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The end of my last article had me wondering about the serviceability of the giant Copco unit that was about to be attached to the A319 I was sitting in, on the ground in Livingston, Zambia.
As I was discussing this with my right-hand man, the thing lept to life with a howl of its two stroke diesel engine, belching a cloud of smoke that momentarily made us IMC. Talk about the Smoke that Thunders.
Around fourteen years ago, as a ‘boy’ pilot on 747 Classics, I found myself on an Alliance Air flight, operating from Entebbe to London, and then back to Entebbe and onto Kilimanjaro and then Jo’burg. Similarly, that APU of our 747 SP had handed in its notice, and we were faced with the same dilemma on the ground in Kili. As the ‘skivvy’ on the flight deck, I was tasked with communicating with the Air France office, who did our ground handling there.
I was assured that ‘ground air’ was available, so no problem. Our esteemed leader, however, was less convinced, as when we taxied onto the apron the apparatus on offer was spotted. It looked like a huge scuba diving tank – about ten meters long and about two meters in diameter. Attached to it was a hose that had obviously been demobbed from WW2 way back when. Apparently, it took 24 hours to be charged from a compressor, and provided (theoretically) enough puff for one attempt at an engine start. Hmmm…
What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
After a brief discussion on the flight deck between the five of us (three pilots and two flight engineers), it was decided to keep number one engine running, and service the aircraft from the right hand side, which I think was a sound decision. The far left engine was further away and higher off the ground than my little A319, and presented less of a hazard in that situation. All proceeded according to plan, and once all doors were closed, a cross-bleed start was performed to get the other three running, and we were on our way.
Back to Livingston. The monster of a Copco performed flawlessly and had me wondering for a moment what the maximum air pressure that is permitted for the Airbus, as we had about 50 psi available before the start valve opened. After two successful starts, the equipment was disconnected, and the air conditioning packs mercifully came on line to start cooling the cabin, which had got to about 38 degrees. Not pleasant with a full aircraft.
A Flap 2 takeoff saw us up and away turning out to the right and climbing to Flight Level 360. After negotiating our step climb from Harare, it was time, again, for lunch. A reasonable facsimile of steak and mash accompanied the passing of the dry, flat Zimbabwean and Botswanan countryside. The descent and arrival into OR Tambo was stock standard, and we landed a few minutes ahead of schedule on runway 03 Right.
Despite forewarning all concerned, we had to wait for several minutes in the parking bay with an engine running before our technical staff found a GPU (ground power unit) and plugged it in. The Zambians were faster. Now, to keep the Neddies happy, we had to get off the aircraft after the passengers and walk through immigration in the main terminal building, and get then back on the same aircraft to finish our last sector to Durban.
It was just my luck having the same technical problem follow me around Southern Africa, but by now, we had the procedure for the abnormal start perfected. However, as per our training, we read up the full sequence before each start, with no contemplation of doing it from memory. Its when one tries such a shortcut that it comes back to bite one’s backside.
Back at the parking bay, we found ourselves in a ‘dead’ aircraft – completely shut down. As the APU was inoperative, we were reliant on the GPU for electrical power, and it was also shut down. Not my territory to start it, and no sign of our technician, so time to catch up on a newspaper in the semi-darkened business class section of the cabin.
My perusal of the absurdities that make up the political landscape in this country was interrupted by the arrival of the paperwork for our next sector. A quick look at the weather confirmed what the app on my iPad predicted. A front was steadily making its way along the coast, and at our arrival time, the wind was changing to favour runway 24 at King Shaka International, and some rain and low-ish cloud was on offer. No big deal, and no need to take any more fuel than what had already been calculated on the Flight Plan.
After the requisite signatures on the Operational Flight Plan office copy, it was time to get the show on the road. I performed the walk-around and found our technician, who obliged with starting the GPU, which allowed us to boot up all those computers. I dialed in six-and-a-half tonnes of gas on the refueling panel located on the fuselage, next to the number two engine. This allowed another computer to perform an auto-refuel, which sends the requisite quantity of fuel to each tank, in sequence and in balance. Enough to get us to Durban, perform a go-around from minimas, divert back to Jo’burg, and land with thirty minutes left in tanks.
Back up stairs, I held a briefing with our new cabin crew, and covered the basics about taxi time, how we would manage the locked cockpit door policy, turbulence and the use of seat belts, flying time, weather and the fact that we would be refueling while passengers were boarding. Once seated in the cockpit, I had a quick look at my text messages to remind myself how many jump-seaters we had on this sector, as the flight was full, and some may have to sit up front with us. I have been known to overbook myself in this regard, and have had to up my game as a travel agent. One of the many responsibilities of being a Commander.
Boarding completed early, and we were ready to go with all doors closed. There is a four-letter word that starts with C and ends with T. This one, in my opinion however, has no practical value. The cursed CTOT system in use in South Africa is unique, as I have flown in and out of the world’s busiest airports internationally, and have not encountered a similar rigid application of this ‘slot’ system. So, we are obliged to wait for seven minutes before we could get push and start clearance. Our biggest potential for improvements in efficiency and fuel saving actually lies with ATNS, but that’s another story.
One thing I promised myself when I became a Captain was to not get my panties in a bunch over things I had no control over, so it was a case of making small talk with the jump-seaters and waiting it out.
Another Copco start, and we were on our way. This time a few minutes late, which meant an entry on the Flight Report. Again, the flight proceeded smoothly, except this time I turned down the meal, as I had other plans in Durban. During the short cruise phase of the flight, the copilot copied the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information System), which spoke in a robotic American accent of broken clouds at seven hundred feet, rain and a slight crosswind for runway 24.
We would have to fly this as a Monitored Approach, which meant handing over the flying to the copilot who would conduct the approach, through the autoflight system, and I would take over when the runway was in sight and perform the landing. The object of this is that I would be in a position to monitor the progress of the approach without being distracted with the workload of the process, and hopefully be able to pick up any deviations early on.
After the Flight Management System had been programmed, landing distance checked (even though we know we have enough runway, we are still required to check it for each approach), auto brake selected to Low and the briefing completed, we commenced the radar vectored approach onto the ILS for runway 24. Things were a little bumpy through the weather, and we required anti-ice on, although it was all pretty much standard stuff for the descent. At about six hundred feet the approach lights were clearly visible through the light rain that was falling, and I announced “Continuing” and took over control, disconnected the autopilot and performed a semi-decent manual landing.
After parking at the airbridge, we were connected to Eskom’s finest, and I could shut down both engines without delay. That marked the end of our duties for that day, and after tidying up the cockpit and updating my logbook app, we ambled through the terminal building to our waiting crew transport. A fifteen minute mini-bus ride saw us at the hotel and I was checked in shortly after. A quick shower and change to civvies and I met my copilot downstairs for a sojourn into Umhlanga to test those chicken wings at the local Hooters. My interest, of course, was purely from a culinary perspective and I can report that I was not disappointed. The view was also pleasant.
The next day was a mid-morning start, with one sector up to Jo’burg, an aircraft change followed by a Maputo and back.
We had a fully serviceable A320 for the first flight, which made a pleasant change. The aircraft had already been to Jo’burg and back, and we took over from its previous crew. A quick exchange ensued in terms of solving the problems of the airline with our colleagues, and we settled into the cockpit after I had examined the technical status and conducted the walk-around.
The weather across the whole country was good, so I was in a position to consider dispatching to ORTIA with no alternate airport. We can do this legally when we have two runways at destination, the flight time is less than six hours, the weather is VMC (visual meteorological conditions) and we can plan to touch down with at least 45 minutes fuel in tanks. Not much wriggle room, and we are expected to get things right first time.
The fuel requirement came down to four and a half tons, which allows considerable fuel saving for the company, as it costs fuel to carry fuel. Even a small percentage saving means big bucks long term for an airline our size, which uses 2.5 million litres of fuel per DAY.
We departed on time, and things progressed according to plan. Having just had breakfast at the hotel, I passed up the offer for a snack and settle for a cup of tea in the cruise.
The 51 minute flight was pleasantly uneventful, and we even got a short cut while on the Standerton One Stupid Arrival onto Runway 03 Right. This saved five minutes of flight time, and two hundred kilograms of fuel – about R 2400.00. Not to mention the fixed cost of the aircraft and crew…
I was not to know that my trip to Maputo would see me bringing back a stowaway…