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

Jun 18, 2007

A Day in the Life (24) No Cause For Alarm!

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 4H00M

“Leaving flight level two six zero for flight level three five zero, Climb, Open Climb.”

I’ve organized the clearance with Toronto ATC who had to talk to Winnipeg ATC and finally we’re on the way back up. Before doing all this I had a long chat with Connie about the cabin service. Breakfast is finished and they’ve re-secured all the carts and galley equipment. I made an announcement to the passengers to let them know we’ll be climbing soon to try find a smoother ride.

When giving passengers technical announcements, it’s a bit of a head-scratch finding the right words. I don’t want to overload them with details they won’t grasp anyway. And I don’t want to give them a long song-and-dance that could be misunderstood. And I don’t want to frighten them. Yet, with turbulence I seriously want them to stay seated with their belts tightened up.

I recall an old Carol Burnett show about pilots making announcements. I won’t even mention this to FO Paula because she’ll just look puzzled again and ask “Who’s Carol Burnett?” and I don’t have Youtube on the flight deck. At least not yet. “Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no cause for alarm…” I’ve always wanted to make that announcement.*

But today I just tell them about the likelihood of more turbulence as we climb towards hopefully smooth air. And while I’m at it I give them a standard announcement about route and arrival times and Vancouver weather. And thank them for their business. Might as well try to win them over before they are terrified and puking.

The chop at FL260 has been intermittent, and initially the climb looks like a good idea. The air at 270 is almost smooth. And then it gets gradually worse and worse. At FL310 it’s really uncomfortable. The airframe is taking some solid hits and rocking and pitching away from the target attitude. When it's this rough up front I know it's a lot worse in the back. If this lasts long, the sick sacls will be in big demand back there.

My seatbelt is digging into my lap from time-to-time and the airspeed tape jumps plus and minus ten knots. The airspeed trend arrow reveals where the trolls figure our speed will be ten seconds from now based upon current conditions. They must be burning out their abaci because one second it shoots upward, then the next it just as aggressively stretches downward.

We’re the first to climb through these altitudes in this particular region and I know everyone on the frequency is wondering how it’s going. I call ATC to tell him we are getting some “good moderate turbulence through flight level three one zero.” We actually have a table*** defining the words we use to describe turbulence. When someone says “good moderate turbulence,” that’s not good. It means they’re being careful to avoid the word severe, and yet want to emphasis that it’s a really rough ride.

Finally at 330, there’s some sign of relief. FO Paula has us climbing at the turbulence penetration speed which also gives us the maximum rate of climb. But it's not much as the engines produce less and less thrust in the thinner air.

At flight level three-five-oh, the ride isn't great - but tolerable. The “jaws of death**” on our airspeed indicators and the performance numbers in Macdoo tell us we could manage to get up to three-seven-oh.

FO Paula is thinking the same way. “Do you want to ask if three-seven-oh is available?”

I do. I ask.

“GooseAir, cleared to climb to flight level three seven zero.”

Our rate of climb barely averages four hundred feet per minute now. But the higher we climb, the smoother it gets. I keep checking the outside air temperature. If it is much warmer than normal up here that could cause us a problem. Warmer air also means less engine thrust.

“Mach, ALT Star,” FO Paula reads out as the autopilot begins to capture the new cruise level. It takes a long time to gain the last two hundred feet because we seem to be losing headwind as we climb. The engines have barely enough excess power to keep us climbing, let alone regain each knot of headwind that shears away.

Finally we lock on to the altitude and I check the wind indication and groundspeed. It’s good. We’ve managed to get above the turbulence along with much of the prevailing westerly wind. In a minute when things settle down I’ll recheck our fuel picture, and make a pirep to flight dispatch, but for now I’m happy just to key the mike and report; “GooseAir one eleven is level at three-seven-oh. Mainly smooth. Just an occasional ripple."

I turn to FO Paula. “You do good work. Remind me to give you a raise.”

“I wish,” She responds.

I reach up and flip off the seatbelt sign.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 3H40M


** Jaws of death: The airspeed tape shows our maximum speed at this altitude with a red bar, and our minimum safe flying speed with an amber bar that becomes more serious shades of red and yellow further down the tape. Sometimes when we’re cruising at our maximum permitted altitude for our weight, there is as little as 8 or 10 knots between maximum and minimum. And in turbulence these indicators close in on each other. So, they’ve been knick-named the jaws of death because should they ever come together it Bites! big time. (see previous references to coffin corner and jet upset.)

*** The Table of Turbulence Definitions and Reports:


Turbulence that momentarily causes slight erratic changes in altitude and/or attitude (pitch, roll, yaw). Report as Light Turbulence.* OR Turbulence that causes slight, rapid and somewhat rhythmic bumpiness without appreciable changes in altitude or attitude. Report as Light Chop.
Occupants may feel a slight strain against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects may be displaced slightly. Food service many be conducted and little or no difficulty is encountered when walking.


Moderate Turbulence is similar to Light Turbulence but of greater intensity. Changes in altitude and/or attitude occur but the aircraft remains in positive control at all times. It usually causes variations in indicated airspeed. Report as Moderate Turbulence.* OR Turbulence that is similar to Light Chop but of greater intensity. It causes rapid bumps or jolts without appreciable changes in aircraft altitude or attitude. Report as Moderate Chop.

Occupants feel definite strains against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are dislodged. Food service and walking are difficult.


Turbulence that causes large, abrupt changes in altitude and/or attitude. It usually causes large variations in indicated airspeed. Aircraft may be momentarily out of control. Report as Severe Turbulence.*

Occupants are forced violently against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects are tossed about. Food service and walking are impossible.


Turbulence in which the aircraft is violently tossed about and is practically impossible to control. It may cause structural damage. Report as Extreme Turbulence.*

The official table doesn't actually have anything to say about this. At any rate it won't be 'good' and will probably involve a lot of fear and vomiting. And may even generate a complaint letter to the airline president assuming The Wings Stay On!

*High level turbulence (normally above 15,000 feet MSL) not associated with cumuliform cloudiness, including thunderstorms, should be reported as CAT (Clear Air Turbulence) preceded by the appropriate intensity, or light or moderate chop.


*I recall this being performed by Harvey Korman, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett, but I can’t find that. Here’s a Monty Python version:

Related Carol Burnett Show skit:

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…?”

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

Jun 2, 2007

Space, the final frontier...

So, you may notice I've been tweaking the header using the new blogger facility for using an image... I'm still stuck with a large white space at the top of the left hand side-bar. Are there any HTML wizards out there who can tell me how to remove this padding from the template?

Thanks in advance,

A Day in the Life (21) Vertically Challenged

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 4H50M

Earth’s highest point is Mount Everest at 8846 meters (29,028 feet). The lowest point on earth is the Pacific Ocean's Marianas Trench, near Guam at 10,924 m (35,840) feet deep. So the total vertical relief of the earth’s surface is 19, 770 meters - just under 20 kilometers. That seems like a pretty craggy surface at first glance.

But consider that the circumference of the earth is about 40,000 kilometers. If we were to shrink the globe down to the equivalent size, apparently it would be smoother than a billiard ball.

Then, moving upward from this surprisingly smooth surface, I know that at just 18,000 feet we are already above half of the earth’s atmosphere, by mass. Of course it continues to stretch upwards to one-hundred thousand feet and more, but by then it’s so thin it’s not a place we can survive or fly conventional airplanes. On our billiard ball model, our entire “useful” atmosphere could be represented by a film of baby oil. That’s all that stands between us and the oblivion of deep space.

You could say we earthlings are vertically challenged. Our world is a very compact place when we start measuring ups and downs. And a lot can happen in a short distance. So I’m not overly surprised when the turbulence stops as suddenly as it began once we've descended a mere 500 feet.

FO Paula glances over and asks, “Do you want to ask for flight level two seven zero, wrong-way, for now?” Normally the odd-numbered flight levels are for eastbound flights only.

“Good idea,” I reply and key the mic and make the request.

“I’ll do even better for you,” the controller replies. “Goose Air one-eleven, maintain block altitude two-six zero through two eight zero.” I read this back and thank him. We now have some freedom to climb and descend a little to track this smooth river of air.

FO Paula locks us onto flight level two seven zero, at least for now. I wait a few minutes to see if the smooth air will hold. It does. I switch off the seat belt sign.

“Let’s try again.”

A growling stomach soon reminds me that my early morning coffee and snack are a long way down. When Connie returns with my breakfast tray I dig right in. Our Standard Operating Procedures suggest that the two pilots should not eat at the same time. But they also say that hypoglycemia is not a good thing. As further insurance I note we have good alternate airports along the route -- safe harbour should the green eggs and ham turn us both green.

As we dine, it's time to catch up on our mutual continuing sagas of life, the universe and everything. I happen to notice our flight management computer now says we’ll be arriving in Vancouver with nearly empty fuel tanks. The old computer adage, garbage in - garbage out applies here. The dire prediction is triggered by the unplanned altitude changes we've made. Yet, it’s disconcerting to see negative numbers in the “extra fuel” display window, so I add the step climb predictions at a couple of places along the way.

As I do so, the fuel prediction gradually adjusts towards the original flight planned amount. But still I am acutely aware that as long as we are trapped at this relatively low level, our reserve fuel is steadily being consumed.

The clock is ticking. This clock is not marked with one’s and two’s and sequential numbers up to twelve. Rather it sports a big ‘E-for-empty.’ Tic, tic, tic…

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 4H30M