[Photo credit: Flickr user Fly For Fun]
I received a comment from a reader recently to that effect. What was I thinking, bidding to an airplane that my company was rapidly retiring and choosing to go back on reserve, ready to fly at a moment’s notice to places like Kansas City and Tulsa instead of Rome and Paris? And what about the commute to Germany?
“Why would you do this?” He asked.
I suppose I should explain my thinking, or perhaps justify this because I have to admit there are times when I’ve wondered if it’s the right move.
I didn’t do it for the money, especially since going from flying a full schedule as a 757/767 co-pilot to an MD-80 captain that flies less often while on reserve doesn’t mean there will be much, if any, extra money. To understand how pilots “upgrade” to captain, read “How do pilots move up to captain?”
I did it because I needed the change in scenery, the challenge of doing a new job well, and in this unstable industry, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get some more captain experience just in case things go south. Furthermore, the MD-80 is the only type rating that I don’t have of the airplanes we currently fly.
A year or two ago, I would peek into the simulator of an MD-80 and just shake my head. I was happy that I wasn’t flying that dinosaur, I told myself. But a funny thing happens when a few hundred pilots retire suddenly and you find yourself able to fly it as a captain. It quickly becomes a rather sexy jet.
It hasn’t been until the beginning of my 20th year flying as a co-pilot that I’ve even had the seniority to hold a captain position, and even that is only at the New York base and only on the MD-80. At the rate we’re going, I could hold the 737 as a captain in a few years perhaps, and if I wanted to be based in Boston, it would likely take longer than that. So New York on the MD-80 was my only choice if I wanted a left seat.
I recently had the opportunity to ask our vice-president of flight operations, a self-described optimist, if the MD-80 was going to be retired so soon that I may lose my left seat award after finishing training. He acknowledged that this was a definite possibility, but added that if it did happen, he thought I’d be a captain again within a couple of months, since the A319 and A321s were going to be coming to the airline rapidly.
Captain Wayne on my last co-pilot trip presented me with a set of four-striped epaulets.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me how the commute was going. The traveling has been easier than I thought it would be. Granted, I’m flying multiple trips in a row so I can be over there for one to two weeks at a time, which has made the commute less frequent and more affordable. I have a great place to stay in New York City and it’s rapidly feeling like a second home.
I had promised a full review of the efforts involved in making the commute, and I hope to put out a post on that in the future, but I’d like to wait a bit to be able to describe just how it works while being very junior again on the MD-80. Our reserve lines have one block of four days off a month, a block of three days off and two groups of two days off. Obviously I won’t be able to go to Germany on the two, 2-day blocks of days off.
For the readers here, this will likely give me some new topics to discuss. After nearly five years of writing for Gadling about international flying as a co-pilot, it will be fun to see the different perspective that flying as a junior domestic captain will bring to my posts. In the meantime, for the next month, I’ll be studying what all these switches do, an appropriate fate after ‘complaining’ about the 32 dimmer switches on the 757, an airplane I will miss dearly.
Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as
an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 a junior domestic captain based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.
Here is a picture of David Farley from Gadling
Here is a picture of Kent Wien from Gadling:
Many of us love the window seat when traveling. Even in cramped coach class, you can feel like you have your own little nook with a place to prop up your tiny airline pillow (in case you don’t fly with a SkyRest like Mike Barish) and a great view of the sky and landscape below. But few of us ever get the best window seat, up in the cockpit, where the view is framed by hundreds of tiny lights and controls. Fortunately own resident pilot Kent Wien shared this nighttime arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. See more of his beautiful sky photos here.
We were both tired after arriving at the airport hotel in LA, so we didn’t meet up for dinner, as it was too late anyway. Instead we parted to our separate hotel rooms on the same floor and vowed to meet up at 7 a.m. the next morning.
After picking up breakfast in the airport employee cafeteria downstairs, we proceeded up to the luxurious operations in LA.
The fact that this prime real estate is occupied by the pilots in LAX is stunning. Formerly an Admiral’s Club, it includes the usual assortment of mail boxes, a few offices for the chief pilot and his staff and a dozen or more computers to access the weather and to pull up flight plans.
The modern-looking facility clashes with the 1980s vintage dot-matrix printers though.
What makes this operations so impressive is the view. You can look out at the airplanes on the one side as they park at their gates and then turn around and walk all the way to the other side, past a replica of a late nineteenth century pre-Wright brothers Chanute hang glider that’s on loan from the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, before you arrive looking down on the other ramp.
As you worked your way around the vintage glider, all along the wall are historic ‘plates’ depicting the early history of the airline, and air travel in general. There were pictures of pilots and flight attendants and the planes they flew in the 30s through to this decade.
The cynic in me wondered just how long our operations could remain at such a lofty location.
Kurt finished up his usual call to dispatch and we worked our way into the terminal.
An hour before our scheduled departure, our 767-200 was taxied up to the gate by two mechanics. Kurt commented on the men’s unusually big smiles and said, “They must have taken it out for a spin, they look so happy.”
I looked down the fuselage. It dawned on me that I hadn’t flown this shortened version of the 767 since my initial training on this airplane ten years earlier. That fact might surprise people, but Boeing went to a lot of effort to design the two different 767s and the 757 to have very similar ‘systems’–the mechanical features you learn about in the first few weeks of ground school.
In fact, each airplane flew in a very similar manner, even though one is a wide-body (a short -200 version and a long -300 type) with two aisles and the other is much skinnier with just one aisle.The main flying difference with the 767 was that, compared with the 757, it was more sensitive in the ‘roll’ control. So just after lifting off the ground, it takes a moment to get used to the yoke with its boosted sensitivity if you haven’t been flying it regularly. It’s similar to going from a ’70s cadillac, with its loose power steering, to a Japanese import with a tight suspension. The 767 feels more solid and responsive and thus, more fun to fly.
Kurt and I had never been on the 767 together. So it was another airplane to add to our shared airplane list. I made a mental note to take some pictures inside the cockpit of the two of us, as I’ve done each time we’ve flown the other Boeings.
Kurt lifted off and climbed out over the ocean, before ATC turned us back toward the airport, which we were required to cross at 10,000 feet. He did a nice job of expediting the climb and we passed over LAX with room to spare, making the altitude restriction as we were still looking south west at the Catalina Islands while turning toward Los Angeles.
Before long we were over Las Vegas, which wasn’t as impressive during the day as it was the night before.
Just east of the city was Lake Mead, a beautiful reservoir that has lost so much water over the years it’s possible to see the changes along the shoreline from 37,000 feet.
I had forgotten just how beautiful this particular flight was. It had been a year or two since I’d flown a transcontinental flight across the US and I enjoyed the opportunity to take pictures of what I was missing when flying over the North Atlantic.
At the end of the Grand Canyon, we came upon the equally beautiful Lake Powell. Another aircraft complained ahead to ATC of moderate turbulence at our flight level. For Kurt, the decision was easy.
“Ask them where the rides are smoothest.” He said. I relayed his request to Denver Center and they offered us flight level 310, or 31,000 feet.
“Let’s try that.” Kurt said.
The lower altitude would mean we’d burn a few hundred pounds more fuel–100 pounds is about 15 gallons. But the guidance given by our company puts the priorities this way:
2) Passenger Comfort
3) Fuel efficiency
I was skeptical of the smoother ride below, but it turned out to be an excellent move. Once again we passed over the Rockies without the slightest bump. I have to hand it to Kurt. He works harder than anyone I’ve flown with to keep the ride perfectly smooth for the flight attendants and the passengers.
While over the Rockies, Kurt pointed out Telluride, Colorado just off his side of the airplane’s nose.
“Let me borrow your camera and I’ll get a shot of the launch area.” Kurt said.
Years ago, the hang gliding bug bit Kurt again and he began to fly a much higher performance kite, even managing to do some ‘cross-country’ flights. One of his most memorable experiences happened right below us at Telluride. He showed me where he launched, where the landing zone was, and where the clouds rolled in on the other side of the valley, which forced him to land early. Unfamiliar with the local weather, these clouds were common guests along the opposite hill, but always kept their distance from the launch area and landing zone.
I was envious. I did some hang gliding from a small hill while in college with an instructor who wanted to launch me off the mountain, but Kurt insisted I wait until he could be there. The timing was never right after that, and I regret not pursuing it further. Having a wife and kids makes you think twice about those kind of things, so I doubt I’ll try it again.
Over New Jersey, the controller asked us to give him as much notice as possible if we were going to need to deviate. He told us about a Qantas flight in front of us that required a turn away from some weather near Kennedy. Kurt’s smooth flight was now in jeopardy as we looked at a cloud formation parked over the airport. It was hard to tell how ‘developed’ this cloud was.
Sure enough, as we were about over Manhattan, we told New York approach that we’d have to fly out to Long Island before we could turn back toward JFK. Either that or we could go south to Newark and then back to the airport.
Neither options were available, and the controller gave us a holding pattern. Airplanes behind us began to enter the hold as well, but one flight told ATC they’d like to continue their approach. It’s always nice to have a canary to go into the mine before you. We elected to do the one turn in the holding pattern and wait for the preceding flight to give a report on the ride conditions.
The word came back that the flight experienced heavy rain but nothing more than light turbulence while on the arrival.
“All right, let’s start the approach.” Kurt said.
I jumped on the radio and told the controller that we were ready to rejoin the arrival. As the turbulence began, our on board ACARS printer paper ran out. We’d been getting multiple notes from the company about changes to our arrival gate, and that, along with the weather reports we needed, caused the printer to run out of paper.
After Kurt briefed the approach–an ILS to runway 04 right–I slid in a new roll of paper. These printers seem to run out just when you’re at the the busiest part of the flight, and while getting bumped around in the clouds.
I know Kurt wanted to make his usual nice landing, especially with me at his side, but the touchdown gods weren’t with him today. After another smooth flight across the country, he unceremoniously arrived at Kennedy with a light thump. No worries, he could make up for it tomorrow, I figured. Besides, he earned it after the extra effort he put into finding a nice ride across the country.
When we finally reached the hotel after an hour drive through heavy traffic with an aggressive (even by New York standards) Russian van driver, we were whipped.
But we rallied the energy to meet downstairs, since I had arranged a tour of the ‘crash pad’ where I’m going to stay when I start to commute from Germany to New York in May.
Fortunately it wasn’t too far from the hotel, but those clouds we had flown through earlier started to spit out a snow/freezing pellet combination that left a slushy mess on the sidewalks.
We opted to take a taxi.
“It’s a lot like fishing.” I joked to Kurt after we failed to stop the third empty cab that went by.
Kurt and I were thrilled with the apartment. To call it a crash pad is a disservice, since there are no other pilots staying there. It’s a two bedroom apartment that I’ll share with a friend who has lived in Manhattan for the past ten years. I’ve always wanted to see more of the city, and while I won’t be spending too much time there, this could be far less depressing than a traditional pilot crash pad.
That night, on Facebook, my neighbor, who didn’t know I was in New York lamented, “I wish there were a Bagel Fairy that could bring me some H&H Bagels from New York to New Hampshire. I just can’t stop craving one.”
So I had a goal for the next morning. A ‘quick’ run over to this famous eatery to pick up a dozen bagels that I would personally deliver to her.
As it happened, these bagels reached her far sooner than I expected.
When I woke up, I read reports of a fire at the Miami airport fuel tanks. A quick check of the computer showed that already the company was canceling some flights in and out of MIA due to the reduced fueling capacity.
Sure enough, as I walked back from the bagel shop, my cell phone rang. Our flight to Miami and Boston had both been canceled. We were now scheduled to deadhead from New York to Boston.
I went straight from the bagel shop, packed, and met Kurt in our van to LaGuardia before riding in a regional jet back to Boston.
The bagels were hardly cold when I showed up in my neighbor’s driveway just six hours after I bought them.
It was an abrupt end to our trip. I’ve been lucky to fly with Kurt on four different occasions in four different airplane types. If I could only fly with my flight attendant sister Kim, much of my aspirations made in grade school would have come true.
Since I’ll soon be based in New York, and Kurt remains in Boston, it doesn’t look like we’ll get another chance to pair up. Besides, it’s looking like a captain position is around the corner for me, as long as another downturn doesn’t get in the way.
There I go again, assuming.
Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.