Cockpit Chronicles: Groundhog day – The St. Thomas turn (with video)

One of the benefits of working as an airline crewmember, whether it be as a pilot or flight attendant, is the chance to get to know a city in a manner that’s second only to living there. But when we’re given the option to fly a month of ‘turns’ – those one day trips with flight times occasionally exceeding eight hours, many of our Boston international pilots forgo the London or Aruba layover for a line with 9 or 10 turns in it.

It’s tough to pass up a schedule that allows you to be home every night and have a good deal of time off as well.

As a result of the popularity of these turns, they’re not always available to choose when you’re as junior on the seniority list as I am. But my seniority must have improved since the beginning of the year, since I’m able fly FO (First Officer, as opposed to FB, the relief pilot) lines to St. Thomas.

Some might consider it torturous to see a glimpse of warm weather during a walkaround inspection lasting less than ten minutes, only to come straight back to the northeast and land while it’s snowing.
But for the entire month of February, I’ve been doing just that – flying trips to and from St. Thomas, and occasionally trading for a different day or different destination, such as San Juan. I’ve kept an eye open for an opportunity to ‘chronicle’ the trip, but the flights have been rather uneventful and amazingly consistent.

So consistent in fact, that I feel like I’m experiencing a pilot’s version of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

Wake up at 5, depart at 9. Answer a Plane Answers question during the 1 hour crew rest break. Fly a visual approach to runway 10 in St. Thomas, park at gate 3.

I’ll debate whether the view is interesting enough to go outside and snap a picture, and then decide I have plenty of St. Thomas ramp pictures already so I check my e-mail on the phone before doing the interior preflight. The FB comes back in from inspecting the outside, followed by the captain with the paperwork he collected from operations in the terminal and we’re again departing to Boston 5 minutes before our scheduled time.

The flight home might include sleeping on my break, and then returning to the cockpit just in time to watch the sun set before getting ready for the visual approach or ILS to runway 27 back in Boston.

Taxiing in, we maneuver around the same outbound US Airways flight, before finally parking at gate B31.

The FB races out of the cockpit like he’s late for a date, which is entirely expected of that position since there’s nothing left for him to do, except maybe to take the trash bag out of the cockpit as he leaves.

But now, after 10 of these trips in a row, I’ve learned to enjoy the repetitiveness of the flying. It’s refreshing to be familiar with each VHF frequency you’ll dial in as the airplane progresses through the various ATC boundaries. I don’t even mind the same turkey wrap or chicken caesar salad meal option we get on each leg.

And while the captain and relief pilot are occasionally different people, airlines insist on standardized callouts and actions, so even that doesn’t offer much variety.

Last night, however, we had a little experience that finally made the trip one that will stick in my memory for a long time. As we were descending to 24,000 feet (flight level 240 in pilot speak) we leveled off just above a cloud layer.

I call this cloud skimming, and anytime we’re above 10,000 feet, I like to pull out my camera to capture the sensation of speed that 300 knots provides when you’re just a few hundred feet above a layer of clouds.

But today, of all days, I chose to leave my new, amazingly wonderful, mind-blowing Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR slash HD video camera at home. I figured I knew everything that would happen today, right down to the approach and gate we’d be using, and since I had taken enough shots of anything even remotely interesting during the previous flights, today seemed like the day to shed the extra three pounds.

Never again! I was forced to pull out my $210 Flip Mino HD video camera, which I love for it’s simplicity and incredible portability, but I know the 5D’s HD mode would have been even more beautiful.

For those learning to fly, a quick note. After you get your private license, you might be thinking about adding an instrument rating to your ticket. You’re probably weighing the costs and benefits of such an investment. Let me tell you that, in addition to improving your flying skills and your options during long cross country flights, you’ll also be able to experience scenes such as the following that just might make all the studying and checkrides worth it.

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 Plane Answers.