Monday, September 28, 2009

Test pilot

After a week of avoiding airport standby....I was back on duty yesterday.

Three updates came out Friday for various manuals I carry thus I spent the first 90 minutes ripping out pages and installing new pages. Yeah it was really fun. I was feeling really lazy and just stayed down in the crew room versus heading up to the terminal to my normal hang out. Staying in the crew room isn't as comfortable (well worn chairs) but  again I was lazy.

I spent a good three hours wasting away watching movies via my streaming Netflix account. I then watched a live netcast from Twit (no connection to Twitter!). There is a huge gap between 6:45PM and 9:10PM where there are no flights on my aircraft. If I get to 6:45PM without being called, I have a really good chance of sleeping in my own bed.  I did say really good chance.

With the departure of the 6:45PM flight I thought I was good to go. The remaining flights were all running on time. Then my phone rang. What?

I was assigned a deadhead leaving in just 30 minutes. Nice. My original plan was to get a decent healthier dinner. No time now. I grabbed my bags, stopped by Sbarro (pasta's salad right?) and headed to the gate.

By the time I made it to the gate most of the passengers had boarded. I didn't feel like playing overhead bin cop and gate checked my suitcase and flight kit bag.

Passengers often seem a little surprised to see a pilot sitting in the back. They sometimes give that, "shouldn't you be sitting up there look?"

One passenger sitting across the aisle up  and one seat forward did something that really annoyed me.

FAA policy on portable electronics is pretty simple...they must be off. There is no mention of "airplane mode" or exceptions. Last night there was a passenger who closed his Kindle when told to bey the flight attendant, but once she was seated he opened it back up. I know he saw me sit down behind him.

My wife owns a Kindle DX. I know they only use battery power when changing pages. As long as the wireless is off there is likely little risk interfering with the aircraft systems. However policy is policy.

He proceeded to use it during taxi, takeoff and climb out. This really annoyed me as I felt he was disrespecting the flight attendant, pilots and myself. When the flight attendant walked by after takeoff he hid the device again. Once clear he reopened it. The sterile cockpit light was still on indicating we were still likely under 10,000 feet.

I whipped out a hotel notepad and wrote a polite note explaining I own a Kindle, know how they operate and that he was violating FAA policy. There was no threatening language...just information. I passed him the note. He put the Kindle away.

The flight out gave me time to eat my dinner. It was a short flight...just 30 minutes.

Once at the outstation I figured I would have to wait around for a ride to the hangar where the plane was waiting. As luck would have it the plane I deadheaded on was going to the hangar. The Captain and I hitched a ride in the back. Nice.

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I would have bet money the test flight plane wasn't ready. They rarely are. Last night I would have lost.

The plane was sitting outside of the hangar. I stashed my bags, grabbed a flash light and did a very detailed pre-flight. Taking a plane up for a test flight after it has been down for extensive routine maintenance means a little more scrutiny for me. Happily all the big parts (and all the small ones too) were in order.

While I was preflighting ,the Captain was getting the paperwork in order. Within 40 minutes of arriving at the outstation we were taxiing out for a test flight.

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The Captain flew while I handled the radios. The outstation is in the middle of nowhere. ATC gave us a block altitude to work with and simply said to call back when we were ready to come back in.

After a few turns, climbs and descents the Captain was happy with the plane. I called up ATC. We were then vectored in for an ILS. The Captain briefed he wanted to go down to mins, go missed, enter a hold and then back for a visual. This would be my second time going missed in the real plane. During training in the simulator going missed is common.

The first time I went missed in the real plane was my own doing.

I was flying to an outstation and was expecting to fly downwind to final. About 20 miles out approach cleared us in for a straight in approach. I decided to "go down, then slow down". Already slowed to 250 knots at 10,000 feet the Captain set 2500 in the altitude preselect. I idled the engines and hit the descent button to have the plane descend at 250 knots.

This brought us down at about 1600 feet per minute. This wasn't getting the job done as the "banana" bar showed us leveling off at 2500 feet just inside the final approach fix. I then extended the flight spoilers fully. The rate increased to 2200 feet per minute. The "banana" bar now showed leveling off about 2 miles ahead of the final approach fix. Still no good.

I reduced the descent speed to 220 knots. Passing through 4000 feet the plane slowed to 220 knots and was now descending around 1800 feet per minute. I called for flaps 1, then flaps 8, then flaps 20. The nose pitched down progressively with the increased drag.

Just 2 miles from the final approach fix and just under glide slope I called for gear down. I clicked off the autopilot and flew the plane down on glide slope. Still doing a blazing 200 knots 5 miles from the runway, I looked over at the Captain......he was smiling......the way you do when you know what's going to happen before it happens.

The spoilers were still fully extended just over 1400 feet AGL. The plane wasn't slowing fast enough. At 1200 feet AGL I realized it wasn't going to happen. I stowed the flight spoilers and announced I was going around.

We were vectored around for a downwind and I landed normally. Once at the gate the Captain and I talked about the situation. In jets it's either go down OR slow down....not both. The proper thing (and what I have done since then) is slow down to just under VFE and descend. Works every time.

Last night the Captain had the autopilot fly the ILS down to mins and then took over for a go around. After entering the hold he bounced the very light plane onto the runway. Test complete.

After another hour of waiting it was my turn. The plane was extremely light. On rotation I used minimal force to avoid a tail scrape.

I was a bit tired. I decided to keep my mind active and hand flew the plane for the entire flight. The weather was clear and a million. The outstation was just over 140 miles from base. Leveling off at FL210 I accelerated to 330 knots. Being so late we were cleared direct to the airport.

On the base turn I decided to try something different. We had already been cleared for a visual approach. I had the ILS tuned in like always but decided to turn off the flight director and just fly a true visual approach. The localizer and glide slope were serving as a backup. It was a nice change.

I bounced the light plane onto the've had much worse. The ramp controller had long since gone home. It was 11:30PM. Thankfully we were parking in front of the mechanics area and they were there to guide us in AND take the aircraft. This meant I didn't have to do a post flight. One of the mechanics even offered us a ride to the employee parking lot. Nice. It was my first time in a car on the airport. Very different view traveling around at ground level.

I walked in the house at 11:58PM. My wife woke up for a moment then fell back asleep. I saw her for a few seconds before she left this morning for work. With a little luck  I will see her again tonight before she goes to bed....that is if I don't get sent out on a flight.


  1. First - thanks for your blog. I fly quite a bit as a passenger, and reading your posts makes me feel a lot better about flying RJ's, which used to make me quite nervous. (in fact flying ORD-AUS Thursday)

    About the Kindle - I understand that the rule is the rule, but do you have any insight into WHY the rule is what it is ? I've never understood why with the wireless off it's any different than reading a book. Drives me nuts to see the Type A selfish dorks tapping away on their Blackberries while I've complied and am reading the in-flight magazine for the 5th time that month. Also, on UAL and some other airlines you are allowed to use cellphones once off the active runway after landing, but can't use ANY other devices such as the Kindle. Any insight is appreciated.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment. ORD-AUS via an RJ?....must be on United.

    I don't think the electronic device policy will change any time soon as it will me Flight Crews technology cops. There are so many devices that people carry that it can be hard for non-techno people to figure out what is wireless capable and what isn't. If it is wireless capable is the wireless turned off? Easier to have one blanket rule.

    After landing cell phone use is odd to me. One of the most dangerous parts of a flight is on the ground. Turning on all those cell phones can cause issues with flight crews hearing instructions over the radio (put a GSM cellphone next to a speaker). Eh.


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