May 10, 2007

A Day in the Life (18) Transitions

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 - Climb

Elapsed Time: Take-Off plus ten and counting

Transitions are what life seems to be about. Change is inevitable and how life ultimately shapes. Sometimes change is easy and to be enjoyed, while other times just the opposite.

Our surrounding airmass is in transition this morning - I can feel it. The visibilility isn’t what it should be according to forecast. The cloud cover seems to be flowing in over head from the north west. There’s an "ill-wind-blowing" kind of feeling here. I pull up a new forecast strip. It is still amended but so far there's no amendment to the amendment.

Climbing through ten thousand feet FO Paula makes the call and I respond with a quick check of the pressurization system, and retract the landing lights. Then I pick up the inter-phone for a quick conversation with our purser. I glance up quickly to the cabin safety-check form inserted into a seam in the wall just over my head.

It's funny how when a new airplane arrives on the line, the pilots soon develop non-written "standards" for arranging the myriad little details that aren't specified in the manuals. The Data Link reports get folded just like this, and then set right here... and the weather reports should be here and the weight and balance should go just there.

Today, we have five flight attendants to handle the full load. I've flown with Connie-the-purser before but never long enough to actually get to know her or remember her name the next time our paths cross. But I do recall that she's very good at her job. The rest of the crew are strangers and I may never work with them again. As the airline gets bigger I spend more time working with strangers and missing the camaraderie of twenty-five years earlier. I really am turning into an "old fart." Transitions.

“Hey Connie, I’m still suspicious about turbulence once we get to cruise altitude. I’ll let the folks get up for a pee-break, but don’t rush out into the aisles with any hot stuff until I ask ATC a few more questions - okay?”

She acknowledges and quickly hangs up. As our workload in the flight deck eases, hers is just beginning. I flick off the Seatbelt sign. Within a few seconds the washroom door behind us slams as someone hurries to drain the morning coffee.

Montreal Terminal control soon hands us off to Toronto Center who clears us to flight level 310, our initial flight plan altitude. I start asking about rides.

“Anyone complain of turbulence westbound this morning?”

“Not that I know of. But you’re the first that far north. Standby and I’ll check ahead for you.”

“Thanks.” Some controllers are so helpful you wish you could reserve them for your flights every time you go to work.

After a few moments he reports back. “Occasional moderate chop across northern Ontario above FL290…” I re-negotiate our cruise altitude to flight level 280. We arrive even as I feed the new number into the computer.

“Mach. Alt-Star,” FO Paula calls as the auto-flight status annunciates transition to cruise level*.

I’ve learned to watch the auto-flight carefully at this point. I’ve been burned before when an interruption caused the autopilot to climb through the altitude and not grab it. Airbus crashed an A330 during a test flight partly due to the vagaries of the “Alt star” mode. And other industry incidents have led to more simulator training. As I said, transitions can be difficult.

Once we're locked onto our flight level, and the house-keeping chores are done, the flight begins to settle into the calmness of cruise. I keep busy for the first few minutes updating the aircraft journey logbook and transferring numbers from MCDU to the flight log.

Just as we back up the mega-dollar navigation computer route data by reference to “twenty-five-cent” printed charts, we also keep paper notes of our fuel and time progress with another “twenty-five-cent” solution - a ballpoint pen. I wonder when we’ll trust the high-tech tools enough to dispense with this? For now we're in the midst of another transition. One that holds promises not yet fully-realized. And surprises unimagined. And we hang onto our “twenty-five-cent” solutions.

Transitions often require an extra measure of caution.

Time: Take-Off plus twenty minutes and counting...

* Alt Star is the way we pronounce the indicator:
ALT* on the auto-flight annunciator panel. -- It reveals that the altitude capture mode is leveling the aircraft at the selected altitude.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this blog. I'm an avid reader of a lot of aviation blogs and just found this one through another Canadian pilot's blog. Your 'series' is fantastic and I'm anxious to read the next installment already.

Your writing rivals another fine Airbus pilot in the US.

Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this!