Skyhawk Aviation

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A week in the life of – Part 1

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Sometimes reducing something to a written description provides perspective.  What exactly do you do at work, dad?  Work? What work?  Ah, yesss, work…

This week starts with the end of my simulator “week”.  In parenthesis because right now, my roster, as with all the short range Airbus Captains in my airline, is a fluid, amorphous mess that sort of flows around the changes and bugger-ups that typify a fleet short of manpower.

I find myself leaving ‘home’ at 5.30 am, also in parenthesis ‘cos I demolished most of my real house to rebuild it and now live with the family in a B&B around the corner.  Renovations are a sure sign of mental illness.

The simulator session I am facilitating is day two of our SREC (Secondary RECurrent) program, or prof check as the rest of the industry calls it.  I didn’t do day one for this particular crew, so am not sure at this stage as to how well things have been progressing.

I don’t wear uniform for this, as the simulator dress code is ‘business casual’, which is fine so long as no-one notices that I couldn’t find matching socks in the pre-dawn darkness of the cramped B&B.

I arrive with a few minutes to spare, and greet the victims for the looming four-hour session.  They feel obliged to laugh at my weak attempts at humour, and we commence the briefing session after the normal pleasantries.

One individual shows a certain lack of preparation, and is examined in more detail than the other.  This results in a mild ‘reset’, and is noted in the documentation accordingly.  It also sets the tone for the beginning of the actual simulator session.  Best to clear the air and make the expectations known than to let a situation deteriorate further.  The worst thing about lack of performance in such a situation is the damn report writing that is required, closely followed by the disruption to the entire operational schedule if re-training is needed.

The rest of the session proceeds reasonably well, and the simulator behaves almost as well.  If the general perception of the Airbus aircraft is that of an impending computerised conflict, try its associated Level D simulator.  The fidelity of the simulation, however, is brilliant.  I reckon I could teach an ab-initio student to go from zero to solo in this thing quicker than I could in one of my clapped-out Cherokees.

We are done by lunchtime, and after the reams of paperwork are completed and logbooks are duly stamped and signed, the crew are licenced to (not) kill for the next six months.   I am then off to Lanseria to see what’s happening at the other end of the flight training spectrum.

On arrival at my flight school, all appears to be proceeding to plan, and I sit in my office and attend to the beloved task of CAA compliance in terms of updating manuals.  If ever there was an industry in danger of becoming extinct through beurocracy, this has to be it.  No amount of legislation will enforce common sense, and adding an electronic thermometer to all my aircrafts’ first aid kits wont stop anyone flying into mountains. CAA, however, feel it will somehow improve us as pilots.

The next day sees me on the road from the wonderful B&B back to Oliver Reginald Tambo International.  This time at a fairly reasonable hour, for a mid-morning report for a three-sector day.  Livingston and back followed by a Durban night stop.  I am greeted by my co-pilot for the next two days at the flight dispatch counter, and in between small talk and banter with other crews, we tackle the paperwork.

We are, as usual, full on the outbound sector, and expect to be full on the way back.  This gives us a fairly high Zero Fuel Weight (the weight of the aircraft, ready for service and loaded with passengers / baggage / cargo, minus fuel), and we must plan to take enough fuel to get there, run the APU (Auxilliary Power Unit) for an hour on the ground, and get back to ORTIA, with all the requisite fuel reserve requirements.

By landing in Livingston with 100% of the return sector requirement still in tanks, the tankering analysis on the Operational Flight Plan indicates that I will save the company over two thousand dollars – about R 21 000.00 – simply in the difference of the fuel price between Livingston’s cost and that of Johannesburg.  So try we shall.

The trick is to take exactly the right amount, and calculating the fuel burn correctly, so that we get to our legal maximum landing weight as we turn final approach in Livingston.  An overweight landing is not an option, and taking too little fuel costs the company money.

Weather, NOTAMs, operational flight plan and company iPad in hand, we are off through our international departure security to the aircraft.  On arrival at the parking bay I delegate the walk-around to the co-pilot and go upstairs to get the show on the road.  Greeting the cabin crew with corny humour, I get my obligatory laughs.  One has to laugh at the Captain’s jokes – I can’t go wrong.

A quick check of the aircraft technical status reveals an inoperative APU.  I am immediately concerned about launching into Africa without being totally self sufficient when on the ground there, so a few calls are made to our operations centre to verify that a GPU (Ground Power Unit) and a Copco (Ground pneumatic source for starting the engines) will be available on arrival.  I am given reassurances that both will be there – and operational.  Call me distrustful, but I am skeptical about such third-world promises, and start mentally planning for the worst.  Been shot in this movie before…

Keep number one engine running throughout the ground operations phase, and service the aircraft from the right hand side only?  Doable, but hazardous to say the least.  It will also use more precious fuel, and Hot Refuelling (refueling with an engine running) is prohibited by Airbus.  Call a night stop on the banks of the Zambezi, with appropriate cold refreshments? Now we are talking.

After the cockpit preparations are complete, I start the process of preparing for the abnormal engine start procedure.  Our technicians tow a howling Copco to the nose of the aircraft.  It’s a sophisticated compressor that runs from a large two-stroke diesel engine, and even at idle it provides enough noise to be a total distraction to us.

Once cleared for engine start by Air Traffic Control, I give the ground crew the go-ahead to plug in the air hose, and crank up the pressure.  The Copco screams up to 35 psi, which is a serious amount of air pressure.  We need at least 25 psi after the engine start valve is opened to ensure a normal start, and I watch with trepidation as the pressure indication in the cockpit drops below 20 psi and turns amber.  I ask the ground technician to crank it up a bit (communications are extremely difficult with all that noise), and he manages to oblige with an even greater racket that is now ear-shattering, but our efforts prevail, and we get both engines started.

After disconnecting the GPU and Copco, we carry on with a normal pushback and taxi out for an intersection departure from runway 03 Left.  All is well, and we are up and away without delay.  The world’s most on-time airline strikes again…

Climbing to 37 000 feet with the autopilot engaged, I now have time to turn my attention to more serious matters.  Specifically, what is on offer for lunch.  Being an over-border flight, the catering loaded includes crew meals, as opposed to the internal flights where we literally get passenger left-overs.  Generally, we don’t go hungry, and I have found that I eat more on the short range compared to my years on the overseas service as a copilot.  Four sectors a day could mean four meals…

The flight progresses as expected, and we talk to Botswana ATC, then Zimbabwe, and during our descent, to Vic Falls tower, and finally to Livingston.  The cheerful Zambian controller confirms the weather is good, and that we are to expect an overhead joining for a left hand visual approach to Runway10.  He does however manage to give us a different QNH with each transmission, and when trying to query it, we get yet another.  I choose an average of them, and we descend to circuit altitude after overflying the Smoke that Thunders.  It is a severely clear day, and the stuff of Visual Approaches, so critical QNH values are not a show stopper.

I have already bored the copilot previously with the story of my granddad, in 1951, flying one of his flight school Tiger Moths under the iconic railway bridge that spans the downstream gorge, so I don’t repeat it, but I always picture the scene as I fly over it in the Airbus.  Not something to replicate, of course.

I generally try and hog this particular leg, because of the visual approach with its associated manual flying, so once again, I get to reduce the automation of our close formation of computers to its lowest level, and hand fly the bumpy approach.  A reasonable landing follows, and clear the runway with careful use of braking and maximum reverse thrust, as the Airbus tends to suffer from hot brakes after a short turn-around period, potentially delaying the next takeoff.

To my mild surprise, a GPU is plugged in immediately as we park, and it seems to work satisfactorily.  As the passengers disembark to the brand-new Chinese built terminal building, a monster of a Copco is towed to us.  They must be expecting A380s here.

The next question is, does it work?  I can imagine that ice-cold Zambezi beer at the Royal Livingston, waiting for me…