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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Meeting the airplane

"No one should be sweating at 5 in the morning," I thought, waiting for the shuttle outside the hotel.
It might have been the incredibly muggy Dallas morning, or probably just the nerves. Perhaps both.
On this memorable morning in May, for the first time and after six weeks trying to learn all about it, I'd meet the Embraer 145 I'd fly for the next few years.
The uniform blazer felt too heavy for this weather and my hat was bothering me as beads of sweat collected underneath it. Plus it made my already oversized head look far too big. The luggage and heavy flight kit I had to drag along with me were also growing increasingly bothersome.
Damn Texas weather, I cursed.
To my utter dismay, it was just as muggy and oppressive inside the terminal and while I desperately needed the caffeine I had no choice but to jettison my barely touched cup of steaming coffee.
A half an hour before the flight, the Captain finally showed up and unceremoniously introduced himself. Minutes later, I performed the walkaround. It felt strange. I'd never flown on an Embraer before, not even seen one up close, and while I had dissected the aircraft's innards in great detail during my oral just a few days ago, the beast seemed like a complete stranger to me.
While excited to fly it, I felt no connection whatsoever with the airplane.
Checklists were run, paperwork completed and we were soon under way, finding our way through the maze that is DFW. I fell behind from the get-go.
They teach you a lot of useful things in training: how to fly single engine, what to do if you encounter a microburst or severe windshear, how to diagnose and deal with all those unnerving chimes and flashing red and orange lights when events just conspire to make your day a headache.
What they don't teach you though, is how to handle the extremely busy ground portion of a flight.
Of course, the Captain was just one piece of a well-orchestrated ballet of gate agents, flight attendants and rampers. I, on the other hand, felt no wiser than anyone sitting in the back.
My PAs were horrible and, most likely, left the passengers wondering why on earth the pilot sounded so nervous.
I snapped out of it, however, as we lined up with the runway.
"Your aircraft," the Captain called out.
Back in familiar territory, I squeezed the brakes with my toes, grabbed the yoke and positioned my slightly sweaty left palm on the throttles.
"Cleared for take-off, lights are on, before take-off checklist is complete," said the Captain.
For the first time that day, I smiled.
And the smile grew bigger as the N1 increased and the engine slowly spooled up to produce their 7,000lbs of thrust with that incredible sound that only a jet could produce.
"Set thrust," I called out, prompting the Captain to check that all engine parameters were in the green.
"Thrust set... 80 knots... V1... rotate," he called out.
In spite of the sticky heat, the aircraft lifted off with graceful ease. In awe, I might have forgotten a call-out or two. But the Captain patiently went about his non-flying pilot duties, letting me enjoy a feeling that will forever live up there with that of my first solo.
The first leg was short and jet speed made it all a blur.
My descent planning was far from stellar and the Captain gave me room to mess it up. Even the controller seemed in on it as she gave us a series of vectors to widen my pattern and allow for more room to descend.
With guidance from the left seat, I touched down in Shreveport and was completely elated.
Later that day, our itinerary took us to Mexico on a long almost three-hour leg, which the Captain flew. The last flight of the day, back to DFW would be mine.
Minutes after take-off a triple chime and the red Master Warning snapped me from my reverie. I called for the emergency procedures checklist, which the Captain promptly ran through. We agreed that the warning was most likely due to a sensor problem and elected to push on back to Dallas. I was impressed that the Captain would seek my opinion on the matter since I had only a handful of hours in the aircraft, but I now realize that being fresh out of the schoolhouse makes you valuable to another pilot who has been out of training for a while.
On the way back to Dallas, the Captain left the cockpit a few times. Flying the jet alone was absolutely exhilarating. Until Center called to ask that I cross a fix at a certain altitude and airspeed. After punching in the parameters into the Flight Management System, I chopped the throttles and started down, monitoring the vertical speed required to meet the crossing restriction.
As we flew closer, however, that vertical speed required began to increase. With nobody to confer with, I stared blankly at the arrival plate, trying to crunch numbers in my head the old-fashioned way. It became obvious that 2,500 feet per minute down at this point would not work. I deployed the speed brakes and threw down 9 degrees of flaps to keep the speed in check as I increased our descent rate to almost 4,000 feet per minute, feeling horrible for the poor passengers in the back who had no idea they were mere guinea pigs.
I crossed the fix at the assigned altitude and speed in just the nick of time.
When the Captain re-entered the cockpit, I was short of breath and a little frazzled. He just smiled.
"I wondered when you'd put out the boards," he laughed, referring to the speedbrakes. "They always descend us late on this arrival."
A horribly botched landing later, we were back at the gate and done for the day.
My first day at an airline had been everything I'd imagined and more: humbling, stressful, intimidating and most of all a whole lot of fun.


Blogger SloppyPilot said...


I look forward to more of your stories from the line.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

very interesting. yeah more stories.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Sastre Air said...

Did the captain leave to go to the restroom? To my understanding the lavatory is in the back of the erj-145, that must be an interesting walk with all the pax staring you down. Do you guys try to avoid having to use the lav since it involves walking to the back of the plane, or is this pretty common? Oh, and great blog! I've been reading it for quite some time. I'm also an ATP graduate currently flight instructing.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Capt. Wilko said...

Thanks for the kind words guys. Glad to see someone reads this!:)
Sastre -- you are correct, the lav is in the back and that is where the Capt. was indeed headed for. I've never used it in flight because I hate that lav, but yeah, it would be an interesting walk to the back.
Buddy of mine played a funny joke on passengers once while deadheading in the front. The Capt. walked to the back to use the bathroom. My friend waited a second, then walked to the back too, giving the passengers the impression that both pilots were in the bathroom. Pretty funny...

6:04 PM  
Blogger Sastre Air said...

Classic! Thanks again for the stories.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Great story! I posted it to a new aviation news site, Cleared for News

10:52 AM  

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