Cockpit Chronicles: Haiti after Hanna

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.

New on the schedule for us this month is a two-day trip to Miami. The first day is rather easy with just one leg from Boston to Miami. The second day involves a trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, then back to Miami and up to Boston.

We’re required to sign in for our trip in the pilot operations room at least one hour before departure time. That give us enough time to check the weather, pull up paperwork and check our mailbox. Even though we ‘sign in’ an hour before, we don’t get paid until we’re pushing back from the gate.

Our pilot operations is a place where you’ll regularly run into captains and co-pilots who you may have flown with on a different airplane and hadn’t seen in years. I ran into my longtime friend Russ on this morning’s trip. Russ and I worked in a hobby shop together in Seattle when we were both in high school, so it’s always nice to visit with him. He’s currently an MD-80 first officer (co-pilot).
While walking to the gate later, I saw Russ checking over his Super 80 at the gate with the sun coming up behind our airplane. I just had to take a moment to capture this shot.

A few minutes later I was inspecting the tires of the 757 we would be flying to Miami. Russ’s flight began to taxi past the tail of our airplane so I pulled the camera from my pocket and snapped him going by. It’s a pain to get up at 2:30 in the morning to go to work but I always enjoy the sunrise at Logan and sights like this:

The morning departure to Miami was uneventful. The original captain was sick, so they called out a reserve captain to cover the trip. He would fly down to Miami with me before getting on an airplane to deadhead back to Boston.

So I was on my own for the layover, but fortunately my friend Dave from Ohio would also be staying at the hotel by the beach. We decided to meet up with the rest of his crew for dinner.

One of the pilots knew a great Cuban seafood place up the street. He didn’t steer us wrong, as the food was fantastic. We sampled appetizers that were rather good before eating the main course of sole, which we were able to inspect before ordering.

It was great to catch up with Dave and meet the other co-pilot on his trip, Joe, who plans to begin commuting from Anchorage, my home town, to Chicago soon. That’s a commute I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but I can understand the draw for some to live up in Alaska. For Joe, it allows him to be closer to his sport fishing business outside of Anchorage.

That’s one of the advantages this job provides; the ability to live just about anywhere and commute to and from your base free of charge. The only cost is the extra time you’ll spend on an airplane each month.

Dinner was great and I hope to go back there on the next layover.

I met the next captain at the gate the next morning for our flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He was a Miami-based pilot who was called out on reserve to continue the trip with me. Occasionally, when one pilot calls in sick, the trip is covered by more than one pilot from different bases.

The weather was nice as we were descending over Haiti, and I was interested to see if the effects of Hurricane Hanna could be seen from the air.

The town of Genaives was the hardest hit and it’s easy to see from these pictures. This is just north of Port-au-Prince as we were coming through 20,000 feet.

What looks like a river flowing out to sea below…

…well, there’s a town in the middle of that river.

Just past Genaives, we were cleared to 10,000 feet, which takes you right by some ‘naked’ mountains which are a big part of the reason for the flooding that occurs in Haiti.

No country in the western hemisphere has had worse fortune than Haiti. They just can’t seem to get a break, and their plight hasn’t adequately captured the attention of the rest of the world.

I’m constantly amazed at how friendly the Haitian passengers and ground crew are. And you won’t find a cabin of nicer dressed people than the Port-au-Prince passengers.

On approach we flew over a U.S. Navy ship which was full of supplies that were being delivered to Genaives. Two of the helicopters based on the ship were idling on the ramp when we parked, and a third one landed by the time we were loaded again for our return back to Miami.

I’ve been flying to Port-Au-Prince for years now and I don’t really feel like I’ve actually been to the country. Arriving at the airport, doing a walk-around inspection and then departing an hour later doesn’t really count, does it?

I even arrived on the day Port-au-Prince was under a coup, but it was impossible to tell from the activities at the airport. Here’s a gallery I made up from that trip:


As I flew back to Miami and then Boston, I couldn’t help think of the challenges for those living in Haiti. If they’re not trying to survive a political uprising, then they’re likely dealing with the aftermath of a major hurricane.

While I can’t say I’ve really been to the city of Port-au-Prince, flying international trips like this has given me a perspective that wasn’t possible when I was working the transcon flight from Boston to Seattle years ago.

We may not get a chance to fly to Haiti for some time, since the airline has canceled the PAP trip that has been flown lately by Boston crews, and I’m not sure if we’ll see the trip come back anytime soon.

Here’s hoping things look a little better for Haiti if and when we go back.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Bosto

Cockpit Chronicles: Flying around Hanna and Ike

I couldn’t believe my timing. A four-day trip to the Caribbean with Hurricanes Hanna and Ike scheduled to be right in our way for almost every leg.

Would some of the flights get canceled? And if not, how far out of the way would we be flight planned to stay away from these storms?

This job tends to stay interesting if only because no two trips are alike, even if they take you to the same destinations. Some might think there’s a lot of monotony in flying a plane, but even if the destinations remain the same, there are always new challenges such as adverse weather, different ATC requests, or small mechanical issues to contend with. Not to mention the variety of pilots and flight attendants you might be working with.

I pulled up the satellite weather before leaving for the airport, knowing that it would be impossible to see the big picture of this storm once we’re inflight. While our airborne radar can keep us away from the bumps, it can’t give us an idea of the actual conditions until we’re within a few hundred miles or less of the storm.

The first leg, from Boston to Miami wouldn’t be a problem at all. It was the second leg, from Miami to Caracas that might be interesting. Before departing, my guess was that we’d be flight planned south over Cuba and then Jamaica before turning toward Venezuela.

Sure enough, as you can see from this satellite view below, we were sent around the west side of Hanna. The ride from Miami to Caracas turned out to be rather smooth, with almost all of the clouds associated with the outer edge of the storm well below us.

After our layover of 14 hours in Caracas, Hanna was sure to move west, but would it now impact our route of flight to Philadelphia?

I looked at the weather online while watching a little of Hugo Chavez on the T.V. in my room. If I could only speak Spanish, I’m sure it would have been far more interesting. I’m very thankful for the free internet, though, even if it isn’t much faster than a dial up connection at home.

The next morning the leg from Caracas to San Juan had little in the way of weather. We deviated around a few puffy build-ups over Puerto Rico, but the ride was smooth all the way there.

But the San Juan to PHL leg looked more interesting. Was Hanna breaking up? I couldn’t imagine a great ride, even if it looked like the storm was taking a rest off the east coast.

We had the seatbelt sign on for most of our second leg to PHL, but the ride wasn’t too bad. Looking at the satellite picture above, it seemed we managed to find a nice gap between the scattered storm. Four out of six legs finished and we still hadn’t been affected too much by Hanna. But what would Ike look like when we flew south in 36 hours?

We’d be staying downtown in Philadelphia for two nights–a rare long layover–before leaving on the 4th day of the trip early in the morning. Philadelphia has plenty of great things to do, I’m sure, but I couldn’t get past the Reading Terminal, a converted train terminal that has been made into a market in the heart of the city.

If you’ve ever been to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, well, this is all that except larger. Flowers, fresh fish, chocolate, books, spices, vegetables are all for sale, mixed in with a few restaurants selling crepes, gyros and my personal favorite, a turkey sandwich shop. I even had breakfast at a diner run by the Amish. Unfortunately, the diner is only open 4 days of the week.

This market has everything. Even chocolate covered potato chips:

I passed on those.

Hanna was approaching Philadelphia on the morning of our departure, but it wouldn’t arrive until a few hours after we left. It was Ike that was now directly in our way for our leg from PHL to San Juan.

As I was doing the walk-around inspection, one of the rampers asked me how we were going to get to San Juan with Ike right on top of the island.

I told him I was wondering the same thing earlier that morning, but the latest latest satellite view that showed Ike a few hundred miles north of the island. If it were covering the area where we were landing, there’s no way we would have been flying that trip.

I grabbed my iPhone and showed him the current weather. (wasn’t there a commercial about this?)

Essentially, we’d be flying from Hanna to Ike, landing in San Juan, before flying north around Ike again to Boston. Our eventual route of flight to San Juan and then up to Boston looked like this:

We were originally flight planned to pass to the east of Ike before working our way into San Juan. Just 30 minutes north of the storm, ATC gave us the option of passing to the west of the storm. Captain Mark and I saw far more blue sky to the west, so we turned right and worked our way around it, sending messages regularly en-route to our dispatcher to let him know that we were getting a very smooth ride this way.

His perspective is similar to the photo you see above, so he sent us a message which prints out in the cockpit.

“Your view of Ike must be spectacular.” His message said.

But it really wasn’t that impressive. I snapped a few pictures at that moment, which shows how the view from a satellite picture versus actually being there can be very different. In a sense, the dispatcher had a better view of the intensity of the storm, but we had a more detailed understanding of how we could stay out of the rough air with our weather radar and simply avoiding any of the clouds associated with the storm.

Here’s the view from our radar:

And this was the view out the window as we approached Ike. Not really that impressive, is it?

Amazingly, I came across this picture which shows Ike from the International Space Station taken around the same time we were flying around it. It’s hard to imagine a tiny little airplane passing on the left of the storm as seen from that space shot. Note the less clear route to the right in that NASA photo.

Staying to the west of the storm turned out to be a great move. We heard a Continental flight complain about moderate turbulence east of Ike on the air-to-air frequency, but we were in the clear with a smooth ride to the west.

Unfortunately for the flight back to Boston, we would have to go around Ike to the east, since the storm had moved further to the west, closing off our earlier route.

We spent the fi
rst hour in and out of some high clouds, and while the ride was worse, it wasn’t anything more than annoying. I’ve learned from some of the questions submitted to the Plane Answers feature that many passengers are extremely nervous while flying in any kind of bumps. So we really do our best to find a better altitude or different route for a smoother ride, even if it means using more fuel for that leg.

In all, I learned that maybe it’s better to be flying around Ike and Hanna than sitting on the ground in your non-moveable home praying that the storm misses you. I really feel for those people from Haiti to Houston that were affected by these two monster hurricanes.

In the next Cockpit Chronicles, we’ll go to Port-au-Prince Haiti, which may have seen the worst of Hurricane Hanna just a few days earlier.

I’m thankful to live in New Hampshire, a state that rarely sees any significant weather other than the occasional ‘noreaster’ that dumps a few feet of snow. And while Hanna did make it through our area, it only managed to give us a few inches of rain before finally breaking up over the Atlantic.

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.

Plane Answers: Customs, hurricanes and those annoying ‘dings.’

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Michael asks:

How are customs and immigration inspections handled for air crew? Is there a separate set of rules, since you won’t (usually) be staying for long. And if you do vacation perhaps, then what?

Some countries require a work visa for crew members, since part of the job involves working in their country.

There are usually separate lines for crew members, but other than that, there aren’t many differences during the customs inspection. There may be more restrictions for tax free imports for crew members than someone vacationing.

And when a crew member goes on vacation, they’re just like everyone else.

Guillermo asked:

On flights between North and South America, how are your flight plans affected by the presence of a hurricane in the Caribbean or Gulf? Do you fly over or around them?

This has been a difficult week to fly on the east coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. Flights are dispatched only if they can avoid these hurricanes. Occasionally, deviations that add hundreds of miles to a flight plan may be necessary since we can’t fly over the tops of these storms safely.

I was flying to the Caribbean during Ike and Hanna and we were able to navigate well around both storms and enjoyed a rather smooth ride each time. My next Cockpit Chronicles entry will detail the path that we took around both Hanna and Ike complete with radar views and of course, pictures.

Michelle ‘chimes’ in:

The “dings” that go off over the cabin speakers on take off, landing, and during the flight – what do they mean? – I know that most people probably associate them with the seat belt sign or the electronic devices sign.

But on my last flight I really paid attention to them. It seems like they ding at certain altitudes maybe? I noticed that a little while after takeoff while we were still climbing the ding went off, but nothing really happened. The attendants were still in their jump seats and it wasn’t time for everyone to pull out their iPods yet.

This is just one other thing that knowing might help calm my nerves on each flight.

I’ve had a couple of people ask this question this week. These ‘dings’ fall into five different categories at my airline. I can’t speak to the procedures elsewhere, but I’m sure they’re similar.

  1. During the FAA required sterile cockpit period, any calls from the flight attendant can only pertain to a safety issue. This prevents distractions while we’re flying the departure or on the approach to land. So the moment the airplane has climbed above 10,000 feet, or descended below 10,000 feet, the no smoking sign is cycled to mark the end or beginning of the sterile period.
  2. Anytime the pilots turn on or off the fasten seatbelt sign or the no smoking sign.
  3. Anytime a passenger presses the fight attendant call button.
  4. Anytime a flight attendant or pilot calls on the interphone to another flight attendant in the front, mid or aft cabin, you’ll hear a double-ding.
  5. Finally, a repetitive ding signifies that someone is smoking in the lavatory. Don’t panic though–I’ve been on two airplanes where this repetitive ding was just a problem with the system that could only be reset on the ground, making for a rather annoying few hours for passengers.

If you think all those dings could get confusing or annoying, I wish you could experience what we live with in the cockpit. Boeing has seen fit to use the same ‘ding’ for just about every kind of alert up there. We have the flight attendant call ding, the SELCAL ding from ATC, the ground crew call ding, the seatbelt sign/no smoking sign ding, and on some airplanes we’re alerted when just about any new data is uploaded from the company including the winds, weights, weather or a new routing.

I had the opportunity to discuss this with two of the people at Boeing who were responsible for these alerts while I was sitting next to them while deadheading from Miami to Dallas one day.

When I complained about the single type of ‘ding’ for so many different types of events, they said they had studies that showed that people can differentiate between 6 or 7 different types of sounds.

They also pointed out that a message pops up on the EICAS (one of the front displays) when the ding comes on to let us know what the alert is. That’s only true on 30% of our 757/767’s. The older versions don’t have that text alert to supplement the dings.

Lately, we’ve had a couple of random airplanes that ding every time an ATIS (the airport weather) is printed up, even though we asked for this print out seconds earlier.

Boeing tends to get the cockpit and systems design elements right 99% of the time, but there are still some annoyances that pop up after we operate these airplanes for five, ten or even twenty years.

I guess there’s always hope that they’ll fix this issue on the 787. And maybe they’ll come up with a method to reduce the cabin dings as well.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.

Photo of the Day (9/11/08)

It’s been a rough September so far, with Hurricanes Hanna and Ike dropping by for an uninvited visit to the Caribbean and the U.S. This shot by Rubys Host captures a scene in Brooklyn when Hanna passed overhead.

I got home yesterday after six days of avoiding these storms, taking off from Philadelphia on the day this picture was taken in New York. We also flew to Port-au-Prince Haiti, Miami, San Juan and Caracas, Venezuela. Each leg of the trip had issues relating to either Hanna or Ike.

So I thought this picture was an appropriate Photo of the Day. Here’s hoping Ike will lose some steam by the time it reaches Texas.

Nice job, Rubys Host!

Are you a Flickr user who’d like to share a travel related picture or two for our consideration? Submit it to Gadling’s Flickr group right now! We just might use it for our Photo of the Day!