Jun 14, 2007

A Day in the Life (23) Or Never...?

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 4H15M

If we’d known the turbulence was this bad, we’d have carried extra fuel for it. But this morning conditions seem to be changing rapidly. All the forecasts for this region seem a little suspect. We carry contingency fuel for unplanned situations, but it's almost gone.

I’ve been playing some scenarios in my head as I watch the fuel reserves tick away. If we had planned for a long alternate, that is an alternate airport a long ways from Vancouver, we could shorten up to a closer airport and reapply that fuel. But, it costs fuel to carry fuel, so as much as possible, we fly ‘contact’ (no-alternate IFR) or we carry a very close-by airport. A so-called 'technical alternate'. We could land at the technical alternate if we had to. but we try to avoid this. When it happens, life gets complicated - ask me how I know. But that’s another story.

Today we’re carrying Victoria as a regular alternate on Vancouver Island and it’s hard to get much closer than that. Abbotsford, a technical alternate just up the valley might save 50 KGs or so by comparison. The on-board flight management computers are handy at a time like this. Instead of flipping out my ‘whiz wheel’ and doing the complicated calculations, I just type the different alternate airports into the flight plan, hit ‘enter’ and the trolls do the math.

If the new Vancouver weather forecasts show improving weather I can negotiate with our dispatcher to drop the alternate airport altogether. We’ve been communicating with him already this morning and that’s one idea we’re keeping on the back burner.

The least attractive option, is to make an enroute landing in Calgary. Alberta weather is good, but the resulting delay will produce mis-connections for passengers, crew members and our aircraft. We have a few other options to try first. We’ll cut corners, but this has to be done judiciously. The flight planning computer has originally plotted the minimum fuel profile across the country. If we flew directly to Vancouver this would actually increase our fuel burn.

But along the way our route turns over key navigation waypoints. At these we can turn early towards the subsequent waypoint and so smooth out the rough edges. That saves a smidgen of time and fuel. I wonder if it would make the passengers nervous to know that we usually are “cutting corners” during our flights. I can imagine trying to explain that: “But I mean ‘cutting corners’ in a good way…” uh, huh.

Our last option and best hope for making Vancouver non-stop, as advertised, and expected by our passengers, is to get up to thirty-five thousand feet, or slightly higher, as soon as possible. MCDU displays our optimum altitude for the current wind program and temperatures. Right now it suggests we would do best at 36,000 feet.

I look at FO Paula, and in my best Clint Eastwood voice ask, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?” She looks at me quizzically like I’ve totally lost it. “It’s a movie line,” I assure her. “But you were probably about five when it came out…”

She raises an eyebrow. “Well, two actually. But, is this your way of saying you’d like me to climb?”

I congratulate her again on her tremendous crew resource management skills. Not only has she discerned my rather skillful method of providing "captainly guidance" -- okay, okay, manipulation -- but at the same time she has retaliated by brutally reminding me just how old I am! She fights dirty. In the best tradition of Dirty Harry, I think to myself. No wonder I enjoy working with her.

“Sure,” she continues. “Let’s request flight level 350.”

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 4H00M

“Do you feel lucky…?”


Ward said...

I'm enjoying the series a lot... just flew Vancouver-Quebec City and back w/ a connection in Montreal each way earlier this week (but on a B767). Not much turbulence, had a few minutes of small but strong bumps. Now that I've been reading your blog and a few others, it's interesting to know more about what's going on up front when it happens.

Aluwings said...

When I travel in the back, I always keep my seat belt fastened loosely - just like the announcements request. For good reason. There is as yet, no reliable means to detect all forms of turbulence, so surprises do happen!

Thanks for the encouragement.