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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Where's the Captain?

A brand new First Officer generally has few things to worry about. Of course, in the beginning, there is always some stress involved in flying with an unknown captain, worries of being stuck with one that has little patience for the inevitable mistakes of the unseasoned and inexperienced FO. There is also the workload, which seems like a formidable mountain early on but soon erodes to a completely conquerable hill.
The junior FO, in his snug right seat, generally doesn't have to fret about maintenance issues, fuel, boarding and delays. While flying is a crew effort and decisions are discussed, the final call regarding those items is ultimately left to the captain. After all, he has to earn his pay.
When things don't go as planned, however, the lonely FO can be momentarily thrust from the comfortable position of number two man into a decision-making role, putting a whole new spin on the job.
I deadheaded to an outstation last night, where the flight attendant and I would meet up with our captain for a leg to JFK. For a silly reason better left untold, the captain informed me he would not be flying with us and promptly boarded a flight home.
Perplexed, I asked the gate agent what the plan was. A new captain was on his way, she said, but he'd be arriving after departure time. After further discussion, we decided to board the aircraft "on timish" so that we would be ready to go as soon as The Boss slid into the left seat.
Easy peasy, I thought. Setting the cockpit up for the now familiar flight would take only minutes and I looked forward to impressing the captain by having everything ready to go.
With my flows complete and the flight plan loaded into the FMS, I gave the flight attendant the green light to board our passengers. I rehearsed a reassuring PA and delivered the good news to our passengers, many with connections in New York, that the crew would soon be whole and we would be on our way shortly for a close to on-time arrival.
With time on my hands, I perused the release and noticed our fuel didn't match the numbers in the paperwork. While this can be acceptable under certain circumstances, our fuel load at the gate was awfully close to minimum takeoff fuel. Getting to the runway would take at most one or two minutes, but since we were going to New York on a less than perfect weather day an unexpected release time could mean more time on the ground at our departure station, hence more fuel being burned. Unwilling to run this by the captain and cause further delay, I called operations to request more fuel.
Minutes later, the gauges finally matched the numbers on our release and I breathed a sight of relief. I decided to double-check that everything was set up correctly since I had a few more minutes before the captain's arrival. And that is when I noticed a blue advisory message on our EICAS: AHRS 1 BASIC MODE.
What on earth did that mean?
Advisories are the lowest rung of the annunciation system in our airplane but I refused to shrug it off and pulled out my flight manual. "If on the ground, do NOT take off," the book said. Some of these problems can typically be solved by pulling a breaker. I struggled with the decision and opted not to attempt solving the problem myself. Again, unwilling to cause further delay I called maintenance.
When the mechanic told me we'd have to shut everything off, a glimpse of the disapproving captain berating me for not simply resetting a breaker passed through my mind. Sure enough, the fix caused us to be stuck at the gate for a few more minutes and as I powered everything down I could hear sighs throughout the cabin. My final PA explaining the problem to our now understandably impatient passengers did little to quiet their collective grunt of dissatisfaction.
When the captain finally arrived, I explained the situation and he seemed to approve of my decisions.
We made it to the gate in New York only 9 minutes behind schedule.
The following day brought snow and yet another crew problem. Our captain for the flight to Washington was on his way. Again, the decision was made to set everything up and board to get off the ground as close to on-time as possible. The hitch was that both of our de-icing trucks were out of commission and at 9 a.m., as I collected the release, the gate agent told me the 7 a.m. flight was still at the gate, waiting to be de-iced.
I joined other pilots in asking our operations to borrow a truck from our parent company and secured a place for us in a long line of planes to be sprayed.
Three hours later, with a boat full of angry passengers, we finally departed the ramp.
The decisions were very small in nature and would have been easier to make in conjunction with a captain. Being alone and sort of in charge suddenly made them appear much bigger in scope, especially when I could almost feel the unhappy breath of our passengers on my neck.
I guess captains don't have it quite so easy after all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post. sounds like you handled things very well. for the second incident, why didn't the company tell you about the de-icing problem before you boarded the passengers? then at least you could have left them waiting in the terminal rather than on the airplane for 3 hours.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Capt. Wilko said...

The company actually told us about the de-icing trucks when we arrived at the aircraft. We boarded the passengers only once we received word that another truck was on its way. While we, the crew, spent 3 hours on the aircraft, passengers spent a little less than that waiting. In order to de-ice we needed to be ready with the door shut, so sadly there was no other choice. JFK is a mess.

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please contact America's Flyways Magazine at

We are interested in reprinting some of your blog.
Jim Hartley

4:03 PM  
Blogger aa said...


9:48 PM  

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