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.
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.