Skyhawk Aviation

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Anatomy of a Regional Night Stop: Part 1

“Take this 880 million Rand Airbus into Africa, and bring it back in a state which we can use it again. And don’t be late.”

Pretty much the standing instruction given to all airline crews around the world in terms of operating expectations from their various companies. Having recently listened in on an irate passenger berating a member of my company’s ground staff about how useless the entire company is, I thought a bit of reflection on that statement to be relevant.

The source of the complaint was the fact that the passenger was being relieved of extra hand luggage on arrival at the aircraft, as he was carrying three large pieces, and was permitted one in the cabin. The others were to be tagged and placed in the hold.

Maybe he had a point – he should not have got passed the gate staff while lugging all that baggage, but this problem is perennial, and generally worse on our regional flights into Africa.

I assume the average traveler has little concept of the extent of the operation to get him or her safely to their destination, on time, and hopefully with all of their belongings intact.

First up, is the involvement of politics. Despite the much-ignored Yamoussoukro Agreement, individual flight frequencies between countries on this continent seem to be still negotiated at governmental level. The process is not for us mere pilots to know – just that some airlines are obviously more equal than others, and seem to have the most amazing range of bi-lateral agreements for a multitude of routes.

The Middle East Three seem to be the most successful here, and it is pretty reasonable to say they have Africa buttoned up.

My flight to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, would be typical of such an arrangement. Due to the fact that the local flag-carrier went belly-up some time ago, South Africa pretty much ruled the roost on this sector for some time, until the emergence of a Low Cost Carrier in the form of Fastjet. While we were alone, we could charge what we wanted, and the yields were pretty good. Now, we have had to sharpen our pencil, and try to keep the customers by being punctual, having convenient connecting times, and offering a premium service.

My day for this operation has a leisurely lunchtime report for duty, and the computer asks the normal questions about fatigue, Airline Transport Pilot licence, Class One medical, visa and passport validity, recency in terms of aircraft qualifications and Emergency Procedural Training. Likewise, I am expected to have been route checked by a Check Captain in the last twelve months, have been assessed in the simulator within the last six months, and hold a yellow fever certificate.

Because Dar has RNAV approaches, I must ensure that I have done three in the last six months, with at least one in the aircraft. Because I choose to complicate my life, I have instructor and Designated Examiner oversights by the CAA to contend with annually…

To keep all these dates current is an industry of its own, and constitutes a huge amount of time, effort and expense for any airline. Any one of those dates expiring will make me ‘useless’, as per a certain passenger’s assertion.

The system needs to be assured that my First Officer (FO) and cabin crew are likewise within all of their own sell-by dates.

Next up, I suppose, we need an aeroplane. My mount for the day is a one-year old A320, which, if we used the current Euro exchange rate, the actual Rand value would make one’s eyes water.

This particular one is inbound from Lusaka, and is scheduled to land around 55 minutes before our departure. That makes the turn-around a bit tight, but do-able, if everyone does what they are required to do on time.

It was probably scheduled for this flight around six weeks ago (much like me), ducking and weaving through a complex flight and maintenance program, which should ensure that at this point in time all scheduled maintenance is up to date, software and database updates are correctly installed (yes, it is an Airbus), and all periodic modifications are embodied. Unforeseen maintenance – snags – aside, the system works literally like clockwork.

My right-hand man and I tackle the paperwork at dispatch. First up: Company communications, which we call Briefing Notices. This could have an immediate effect on the operation, if something significant has changed. Next, we deal with NOTAMs, or Notices To Airmen, which are meant to reveal the current technical situation at all airports that we are going to use, might use, might fly past and even those we will be ignoring. Africa is unique in that critical information for the operation may or may not find its way into the package, but we have to live with what we are given, and deal with the curved balls as they happen.

Dar indicates ATC training (as usual), and lots of ‘roadworks’ due to upgrades at the old terminal, while the fancy new terminal, built by the Brits at a cost of 130 million Euros, takes shape nearby.

Our primary alternate, Zanzibar – a short 50 miles north of Dar – appears to have a clean bill of health. Our enroute alternate, which allows us to reduce our contingency fuel from 5% to 3% of fuel burn, is Blantyre, and the Notams indicate that EVERYTHING is broken. VOR, ILS, NDB and some of the approach lights are on strike. We can still do the RNAV, but I like a bit of functionality, so elect to nominate Lilongwe instead.

Next, we have a good look at the actual and forecast weather for all the airports along our route. Everything is comfortably above the legal planning minimums, and apart from the normal enroute thunderstorms, nothing looks to intimidating.

Onto the Computerised Flight Plan, or SITA, which is much like an elaborate Nav log for the route. The first information is fuel and weight planning. The heavier we are, the more fuel we need, and also this is a tankering sector, as it is cheaper to take as much fuel as possible from Johannesburg for the return sector the next day than it is to have a full uplift out of Dar. The downside is it costs fuel to carry fuel – about 70kgs of additional fuel burn for each tonne of extra fuel carried.

The tankering analysis indicates that if I take 100% of the return fuel out of Jo’burg, I will save the company $2100.00 – which is about a million Rands at the present dismal exchange rate. I can’t do this, and still be at a legal landing weight when we turn final approach at Dar, so we have to discuss the actual Zero Fuel Weight (ZFW) of the aircraft with the dispatcher.

This is the total weight of the aircraft, prepared for service, with all passengers, baggage catering, crew and freight onboard, but with zero fuel. Today, this is around 57 tonnes, and we will burn about 7.5 tonnes getting there. Total uplift, which provides for alternate, contingency, taxi and minimum fuel of 30 minutes is 10.7 tonnes. This excludes the tankering calculation.

The legal landing limit weight of the A320 is 66 tonnes, so I have to do my best maths to figure out how much extra fuel I can take so that as we cross the landing threshold in DAR, we are exactly at our max landing weight.

I don’t want to cut it that fine, in case the odd short cut materialises enroute, and the electronic wizardry of the Airbus instantly tells my boss that I landed overweight. I work the sums so that during the last part of the descent, we will be at our legal landing weight.

This paperwork is duly completed and signed, and I ask the FO to check the technical status of the aircraft, as certain acceptable deferred defects may impact the performance and thus the fuel requirement. Being a hugely technically complicated aircraft, the Airbus (and Boeing), has a vast array of systems or items that may or may not be inoperative for any particular flight. If such a deferred item does not have an effect on the performance as such, it may well entail an additional procedure for the crew, so we have to make sure this is clearly understood.

Being a new aircraft does not guarantee it being snag-free, but in this case, it is clean, so that’s one less item to worry about. A quick look at the security file about our specific destination reveals nothing new in terms of terrorist or other types of threats, so things are looking up.

Next, I click on our aircraft block on the scheduling system to see where our cabin crew are and it shows they signed on much earlier and have just completed a Durban and back, and will meet us at the aircraft.

All physical and electronic documents on the iPad are accounted for, so off we go to clear customs and take the crew transport to the assigned parking bay. We arrive as the aircraft arrives from Lusaka, brake cooling fans howling away, and we wait while the whole orchestra kicks into action as the passengers disembark.

Being the generous soul that I am, the FO gets to fly us to Dar, and I’ll fly back tomorrow. This means that I take on the duties of Pilot Monitoring (PM), and this includes the pre-flight walk-around of the aircraft.

While the previous sector’s passengers are still disembarking, I don a sexy reflective jacket and ear protectors and start to check that all the important bits are present and accounted for.

Taking care not to get flattened by the various vehicles swarming around the aircraft, I take a casual but measured look at visible exterior condition. High importance items (among others) are all sensors -Pitot tubes, static ports, temperature probes and angle-of-attack vanes- the latter can completely confuse the flight control computers if damaged.

The V2500 engine cowlings have a history of in-flight separation if the lower latches are not properly secured, so this is an aspect we all double-check. Arriving back at the bottom of the stairs, we have a chat with the ground engineer, order the fuel, and check if any other new defects have appeared during its last flight.

By now, all passengers are off, and cleaning and catering staff surge on board to do their duties. We have a chat with the inbound cockpit crew, mainly about the technical status of the aircraft, briefly solve a few problems of the country, and then make our way upstairs in between the various ground staff clomping up and down the stairs.

I see our cabin crew have arrived, but it is impossible to have a coherent briefing with them while all of this is going on, so into the cockpit I go to stow my two bags, hang up my cap and sit down with the technical logs.

So far, all is on time, present and correct – and we haven’t even started loading the passengers yet. I do appreciate that our beloved self-loading freight are being exposed to their own set of issues while being processed for boarding, and don’t have any idea of the extent of the operation, but ‘useless’ is something we will avoid for the next two flight sectors as best we can.

Part 2 to follow.