Feb 27, 2007

A Day in the Life (12) Please Release Me...

A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and back - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).

Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - CYUL - Main Ramp

Departure Time: plus five and counting...

“Pushback complete. Set brakes.”

I set the parking brakes and confirm the hydraulic pressure readings and parking brake indicator on my screen before I call back;

“Brakes set.”

Check pilots are adamant about this detail. I assume there have been incidents where the parking brakes did not engage properly. In fact, this is one of the finer points of the Airbus electronic aircraft. We are trained very emphatically to never assume a control has engaged simply because the switch or pushbutton has moved. The ultimate indicator is the panel display which confirms the signal has been received and acted upon by the computer. This wasn’t often a problem in the days when things were connected by big steel cables.

I clasp my fists in the front windshield, signalling “brakes on" for our marshaller. He has his arms crossed in the “stop,” command which he’ll maintain until we are ready to roll again. The other crew-members move under us towards the nosewheel to remove the towbar.

This has been a relatively short pushback compared to some gates. There's no reason to anticipate any delay so I move my right hand to the engine one master switch.

"Starting engine one."

ENG MASTER 1 switch ..........................ON

As we work through this next engine start I feel familiar thumps and bumps from below. The banging is mild this morning but sometimes I’ve heard it become loud enough to make me wonder. What on earth are they kicking to ‘fine tune’ the alignment of the steering scissors? I’ve even called down to ask if there was a problem, only to receive a “no problem mon,” sort of reply that I’d usually associate with a Jamaican vacation.

It is a maxim in airline operations that the pilot is dependent upon others to accomplish tasks that have huge safety implications yet we have little recourse to monitor or supervise the work. This includes things like loading the cargo, doing the weight and balance calculations and ensuring the exterior of the aircraft is properly buttoned down before departure. I've experienced fueling panels only half-closed, hazardous cargo improperly loaded and at least once when I couldn't steer the airplane as I initially tried to turn out from the ramp.

But this is also a hazardous time for ground crews. Our nosewheel steering system is shut off during pushback to prevent accidental movement of the mechanisms. But some other aircraft don’t have this capability. Once the connecting pin is reinserted inadvertent movement of the rudder pedals or nose steering wheel by the pilot could cause a serious injury.

Engine one is beginning to stabilize as the pushback tractor pulls into view from beneath us and stops a few meters away. I know the crew has another flight to dispatch, so as soon as I’m sure the engine one EGT is behaving normally, I tell FO Paula; “Your engine,” and glance over to ensure she’s watching it for me. Then I call the ramp crew; “Confirm pins removed.”

“Pins removed.”

“Revert to hand signals. Thanks for a smooth push.”

“Reverting to hand signals. Thanks captain. Good flight.”

I note the tractor moving well back now out of the way. Ideally someone holds up both pins so I can have visual confirmation of their removal, and then the ramp marshaller will give me a ‘proceed’ signal. GooseAir doesn’t require a formal visual show from our crews, taking the verbal declaration as more valid. I suppose this is true for jumbo jets where the captain is too far away to really see clearly. But I do get a warm-fuzzy feeling seeing the pins in someones' hand, usually as he tosses them into the toolbox on the tractor.

I turn my attention back to the flight deck just as FO Paula calls, “Engine one, normal.”

“After Start checklist,” I say.

Departure Time: plus eight and counting...

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