Skyhawk Aviation

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A week in the life of – Part 3

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It certainly helps the day’s proceedings if one can find one’s aircraft. The A319 for our Maputo sector appeared to be AWOL.

Sitting in the crew transport on the apron adjacent to an empty parking bay, I made a few phone calls to discover that we had an aircraft change (not the original one as per the long-term scheduling plan), as well as a parking bay change. Thanks ACSA.

After locating the new bay, we sat for a few minutes in the transport while awaiting the aircraft’s arrival. I took the opportunity to ensure all the paperwork matched the new aircraft’s registration and that all relevant parties knew where we were – specifically catering and technical, as they are quite happy to deliver our uplifts to the wrong parking bay, and I did not fancy a delay while we waited for our technician to sign out the aircraft for the next flight.

Once I had completed my self-assigned tasks of keeping the show on the road, I briefly briefed the new cabin crew as per our requirement to establish a decent rapport with my loyal followers. It can at times feel like an overkill, but it helps to get to know who is looking after the nervous passengers during normal operations and try to understand what may be expected from this particular crew if the pawpaw hits the fan.

To avoid unnecessary small talk after the formalities were completed, I had a quick look at the Flight Radar app on my iPad, and observed our inbound aircraft was on the ground and taxiing in. Time to show some interest, and we needed to pull finger to ensure this departure happened on time, as we had less than 50 minutes to go. Over-border flights required different cabin prepping – so this was not a standard turn-around.

I did my best to strike a nonchalant pose at the bottom of the stairs as the passengers disembarked, and offered the occasional inane smile when I was thanked for the flight. Really, people. I didn’t fly you on this particular flight, neither did I dash down the stairs ahead of everyone to decorate the apron. My right-hand man did the walk-around while I gave the fuel figure to the technician, who assured me that all was well with the aircraft. Nice to know.

After all the self-loading freight had unloaded themselves, a quick exchange with the vacating crew confirmed that nothing was seriously awry with the aircraft, except for some stubborn fuel in the centre tank. The Airbus fuel control system is a serious piece of dark magic, and its logic is not for mere pilots to fully comprehend.

Let me confuse you. A short sector like this – even though it was a tankering sector that included fuel and reserves for the return trip, was way short of the quantities required to get the system to direct the uplifted fuel to the centre tank, and thus trigger the logic required to automatically use that fuel.

The total required was around 6.8 tonnes, as I had boldly elected to knock off the alternate fuel for the return sector, and we needed at least ten tonnes (five in each wing) before the system would allow any fuel to be loaded into the centre tank. This is a structural issue, as having as much fuel in the ‘flying tanks’ (the wings) as possible, imposes less stress on the wing spar / fuselage junction.

If we had centre tank fuel in excess of 400kgs, the fuel control computer would ensure it would be used first – straight after takeoff, once the leading edge wing slats had been retracted. That too is a certification requirement, in that during takeoff and landing, only individual tank to engine fuel may be used to reduce the possibility of a simultaneous dual engine failure due to contamination or fuel system failure.

It’s just wonderful Airbus logic that fuel pump operation is dependant on wing slat position. But it works…

In short, the fuel (around 200kgs), that was sitting in the centre tank had to be considered unusable, as no amount of manual intervention would convince the system to actually allow it to be pumped out to the engines. Thus, after the cockpit preliminaries were done, I ambled downstairs and toggled the fuel ‘Increase’ knob on the external fuelling panel a few times to add the extra 200kgs required to the wing tanks. At least, if we needed it, it would now be usable.

After barging my way up the stairs through the embarking passengers, I settled into my seat with the glum realisation that the chances of a cup of tea from the forward galley were pretty slim due to the crew being busy with the pax. Oh well, time to man up and read the newspaper instead.

We departed, on time, with a more than full aircraft. I was requested by our station control personnel to allow a passenger, with a ticket, to sit on a cabin jumpseat, of which we had two available. No problem for me, but they do get in the way of the cabin crew while they try and complete a full service in little under 40 minutes of flight time. The inconvenience is worth the extra revenue.

The co-pilot did the flying for that leg, as there was a bit of weather around Maputo, and we were planning on the RNAV approach onto runway 05. Taking a step back and monitoring the approach was prudent, not specifically for the weather or the procedure, but because this was Maputo, and anything can and will happen.

A few years ago one of our A319s was conducting the ILS approach onto runway 23, in bad weather, when a momentary gap in the cloud revealed a Cessna 182 head on, having just departed 05. They missed each other by around 50 feet, with no target on the TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System). Butt-clenching stuff, to say the least.

Being a short sector, I asked the cabin crew to attend to the customers and only to bother with us on the ground. I was sure I could make it to Maputo without any symptoms of malnutrition developing. We had an hour on the ground, which would suffice for lunch. On the descent, when handed over to Maputo Approach, we were cleared for the RNAV approach for runway 05, as anticipated. As per our SOP, I was obliged to ask again for the controller to confirm the local QNH, even though we already had it. If there is one way to make a hole in the ground during an RNAV approach, it’s with an incorrect QNH. The automatics will cheerfully fly the aircraft short of the runway with all cockpit indications normal.

The Fully Managed RNAV approach in an Airbus is a thing of beauty and something that has to be seen to be appreciated. It is, however, surpassed considerably by the RNP-AR approaches, but that’s a story for another time.

Essentially, when everything is correctly set up, programmed and sequenced, one just has to run gear and flaps, and the aircraft is delivered accurately to the runway.

Of course, the requirement to disconnect the autopilot on short finals and remembering to flare is somewhat necessary.

As the arrival and landing went well by Mozambican standards, we had to be ‘challenged’ on the taxi in to the parking bay. Really, how hard can it be? A Qatar B777 was on the left, and Comair was pushing out of the bay on the right of our assigned parking. The tower insisted we proceed to the bay, but without T-boning the 737 on the push, it was impossible. Taking matters in one’s own hands makes Africa a little less frustrating than it already is. A quick chat to our competition, and we wrangled a gap to get to the bay without grid-locking the apron. Ta muchly, chaps.

Once in the bay – lunch. Then paperwork. Then the walk-around to check that all was still attached. Fuel, oil and hydraulic quantities were all good, and then a little more paperwork was required as I signed out the technical status of the aircraft, confident that we stood a fighting chance of getting home without anything falling off.

Being the last flight out for the day, our ground staff applied themselves diligently to the task of an early departure. We were boarded early – full again. We then called for push and start, only to be told to “Stanndy by stanndy by”, said with suitable African-Portuguese inflection.

Two minutes of absolutely nothing happening in the entire Mozambican FIR elapsed, and we then called again, this time with success.

A routine push followed by the routine issuance of the ATC clearance while taxiing and doing our checks followed. Really. We are not sitting on the couch at home with a microphone in hand. We are readying an airliner for takeoff, but we still have to accept, read-back, set up and brief the clearance while not hitting anything that might limit our careers.

During the cruise – all of a sudden! – nothing happened. That’s how it should be. That is, until the descent, when our weather radar showed a single, but significant red blob a few miles from the threshold of 03. It was south west of the field and could be guessed to be moving in a north-easterly direction. Straight to the airfield.

I had around 110 miles to run. It had about three. As mentioned previously, I had departed Johannesburg with tankering fuel for the return from Maputo, minus an alternate airfield. I must say, on more than one occasion, I have observed that our weather service’s prediction accuracy does not always complement our fuel policy. Or should that be the other way around?

The race was on. My ground speed in the descent was around 480 knots, slowing with the proportionate change of TAS to IAS with lower altitude. That thing, the blob, using the upper level winds, probably had about 20 knots ground speed. I told the FO to ask for a tight, right-hand visual approach, which ATC had no problem in accommodating.

The biggest concern with an approaching storm cell is the gust-front which precedes it, and this could provide an exciting and out-of-limits tailwind component on final approach. A go-around with no fuel for an alternate airfield could see us in Deep Shit. Re-positioning for runway 21L was an option, but it is quite a story to turn the airfield around, as ATC puts it.

My policy is to save that fuel-inspired Mayday call for when I really, really need it.

The right-hand visual worked well, and I rolled wings-level on final approach at a thousand feet AGL with my Navigation Display indicating a ten-knot tailwind. Our limit is 15 knots. Flying like a chameleon – one eye in the cockpit, one eye out – saw us crossing the threshold within limits for an uneventful touch-down and taxi-in. Yesss…!

On shut-down, our technician announced we had a little something ‘extra’ visible between the gear door and main gear leg.

Unbeknown to me, our suicidal stowaway had been watching us from the cover of tall grass near the runway on departure from Maputo, timing his move with clinical precision. His target was the right main gear well, and he was spot on. We never saw a thing.

My condolences, but half a meter to the right, and we would have been returning to Maputo on one engine for an impromptu night stop. Prawns and 2M beers versus being back at home?

No contest. No place like home.