Cockpit Chronicles: St. Elmos Fire, Falcons and Segway-ing through Paris

Rich, the relief co-pilot, looked over my shoulder and pointed to the radar.

“Looks like you’re painting some weather there.” He said.

I looked down, noting the sea of green ahead.

“It doesn’t have much vertical to it.” I replied, which meant the clouds hadn’t developed into anything that would produce much in the way of bumps.

“I think it’s just heavy rain.” I said.

After flying around Hurricane Ike and Hanna, it was nice to get away from the Caribbean weather by escaping to France. Sure, there may be some specks of yellow among the green Rich had pointed out, but this was no real thunderstorm from what I could see.

Soon we entered the clouds from above. The sunrise we had been enjoying was gone now and the cockpit was a bit darker. As we descended towards 20,000 feet, St. Elmos fire began to sparkle on the front windshield. This phenomenon looks like lightning, but it’s actually static discharges occurring right on the glass just in front of our faces.

Rich grabbed my camera to film the scene. [Video after the jump]

As we approached Paris on the arrival, we broke out long enough to see the sun trying to peek above the cloud layer. Moments later we flew through a few small build-ups. This weather was hardly painting on the radar, yet these were some powerful little clouds. The airplane bumped and shook for the next ten minutes causing Rich to give up with the camera. He couldn’t film much longer anyway, since we were about to reach the 10,000 foot sterile period.

Checking in on the radio behind us was a U.S. Airways flight that was beginning to pick up the same ride conditions we had. Since I was working the radios, I gave a quick pilot report about the moderate turbulence we had just flown through, hoping the U.S. Airways flight might do a better job avoiding it than we did.

It turned out Rich made a good call. The green weather with specks of yellow turned out to be rougher than anything I’d ever experienced in Europe. Fortunately we were through it by the time we reached 10,000 feet.

Captain Frank finished off the approach with a nice landing at Charles de Gaulle.

We talked about our plans as we rode the bus into the city.

I’ve always wanted to do it. Maybe this was the layover to give it a try. The reflective vests and helmet makes you look so goofy. Could I get past that? I mean, it is a form of transportation, and I do like gadgets. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to convince Rich to join me.

Of course I’m talking about taking a tour of Paris on a Segway. City Segway Tours offers as many as three of these tours a day during the summer with the rides tapering off as winter approaches. So I would have to do it on what would likely be my last Paris trip, number 17, of the year.

At 70 Euros, it doesn’t come cheap, but amazingly Rich really wanted to give it a try. He’s a bit of an adventurous type, who’s currently heavily involved in his new hobby of beekeeping. Since touring around Paris on a Segway wasn’t something he’d done yet, it didn’t take much to convince him.

Fat Tire had an opening on their 6:30 p.m. tour, so Rich and I had some time to roam around the city. I told Rich that Grant Martin, the editor of Gadling who normally resides in Michigan, was just a few miles from the hotel playing a competitive game of Frisbee at the Cité Universitaire.

We had some time to kill and we agreed that it’d be interesting to see what was involved in a competitive Frisbee game, so we walked over to the park where he and his girlfriend had met up with his sister and some others for a game.

It was apparently the nicest day of the summer according to the local media with warm 70+ degree temperatures, perfect for hanging out in a park and I suppose ideal weather for a Frisbee match.

Unfortunately, we wouldn’t see a real Frisbee match, since a local falconer was out flying two of his birds at the field. It gave Rich a good opportunity to take the pictures below while I shot some video.

Grant trying to determine if this bird would be using the field for the rest of the day…

The falcon unexpectedly took off after a kid ran towards it. (See video below)

We agreed to meet up with Grant and the ladies later that evening if we survived our Segway experience.

We met Lisa at Fat Tire Bike Tours and City Segway Tours at their office near the Eiffel Tower and she immediately made us sign away any rights and agree to pay for any damage we may do to the machines. That didn’t dissuade us, so we took the next step and picked out helmets before joining the five other riders.

Our guide, Dana, was an enthusiastic American who was rather adept at Segwaying through Paris. She gave us a good thirty minutes of instruction on how to operate the Segway.

Before we knew it, we were all getting comfortable with the motions needed to step on, move, turn and most importantly, stop Dean Kamen’s amazing little invention. The tour takes four hours and covers the major sites of Paris. Rich and I had seen these landmarks before, but we couldn’t stop grinning.

In just a few minutes we completely forgot just how dorky we looked on the Segway and we began enjoying the freedom it provided.

Our concerns with the €70 per person had been put to rest almost immediately. This was worth it.

It’s easy to underestimate just how fast 12 miles an hour is, until you’re on a Segway. We flew through the parks, mostly at a comfortable 1/2 speed, occasionally ‘opening it up’ a bit to feel the wind blow through our hair while demonstrating our prowess to the other riders.

I struck up a conversation with one of the riders who had his new camera damaged a few days earlier. He wondered if I might forward him some pictures and video, and I told him I was writing this up for a blog, and I could at least sen
d him a link.

Much to my surprise he was a fan of Gadling and he was pretty sure he’d read a Cockpit Chronicles. Or at least he thought.

So I vowed to send him this story–a post I’m sure he’ll remember, if only because he was actually there.

Dana gave everyone the option of stopping for a drink and an appetizer at a café, or simply taking a rest break at a Creperie/Bistro so we could spend more time running around the city.

Everyone decided to keep the rest break short and continue our tour as we were really enjoying the zippy little wheels. I was amazed that battery life wasn’t an issue even though we were almost constantly moving for the four hours. These machines never seemed to slow down.

For a novice, riding a Segway is almost more demanding than a bike tour, since your feet and calf muscles aren’t used to the corrections and weight-shifting required to speed up and slow down.

I was able to balance the device, even while shooting video along the way. I may regret this, but I’ll go ahead and share the video:

I know I’ve recommended the Fat Tire Bike tour of Paris and Versailles in the past, but you just might have to forgo those, and give the Segway a try. No one in our group regretted it.

We met up with Grant and his girlfriend over at the Latin Quarter at almost 11 p.m. Grant’s sister Chi twisted her ankle playing Frisbee and couldn’t join us for drinks and dessert. I would have enjoyed talking with her–to get her viewpoint on what it’s like as an expat living in Paris for the past few years. I guess I’ll just have to keep reading her blog. Here’s the day from her perspective along with some great pictures of the Falcon demonstration.

We’re no longer flying to Paris for the winter, so it’s time to bid farewell to this amazing city. It was more expensive this year than in years past, but far more memorable, too.

Now it’s back to the Caracas, Miami, and who knows what other trips we’ll see this winter. Stay tuned…

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.

Cockpit Chronicles: Stunning clouds, a blue tower and a few meetups.

As a pilot, every now and then you’ll have a chance to catch a sight that just burns into your memory. The spire of the Empire State Building piercing a setting sun while approaching New York’s JFK airport, or watching a satellite pass overhead while holding above a thick cloud layer of fog over Anchorage.

But nothing can top the scene witnessed by every airplane crossing the North Atlantic on July 22nd, at around 3 a.m. in whatever time zone we were crossing.

At first, we thought we noticed a faint glow of the northern lights. Pretty soon, the colors became so spectacular that we began calling the flight attendants up to the cockpit to check out the light show.

But these aurora borealis weren’t moving or changing colors. And the colors that were starting to appear, didn’t match the usual green glow I was used to.

It didn’t take long for pilots on 123.45, a VHF channel that’s normally used to report ride conditions and any weather deviations, to start a discussion about what we were seeing.

A British Airways pilot mentioned that these were high altitude noctilucent clouds. After spelling it a number of times, he explained that they were possibly caused by methane gas in the upper atmosphere.

While Captain Mark called in a position report and I captured the glow over the horizon with my Canon Digital Rebel’s wide-angle lens-the only lens I managed to bring along.

These clouds live around 300,000 feet high. From what I’ve read online, scientists aren’t completely sure what causes them. One thing is known, the only time to see them is just before the sun starts to rise, since the clouds aren’t visible unless illuminated from below in the early morning.

I was so thankful I brought my camera. I no longer go to work without it. There were just far too many times where I saw a once–in–a–lifetime scene with no way to capture it.

There’s speculation that these clouds are stronger with every space shuttle flight, which may be causing some of the clouds. A satellite was launched last year by NASA to study the exact reasons behind the formation of these clouds. USA Today is reporting that these same clouds were visible from the international space station this summer.

The month of July was rather busy again, with another six Paris trips. In between all this flying, I had to pack up everything stored in our basement to get ready for our my family’s August 15th house move.

So that’s why you may have noticed a lack of posts to the Cockpit Chronicles lately.

I just can’t let an entire month’s worth of flying pass without mention, so I’d like to cover a few of the more exciting things that went on in Paris.

At the beginning of the month, I met up with Gadling’s senior editor, Grant Martin, who showed me one of his favorite Parisian restaurants along the Champs-Élysées. It’s at the Renault automobile showroom, in fact.

Above the Formula 1 car displays and overlooking Renault’s current line of cars, is a unique and surprisingly inexpensive restaurant. We talked about Gadling over a few beers and a pasta dish that was simply excellent.

After dinner, we decided to work our way to the Latin quarter using the Velib bikes. Grant had a card that would work-for Americans, only an American Express card will work in the Velib kiosks-so we picked up a couple of bikes, and managed to work our way east, stopping before 30 minutes had passed to check in and then check out the bikes, to prevent the excess charges from kicking in. If we were successful in finding kiosks within the 1/2 hour limit, the total Velib charge would only cost 1€.

We stopped at Trocedero to snap a bunch of pictures of the Eiffel Tower that was bathed in blue light. The scene from up there was spectacular and we both managed a few great pictures of this event that was to last only a few more weeks.

We had to work our way around thousands of roller bladers participating in the Pari Roller, a night ride through Paris of over 20km. Here’s a quick video taken that night:

The next trip was with my good friend Captain Dave, who brought his wife and daughter. I knew Nicole, their daughter, would love the evening Fat Tire Bike Tour, so we grabbed a quick sandwich before jumping on bikes again to cover the city.

Three days later, I was back in Paris with Captain Mark. We met up with many of the flight attendants for a picnic in the park, a common and rather inexpensive way to enjoy the great weather over bottle of wine, some cheese, bread and whatever else someone thinks to bring. We still managed to maintain enough of an appetite to eat at La Fresque restaurant in the Marais district.

Once again Mark and I returned to Paris, it was on this trip that we saw the noctilucent clouds on the way over. After the requisite nap, we met up with one of the frequent commenters on Gadling, Thaddeus, who was studying at the Cité University which isn’t far from where we stay.

Thaddeus has used the misguided adventures me
ntioned here as a basis for touring much of the city, and for that, I figured I should probably meet him for a drink while he was still in town. Mark and I joined up with him and learned that when he isn’t traveling, he is an intern at Bloomberg living in New York.

Mark wanted to show us some of the underground that’s been preserved in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. I hadn’t realized that these Roman ruins had been preserved and available for anyone to check out.

By the time we came above ground, we were a bit parched, so we stopped at a cafe for a drink before deciding to eat dinner at Le Hide, my new favorite restaurant in Paris.

Thaddeus hadn’t been to the Arc de Triumph yet, so it was a good opportunity to cover some ground he hadn’t seen. Even so, Thaddeus proved to be the best guide for us, as he had been covering quite a lot of Paris and he was very familiar with the Metro and many of the important destinations in the city.

As we worked our way to the restaurant, we ran into 4 or 5 of the flight attendants. Thaddeus actually recognized at least one of them from reading this blog.

Le Hide turned out to be excellent as usual. Thaddeus went for the Entrecôte, (rib steak), but everyone agreed the escargot appetizer and the sea bass entree were the tastiest. This restaurant is still an amazing value at 22 and 29€ for the two or three course meal.

We passed on the desert, instead hoping to catch something over at the Latin Quarter. As we walked to the metro, we traveled for a while down the Champs-Élysées and I insisted Mark and Thaddeus take a look at the Renault showroom.

We were distracted for a while with a reaction testing machine, which turned out to be a humbling experience for us. This machine was a spider of lights on a wall which would light up one at a time. The object was to press the light after it lit up and to try to get as many in a minute as possible.

We watched someone who no doubt worked at the showroom set a high score. After both Thaddeus and I gave it a try, we were beaten by a girl who happened to walk by. Wisely, Mark elected to skip this test.

Without a doubt, Thaddeus made this a great experience for Mark and me. After a trip to China, Thaddeus has become addicted to travel, but he’s still focused on finishing his senior year of college in New York and landing a good job. Ultimately he wants to be a teacher. Needless to say, Mark and I were really impressed.

Those are some of the highlights of my final full month of Paris trips for the year. For August, I started out with a line of Caracas and Laguardia trips, but I managed to take some time off to move. I finished August with what may be my last Paris trip, which turned out to be memorable. Stay tuned for some even more embarrassing video clips in the next post.

For more pictures from July, including Kelly the co-pilot inside a 767 engine, take a look at the gallery below.


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

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!”

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:


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.