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 sun is barely clear of the horizon, and the air is still cool, but I know it is going to be a hot one. I saw it on the TV in the hotel lobby—while waiting for the van to pick us up in the pre-dawn darkness of summer—where the anchor was gesturing at splashes of red and orange across a map. I also heard it on the AM talk radio station playing quietly in the hotel van as we drove through the still sleeping countryside towards the airport. Once there, the counter agent checked our IDs and then ushered us through the door into operations, where a ramper was busy filling up giant jugs with a mixture of water and ice. “It’s going to be a hot one,” he said by way of greeting.
Outside, the air has an expectant heaviness to it, although the ramp, which is empty save for our CRJ-200 and its twin sitting next to it—in Delta colors though—is still cool. Jacksonville, North Caroline is the commercial airport that serves Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, and although it sits in the middle of mostly empty rolling fields—and turkey farms—it sees a steady stream of flights in and out over the course of the day.
But not right now. The ramp is silent beyond the click of our FA’s heels on the concrete as we walk towards the plane. We are the only crew here at this hour since the Delta flight doesn’t leave for a while and there are no inbounds until much later in the morning. The General Aviation ramp, although home to about 15 aircraft, is empty of people. We reach the long shadow of the airplane. I pop the handle on the main cabin door, making sure to stand to the side—just in case the assist cable fails as the door opens downward. The cable hums loudly in the stillness and seconds later the door gently touches the concrete. The three of us clump up the stairs, and in the still air of the cabin start the process of stowing our bags and getting ready for the day.
I settle into the left seat and quickly check the logbook to make sure nothing important has broken. Seeing no entries, I take one last second to enjoy the silence, and then reach up to the overhead panel and move the battery master switch to “on.” There is a loud click followed by a slight delay and then as electrons start to move inside the wiring of the plane, things start happening. A series of chimes and bells sound through the overhead speakers as various systems wake up. Two display screens come alive, scrolling through a long list of systems that aren’t yet working. I press the button to test the fire detection system, which sets off another round of bells and flashing lights. With that completed, I press the on button for the Auxiliary Power Unit and then after a five second count, press the start button.
From the tail cone 80 feet away, I hear a whirring noise, followed by a steadily increasing whine. The pleasant silence of the ramp is shattered as the mini jet engine in the tail spins up and then stabilizes, the dull roar of the jet exhaust startling a nearby flock of birds into flight. The green light on the start button comes on signaling the APU is ready to go to work, so I flip the switch for the APU generator. Seconds later it, too, comes online and provides full power to the plane, instead of the limited power provided by the ship’s batteries. The remaining display screens flare to life, and many of the inoperative system messages disappear as the rest of the plane starts to report for duty.
Despite the sun shining brightly now through the glass of the cockpit windows, and the forecast for later today, it still feels cool, so I leave the APU bleed closed. When opened, this valve will pull hot, high pressure air from the APU turbine that can be used for cooling. Additionally, the air coming off the APU is used to start the engines by providing the initial spin via a turbine starter at the gate when we are ready to go and, if needed, also during flight if an engine is shut down.
The FO steps back into the cockpit after completing his walk around. He removes earplugs from his ears and places them in the breast pocket of his shirt. I realize I probably should have waited to start the APU for a few more minutes so he could do his walk around without being assaulted by the noise and hot air of the APU exhaust. In the cold of winter, we will often spend several long seconds contemplating the tail of the plane while standing in a cone of hot air blasting out of the APU exhaust port—but today, it would be rather uncomfortable to do so. The FO points towards the terminal, where the first of our passengers are emerging into the sunlight, getting their bearings, and shuffling towards the plane. I realize the cabin will start to warm up quickly with 50 bodies in close proximity, so I reach up and turn on the bleed switch. There is a slight delay while the valve opens and air starts to fill the manifold, but seconds later I am rewarded with a blast of cool air from the gasper vent above my left knee. I’m glad the air conditioning is working well, because apparently… it’s going to be a hot one.