Jun 7, 2007

A Day in the Life (22) Now?

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 4H30M

For many years flights cruising above twenty-nine thousand feet used two thousand feet of vertical separation between standard flight levels. This was due to the limitations of our altimeters - they get less accurate the higher we go. Westbound flights had priority at flight levels 310, 350 and 390, while eastbound flights used 290, 330, 370. Over the years airliners gradually entered service that could routinely use flight levels up to 430.

Above that only a few advanced bizjets and some military fighters could venture. The exception of course was the supersonic Concorde which I might occasionally hear reporting at levels beginning with 5s and 6s.

Today, RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minima) has been implemented across most of the world’s busiest airspace. Due to more accurate altimeters, flights now maintain one thousand foot separations right up to the top of the usable airspace. So the old rule of using the even numbers for westbound travel and odd numbers for eastbound continues right up through our navigable airspace. But this morning RVSM has not yet been implemented in this region and our choice of cruise levels is limited.

All through breakfast FO Paula is busy tweaking our altitude, trying to stay out of the turbulence. Mostly she succeeds. Usually by giving away just a bit more altitude until we've reached the bottom of the box ATC assigned us. It seems like the turbulent airmass is sloping gently lower the further west we go. I begin to wonder if the upper edge of the turbulence is also descending - that is, could we now possibly climb over it?

When we first reached cruise altitude, we were limited by our weight to a maximum altitude of flight level 350. Now we’ve burned off some fuel and could get to level 370 but it would be against the normal flow of traffic. And it would be a slow climb. And once there we would be vulnerable to jet upset (mach/stall buffet) if we happened to hit more serious turbulence.

I’m not the only one having these thoughts apparently. When we switch to the next ATC frequency along our route and check in I immediately hear other flights transiting northern Ontario asking about “rides above level three one oh.”

The controller starts a survey of various flights in his region.

“Speedbird 123, how’s your ride over (he specifies the geographic spot). In a lovely round British accent we hear, “Speedbird 123 is getting continuous light chop with occasional moderate bumps at flight level 370….” He’s just north of our track on a trans-polar route down towards the U.S. somewhere I guess. Another flight reports a “pretty rough” ride at flight level 310 and he seems to be a little south west of us. One or two other flights respond to the controller’s queries and all the reports are at flight levels 330 and below. No one is getting the kind of ride they’d prefer.

Then with perhaps a rather smug smile evident in his tone, we hear a military pilot chime in, “The ride is smooooth at flight level 530.” He knows none of us are capable of climbing that high and he’s enjoying his moment. There’s a short pause on the frequency. Then a grizzled old voice rattles on with, “How’s the pay at flight level five three zero?” No answer.

I glance over at FO Paula who’s chuckling with me. Neither of us are ex-military, but a lot of our colleagues are and we know why they’re now at GooseAir. Money, plain and simple. Most military pilots eventually head for the airlines where the pay scales appreciate significantly after the first two or three years. Or at least they used to. Since the recent bankruptcies and downward pressure on salaries and the so-called “Walmartization” of the airline industry, the picture may be changing a little.

But on this day, our military compatriot wisely chooses silence as his best comeback, leaving us to wonder how low the smooth air descends beneath his wings. I find myself wishing he’d volunteer to do some ‘depth soundings’ for us but I guess he has something more important to do this morning with his multi-million dollar F-18 and we don’t hear from him again.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 4H15M


moe darbandi said...

Wow, I just thought I had to say something: This was one of the most entertaining, interesting, and educational posts I've read in a while.

I really do appreciate this series. Thank you for providing a detail analysis of airline piloting to your readers; it's greatly appreciated!

Michael L. said...

Oh, I just love to read through this series. Keep 'em coming! :D

Greg said...

Hey! We don't get paid as poorly as we used to. The military or rather the bureaucrats in Ottawa are smartening up. The pay is quite decent now.

Anyway, great blog!