water a highly reflective silver color. The air is smooth and with nobody on board the plane wants to fly. I pitch the nose up to about 20 degrees above the horizon and watch the altitude tape rapidly slide downward. 350 miles downrange a whole new list of landing, after landing and shutdown procedures await us, but for now I’m just flying the plane and for that, I’m grateful.

Exanding the Day

It’s 6:15pm and the same piece of wind blasted North Carolina hillside is passing by my window for the 5th time today. Like the 4 previous times I watch as the snow capped peak slides by, disappearing behind the left wing. The only thing different this time is that instead of sitting in my normal seat up front I am crammed into row 22 in the back of a full Airbus 321, headed for points West, finally.

My day started with a 7:30am show time to deadhead back to Dayton. The night before I had run out of duty time and been unable to deadhead home. Today, my last day of reserve for the week, the only thing on my schedule was the deadhead and an optimistic hope of an early release to catch a flight out to San Francisco and three days off. By the time I got out of the hotel van and into the airport that hope was already fading as I was assigned a Mobile, Alabama turn before catching a later deadhead back to Dayton.

While throwing a small wrench in the works, this still wasn’t too bad as the Mobile turn would get me back to Charlotte just after noon and I’d still have time to deadhead back to Dayton and head out or even better, drop off the deadhead and just head west from Charlotte on a direct flight at 4:40 or 5:55. With that in mind I met up with the crew and after loading up 45 passengers, blasted off towards Mobile.

A strong winter storm had rolled through Charlotte the night before and I had watched from the comfort of my hotel room as a mix of ice and rain fell for most of the evening. By morning the weather was heading up the coast where it would eventually dump over two feet of snow and shut down Washington DC. Charlotte still had a low overcast but by the time we were climbing out over the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains we’d hit the back end of weather and the skies cleared giving us a view of the snow capped peaks below us.

We eventually leveled off at 30,000 feet and as the ride was smooth I was debating turning off the seatbelt sign when we got a single chime and a STALL FAIL caution message. The Stall Protection System predicts an impending stall due to slow airspeed and high angle of attack and will alert the pilot via a warbling tone and a stick shaker. If the pilot doesn’t correct the issue the stick shaker turns into a stick pusher which will literally attempt to lower the nose of the aircraft in an attempt to prevent the stall. The system uses, among other things, small vanes that “fly” on the outside of the airplane to sense the angle of the attack.

The procedure for this message involves disabling the system so it won’t inadvertently deploy the shaker or pusher and then add 10 knots to your approach speed as you have lost some slow speed protection. The proper checklist run, the FO and I talked it over and decided we could safely continue to Mobile. I typed up a message to Mother (the Company) informing them of the issue and our intended course of action and while waiting for a response we discussed potential causes. After some investigation into the problem in the onboard maintenance computer the problem was traced back to the right AOA Vane.

Between the two of us we were able to conjure up enough system knowledge to guess that the due to all the rain and ice the night before some moisture had gotten into the base of the AOA Vane and once up at altitude it froze the vane in place leading to abnormal readings. There is a heater on the vane, but it may not have been enough to keep the moisture from freezing inside the housing of the probe. Either way, the situation appeared under control and Mother had agreed with our decision to continue and said they would work on getting a mechanic in place for our arrival.

As promised the mechanic was at the plane before the last passenger was off and after 30 minutes of trouble shooting was able to reset and test the system. The problem apparently fixed, we boarded up while he finished up the required paperwork. For a while I’d been worried that I might be indefinitely delayed and not make the last flight west but now that things were moving along again I was feeling good about my chances. That lasted until my phone rang with another message from scheduling letting me know that once we got back to Charlotte we’d be doing a Huntsville turn and then deadheading back to Dayton.

The return from Huntsville would get us back into Charlotte at 5:15 so in theory, if they let me out of the deadhead and I was really quick about it and we were on time and the stars aligned and… and… I could still maybe catch the 5:55 flight. The one problem was that they had a zero minute turn scheduled between our return to Charlotte from Mobile and heading back out to Huntsville. The good news was we kept the airplane and crew for the turn so we could try to be quick. I put all that out of my mind and watched as the FO kept the airspeed just below redline the whole way back to Charlotte. We touched down and were at the gate 25 minutes early, turning our zero minute turn into a relatively easy 25 minute affair.

Loaded up once more the FO again kept the speed up as we raced across the Blueridge for the third time of the day and then descended over the flatlands of Alabama into Huntsville. 10 minutes out I radioed Huntsville operations and let them know we’d like to do as quick a turn as possible. They said they’d make it happen and sure enough as soon as our last passenger was of the plane, all 12 of our Charlotte bound passengers were boarding and 14 minutes after pulling into the gate we were pushing back out. ATC cooperated as well and after a 2 minute wait I was rotating the plane off the 2 mile long runway that serves as an alternate Shuttle landing strip and turning east to Charlotte and hopefully my trip home.

Our luck held and we arced back over the Mountains doing 320 knots and benefiting from 60 knots of tailwind. ATC never slowed us and I touched down just after the sun dropped below the horizon at 5:05pm. By the time we got to the gate it was 5:15pm and I was off the plane as soon as the last of our passengers left. A frenzied sprint through the airport while talking to Crew Scheduling (who released me from the deadhead) had me at the gate just as they announced pre boarding for San Francisco. The gate agent had a ticket waiting for me (a window seat no less) and 30 minutes later I was dozing in my seat as we pushed back.

The Blueridge have passed by for the last time today. Somewhere 2300 miles away the Bay Area waits. I close my eyes and have a vision of our plane completely motionless in the sky while the earth rotates underneath us. I smile slightly and drift off to sleep.

Unhinged

I cringed slightly as my FO made a call to Ground Control for a push back clearance. There is a brief moment at LaGuardia, just after you call ground control, where you get a sense of how the next little bit of your life is going to go. Either they are going to completely ignore you and keep spouting out a constant stream of instructions for the multiple of airplanes they are trying to move around too little real estate or they will immediately clear you to push back. It’s rare there is any in between. This evening we were in luck and after a little confusion about who was calling for push we were cleared for spot 23.

The clearance received, I released the parking brake and let our push tug driver that we were cleared to push. He said something back, but in typical fashion his headset didn’t seem to be working (or he didn’t know how to transmit on it) and I heard nothing. It was also possible they never actually plugged the headset cord into the access panel on the nose of the plane. This is a pretty common occurrence and I didn’t really worry about it which ended up being the right course of action as several seconds later we were rolling back off of the gate and towards Spot 23. Doubting the driver could hear me anyways I held up two fingers on my right hand and spun one finger on my left hand asking if we could start the right engine. The driver took minute to actually look over to the right side of the plane and then nodded his head. I nodded to the FO who proceeded to engage the starter.

Several seconds later the engine numbers started to come up and as the core speed passed 25% he introduced fuel flow. After a seconds hesitation the engine lit off and the fan speed and Internal Turbine Temperature both started to rise. On the 200 an engine will spin up in a matter of seconds, while the 700 and most other bigger planes can take a bit longer. With one engine spinning and the towbar disconnected I waved to the departing rampers and called for an after start checklist. With the potential for major sitting and waiting on the taxiway I was content just running one motor until we know how long we’d be sitting for.
Ground cleared us for taxi and told us to hold short of a crossing runway. By the time we got that runway there were only 4 airplanes on the other side waiting to go. Counting this as a pretty good New York experience, I gave my FO the ok to spin the other engine and within minutes we had both engines going, the flaps out and a clearance to cross the runway and monitor the Tower Controller. By the time we had finished running the taxi and before takeoff checklists Tower had cleared us into position on the runway and after a brief wait while traffic landed on the other runway we were blasting off into the darkening dusk.

It was the FO’s leg and he did a nice job of navigating the departure procedure (a turn to the right, at 3 miles a turn back to the left and then start accelerating). As we turned westward and towards home he lowered the nose to pick up airspeed. As the speed increased so did a steady whistling noise I’d started to hear just as we’d rotated but quickly blocked out of my mind due to both the level of attention a complex departure procedure requires and the fact that I really didn’t want to think about what it might mean. Now, as I finished running the after takeoff checklist and confirmed with New York Approach that we were cleared up to 10,000 feet, I took a moment to listen to the whistling which was now loud enough to make conversation difficult in the cockpit.

Prior experience told me that we had an access panel open on the nose somewhere. There are three up there, the oxygen service panel, the ground power panel and the communications panel which the ground crew plugs a headset into. This comm. door is the most commonly opened one and hence the one most often left open or improperly closed so it pops open in flight. All three doors are hinged at the bottom and have two latches on the top. The likelihood of damage to something inside the panel, even if it opens in flight is low. However it’s very possible that the door could be ripped off in the airstream and either do damage to the skin of the airframe or even worse get sucked into the engine.

Because of these potential issues it is company policy to return to the airport so they can close the door and a mechanic can make sure there is no skin damage. Even though I was pretty certain we were going to be landing somewhere shortly, that wasn’t a decision I wanted to make on my own and after briefing the FO on what was going on I asked him to work with New York ATC to keep us at a lower attitude and heading west to where I knew there were several good diversion airports. We could have gone back to LaGuardia, but after our painless escape the first time I didn’t want to temp the fates a second time.
With the FO talking to New York on COM 1 I flipped over to COM 2 where I attempting to get in touch with the company. Normally this would have involved a simple ACARS text message but our ACARS was broken so instead I had to rely on the somewhat archaic method of calling ARINC (basically a company that provides radio service coverage in order to establish phone patches as needed) and have them connect me to a dispatcher at my company. This took several attempts but eventually I had a very scratchy patch through to Dispatch and Maintenance. They both agreed with my assessment and endorsed the idea of heading west to land. By this point we were about 40 miles east of Harrisburg, PA and I told them I’d be heading there and I’d call them on the ground.

Before I could get any acknowledgment of my message the patch died and I lost them. Guessing they’d figure out what I was doing I switched back to COM 1 and let ATC know of our intent to land at Harrisburg and that while we did have a maintenance issue it was not going to facilitate us declaring an emergency. By this time my FO had gotten the weather (a nice evening thankfully) and I set us up for a visual approach to Runway 13. I then handed the radio back to the FO and let the Flight Attendant know what was going on. All he could do was laugh as the last time we’d flown together we’d had to divert because of weather and instead of getting home at 9pm (like we were scheduled this evening) we did’t get back until after midnight. I also made a quick PA to keep the passengers in the loop.

By the time I was done doing that we were descending through 8000 feet with the airport in sight. My FO briefed the approach and then after we flew through a small rain shower had me let ATC know we had the airport. An approach clearance in hand he dumped the autopilot and turned a tight final inside a military KC135 tanker who was also diverting to Harrisburg because of a medical issue. By 1000 feet the gear was out the final flaps were down. The approach comes low across the Susquehanna River. The gusty wind, although right down the runway was forming small whitecaps on the water. Despite that we made a nice landing and at 60 knots I took the plane back and taxied clear. As I turned back towards the ramp the lights of the KC135 were bumping towards the runway through the wind and dark.

Going Nowhere Fast

I’d been sitting at the airport for over 2 hours now and we were no closer to leaving then when I first arrived. Scheduling at called me at 10:04am, just 4 minutes after my reserve block started with an assignment for a 12:45pm show time. The trip was pretty simple with a flight over to Washington, DC and then a quick Albany turn before I deadheaded back to Dayton for the night. I was actually rather excited for the north east flying as we don’t do much of it any more.

Now, sitting in the third row of the plane eating my Subway turkey sandwich I watched as 4 mechanics clustered in the cockpit. The problem was related to the computer that controlled the heater attached to the First Officer’s side window. All four of our windshield panels up front are heated both as an anti ice measure (so we can see out of them) and to keep the glass somewhat soft so in the event of a bird strike the window doesn’t shatter into a million pieces. Now, the computer wouldn’t tell the heater to turn off, even if the switch was put into the off position. For the last two hours the mechanics has been replacing various control units in the hopes that one would be the faulty part.

Having no luck replacing parts they’d moved on to looking at wiring schematics and ohms resistant charts. Fortunately the gate agents had rebooked all 10 of our passengers on later flights so at least everybody who was traveling from Dayton would get where they were going. The same couldn’t be said for our DCA-Albany passengers and then people waiting for us once we got there after Dispatch called to inform me that they had canceled that turn.

At the three hour point I got off the plane which had turned into something of a popsicle I could have turned on the APU but with ground power plugged into the airplane and a sufficiently warm airport terminal just steps away it seemed sort of silly to do. Now, watching through the terminal windows, I saw all the mechanics (we were now up to 6 working on the plane) get in their two trucks and drive away. After 20 minutes of inactivity and the passage of 4 hours from our original departure time I called Dispatch again to see what was going on. I was informed that the plane was listed as out of service by the Maintenance Controller until 4:30pm, which I pointed out was 12 minutes ago. The Operations Coordinator said he’d call me back and sure enough, 15 minutes later, just as the mechanics showed up at the airplane again he called back and said we were canceled to DC as well.

This was day 1 of 4 for the rest of the crew so they would be deadheading out on a later flight. For me however, this was my last day and I was done and could head home. Some days you just seem to go nowhere fast.

Working Hard

Today was day one of three of a reserve block for me. I lucked out with a late reserve time (10am-midnight) and when I checked my schedule on line at about 1:20pm there was nothing there. 10 minutes later may phone was ringing and scheduling was telling me to be at the airport at 3:20 for an OCF. An Operational Check Flight is when something is broken on the airplane and Maintenance is either trying to get more information about the problem or they think they have fixed it but they can’t verify it on the ground and require the airplane to fly to see if they got it. Most OCFs are pretty mundane but sometimes an oddball once pops up that requires repetitive take offs and landings or repeatedly swinging the gear.

There are obvious safety concerns about some OCFs and it generally falls to the Captain’s judgment if it can be done safely. The only hard rule is that we can’t shut a required system down in flight (think, turning off a generator or hydraulic system or an engine). Those flights require a pilot (generally a training department guy) who is “specially” trained to do that stuff. But that’s a whole different story.

Today’s OCF was pretty boring. The aircraft has three separate altimeters that keep track of the aircraft’s altitude using ambient static pressure. The two main altimeters are built into the captain and FO’s primary flight display in the form of an altitude tape that scrolls up and down the right hand side. The third altimeter sits in the center of the panel between the two EICAS screens. It’s considered the standby instrument and gets data from an entirely separate static system. On this specific aircraft it had been written up for showing over 300 feet higher than the two main altimeters when in cruise flight. Because it showed the same on the ground but not in flight they needed us to take the plane up to 31,000 feet and see if they had fixed the problem. To monitor the system we took a mechanic with us in the jumpseat.

Because we weren’t actually going anywhere they filed us in a square route around the state of Ohio. No reason to go too far as we would just have to turn around and come right back as soon as we were done. After briefing what we needed to do with the mechanic and getting stuff loaded in to the computer I started up both engines and we taxied out to runway 6L in Dayton. Once at the end we waited for another departure and then blasted off. The plane weighed only 37,000 pounds (which is between 8000 and 15,000 pounds less then it normally weighs and it pretty much jumped off the ground when I started to rotate.

With the lack of weight we had climbed up to 23,000 feet by the time we were over Columbus. Indianapolis Center asked us if we had to stay on our route or could they just vector us around. We agreed to the vector as they could climb us up to our final altitude much quicker that way. As we passed through 27,000 feet the the standby altimeter started to show a 100 foot split which had widened to 200 feet by the time we leveled off at 31,000 feet. As I accelerated to 310 knots the split grew to almost 500 feet difference. All three of us (me, the FO and the mechanic) were satisfied that they hadn’t solved the problem and informed ATC we were ready to head back.

They gave us a turn back to the west and started descending us back down. 20 minutes later I was passing abeam the airport and cleared for the visual. The exceedingly light aircraft weight (we had burned off another 3000 pounds of gas) was allowing the plane to bounce around in the turbulence below the cloud layer but once i got the flaps out and the plane slowed down the bumps stopped. A 3 mile final put me on speed and glide path at 1000 feet above the ground and a minute later I was planting the mains on the runway. A short taxi and we were parked back in front of the hanger, in the same spot we’d been in 1 hour before.

After shutting down we headed inside where I tracked down the lead mechanic who was on the speaker phone with a very French sounding guy in Montreal on Bombardier’s headquarters. They were just as stumped as our guys were and as I walked out the door the French guy (much to the enjoyment of the mechanics in the room) was going on about how “weez don’t knowa whys use are having theeze problemes”.

15 minutes after that, with no clear solution in site scheduling released us for the day.

Duty time: 1 1/2 hours

Flight time: 1 hour

Driving time: 1 hour

My sort of day.

Here’s our rather phallic flight path

Early Mornings

Day 3 of my IOE trip dawned (actually, I was up before dawn so it didn’t) bright and early. As I was walking out of my hotel room I snapped this picture. Keep in mind, I had already been up for 30 min. getting ready to go.

So I go to fire up the airplane and find that it is the same aircraft that we had at one point yesterday. How do I know? One of the TRs was MEL’d inop. That’s not a huge problem in and of its self as the TRs on the CRJ200 are all but usless. So I do the rest of the walk around and get the
APU going. Well wouldn’t you know, the door gets stuck in the “mid” position which means it can’t close and we are speed restricted to less then 300 knots. Yeah, today was starting off just great. Then I go look in the can (MX log) and find we have an open write up for some switches on the captain’s side not working. Then the captian comes outside and tells me and the FA that we are canceled and we have to ferry the plane down to the Charlotte for MX.

The day got a little better from there. The flight down was bumpy as all hell. It’s just as well we didn’t have any PAX on board. We were planned to get into CLT and leave the plane at the hanger and then snag a ride over to the airport and catch a 9:30 flight Manchester to position for tomorrow. Well, we land at 9:15 and secure the plane. A nice MX guy gives us a ride right across the runways and drops us right at the jetway. We get on the plane at 9:30 and head up to Manchester. We got in around 1pm, about 2 hours after our scheduled arrival flight. Ah yes, 121 ops.

Another Slow Day

Yet another slow day at ATP PHX. I’m sort of starting to like this. My student did his recheck this morning. Actually it was a continuation of a discontinued checkride due to MX. He passed no problems which was good and I got to take a look at the a/c that had the MX problem. Wow. The exhaust stack of the number one cylinder of the right engine was broken in half. All that hot air was flooding into the cowling and doing god knows what.

Anyhow, after his checkride I did about three hours of ground and then had planned on putting them in the sim, but it was in use. Oh well, nothing to do but call it an early day.