Friday, October 10, 2008

Short Call-out

I got a short callout activation Monday night for a Deep South trip: Buenos Aries at 1100 Tuesday morning. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our daily BA trip goes out at 9:45 pm and arrives at 7am. The return flight is also an all-nighter. We never see the vast continent of South America. Its towering peaks and endless jungle lands are cloaked in darkness for us. So what was up with this day-time flight?

The trip the night before got cancelled for a maintenance problem. They put the passengers into hotels around Dulles and began to get another jet ready the next morning. The original crew had no time to get a legal rest, so they nabbed me and my two first officers (F/Os). We were keen to see the Andes Mountains and the mighty Amazon River, for the first time.

The “bunkie” is the F/O who is along as a relief pilot on long trips like this one. He doesn’t make a takeoff or landing but performs a lot of other duties like the external inspections. One of those duties is to lay out a rest schedule for the three of us. He does this by subtracting 30 minutes from the planned flying time and dividing by 3. On this trip, that works out to about 3 hours 15 minutes each. Then, 15 minutes after takeoff he goes back for his rest period. The company keeps a first class seat with a curtain around it blocked off for this purpose. I then get the middle period, and the other F/O gets the last period. I immediately thought I might rearrange the schedule so that I would take the first period, then I would be in the cockpit for the good sight-seeing. But I thought the better of it. I knew the other guys were looking forward to that, so I just told them to wake me up if they saw the Amazon and the Andes.

I slept fitfully, peeking out the window every 15 minutes. All was cloudy. When they called me up I saw that our hopes were dashed. The Amazon Valley was totally cloud obscured. But then, just after I got settled-in, a big hole opened under us and there it was: The Amazon. Big. John Wayne big. Brown, muddy and churning, thick mats of green vegetation crowding its banks. Then it was gone.

We enjoyed another great BA layover—it’s one of my favorites—and the following night we resumed the dismal night schedule. On the way back up north, as is the standard practice, the captain gets the last rest period and the F/O flies.

Those first 6 ½ dark hours creep by with increasing agony until at last it’s my turn. I get in there and try to sleep, but feel like I’m not doing any good at it, then suddenly I feel the deck rotate downward, hear the slipstream increasing to a roar by the window, and hear the double “ding” on the cabin chime—a signal from the pilots to the flight attendants that we are descending through 18,000 feet, into what’s called the “sterile cockpit” regime. A flight attendant shakes me. I go up there and find the two lads, in a heated hurry to get home, are pushing the 767 hard. There’s Dulles Airport already in the windshield and getting bigger fast.

The radios are bleating instructions from the controllers and by the time I’ve got my shoulder harness on we are talking to Dulles Approach Control. I barely complete the Descent Checklist when the F/O calls “GEAR DOWN, LANDING CHECKLIST.” I do the checklist and look up between items, seeing that the lad at the controls is rolling in on final like an F-18 to the carrier deck (he used to do that). Things are happening fast for a guy who just a few minutes ago was fast asleep, and suddenly, BLAM. We’re down and rolling out. He slows it and I take over. The gate is right there as we leave the runway, and in one minute we are parked and the engines are spooling down.

The two F/Os grab my hand, say great flight, grab their bags, and are gone in dizzying speed. And me? I slowly head down to the lounge for an additional snooze before going home.

Funny how I will some day miss all, this.