Even grizzled, old, jaded and chubby captains of wide-body airliners sometimes have to preflight their giant steeds. It may not resemble the preflight a young student would do, and mechanics no longer help out, but the tradition is alive and well for AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit.
March 12, 2006
Damn, it's early! I know it is really three hours later, body-wise, because I live on the east coast, but it still feels like 5 a.m. A light rain is falling on LAX this morning. Not enough to get my uniform wet and certainly not enough to justify a rain poncho as I head out the door onto the ramp. It is just a sort of heavy mist.
The mist sets off the lights that surround the 767-300 we are going to fly to the east coast and give it a NASA pre-launch appearance. Ramp people are wandering around, the cargo doors are open, potable water is being hosed into the tanks, catering trucks are up against the catering door and the fueling guy is, well, fueling.
Why do I find myself doing the schlep work of the very junior? Why is a senior captain about to do the almost unthinkable -- a walk-around? Two reasons: First, I am well-known around the system as a nice, caring guy. Second, my co-pilot is sneezy-sick this morning and if I want to get him home alive I thought I'd let him nap in the cockpit while I went out in the rain for him.
There is plenty of time for me to do the pre-flight this morning and I am enjoying my $3 cup of coffee as I amble out to do the walk-around. Thanks to a 10-minute-early appearance of the crew van combined with the lead foot of our driver, we are way early this morning. Some of the sportiest times I've had on airline trips were during the van ride to and from the hotel. Today's ride wasn't bad if you kept your eyes closed.
Orange Safety Vest? Check!
I'm not a safety freak, although I do wear my seatbelt religiously in my car, don a helmet when I ride my horse and hold onto the handrails at theme parks when they tell me to. With the combination of the dark, the zooming vehicles and the frantic pace I thought it would be wise to wear an orange, reflective vest. I don't know whey they are orange. Perhaps it is so any deer in the area won't realize that we are there, but hunters will be alerted not to shoot us.
Once out the door of Ops, I step over the tow bar and begin a ritual that goes back to the very first pilots. I doubt that Wilbur or Orville had to dodge high-speed baggage tugs driven with reckless abandon by non-English speakers, but they had hazards of their own to deal with.
I can't imagine that walking around the Wright flyer entailed all that much. For example, checking the tires for tread wear, the landing gear itself with brake-wear indicators and hydraulic leaks ... these are things that Wilbur and Orville never thought about.
On the other end of aviation history, I'm pretty sure that astronauts never do walk-arounds of their spacecraft before they blast off.
Pity. If the Challenger crew had done a walk-around and noticed all of that ice clinging to their fuel tank, would they have accepted the take-off clearance? I know it would be meaningless in terms of the actual operation, but I'd like to see at least one of the pilots do a cursory walk-around before the next shuttle launch.
Aviation Mechanics -- An Endangered Species?
Not so long ago, I wouldn't have been by myself doing this walk-around; I would see a licensed aviation mechanic doing his or her own walk-around. We usually crossed paths somewhere under the belly of the aircraft. Between the sharp eyes of a maintenance man and the bleary eyes of a trained pilot, we could find just about anything that was wrong before it became an in-flight problem.
I do know that this particular aircraft has been looked at by a mechanic. It had an overnight check just a few hours ago and was signed off. It used to be that our aircraft were seen by a mechanic every single leg. The overnight check is the last time this airplane will see a maintenance pro until a few days from now, when it overnights at a maintenance station or it breaks.
I'm not sure if this lack of mechanics doing pre-flights has hurt things any. I do notice a lot more stories about the FAA finding something wrong with an airplane that has been wrong for 20 or 30 flight segments and their fining the airline for each and every leg the plane flew broken.
Why don't the pilots notice the things that are wrong? We do. We notice the pilot things that are wrong. If an aileron is laying on the ramp, we notice. Plane on fire? We notice. The actuator for the left side of the number three flight spoiler? Nope -- we wouldn't notice that, but a mechanic might.
What's With Fighter Pilots?
I'm not and never have been a fighter pilot. A combination of timidity, an easy-to-upset tummy, and the fact that I don't look good with my shirt off led me in the direction of transports, not fighters. I have seen fighter pilots do walk-arounds, mostly in the movies and I have one question:
You know the part when they swagger around the wing, grab a missile that is hanging on the track and yank really hard, back and forth on it? Just what do they plan to do if, in fact, the missile is hanging on by a thread? Does it come off, land on the guy's foot and roll across the ramp, blowing up a starter cart?
Trust Or Laziness?
Permitting a student to do the walk-around is the first responsibility that a flight instructor allows his or her student. Usually, the student goes out on the hot ramp first and does the inspection and the flight instructor, in a regally cool manner, saunters out, sits in the instructor's seat and motions the student to begin the adventure of learning for that day.
This tradition has carried through the rest of the aviation world. Walk-arounds are done by junior people. By subordinates, not the big Kahuna. At the airlines the flight engineer, when we had fight engineers, did the chore. Now that job falls usually to the co-pilot. Captains rarely, if ever, get wet in the rain, which started light but is now soaking my partially bald head, giving me an appearance akin to a drowned otter -- and not a cute one.
It is a shame that such an important task has been relegated to scutt work, but I suspect the real reason captains like myself hardly ever do them is because we don't see very well anymore and those steps back up to the jetway get steeper and longer every year.
Death On The Ramp
An airline ramp can be a very dangerous place. Not as dangerous as an aircraft carrier where you might be swept overboard, smashed by an errant missile dropped off of a track during a walk-around or buttonholed by a president eager to declare victory, but dangerous enough.
Pilots have died on airline ramps. For example, if this 767 were to roll backwards over me as I stoop to pick up this piece of FOD behind the left main gear I would be nothing but a large greasy spot. If I were stupid enough to stick my head up this gear door that is hanging down from last night's maintenance I could be de-headed if they turn the hydraulics back on. Similarly, pilots have been known to be skewered by belt loaders, given the bum's rush by high-speed, cargo-container vehicles, and smushed by inattentive toilet-service technicians.
Since almost everything on a 767 that is worth looking at during a walk-around is above me, I spend most of my time with my head pointed to the heavens, not looking earthward toward rapidly approaching conga-lines of baggage carts.
Because of this almost jungle-like danger, most pilots doing walk-arounds on airline ramps have a furtive look about them akin to a field mouse searching for food amidst a ravenous herd of house cats.
Damp But Safe
This particular 767 on this particular morning looks OK to this particular captain.
Most inspections center on the landing-gear areas. You can see more telling things about tire condition, hydraulic leaks and loose doors if you spend some time there.
The engines are important, too, and are much easier on the 767 to inspect than the old JT8Ds we had on the 727s. You couldn't see much on them except whether or not they were hung on the pylons correctly or were gushing fluids. Finding blade damage on a 727 was almost impossible. Finding a dinged blade on a 767 is a piece of cake.
No dings today. A very small puddle of oil below the left engine, but I know they just serviced the oil and after checking with the ramp folks (the mechanic was already home in bed) we figured out that it was OK.
You can't really inspect pitot tubes or the like on an airplane this large, so you simply look for pieces of tape over static ports. You look to see if pressurization blow-out panels are ... well, blown out. You know -- basic stuff.
Every so often you'll run across a pack-access door that isn't secured or a tire that looks a little too worn but normally you'll find nothing of note.
Today is a normal day so, with the exception of the piddle-puddle of oil, we're good to go.
This old, wet captain begins the long trudge up the metal Jetway stairs, looking forward to the four hours plus of listening to his co-pilot wheeze and sneeze and snork. We'll be out of the clouds before we get 60 miles east of LAX and it promises to be a smooth ride today. I'll be warm in the cockpit and once we get settled I'll enter the "zone" and the time eastbound should go quickly and without incident.
I may have a sick co-pilot today, but I have a thoughtful one. A USA Today is on my seat when I arrive in the cockpit, along with a couple of high-end, high-fiber, breakfast muffins.
Ah, current events and regular bowel movements -- joyously vital parts of any senior captain's life.
Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.