Monday, May 31, 2010

Piling on the Pres

Starting out writing this, I’m commuting home from a four day trip, both sides un-commutable. Yesterday started relatively early, with a 6:30 AM van ride to the airport in Newberg, New York, near West Point US Army Officer Academy, where President Obama spoke Saturday before we arrived. There were no signs left from the Secret Service personnel, of whom the van driver said had been staying in the hotel all week, and I had a good and needed rest for our long day of Sunday flying.

With a friendly Co-Pilot and Flight Attendant, we made our way through almost eight hours of flying, which entailed six flights and twelve hours to perform it in. Newberg-Philadelphia-Louisville-Philadelphia-Washington-Rochester-Washington was on the agenda, but a low pressure weather system and the forecast east winds and relatively low cloud ceiling in Philly promised to slow us down. My First Officer had plans to meet his wife in Milwaukee, to spend the night there before heading to Charlotte the next morning. With the delays in Philadelphia we were expecting, it was questionable whether he could catch the last flights from Washington to Philadelphia. He commutes from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and is a fellow brother in Christ. We had a good conversation about some of the particulars of Protestant Christian theology, and enjoyed flying together.

Our first two flights arrived in Philly and “Loua-Vule” on time. Now we just had to go through Philadelphia one more time, and we wouldn’t expect any delays in and out of Washington. In Philadelphia, when the winds are from the east, the airport runway layout can’t accept the same amount of departure and arrival traffic as it would normally. This can create major ATC delays, especially for traffic inbound to Philadelphia. Our scheduled departure time out of Louisville was 11:35 AM, and Louisville clearance delivery had given us a ‘wheels up’ takeoff time of 1:01 PM. We had time to hang out some, eat lunch, and talk about our commuting plans. I couldn’t make it home even if we arrived in DC on time, our Flight Attendant, a new one but a good one (she had flown for a regional based in Atlanta previously) could still make her commute flight even if we were a couple hours late, and my Co-Pilot was scheming and trying to figure out a plan to catch his last flight available in record time. It seemed we would arrive in DC at about 7:30 PM, and that’s when the last flight to Milwaukee was.

We pushed back without three missing passengers in Louisville, in order to meet the 1:00 PM takeoff time. Just then, ATC surprised us with a new delay, a 2:05 PM takeoff time. No! We had a couple options: taxi out and hope for a shortened delay, or wait to see if our three missing passengers would make it back to the gate. We could board them on our plane, taxi out, and still make the new 2:05 PM takeoff slot. In the interest of providing good customer service (this is a customer service business, despite what some of my Co-Pilot’s seem to feel), we started our engines and taxied the thirty yards back to the gate to board our three lost passengers. In actuality, we lost one passenger, who had said ‘enough’ and got off our jet to travel another day, and we put on four, for a gain of three and a ‘full boat’ back to Philly. The ‘circus music’ had started playing, because whenever a plane returns to the gate, one-third of our pax ask the Flight Attendant the litany of ‘will I still make my connection?’ type questions, and they were doing it now. Dealing with those issues is the Gate Agent’s job, and it’s a tough one in this situation. They generally make an announcement in the cabin (I asked her to this time) that ‘NOW is the time to leave the flight if you want to, that this aircraft will leave the gate again and not come back.’

We got our new passengers on board and just as we were closing up, ATC notified us that the ground delay program had been canceled, along with our 2:05 PM takeoff delay. We were released to Philly, and in quick order we taxied and took off. As we broke ground I wondered if that passenger we lost saw us climbing out into the blue Louisville sky.

Fast forward four days later: I’m commuting again back to work, trying to go through Chicago.  Before my first of two flights to get me to Washington, Chicago had a ground stop issued by ATC for “VIP movement” (President Obama). My Sioux Falls-Chicago flight was now delayed till 7:15 PM instead of 6:30 PM, and with a scheduled 45 minute connection to Washington on a normal day, I knew I'd be running for it. And I literally was, after seeing on the departure monitor that my flight was delayed by five minutes, and that many others were as well. "Can't you do something, Mr. Obama, without displeasing someone?"

I caught my breath in my window seat and our Airbus taxied out for Washington National.  Leaving Chicago, I’m transfixed by what I see. We’ve turned to the east just after breaking ground in smooth air, and the vast, expansive grid of greater Chicago spreads out in the window in that appealing orange halogen color the street lights have. Miles and miles of it are broken up occasionally by the stray winding expressway with white and red lit drivers making their way to where they’re going. The famous Chicago skyline is now ahead and to the right, with the (former) Sears Tower and the Hancock Tower framing the ends of it. Oddly, downtown and Lake Michigan seems to be backlight tonight. After closer observation and some scuddy clouds clear out of the way, it can plainly be seen that a full moon is out tonight, shining it’s white, reflected light on the calm, black surface of Lake Michigan. It casts a white, milky beam across the water, seemingly all the way to Indiana and the Notre Dame ‘capital’ at South Bend.

I am reminded that scenes like this one, which I first enjoyed while flying standby as a passenger on American Airlines as a kid, really make an impact on me. I really enjoy the beauty the skies can have, I guess you could say my eyes behold it. With the distractions and stresses of life, it’s can be easy to overlook the beautiful things, whether it’s in the sky or in your personal or family life. As the sky goes, maybe I’ve been doing some overlooking lately. But it is now thunderstorm season, and I know there will be plenty to appreciate soon! (And to be wary of)

Speaking of which, it’s a convenient time to transition back to the previous trip's Louisville departure to Philadelphia. Soon we’re climbing to our cruising altitude of 29,000 feet (“Flight Level two niner zero”). In blue sky and sunshine, my First Officer turns on the radar, and increases the range to 80 miles, then 160 miles. The tilt is low and the gain is turned up, but the screen barely shows any green returns, and that’s probably from the ground. The white, wispy clouds ahead, with a few curved, more solid looking bumps bulging slightly above them, indicate that we’ll probably have to do some deviating from our course line ahead, in spite of the clean radar returns.

We’re just not close enough to it yet; when we get within about 40-60 miles some good returns start showing up, the worst color they show is yellow. The view out the windscreen compels us to ask ATC for deviations, even if the radar was blank. The cumulonimbus tops are only two to three thousand feet above us, it looks like, but in reality they are probably four to six thousand feet higher. The tops look relatively flat, for thunderstorms, but looks can be deceptive. I see a bolt out into the burning blue sky out of one of them in front of us, confirming that these puppies can still bite. By this time I’ve been trying to ask center for a heading of 15, now 20 degrees left to avoid this buildup in front of us. The center controller I’ve been trying to check in with has been busy handling other airline traffic, and now we’re 15 miles closer to this storm than when we started calling. Another 30 seconds to a minute of this and my FO and I agree that we’re turning left, no matter what.

We could make it through it OK, but it would be constant moderate turbulence at the least, possibly severe occasionally, with icing in the tops of the cumulus formations, and a chance of lightning and wind shear with the turbulence. Not good for the pax or the Flight Attendant, and definitely not good customer service. The controller finally responds and serves us with an approval to “deviate left as required, direct Gordonsville (GVE) when able”.

Overall, it’s a good primer for the now-here thunderstorm season. A broad layer of wispy clouds stretches from left to right. As my Co-Pilot has the autopilot finish the turn to make our first of several heading deviations for buildups, we confer with each other, and agree that our course to the left, mostly in the clear, is better than to the right of the cumulonimbus. On the radar, another yellow spot, the biggest one, is now plainly seen; if we had deviated to the right we would have less room to deal with this cell than if we had turned left. Looking out the window, this largest storm cloud is mostly obscured by this thin layer of clouds previously mentioned. If we were a thousand feet lower, this situation would meet the classic definition of an embedded thunderstorm; the wispy clouds leftover from previous buildups wouldn‘t let us visually see the danger ahead! We later fly through some of these wispy areas, they are generally fairly smooth, with occasional light chop and nothing else.

We made it through the rest fairly unscathed day after arriving in Philadelphia.  Philly to Washington to Rochester to Washington went off without a hitch, minus our standard wait for ramp agents to park our jet in DC, both times.  However, we didn't make up enough time to improve my FO's chances of going to Milwaukee.

With my FO a little dejected, I was walking with him to the crew room when he spied the departure monitor board, and saw that he might have one last chance to make it to Milwaukee, via an American Eagle flight from Washington to Chicago, then the last United Express flight of the night to Milwaukee. He would be running for it, but we both thought he just might make it. He ran off to the gate, just like I would in the future tonight, but I don’t know if he made it or not. If President Obama didn’t get in his way, he was probably fine! I took his flight bag back to the crew room and then myself to Chipotle for a good, needed dose of burrito. I made it home the next morning, starting this post on the way.
I'm giving our President Obama a little bit of a hard time.  But I'm just poking fun at everyone else who seems to be.  Lately he's been taking flak from all sides, not just Republicans.  I think his current troubles are more politically partisan based and stem from a lack of PR control rather than lack of performance.  It's true that far left liberals haven't gotten what they've wanted from Obama, but neither have right wing conservatives.  Is not preventing the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and spill, and performing an inadaquate leak stoppage and cleanup, really his fault?  No, the Deepwater Horizon disaster is not Obama's 'Katrina'. 
Excuse me for getting too political, perhaps.  I just feel that we should have a minimum amount of respect for our political leaders, no matter how much we disagree with them.  We should pray for them, it's in the Bible too: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (I Timothy 2:1-4).
And the Bible teaches that we should pay our appropriate taxes to the government: : "Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God, the things that are God's" are Jesus' words from Matthew 22:21.
That's it for now.  Thanks for reading my blog.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Wet laptops & reflective thoughts

(This post was originally started about nine days ago)

I just finished a five day sequence and am flying home on United in economy plus, fighting the urge to take a nap. I’m pleased because my new laptop isn’t dead after all. Last night in Syracuse, New York, I was trying to finish my schedule bid for June, talking to my Mother on the phone (Mother’s day you know) when I accidentally splashed water on this keyboard I’m typing on. Doh!

I dried it off immediately with towels but there were droplets in between the keys. Not thinking, and especially not googling, I dried the keyboard further using the hotel hair drier and my breath to blow the droplets away from the keyboard.

It worked, for a while. Soon the number 8 key starting ghosting and repeating, and after a lengthy, second hair drying, the 0 key did too, and many keys didn’t work at all. Panicked and anxious, I finished my schedule bid on the hotel computer, worried that I had ruined my laptop by blowing the water drops into the keys and driving moisture into the keyboard using the hair dryer.

After bidding, ‘google’ said in one entry to never use a hair dryer to dry off your keyboard, as it will drive moisture further into it, and the heat and static can cause electrical problems with a laptop as well. But there were many other sites which mistakenly, in my opinion, suggested using a hair drier. The advice I now trust after a liquid spill on a laptop is not to use a hair drier, but to turn your laptop off immediately, dry it off with towels, turn it upside down to let liquid drain, and put it in the sun or warm, dry air for a while, remove the battery, and leave it off for 24 hours. I removed the battery, let it air dry overnight, then put it out in the sun during all five of our flights today (with it off, lest you‘re thinking about that NW crew). The air is pretty dry in an airliner, and the sunlight coming through the flight deck windows can bring in a fair amount of warmth. That combination draws the moisture out of a laptop fairly well, because after finishing scheduled day of six hours of flying, it works again, and every key is fine.

We had a ‘nice’ 4:45 AM show time at the airport, so considering I had this secondary problem to contend with, in addition to the one of getting a good amount and good quality of rest, I slept for five hours relatively soundly. Giving your worries up to God in prayer does help, and I did the best I could doing that before lights out last night.

I am tired with a capital T at the end of this five day sequence of flying. Today we flew from Syracuse to Philadelphia to Detroit to Washington to Norfolk to Washington, and were on duty for nine hours and fifty minutes, from 4:45 AM till 2:35 PM. This was the fourth early showtime I’ve had this sequence, and the second one at 4:45 AM in a row. And the best part of it is it’s all legal per the FAA’s rest rules and our labor contract. But is it safe?  It could be even safter.

I don't want to scare you, but this is the reality that many flight crews face.  However, it's much easier on pilots than in the early air-mail and airline days, when airplanes were unreliable, the navigation technology and avionics were crude, weather forecasting was more like weather guessing, the working rules were scarce, and the accident record was reflected in all these shortcomings.  It is relatively safe, in that there are two pilots (better than one), our aircraft is highly automated (hand flying five legs would be exhausting), and our work is highly standardized and routine.  The US does have the safest transportation system in the world.

On another note, I haven’t posted for a while, and don’t have a concise and readily available reason as to why. I have a couple ideas I’m working on, and a new phone which will enable me to do better and more frequent twitter (I’m “crossky” on twitter) updates, with pictures, on the fly, so to speak (literally). Technology and social networking, a’la ‘community’ is a subject I’ve been pondering. Because of social networking, the way we have community with each other in this era is changing, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for the better or not. I’m still trying to correlate it to flying somehow, but it will come.

Community with God, and better community with each other, is one of the main reasons the Son of God came to earth in human form. I’m not the best at fostering and keeping community with others in a loving Christian manner (as Christ teaches), but I kind of think that concern has been on my heart and mind lately. There are other signs I’ve seen that God is still working in my life, and when I get to a quiet place to reflect on that, it feels good. God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good! Thanks again for reading the blog.