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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, 6 months in: Donuts in the sky

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Remember the scene in the movie Pushing Tin where the New York controllers are acting certifiably insane, spitting out terse instructions at a mile a minute, and doing a bunch of other nutty things that would get them locked up in the non-aviation world?

Oh, wait: that was the plot of the entire movie. And on the other side of an overcaffeinated controller's microphone is the headset of the pilot who has to fly those commands.

I'd never be able to fly the old 172 into Newark at noon, but it's an everyday thing for me now as a Dash driver. Even after all the times I've done it, I still get a bit of a thrill out of the crazy dance NY Approach makes up to wiggle everybody in there at once. They whip up a fresh batch of nuttiness every time, and always seem to throw into the airplane jambalaya a Boeing 767 to follow on the way in—and as the FO I'm almost always the one flying the "ins". On the days I don't end up behind a seven-six, it's an A380 instead: the plane that's so big that it doesn't look like it should fly; a 600-ton, half-billion dollar bumblebee that could seat every single person in my old high school and still have seats left over.

It's just another day in the Newark stew, and that's what the "stay above the heavy's flight path" thing you memorized for the test and promptly jettisoned from the memory banks way back in the old ground school days was babbling about. I hardly ever used that in the old days, but it seems like I use that 80% of the time in Newark. I'm not sure I could fly an ILS into EWR without staying half-a-dot high now.

In fact, one day we were maintenance delayed departing for EWR, so we arrived an an off-peak time. Since it was slower than normal—which in New York airspace means there are only a million planes instead of a full bazillion—we weren't assigned the usual "Speed 190 to BUZZD/DOOIN" that we always get, and it got me off my game. I'm so used to having to scream in until 5 miles out, then chop the power and push the props up to slow down enough to drop the gear and flaps that I'm better at that than I am at the textbook-prescribed profile now. Imagine keeping your 172 doing 120 until 2 miles out and you'll get a feel for what it's like every day there. (Of course, some people do that anyway.)

I had a line check in January on a Rochester-Newark leg. (One of the nice things about getting your private certificate is that you never have to take a checkride again if you don't want to. We get them twice a year.) The first half of the flight was as uneventful as the second half wasn't.

That day they told us to expect holding, which isn't unusual going into any of the big 3 NYC airports (Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia). However, on this flight every time we were coming up on the holding fix we were given they'd change their mind and just give us a delay vector (a turn away from the airport) instead. This happened over and over again. All the while we're getting closer and closer to our divert fuel, which due to the weather that day was a pretty high number. Finally on the third time they tell us to proceed to a fix and hold, with not much time before we got there.

Unlike when I went into Newark for the very first time, I was ready and waiting for them to throw their best pitch at me. They tried hard to beat me, but since I was waiting for their fastball, I had the holding pattern entered into the FMS (even if just barely in time) and was ready to hit "Arm hold". Seconds before we got there, they told us, "Fly heading 160. Expect ILS 22L." So all three of us gave a big sigh of relief, because we calculated that we only had 10 minutes of holding fuel available. As we're going in, we get "Fly heading 070, vectors for resequencing." Oh no! It looks like I'm going to have to divert for the first time ever and on my first line check!

After a short while, we thankfully get, "Proceed direct Teterboro. Best forward speed." Things went uneventfully after that, even though some of our autopilots are worse than instrument students at intercepting courses, which explains the slight wiggle (the "Honeywell shuffle") after the last sharp turn in the picture below. We ended up landing with less than 100 pounds over our divert fuel: what a day for a line check.

Even the check airman (who's been there about a decade) remarked that that was one of the craziest things he's ever seen, but we handled it very well. Pretty good for a rookie FO who hasn't done a line check before. Sure, our LOFTs (Line Oriented Flight Training: basically a simulated regular turn on the line with some twists and failures thrown in for fun and training) and recurrent scenarios aren't all that different, except it's totally different because you're on the ground in a sim without a plane full of pax behind you.

Here's what that excitement looked like from above. The flight starts at the upper left and goes to the bottom right. All that's missing is the Yakety Sax music:

Screenshot from
With the next post, the Becoming an Airline Pilot series draws to a close. Next week, I'll wrap it up with a buffet of short observations and anecdotes of life on the line having people's lives on the line.

See the series index.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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