May 24, 2007

A Day in the Life (20) Beaten Down

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 - Cruise

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 5H00M

Encounters with clear air turbulence (CAT) can be a little like the unavoidable troubles that befall us all in life. Sometimes they arise gradually accompanied by clear signs and specific warnings from others who’ve gone before. But often, like today, things happen suddenly, as if trying to catch you unprepared.

Connie is just reaching the breakfast tray over FO Paula’s shoulder when the first ripple hits. There’s a particular cadence to the ripples that I’ve heard before and I instinctively reach for the seat-belt sign and flip it on. Just as I do the next ripple hits but this is more like a full-blown tsunami.

FO Paula barely manages to set her tray onto her chart table, then decides to quickly stow it more securely along the outboard side panel by her flight bag. At the same time with the other hand she reaches for the speed control knob. I give her the thumbs up because I was thinking the same thing. It’s time to reduce our speed, both to guard the structural integrity of the ship, and to ease the ride for the flight attendants and passengers who've been caught unawares.

The next blast of turbulence strikes as Connie is staggering back to her seat. She slams the door closed behind her, while I'm delivering a quick P.A. announcement, trying not to knock my teeth out with the handset: “Ladies-and-Gentlemen-as-you’ve-noticed-we’re-encountering-turbulence. Hopefully-this-won’t-last-long- but-for-now-remain-seated - with-your-seat belts-securely-fastened.”

After struggling to replace the handset in its cradle, I call ATC.

“Toronto center, Goose Air one eleven. We’re getting moderate turbulence now at flight level two eight zero. Any idea how far this extends?”

“Negative One Eleven. You’re the first to report it at that altitude.” He then checks with some other flights in the region. Someone at flight level two six zero reports mainly smooth conditions.

I quickly ask FO Paula, “Do you want to try two six zero?” I know it’s a leading question and I did tell her she should make her own decisions about our flight profile. So, I try to make it not sound like a suggestion. In fact, if she wanted to wait here for a few minutes I’d go along with that. Clear air turbulence is hard to predict. Even if we give back two thousand feet of hard-won altitude, there’s no guarantee we’ll find smooth air. It’s a judgment call and often it’s more like a guess.

She nods “yes,” and I request it. “Standby,” comes the response from ATC as he studies how we'll fit into his traffic pattern at the lower altitude.

I hate giving back the two thousand feet. It cost precious fuel to get here, and we’ll have to spend that all over again later when we finally climb to our cruising altitude. But today the extra fuel seems like a reasonable investment towards keeping our sick sacks clean and pristine.

Finally we get the clearance, I acknowledge it and FO Paula is already twisting the control knob to inaugurate the descent.

“Leaving flight level two eight zero for two six zero,” she calls as the muffled roar of the engines and air-conditioning surge slightly then descend in cadence amidst the chaotic rattles of troubled air beating against our airframe.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 4H50M


arf said...

This whole series is very nicely written, but I especially like this post! Nice!

Aluwings said...

Thanks. I appreciate the encouragement. I just went back to clean up some of the sentences and grammar and typos. It's amazing what a tired brain misses when doing posts after midnight...

Anonymous said...

Great the detail. Roll on the next entry!