Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Best Laid Plans (part 2)

(Continued from last post)

The agent stood behind my seat gleaming. It was her last departure for the day and it had been a very trying day for her and her peers. She had worked several cancellations that day already, dealing with livid holiday travelers. She was ready get us out of here and go home.

But that center tank fuel pump light that kept teasing us wouldn’t get off my mind. The other two pilots seemed lost in their thoughts. Earlier I had asked them for their input on what to do about it. They discussed the light’s ramifications—all of which pointed to a safe flight being the probable result—but made no recommendations.

I wanted to get out and away to Buenos Aires badly. I had plans for Christmas. The trip, even though it was a Reserve pick-up, fit those plans perfectly. The others felt the same. But that damned light wouldn’t quit teasing us with its on-again, off-again game. I took a deep breath and made the decision.

“Gents, I grieve having to say this, but we've got to call that in.” They both sadly nodded. Jim sighed heavily and called maintenance.

The agent’s grin turned dour. “What?” she asked. “Is this serious? Please tell me it’s not. Please! I can’t deal with another cancellation, and besides, there are no hotel rooms left around here. Pleeeeze!” I told her I thought it would be deferred, but I just didn’t know. I was glad when she whirled and stormed out of the cockpit.

A few minutes later two mechs showed up and peered at the EICAS. The light had come on and gone off twice since we called them on the radio. Now it was on. As they stood watching it and discussing options it went off again. Then they headed below to look at wiring in the E&E bay. I switched off the “Fasten Seat belt” sign and told the passengers what was happening.

Then Jim said, “I smell a rat.” I asked how so. He said, “Remember that mechanic that came up right after we got here and asked about the right center pump light?” We nodded. “Well, this plane got towed to this gate from the maintenance hangar. I'm thinking that mechanic was guarding the brakes during that tow and saw that light come on and go off.” He pointed at the EICAS panel. “And he decided not to report it, wishfully hoping it would not appear again.”

“So that he wouldn't have to fix it, “Rich added.


And so we realized that one man—that mechanic—could have headed this off. He could have given the maintenance team several hours’ notice ahead of departure time to get this fixed.

When the maintenance chief came up I told him about the previous mechanic's remarks. He looked at me with wide, unbelieving eyes. “Okay,” he said. “I'll deal with that later. Right now we've got to get this fixed.” He left to join his team working below. The gate agent re-appeared.

“What's happening?” she asked. I told her we now had only an hour left before we “burned out.” She cringed. She knew what that meant. With the wasted hours already behind us and the long flight ahead, we would exceed our 14 hour duty day if we waited past midnight to go. She put her hands to her face. “Oh, no, no, no.”

The maintenance team also was well aware of our burn-out time. They worked fast and hard, running test after test to try and get the light to work correctly. When 11:30 rolled around my eyelids were sagging, knowing that nearly 11 hours of flying was ahead, even if they fixed the problem right now.

The mechanics came back to the cockpit. “Five minutes,” the chief mechanic said. He held up his hand, fingers spread wide. “Give us five minutes, and I think we'll have it fixed.”

“Too late,” the gate agent said, standing behind him. He turned. “Headquarters has rescheduled the departure to 0800 tomorrow morning.” The mechanic sighed. He left. She went to the PA to tell the restless passengers they would not be going until tomorrow. As the passengers filed off, grumbling, I quickly called the crew scheduler. He released us with two hours “call-out” pay. He had already alerted a standby crew to pick up tomorrow morning's flight.

I found out later that that the crew who got that 0800 departure with the same plane (now with the pump light fixed) had discovered a bad nosewheel strut, which delayed them two hours, after which they were assigned a different plane. On that plane they discovered a deep gash in a tire which delayed them another hour. (This is an example of why pilots are required to make a final “walk-around” inspection, even when the mechanics have already done so.) They finally launched for BA at noon. While in BA their return flight got cancelled and they spent Christmas there.

As the passengers filed off I thought about the remark I heard from the distraught gate agent—that there were no hotel rooms left in the area. I tore into my phone, knowing all those passengers would be doing the same. My usual haunt, the Comfort Suites, said they had a room. I booked it. But their airport shuttle was done for the night. I would have to find a different way to get there—a $20 cab ride for the five minute ride. I went down to the pickup point. The Quality Inn van stopped to pick up its passengers. I asked the driver if she would drop me off at the Comfort, holding a five dollar bill in my hand. “Sure, I can do that!” she said.

And so ended another thrilling day in the life of an airline pilot. After boarding the van I looked at the nifty app I had recently installed on my phone. It read: 209 days, 2 hours, 17 minutes, and 58 seconds—to go until retirement.

I was right about the cancellation spoiling Christmas plans. Next morning I got assigned a domestic trip that left Christmas Eve morning and returned late on the 25th.

A closing note: I would like to tell you more about the “perfect storm” that hit my company, most of it self inflicted, but I would like to keep my job for (as of this writing) another 193 days, 11 hours, 26 minutes and 5 seconds.
You think we're in a cold spell, eh? Check these shots I took over Greenland yesterday coming home from London:

And finally, am I crazy to suggest this, or the first to think of it?