Monday, 4 June 2012

Another Day at the Office

Thrust levers advanced to 40% N1, engines stabilized and all gauges in the green, I activate TOGA and the full 52,000 lb blast (about 24 tonnes of engine thrust) shoves us back deep into our seats.
Full power setting today for our heavy aircraft loaded with tanker fuel, 180 adults, 5 babies and 6 crew members. The roar from the engines suddenly appears, the aircraft is shaking down the runway and our velocity is increasing very rapidly, looking for a 147 kt rotation speed and 18° pitch on initial climb. What a feeling of thrust!
Positive rate, gear up, the VSI (vertical speed indicator) pointing at 2500 feet per minute, another day at the office has just started.
To be more correct, it started some 1½ hours ago on the ground with the flight preparation, paperwork, weather and notams study and finally the crew briefing.
With flaps up and 4300 ft/min on the VSI, we're climbing like a homesick angel. After take-off checks complete, ATC gives us a direct and off we go. The climb rate is fantastic. Passing Flight Level 240, I engage the Flight Directors, Autopilot and Autothrottles. Most of our Captains encourage manual departures and arrivals and there's nothing more pleasant than to fly a 70 tonne aircraft in the calm morning air using raw data only. Our day is off to a good start!

I sometimes find it hard to believe this is what we do for a living.
There is no routine whatsoever. I have so far operated to 62 airports in 17 countries, shortest flight time being 25 minutes and longest of just under 5 hours. A third of my approaches were Non Precision Approaches, e.g. Localizer, VOR, NDB, or visual approaches.
I stopped counting how many people try to discourage the wannabe's stating how boring this job really is. The know-it-all's feel the need to talk about matters they know nothing about.
As we near the cloud tops, we can spot glimpses of blue sky overhead, in a few seconds we'll break through into the dusk canopy.
ATC gave us a clearance to FL260 initially and it happens to be just a dozen feet above the flat white layer. Even though close to the horizon, the sun is intensely bright here. The clouds are flowing under our wings and the feeling of speed is nothing short of amazing.
A company trafic is coming towards us 1000ft above in the opposite direction, the wingleted Boeing 737 passes overhead with a closing speed in excess of 1000 mph. The Captain and I are just in time to rush for our cameras and take a shot.

"Nowadays, it's all about managing the flight and watching the automation do the rest". So they said. Some pilots even like to call themselves "flight managers". The rest are pilots and do their job as pilots.
I struggled to get to know how the automatics work, it surely can be a good help at times but it will screw things up very quickly if you don't follow what's happening. When the automatic is turned off, the pocket rocket (737 nickname) reverts to basic Cessna modes and it is in fact a very pleasant aircraft to fly. There's nothing like flying a visual approach and establishing on final just 4nm from touchdown.

Climbing to the thin air at FL360, the flight attendants are getting busy at the back. The sunset is filling our cockpit with orange light. What a sight.

Top of climb,
Mach number : .80
Groundspeed : 520 knots
Altitude : 36,000 ft
Total heads on board : 191
View : Awesome

The Captain is doing the paperwork and the radios while I study the approach charts. On the next leg, we will swap roles. The flight attendants ding the cockpit and at the same time ATC breaks the silent environment and gives us a re-routing. We enter the waypoints and airways in the FMC, select a different arrival procedure (STAR) and activate the new route. The Captain quickly talks to the FA's while I grab the en-route charts to check the route, they have a toilet flush issue and we will have to get an engineer onboard to fix it at destination. I check the handling frequency, dial it in and call operations to have someone meeting us upon landing. I also give them the fuel figures for our next flight so that they can get the paperwork ready.
We have to hurry, this is one of those short flights...

I hand over the controls to the Captain and set up for the approach. He is a sharp guy but very helpful, the cockpit gradient is not steep and we really work as a team.
Low level chart briefed, notams and weather checked, MSA (minimum safe altitude), high spots on the approach, airspace classes, Top of Descend point, QNH and winds at FL300 and FL100 entered in the FMC for descent planning, STAR (arrival routing) briefed and crosschecked in the FMC with altitude and speed restrictions, final approach course in the MCP, ILS frequency, flaps configuration reviewed, navaids backup for the go-around (VOR and NDB), DA (Decision Altitude), land altitude in the pressurisation panel, go around briefing, landing performances, fuel reserves, flaps setting, brakes setting and cooling schedule, taxi-route reviewed, ...
I make a passenger annoucement on the public announce system. We are looking for a 20 min early arrival thanks to generous tailwinds.

Descent checklist complete and back at the controls, I enjoy the last minutes of daylight while the Captain asks for the descent. ATC clears us to FL100, 10,000ft in the Altitude window, LVL CHG (Level Change, autopilot mode) and down we go.
They later inform us that we are number 12 in sequence, it's definitely a busy airport. We dim the cockpit lights as we enter the clouds again, the surroundings darken the deeper we get in the cloud layers. Passing through FL200, I disconnect the autopilot.
We can already see the city lights straight ahead, the darkness magic has just begun.