Jan 9, 2007

A Day in the Life: CYUL - CYVR - CYUL (2)

A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and back - using it as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (Second installment... of ?)


Departure Time minus: 1:00:

I find F/O Paula hard at work at one of the planning kiosks. We exchange greetings. It's been a few weeks since we last worked together, so I tell her I'm looking forward to the next installment of her continuing saga of home renovation problems. As expected, she's already pulled up the flight plan from the dispatch computer and printed the update to the aircraft technical bulletins, as well as other information we'll need.

I log into the computer weather terminal for a self-briefing. Starting with the overview maps I work down into the various databases and graphics for a more detailed look. For a half a second I'm boggled yet again to realize that I'm viewing actual snapshots of the earth taken from space while I was driving to work.

There are some likely areas of turbulence early in the flight that will affect our cabin service. I make a note to include this in the flight attendant briefing. Cloud cover? Jet stream location? Fronts? If we were flying southward I'd be concerned more with the usual evidence of thunderstorms affecting those destinations but today, in early December across Canada, I'm more concerned with runway conditions and snowstorms and icing conditions and en route turbulence reports.

Other than the frontal system that is currently causing some local snow showers, meaning we'll need to deice the airplane before takeoff, and then some strong wind and rain showers on the west coast, it looks like a good day for the flight to Vancouver. The return flight may have some surprises I realize as I glance further down the Montreal forecast. I see that we have an amended forecast. Basically this means that the meteorologists missed the first attempt. And if they got it wrong once, why should I believe they've got it right now? Isn't amended forecast some sort of oxymoron? I may have grown slightly cynical over the years because I've been caught too often in uncomfortable situations due to inaccurate forecasts.

In the days of cheap fuel, everyone admitted weather forecasts weren't very accurate, and we compensated by throwing on more fuel. Fuel gives us time - and options. But now fuel is very expensive and companies dole it out with a teaspoon. They justify dispatching aircraft with minimal reserves based on the high reliability factor that the weather department claims for the forecasts. I often wonder if top level managers in met departments feel pressured to 'validate' their forecasts because they have to justify the multi-millions of dollars taxpayers have invested in weather networks and super-computers. (Oops - do I need to upgrade that self-assessment from slightly cynical to moderately cynical?)

Anyway, this morning the amended forecast is setting my spider senses to tingling. It seems clear that this winter storm system is gaining speed as it crosses southern Ontario, heading for Montreal. I suspect that our return trip tonight will be more interesting than I'd originally hoped.

Departure Time minus: 45:
(to be continued... )

Here's an approximate summary of the typical time from the check-in until pushback:

20 - 30 minutes to check schedules, NOTAMS*, ammendments to our flight manuals, review company bulletins, conduct a weather** briefing via computer or phone link to flight dispatch; check for records of aircraft deficiencies and how they might affect the plan (called Minimum Equipment List items or MELs); analyze the flight plan itself, checking the reasonableness of the routing, altitude profiles and most importantly, the fuel load.

15 - 20 minutes to get to the airplane; this has become more of an issue since 9-11, especially when flying to the U.S. when we have to pre-clear customs. Sometimes getting through the security checkpoints is the most stressful part of the day. Another reason I prefer to work fewer, longer flight legs.

10 - 15 minutes to get installed in the flight deck, check the log book, do an external inspection, and brief the flight attendants

15 - 20 minutes - accomplish the pre-departure checks of the aircraft systems; program the flight management/guidance system; conduct emergency briefings

60 - 85 minutes Total (Alloted time as per duty regs and company pay etc.. 75 minutes)

* NOTAM is an acronym for NOTICE TO AIRMEN. These bulletins are compiled for airport and enroute facilities all over the world, and published in various ways. In our case, flight dispatchers sift through the many sources and publish sub-lists applicable to our areas of operation. Still the list of messages can be long and difficult to absorb.

Most of the items are trivial things for our operation, such as: "MILITARY AIRSPACE RESTRICTION .... (and a list of latitude and longitude points which are almost meaningless without an appropriate map and plotter)... FROM 00H TO 08OOH DAILY FROM 3,000 TO 12,500 ASL... " Which is not of much interest to us today because we'll be flying well above 12,500 feet.

Besides, we'll be coordinating our navigation with the Air Traffic control system who will bear some responsibility for keeping us clear of such things. But you can be sure that if I was flying my little airplane today, I'd be paying much closer attention to those coordinates.

It's just no fun seeing yourself on the eleven o'clock news squatting on the runway edge with your hands clasped on top of your head while an anxious young soldier points a huge gun at your noggin. (Ask the two pilots who stumbled into the restricted area around Washington, D.C. not too long ago... anyone have a link to that video on Youtube perhaps?)

In contrast, often buried at the bottom of a page there'll be a small item like: "CYVR LOC 08R U/S (and some coded numbers indicating a range of times and dates...)." This could well be critical to our flight, because this indicates that a key part of the instrument landing system at Vancouver airport is not working. This will affect us only if the wind requires a landing on the eastbound runways so this probably won't be an issue, but it's nice to be aware.

** Weather reports for aviation come in several different formats. The ones we use most are called TAF and METAR. TAF refers to the forecasts related to specific airports, while METAR refers to the observations of actual weather which are taken every hour (or more frequently in fast changing conditions. I don't have a clue what the acronym, METAR stands for - but do I care?)

At any rate, these weather tools are presented in a complex coded format that was dreamt up in the days when data had to be transmitted over a very limited telemetry system. So the codes are very compact, omitting extra characters wherever possible. This at least has the beneficial side effect of employing hundreds of ground school instructors teaching aviators how to read this strange dialect. And as we live in the age of cheap data, there have been attempts to update this system to a clearer format using plain language or even a graphical representation. Alas, these are slow to catch on. Part of the reason of course, is that after putting so much effort into learning the codes, 'real' pilots disdain any retreat to such neophytic tactics. The professionalism of any pilot caught using such things, would be seriously questioned.

If you happen to be meteorologically-inclined, you can find all sorts of examples and explanations of these codes on the internet. Once having learned them, you can put them to use at one of the many online sources of aviation weather. And if you find out what METAR actually stands for, please let me know. Maybe I care more than I realized...

An FAA Alaska site

Nav Canada briefing site:


moe darbandi said...

I just took my private pilot checkride, so I know that the acronym METAR actually stands for "Routine Aviation Weather Report"

Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?

Aluwings said...

Congrats on the new licence! I guess I was hoping that the letters actually stand for some recognizable phrase in English, or perhaps French?

Anonymous said...


I just started reading your blog, and I find it quite entertaining and informative. However the "word" METAR really is an acronym for "MÉTéorologique Aviation Régulière". Today it is also known as " METeorological Aerodrome Report" for our english speaking pilots. So it actually makes sense.
Hope that I could help.
Have a nice day.

Aluwings said...

Aha! Merci! I was pretty sure that it must be a contraction from something sensible in French. Now I know...