Monday, 20 February 2012


The mixed orange and blue sky is slowly being replaced by darkness as night sets in.
Straight ahead, the lights of Manchester illuminate the surrounding CBs (Cumulo-nimbus, typical thunderstorm clouds).

We temporarily level off at 16000 feet, just above the clouds tops. This evening view is amazing. The shape of the clouds contrasts with the redness of the dusk sky.

Quick fuel check, we will have over 3 tonnes of fuel upon landing, an extra 800 kg on top of the reserves, enough to hold 20 minutes if we need before we have to divert to Liverpool.

Descending into the tops of the frosty clouds, engine anti-ice ON, we enter the turbulent air of the upper layers.
Both the windshield and wipers are already showing signs of severe icing.
I ask the Captain to turn the wings anti-ice ON.
I get a hit of adrenaline from the speed feeling as we punch through the clouds, brightened by our landing lights. We’re doing 280 knots indicated, 350 knots true airspeed.
The whole airframe is shaking under the pressure of the storm.
We constantly request new headings to avoid the worst of the weather, depicted as red on the weather radar.

I notice that the winds are increasing as we descent, this is quite unusual. Add to that the sound of the hail which resonates through the length of the plane, this is really getting exciting!
I ask the Captain to update the FMC by re-entering the next waypoint and putting it on top again. It refreshes the vertical profile with the current wind.
The new VNAV (Vertical Navigation, calculating an ideal descent profile) deviation pointer shows a fly-down indication, direct consequence from stronger tailwinds.
We’re going to get high and fast. My left hand reaches the MCP and engages LVL CHG (Level Change), bring back the thrust levers to idle and pull out the spoilers to the flight detent position. They disrupt the airflow around the wings and help increase the rate of descent.
In a jet, it is very hard to loose altitude and decelerate at the same time. A tailwind makes it worse and the last thing we want is to be too high or too fast on the approach.

ATC asks if we can accept a left turn to establish onto the localizer, I shake my head and the Captain informs them we would like radar vectors for a 10 miles final instead.
We’re still high and fast, I bring back the speed to flaps-up speed and ask for flaps 1. Seconds later, flaps 5 and 190 knots in the speed window with spoilers extended, the aircraft dive to catch up with the descent profile. 

A flashing glow attracts my attention and for the first time, I get to witness St Elmo's Fires. Those are in fact electric arcs across the windshield caused by charged air around the airframe, creating an electric field. I am too busy to grab my camera but this is quite fascinating!

Out of the clouds, we can barely see the airport in our 9 o’clock.
We are all over the place and the turbulences don’t stop whatsoever.

Quick distance versus altitude check, we have 12 track miles to run and 4000ft to loose. It is coming together nicely. I stow the speedbrakes as ATC clears us to establish on the ILS for runway 23R. I arm the approach mode as the Captain tells me to give it a go and fly manually.
Quick check at the instant wind, the MFD is showing 160 at 52 knots. He certainly can see my hesitation here but after all, this is what flying is all about. “Go for it” are the calm words he addresses me once again.
Double-click on the auto-throttle disconnect button, and seconds later I disengage the autopilot, ready to fight against the wind.
The speed trend arrow is varying so quickly that it is pointless to chase it. I try to keep the average around my speed bug and it works out nicely.
I further slow down as the tailwind is going to push us through the centreline.
Localizer capture” and left turn to establish onto final.

The Captain announces “runway in sight”. I look straight ahead, common mistake for new copilots I guess, the runway is in our one O’clock due to the strong crosswind.
This is going to be good!
I do my best to keep the vertical speed between 700 and 800 feet per minute, speed is averaging at 170 knots indicated and we are on the (extended) centreline.
I can clearly feel the turbulences through the controls.


Crosswind is now down to 38 knots from the left. ATC confirms a ground wind of 160 at 19 gusting 26 knots. We still experience moderate turbulences on short final.

The threshold slides beneath us. Right rudder and left aileron to de-crabe the aircraft and line it up with the runway, I gently pull the yoke to start the flare, the nose pitches a few degrees and the main gear touches down surprisingly smoothly. I immediately deploy the reverses as the spoilers automatically extend.
Second detent activated, the reverse thrust kicks in and the plane decelerates quickly. At 80 knots, I override the autobrake by applying a greater pressure on the brakes pedals. The Captain calls “autobrake disarms”. 60 knots, reverses back to idle and I hand over controls to the Captain.

The taxi to the gate is eventless but my head is 5 minutes behind, still on the approach. One of those things from which it is hard to move on.
There is probably nothing more rewarding than flying a good manual approach in difficult weather conditions and strong wind gusts, the kind of approaches you don’t forget. What a feeling!

The passengers disembark the aircraft and as the flight deck door is slightly opened, a few of them pop up at the cockpit’s entry and compliment us.

All the paperwork for the next leg sorted out, it is time to fly back home.

Airborne life at its best!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Winter Operations

Transition from Type Rating to line operations wasn't quite smooth.
The weather we have at the moment is really winterly (if I can say), de-icing on most sectors, freezing conditions (and special checklists for those), CAT II and III approaches, Low vis take-off (LVPs), diversions, ...
However, this environment makes the learning experience very useful.

The worst we had so far was 50 meters reported visibility (and 150m RVR) on take-off, 50 meters VIS / 250 meters RVR on a CAT III approach, 50 kts crosswind on the final approach (but "only" 20 kts on the ground), ...
To give an idea, 50 meters visibility is the equivalent of standing in front of the aircraft and not being able to see the fin or the horizontal stabilizer.

Flying days are very interesting, that's for sure.
I cannot give specific details but I got to fly long sectors (5 hours), short ones (1 hour), I really like the diversity in the flying itself.

On the other hand, the flights can be quite stressful, there is a lot to do especially as I'm learning and very little time to actually enjoy the view or set back, even on longer trips.
Overall, the job is quite a bit different from what I expected, not to say it is not as good as I imagined it but you realise what it is like only when you're actually on the line.
The greatest surprise was the crew-environment, obviously very different from single-pilot flying. The atmosphere in the cockpit does depend a lot on the other pilot, someone you seat next to for 5 to 10 hours on a regular day.
Some flights go by very smoothly and as planned, some other flights don't. Last minute clearance change from ATC, delays, various passenger issues, diversions, anything that doesn't work as expected makes it a lot more stressful and difficult to deal with.
In the end, some days are extremely enjoyable while others seem very long and tiring.

Still, every time I look outside, the view is always outstanding and it's never disappointing.

Is there anything better than eating breakfast on top of the Alps at sunrise?