I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
The bus’s headlights sweep across my face, briefly illuminating the interior of the cockpit in an orange glow. Behind me, on the other side of the open cockpit door, the flight attendant is busy in the galley putting together the last few things she’ll need to welcome aboard our 50 passengers to Akron, Ohio. Outside, the wind is gusting across the Washington DC ramp, driving raindrops through the darkness, splattering them against the glass of the cockpit windows. I glance up from the maintenance logbook that I am studying in time to see the first of our passengers make a dash from the shelter of the bus and splash across 20 feet of wet ramp, towards the welcoming warmth and light of our main cabin door. Seconds later I feel the plane shudder slightly as they start up the airstairs.
I go back to the logbook, trying to trace the history of a recurring left engine-driven air conditioner fault. According to the logbook, it first appeared just over a week ago when a crew had the unit fail just after takeoff. It failed several more times throughout the week, each time getting reset by maintenance after the plane arrived at its destination. Yesterday, apparently tired of doing resets, they swapped out the computer that controls the air conditioning. This seemed to solve the ongoing issue with the left side unit, but on the inbound flight today, the right side unit failed. This was reset by maintenance as well, but I’m slightly concerned that both the right and left side units have had issues in the past day.
My FO is relatively new to the airline but flew for a West Coast-based company doing something similar for several years. He’s familiar with the airplane and over the past two days I’ve discovered that as long as I get him pointed in the right direction, he very competent. Now, after doing a quick scan of the logbook and reading about the ongoing air conditioning problem, I ask him to get everything set for the flight while I sort out the maintenance issue. As I read through the Quick Reference Handbook about what must be done if we lose both air conditioning units in flight, I hear the FO sigh loudly and put down his hand mic in frustration. “Nobody is home,” he says. “I can’t get the clearance.”
At airports with Control Towers (most airports in the United States are so small that they are uncontrolled), there are controllers who work as “Tower Controllers,” clearing airplanes for takeoff and landing, and “Ground Controllers” who direct airplanes to and from the runway. There are also controllers who staff “Clearance Delivery” (although this function is sometimes handled at the Terminal level) and provide routing clearances to aircraft departing from the airport on Instrument Flight Plans. All of these control positions are often named after the airport’s geographical location (Honolulu Tower, Baltimore Ground) or the airport’s proper name (Lindbergh Ground, Logan Tower). The specific name to use is printed on the airport chart.
There are two commercial airports that serve Washington DC. The bigger of the two is Washington Dulles—named after John Foster Dulles, who served as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State—and it’s located in Dulles, Virginia. The smaller and arguably more convenient airport serving the District is in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the river from the National Mall, and was originally named Washington National Airport. In 1998, to honor former President Ronald Reagan, the airport was renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and is commonly referred to, including on the airport charts, as Reagan Airport.
I look up from the QRH I am reading and replay the last minute of sounds in my head to see what’s happening without having to ask. My replay get as far as the FO making his first call to clearance and I know what’s wrong. “What did you call Clearance?” I ask.
He thinks about it, and then checks the top of the airport chart where it shows the proper name to call the Clearance, Ground, and Tower controllers. “It says “Reagan Clearance. That’s what I said,” he says, sounding puzzled.
I nod and ask him if he knows what happened in 1981. A heavy gust of wind rocks the plane, splattering more raindrops across the windshield. He looks at me and pauses, then shakes his head, which is understandable. I wasn’t born until several months after the event, and he’s considerably younger than me.
“In August that year, the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, struck,” I begin. “Because they were government employees, the controllers weren’t allowed to strike, and Reagan, who was president at the time, ordered them back to work, and when over 11,000 of the 13,000 controllers refused, he fired them. Even 30 years later the controllers aren’t really big fans of his.”
I pick up my hand mic and adjust the volume on the overhead speaker. “Watch this,” I say and then press the transmit on the mic.
There’s a brief pause and then the voice of the clearance delivery controller fills the cockpit. “There you guys are. You looking for your clearance to Akron this evening?”