Monday, August 24, 2009

FL400 in 20 minutes

Yesterday a flight crew of a regional airliner lost an engine on takeoff. They climbed to 1000 feet AGL and troubleshot the issue. They then secured the engine and landed safely back at the airport. Didn't see the news blurb on CNN? Yeah neither did I.

Due to this incident I was called while sitting airport standby to cover a flight. The Captain was the same  standby Captain I have flown with the last two months. Nice guy who used to train pilots on my aircraft.

When I arrived at the plane, the flight attendants were already on board. I noticed the cabin was cool, but there was no power. Hmmm. I opened the cockpit door and found a black overhead panel...yup no external power connected. There was however PCA attached. Odd.

I turned on the battery master and used the backup RTU (radio tuning unit) to call company and ask for external power. There is a 5 minute limitation on operating the aircraft using the battery master. This is mostly due to the cooling of the two CRTs. Once the call was made I turned off the battery master and went out to do my preflight. By the time I got back to the cockpit we had power. Nice.

On the flight out we had 63 passengers. The Captain was in a fuel saving mindset. Instead of climbing to our planned FL310 we climbed to FL350. This combined with a 3.5 degree descent angle saved 630 pounds of fuel.

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After pulling into the outstation we were informed we had just 14 passengers to bring back. Wow. With such a low count we were able to do a 20 minute turn. I had time to do my post flight, walk into the terminal, check my schedule, use the facilities, chit chat with the gate agent, get our clearance and text my wife....all without feeling rushed.

With just 14 passengers our takeoff weight was crazy low. I took a photo of the performance planning page while sitting at the gate waiting for boarding to finish.

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Takeoff weight was 54,000 pounds. Max takeoff is 75,000 pounds. Normal takeoff from this particular airport with a full load of passengers and no alternates is 70,000 pounds. I apologized to the Captain for the rough landing that I knew would ensue.

We were both in the fuel saving mindset. With that in mind we set the maximum flex takeoff temperature which allowed the lowest power on takeoff. This also helped reduce the initial climb rate which would have been crazy high if we did a max power takeoff. The initial altitude was just 4000 feet. Even with the flex power takeoff the plane climbed at 3500 feet per minute on the initial climb out.

Climbing through 3000 feet we were cleared to 15,000 feet. I was still in takeoff configuration meaning flaps 8 and takeoff power set. I was hand flying and trying to keep the plane at 200 knots while also trying to keep a comfortable climb angle. During a turn to the south I adjusted the trim a bit much and had a feeling similar to reaching the top of the hill on a rollercoaster. Nice.

The flaps were retracted and I asked for the autopilot while climbing through 13,000 feet. Our flight plan was set for just 300 NM from takeoff to landing. Wanting to save fuel the Captain requested FL400 for a final. We didn't think we would get the request as the arrival corridor is normally jam packed with aircraft. Somehow we got it.

I set the plane to climb at 2200 feet per minute while maintaining roughly 290 knots until passing through roughly FL280. I then set the plane to climb at 1700 feet per minute and set the speed bug to Mach .74. I could have set the plane to climb at 290 knots or .74 the entire time, but the plane does odd motions while climbing in climb mode. The plane will change pitch to maintain speed. It can be uncomfortable to the passengers as the plane pitches up and down in waves. By setting a constant rate (1700 feet per minute), the angle stays the same for the most part. I can make small changes to maintain speed.

On most flights the plane climbs between 500 and 900 feet per minute above FL300. Being so light I was able to have the plane climb at 1700 feet per minute all the way up the FL400.

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We were only up there for 3 minutes before we had to descend in order to make our crossing restriction on the arrival. I waited until the VNAV indicated a 3.5 degree descent rate before starting down. The initial descent rate from FL400 was 3400 feet per minute. With that descent rate I was able to idle the thrust levers and kept them idled from FL400 all the way down to 17,000 feet all while transitioning to an indicated airspeed of 300 knots. Nice.

With such a light takeoff weight, the landing weight was even lighter of course at just 51,000 pounds. The winds were right across the runway at 15 knots.

Even though I configured early and was stable I still bounced it onto the runway. Well not literally bounced, but it wasn't smooth/normal. I tried to ease it down like I normally do. Once the mains touched, for a brief second the plane settled, then the shock absorbers rebounded sending the plane up slightly. Right away the ground spoilers popped up pushing the plane back down onto the runway. When the plane is full the plane settles much easier without the rebound. The plane I fly is much easier to land when it's fully loaded than it is light. Thinking back I could have flared longer, but I was tired.

We were 15 minutes early. We had to wait for a few minutes for a gate to open. While the plane was stopped with the parking brake set, I made a PA letting the passengers know about the delay and that I was sure they were all awake after that landing. During deboarding we had the cockpit door open. One of the passengers stopped by and joked, "geeez the landing on XXXX airlines was much smoother". I turned around, smiled and shrugged. If you can't laugh you can't of the sayings I live by.

I am on reserve at home today with a 2 hour call out. Doubt I will get called. I then have three days off. Still working on a few blogs answering questions that have been posted.


  1. btw how much fuel u guys saved on the way back? ;)

    does the company acknowledge these saving and thank the crew in any ways?

  2. Forgot to add that part, on the way back we saved 800 pounds of fuel. It would be nice (and likely result in greater fuel savings) if there were an incentive to save fuel. Sadly there is not.


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