Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Flying the Friendly Skies

Sorry for the lack of recent posts... I've been very busy.

I recently did a lot of flying but of the commercial kind. I had to do some travelling for work and I have to say that the lack of bouncing around while flying on the "big iron" took some getting used too!

I had six flights during one week, two of them stuck out. At the end of one leg the landing reminded me of some of my earlier attempts at mastering the flare. The landing itself wasn't actually harsh, but we did get a nice bounce with some sustained flight before the Dash-8 settled down a second time onto the Halifax runway. I suspect that the first officer might have been at the controls, and as we taxied in he was getting some "advice" from his understanding and patient captain.

Another of my flights was on a rather large Canadian carrier, and it left me shaking my head. We were flying from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland on a new Embraer 190. It was miserable outside, low clouds, fog and a constant rain. We boarded the aircraft on time, and sat at the gate for about 15 minutes. The captain came on the intercom to tell us that they were having some problems with the flight controls and that they were working to resolve the issue. He also said that they were going to power down the aircraft for 8 minutes and then bring everything back up. (It sounded like they were trying to reboot a computer or something, but eight minutes seemed like a long time). Fourty five minutes later the captain told us they had sorted the problems out and that we were finally departing.

We were pushed away from the gate and then each engine was started and began to spool up. We sat for about ten minutes on the apron then the captain came back on the intercom and said that they were having the same problems again with the flight controls and that we were getting pushed back to the gate. It seems that the aircraft does an automatic flight control test to make sure that everything is working as expected, but the flight control self test system kept throwing out error codes.

The captain then went on to point out that a lack of flight control was a very serious matter, and that if you took a poll of pilots and asked each of them which they'd rather lose on take off, an engine or the flight controls, every pilot would choose to lose the engine, as the aircraft cannot be controlled without the flight controls working properly. (His words not mine). Even the non aviation folks on board could see the rather simple logic of his statement, I just shook my head. The passengers were starting to become worried, I could see it in their faces.

We were towed back to the gate, then we sat there for another hour or so as various maintenance people gathered in the cockpit, some of them left only to return a few minutes later. Another aircraft reboot, (eight more minutes without power or AC) then suddenly an announcement by the captain that he "thought" that the problems had been resolved and that we would be departing momentarily and that the cabin crew should prepare the cabin for departure. Again his words not mine!

This latest announcement cause some interesting conversations amongst my fellow passengers. I thought that one of the main jobs a pilot has was to instill confidence in the safety of the aircraft and crew, this latest announcement did the exact opposite. Basically he told us earlier that the loss of the flight control is extremely serious... and now he's telling us that he "thinks" it's fixed, so we're leaving. I remember one person commenting that this was their first test flight.

My travelling companion tried to lighten up the mood a bit and leaned forward (he was in the row behind me) to ask me if it was true that it's better to lose an engine then the flight controls? I replied that the aircraft that I fly only has one engine to begin with and I rather lose it then my flight controls... but that he shouldn't worry since we only need about half on them working anyways. We taxied into position and immediately took off without any further announcements from the cockpit.

The flight itself went well and after the first few minutes of silence the people around me started to relax again. I found out later from some of the people in the office that I was visiting that they had also been delayed in the past with this very same issue on same type of aircraft.

Obviously I made it home in one piece...ahh the joys of flying.

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