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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Timed out

This is another one of those cascade of incidents story and I know there have been a few of those recently. So I'll preface this one with the fact that I love my job in spite of all that gets in the way of a smooth trip.
A few days ago, I signed-in for a two-day trip, excited to be gone for only a short while and to fly with a great captain. The trip was also very efficient, packing in just under 15 hours of flying in two days.
Our first leg that morning was to be a line check. My third so far this month but that's another story. I seem to be paired with every captain coming up on their annual check this year.
The flight is uneventful and we turn the airplane quickly back to Boston. The rest of the day goes just as smoothly and I even receive a few compliments from passengers on one of my landings. That always feels good.
At the overnight, I excitedly unpack my dinner. I'm starving and it's nice for once to enjoy the comfort of a home cooked meal.
The following morning we prepare for a very long day. We are planned for just under 14 hours on duty, at the conclusion of which we will be going home. Leg number one is long, but uneventful. The second flight of the day ends in my flying the VOR approach to 13L in JFK, one of my favorite approaches in our system. There's a little bit of a crosswind but my landing again lands me a compliment or two as passengers deplane. My captain, whose landings were consistently spotless, is dumbfounded as to why nobody will comment on his.
After sitting for a while in New York and later in Boston, we are readying for the last turn of the day, to Kennedy and back.
A lady who suffered a panic attack is boarded first and reassured by our staff. She seems very nervous.
It's getting late and we're both now feeling the effects of the long day.
I lift off of runway 22R and bank the airplane to the southeast, over the water. In a little over two hours we'll back over this water on our way home, I think.
Then, suddenly, at about 4,000 feet a bang tears us from the comfortable routine. The unnerving sound is followed by loud gushing coming from my side window. We look at each other and remember the write-up a previous crew had entered into the logbook regarding a loud pack, part of the air conditioning and pressurization system. The captain recycles it but the sound subsides. I continue to fly the airplane as air traffic controls vectors us away from Logan and as we gain altitude the gushing grows louder.
While still troubleshooting the problem, the captain advises the controller that we might have to return to Boston. In the meantime, off headset, I narrow the origin of the sound to the forward portion of my side window. We conclude the seal must have blown.
I think of the nervous passenger in the back.
Too heavy to land right away, we receive vectors around the Boston area for a while, in order to burn fuel. About 40 minutes later, safely below maximum landing weight, we are on final to runway 27, listening to the tower controller advising the emergency crews of our arrival.
I tried to squeak the landing but it wasn't as smooth as I would have liked. A little dejected, we return to gate to find out that we've been swapped to a different aircraft.
The passengers on the jet bridge aren't happy. One of them accosts us and asks why we didn't just fly to New York since we were out there burning fuel for so long. We explain that at our low altitude we wouldn't have had enough fuel to make it into Kennedy. He seemed unimpressed by our explanation. Maybe I should visit him at his workplace and question his performance. And I wonder how he would have felt if the seal in his window had blown up. Would he have felt so comfortable making the trip down at 22,000 feet?
As we prepare the spare aircraft for the flight, it dawns on us that we are pushing the FAA's 16-hour duty day limit. We're definitely legal to go but it seems like it'll be tight coming back home tonight. Our dispatcher sends us an MOT time, the time by which we have to be airborne from JFK to be legal. If there are no hold-ups, we argue, we might just be able to make it. But at that time of the day holding in New York is almost guaranteed and any delay would throw our plans off.
Before we go, a mechanic stops by to tell us that we were right. The seal in my side window was shredded to bits. Good thing we didn't go.
Again, I fly the airplane down and fly it as fast as I can. It's busy in New York tonight. I set up for the VOR-DME 22L but ATC switches us to the VOR13L. Minutes later, they once again change it to 22L.
"All aircraft on frequency, there has been an accident on the runway at Kennedy," declares the approach controller. "The airport is closed and will remain so for a while so I suggest you advise me of your alternate."
It appears a private jet went off the runway. Details are scarce, however.
Again, I think of the nervous lady in the cabin. She picked the wrong day to fly.
A quick exchange with our dispatcher has us diverting to Newark and within minutes, we have reprogrammed the FMS and are on our way there. Then ATC calls again.
"Kennedy is re-opened, expect the VOR approach to 13R."
More shuffling inside the cockpit and speculating about our fate tonight.
"You know we're f*cked," my captain says, as I turn base to final.
In denial, I choose to ignore the comment and focus on getting us on the ground.
Minutes later, at our gate, quick math shows me the grim reality. We have only one hour to get off the ground. If we don't, then I won't be sleeping in my own bed tonight.
Already the line of airplanes is growing. Aircraft are lined up on every portion of real estate the humongous airport has to offer. On our taxi out, we see the private jet is still on the side of 13L near the intersection with 22R, perpendicular to the runway it landed on. But it's too far for us to see if it sustained any damage. Pilots on ground and tower frequencies ask for details but irritated and overworked controllers have only few to relay.
We join the snaking line about a mile from the only active runway tonight. We dare not ask for a sequence, but there are easily 60 or 70 aircraft ahead of us and the clock is ticking.
Reality finally sinks. We are not making it out tonight. My captain had tried to tell the dispatcher, who refused to listen to him. Board them up, he said. For what? Nothing at all. To sit in line for an hour, then return to the gate. Absolutely ridiculous. Why waste their time with a crew that is about to time out when they could have rebooked them?
Our MOT is up. We advise ground and start our taxi of shame back to the gate.
"You give them the bad news," the captain says, referring to the passengers.
More than 15 hours after starting my day, I stumble into my hotel room. Exhausted. In just a few hours, we'll reposition the aircraft to Boston. I'll be home in the morning.


Blogger Brian said...

I love love love people who know your job better than you.

I work as a sportswriter, so you can imagine what we put up with: "You must have graduated from School X because you never cover our school." "It must be easy to just slap a wire story on every page." And a particular favorite: "Little Johnny worked just as hard as everyone else, why doesn't he ever get his name in the paper?" (As if coverage was a right, not a privilege.)

I feel your pain, Captain. I'll trust you to do your job - I've been on the other side.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Capt. Wilko said...

I know exactly what you're talking about... got a lot of that too when I was a reporter. Especially from flaks. They always know how the story should have been written!

11:59 AM  

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