Hurry Up and Wait

A day in the life of a commuter pilot

December 1, 2003

Almost simultaneously the hotel wake-up call comes and my alarm clock begins cheeping. It's 5 a.m. As I try to get my bearings in the dark (where am I this morning? Oh yeah, Charleston, West Virginia); I fumble my way toward the bathroom where the light coming in under the door to the hall illuminates a note slid under the door. Usually a note under the door brings bad news and this one was no exception.

Following their postflight inspection, the crew of the evening flight found a hole in the outboard tire of the Jetstream 41's right main gear. The note says company maintenance is planning to drive a tire out to Charleston from our maintenance base at Washington Dulles International Airport. Although thankful for the note, I can't help but be a little disappointed to start the day this way. I call our maintenance folks and check on the status of the airplane before leaving the comfort of the hotel. If things are going to be delayed for a while, I can tell the rest of my crew to sit tight. Maintenance expects little or no delay for our flight. Based on that information I push the button on the coffee maker to heat water for my oatmeal breakfast and hit the shower on schedule.

By 6 a.m. we're at our gate at the airport and faced with the news that there's no maintenance crew at the airplane. We only have 12 passengers booked to fly with us to Washington, D.C.; however, since we are a feeder airline shuttling people out and back to our major airline partner at Dulles, most of them have connections to make.

I go down to our company operations office and kill time by reading yesterday's newspaper. The maintenance crew finally arrives at 7:15. Apparently, somebody gave them the impression that the drive to Charleston from Washington takes only about six hours. It has taken them eight. By 8 a.m. the tire is done, but it's inadequately inflated and this outstation doesn't stock any nitrogen to fill it. In the airline business, you can't just walk over to the FBO and borrow a nitrogen tank. You have to go through the proper channels. In this case that means making a call to maintenance control at Dulles and awaiting approval to use a contract maintenance provider in Charleston. Tack on another half-hour to the delay.

By 8:20 we're boarding those passengers who haven't been rebooked on other flights. I make a public-address announcement apologizing for the lengthy delay while being as diplomatic as possible. We get out of the gate nearly two hours late — not a good way to start the day.

In the climb out of Charleston, we take on a good bit of ice this December day, but having fewer than 10 of the 29 seats filled makes for decent climb performance to our cruise altitude of 15,000 feet. This morning's weather brings a strong cold front pushing through the East Coast and we'll spend much of the day either crossing or flying along the front. We're in the soup for most of the trip, but the air is smooth and the southwesterly flow aloft pushes our groundspeed well over 300 knots.

Besides icing there are airmets for turbulence, IFR, and even thunderstorms. The radar is on but it seems to only paint the inside of the nose cone, thanks to attenuation. The radar in the Jetstream is only marginally better than that in GA airplanes, thanks to its relatively small antenna. I long for some form of lightning detector in this airplane, especially in the summer. Because of the low temperatures, I remain confident that any thunderstorms along our route won't be very strong. Besides, some of the time we're poking through the cloud tops and there's nothing around that's topping 20,000 feet.

Unfortunately, cruising at or near the tops puts us in the worst of the icing. The Jetstream's deice boots aren't very effective on certain types of ice and this is one of those events. When we blow the boots we get little, if any, ice shedding. I usually fall back to my rule of thumb when flying GA airplanes in icing conditions; only use the equipment while making your way out of icing conditions. We make a pilot report about the ice and request a lower altitude. Eventually, one of the Jetstream's propellers complains by slowly setting up a rhythmic vibration that climaxes with a loud whack against the side of the fuselage. I notice that my first officer, a Florida native who's flying his first winter north of the Sunshine State, is actively scanning the engine gauges for something wrong.

"Ice," I say.

"That's what I thought." He'd heard about it but never experienced it. If it's loud for us 10 feet forward of the props, imagine what the people sitting in the forward rows of the cabin hear. I call the flight attendant to see if she or any passengers are concerned about the vibration, noises, and the ice that can be seen on the leading edges of the wings.

"I hear it, but most of the passengers are asleep," she says. Based on the fact that nobody seems too concerned, I elect not to make a PA announcement to explain the noises. Often in these small commuter airplanes, I get tasked with helping to calm passengers' fears involved with flying in small airplanes. If they're asleep I certainly don't want to wake them up to see ice all over the wings. Eventually, we get a lower altitude and the ice accumulation stops.

Weather at Dulles is marginal VFR with rain, but the 8-degree Celsius surface temperature requires us to land with all of the icing equipment turned on. With 10,000-foot-plus runways, the higher speeds of a landing using icing procedures won't be a factor at Dulles. It's my turn to fly and I'm looking forward to the greaser landing that a wet runway provides.

We off-load our passengers and try to get things in gear for our next flight. Being so far behind schedule, I can pretty much count on only getting out of my chair for long enough to run inside the gate to get my weather and flight release package. For most pilots, there is an incentive to get the day back on schedule. Not having to hurry greatly reduces the stress on everyone in the airplane and on the ground. Crews have time to look at a radar picture and get a real bite to eat rather than just reading TAFs and living on snack mix and Cokes all day. Ground crews don't have to remove and load 1,000 pounds of bags in an exhausting few minutes. Likewise, the fueler and cleaning crews don't have to hurry through their jobs.

Unfortunately, our bad luck continues and we have a bum ground power unit (GPU) hooked up to the airplane. A shout out to the ground crew to let them know this gets the process started but only adds to the delay. While they work on the GPU problem, I use the opportunity to quickly check the radar picture. Still nothing convective has appeared — just Level 2 and 3 rain returns for our next out-and-back to Greensboro, North Carolina.

We push off to Greensboro after a disappointing 36-minute turn. Again, we're flying along in icing conditions and elect to stay at 10,000 feet to minimize our exposure. Greensboro has light rain with three miles' visibility and winds out of the northeast at 12 knots. I'd love to make a straight-in ILS to Runway 23 to save time, but the surface winds require vectors to the other side of the airport to the ILS to Runway 5. My first officer greases one on the wet run.way and we hurry to make a quick turn again.

After off-loading the passengers, I dash inside to get the release and heat up my Chef Boyardee micro-lunch for the ride home. Crew meals are a luxury reserved for pilots at major airlines. The ground crew at Greensboro does an excellent job and we turn the airplane in 20 minutes to head back to Dulles. It's my leg to fly so I don't have to talk on the radio with my mouth full, and the autopilot does a good job holding the airplane steady while I finish my fruit-cup dessert.

Winds aloft are still strong out of the southwest so we make up some time en route. The surface winds at Dulles are out of the northeast so a straight-in approach to Runway 1 Right expedites our arrival even more. I call for gear down on the ILS and am greeted with no right main gear indication. The standby gear indicator under a panel on the first officer's side console shows that it's down and locked so we continue the approach knowing that it's most likely a burned-out bulb in the primary indicator.

After landing, we notify maintenance control of our gear indication problem and get put in the queue to get it fixed. If they can get it done quickly we have a chance to get the schedule back on time, but it sounds bleak with all of the chatter on the maintenance frequency this morning. I also lose my first officer, who managed to get the last day of this four-day trip dropped.

In the crew lounge I meet my new first officer. He is a new hire fresh out of training with only a few hours in type, so much of this airline stuff is new to him. Having a new guy in the cockpit is rarely a problem as the hiring and training processes usually weed out those who can't hack it (see " Airline Aspirations," March Pilot). The weather is a little dicey and Charleston, West Virginia, is designated in our operations manual as a special airport because of the terrain. Because of this, rather than the spanking-new first officer, I am required to fly this leg — darn.

Once the technician gets to the airplane, I call for boarding. Anticipating a quick bulb change, I figure we can shave off a few minutes by getting the people on their way to the airplane to expedite our departure. The first passenger arrives just as the technician is starting the paperwork — perfect. We're given the cutoff from the gate indicating that all of the passengers are on board. This cues the flight attendant to make a head count, the ramp staff tallies the bags, and I make my welcome-aboard announcement. The first officer then takes all the paperwork to complete the weight and balance form. Since he's new, this takes a little longer than usual and I keep one eye on his work while I spin the CG calculator.

As my head is buried and the flight attendant is making her safety announcement, I hear footsteps walking up the stairs to the airplane. "Are you going to Charleston, sir?" asks my flight attendant, who interrupts her briefing.

"Yeah, is this thing going to make it?" he jokes. Passengers love to joke about our airplane's size and those archaic spinning things out on the wings called props. We take it in stride despite hearing the same jokes several times a day.

Because of the late passenger, we have to redo our weight and balance paperwork and the flight attendant has to start her safety briefing again. I interrupt my new first officer, who's nearly done with the weight and balance form. His neat paperwork now turns into a scribbled mess but it's faster than starting a new form.

After a 45-minute turn we're off to "Charlie West" across the same weather front. The southwesterly flow and icing are still there but I know the drill now to avoid the worst of it. Once the ATIS comes into range we discover that the weather at Charleston is much worse than forecast but still above minimums for the ILS to Runway 5. As long as the visibility stays above minimums we can try the approach; otherwise, it's a short hold and a trip to our alternate, Roanoke, Virginia. It's a long trip in the headwinds and my rear end is really getting sore, as I've spent most of my nine-hour duty day in this seat.

We're vectored to the far side of the airport for the ILS. Because of potential icing conditions, the ice equipment is on again and our approach speed is a fast 150 knots based on our heavy landing weight. Runway 5 has a usable length of 5,157 feet beyond the glideslope intercept point and it slopes downhill. There won't be any time to finesse a nice landing out of this approach — just get it down and stopped.

"Two hundred feet," the first officer says when we reach 200 feet above minimums. It's still solid IMC and I begin to realize the weather is much worse than forecast. The adrenalin starts pumping and my concentration really kicks in as the needles get real sensitive.

"One hundred feet."

At 20 feet above minimums I begin to add power for the missed....

"Lights!" he yells.

"Continuing," I reply, signifying that I'm going down to 100 feet agl via the approach lights. I pull the power back to flight idle and pick up the lights.

"Runway!" he yells.

"Landing," I reply.

As promised it wasn't a touchdown to talk about later, but we got down and stopped by the end without having to snap the necks of our passengers with heavy reverse and braking. My first officer was quite pumped up by the whole experience and apologized for yelling. It was his first actual approach to minimums as an airline pilot and it couldn't get any lower. No matter how many times you shoot an approach to minimums it still gets the adrenaline pumping.

"Man, that's what it's all about," he says during our leisurely taxi to the gate.

At that point I realize those few words really nail down why I took this job. It was a hurried day in crummy weather with maintenance delays and wolfed-down canned food, but we walked away feeling great. Occasionally, every airline pilot has to step away from all of the stresses and focus on the fact that you're making money doing what you like to do.

But did I mention that it's Christmas Eve and I'm away from home again?


Peter A. Bedell, AOPA 1136339, is a Jetstream 41 captain for a regional airline. He co-owns a Cessna 172 and a Beechcraft Baron.