Thursday, July 16, 2009

Two Too Laughed

Dateline: Thursday, July 9th, 2009

On this third morning of another five day trip (actually a three day and a two day back to back) with all very early show times, I’m grumpy, to be honest. It has a lot to do with ‘springing’ out of bed every day at 4 to 5 AM, I’m sure. That and the wrestling I’ve been doing with my laptop, which stubbornly refused to connect to the internet at the hotel.

I contacted their technical support twice, they apologized twice, and that’s about it. Actually they tried hard to fix it but their efforts had no effect. I think my anti-virus software is clogging up the works. I’ve tried to turn it off, unsuccessfully. I ask out loud: why would you sell anti-virus software you can’t actually turn off when you need to?

I’ve been trying to complete my airline’s recurrent internet ground school course while on the road so I don’t have to do it at home during my ‘girl time’ with SG and M & M. On the first overnight in Albany my browser wouldn’t work, at all. I found that if you leave the calendar set to the wrong month after checking future plans (oops), you can count on this exact problem occurring. Before I got back in the right dimension the Albany hotel’s business center rescued me; and Rochester’s version will have to help as long as I’m laying my head there, again tomorrow night. I have to finish within five days, before my one day ground school the day before another three day trip starts. With two days off between five days of flying and this next stint, the road wear and fatigue can and is piling up.

When I get stressed I can whine, complain and have a negative attitude. Misery does love company, especially with a regional airline crew. Or I can suck it up, make the best of it, crack jokes, and biblically ‘call all my suffering joy’. I prefer the latter attitude. Attempt at a humble disclaimer: although my suffering certainly is miniscule in comparison to what other Christians have endured and will endure, I feel like I’m still in the ballpark; that what I experience is worthy of meditation on the word of God. I’ll explain more later.

Now half awake after the first cup of airplane coffee (not really but it sounds good), I nudge the thrust levers to where I know they’ll reach our targeted thrust setting. The jet pushes forward on the smooth surface as our seasoned cockpit seats slowly absorb our body weights toward rotation speed. Breaking the bonds of earth in smooth air, really smooth air, always feels like a treat. I know our plane has hydraulically powered controls and what they call ‘artificial feel mechanisms’, but the stimuli experienced in my fingertips don’t ever seem to mind.

I know what the lay of the land is like climbing out off Rochester’s runway 22. On my left shoulder, this dawning has the low orange sun and lavender-pink back lit horizon silently urging me to say “Autopilot ON” so I can fully enjoy the view. It’s too soon for the fluffy, forested black not green ‘moss’ (trees) between farm fields below us to show their true color. The deeply, God and glacier carved Finger Lakes and hills stretch out in front of us again from right to left. This time they’ve covered by cotton comforters of fog and low cloud banks, which permit them and the river valleys sleep in lazily. I’ve observed fog and cloud banks covering river valleys many times in the eastern US. I wonder what’s it’s like on the ground. Is it really a dreamscape, with all the cars stopped on the middle of the road, wild animals tame, and odd things occurring all around, time suspended and slowed down?

Back to the reality of life on the line. In the midst of suffering, joy comes. As does my corny sense of humor. This trip just kept the laughs coming. It helps when your First Officer gets your brand of humor and laughs at your jokes, though.

On with Philly approach, our first destination, they ask a mainline flight to slow down to 190 knots at a quicker pace, with urgency in the controller’s (ATC) voice. The pilot answers back “we’re in the reduction process now”. My FO and I are struck with laughter; we’ve never heard such a thing. ‘Slowing’, ‘we’re slowing’, ‘Doing our best’, and other phrases are common responses to ATC asking that you make a speed reduction ASAP, but that obtuse one is not. We thought someone was on the Food Network or working for Dow Chemical.

Later at Detroit, we got a long taxi into the gate because of taxiway and runway re-construction. That delay made us leave the gate with a new batch of passengers just in time for the ‘red tail’ push. We were certain that our takeoff runway would be ’22 Left’, right next to our terminal. These Northwest mainline and NW Airlink aircraft just kept coming toward us in line for takeoff, towards the same runway we were destined to be in line for quite a while now. “Wait for eight more red tails to pass you before you get in the conga line for runway 22 Laughed”, is what the ground controller told us in translated words. His mispronunciation of runway 22 Left as “runway 22 Laughed” struck us as with cruel irony each time he told a new aircraft to get in line. We realized he really wasn’t laughing at our predicament, but his accent made us chuckle about it. He sympathized with many us in line, and told us the wait wouldn’t be too long.

Detroit is ‘Rock City’ (for you KISS fans) in this regard. MSP (Minneapolis-St. Paul) and ORD (Chicago) style the tower made quick work of getting us and maybe two dozen more red tails off the ground, clearing each one holding in position for takeoff as the one on the runway is still hurtling toward rotation speed. Us and the red tails were given ‘vectors west, vectors east, in this line you’ll wait the least’. Detroit tower could really teach Denver, DFW (Dallas), and Washington Dulles how to spring jets in the air in quick fashion.

The previous, second day of this trip, had us surrounded for a time by Canadians in ‘Muntray-all, Kay-beck’, the Canadian French way to say MontrĂ©al, Quebec, Canada. We were treated to more aviation comedy on the ground frequency. The official language of aviation is English, but in Montreal the controllers will oblige you in French if you wish. A private aircraft was taxiing out; all we heard was gibberish from the controller or the pilot and a call sign in French with the ending ‘paw-paw, paw-paw’. That’s the English ‘phonetic’ pilots speak for the letter P, this aircraft’s calls sign ended in the letters PP. But because in the ‘states’ it’s pronounced ‘poppa’, this odd back and forth banter was like two French birds calling each other. Anyway, you had to be there.

The fourth day we started a two day trip in DC, up early again, for a quick round trip to RDU and back first. Baking in the morning Virginia sun while boarding the plane for this second Rochester overnight, we were hurrying to get out on time. Then I did something which made me ‘want to get away for a while’. I didn’t have a Snickers either, so I’d just have to slink down in my seat and sulk for a moment.

The biggest rookie thing any airline pilot can do is transmit on the wrong frequency mistakenly. And it happens, eventually, to everyone, from United to Southwest to the smallest turboprop regional, a pilot will call in range to the company on the emergency frequency, or brief the passengers to turn the seat belt sign off on center frequency. Unbeknownst to me, it was now my turn. After using my best captain’s voice I flicked the transmitter switch selection back to our number 1 communication radio from PA (Public Address), only to notice it was already on ‘comm radio 1’. With a rush I realized that I had just welcomed our peeps on board and told them about our flight on our ‘National Airport’s’ Ground frequency! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Fortunately I had the speaker turned off and left it off, as I’m sure many aircraft loved to chime in how ‘that was a great passenger briefing, thanks!’. After catching my breath and reclaiming some dignity, I told my FO in clear terms that I wasn’t going to talk on the radio again that afternoon. We laughed, learned, and moved on, er, flew on, rather.

So ‘when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade’. Many folks have that attitude. But as a Christian, how does this apply differently? From James (Jesus’ brother) book, James 1:1-4 (NIV): “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."

It’s illogical to most in the secular world to call enduring all kinds of trials and suffering as ‘joy’ for the intention that the God will be glorified in the life of a growing Christian believer. But that’s the gist of applying this scripture, I believe. For a more detailed and better explanation, click here.

I’ve experienced joy from the Lord during periods of great duress. Without going into details, in the midst of a great deal of emotional pain I’ve prayed to God for relief and found myself laughing with joy, knowing with a peace that things were going to be OK for me.

My Mother, or someone, a pastor or radio preacher, or maybe scripture, taught me in the past to give my trials and suffering over to God, let go of my burdens and release them to him. All I can say is that it works, the Holy Spirit works, it works inside of me and it can work inside of you.

And in the end (I’m trying to finish here) Paul’s great letter to the Romans provides a snippet of closure. We won’t suffer forever. From Romans 8:18, 8:23, and 8:28 (NLT): “18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later; 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering; 28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”

On earth, we’re stuck with trials and suffering, but we can react to them with true joy in the Holy Spirit’s power. When trials continue to come in my life, as I’m sure they will, I hope to include God in them. Together, like with a trusted fellow Co-Pilot, the two of us will laugh too.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hold for fireworks!

Today New York gave us a run for our money, and I’ll cut to the chase: like the founding and establishment of our great country in opposition to the British Empire, we won. But like the Revolutionary war we had with the Brits, it encompassed a journey which required endurance, among other things. I write this in celebration and honor of our Independence Day. Happy July 4th to you!

This morning we started out in DC and made our way to Dayton, Ohio first. A low pressure system, centered over our friends in Montreal, was rotating counter clockwise as best it could, and promised the possibility of an interesting day, weather wise. The forecast for New York, our next destination, included a temporary condition which predicted ‘CB’s’, weather code for cumulonimbus clouds. The smaller version of these is a tall cumulus cloud which gives a healthy rain shower at the surface. The larger version is a garden variety thunderstorm or worse, one which pilots want to avoid flying through.

We had a short break, then loaded up for LaGuardia. Clearance hadn’t told us about any delays for New York, so we pushed back to start engines on time at 9:25 AM. It seemed odd; my gut told me that we would get a delay somewhere. Climbing into the smooth overcast clouds, I wondered about the Wright Brothers and their bicycle shop, after glancing at downtown Dayton on takeoff.

I had a good crew I had flown with before to help me carry a plane load pretty full of tourists, mostly, to New York. We cruised in the sunshine at 31,000 feet above a seemingly heat reflecting white and puffy layer of clouds floating by. I noticed on our flight display that our jet thought we had 40 minutes left to go to make it to LGA. Optimistically, I started to think we could make it on time, even early.

Things started to change ten minutes later. We were still too far out from New York to get a good picture from our weather radar, but that didn’t matter now, as New York center just put us in a holding pattern at a fix called ‘Biley’. We descended to 15,000 ft, still bathed in sunshine, with large cumulus and towering cumulus clouds below us, and threatening to climb above our altitude. I programmed the hold into the ‘box’, our FMS (Flight Management System), a computer which takes various navigation inputs and ‘drives’ the autopilot. My FO slowed the aircraft down and confirmed that I knew what I was doing with the FMS. “Execute” he said, commanding me to press the execute button and ‘make it so’ in Star Trek Next Generation parlance. The FMS was now committed to flying the holding pattern neatly displayed on our moving map display screen.

This is a time when you appreciate that there are two pilots and that the one you’re paired up with is very capable and good at teamwork. There were lots of things to do now: Email our Dispatcher via our ACARS unit, brief the passengers and FA on what was happening, check our alternate airport weather and forecast (PHL), make an estimate on bingo fuel and wait on our Dispatcher’s numbers, get an update on LGA weather, judge whether the weather at our holding point was safe to remain in – if we had to descend especially, and last but not least, triple check that the holding pattern was correct.

We entered the hold and started the oval racetrack pattern, and it was beautiful. The cumulus sliding by below us made for an exiting sensation of speed, their rounded shapes of giant carved white granite figures of puff dragons and doughboys posed, laying down and smiling for the cameras. They were imposing, but size wise ones which we knew we could penetrate if we had to. My FO called the two bogeys in sight below us, and we watched them on our TCAS, which shows other aircrafts as diamonds on our moving map.

They were two other regional jets holding at ‘Biley’ as well, 1,000 and 2,000 feet below us, stacked right over each other. We could see their small but sharply defined silhouettes easily against the bright puffs of the cumulus below. There are only two words to describe this: very cool. Starting the first turn back toward Biley I wondered out loud whether we would penetrate a CB at the end of the turn that we knew they certainly would. We watched them with fascination, I’ll admit, as both were swallowed like gnats by the mashed potato behemoth growing in front of us. It turned out we were still a little too high to ‘enjoy’ the ride they did. Moments later both crews told center that the moderate turbulence they were getting in the clouds while holding was unacceptable, and they requested a hold somewhere else. Center kindly obliged them, as they usually do, and sent them closer to the big apple to hold again.

We retrieved a series of ACARS messages which updated us on the weather reports from LGA and PHL, and with information from our Dispatcher. He gave us a bingo fuel of 3,500 and changed our alternate to nearby ABE (Allentown, PA), then changed it back to PHL in a later message, which was fine with us. Our estimated fuel remaining on our arrival at ABE, if we held the entire time expected, flew to LGA, went missed and went to the alternate, was still good, about 2,400 lbs. The flight log I keyed up on our flight display agreed with this number, shown in a white color. Actually it showed two numbers, 1900, our IFR reserve of 45 minutes fuel, and 500, the extra fuel in excess of our IFR reserve. The numbers in terms of time were simple. We were burning about 2,000 pounds an hour, and had about 4,500 pounds of fuel on board by now, so we could hold for about 30 minutes before we had to divert toward Philly.

So we still had our warm fuzzies, still had an expectation we would make it to LGA this morning. But there were a lot of IF’s attached to this condition. Fifteen minutes later center extended our ‘EFC’ (expect further clearance) time 10 minutes, then 30 minutes more. The fuel numbers displayed now turned yellow. We couldn’t hold the entire time ATC told us to expect, so there was a pretty fair chance that we might actually go to PHL. I informed the passengers that this was a possibility, in the most optimistic voice I could muster.

A few minutes later we were released from the hold, to continue onward towards New York. Breathing easier but still anxious, we prepared to fly an ILS approach through a summer rain shower with considerable vertical development, something we would have to watch a little bit. “XX XX (our flight), Holding instructions, advise when ready to copy”. Now we started holding at another fix about 30 miles closer to New York than the first one, with the same expect further clearance time. The same flurry of activity ensued, and our Dispatcher gave us almost the same bingo fuel, 3,400 lbs.

This turn of events wasn’t good. Morale was sinking, and I was tempted to be resigned to our fate. We only had 300 pounds more than our bingo fuel, which translated down to just a few minutes till we burned down to it. Ten minutes, in fact, and our EFC was 25 minutes away. There was ten minutes left before it was Philly time for us and our 39 ‘victims’.

Even though this was typical treatment by center when there are big delays going into LaGuardia, we were getting tired and a little frustrated of them teasing us. Just when ‘the night was darkest’, we were released from the second hold and put back on the arrival route. The tone in the controller’s voices had sympathy for us, and conviction perhaps, that we would make it in. Onward, with faith, we made our way, even through two vectors off the arrival route for ‘traffic management’.

As my FO slowed our jet and we configured for approach while we flew through cloud layers and caught glimpses of the crowded New York boroughs below us, I evaluated the weather on the field. Using our weather radar a few minutes before showed that the tops of the rain cloud over the field was only about 15,000 feet. The view out the window matched that of the radar. It looked safe, just a summertime rain shower to fly through, not a thunderstorm.

On approach below the lowest layer, the clouds above LaGuardia were dark gray, with the surrounding areas a complementary white. The good rain on the surface called for full reverse thrust on landing, and my FO did a textbook job of stopping us before the intersection with the other runway. We were in New York! Finally.

Fast forward two days: Now that I’m back home with my three favorite girls, we’ve had to hold again for fireworks. Last night’s displays were cancelled because of rain. This morning the clouds are trying to move out of the way for tonight's July 4th’s fireworks, and for my youngest daughter's fifth birthday party. She thinks for fireworks are for her, you know. This weather is uncharacteristic for where we live on July 4th, so I guess we’ll have to wait it out as it comes, like we did during our flight to New York.

Happy Independence Day!