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.
Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - CYUL - Departure Gate
Departure Time: -25 minutes
I once saw a chart for the brand new Bombardier Regional Jet illustrating how the aircraft could arrive from one flight and be ready to leave on the next in just a few minutes. This so-called quick turn-around capability is crucial to the airlines. Parked aircraft don't make money. The chart listed time to unload passengers and luggage, clean the cabin, renew the galley supplies, re-load the passengers and luggage and refuel the plane. I'm not sure if it included time for crew changes. That would be more realistic given how often we shuffle from plane to plane in a day's work. I don't recall if maintenance procedures were included. But the critical item overlooked is that all these activities transit the the same twenty square feet of floor space at the front of the plane. Here, located in close proximity are the main cabin door, the galley service door, the flight deck door and the aisle-way into the passenger cabin, along with the main galley and crew storage areas. It's kind of a golden quadrangle where the best-layed plans for a quick turn-around run smack up against the time-space continuum which dictates that only one object or person may occupy one space at one time. Regardless of what the chart says.
This equivalent space on our A320 suddenly looks like New York gridlock as our flight attendants rush in, opening closet doors, jamming suitcases and overcoats and personal items into lockers; the galley service crew begin loading supplies with much slamming and banging of carts and clanging of metal ramps attaching Cara truck to door sill. Our mechanic arrives and bravely dives into the melee, edging ahead of us into the flight deck. He reappears clutching the aircraft logbook and like a salmon swimming upstream he dodges his way out to the bridge again. He finds an out-of-the way corner where he can prop the logbook on one knee while making his entries; FO Paula heads in next while I stream in her wake. There we begin a sort of compact choreography. Suitcases are tucked into appropriate tie-downs, and flight bags are slung along the outboard walls; overcoats and tunics and hats are hung on the appropriate hooks. I retreat back to the bridge to give FO Paula room to start her initial checks. Besides, I'll need the logbook as soon as the mechanic is finished.
FO Paula soon strides out and exits the bridge into the half-light of the morning ramp. She's packing the flight deck flashlight and pulling on the reflective vest usually seen on road construction crews. The ramp is a dangerous place full of unforgiving metal machinery being driven by busy baggage handlers who may be as sleepy as the rest of us. So we are required to wear the vest. Some believe it's because it has magical protective properties while others hold that it makes us an easier target. I retrieve the logbook from the mechanic and we exchange a smile along with some familiar kibitzing; "You break 'em, I fix 'em." "You fix 'em - I break 'em!" I slip back into the flight deck, stopping just inside the door where there's barely enough headroom to stand straight. Awkwardly flipping the the book to the current page I block out the surrounding chaos and concentrate on the things I need to check.
Has the mechanic properly signed off his daily inspections within the allowable time frames? Any new deficiencies that weren't listed in the flight plan? Any significant history over the last few days to be aware of? It turns out we have a clean machine which is a welcome discovery. Dealing with last minute snags is a pain.
I glance up at the over-head panel to check the status of the three navigation computers. According to Airbus they're called Addiroos, spelled ADIRUs, which supposedly stands for Air Data and Inertial Reference Units, but I think sounds more like an exotic species of genie from The Thousand and One Arabian Nights. This capricious triumvirate takes outside readings of static and dynamic air pressure and temperature and combines them with internal references from gyros and accelerometers. Then they compute things I need to know and transmit this information to the flight and navigation displays in language I can read. Apparently Addiroos need quiet time to accomplish all this for we must not disturb them by moving the airplane. It takes about ten minutes and is called alignment.
Addiroos can be quite fussy. I've seen the normal swaying and shifting of the aircraft on a windy day upset them enough that they will angrily flash their amber "fault" lights at me which means they have to start all over again. I used to know a little of how Addiroos do all this magic but my brain long ago shifted such information from need to know to used to know. I am certain however that once alignment is complete and the little white lights come on our Addiroos will faithfully track every subsequent movement of the aircraft so they always know exactly where we are -- even if I don't. I glance up and confirm that Paula has already charmed the genies and their musings will be completed in time for our instrument checks.
(For a somewhat more technical explanation of the ADIRUs, check the link at the end of this article).
Now I hike myself into my chair by using the grab, duck, swoop and plop method. That is, I grab the hand-hold at the top of the front windshield to steady myself then duck my head to clear the overhead panel and swoop my leg across the seat then finally plop my backside onto the cushion. Some pilots with shorter legs employ the step, grab, duck and flop method which starts with a step up onto the seat cushion. I'm too tall for that and would probably jam my head into the vee between the windshield and dash panel and FO Paula would have to call the mechanic to come lever me out. By-the-way, I've never yet seen a pilot stumble while getting in and out of the seats during flight and so fall onto the controls but when it happens it won't be pretty. I always remind passengers that when the flight attendant recommends keeping your seat belt on in flight, even during smooth weather, it's a good idea. Occasionally I have seen a pilot open a small gash on their forehead from failing to adequately complete the duck! portion of the sit-down drill.
Paula returns looking frosty. She confirms that the wings have accumulated some ice and snow. We'll definitely need a spray. I tap the transmit button on number two radio, turn up the flight deck speaker then advise the de-icing center of our spray requirements as well as our expected ETA. It's a little like making dinner reservations, but I wouldn't like to eat what's on the menu.
Soon my ear-set is plugged in and the speaker turned down again. My tie is hung in its special place on the side window post. Then like a mother hen settling carefully onto her eggs, I begin adjusting my chair and rudder pedals and armrests and head rest and lumbar support. This ritual is about more than comfort, although comfort's important too. It's actually about safety.
I begin with my eyeball location. Small pointers specially mounted on the center window post show me when my eyes are at the correct position for outside visibility. This gives me the best chance to see the approach lights and runway surface when landing in bad weather. If I sit too high or too low my visual references will be compromised. I tweak my electric seat controls up and forward a little at time until the indicators are in line. I guess you could say I'm doing my own alignment just like Addiroo.
The rudder pedals come next. The entire pedal assembly slides forward and back on a rail and I need them locked at the proper distance to ensure full travel when either leg is extended. If an engine fails at the critical moment during takeoff, I'll need all the rudder travel available to keep the aircraft straight.
The next adjustment is unique to Airbus pilots. The outboard armrest is an integral part of the sidestick controller - the "joy-stick". A lot of very elegant engineering obviously went into designing it. When set correctly a natural ergonomic action of pulling straight back on the stick won't add rolling input to either side and conversely, when we command a full left or right roll we won't add any inadvertent nose-up or down commands. During initial training we each find our unique sweet spot and memorize the alpha-numeric indicators on the two dials. We only need feed these codes into the armrest on subsequent aircraft we fly and we're set. My code is 4F. I often wonder if I should be concerned about that?
Finally ready, I look at Paula who has been busy with her version of the same rituals. Now it's time for the first big decision of the day -- who's on first - that is, who'll fly the first leg? Some Captains take a very rigid approach. They always fly the first leg. Then the FO knows what's expected. Other Captains like to add a little fun to the flight deck and employ the official toss of the lucky coin. One fellow even carries his special double-headed coin for the occasion.
I decide FO Paula will take us to Vancouver. She's already done plenty of Montreal landings this month (see method one above), and would enjoy the change of pace. We're also expecting low cloud ceiling and visibility when we return tonight. When parameters go below specified limits the approach must be flown by the Captain. There's one other minor consideration. Since I now wear eyeglasses I prefer flying in the dark to doing the paperwork in the dark.
So FO Paula launches into the pre-departure checks and I glance down at the clock...
Departure time: -15 minutes
(to be continued...)