It’s still early but the radio frequency is starting to get busy. Approach is vectoring around about 10 inbounds plus at least 5 general aviation aircraft out enjoying a nice Sunday morning. Despite the clutter on the TCAS display and constant talking on the radio I’m actually pretty happy about the situation. The last few years have been rough on GA due to high fuel prices, a weak economy, and an uncertain regulatory future and many of the airports we fly into that once were busy hubs of GA activity have become ghost towns in the last few years.
Approach turns us 20 degrees to the left so that we pass behind a Piper Aztec maneuvering at 5500 feet over the Schuylkill River. As the light twin passes by 500 feet below the FO’s window, a Mainline Airbus crosses 1000 feet above us on its way to Runway 27R. Today, we’re set up for the “short” (5000 feet long) Runway 26, another sign of busier airspace. Generally Philly only puts the Regional Jets on 26 when things back up for the other two landing runways.
Clear of the Aztec we get a turn back to the east on to the downwind. Despite the morning haze, visibility is good and in the distance the low hanging sun can be seen reflecting on the Atlantic Ocean, silhouetting the high rises of Atlantic City, some 60 miles away. Farther to the north, the solid skyline of New York City looks like a stand of trees rearing up in the distance from the deceptively flat looking landscape. As we drop through 4000 feet over the Delaware River the City drops over the horizon and disappears.
Approach asks if we have the airport, which we do and clears us for the approach, advising us of traffic on the nearby parallel runway. The other plane is about a mile in front of us and the FO tucks in off their right wing following them towards the airport, crossing over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the old Navy Yard. The winds are out of the North so despite the plane now sitting a half mile in front of us, wake turbulence isn’t going to be a factor today.
The empty stadiums of the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers pass by the right wing, all empty. I follow football just enough to sound informed in crew room sports conversations and with the potential for a lost season due to the lock out in place I realize that the big stadium may stay empty for longer than normal. The sports complex fades behind the wing as the FO turns to align with the runway and pass around the giant shipyard crane that reaches up towards us. Clear of that obstacle it is a straight shot to the runway.
Despite the tricky approach and the relative short amount of pavement, the FO sets it down gently and applies the brakes smoothly. Too many guys get intimidated by the short runway and tend to slam the plane down and get on the brakes right away. There are certainly times that you have to do that, but this generally isn’t one of them. The plane slows and at 60 knots I take over driving duties and exit the runway. One leg down, five to go.
The Philidelphia Tower controller is starting to get frustrated. You can hear it in his voice when he tells the 5th plane that asks for their sequence that he just doesn’t know. When a 6th request for sequence comes in he obviously has had enough and responds, “gentlemen… I don’t know. So just stop asking, I’ll tell you when I do know.” When a controller uses the term “gentlemen” you know it’s going to be a long night.
He has good reason to be frustrated. It’s the International departure push and a lot of widebody aircraft are mixed in with the normal procession of Regional Jets and narrow body Boeing and Airbuses, all trying to blast off of the same piece of pavement at roughly the same time. To add to the mess there is a large line of weather moving towards the airport. I know I’m not the only one glancing off into the darkness to the west every time there is a huge flash of lightening amongst the clouds. We are all on borrowed time before the weather hits and the airport gets shut down. Due to weather related traffic jams up the road we are all sitting and waiting for our routings and sequences to be worked out by whoever does that sort of thing. In the meantime the weather inches closer.
Finally a heavy Airbus is given the green light to go. They pull out on the runway and power up and moments later they are just a pair of blinking strobe lights against the night sky on their way to Europe. Two more RJs are cleared in quick succession and then we are next. Once on the runway and cleared to go I let the radar take a quick sweep 40 miles down range. The right hand side of the screen is filled with a solid wall of red and yellow running from somewhere off to our right to the outer limits of the display. This is expected as I’ve been watching this storm on the radar loop on my phone. My plan is to head southwest for 40 miles or so and then turn to the west around the southern edge of the line of weather. My FO agrees that that’s our best bet and we roar off into the night.
Once air born and climbing I expand the radar range to 80 miles and start getting a little bit worried. The line of red still extends to the top of my display meaning that since I last looked at the radar on my phone the weather has slid farther south. This means we will have to go at least 100 miles out of our way and then 100 miles back to get around the line. In theory this is fine but we don’t really have the fuel on board for that sort of maneuver. Before we even have a chance to discuss options, the departure controller turns us northwest, directly into the weather and tells us that he has a small hole he has been able to slip two airplanes through and he’s vectoring us for the same spot.
The weather is 10 miles away and we have about 1 minute to decide if this is a good idea or not. As I roll the plane level the radar takes a sweep and shows what we are facing. The line is narrow, maybe 3 miles deep but stretches from one side of the display to the other. It is a mixture of reds and yellows with some stronger magenta returns scattered throughout. The hole ATC is pointing us towards is no more than a mile wide and is still showing bright yellow returns on the screen. Midway through the line the hole takes a sharp jog to the right and then back to the left before exiting out the back side of the weather. I take a deep breath and glance over at my FO. His face is illuminated by the almost continuous flashes of blue light in front of us. I don’t really like the idea, but it’s the best option we have for now and I decide to commit to punching through.
Philly Departure clears us to deviate left and right as needed and then hands us off to New York Center. They give us a clearance up to 23,000 feet and as the FO spins in the new number into the altitude alerter I glance up from the instruments and look out the front window. It looks like the entire world is filled with flashing blue and yellow flashes of lightning streamers dancing amongst the clouds in front of us. I request the continuous ignition on, quickly wipe my hand on my pants and take a tighter grip on the yoke. There is no way I trust the autopilot to fly through this. Passing through 9000 feet we hit the outer edge of the line and are committed.
I ask the FO to shut off his radar so mine has a faster update and then switch from normal scan down to sector mode, limiting the sweep to 45 degrees each side of the nose. At this point I am willing to trade the big picture view for a faster update of what’s right in front of us. As the plane starts to buffet and shake the hole defines itself on the display in front of me. I turn 5 degrees to the right, pointing the nose at the lightest colors I can see on the radar return. A huge flash of lightning off to the left makes me blink and I reach up and turn on the overhead dome light in an attempt to even the level of brightness out and protect my eyesight. I also have the FO turn off the landing lights as we pass through 10,000 but leave the electronic device sign on. There is no way the Flight Attendant should be standing up now.
The ride has now deteriorated to the point where I’m having second thoughts about punching through this hole. I realize, somewhat belatedly, that even if we clear the line without actually running into anything of substance (which the radar is saying we should be able to do) we are still flying through a sky filled with several million volts of electricity and it’s entirely possible that one of those streamers of light I’m seeing dancing out my window will reach out and touch us. As the radios start to get fuzzy from all the energy in the air I realize it’s too late to worry about that now. A particularly bright flash of lightning reveals a large buildup right in front of us but before I can even say anything we plunge into it and the plane lurches to the left and then drops to the right. I focus on keeping the wings level and count the seconds until we are through it.
The ride suddenly smoothes and the constant blue strobing diminishes. I glance over from my primary flight display to look at the radar returns. The scope is showing nothing but blackness ahead. We are clear of the weather. As if on cue New York Center clears us direct to the Appleton VOR, located just to the south of Pittsburg. I reach up and engage the autopilot while the FO enters the routing data into the flight computer. As the plane banks to the left and turns west I hold up my hand and look at it. Despite the back lighting of a million flashes of light in the clouds out the side window, I can’t tell if it’s shaking or not.
The cockpit darkened very quickly as we descended into the clouds. What light was left from the setting sun behind our wings quickly faded as the first wisps of gray started flying by the windows, gently buffeting the wings and tail. The radar wasn’t showing anything interesting in front of us, but as the bumps continued to increase in intensity I reached up to turn on the continuous ignition and then pulled the power back slightly to slow to 280 knots, our best speed for turbulence. Ahead to the north were the runways at Philadelphia, but between us and them were 80 miles of swirling, wet and bumpy darkness.
We’d launched out of Nashville an hour ago, 2 hours later than planned; typical of bad weather days in the Northeast. After blasting off a wet runway we’d navigated around (and through) a small line of weather near the airport before turning east towards Philly, some 650 miles away. After 20 minutes of bouncing through the leading edges of the weather we’d finally climbed into clear air and for the first time that day I enjoyed a bit of sunlight. Our stay at altitude was brief and only 15 minutes after getting there ATC had us heading back down and eventually back into the clouds.
With the weather radar sending a constant stream of energy out the front of the airplane we kept descending through 18,000. Most of the radio waves continued on into infinity but a fair number found enough moisture in their path to bounce back and show up as green and yellow splotches on the display screen in front of me. With the First Officer using the second radio to call in range to Philly, I put a quick request in with ATC for a turn to the right to avoid a small cell. They gave me the turn and told me to report when we were back on track. By the time the FO was back working the main radio we were heading in the right direction again and were handed off to Philly Approach Control.
With the weather as bad as it was (low ceilings, rain and mist), Philly was landing on only one runway, which was part of the reason we’d sat on the ground in Nashville so long. Now ATC was vectoring us through the weather towards a radio beam 25 miles away which would eventually guide down to the ground. Passing through 10,000 feet I flipped on the landing lights and turned the No Electronic Device sign back on. As the green PA in use light came on I could hear our Flight Attendant running though her before landing announcement which involves the standard seatback and tray tables up and locked spiel. I’ve heard it a thousand times before and I’ll hear it a several thousand times more before I’m done. Out in front of the plane the landing lights were illuminating a swirling mass of clouds while thousands of drops of water appeared frozen in the air every time the wingtip strobe flashed.
One more turn and we were now heading towards the runway, unseen through the clouds and dark, 12 miles away. The navigation instrumentation came alive and the autopilot locked on the Instrument Landing System’s radio beam which began at the end of runway and ended some miles behind us in the gray, churning sky. 8 miles from the airport and descending at 1000 feet a minute I called for the first of the flaps. They were closely followed by more flaps and as our airspeed bled off, the landing gear. The FO ran the before landing checklist and as we passed through 2000 feet he put out the last of the flaps. As the flaps locked into place, trailing in the clouds and rain 45 degrees below the wing, the Tower controller cleared us to land.
As the plane called off 1000 feet above the ground we dropped out of the clouds and the dark waters of the Delaware River came into sight below us. 3 miles away, out of the murk, the approach lights for Runway 9R came into view.
I made a quick visual check to ensure everything was as it should be. The gear was down. The flaps were full. The “cleared to land light” (the taxi light switch) was on. We were on speed and we were descending at 700 feet per minute. Everything checked. By then the computer was calling off 500 feet. By 100 feet I could make out the damp concrete rapidly passing below me and quickly rehashed a wet runway landing. The power came out at 50 feet and as the aircraft called out “Ten” I gave a slight pull on the yoke and we settled to the ground. In the space of a second my mind switched from “flying mode” to “driving mode” and we started decelerating on the wet pavement.
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.
Sitting reserve is sort of like playing Russian Roulette with a 3 chambered BB gun; you mostly aren’t going to die, but there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to hurt. How much it hurts depends on how the specific contract you are working under is worded, and how well staffed the airline is. There are places where senior guys purposely bid reserve because they get paid to sit around and do nothing.
Regrettably, here, our reserve work rules are terrible, and we are more often then not short staffed, which leads to reserve being a not very desirable thing. Here, reserve comes in one of two forms. Either “regular reserve” or “hot reserve”.
Regular reservists are assigned (the night before) a 14 hour block of time the following day (starting at 5am, 8am, 10am or 12pm) in which time they have to be able to return a phone call from crew scheduling within 15 and have to be at the airport ready to fly within 1 hour and 30 minutes of that phone call. If you live near the airport it’s not so bad, as you are just kept on a relatively short leash to your house so you can make it on time. For me it means I that when I am on reserve I have to stay about 30 minutes from home and have a bag packed. That gives me 30 minutes to get home, 20 minutes to get my uniform on and 40 minutes to get to the airport.
Reserve assignments don’t always come with a minimum time call out (1:30). In fact, the company often times gives about 2 hours notice. The annoying thing is they could give a whole lot more as sometimes they know about the assignment 12 to 24 hours in advance, but one of the few good reserve rules we have is that as a reserve, once you are assigned a show time for work you are no longer on reserve and don’t have to answer your phone any more until you get to work. So, in the event that something else comes up and they need to reassign you before you actual trip, scheduling tends to wait until the last minute to assign it so they don’t lose your services as a reserve in the mean time. Sucky? You betcha.
The second type or reserve is hot reserve. This involves sitting at the airport a 10 hour block (5am – 3pm normally) and being no farther then 15 minutes from the gate. It’s boring, you often times don’t get used and did I mention it’s boring? The only thing “good” about hot reserve (and this is really stretching it) is that if they DON’T use you, you are done at 3pm so some people request it on their last day if they are commuters so they can head for home earlier.
Line holders (those that have a set schedule of trips for the month) are guaranteed 75 hours of pay a month. Often times they will credit more then that. Many lines are built to 85 to 90 hours plus we get “block or better” of flight pay meaning if the leg is scheduled for 1 hour we are payed 1 hour if it is less then that in actuality or the actual amount if it takes longer then 1 hour. Reserves are only guaranteed 72 hours, and don’t get block or better unless the company flies you more then 72 hours (which they almost never do). So, as I said before, if the company is properly staffed, reserve can be pretty good. You sit at home, don’t fly and get paid for 72 hours of work. Or, if they are short, you work almost every day you are scheduled and only get paid for 72 hours.
This is day three (and my last) day of reserve in this block. I am currently holding what is called a build up line which has a mix of reserve days and scheduled trips. Tomorrow starts a 2 day trip. My first day of reserve (three days ago) started with me calling in to scheduling the night before (between 7pm and 9pm) and being assigned a 10am to Midnight reserve block for the next day. I looked on my web schedule and saw that they already had a trip (fly to Philly and deadhead home) on me for the next day, but of course they wouldn’t tell me about it the night before because if they had and then needed me for something earlier (the trip didn’t show until 12:55pm) they wouldn’t have been able to use me.
So, very predictably my phone rang at 11am with a notification of my trip, giving me 1 hour and 55 minutes to get to the airport. As I’d seen this coming I was already packed and ready to go. The trip was uneventful with the exception of a rather firm landing on runway 35. I’d been in the 700 for the past few trips and it normally takes a few landings in the 200 to get the feel of it again. Regrettably that was the only landing I was getting that day. After parking the plane I handed over my seat seat to Charlotte based captain who had deadhead up to take the trip (probably because I have a build up line and they are trying to keep me below 72 hour of pay for the month) and stashed my bag in the crew room and grabbed some food. An hour later I was getting on an Air Wisconsin flight to deadhead back to Dayton. Reserves (especially ones in smaller bases like Dayton) tend to do a lot of deadheading, but that’s a topic for another day.
I was home by 7pm and happily eating dinner at 8:45 when my phone rang. I figured it was just my assignment time for the next day as it was getting close to the 9pm cut off for calling (I normally wait until the end to call) and they were getting antsy. I was half right. It was my assignment for the next day, but they told me that they were taking me off reserve right then (I still had another 4 hours until midnight when I was technically done) and giving me a 6:05am show the next morning. That’s typical for reserve too. For what ever reasons, crew scheduling doesn’t care about circadian rhythms. So despite the fact that I didn’t wake up until 9am that morning (and hadn’t gone to bed until midnight the night before) I had to hurry up and repack and force my self to go to sleep as soon as I could with my alarm set for 4:30am. Yippie.
Somehow I managed and got to the airport around 6. The plane was at the gate and after a delay due to a maintenance problem (one of our fire test lights wasn’t working and changing the bulb didn’t fix it) we loaded up 50 people and headed to Philly. I managed a much nicer landing on 35 (with video tape to prove it) then the morning before and 20 minutes later I was eating a nice breakfast of a greasy omelet and home fries. Mmmm Mmmm Jet Rock!
After breakfast we took a massive 12 passengers from Philly down to Richmond, VA. For what ever reason they filed us for 16,000 feet, which was fine with me as that route of flight heads south out of Philly, over the Delaware bay, down the cost of Maryland and then across the Chesapeake bay just north of Norfolk and into Richmond. I really miss the coastal flying we used to do before shifting the majority of our operations to the south east out of Charlotte.
Another quick turn in Richmond gave us 50 more passengers for the hop over to Charlotte where, a slightly goofy crosswind I managed an ok landing. After that I handed off the plane to another crew taking it out to Gulfport (what did I say about south east flying) while my crew left me to head up to Akron. I walked down one gate to catch a deadhead (yep, another one) on the flight up to Dayton. two hours later I was walking out to my car and 45 minutes after that I was home and eating an early dinner/late lunch.
Because they shifted my schedule to mornings I was given a 5am to 7pm regular reserve block today. However, because it is the last day, if they haven’t used me by 5pm I can request a release then, which will work well so I can go play ultimate frisbee tonight.
Ah the reserve life. Got to (adjective goes here) it!