Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I, the Pirate

Four years ago I published a post that...well, I really didn't publish it. I thought it was too sensitive and might get me in trouble, so I baited the readers and offered to e-mail it to those who requested it. Now, since I'm still grounded and don't have anything new to post, I'm coming out with it. It's a bit long, but for those of you who missed it, here's "I, the Pirate."



The Fog of Battle is an overused and often misapplied expression commonly attributed to the plight of an unfortunate warrior who, in the midst of a confused situation, dodging bullets and shrapnel, made what somebody who wasn't there deem a bad decision.

For me, it was the Fog of Business, and though the bullets were innocuous, they zipped my way as if I were tied to a tree, the target of an inept marksman. In the midst of the enfilade I made a decision, and somebody who wasn't there—never had been, never would be—thought it was a bad one.

Pay doesn't start for the airline pilot and his crew until he releases his brakes for the push-back, but the battle over his judgment and the consequences of his actions start when he rounds the corner in the gate room. That evening in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I—the ever vigilant, battle hardened captain who thought he had the cool, the confidence and the tools to handle anything the adversary arrayed against him—arrived at the gate, mellow, laid-back and disarmed by the relaxing tropical layover. An ambush had been set.

The first shot whistled over my head and impacted on the flight planning table where my observant first officer, Jeff, was studying our route northward across the Caribbean Sea. He found an inconsistency between the charted waypoints and the flight plan we had downloaded from company planners. I called the sector dispatcher and explained our discovery. It had the potential to lure us off course. He asked if we had a copy of Caribbean Enroute NOTAM 09-871. We didn't. He said that would explain the inconsistency. I downloaded the NOTAM, but the printer didn't work. I went into the station operations office and asked to use their computer. I brought up the NOTAM, but they couldn't print it either, and they were very busy because our plane was arriving and they were short-staffed. The fog of battle began to form, but these were the usual skirmishes: broken printers; ancient computers; no spare parts; not enough workers—all part of the every day lives of workers at a "legacy" airline. We were calloused.

We finished our planning and I signed the acceptance for the 757 just as it glided to a nose-bobbing stop right outside the window. I heard the engines' harmonious spool-down, after the sudden cut-off of their fuel valves. Jeff and I dragged our bags up the ladder and entered the loading bridge, stood aside and watched the passengers disembark. Two she-pilots, anxious to feel the warm trade winds on their faces, came off the plane with the first of their passengers, lingering for only a few seconds to tell us the plane was in good shape. They had not reported any problems.

Jeff and I boarded and met the flight attendant crew who would be remaining aboard. Except for the minor problems in the flight planning process, all seemed well. We built our nests in the cockpit and began preparations for flight. Then came the main blow.

A station ramp worker came aboard and reported he found fluid leaking from the right main landing gear strut. Jeff, who was about to head down for his walk-around inspection, said he'd have a look. I continued to set up the cockpit for the trip.

While I worked, the purser, which was the title of the head flight attendant, came up and told me the forward lavatory was not flushing. I called station operations and asked them to investigate it. We would call maintenance if necessary.

Then Jeff came up with a dismal report. The strut, which is like a gigantic shock absorber, was indeed leaking and was flat, meaning it had lost nitrogen pressure and settled to the unacceptable condition of no “shiny metal showing.” The station manager was on the phone to Maintenance Central. We also were required to send a data-link message detailing the problem. The fog of war was getting thicker.

Quicker than I expected, a mechanic arrived—several, in fact—wearing a strange logo on their shirts. They were “contract maintenance.” The company had laid off its own Puerto Rico mechanics long ago. As always when dealing with contract mechanics, I felt concern over their full ability to handle problems with our aircraft. Unlike company mechanics, who are trained to work on only the aircraft the company flies, contract mechanics work on the whole spectrum of commercial aircraft. How much can their brains hold? It's an on-going concern.

The lead mechanic, a trim and robust looking young Puerto Rican, came to the cockpit and told me they would service the strut and then check it for leaks. If it continued to leak oil at some given rate of drops per second—he would have to look up the number later—we would be grounded. Moreover all passengers would have to get off the aircraft while they serviced it. I asked him what would be the most likely cause of such a leak, although I knew, and he said without hesitation, “Hard landing.”

I broke the unhappy news to the passengers via the PA and heard their collective groan. As they disembarked I pulled the purser aside.  “How was the landing when you came in?” I asked.

“Hard,” she said, grimacing. “And not only here but in St. Thomas, also.” The plane had made a quick stop at St. Thomas before arriving in San Juan. I thought of the two pilots who had brought the plane in, probably now sitting at some tiki bar chatting and giggling over cocktails. I wondered if they had an inkling of what they had apparently caused.

My pay was still hours from starting, but the heat of battle was ratcheting up rapidly. The purser told me her crew was nearing “burn-out,” meaning they would become illegal for duty, due to the length of their duty day, if the delay went much more past an hour.  I went to the cockpit and passed all the information I could gather about the nature of the trouble, the length of the delay and the looming problem with the flight attendants to the sector dispatcher.  His printed reply: THANK YOU. EVERYONE IS AWARE OF THE SITUATION.

With nothing further we could do, Jeff and I went off the aircraft in search of food, and as we passed the customer service counter the agents, with looks of panic on their faces, said the hotels in San Juan were full. Their expressions pleaded, Please, don't cancel this flight, as if the essence of their lives on Earth sat in my hands.

We swam our way through an ocean of passengers—our passengers—and most of them wanted us to linger and discuss our problem. But there was no more to say. I told them all I knew on the PA before they de-boarded. Some of the more savvy ones guessed there might be a crew rest problem and I affirmed that.

One yelled from across the room, “Captain!” I turned. He came. He said, “I came in on this plane from St. Thomas and, man, that landing here was really rough. Could that have caused the problem?” I told him he was probably correct. He said, “Well I want to get home, but I trust you guys will do what you have to do.” I thanked him.

A group traveling together seemed to block my exit from the gate area. A spokesman said, “Captain, what are our chances of getting out of here tonight.”

“Fifty-fifty,” I said, trying not to appear too indifferent or too ignorant.

We grabbed our sandwiches and headed back to the plane trying unsuccessfully to slip unnoticed through the waiting area. One woman stepped near and said, “We heard there are no hotel rooms in town tonight. Oh! What are we going to do?” I shrugged and assured her we were doing our best.

Jeff and I gobbled our sandwiches and went down to the ramp to watch the mechanics. I was impressed with their rapid pace of work and focus on the problem. The young mechanic who had come to the cockpit saw us and came over to explain what they were doing.  Maintenance Central had faxed him written instructions. They were inflating the strut with nitrogen and coating the shiny smooth cylinder with thick white grease. Then they were purposely deflating the strut to force the grease into the gaskets. After doing that, they would inflate it again and check for leaks, hoping the grease would plug the gaps. The process would be repeated three times and if the leak persisted, Maintenance Central would make a decision whether to continue with passengers, ferry back home without passengers, or cancel.

I went back up to tell this to the purser and found her on her phone in a heated discussion with her crew scheduler. The argument was over features of her contract regarding crew duty limits  Like us, the flight attendants are subject to both company and federal limitations, the company limits generally being more restrictive.

However, certain limitations in their company restrictions can be waived with consent of the crew. If the crew waived and consented to work beyond the company restrictions to the federal limits, they may do so, but with incentive pay. I knew nothing of any of this. I could only rely on what the purser told me about her duty limits, and she said they only had an hour left. Moreover, there were no other flight attendants on short call-out. We were facing cancellation

The hour passed and the fog of battle steadily thickened as the probing rounds zipped my way:

A radio transmission from the station: “Captain, what do you....”

A flight attendant, “Say, Captain, could you....”

From a phone on the jet bridge, “Captain, we need....”

Then came a more ominous message from the ACARS printer, CAPTAIN CALL DM.

I debated leaving the battlefield to go back down to operations where I could use a company phone to call the operations Duty Manager at company headquarters, then decided to use my cell phone. I got it out and started to dial, when—DING.

By instinct I looked up at the flight attendant call panel when I heard the chime. A light was on indicating a call from the mid-ship flight attendant station, “Captain, that lavatory is still not flushing correctly.” I made a transmission to the station office reminding them about the lavatory problem.

“Boss!” Jeff said from his seat across the console from me. “Clearance says our flight plan is about to expire. They want to know how much longer till we depart.” I looked at him and shrugged. As he voiced a guess, as good as any I could have made, into his microphone, the purser stepped into the cockpit. “Captain, we are boarding!”

I still had my cell phone in my hand wondering what I was supposed to do with it, when the radio crackled again. It was the station chief.  “Captain, they have fixed the strut, we are re-boarding the passengers.”

I thanked her and picked up my cell phone, but then saw a MESSAGE light flashing on the ACARS panel. I pushed the button to reveal its tidings. It was from sector dispatch: POSSIBLE SEVERE TURBULENCE FL 300 AND HIGHER UNTIL OXANNA. I printed the message, ripped it off and handed it to Jeff. “Let's re-file for an altitude of 280 and step climb after OXANA.” He nodded and made the changes to the FMC route pages. “And let's ask Dispatch for a revised flight plan. Our fuel burn will be higher. We might need more gas.” He was typing in the request before I asked for it.

Just as I picked up the cell phone again the young mechanic came in grinning. “It's not leaking, Captain! You're good to go. Oh.  And I will drain some water from that lavatory. I think it's over-serviced. That's why it's not flushing properly.” He extended his hand as if thanking us for our business. I gladly accepted it. He and his crew were exceptionally competent and conscientious.

I looked aside and saw Jeff ripping off the new release and flight plan from the printer. He handed me my copy and I studied the fuel burn penalty for the low altitude. Would we need more gas? If so we needed to order it quickly to avoid further delay. Suddenly I remembered the cell phone. I was to call the DM. I started to punch in the number. But the fuel? I consulted with Jeff and we agreed we had enough extra in our tanks to cover the penalty.

I finally made the call and could barely hear the duty manager over the racket of radios, passengers, flight attendants and that bane of 757 pilots—the deafening roar of the recirculation fans. He wanted to know what was going on. I thought about the message we had gotten earlier from Dispatch that said, THANK YOU. EVERYONE IS AWARE OF THE SITUATION. I brought him up to date and said we were expecting departure soon. “When?” he asked. I asked him to hold.

I saw the purser standing just outside the cockpit and asked her when we would be ready. She said, “Forty minutes after the hour.  Don't release brakes until forty past, or we won't get our incentive pay.” I looked at my watch. That was 10 minutes away. The flight attendants must have cut a deal with their crew desk to extend their on-duty time. In the fog of battle, at least, that is what I thought.

I told the duty manager, “We'll release brakes at 40 for the flight attendants. He put me on hold. While I was on hold, Jeff said, “We'd better run the Before Start Checklist, if we expect to be ready by then.” I nodded and started my takeoff briefing when the purser interrupted me, saying, “Captain, they put a crippled man with crutches in the exit row  I'll have to move him.”

I said, “Do it quickly.”

She added with a loud whisper, “I'm going to wait until the last minute to do it so that we can guarantee our release at 40 past the hour.”

In the choking fog of battle, her whispered remark didn't register with me. And, even if it had, I think I would have concurred with her plot. As it was, I was still thinking the 40 departure was an agreement with her and her crew desk. The duty manager got back to me on the phone, again interrupting my takeoff briefing, and said, “Captain, we've got reports from the flight attendant crew desk that you are purposefully delaying the departure to make your flight attendants go illegal.” Although I was in fact, doing exactly that, I interpreted his accusation differently. “Going illegal” to me, meant flight cancellation. I said, “That's negative!”

While I still had the DM on the phone the purser came into the cockpit.  I told DM to standby. She said, “We've got the passenger re-seated, Captain. We're ready.” I looked at my watch. The time was 42 past the hour. I told the DM we were leaving.

We got the jet airborne and pointed it into the dark skies over the Bermuda Triangle, finally relaxing. Jeff said, “Wow! What a hassle.”

I could only sigh, and mumble, “Yeah.”

When we got off the plane, the flight attendants all came to me. The purser said, “Captain. It's been a long, hard day. Thank you for taking care of us.”

The battle was over, and I thought I had won because we got that flight out. We didn't cancel. We kept the airline running and saw that that crew of flight attendants would continue to do a good job taking care of their passengers, because someone in the airline had taken care of them—that someone being me. But though the battle was over, the war, as I was to find out the next day, was still on.

The call came from our domicile chief pilot, Lana. I knew Lana, though distantly, knew she was a pleasant person who had worked her way up to the domicile chief pilot's job, while continuing to fly frequently. She was respected among the pilot corps. She wanted to know what happened in San Juan.

I was mildly agitated. I had been successful the previous evening, had not lost passenger revenue, and most importantly had not compromised safety. But a corporate rebuke of some unknown magnitude was coming down from above, and it was her job to stop it before it got to me, so I thought  Why, then, was Lana demanding an explanation for an act of success?

Again came the accusation: Reports from other departments said I had held off releasing the brakes until the flight attendants went illegal. Finally it dawned on me. “Illegal,” in our case, didn't mean cancellation, but rather signified that the flight attendants were entering an extra pay mode. The company was pissed that I could have released the brakes before 40 past the hour and avoided paying the flight attendants their incentive pay. I was the villain.

I told Lana I didn't realize the full ramifications of what was happening, only that I thought I was not supposed to release brakes until after 40 past the hour. I added that even if I had realized it, I still would have done what I did to insure the flight attendants got the extra pay because they had had a long difficult day and were doing an exceptional job of taking care of jittery and crabby passengers. I said they deserved the extra pay and it would pay dividends in their future service to the company.

Lana's ire flared and she said that was not my call; that I had meddled in affairs that were not mine; that I had knowingly caused the company to lose money. It was stealing! She shouted into the phone, “IT'S PIRACY!”

I stayed calm and asked, “What would you have done?”

She hem-hawed and dodged the answer. Then she cooled down while I heated up as I pondered the word piracy. She asked if there were any other circumstances she should know about that would cause a delay.

I told her about the late action by the flight attendants to re-seat the crippled passenger in the exit row. “Oh!” she shouted. “Now you've given me something! Now we're cookin' with gas! I can take that to them and get them off our backs!” She asked me to e-mail her a synopsis of what happened.

The more I thought about the piracy remark, the madder I got. Along with the synopsis that I e-mailed her, I added, “If I'm a pirate for working to make this company profitable and efficient, then bring on the charges. Jail would be a better place.” Her only reply was that she got the message.

I heard no more about it. I didn't go to jail. They needed me to send them more beans to count and bullets to dodge.

6 comments:

Bernie Hale said...

Outstanding post, you pirate, you.



Bernie Hale

whick said...

Very good, I really enjoyed that one..tells us what you guys have to put up with sometimes....happy flying.. Whick

Cedarglen said...

I Recall reading this in the original and found zero problem with it at the time. I found no trouble with it now, some years later. In short, YOU did YOUR job, kept the paying PAX and the crew safe, completed the flight etc., tasks for which YOU are responsible. As an experienced civil captain and a retired O-5 or O-6, you understand the rules. You told "Lana" the truth and that ought to be the end of it. Happy Landings. Sorry that you are still grounded and I hope you return to the air shortly. -C.

Jerry Sterner said...

Great post Captain, it's not enough that you just fly the plane. :-)

Jerry

Anonymous said...

Sir, I appreciate your blog every time I read a story like this.

Safe travels.

Anonymous said...

Great post Captain, been following your blog for awhile and always enjoyed reading your posts. Safe travels and hope to be on your 757 flight soon.