August 27, 2007
|CEO of the Cockpit
A Boeing 767 can taxi up a shallow-grade taxiway on one engine and no additional power. I should know -- I have been taxiing big airplanes up the hill in Atlanta next to Delta's Jet Base for over 28 years now.
The key to the whole conga-line taxi thing is to take your time and not get in a hurry. If you push up the throttle a lot to break free, you'll just have to yank it back and use more brake when you want to stop after traveling 10 feet. Just push the throttle up an eighth of an inch and wait. In a few seconds, when it feels like the airplane is ready, release the parking brake and creep forward. You'll do this an average of about 50 times when you taxi out of Atlanta during a busy push. Be sure to set the parking brake every time you stop. You don't want to roll backwards into the plane behind you.
A long line of airliners waiting for takeoff is nothing new at any of the busy airports in our country. They have been as common as zits on a prom date ever since I can remember.
My co-pilot, Sally, was reading a statement from the CEO of the very airline who owned the jet base we were creeping past. According to the article Sally was reading -- in clear defiance of both the sterile cockpit rules and company policy -- Delta was now blaming their financial woes on general aviation. Apparently, according to the CEO at Widget Wonderland, it is those pesky, small airplanes that are making all of the airliners schedule their push-backs within minutes of each other and then line up like Russians at a cheese sale to wait almost an hour for takeoff.
Sally pulled back on the locking handle of her cockpit window and, after cranking the window open, stuck her head out of the airplane for a look around.
"I was just looking for that Piper Cub that was blocking our path to big profits," she said. "Nope, nary a Cub or a Cirrus to be seen out there -- just a bunch of smoky, smelly jets dripping fluids and burning about 2,000 pounds an hour of fuel apiece."
We may not be stuck behind a chiropractor in a Tri-Pacer, I said, but I've read what that guy had to say and based on that, I'm sure we'll be stopped by a swarm of VLJs during our climb out. Hell, they may even limit us to 250 knots until we get through about Flight Level 240.
That got a laugh from Sally and also from our jumpseat rider, Joe. He was heading up to New York to cover a trip to London and was already asleep, but woke himself long enough to laugh at the irony. We are almost always restricted to 250 knots nowadays. The speed restrictions aren't due to little jets or fabric-covered flying milk stools. We are slowed down because the airlines constantly try to cram 50 pounds of poop into a 10-pound sack.
Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful ...
|Airline Conga Line
Ground control joined the party and announced to the line of taxiing aircraft that, because of some approaching weather from the west, there was a ground stop in Atlanta until further notice.
"Expect an update at 21:30," the ground controller said. "Time now, 19:15."
Not much you can do about the weather. It wasn't that long ago that ATC had no problems launching airliners into the worst kind of crappy thunderstorms. We either barely missed them or penetrated them. Then, in the 1980s, a bunch of airliners started crashing and killing large numbers of people, so wind shear was invented.
Not that the wind shear didn't already exist. We just didn't talk about it much and never trained up on what to do if we ran into some. The best way to handle wind shear? Don't ever fly into it. Because of that new idea, airliners started refusing takeoff clearances.
ATC has problems of their own when it comes to lines of weather. The available altitudes and courses they can offer arriving and departing sub-sonic people movers gets really tight when there is severe weather involved. Smaller holes in lines of thunderstorms mean fewer options for the system and less ability to push airplanes through the holes.
Also, for some reason, the airlines started getting interested in ramp worker safety right when the stopped caring about ramp workers. I know that sounds weird, but it was at exactly the same time they were laying off career, highly-paid ramp workers and replacing them with inexperienced, unsafe, lowly paid contract labor that they started worrying about them getting hit by lightning.
So, Whattya Going to Do?
Our parking brake was already set. Sally was already printing out the new routing that flight control had arranged for us to avoid more weather up to the Northeast and Joe had slumped back into his jump seat after coming to the realization that he was probably going to be late for sign-in at JFK.
Once a controller drops the "ground stop bomb," there is always a flurry of eager captains trying to cram a word in edgewise on the frequency to ask if it is OK to shut down their operating engine. I've always been one for saving fuel. Especially when I may need it for flying later on a day full of thunderstorms like this one was shaping up to be. I had already pulled the fuel switch off and shut our engine down. At first word of the ground stop I had reached up and started the APU to handle the power and the air conditioning chores with the engines dead.
That is the beauty of being an old captain: You can see stuff coming before the younger guys do. We were dead in the water on the taxiway. Fifteen airplanes were in front of us and at least that many behind, if the angry chatter was any indication.
If this were an MD-88 or a DC-9, another trick I would have employed would be to open my cockpit window a crack and then manually close the pressurization outflow valve. This little technique makes all of the cool air flow over and past me as it exits the airplane. There is nothing hotter than a DC-9 on an August day. Any trick a pilot can use to stay cool is fair game.
A 767 has a very good air conditioning system and the passengers in our totally full cabin wouldn't suffer in that regard. Their suffering would come in the form of missed international connections, no food on board, cranky babies getting fired-up by their discomfort, and the fact that I was about to make a PA.
The CEO and the Public Don't Mix
I don't like making public address announcements. I know that talking on the thing to the passengers is a must-do chore during something like this. There is no way they could have missed the fact that the engine isn't making engine noises anymore and that the hangar to their right hadn't moved for a while. I make the usual lame excuses, blame the weather and tell them it is all going to be alright. Lies, all lies ...
Sally hands me the re-route print-out. It involves going over Birmingham to get to New York. Our new routing was a very interesting way of flying four hundred miles to the northwest in order to eventually head northeast but I am all for it if it keeps me away from the storms. Plus, we still get paid by the minute. Not much -- but we still get something.
"Why didn't you tell them the truth?" Sally asked. "You didn't tell the people that it was a conspiracy of Cherokee and Skyhawk drivers that is keeping us on the ground losing money. Hell, there is probably a combat and control center set up by AOPA in Washington where they planned the cloud seeding that led to these thunderstorms!"
A Worse Mental Image than Grandma in Her Undies
I laughed, but I have to admit that her comments gave me an eerie mental picture of thousand of Pawnees, Agwagons and Agcats seeding the clouds west of Atlanta in order to bring the airline world to its knees. I know that is a silly thought; but after the past 28 years, I wouldn't for a moment assume that any airline management team would think the idea was funny. They probably believe that general aviation is out to get them.
What somebody needs to tell the zimdweebies over in the general offices of our country's airlines, I said, is that because the military pays better than the airline now and pilots get more respect there, the only real source of future airline pilots is a strong general aviation system. Damaging the so-called little airplane industry will only damage the airline world as well.
Joe had roused himself for a moment. "You know where the real dumbness of their statements lies?" he said. "General aviation pilots tend to buy airline tickets. They are always traveling and a lot of the time have to use the airlines to get around just like everybody else. Guess who they aren't going to ever buy a ticket on now?"
Don't Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!
"It had to happen," Sally said. "Airline managements are running out of excuses for their extremely poor behavior and performance. They can't get any more pay cuts out of anybody. They've taken all of that. They can't take my pension away. They took that away last year. Unless they get a change in the FARs, all they are going to get out of me is a thousand hours a year and their ramp workers are making less money than an orange picker in Florida.
"God forbid they change their methods of operation. There must be another scapegoat so they don't have to admit they are lamer than an Elvis impersonator at a snow-cone stand grand opening. You watch -- within a year, I predict the management people will start blaming the passengers for being too heavy and costing too much money to haul around."
I was going to answer Sally, but was interrupted by another transmission from Ground Control: "Attention everybody on the frequency, the ground stop has been extended. Expect the next update at 22:15. Time now 19:35."
Someone obviously heard you out there, Sally. Please don't say anything else like that or we'll be here all night.
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