For those who have been in the sharp end of anything that flies, you would be aware of those moments when things didn’t exactly go according to plan, whether it be by act, omission or just plain bad luck.
I THINK I KICKED THINGS OFF in this regard at the very beginning of my flight training, on my first solo in 1989 in Pietermaritzburg. My extremely seasoned instructor and I had done around four circuits in the Cessna C150, when he abruptly announced ‘Stop! – I’m getting out’.
I claim I never heard the exact instruction, however as I was meant to do one circuit as sole occupant, I caused the instructor to grumpily climb the stairs to the (then) unmanned control tower to tell me on the radio to make it a full stop, as I had cheerfully done a touch and go and was intending to make it a whole session of solo circuits.
Fast forward to my first airline job, which was flying Let 410s out of Nelspruit airport – a place that is legend in terms of high terrain and significant weather. As the airport is somewhat elevated from the valley where the town is situated, it frequently would be shrouded in cloud while the valley would be clear.
The VOR approach consisted of a procedure turn which usually resulted in us breaking cloud over the town of White River, and then turning inbound towards the airport. We would sometimes cancel our instrument flight rules (IFR) flight plan and fly up the escarpment to squeeze in under the cloud and land visually.
Our escape plan, if required, was an immediate left turn, over the town and back down the valley. I only had to do this once, with a subsequent visual routing down the Crocodile Gorge to Malelane. I did however, have to spend half an hour explaining to the passengers why they could see their destination, but then ended up following the Crocodile River below the cloud and ending up somewhere else.
‘I was having immense fun flying the fantastic Boeing 737-200’
My first ‘real’ airliner was the Queen of the Skies, the majestic Boeing 747 Classic. What a shock to the system that type rating turned out to be – even as a third pilot. An epic three years on this aircraft literally flew past, with much fun and adventure involved.
A routine flight from Johannesburg to Bangkok turned not-so-routine as all three autopilots refused to engage after take-off. In true Cockpit Resource Management (CRM or trying to be nice to each other on the flight deck), as I was the most junior, I was immediately nominated to be the autopilot, and as this was prior to that oceanic airspace being nominated as RVSM (reduced vertical separation, which required an autopilot for altitude accuracy), I spent the next six hours getting pretty good at maintaining heading and altitude at thirty-five thousand feet.
Not as easy as it sounds, and those who have ‘poled’ a large aircraft at high altitude know the careful touch it requires.
Nobody was prepared to lose out on a Bangkok trip by returning for ‘just’ an autopilot issue…
I endured the ribbing and teasing from the crew for the first few hours as I warbled around 300 feet from the assigned altitude, and when I fixated on that, got called out for deviating half a mile from the Inertial Navigation System (INS) defined track.
With the Captain out of the flight deck, the Flight Engineer (FE) also decided he needed the loo, and finding myself alone I decided to try once again to attempt an autopilot engagement. Autopilot A immediately engaged in Command, and the flight path became somewhat more stable. On return to the flight deck, I was quizzed somewhat suspiciously by both Captain and FE as to what I had done to achieve that…
Another 747 ‘solo’ moment occurred during a descent into London Heathrow. This particular Captain fancied himself as quite the ladies’ man, and frequently spent a bit of time in First Class, chatting to the passengers. At this time, with the First Officer fast asleep in the bunk, I was instructed by Paris ATC to commence our stepped descent to the Biggin Hill holding VOR beacon.
The FE decided he needed a quick chat to his wife who was accompanying us, so I duly descended and entered the holding pattern at Biggin, solo on the flight deck. As Heathrow ATC required a slower speed, I found myself configuring the aircraft and slowing the huge 747-300 to 180 knots in the craziest of busy airspace.
At this stage, I started feeling very alone and was considering calling the missing crew members back over the Public Address system. I was pretty sure this would result in an admonishment from the boss, but he thankfully breezed in without me making the call, as we were cleared to leave the hold for the approach. After filling him in as to our imminent approach, I was duly dispatched to find everyone.
A few years later, I had graduated to domestic First Officer, and was having immense fun flying the fantastic Boeing 737-200. Being fairly archaic, and in true Boeing Classic style, there was a fair amount of switching of electrics and bleed (pneumatic system) after engine start.
The electrical system required manual engagement of both engine-driven generators, to take over from the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) that powers the system on the ground. This is the Captain’s task, as that panel is located immediately above his head. The FO (me in this case) is meant to monitor this while re-configuring the bleed system (above my head).
This is then checked again while reading the After Start Checklist, so how we missed the generators being off is probably a classic human factor failure scenario. Our standard procedure at the time was to take off with the APU on, to power the air conditioning pneumatically, and on this particular dark and stormy night, powering the electrical system by default.
After take-off, with immediate weather avoidance and associated distractions, I completed the required actions, and selected the APU off. The entire aircraft was plunged immediately into darkness, with just essential instruments on the Captain’s side powered temporarily by the battery.
This also meant loss of the weather radar, and illumination in the cabin of the emergency lighting system. We both knew exactly what we had screwed up, and while the Captain had his hands full with manual flying, I meekly reached over and engaged the engine generators.
It took several long seconds for all the systems to restore themselves, followed by a discussion between the two of us as to what excuse we could fabricate to the passengers.
The Airbus transition provided its unique set of surprises, to say the least.
As the A340-600 was new to everyone in the airline, we had a steep learning curve in terms of its various quirks.
One very dark (but pleasant) night saw me on the way back from Hong Kong, with the Captain in the bunk and the third pilot fast asleep in the Captain’s seat. This is referred to as ‘Controlled Rest on the Flight Deck’ and is officially approved in certain circumstances.
We were over the ocean, about 200 miles from the American Airforce base of Diego Garcia. The Airbus has an array of sounds to indicate a variety of happy or unhappy states that it finds itself in. One such sound is referred to as the Triple Click, which is exactly that. This happens when the automatics have a degradation of an input, to alert the crew that something has changed.
‘I started feeling very alone’
Click click click. Not quite loud enough to wake up the slumbering third pilot, but certainly enough to capture my full attention. The autopilot remained engaged, although reading the Flight Mode Annunciator (FMA), which is a quick assessment of what mode the aircraft is in, indicated a significant degradation.
In this case, it had reverted from automatic navigation and altitude hold, to the most basic of autopilot modes, being heading and vertical speed. Much like being on a navigation exercise in a Cessna 172.
The Flight Management System (FMS) had dumped all data pertaining to this flight that is carefully and sequentially inputted on the ground, including the navigation flight plan, aircraft gross weight and centre of gravity information. Without this information, the highly computerised Airbus is a truly lost soul.
As the initialisation process (used on the ground) is cunningly not available with engines running, I had a bit of a head scratching moment. I only had around six months of experience on the aircraft (and the rest of the crew a bit less), and I had not seen this before.
The immediate concern was drifting off course. The Direct To function was available so it was direct to NKW (the VOR beacon at Diego Garcia) that I inserted, which was a short term patch to the problem. As this super long aircraft was prone to centre of gravity issues, the weight and C of G was essential to the operation. A quick glance at the departure loadsheet gave our Zero Fuel Weight, to which I added our current Fuel on board, to give the FMS our gross weight.
I had no idea what our current centre of gravity was in terms of Mean Aerodynamic Chord. From experience at this phase of flight, I guessed around 37%, and tentatively inserted this value, not sure if I was going to ‘freak’ any system out – specifically the highly complex fuel system, as the aircraft pumps fuel around at lib to optimise the C of G.
My thumbsuck figure was accepted, and peace reigned momentarily. I learned later that once the aircraft knew its actual weight, it would do a quick mass and balance and work out where the C of G was with fuel distribution and trim position, altitude and Mach number. Too clever.
As I contemplated rebuilding the entire flight plan, I woke up my colleague, filled him in and got him typing. It only occurred to me as he finished twenty minutes later that I could have re-initialised through the secondary flight plan function. Oh well.
It happens all the time. I could probably write several more pages of issues that sometimes we got away with but other times everybody knew about. But then that would be letting the cat out of the bag…