Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sequestered in Manchester

The very first flight I had after four days off promised to be an interesting one, and it delivered. I was paired up on this three day trip with a First Officer whom I had flown with before; by previous experience we knew what each other was like, and the best way to work together. That is the good part; the bad is that we had had previous disagreements, to the point of anger and even ‘butting heads’, so to speak. We had resolved our previous conflict the best we could, but there was still some lingering resentment between us.

Encountering conflict of this scale and nature is rare for me and my personality type, so it is stressful and trying for me when it happens. I prefer not to disparage my Co-Pilots too much, so I can’t reveal many details of our past. I will volunteer that I’m not the only Captain “Sean” has perturbed and ‘butted heads’ with, however.

Everyone has positive attributes, no matter where a co-worker may fall on the entirely subjective and individualized scale of desirability of workmates that we all have. One person might like a trait a co-worker has, the next person might not. These days I sincerely try to identify valuable characteristics that my co-workers do bring to the job. If I can change how I work with them to play to their individual strengths, it makes our work performance together more effective, permits them to be themselves, and enables me to appreciate them for the persons they are.

My Co-Pilot seemed pleased to see me. My first reaction was thinking that we would get along fine on this trip; over time I’ve realized that he has a personality type is that is direct and clear, but can be confrontational. Sean is like a desert: although he heats up fast, the good thing is that he cools down fast as well. Translation: his temper will flare, but most likely it will be over in a short while.

That being out of the way, it was a beautiful day on the east coast, blue skies and ‘High Pressure dominating’ in TV Weatherman speak, as we climbed out of DC for Manchester, New Hampshire. At 23,000 feet and just past the New York City area in smooth, clear air, with about forty minutes left in the flight, we heard the ding. This wasn’t the sound of the seat belt sign being turned off, either.

Accompanied by the bell was a yellow flashing ‘master caution’ light on a panel in front of us, and a new message in yellow on one of our flight displays. “IDG2” is what it read. I pushed the master caution switch to cancel the flashing light and show the airplane that we acknowledged the message. The IDG2 message then disappeared and reappeared for a few seconds numerous times over the next minute. “Let’s do the QRH, there’s obviously a problem with it”, I said. My First Officer replied “it’s been written up and MEL’d before”. That fact wasn’t surprising to me in the least.

Before I lose you, the IDG is an Integrated Drive Generator, which is driven by the engine, and produces electricity for the jet. Our IDG for our right engine was malfunctioning. IDG’s are filled with oil and work in a similar manner to the automatic transmission of a car. When an IDG malfunctions, the most likely reason is that the oil level inside it is too low.

The QRH is our Quick Reference Handbook, which contains emergency and abnormal checklists for just about any abnormal or emergency condition the jet can encounter. “Sean” was soon finding the QRH checklist for an IDG2 message. MEL stands for ‘Minimum Equipment List’. We have a long list, FAA approved, of things we can fly with broken. It may seem strange but there are plenty of things we can fly with broken, all we have to do is document it with our Maintenance department and abide by the MEL operating procedures. Don’t worry, the MEL is conservative, and an engine is not ‘MELable’, so to speak.

Down the QRH road we went. As the PM (Pilot monitoring), Sean would read it and I, as the PF (Pilot Flying) would perform the actions the QRH specifies. Very soon I was verifying, touching, and activating guarded switches. If I disconnected the wrong IDG, our IDG1, the ‘good’ generator, it would reduce us to emergency power and would promise a hot cup of coffee with the Chief Pilot. That is why certain switches have guarded covers, so that both pilots may verify that the correct switches are being selected in an abnormal or emergency situation.

First the QRH checklist had me take the bad IDG ‘off-line’ and completely disconnect it from the number two (right) engine. It could only be reconnected on the ground. Then per the checklist I started the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit) to restore the electrical power the jet lost when taking IDG2 off-line. The autopilot disconnected when I ‘killed’ IDG2, I should’ve seen it coming but I still have ‘quick hands’, even though I just turned forty. The workload wasn’t too bad, as we could still re-engage the autopilot, and now prepare for the descent and approach into Manchester.

A nice cloud layer above New Hampshire, with mist, two miles visibility, and a 500 foot cloud ceiling in Manchester made for a busy arrival. Lots of question had yet to be answered after our jet had a fit, and with the time remaining to land we could only ask them. Could we “MEL” the bad IDG and still carry passengers out of Manchester to Philadelphia? Would the on call Mechanic arrive quickly and be able to address our problem? How long would the departure delay to PHL be? Would our Maintenance department want the jet repaired or MEL’d? Should we delay passenger boarding? How many irritated passengers would our Flight Attendant have to deal with?

The biggest problem we encountered on the ground was the gate agents bothering us to board our PHL passenger aircraft, close up, and push back before everything was completed. The prompt, on call mechanic found that IDG2 was a little low on oil, sure enough, and was completing the paperwork to defer repairing it until a later time. For our now late departure to Philadelphia, we needed a whole new set of paperwork from our Dispatcher sent over the wire. Manchester had conscientious gate and ramp agents; however, they could have more patience and understanding in what it takes to address a mechanical problem, that’s a common trait of outstations at times. “No, we need our aircraft logbook back, we need new paperwork from our Dispatcher, and then we need at least five minutes to do checklists and prepare for this flight, before we can close the doors and push back. Thank you”; this was the sentiment that was difficult to communicate to them. We pushed back 23 minutes late, not too bad for what we had to deal with.

Fortunately, we weren’t ‘sequestered in Manchester’ very long; but it makes for a catchy blog post title, which I can’t let slide. I was to be sequestered with “Sean” for three days instead. He would love to be a Captain, and I would say with certainty that he doesn’t necessarily enjoy being a First Officer. He has less “right-seat Captain” in him than he used to, I have recognized that. A certain stubbornness is still there, however. For me, it’s a balancing act to ‘hold the reins’ wherein we’re both comfortable with the operation. In regard to him and me getting along, the trip went along fairly well. Sean will be a good Captain someday, but he'll just have to wait, unfortuntely.

Fast forward to a later departure of the day, enough about flight crew dynamics and interpersonal working relationships for now. For our third leg of day, Sean was the pilot flying out of the vibrant and varied cites of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia. Taking off to the northeast just after sunset, he hand flew the climbing left turn to the west that Norfolk Departure Control gave us.

Wow, what a view it was; we both gazed at the colors in silence, partly because we were still below 10,000 feet altitude and were still in ‘sterile cockpit’, partly because no words from our American English vocabularies could justify the scene in front of us.

Below the sharply defined horizon, in a silver sheen the waterways and bays surrounding Norfolk split up the darkening and light twinkling peninsulas of the ‘Hampton roads’ area. Red, like pigment taken from a rose, hugged the horizon. Our CRJ climbed in smooth air to ‘flight level two-two zero’ (basically 22,000 feet) and we both sat in continuing silence admiring Nature’s (God’s) palette of the fading day.

Remember art class in elementary school? Combine blue and yellow and you get green, and there we were ‘chasing the green light’ once again, between the blue and what yellow there was. The view was slowly changing, as the sun raced away from us towards the west. The once red stripe slowly changed to a deep orange-red, which seemingly permitted the yellow to blossom more, now flickering with beamed fingers. A horizon on fire was depicted by the last vestiges of red licking up into the yellow parts. The master artist even had purple haze swished around to give depth, in the way of far off cirrus clouds left by the painter’s brush.

Meanwhile, beneath this wondrous display terra firma was doing it’s best to provide the right contrast. Far below, all classes of humanity were heading home from day jobs and planning their evenings. The connected web of orange lights, known as civilization, where the people are, shown up at us like a cosmic tree grown out in all the scientifically predicted directions. Virginia was past us, and the Carolinas were starting to slide by. A look at the MFD (our moving map display) showed that Raleigh-Durham airport was under us. We would be landing in Charlotte in not very long, and it was time to go back to work.

Back to work? I get paid to do this? Yep, I get paid to deal with situations such as we had with the IDG, to work in close quarters with persons of all temperaments and personalities, and to do many other things that come with the territory of this job. Enjoying the view when I can is just a fringe benefit. All while not napping or operating this laptop I’m writing this on. Honest.

In spite of the sacrifices this job requires, in spite of the loss in pay and benefits as compared to years past, in spite of the loss of prestige and professionalism airline pilots have suffered in recent years, this career is still a rewarding one. And I still have a hope and purpose in it, in that I hope to glorify God and share my faith in Jesus Christ with others through it. Being sequestered with another in a cockpit for days on end is still allright with me.

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