CEO of the Cockpit #86: Heat
He Who Smelt It Had Not Dealt ItNo. It wasn't me. It was the air-conditioning packs. Both were running off of the APU and because of the extremely hot weather today in Dallas, they were overheating just a bit. When it is hot, standard pack operating procedure on the MD-88 is to turn the pack valves as cold as you can without overheating the system and let them stink a little. We leave the temperature controls in auto instead of manually driving the mix valves full cold because the automatic system will keep the system just this side of tripping offline from an overheat. On any kind of DC-9 variant, getting and keeping the cabin cool is an almost impossible task, but we'll take smelly over hot and smelly every single time. So, we let it ride. Then we noticed it was snowing.
Christmas In AugustThere is a water-separator bag on each air-conditioning pack. Any air-conditioning system produces water when it cools air. These are the two little rivulets you see coming out of the bottom of airliners as they sit on the ramp. If the air-conditioned air is very cold, it can freeze the water in the bag, meaning that all the frozen water is now entering the ducts. You'd think they would have come up with a fix for that when they designed the system and you'd be right. A little jet of warm-to-hot bleed air is supposed to thaw the bag, unless it gets dirty, in which case it freezes up and spits snow out of the system. Because the left pack usually works harder (and I have no idea why) and because the left pack supplies the cockpit and the eyeball air in the back, it can get pretty "Christmassy." It can all be fixed by calling maintenance to clean the bags. Now, now, stop laughing. We haven't had maintenance people at DFW for years and, even if we did, we wouldn't call them on this problem. Two reasons for that: First, it would entail turning off the air conditioning to fix the bags, which means this DC-9 offspring would get hotter than a Times Square Rolex.
Dueling Mad Dogs To LGAThe second reason was that American -- or as we call them, "Brand X" -- was also pushing an MD-88 back for a flight to NYC. We had some competition going on here and we weren't about to delay a flight for hours and hours just to avoid a little interior snow. Ken reached down between my knees to pull up the PA handset so he could tell the passengers that snowing in August was normal on this kind of airplane. Sure, he could have used the PA button and his headset, but as most airline pilots will tell you, that is a very bad idea. There isn't an airline pilot in the world who hasn't accidentally said something unfortunate or snarky on the PA. The odds of that go way up if you use the same headset microphone you use to yuck it up with ATC. We finally got airborne after only 30 minutes of snowy taxiing. When the airplane was cleaned up and climbing through 10 grand, the spritzing snow stopped and we could kick-back and relax a little. Well, the two pilots could. There is really no way to relax in an MD-88 jumpseat unless you fall to your right and end up in the coat closet.
Furlough Is A Four-Letter WordOur airline was contracting again, in response to higher fuel prices and the fact that we had just spent almost 30 years making our customers expect $100 tickets to just about anywhere. Contraction to a python means dinner. Contraction to an airline pilot means furloughs. This airline was no different. Carla the copilot was facing imminent unemployment and Ken was facing being a junior copilot, like Carla was now. Me? I'm so senior that all I'm facing is feeling bad the others got the axe. Also, we still-employed pilots usually make the COBRA health insurance payments for those of us less fortunate.
In The Navyyyyyy ..."I've had enough of this stuff," said Carla, who had just thrown off her shoulder harness and taken a big swig of black coffee. "There is still a war on and the Navy says they'll take me back. I'll have to go to the sandbox, but the pay is better and all of the passengers on my Navy F-18 go 'boom' when they land. If they furlough me, I'll re-up. Even if they don't and I'm within spitting distance of the bottom of the list, I think I'll still go." I had to admit, with the danger of making a bad pun, that there has been a major "sea change" in the airline business during the past year or so. Little RJ airliners that used to be the darlings of the air transportation field are suddenly becoming too inefficient to operate. Even smaller, intermediate jets like the MD-88 are becoming a drag on the balance sheet. I know you should never say "never," but I don't think the airlines can squeeze much more out of their flight crews in terms of pay and benefit cuts. A lot of pilots in the middle of airline seniority lists -- the people who would never think of quitting their cushy airline jobs -- are quitting to take public-school teaching positions and other jobs that they would not have considered a decade ago.
Ken Has A Different TakeOur captain had stayed quiet through Carla's complaint and my sage advice. He finally spoke up to give us the "up with people" take on the world's aviation economy. "It always turns around and I want to be here when it does," he said. "I saw all of those guys senior to me leave during the great migration during our bankruptcy and I bet a lot of them wish they didn't. They'd all be really senior captains now like you, and would still be flying instead of taking second retirement jobs like selling insurance."
Why The CEO Stayed OnWe were approaching some of the ubiquitous weather so common over north Texas this time of year, so I waited while they turned on the radar and got a 10-degree right deviation before I spoke. I stayed with the airline through a combination of not-quite-enough seniority to retire and a curiosity about what would happen in the future. Financially, staying was a disaster for me. Emotionally, staying was the right thing to do. I think you are right, Ken. Everything comes around eventually and even though I seriously doubt being an airline pilot will ever be as lucrative and fun as it was years back, it can still be a really great job. Plus, have you met that many non-pilots who think things are going that great right now? I could see leaving if I got to bomb bad guys with an F-18 like Carla, but I wouldn't leave to teach school. I consider middle-school students to be much more dangerous than a Category III approach in a blizzard. Plus, I'd probably end up with bus duty and my teacher friends tell me that bus duty sucks.
Ken Gets A Little Out There"That's right," said Ken. "If we hang in there, they are bound to come up with an airliner that runs on liquefied manure or something. If they can design a car that runs on solar power, I bet they can design an airliner that flies using water for fuel. Hell, Richard Branson is probably working on that right now." Ken looked into his flight bag for something and Carla flicked her head to the left, giving me a quick look that I could only take as a silent plea to shut the heck up. Some captains are wacky-crazy, and once you get them started on saving the panda, their version of religion, or why they think various minorities are evil, you can never get them to stop. Carla's meaningful look told me that Ken was likely such a captain and if I wanted to save her a month of weird talk, I should change the subject or at least quit teasing that metaphorical dog.
The CEO Applies To Go To The BathroomI solved the problem by asking to go to the bathroom. If you take all the security junk you have to go through in order to get an appointment with a usable toilet on an airliner and add it to the difficulty of operating an MD-88 jumpseat, you have a procedure that is probably more difficult than an Apollo mission. My short-term escape to the back gave Ken the opportunity he needed to go back into his shell, and afforded Carla the peace and quiet she asked for and deserved. Only three and a half more hours in the torture seat and I can wait three hours before my 10-hour international duty day starts.
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