Rolling in on Sin City
We started a four day trip today and are just now finishing some SoCal flying before heading east for the red eye. Approaching Sin City, air traffic control had to delay our descent clearance because of traffic crossing beneath us. When our clearance was issued, the controller asked, "Can you guys make it down from there?" That is one of my favorite questions.
Is the Pope catholic?
Does a one legged duck swim in circles?
Yeah, we can make it down from here. We are cleared to cross a virtual intersection in the sky west of Lost Wages at 16,000 feet and 287 mph (250 kts). Due to the fact that the clearance came late, we will have to use creative methods of losing altitude. Fi-Fi can shed altitude at an alarming rate. In fact, she can, when approaching from above, blow through assigned altitudes with ease. Her wing spoilers are very effective!
Three thousand pounds of hydraulic pressure shove the spoilers up into the slipstream, and down we go. I turn off the Star Trek mode and push the nose down until the indicated airspeed approaches the barber pole (max allowed for current altitude). The vertical speed indicator (VSI) is buried. I have a mental vertical nav path in my once nimble, but now feeble, brain and am recalculating every few seconds until we merge with the path from above. It goes like this:
A normal, fuel efficient, descent path for a medium size airliner is 2.5 to 3 miles per 1000 feet of altitude. If you are looking at an altitude loss of, say 20,000 feet, then you would need 60 ( 3 x 20 ) miles to lose that altitude. If you must decelerate to meet an assigned speed at the intersection, then you need to allow one (1) mile distance to lose 10 knots of airspeed. Losing 50 knots would take 5 miles. So, we have 60 + 5= 65. That is the base distance to lose 20,000 feet and slow 50 knots. There are a few adjustment factors to keep in mind:
1. Tailwinds increase distance about 2 miles per 10 knots of windspeed. Headwinds decrease distance, but you must be careful. Remember, you have given the controller your assurance that your aircraft will be out of his way at that virtual point in space. How do you know what the windspeed and direction will be during the descent? I use the WAG method honed by years of experience.
2. Anti-icing increases the distance because the engines must increase power to supply the hot air to all of the users, like engine anti-ice and wing anti-ice. You need to allow about 2 miles per 1,000 feet of anti-ice use.
3. Young pilots typically fly faster and need more room to decelerate. The kid I am flying with tonight came from the cockpit of a U.S. Navy fighter eighteen months ago and is still very aggressive... Likes to go fast and burn large amounts of fuel.
In normal conditions, the Star Trek mode does a good job of calculating vertical nav paths and will even try to make a non-normal path. But, of course, it has limits. I remember when the A320s and 319s first arrived on airline property. Some of our old Captains that had been flying Boeings since the Dark Ages decided to take on Sparky before they retired. Most of them made it through training OK, but never really adjusted to the New World Order of avionics. They flew her like an old B-737-100 which is possible, but not very efficient. They would say something like, "Turn that s%#t off and fly this thing!" Yes sir, Boss.
As we merge with the vertical path in my brain, I raise the nose and start the deceleration segment. The spoilers remain up until the airspeed begins a downward trend toward 287 mph (250 kts). The Star Trek path looks identical to my mental path... I return control to the flight management computers, and stow the spoilers. Fi-Fi spears the intersection on altitude and airspeed, and then banks 30 degrees left to intercept the outbound course. We are rolling in on Sin City.
It is a beautiful, smooth night. As we clear the terrain west of Lost Wages, the city comes into full view. Wow! It is bright. Things will happen fast for the next 60 minutes. We've got to get this beast on the ground, re-fuel, re-load, make a taco run, and get airborne for points east.
Position: 25 miles west of Las Vegas
Altitude: 14,000 feet
Airspeed: 287 mph (250 kts)
The half way point to Anchorage is 27 minutes ahead. It is under the Big Dipper, which is 12 o'clock high. Polaris is clearly visible. Tonight is perfect weather for the navigators of yesteryear to fix their position via the stardome. I, or the co-pilot, must call our dispatcher and report our fuel load at the half way point. Then, we will mutually agree whether or not we have sufficient fuel and weather conditions to continue to Anchorage, otherwise we divert into Seattle or Vancouver for more fuel. Confidence is high tonight. The Anchorage weather has been good and the forecast is also good.
Our work day began in Denver at sunset. After one stop, we are on our way to Alaska with 56 passengers and 3,400 pounds of mail and freight. The full moon, in our six, is illuminating the tops of the under cast. The air mass is smooth and the winds, although howling at over 150 mph, are not directly on the nose, so our groundspeed at 38,000 feet is a respectable 476 mph. My co-pilot, a 30 year old male, was reared in Alaska. His buddies will pick him up at the airport. I gave him my cell phone number and told him to call if he needs bail money.
My nav chart is laid out before me (since we have a joystick instead of a yoke, there is a little sliding table that comes out from underneath the instrument panel; it is one of the coolest things in aviation...) and as we fly abeam radio beacons I mark our position. I love to listen for the beacon's Morse code identifier. The ADF needle scribes an arc across our right wing as the beacons recede behind us. It is cold, dark and windy down there where those beacons live.
The autopilot has the nose 18 degrees into the wind to maintain our course line. Anchorage is three hours twenty minutes ahead...
My three days off seemed like three hours. But, now I am wondering, "Are we ever going to get to L.A.?" Funny how time dilates under certain conditions. My co-pilot is a thirty something male and the father of quadruplets (two girls and two boys). I love listening to him talk about the logistical problems of quadruplets, such as no hand me down clothes and feeding time. The kids are eleven months old and very proficient in the art of crawling. I think the co-pilot is sort of glad to be at work. He also told me that he and his wife are too tired for... well, you know. Poor guy!
We started yesterday afternoon at 2:00 P.M. and flew until 2:00 A.M. this morning; Last landing in Denver for the overnight. Our route criss crossed the western Empire hauling folks to and fro. Our aircraft performed beautifully and flawlessly, except for one little display management computer which I had to reboot during a stop in LAX. I am always amazed at the robust nature of a machine as complicated as a contemporary airliner. We ask them to lift heavy loads, fly at Warp 9, then allow young co-pilots (and sometimes old Captains) to slam them onto the runways so hard it makes grandma's false teeth rattle. I am lucky, in my opinion, to still have that amazement factor in my brain. So many of my pilot buds have lost it to the ravages of a long career in the airline trenches.
There is something unreal about post flighting a huge aircraft in a different geographical location from a few hours ago. The main gear brakes are wisping smoke and heat away via the brake fans, the engines are stopped or rotating slowly in the breeze, but still radiating a lot of heat. I like to lick my finger and touch the exhaust cone... be quick, or it will burn. Awesome! The aux power unit, a small jet engine in the tail, is howling as it pumps copious quantities of air into the environmental system to keep the passengers comfortable as they disembark. The hydrauic system is whining as the ramp personnel open cargo doors. The underside of the wings are dripping condensation on the ramp because the fuel is cold soaked from the low temperatures aloft. I will usually reach up and pat the side of the aircraft and under my breath say, "Thanks, old girl, you did good today." Hopefully, the rampers are not watching or listening. Can I get in trouble for sexually harassing an aircraft? Better look into that...
It is cold in Denver at 2:10 A.M. I brought my heavy London Fog trench coat for Alaska tomorrow night. I am thinking about breaking it out early.
I must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning in Sin City. When the co-pilot and I arrived at the gate to start our day... no aircraft. It was still in Los Angeles with a maintenance problem. The airline decided to grab another aircraft arriving from the east coast for our flight to southern California. One of my buds that I have known for years was the Captain. After we traded insults and accusations, I took over the aircraft. I looked at the logbook and discovered the airworthiness release had been signed yesterday, but instead of writing May 11, the mechanic wrote Mar 11. This may not sound like a big deal, but the Federal Aviation Administration has folks that do nothing but look at paperwork for errors. This would be considered a big error, especially if the aircraft had been flown, which it had. I had to call maintenance control and report the mistake. Then I called my bud and left him a message suggesting he try to cover his tracks.
When I returned from the dispatch office with the release and weather package, I discovered the fueler was pumping massive quantities of fuel into our plane for an east coast flight. He had not been alerted by his company of the aircraft swap. We only needed 10,000 pounds for a short flight to California. I ran down the jetway stairs and halted the fueling operation. Then, I did some quick calculations and determined that we could carry all the fuel in the aircraft to California and back with our projected loads. However, the weight and balance called for some of the fuel to be moved from the center tank to each of the wing tanks. This is a process done with onboard fuel pumps at 150 pounds per minute. I had to move 4,800 pounds. The late get later...
Later, after flying a so-cal (airline speak for southern California, i.e., LAX, ONT, LGB, SNA, SAN, PSP,etc.) turn, we taxied out for take-off to Philly at maximum gross weight. The route to the runway is a downhill grade of about 2%, requiring riding the brakes. The tailwind component required even more brake usage, so by the time we got to the end of the runway the brakes were too hot for take-off. The control tower allowed us to sit at the end of the runway waiting for our brake fans to cool the brakes below the limit, which took five minutes. Finally, after a four hour flight, half of it rougher than a stucco covered bathtub, we landed on runway 27 Left, city of brotherly love, in VFR weather conditions at exactly midnight.
Tomorrow, we fly westbound for home and three days off.
Airport Appreciation Time 2
I am enjoying some quality airport appreciation time at one of our western hub cities after flying a southern California turn this morning. Thankfully, there is wireless internet available and I have a fully charged laptop battery, so the time is well spent.
My co-pilot is a young man from the San Diego area. He is a surfer dude to the max and speaks a language only surfer dudes completely understand ( for instance: turbulence is dorked up air ). His flying skills are very good, even though he has been in the aircraft only a few months. This morning we flew a southern California turn to a short runway in a rich neighborhood, i.e., Orange County. Landing on an abbreviated piece of asphalt will get your attention, but the take-off over the wealthy neighborhood is really interesting. We are required, by law, to climb to one thousand feet above ground level, then briskly reduce power to a setting that barely allows a positive rate of climb. This noise abatement procedure continues until over the water; then and only then- flaps up, climb power and reconfigure for normal climb.
Compare this to our take-off, yesterday, in Cleveland over a working class neighborhood at full thrust. We had to be shaking their shingles loose.
Amazing what money will buy nowadays.