Cockpit Chronicles: A visit with France’s greatest pilot

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

“You’re not going to believe it, Kent.” Michelle, the purser (#1 flight attendant) said as I walked on the airplane.

“Lexi’s in the boarding area–did you see her?–anyway the agent says the flight is weight restricted and it’s not looking good for non-revs–and there’s no way I can leave my daughter here. The flight was supposed to be wide open!” she said.

When a flight is said to be ‘weight restricted,’ it’s usually because we have to take so much fuel due to weather at the destination that we aren’t able to take all the passengers. While the weather was going to be a bit foggy in Paris, I still couldn’t imagine the fuel load that wouldn’t allow us to use every seat on the airplane.
But it turns out the company had a last minute freight addition, which brought our total to 40,000 pounds of passenger bags and cargo.

This was a shock. I’ve never heard of a Paris flight that was weight restricted before. And I knew that the desire to get the flight out on time meant there was a chance that some of the passengers (mostly the non-revenue employees or their families) would be left behind.

If we could get the total cargo weight as soon as possible, we would then know exactly how many extra people we could get on.

“These things usually work out just fine,” I assured Michelle, who was looking very stressed out.

After doing the walkaround inspection, and getting a look at all the cargo containers to be loaded in the belly of the airplane, I told Captain Hank about the issue. We both went up the jetbridge to see how it was looking for the non-revs while the co-pilot, Bob finished up the cockpit preflight. At one point, not only did it look like we wouldn’t get the non-revenue passengers on board, but we might even have to take two passengers off the airplane. No one wants to be the person to tell a paying passenger that they have to get off because we had too much freight. That would have been completely unacceptable.

Finally, it was looking like we’d come in under weight by enough to get at least some of the people on board, but Hank told them to make sure we had the exact cargo figures before closing the door. We wanted to be certain that we didn’t leave anyone behind when we still had a few hundred pounds available. Normally the door is closed and while we’re taxiing out we would get a text message that prints up in the cockpit telling us how much we weigh and how many passengers are on board.

The agents were really helpful, and amazingly the total freight came in lighter than planned we managed to get everyone on, much to Michelle’s relief. Her seventeen year-old daughter Lexi would be able to enjoy a weekend trip with her mom.

We departed Boston on time and made it to Paris early, arriving at the CDG airport around 7:30. This was in spite of the fact that the fog had become rather thick at the airport, with 75 meters of visibility reported when we were still an hour from landing. This would have meant we’d have to fly a Cat III autoland, but luckily for Hank, who would be flying the approach, the weather lifted a bit and the visibility was fine for a hand-flown landing. Hank’s the kind of pilot who really enjoys flying the airplane and I knew he preferred not to have to set up for the autoland.

Since it was a weekend, the bus ride into the city was a rapid 35 minutes. At the hotel lobby everyone talked about their plans.

Michelle has been known to drag a few pilots out to see a museum, church or art exhibit on her layovers. I think it’s her way of forcing a little bit of culture on our yankee pilots. While it might be an offense worthy of deportation from France, I don’t particularly find art museums that interesting. But when Michelle drags me around Paris, it’s usually a lot of fun.

But I had some plans of my own. Every time I manage to get a Paris trip on my schedule, the first thing I’ll do is to email my friend Nicolas who lives in France, on the off chance that he may be passing through Paris.

I first met Nicolas six years ago, when my neighbor, Sonja, asked if we wouldn’t mind hosting a French exchange student for two weeks. My wife and I were both exchange students at one point in high school, so we jumped at the chance to host someone for a short time.

Nicolas wasn’t officially an exchange student. He was more of a friend of Sonja’s sister and he had hoped to come to the U.S. so he could improve his English before interviewing with Air France. He was 19-years-old when he came that summer and he ended up staying with us for nearly six weeks.

When he went back to France to interview for a pilot position at Air France, he was met with an amazing amount of competition. Air France, like some other European airlines, hires some pilots with little or no flight experience. Since the company pays for their flight training, it’s an extremely good deal. Unfortunately, Nicolas wasn’t hired.

He came back the next summer and we spent a good deal of time flying around the local area. We even made it to Oshkosh for the Experimental Aircraft Associations huge Airventure after I arranged for him to fly all the way to Wisconsin in an experimental airplane. These experiences stuck with him, and he was successful later that year in getting a flying position with the French Airforce.

So when he called to let me know that he’d be in Paris visiting his girlfriend’s family there, I was thrilled to get the chance to see him. On some of the previous Paris layovers, I’ve even taken a three-hour train ride to Nantes, on the west coast of France, to see where he lived and to meet his parents. On one of those layovers, we managed to rent a catamaran and had a great time sailing from a beach near Nantes.

Fortunately this layover would just involve dinner somewhere in the city. At least that’s what I thought the plan was. I told Nicolas that we could meet up somewhere after 2 p.m. since I really needed a good nap.

After waking from the nap and before heading out to see Nicolas, I ran into Michelle and her daughter who were ready to see tackle the city.

I met up with Nicolas and his girlfriend, Margaux, at a train station near our hotel. It was great to finally meet his girlifiend who’s a medical student in Nantes. She had plans to see her brother’s new apartment in the city, so we jumped on the metro and went to Gare de l’Est to find his place.

Before we walked from the train station to his place, we decided to get something to eat. Through a misunderstanding, Nicolas thought I really meant we’d eat lunch, instead of dinner, since he had a 6:45 P.M. train to catch back to Nantes. So this would be a short visit, indeed. Since it was a Sunday, the only thing we could find in the Gare de l’Est area was an American-themed restaurant called the Indiana cafe which appear to be popular near the major train stations in France.

They apologized for not finding something more exciting, but I was really just interested in catching up with Nicolas and meeting Margaux.

Nicolas just finished his flight training in an Alpha Jet in the French Air Force and he’s now awaiting his airplane assignment, which could range from a piston-engined primary trainer called an Epsilon all the way to a Mirage 2000 fighter. I’m looking forward to finding out what he’s eventually awarded.

The Alpha Jet Trainer

We finished up lunch, where they had chicken wings and I went for the burrito, before heading up the street to Margaux’s brother’s apartment. It’s nice to be able to see where people live in the city and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see a Parisian apartment. I expected something a bit smaller, though. This place, while shared among three bachelors, was actually spacious. As is common in Paris, you enter a quiet courtyard first before going into one of the apartments.

Margaux’s brother Alban, showed us his electronic drum kit. He played a bit for us and we were very impressed with his talent. Best of all, he could practice with headphones on so he wouldn’t disturb his roommates.

It was suggested that we take a quick walk toward the train station to sit down in the wonderful weather at an outdoor pub. We chatted for a while and I enjoyed trying to stretch my French vocabulary.

The three of us said goodbye to Alban and jumped on the metro. I’ve noticed that the metro is much more crowded this year than when I first started coming to Paris in 2002. This ride was no exception, but at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the trains in Asia.

Nicolas and Margaux got off at the Montparnasse stop and I continued on to the hotel. I couldn’t believe I’d have the luxury of an entire evening to get some posts done. And after the excitement from the previous trip, I was very content to pick up a ham and cheese baguette to take back to my room.

The next day the crew caught up on what everyone did on their layovers. Michelle and Lexi visited the American Church where Michelle was married. If anyone could figure out a way to be married in such an amazing location, it would be Michelle. Unfortunately the church was closed, but when Michelle told a staff member that she had been married there years ago, they allowed them inside for a private showing. It really made their trip.

Michelle was so appreciative to the captain and I for doing what we could to make sure her daughter got on the flight that she gave us a box of amazing (and I’m sure, far too expensive) chocolates.

There’s a little more paperwork involved in flying across the Atlantic than on your typical domestic trip. It’s usually brought to the cockpit and includes:

  • The flight plan – which shows where we’ll be flying, how high we’re planned to fly and how much time and fuel we’ll have remaining. This flight plan is only a guide. ATC might give us a different altitude or even a different routing.

  • Track Message – Every day the North Atlantic Track system (NAT) is made up of five parallel routes that are optimized for the forecasted winds. Since they change twice a day, we are careful to crosscheck our route of flight to make sure it matches the track message.

  • The TPS – A printout that shows the flap setting, the takeoff speeds and the power settings that will be used for a given runway.

  • The weather – A detailed look at the current weather and the forecast for the destination and any alternate airports.

  • Company messages and FAA notices – Any recent changes at the departure or destination airports or any operational changes for the flight.

  • A large map with the waypoints marked for our planned route of flight.

I can’t help wondering how much extra freight we could carry if we didn’t have to take along all this paperwork!

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