It’s almost Spring on the eastern edge of the Empire. The grass surrounding the cracked pavement of the taxiway is greening and the tree line that runs along the airport access road is showing some signs of life as well. Despite the strong winds out of the west that whistled around the aircraft and jetway when we were parked at the gate 20 minutes ago, the air felt warm. I flip through to the Environmental Control System status page on the display in front of me and notice that we are actually blowing cold air into the cabin to cool it down instead of hot air to warm it up.
The airport has no control tower which means we need to coordinate our release for takeoff with an off field controller. Due to the geographic position of the airport, Washington Center, who controls the airspace here, doesn’t have radio coverage down to the ground. 30 minutes ago, on the way in to land, we actually lost radio contact with them just as we passed over the top of the airport at 2300 feet. Now, parked by the side of the runway waiting to go, we are working through a Flight Watch briefer sitting in a room somewhere in Raleigh, talking on the phone to Washington to get our release. Apparently there is a breakdown in communications somewhere and the Briefer calls us back to let us know he is working on it but Center can’t clear the airspace right now and that he’ll wait about 10 minutes and try again.
There’s not much we can do about the wait and as I go back to watching the trees bend in the wind I notice the western sky, obscured since our arrived by low laying scud being driven eastward, is rapidly darkening. The FO flips on his radar display and a line of weather materializes on the screen. We are parked facing north so we can only see the northwestern edge of it, but it appears as a very well defined red and yellow line running from the top of the display down and off the left hand side. I dig my phone out and power it back up. A moment later I have the Weather Channel app running and it is showing a very narrow band of yellow and red, matching the display on the aircraft radar, rapidly approaching.
Our routing lies initially to the south west and then due west towards Charlotte. If we launch now we will be forced to climb out, running parallel to this line of weather. Also, depending on when we actually get released by ATC we may be taking off right as it hits the field which, looking at the strength of the line on radar, is not something I want to do. I call the flight briefer back and let him know we are going to sit this one out until the weather passes over. Meanwhile the FO shuts down the engines. I make a PA to the cabin letting them know the situation and then call Dispatch who, somewhat surprisingly, agrees with my assessment. The busy work complete, I push my seat all the way back and wait for the show to begin.
We are flying the last flight of the night into Gainesville, Florida and on the other side of our Kevlar (or so they tell me) reinforced cockpit door, 34 passengers and our Flight Attendant are preparing the cabin for our upcoming arrival. My FO is at the controls and while I am busy entering in our current fuel number into the flight computer to generate our landing speeds I’m sure he’s busy mentally running over the approach. Today is his one year anniversary at the company which means he is no longer on starvation pay (although not by much) and he’s no longer on probation which means the company can’t fire him at will. However I guess (and correctly too) he’ll fly the plane the exact same way he did yesterday and all the 363 days that he’s flown before that. It’s what professionals do.
Through 18,000 feet we are handed off to Jacksonville Approach Control who is responsible for the airspace around Gainesville (and much of the north east corner of Florida) They give us a further descent and a heading to fly which will set us up nicely for the approach to Runway 29. After reading back the clearance for lower I confirm it with my FO and then momentarily hand radio duties off to him while I check in with the Flight Attendant to see if she needs anything (which she doesn’t). That accomplished I give the passengers a quick update as to the weather in Gainesville and turn back on the fasten seatbelt sign. I’m convinced nobody listens to these announcements anyways and have always been tempted to utter complete gibberish. The fact that I haven’t yet, and I still have my job has so far dissuaded me from trying.
After a quick call to Gainesville Operations to let them know we’re coming I take over the radio again and my FO briefs the approach. He doesn’t think he’s been here before, but a runway looks pretty much like any other runway, especially at night, and he moves right on through hitting the highlights of the required briefing. JAX hands us off to another approach controller who descends us to 6000 feet. Through 10,000 I turn on the no electronic device sign, signaling our Flight Attendant to start her final preparations on getting the cabin ready for landing. I also turn on our landing lights (2 on each wing and 2 in the nose) as well as our logo light which shines on the tail. Now they can see us coming.
Another frequency change and we are descending to 3000 feet with instructions to call the airport in sight. I’ve been here before so I have a sense where to look. My FO is slightly lost looking out at a sea of lights below us. Fortunately there is a bright line of lighting just north of the airport and with that in sight it’s pretty easy to find the field. Once we both agree we are looking at the same thing (and the right thing) I let approach know we have found the airport. He clears us for a visual approach behind a Citation Jet which is currently on a 3 mile final. We are still 8 miles away and quickly slowing so the other traffic isn’t an issue.
A minute later the auto pilot is off and the gear is coming down. Tower clears us to land as the kaleidoscope of lights out the window resolves it’s self into approach lighting with a runway behind. The FO calls for the final flaps and slows down to our approach speed. Through 1000 feet the aircraft is in a stable, 700 feet per minute descent which will put us on the ground just about 1000 feet down the runway. At 500 feet the airplane reminds were we are with a quick “500” aural alert. That’s repeated at 100 feet and then at 50 as the FO brings the thrust levers all the way back essentially making us a glider for the last 50 feet. The plane keeps counting down.
At 40 feet the nose starts to come up…
At 30 feet the nose stabilizes and the airspeed starts to roll back…
At 20 feet the FO makes a slight correction back to the left to keep the plane on centerline…
At 10 feet we seem to hover while the wheels stretch out below us looking for the runway.
The plane stops counting at that point but 0 feet is confirmed by the very light rattle and vibration of the main landing gear spinning up to almost 150 miles per hour in just a second as it settles to the runway about 40 feet behind where we are sitting. The airspeed continues to bleed off as the nose gear settles on to the runway as well.
We are done flying but still moving at almost 130 miles per hour. As the tires spin up the spoiler panels on the top of the wing pop up to kill any lift being generated as well as act as airbrakes. The aircraft senses the weight on the wheels and releases the lock on the thrust reversers allowing them to deploy and redirect most of the engine’s airflow forward to aid in slowing down.
Finally as the speed drops below 80 miles per hour the FO adds some wheel brakes. The plane quickly decelerates to a manageable 40 miles per hour at which point I let him know I’ve got the airplane and slide my feet (which have been hovering over the rudder pedals since about 400 feet above the ground) on to the pedals. A slight bit of pressure and we are slowed to our taxi speed and I can turn the tiller to the left and exit the runway.
As a man who writes much more eloquently than I do says… life on the line continues.
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!