CEO of the Cockpit #30: Spring Cleaning

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After being grounded due to a medical condition, AVweb's Ceo of the Cockpit returns to the flight line and finds himself a bit behind in his approach plate updates. This reminds him to go back and clean out the mental cobwebs around all key pre-flight procedures.

The pilot lounge at our crew base is just like every other one in the airline universe: some preschool-type art tables with folding chairs and walls covered with cork bulletin boards, which in turn are covered with the flotsam and jetsam of pilot life. There is the usual large screen television showing either the usual business channel or perhaps the latest from ESPN, depending on what sports season it is.

I am sitting in one of a dozen black, worn-out, La-Z-Boy recliners. They are gathered in the back of the lounge to grant the sitters a little peace and quiet should they want to take a quick nap before they aviate. If they are serious commuters, they can always adjourn to the "quiet room." This is a room with two or three even more broken-down lounge chairs and a smattering of old blankets and coach pillows. The quiet room does have the advantage of being dark and perhaps even quiet if you aren't sharing it with a snorer.

Snoring has become quite a subject of interest lately around my household. My spouse had been reminding me for years that I snored by gently stabbing me in the ribs with elbows and even fists. It had finally gotten to the point that this slightly overweight, middle-aged, subsonic jet jockey went in for a sleep study and a great discovery was made:

I snore.

And what's more, they found that occasionally I went into an apnea mode. No problem that couldn't be fixed with a rubber mouthpiece to wear at night that resembled two football mouth guards welded together. The problem turned out to be that when you mention the word "apnea" on a medical thingie, the FAA won't let you fly. Not until you wait a while and then take a wakefulness test proving you won't nod off at the stick.

Taken Off the Line

I took it, passed, and after a minimum waiting period of way-too-long I got my medical back and am back in the pilot lounge in my space suit awaiting my first blast off since what we call the "Great Snoring Crisis" at our house.

Apparently, according to the sleep study, I had been getting by on three hours of sleep a night for the past 15 years or so, and since the "big fix" I've been getting in a full seven or eight. It's been quite a while since I've flown awake, and I'm hoping that being alert isn't too scary.

Sitting in front of my recliner, which, by the way, won't recline because the handle has been broken off for years, is my flight bag.

After blowing a couple months worth of bag-rack dust off the top, I opened it and was reminded of the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when they took the top off of the big stone box after tying Indy and his girlfriend up. I heard a sort of an "ahhhhh" as the top was opened and right there at the top of the bag -- resting above the Jepp binders and airplane manuals -- was a banana that I was saving from my last crew meal on my last trip -- two and a half months ago.

The horror.

Once I got beyond the rotting jungle smell of a long-dead, sub-tropical-yet-full-of-potassium fruit, I found another relic of a long-past flying age -- an issue of USA Today that most certainly wasn't from today. Lucky for me, I was only two Jepp revisions behind when I dropped off my bag before I went home to snore. Combined with the five revisions I'd missed, I was behind, but not hopelessly so.

Getting Back Up to Date

Just as I was debating whether to do the revisions now or wait and do them all on the way to San Francisco, my favorite co-pilot, Todd, walked up to my chair, pretended to trip over my bag and stopped to chat.

"Looks like you are a little behind on the revisions there, boss," he began. "Have you given up flying for a living or are you opening a new updating business?"

I have to admit it seems like a little of both. Once, I had considered hiring one of those very nice people who offer to keep all of your manuals up to date for a small monthly fee, but I've always been so ashamed of how poorly I kept up on things I never had the courage to hire anybody.

Every couple of years I realize that my Jepps are probably in poor shape, what with all the coffee I spill on them and all the charts I no doubt misfile. When I think that my Jepps are beyond repair, I order a new set of "contents" through the company. It costs a little money but it's nice to have clean, non-coffee-stained pages that are current, and it is a lot less hassle than doing a Jeppessen checklist for what amounts to the entire world when you fly the 767ER like I do.

"I heard you were out sick," said Todd. "Then I heard you were out because of snoring and I couldn't believe it. Did you know it was going to ground you when you went for the test?"

I had my suspicions, but I felt so crummy and tired, I decided that after years of putting it off, it was the right thing to do even if it did beach me for a while. Since my "cure," my stomach problems have cleared up, my mental attitude has improved and my hair might even turn brown again. I feel like a very experienced, yet frisky, 19 year old.

"Well, glad to have you back -- I guess. I'm going to do a little spring cleaning of my flight bag too. I think my earmuffs are still in there along with my pair of walk-around gloves. You only have to have your hand freeze to the handrail of the jetway once on a walk-around to convince you of the need for gloves in the winter.

Preflight Is For Juniors

Walk-arounds? Oh yes, I remember doing a lot of those during the frigid 1980s. Wearing my freshly cleaned flight engineer suit, I did big ramp pratfalls more than once on an icy tarmac. I'll leave all those frozen preflights to you younger, non-snoring copilot types and concentrate on doing captain things like this three-month-old USA Today crossword puzzle, for example.

"I actually caught a problem on a walk around last month," said Todd. "After our flight I was doing a post-flight walk around and noticed a pool of oil beneath the number one engine. I looked in the maintenance log and noticed that they had already noticed it and written it up, deferring the fix for a few days because it wasn't serious. I called maintenance anyway because it was a fairly big pool of oil. Not to worry they said, metaphorically patting me on my little pilot head and sending me to the layover motel.

"On the first flight of the next morning the engine failed on takeoff and they had to do the whole V-1 cut thing. They made out okay, but I wonder if I should have been a little stronger the night before with maintenance?"

That's a tough one, I have to admit. On one hand, the company sort-of set themselves up when they laid off all of the mechanics at the outlying stations, but on the other hand, it is expensive to post mechanics at outlying stations where they might only have a couple of airplanes overnighting. You did the best you could under the circumstances.

I had an embarrassing walk around incident way back when I was a DC-9 copilot. I did the walk around then went to get some lunch. Later, I was sitting smugly in my little first-officer seat on the Cajun Clipper when the tug driver called up to the captain. He said, "Hey guys, did you know that all your tires on your left main gear are flat? Just thought you ought to know ..."

I know I did the walk around and I know I looked at the tires, but did I really look at the tires? It turned out, after a quick inspection, that I had looked at them and they went flat after I walked around, but it was a scary wake-up call for me. We had gotten so used to everything being okay all of the time that I have wondered since that time just how much we miss.

Since we don't have mechanics doing walk-arounds every flight like we used to, I'm sure a lot of things get missed. There were a lot of items that a good mechanic would see that I wouldn't and there were just as many pilot-oriented things we'd notice that they didn't. I think we definitely lost a level of safety when they did away with mechanic pre-flights.

Is Someone Out There?

Back when I was an engineer and we had a real, live mechanic plugged in to the intercom jack outside the airplane at every push-back, I flew with a captain who could do a perfect imitation of the outside guy on the intercom.

I heard that he once did this imitation with a new hire engineer and had him convinced that they were dragging the mechanic as they taxied out. You have to remember that, back then, the flight engineer did all the intercom talking with the tug driver and the mechanic. The captain who pulled this trick had a headset with a boom mic -- a rare thing back then. They pushed back, started all three, transferred essential power, and the captain saluted. He began to push up the throttles to start taxiing when he quietly mumbled into his boom mike causing the newbie flight engineer to say, "Captain, I think the mechanic is still plugged in! He wants you to stop so he can unplug and get away from the airplane."

"Well, screw him if he can't manage to unplug after I salute!" said the captain. "To hell with this guy. He'll just have to run and keep up until we come to a stop."

The captain, I'm told, then did the imitation of a mechanic running along beside the airplane, saying things like: "I'm keeping up, but I'm getting tired ... please stop ... please!"

They took the runway on a rolling takeoff and the fictional mechanic -- now whimpering into the intercom -- told the flight engineer that he had found refuge in the right wheel well and would try to survive the flight until they landed.

Snow Birds Heading South

"I've heard stories like that," said Todd. "I guess you guys had a lot more time to mess around back then."

That is true. Not that it is a good thing to always talk about the "good old days" because, in my opinion, the good old days really are now, not then. Still, you don't see the ramp crew in Detroit send snow to the guys in Fort Lauderdale anymore like they used to.

"Seriously, they sent snow?"

Yep. They packed an L-1011 cargo container full of snow and shipped it south to Fort Lauderdale on a non-stop during January. The Fort Lauderdale guys held an impromptu "ski party" when it got there. They had quite a cookout and snowball fight, and I know that is a fact because I was doing a 727 walk around on the ramp that day in FLL and got smacked with a snowball the size of my head.

Todd walked away from my camping site at the lounge chair to get some lunch. Rethinking all we said about safety, overlooked things and the good old days, I decided to do my revisions right then and there before flight. Sighing a big sigh, I grabbed the first envelope, ripped it open and set to work.