Friday, November 30, 2012

Trouble out of Lima

It was past midnight and we were already running an hour late. With almost seven dark desolate hours ahead the fatigue was already seeping into my body like a cancer. I had not slept since awaking that morning at nine am. Of course it was all my fault that I couldn't force myself to get a bunch of sleep in the middle of the day, or afternoon, so that I would be alert for the night fright.

The delays due to minor problems and complications took a quick toll on us up front, and made the passengers cranky. When Tim, my F/O, tried unsuccessfully to clear a status message about low oil in the left generator drive, I called out a mechanic. He punched the very same buttons we did and could ply no magic on them. He called maintenance central for advice.

The word came back: ignore it. It was only a “status” message and required no maintenance action at that time. I requested the mechanic go down and check the oil level in the drive. He said maintenance central said that was not necessary. That's when yours truly made his big mistake for the night. I shrugged it off and said, “Let's go!”

Tim pushed up the throttles and the 767's N1 blades buzzed. We heaved ahead down Lima's long runway. We were heavy and the roll was long. I worked hard focusing tired eyes on the engine instruments. At 100 knots I made the mandatory call-out: “100 knots.” From then till rotation speed—155 knots—we would abort only for engine failure, fire or predictive windshear warnings.

At 105 knots, I saw the Master Caution come on.

I glanced at the EICAS. The amber light read “L GEN DRIVE.” Concentrating on the takeoff, Tim didn't see it, and I didn't say anything. I wanted him to get us in the air, not do something impulsive like initiate a high speed reject.

After we were safely up and the gear was up, I said, “My friend, we have a problem.” He saw the light. His two-word utterance was a commonly heard homily to the god of excrement.

I got out the checklist, knowing what it required. A big warning note read,

CAUTION: THIS ACTION IS IRREVERSIBLE.

I hovered my finger over the drive disconnect button and looked at Tim for confirmation. He nodded and confirmed. I pushed it. The plane lurched and the cockpit lights flickered as the left engine generator shut down. The right generator picked up the load. I started the APU and let its generator share the load. We would now burn the APU for the next seven hours from Peru to the USA.

If the APU generator had not come on line we would have had to dump some 60,000 pounds of fuel into the Pacific and return to Lima. Too risky to take that kind of a trip, across thousands of miles of water and Latin America, where emergency airfields are few and poor. 

With the jet pointed toward home I leaned back and thought about all the people back there trying to get some shut-eye. They had no inkling that if the light had come on five seconds sooner they would have been treated with the terror of being thrown forward against their belts and lashed with the roar of the big Pratts blasting against the reverser doors. They would have deplaned and drifted back to their homes and hotels, scared and pissed.

And me? I Let fatigue and get-home-itis influence my decision not to call maintenance's bluff. I won't do it again.

Watching the setting sun over the Pacific from my hotel room. Sleepless, of course.

15 comments:

S. J. Crown said...

Glad to get my Decision Height fix. Withdrawal symptoms had almost spurred me to read something predictable and boring like, say, The New Yorker, but somehow I managed to hold out. Good to see you back in the blogosphere!

Pete Templin said...

I, too, am glad to get my Decision Height fix. I've flown a couple of United 757 legs lately, and always ask if you're flying us (perhaps you could show me the water quantity circuit breaker...wink). Let it be known that I enjoy hearing your tales, whether smiley or not, and appreciate the time you take to present them. Hope you're still enjoying flying those great aluminum tubes from Everett (which is now a half-hour drive from our place).

K1MGY said...

Inspiring maintenance. It should set standards. Perhaps in central Africa.

Next time, call their bluff and make them fly the leg with the rest of the crew. Maintenance isn't shouldering the burden should the entire electrical system die. You are. Otherwise, I don't understand the relationship between flight crews and ground support.

As an interested passenger, and had I been provided the vote, my leaning would be towards zero tolerance for guesswork from ground maintenance. In short: check the oil level, or find other work.

I'm certain you can deliver the message, perhaps in a more friendly manner than I would. But if it helps at all, just pass on that there's nothing quite a sobering as contemplating the moral divide between a broken airplane and a complacent wrench.

Anonymous said...

Great post, good to see you're blog back!

Cedarglen said...

I'm glad that you are now able to post again; I share the loss and the bruises in your earlier post.
Flying out of Lima - your last-word choice to do so - I simply do not understand. To go was MEL legal and legal-legal I guess, but the decision to go, your other factors noted, does not sound "Captain-like to me." I was not there and I'm not a flyer, but it seems that blaming the poor choice on fatigue is a bit lame. As only a PAX - and never given the choice, for that length of flight and over that geography, I'd have as to wait for the generator to be fixed. There is a damn good reason that you have TWO of them, plus the APU. To not dump the 60k fuel and return, sounds like a company choice, not a Captain's choice. You may (and do) differ with my thought and I have factual basis to support my opinion, but I just don't like your choice-in that circumstance. As a non-pilot, my opinion is worthless, but I still don't understand why you continued under the circumstances described here. You need not explain anything to me; I just enjoy reading your posts. And yes, for the second time, my condolences about the earlier post, so long ago. I hurt with you and the 'why' is something that we will never know. As you have noted elsewhere, he knew better and/or had several other options. I'm sad to hear news like that. Your notes are important and I look forward to more of them. -C

Alan Cockrell said...

Cedarglen: As you know I have never claimed Chuck Yeager status. Nor do I now. If I did, you and the others who read this would spot the phony immediately. The decision to go along with maintenance on the status light was bad. The decision to continue the flight with two good generators was good.

Woody Swain said...

Great to be reading your blog posts again, Al. I would have made the same decision as you did...glad it turned out OK in the end.

Woody Swain said...

Great to be reading your blog posts again Al! I would have made the same decision that you did...glad it turned out OK in th end.

PeterC said...

That's why the MEL exists. Captain made his decision FO concurred and they did have two good generators.

Dave W said...

Hello all, and I agree, it's good to see you post again Mr Cockrell (I cannot imagine what emotions you and those around you have been through of late)

I am a simmer who loves "flying" the 767 - I have the luxury of it never going wrong unless I want it to - it amazes me how unreliable those big full motion sims are - always having fires and engine failures at V1!...

Could I ask why the plane lurched on disconnection of the IDG and do you have to fly lower as a result of running the APU all the way home?

Always a pleasure to read your posts, especially as you choose a nice big font!

All the best!

Dave from the UK

Alan Cockrell said...

Dear Dave W.:
Not sure why it lurched but we figured it was an autopilot hiccup when the power was transferred. No altitude limit on the 767 APU, as with some other planes. We cooked it all the back to the states, letting it share the load with the remaining engine generator. Had we lost either one of them and gone down to single gen ops we would have had to divert. The other issue was the extra fuel burn from the APU. We got a burn figure from our dispatcher that indicated we had enough extra without going into reserves. Thanks for your comments.

whick said...

Merry Christmas Captain, thanks for some very enjoyable reading, and so sorry about your friend and plane.. Whick

getjets said...

MissTWA want to wish you....Mr. Cockrell and your followers a Very Happy New Year......!!!!!!!!
I also want to say hello to Dave W.....and -Craig(Cedarglen).....I hope you are well..We don't have to always agree..........what makes life in each one's view so damn Interesting...!!!!..Please take Care...........We Miss You at MissTWA

Giulia said...

Alan,

I'm coming out of lurkdom just to wish you and your family the very best in 2013.

Thank you for sharing your stories with us.

Giulia

Ward said...

If you're ever in Lima long enough to make an excursion to Cuzco just let me know and I'll give you the nickel-tour without all the touristy stuff if you like.

Just for info, I thought maybe you'd be interested in this story about a Peruvian military mission:

http://contractpilot.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/iceman/

Rgds,