Jun 25, 2007

A Day in the Life (25) Bored at Last

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 3H40M

There’s an old saw about flying being nothing but hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. The boredom has been a long time coming this morning but at last it sets in and I’m grateful. Boredom, while blasting through the air at four-hundred and fifty knots and thirty seven thousand feet above the earth, is not a bad thing.

As the normal cruise routine settles over the flight deck FO Paula and I catch up on our visiting. I get the latest tales of her home renovation nightmares. She gets the latest updates on my amateur-built aircraft project. We exchange our latest news from other hobbies, home-front and significant others. At times our talk turns to the latest news, and sooner or later to company news items that affect our careers.

When the conversation turns to “shop-talk” I revisit the life of a junior line pilot. It doesn’t seem so long ago that this was my lot. Yet surreptitiously, almost unnoticed the years have crept by and my name now sits nearer the top of the seniority list. But it will never reach that iconic ‘first page’ of the printed sheets where only those who started their GooseAir career straight out of college, will ever progress. And only they will hold down those coveted few top slots on the biggest airplanes with the nicest working conditions - and only for the last few years of their career. Ironically, it is these few jobs that represent the Airline Pilot’s job in most media reports - the Big Airplane, Big Bucks job. And they still act as a “carrot on a stick” to new pilots muling their way towards that elusive airline career.

This is just a fact of the seniority system and while there have been some rumblings about a ‘more equitable’ way of doling out work assignments, coming mainly from those at the bottom half of the list of course, these opinions are mainly perceived as whining to the colleagues who’ve paid their dues and are now finally reaping some payoff. The seniority system has too many advantages to ever see it completely disappear. In a career subject to many outside whims and economic factors, it represents one small way in which we can exercise some control over our lives.

With the variety of aircraft types flying both short-haul domestic as well as overseas routes, our GooseAir seniority system looks like a series of mini ladders, subdivided by aircraft type and seat status — that is, Captain, First Officer, and Relief Pilot (which is a position applicable only to the newer ultra-long-haul airplanes). The Second Officer/Flight Engineer status disappeared along with the old-technology Boeing 747s, 727s and DC-10s. Over most of my career I’ve preferred a niche near the top of a lower sub-ladder, meaning that I traded the move up for having a choice of working conditions each month. The few times I couldn’t avoid the bottom of a ladder and had to take a reserve/standby assignment, I hated it. I need a schedule. I can’t live with my suitcase packed, waiting for my phone to ring.

Cell phones do now add more flexibility for reserve pilots. They are free to roam so long as the are able to report to the airport within the prescribed time limit - usually an hour or two. Some pilots, eager to advance to the next bigger airplane, or the next status, spend most of their careers on reserve. Some pilots can withstand the long cruise hours and major time-shifts inherent in flying overseas and even thrive on it, but others barely tolerate it and I’ve seen it take a toll on them. When I was younger it would have been an adventure I’d have enjoyed, but during the economic downturns of the mid-eighties the seniority list was slipping backwards and I never got my chance. Now, that’s just fine by me. I do often fly southern routes such as the Caribbean destinations which have the advantage of remaining in the same time zone, and returning home the same day.

Each career path in a large airline is a unique entity. I’ve wondered how this compares to life at the one-size-fits-all carriers, where there is only one or two types of aircraft, and the route structure is limited. I’ve decided that in all careers, if we make the people and customer service our focus, the job will always be interesting. But if we make the technology and routes and other ‘stuff’ the focal point of the job, our satisfaction is at the whim of the economy and other outside forces. And sooner or later there will be no more new toys on the horizon to distract us. But by contrast, human beings never cease to amaze, amuse and befuddle.

Interspersed with our cockpit conversation is time to review the latest amendments to our operating manuals and procedures. It seems there is never an end to that part of the paper-work. The airspace system, and our destination airports along with company rules and procedures are in a continual flux. As life itself always is.

Also we keep an eye on the Vancouver weather, which is improving slightly, and the Montreal situation, which is worsening. Newer forecasts are catching up with the changing airmass and the visibility for our return tonight is predicted to be an eighth of a mile in snow and fog. I dash off a communique to flight dispatch reminding them we’ll need to use the fine-lead pencil for our fuel calculations on the return flight. Our cabin will be full, which means our capacity for extra fuel will be limited. Due to our late arrival in Vancouver, we’ll be doing a quick turn around. It’s better to get as much done beforehand as possible. And of course to add to the rush, we’ll be changing aircraft and the new gate is in the next terminal wing over. We’ll be running the flight crew dash.

So for now as the prairie scenery stretches out below, I stare out the window and watch. Sometimes I gaze at the landscape and imagine what it must have been like just two hundred years ago when these regions had barely seen an outsider. The native peoples lived the life they’d lived for five thousand years with little awareness of the larger world that swirled around them - and the horrific impact it would have on them one day. I wonder what “first contact” was like for them and why science fiction writers never use the invasion of the Americas as their paradigm for a modern “space alien” story.

At other times I imagine I’m captain of a space probe that has just entered orbit over earth and that I’m searching for signs of intelligent life. What would that look like? Straight lines cut across acres of forest must be one give-away. Nature abhors straight lines as much as she does a vacuum. And the roads our civilization has cut across the landscape seem to penetrate the wilderness everywhere.

Meanwhile I watch the fuel count down. At each waypoint I mark down the fuel remaining and the fuel used and ensure it still adds up. I compare the times on our flight plan, with our initial estimates and the flight computer estimates. We’ll arrive at our gate at Vancouver about thirty minutes behind schedule. The remaining fuel is adequate but not abundant.

With the Canadian Rockies looming on the horizon, ATC advises us they need us at the appropriate altitude for our direction of flight. So, we fiinally climb to FL 390 over Alberta. In just a few moments, our navigation displays will peer far enough ahead to bring Vancouver onto the digital map and it will be time to get busy with the arrival details. But for now the lull of a routine cruise phase continues.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 1H00

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