Cockpit Chronicles: Paris – A trip with too much adventure

I’ve often marveled at how smooth air travel has become. Contrary to media reports, tens of thousands of flights operate every day with nary an issue. That was certainly the case for the previous six Paris trips this month.

The first clue that it’d be a more interesting flight came as I walked into the cockpit after doing the walk-around inspection outside. The captain mentioned that we didn’t have any autothrottles tonight. It’s akin to driving a car for 7 hours without cruise control.

I pulled out my Macbook to check the 767 MEL (Minimum Equipment List) to see if there were any issues about flying across the Atlantic without the autothrottles. Nothing came up, which meant they could be deferred for a few days until repairs or component replacements could be made.

At this point I can already hear a few corporate and regional airline pilots screaming, “Hey, we don’t even HAVE autothrottles!”

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But it wasn’t just the autothrottles that were deferred, it was the thrust management system that also gives us information on what our maximum takeoff, climb and continuous power settings were at any given phase of flight.

That meant that, as the relief pilot, I’d need to look up the charts for the proper settings, which change as we climb.

Captain John briefed our non-normal situation while we were still on the ground:

“Kent, could you pull up the max climb thrust, max continuous and .80 cruise thrust at flight level 350?”

I had a flashback to my 727 flight engineer days. The only difference this time was that I was sitting forward in the seat instead of sideways.

Ding, went the cockpit call chime. I picked up the interphone.

“We have fluid from the lavs leaking all over the aft galley,” said the flight attendant.

I told her I’d have maintenance come out and take a look at it right away.

Dave, the co-pilot then mentioned that the ACARS unit isn’t working. ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) is a device that allows us to text message the company inflight through a VHF radio frequency and pull up the weather for various locations or get our oceanic clearance from ATC. These can all be done via regular VHF voice communication if we don’t have ACARS, but it’s much more of a hassle.

We checked the frequency that the ACARS unit was using, but that looked right. Fortunately, as I was telling the mechanic about the leakage in the aft galley, John and Dave got the ACARS up and running somehow.

The mechanic came back to the front of the airplane and explained to us that when the ramp crew leaves the hose hooked up to add water to the airplane’s potable water tanks, it occasionally ‘over pressurizes’ the system and causes some of the water to leak out of the coffee makers and on to the galley floor.

Fortunately, it was an easy fix and we could now begin boarding the airplane.

I sat back after takeoff in seat 2H. I was a bit more tired than usual, so I planned on sleeping if I could. Unfortunately, a 75 year-old Texan lady was making it impossible for anyone to sleep.

“I tell you what…” she’d say, followed by some sort of political opinion she felt was necessary to share with the Finnish man across the aisle.

Her rather loud conversation continued. As the flight attendants went through the cabin offering hot towels, I could hear her say, “No thank you, but could I get another glass of wine, please?”

After my one hour and fifty minute break was up, I went back to the cockpit.

“You guys might want to bring some earplugs if you plan on sleeping,” I warned John and Dave, filling them in on our loquacious passenger.

Captain John stepped back for his break. Upon returning, he told us he’d manage to hear her life story.

Dave dug through his suitcase to find some earplugs before stepping back for his break.

“Give me a ten minute wake-up call, will you?” He said.

Two hours later, he came back to the cockpit and explained that our lady friend was still chatting with the Finnish man. In fact, she was probably the only one on the airplane still talking, since most had gone to sleep after midnight local time.

John made a perfect landing toward the west, away from the sun. A minute later, as we were taxiing in, Elaine, our purser called.

“We had a passenger stand up just as we were about to touch down and move toward the front of the airplane. I met her in the aisle and she asked if she could have a bag, as she didn’t feel well.”

“Let me guess, it was the lady from Texas, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes! That’s the one.” Elaine responded.

“She said she felt dizzy, so I sat her in the crew rest seat. Just as I did, she passed out, fell backwards, threw up all over the crew rest seats and then wet herself. I helped her lean forward so she didn’t asphyxiate; it’s quite a mess back there.”

“Ok, I’ll let operations know. Does she need any medical attention?” I asked.

“She’s awake now. I think it was just all the wine she had.” Elaine replied.

As annoying as it is to cross the pond without autothrottles, I couldn’t help think that Elaine’s flight was a bit more problematic for her.

I mentioned to John and Dave that I wanted to do the night bike tour offered by Fat Tire Bike Tours at some point during the month. Since Dave hadn’t been on the tour before, we decided this would be a good trip to give it a try.

The Fat Tire Bike Tour has been a crew favorite for some time. They offer a morning, afternoon and evening ride through the city that can hardly be considered strenuous. They also have a day tour out to Versailles or Monet’s Gardens in Normandy, but we’re never in Paris early enough to take advantage of that.

After a long nap, we met up in the lobby to grab a quick bite to eat. John knew of a place right near the hotel that served a €5 dinner of Kebob Sandwich, fries and a drink. This worked out perfectly, since we didn’t want to be late for the tour at 7 p.m.

We dropped by the Monoprix on the way to the metro station to pick up some baguette, cheese and salami to go with the wine on the tour. It’s always good to bring enough to share with everyone else on the tour.

We met up at the South pillar of the Eiffel Tower a few minutes before seven.

I’ve been on the day tour twice and the night tour at least three or four times, but I’ve found that it’s impossible NOT to have a great time with Fat Tire. Five hours of entertainment for €28 isn’t a bad deal for Paris.

The night tour is especially fun, since you swing by Ile Saint- Louis for some Italian ice-cream before getting on a Bataux-Mouches boat tour of the Seine. Once on the boat, the guide often breaks out a few bottles of re
d wine to share among the group.

The tour guides are probably what make the ride most interesting, though. They’re almost always from Texas A&M university, and they can describe Paris in ways that you might not read about in a guide book. They’ll even detail the methods used to clean the Notre Dame Cathedral.

For this tour, our leader, John, was actually from Houston. He turned out to be the best tour guide I’d ever had which is all the more impressive when we found out that he had just had his personal bike, a restored ’70′s vintage Schwinn, stolen at his apartment a few minutes before coming to work.

[update: John found his bike locked up around the corner of his apartment. He swears someone moved it and claims he hadn't been drinking the night before when he parked it]

“What’s your favorite animal?” He asked the group. Someone responded, “Horses.”

“Horses, eh?”

“OK, then the theme tonight will be horse related. Pegasus away!” He said as he rode away leading the pack (herd?).

It’s always fun to meet the other riders, and we were surprised to find two New York based co-pilots were among them. There was also a couple from Australia, and a German or two, but most were Americans on vacation or touring Europe.

I brought along a cheap RCA digital video camera to mess with while biking. At least with this camera, if I were to drop it, I wouldn’t be out too much.

This made it rather easy to bring you along for our night bike tour of Paris with John from Fat Tire Bike Tours:

After the ride, we left the Fat Tire building at about 11:30 to jump on the Metro at the Dupleix station. The New York pilots, Beau and Martin, wanted to get a bite to eat at a nearby pub.

Since we needed to stay awake for at least another two hours if we wanted to sleep through the night–remember, it’s only 5:30 p.m. Boston time–we stayed around for a Guinness before heading back to the hotel.

The topic of Crepe Nutella came up, so we stopped in a cafe near the hotel for some desert. I’ve always said, it’s not an official layover until we have a Crepe Nutella and this just topped off a perfect evening.

The next afternoon, during the preflight, Dave noticed a status message, “WARN ELEX” on the lower EICAS (engine indication and crew alerting system) display.

As is the procedure with any of these messages on the ground, we simply called maintenance. The mechanics went through a few trouble shooting tests, but it soon became apparent that this might require swapping a few components out to narrow down the issue.

We called our dispatch (the person responsible for creating our flight plans and tracking our flight at the company) to let him know we’d be running late with this issue. He politely told us that we wouldn’t run out of crew duty time until 7:10 p.m.

We found that a bit funny, as there was no way we could imagine having a delay that would push our 1:30 departure back to 7 p.m.

Little did we know…

Unfortunately, our passengers had already boarded when this seemingly minor problem popped up. The station personnel were great about bringing some bottled water on board for each passenger along with a snack.

Every time the mechanics replaced a component, our hopes were dashed after we discovered that the problem still hadn’t been fixed. Captain John did his best to keep the passengers up to date on every attempt to fix the issue.

The problem was an issue with the ‘air data’ such as the temperature, airspeed and pressure sensors that were fed into our computer, known as the FMS or Flight Management System. One of these inputs was causing the problem.

After four hours of waiting, we knew it was time to get the passengers off the airplane and re-ticketed on the New York flight that would leave at 6 p.m. Those who couldn’t make that flight would have to go on another airline or leave the next day.

Business class was let off the airplane first and put on other flights, and the coach passengers deplaned a few minutes later. We were now sitting on an empty airplane while still holding out some hope of seeing our problem fixed.

The mechanics changed out component after component, reloaded the software for our flight management computers and even started the engines at the gate with no luck.

I sat on the jetbridge with my Macbook connected to the WiFi of the CDG airport, since there wasn’t anything we could do to help the cause along. Finally, at 7:10 p.m. our day was done and we were told that we’d be flying the trip home two days later, since the crew flying the trip to Boston the next day were already in Paris.

A five day Paris trip! This was exciting for everyone, but after a moment it sunk in that we’d be missing Father’s Day at home the next day. I’m sure some of our passengers were thinking the same thing.

At least we’d be paid a few extra hours of flight pay for the extended stay. But I felt terrible for my two kids, and especially my wife, since this was already day 9 in a row that I’ve been working. I would now only have one day at home before going out on yet another three-day trip.

Captain John’s wife, Amy posted about her disappointment with this delay on her blog.

But what would we do with an extra full day and a half in Paris? What would YOU do? Tune in for the next Cockpit Chronicles to find out.

In the meantime, check out more of the bike tour in photos here:

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To be continued…

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.