|Written by Doug Taylor|
Preparation for work normally happens a few days before the trip actually starts. The reason primarily is because I’m based at the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport and live in Arizona. In the airline business, this is considered “commuting”. I live in one city while based in another.
This trip, I’m doing rotation 3429, which begins on Sunday, July 6 at 9:00 AM central.
Between the two-hour flight from Phoenix and there being no flights leaving early enough to reliably leave a few backup flights to reach DFW in time, I’ll leave the day before the trip starts to ensure that I make ‘sign in’.
I generally ride America West because they have the most nonstops between DFW and PHX and they do a thing called “Space Available” jumpseating. The TSA, in all of its infinite wisdom will not let me physically occupy the cockpit jumpseat so there has to be passenger seats available in back. Since America West offers ‘space available’ jumpseats to commuting pilots, if there are six open seats, they will cheerfully offer six pilots a ride to and from work as long as their employer is on the approved jumpseat list.
I’ll call a special telephone number to see how the loads (passenger counts/seat availability) looks to see if I should leave earlier in the day, try a different airline or a different routing (i.e.: Phoenix to Las Vegas to Dallas).
The flights, thankfully, look great so I’ll throw in my uniform shirts and layover clothes into the washer and head out to dinner with my wife, as I won’t see her again until 5 days later besides a quick email from the pilot lounge or a static-filled cellular telephone call.
The next morning, we’ll have breakfast and make sure that there’s nothing that we need to discuss before I head out on the trip. Things like bills, mortgage payments and especially clearing up any misunderstandings is imperative if you’d like to come home to a happy Kristie. When you’re gone for five days and your wife also works full time, something as miniscule as an improperly working lawn sprinkler can cause you two days of backbreaking work in the backyard when it’s 110 degrees after getting home from a trip.
I’ll check the loads on my selected flights again just to make sure I don’t have to rush out and catch an earlier flight. Things like bad weather, cancellations, heavy air traffic, etc can bring havoc to even the most well structured commuting plans.
Been there, done that, have the t-shirt.
I’ll pack a uniform shirt per day, a couple of layover shirts, shorts, my jogging gear, the standard underwear/toiletries essentials, my cellular telephone with a backup battery (too cheap to replace my travel charger) and my laptop to check up on the website and stay in touch with family and friends with email.
Today, Kristie is going to drop me off because I think she grew tired of my incessant complaining about how the AC in the Toyota Corolla is inoperative.
I get to the gate and apply for a jumpseat from a friendly gate agent and thankfully since the flight is fairly open, I’m immediately assigned a seat in the passenger cabin and board when called.
I introduce myself to the captain on the flight and ask kindly for permission to ‘jumpseat’ and a ride to work. We share some light conversation and then I’m approved to take my assigned passenger seat.
Besides my seat partner who is an elderly lady with some strange need to tell me all about how much she enjoys Pepsi for two hours, the flight is very uneventful and we arrive in plenty of time.
I don’t have a crash pad in Dallas so I generally stay at a hotel near the airport that has a complementary hot breakfast in the morning, airport shuttle on demand, free high speed internet access, an extremely friendly staff and most importantly, low prices for airline employees!
Once I reach the hotel, I’ll generally set out my uniform, pack away my ‘civilian’ clothes that I wore on the flight to Dallas and venture out for something to eat.
I’ll clear security, go downstairs to the pilot lounge and find an open computer in which to sign in and print a rotation. On this rotation, the captain that was assigned to the trip, for one reason or another, has been replaced with a reserve captain that I don’t know. I’ve been based in DFW for about three years and I more or less know most of the captains that I’ve flown with, except this one.
I grab a fresh set of earplugs to use during the preflight “walk-around”, any mail in my company mailbox (airway manual revisions, memo "du jour", etc), grab the flight bag from my locker and venture upstairs to the departure gate.
At the gate, the gate agent verifies my identification and gives me the paperwork
for the flight and I head down the jetway to the aircraft. The captain hasn’t
arrived yet, but the three flight attendants are onboard so I introduce myself
to them, tell them where I’m based and what the flight time is to Atlanta.
I also give them a small ‘crew card’ with my and the captain’s
name on it so whenever they need to call the cockpit in flight for any reason,
it’s just a little more personal to know the name of the person you’re
I “preflight” the cockpit and check various systems operationally, and make sure that all of the indications are appropriate and safe for the flight. At this time, the captain arrives and we both introduce ourselves, he throws his flight kit beside his seat and we enjoy a little light chat to bring a little levity.
A first impression is important because I typically spend more time with captains than I spent with my wife in any given month. It’s important that we both establish that we’re both easy-going guys and to never be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t seem right. He’ll brief me on his procedures and expectations and any little quirks he has and I’ll do the same.
Mine is more or less like this. “I try to leave my ego back in the flight locker in the pilot lounge so if I’m doing something stupid, feel free to speak up and let me know. I’m here to learn. Most importantly, if I’m flying, I’ll keep positive control of the aircraft until you say you want it and I won’t let go until I feel you on the controls.” The old regional airline story about when I had a first officer presume I had control of the aircraft when it was his leg to fly and the aftermath... But that's a story for another time.
The gate agent comes down and checks to see if the flight attendants are ready for passengers and I go downstairs to the tarmac to complete the exterior preflight of the aircraft. I check the physical condition of the airplane, tires, any FOD (foreign object damage), control surfaces and such. Sometimes you occasionally find things that aren't correct, but I think we have the finest maintenance department on earth and they take extraordinary care of the aircraft.
I get back to the cockpit and the captain and I begin the “Before Start Checklist”.
As the last few passengers are boarding, the pushback tug driver will establish communications with us to check his headsets, ask for clearance to remove external air conditioning and electrical power and notify us that the wings are clear of personnel he’s ready for hydraulic pressure to raise the aft air stairs.
The last passenger boards and the gate agent brings down our final paperwork. The captain carefully checks it to ensure that the information is for the correct flight and we start loading the final performance data into the FMS.
“The cabins ready for pushback!” the lead flight attendant, or “On Board Leader” as the airline would like us to call them says. She’ll close the cockpit door and I’ll give it the Doug Taylor patented triple-check to make sure that it’s closed, latched and ultra-secure.
We’ll push back, start the engines, coordinate with ramp and ground control to taxi out to the runway for departure.
Dallas (DFW) to Atlanta (ATL)
This is important because when Atlanta is landing west, there are different crossing restrictions on the arrival, and they’re different if we’re landing east as well. Also, I’ll send an in-range email via ACARS to let operations know when we’re estimated to arrive at the airport.
The ACARS message will return with our arrival gate, the connecting gate information for the pilots and flight attendants and it’ll also print the passenger connecting gate information on the printer.
Whenever we fly through a major base, an ‘aircraft swap’ is almost a virtual certainty. We’ll arrive at gate B36 this flight and have to pack up and fly an aircraft out of A5. We’re scheduled for a 1 hour and 24 minute ‘turn time’ so there won’t be that much of a rush.
The arrival goes pretty much "standard" for Atlanta: Slow down at 10,000 to about 210 knots, best rate of descent down to about 3,000 feet, 180 knots until the marker and land the jet. Atlanta is an extremely busy airport and depending on the criteria you use to measure it, is the world’s busiest airport. Of course it’s usually a photo finish between Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare.
We deplane passengers, grab some “Terminal A” Chinese food and head to the next jet for the flight to DCA.
I really wasn't very hungry, but one of the bad habits (some consider it a 'survival technique') is "strategic eating". If you think you're going to be hungry in an hour or so, and you know you have a two hour flight with sparse food availability at the destination airport, we'll eat in advance or take some food along with us. I guess it's part of the pioneer spirit where the wagon trains would load up on water even though they weren't thirsty.
But I disgress.
Atlanta (ATL) to Washington National (DCA)
I land the plane a little rougher than I'd have liked to but the captain mentions the fact that he'd rather see a firm landing on a short runway, rather than a 'greaser" on a short runway, followed by screeching brakes as you run off the threshold.
Good point. I feel a little better!
Washington National (DCA) to Atlanta (ATL)
Atlanta, at this point, was reaching the saturation point so we had about a 15-minute delay in departing and in the meantime, we were given another full route clearance to load into the FMS.
Usually the pilot flying the leg will load the FMS, but since traffic at DCA is extraordinarily thick and we're being shuffled around the taxiways to make room for other flights that are departing on time, I coordinate with clearance delivery, amend the route information in the FMS and quickly verify the information with enroute charts.
We finally depart for Atlanta, and we both share a few laughs about requiring pilots to be able to type a certain amount of “words per minute” in order to fly an automated aircraft.
Arrival in Atlanta was uneventful and once again, we changed aircraft and flight attendant crew as usual.
Atlanta (ATL) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
So instead of a wonderful 18-hour downtown summertime Chicago layover near the “Magnificent Mile”, we’re going to be staying in Atlanta for a shorter layover and deadheading to Chicago in the afternoon to pick up the duration of the trip.
We arrive at the layover hotel, check in and an hour later, meet up to go forage for food downtown.
My afternoon starts out with a wanding by the Atlanta TSA. I walked through a metal detector and it lit up like a Christmas tree.
One of the security screeners frowns, shakes her head and points at my shoes.
“They’re not my shoes ma’am, they’re Doc Martens and there’s no metal”
“They yo’ shoes”
“Bet you a dollar they’re not!”
More head shaking from the security screener while the screener conducting the personal search verifies that my shoes are not the culprits.
No dollar. Big deal.
We start the day with a deadhead flight to Chicago O’Hare to rejoin our rotation. On arrival into O’Hare, the flight crew hands us a printed message from ACARS about yet another reroute.
Apparently our aircraft is arriving so late, that we’re going to only fly to Salt Lake City to layover and another reserve crew and aircraft is going to fly the Salt Lake City to Los Angeles leg.
We arrived at Chicago O’Hare at 5:51pm central time and our aircraft that we are scheduled to fly outbound to Salt Lake City doesn’t arrive until 9:02pm.
Chicago O'Hare (ORD) to Salt Lake City, UT(SLC)
I notify my dispatcher via ACARS that we're going to have a longer than anticipated taxi time, we elect to shut down the engines to conserve fuel and I tell the flight attendants and passengers about the delay.
Over the years, I've noticed that instead of downplaying the situation with a comforting PA about "lights", a "little" weather or a "short" delay, today's much more savvy traveler would rather hear the cold truth.
"Lady's and Gentleman, this is your first officer speaking. There are thunderstorms to the west of O'hare that are limiting air traffic controls ability to clear westbound flights. They're estimating in another 40 minutes that the weather will clear sufficiently to allow westbound depatures, but if you take a quick peek out of your windows, you'll see that we're about number fifteen in line. Once air traffic control begins to launch aircraft again, they'll probably clear each aircraft for takeoff three to four minutes after each one departs... (blah blah)"
With delays, I'll usually end the PA with, "...I'll keep bugging air traffic control for information and the instant I hear anything, you'll be the first to know."
Honestly, the passengers love that stuff.
We finally depart Chicago and arrive in Salt Lake City at 12:59am.
I dodged thunderstorms most of the trip, had to circumnavigate thru the thin parts of a widespread squall line and a frantic dispatcher via ACARS. The arrival and approach go fine and I start to think about how after turning 30, my night vision is a little more challenging to work with.
We deplane, shut the aircraft down and discover that the normal hotel transportation shuts down at midnight so we more or less have to compete with our passengers for a taxi in the taxi line.
Onward to the hotel, get some sleep,
But the problem with being tired after a night of flying is the fact that your body may be run down, but your brain is still functioning at 110% so it’s extremely hard to ‘mellow out’ sufficiently to get sleep immediately. I do the standard of turning on the television, watching infomercials and hoping that my Sharper Image “Travel Soother” lulls me enough to get a little sleep.
Salt Lake City (SLC) to Ontario, CA (ONT)
Note to self, titanium watches are wonderful items, but are horrible during airport security.
We arrive at the gate only to realize that the aircraft that we’re scheduled to fly to Ontario is delayed in Chicago O’Hare and isn’t due in for another three hours. The captain ventures off to find some lunch and I head downstairs to the pilot lounge to surf the internet and start working on a ride home after the trip ends tomorrow.
I see a few of my old pals in the pilot lounge, trade some gossip and talk about old times.
Hours later, the plane arrives but there is a problem. Our scheduled arrival
into Ontario, California is going to make us illegal to depart on time in the
morning. I do a little mental math and consult the captain about the situation.
He double-checks my math and agrees that we’re not going to be legal for
departing on time.
The new flight attendants for the leg arrive and we tell them about the legality issues of leaving on time the next day, as they’re in the same situation and we depart for Ontario. The weather across the Bonneville Salt Flats continuing past Las Vegas, crossing the Mojave Desert is moonlit and clear. I’ve always been one of those rare weirdoes that really enjoy moonlit nights over the desert.
We get the ATIS for Ontario through ACARS and notice that there are a lot of taxiway closures that evening. We spend at least 15 minutes trying to plan the approach and terminal arrival taking into account the taxiway closures. When it’s late, dark and you’ve been awake waiting patiently for an aircraft, your brain tends not to work too well so a little extra time over basic details like how to taxi from the runway to the terminal takes a life of it’s own.
We land, shut down the aircraft and get dropped off at the hotel. We all agree on what time it’s legal to report at the airport and set the hotel pick-up time accordingly.
Ontario (ONT) to Salt Lake City, UT (SLC)
Halfway down the terminal the gate agent meets us, almost frantic, wondering where we were because no one communicated the situation about the delayed “show time” due to our legal constraints.
Since we’re late and it’s my leg, the captain does the exterior inspection of the aircraft, and I complete the interior preflight and load the FMS with performance data, the flight plan and special departure procedures out of Ontario.
We depart for Salt Lake City and the flight is delightfully uneventful.
We’re arriving at the C10 gate and departing out of D5 so after deplaning passengers and bidding adieu to the flight attendants, we head over to D5 and prepare to fly our last leg to Dallas where the captain lives and where I’ll be running off of the jet and over to a short connection to an America West flight.
Salt Lake City, UT (SLC) to Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW)
The tug disconnects and we position the flaps for taxi and takeoff.
“Anti Skid Fault”
Hmm, let me re-set the flaps and auto brakes and normally this thing will clear itself.
“Anti Skid Fault”
We taxi out and clear the terminal area to facilitate arriving and departing aircraft and give maintenance a call about our situation. They’re going to bring us back to another gate to check out the problem.
One of the best policies I’ve learned about PA’s is speaking often and being honest. Today’s traveler is a lot more techno-savvy than you would believe and would rather (while on the ground) hear honest verbiage and “best estimates” in terms of the time frame rather than “we’ve got a light and we need maintenance to verify a few things”. Most passengers can sense when you’re not divulging the truth in the first few breaths of a misleading PA.
If you think that your pet “Fido” stares attentively when you’ve got an unopened can of ALPO and a can opener, you should see the expression on passenger’s faces when you pick up the microphone during a maintenance discrepancy.
Selfishly, my first thought was, “Dangit, I had a 50 minute turn in DFW to go from the E concourse to the B concourse! Ack!”
To make a long story short, three hours and a new aircraft later we finally depart for Dallas. In the meantime, I’ve been downstairs to the pilot lounge and speaking with the America west travel bureau to see if there were any open seats available out of DFW.
The flight is more or less uneventful and we spend most of the leg talking about our deceased fathers and how important they were, especially as you get older and start being an adult. A very thought provoking conversation and something that you’d only get a good appreciation for only when you’ve lost your father.
Ironically, the flight attendant calls and tells us that we have a passenger onboard that is supposed to catch an American Airlines flight to Abilene, TX about 30 minutes after we’re estimated to arrive in Dallas. This passenger, strangely, is connecting to fly to Abilene to attend her father’s funeral so the captain and I call flight control, advise them of the situation and arrange for an agent to drive her from the terminal right to the American terminal, thus saving the 30-plus minutes it would have taken if she were to use the airport terminal train.
We’re assigned runway 18R and the glideslope is out. The captain and I review the “localizer/glideslope inoperative” approach procedures and set up the aircraft accordingly.
We taxi into the gate, personally make sure that our passenger with the tight connection on the American Airlines flight to Abilene is accommodated appropriately and continue deplaning the aircraft.
I grab my suitcase and my flight kit, drop my flight kit downstairs in my locker hurriedly and bolt off to the airport train to run over to the American Airlines terminal. A little advice about Dallas Ft. Worth, if you've got to change terminals, especially from the "E" concourse to the "B" concourse, no matter when that flight departs, you're already late.
My America West flight with open seats is at 8:15pm whereas there is an American flight at 6:15pm that is oversold, but it’s an opportunity to get out of town a little earlier and get home.
Of course, the agent explains to me that every flight that day, evening and even until the next morning is tremendously oversold and my best bet would be to fly to Tucson. I could ride America West Express from Tucson to Phoenix, but it wouldn’t be much quicker than waiting for the America West flight at 8:15pm with open seats.
I head over to the B-concourse and enjoy a meal at “Harlon’s BBQ” and catch a documentary on a static-riddled television about the lead poisoning problem in a small, dusty Missouri town.
I’ll grab a Starbucks coffee and sign up for the jumpseat to Phoenix – while I’m introducing myself to the captain, he mentions that one of his good friends is a pilot that surprisingly we both know and befriend. We trade a few laughs and I take a seat in the passenger cabin.
I decided to play a little “Warcraft III” on the flight home and one of the kids next to me, obviously with a lot more free time that I had when I was his age critiqued my game play to a hilt. I did, however, get some good pointers and a few good cheats.
The flight finally starts the arrival and I get the “warm fuzzy” feeling that I always get when I see the city lights of home. In just a few minutes, I get to remove the uniform, throw on a pair of shorts and a holey t-shirt and enjoy being home for three days until my next trip!
One of the biggest problems when I arrive back home is that I’m a total insomniac from fighting my natural circadian rhythm (your body clock), big time dehydration and the spool down time required to transform from hotel mode to home mode.
I get home, take off my uniform (as I lovingly refer to as the “Monkey
Suit”), grab a big, ice-cold glass of water, plop down on the couch next
to my wife slowly start the transformation from “airline pilot”
back to “Doug Taylor”.