Thursday, September 02, 2010

A Long Day at the office...

My grandfather has a saying, “Some days peanuts, some days shells.” I’ve found that anyone who flies airplanes probably knows what that means. Some days, the days when the airplane is running perfectly, you watch the sky turn from blue to red to magenta as the sun sets, tailwinds push you into an early arrival, isobars spread so far apart on the weather analysis chart that you know there won’t be any turbulence, those are the days when you love flying airplanes. Then there are the days that consist of mostly shells. A thunderstorm makes for a rough ride, you don’t like the person you’re flying with, or a broken part delays your departure. That was my circumstance recently on a flight back to the U.S. from Edinburgh, Scotland.

It was really a shame to be leaving Scotland on such a glorious day. For those who haven’t been to Scotland, it’s kind of like the Pacific Northwest, continuous rain interrupted by brief periods of sunshine. But let me tell you, when the sun shines, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. Good scotch is a bonus too. Of course, the day we were leaving was one of the few beautiful days.

I had bid specifically for Edinburgh layovers in August because of the Fringe Festival and the Military Tattoo. For those curious, the Fringe is a collection of street performers, not to mention over 1,000 musical, comedy, and theatre acts throughout all of Edinburgh. The Military Tattoo is a show featuring military marching bands that takes place in the esplanade of the Edinburgh Castle every night during August. Think of it as a high school marching band competition, except better, and with bagpipes. This particular trip to Edinburgh was my fourth of the month, with one more to come the following day.

Over the last year, I’ve become friends with a lot of the airport staff in Edinburgh, so after plotting our course across the North Atlantic, making small talk with various ground agents, I finally made my way to the airplane. I borrowed the “high vis” vest from the security agent at the airplane, which is required to walk anywhere outside on the ramp. After the pre-flight walk around, I came back inside and finished pre-flight preparations. Eventually we got the word that everyone was ready to go, the main door closed, and we called for push back.

After push back, we started the left engine, and then attempted to start the right side. To start the Boeing 757, you basically need to make sure you have enough air pressure, and then you select the start switch to GND which does a lot of things, but basically, it starts the engine. I selected the start switch to GND, at which point we start looking for the engine gauges to start showing some signs of life. On this particular day, there was nothing. Not one of the gauges moved, no oil pressure, no fan rotation, nothing. It was as if we had done nothing at all. Just then, the push back coordinator who was on the tug pushing us back and talking to us through a headset, said (in a Sean Connery type accent), “Sparks! You have sparks coming out of the number two engine!” We quickly stopped the start sequence, went to our abnormal checklist, and then attempted it again. And again, there were more sparks. Sparks aren’t actually that alarming, any time you turn on the ignitors, whether it be to start the engine, or to fly through heavy rain, it puts out sparks to keep the engine running (or starting in this case). We called maintenance and found a new gate to park in.

Once maintenance arrived, all involved thought that the start valve wasn’t opening, allowing air into the engine for start. If that were the case, maintenance can manually open the valve, until we get the engine started, and then close it. They opened up the engine cowling and asked us just to run the starter. They had someone on the headset, and as soon as I selected the starter to GND, the noise was unbelievable. Maybe it was because the cabin door was open and I don’t normally hear how loud it is, or maybe because the starter had giving up on starting engines. We suddenly heard yelling through the headset, “Shut it off! Shut it off!” We did and shortly afterward the mechanic came into the cockpit and told us that as soon as we ran the starter, parts started flying off the airplane. The stater was literally eating itself up. This was not good, we would need a new starter, and being half way around the world, they’re not always easy to come by.

We learned from maintenance that the closest one was in London and owned by another airline. I’m really surprised that when another airline requests a part from a competitor, the competitor doesn’t jack up the price. I’m not sure what the going price is for a Rolls Royce starter, but I heard a rumor that we were paying about $100,000 for this particular one. They would put it on a flight to Edinburgh, but it wouldn’t arrive for at least six hours. Add whatever time it is going to take the mechanics to put it on the airplane, plus a seven hour flight back to the US, and we would be approaching our maximum crew duty day of 17:30 hours.

The captain put in a call to our operations center to talk about options. Since I was coming back to Edinburgh the next day, I had pre-purchased over $200 in tickets to shows for my next layover, but if we didn’t get back to the US today, I wouldn’t be able to turn around and come back the next day (and would loose the money invested in the shows). My suggestion was that crew scheduling put us in an airport hotel for the minimum rest period. By doing that, once the engine was fixed, we would be able to take off in the evening without worrying about crew rest. However, because of all the festivities, hotel rooms were hard to come by. As a matter of fact, the ticket agent spent an hour searching for a hotel room for a business first passenger, she finally found one at the rate of £500, which is roughly $800. Regardless of the hotel availability, the crew coordinator wanted us to stay with the airplane until they knew when they’d be getting the part. And so began the waiting game.

Because we were going to be sitting there for the foreseeable future, they hadn’t parked us at a normal gate, but at a hardstand out in the middle of a ramp. So, in order to get the passengers off and back to the terminal, they had to coordinate buses to come pick them up. Three coach buses later, the last passenger was off the airplane and were now keeping the gate agents entertained in the terminal. The crew coordinator informed us that we would need to take off by 8:30 PM local time in order to be back on the ground in the US within our maximum duty day of 17:30 hours. The local mechanics said it would take six hours to get the part, then a couple hours to get it installed and signed off. Seeing as it was approaching 1:00 PM, it was going to be tight. The ground agents had offered to bring us into the terminal, but when you’re on an airplane with comfy seats, food, and your own selection of movies and television shows, a terminal full of angry passengers doesn’t sound like like a great place to hang out. So myself, the captain, and the flight attendants made our nests in first class.

The next five hours were a mind game. I kept running scenarios through my head, much like someone trying to survive in the wild. When would the part get here? How long is it going to take to install, test, and sign off? How long will it take to gather up the passengers, get them on buses and back out to the airplane? Are there any air traffic control delays that will prohibit us from taking off by 8:30? Unlike someone trying to survive in the wild however, I kept myself entertained by watching Green Zone with Matt Damon, followed by a nap, and then a couple episodes of The Office, and Parks and Recreation while I ate a delicious steak with vegetables and a salad. So, as far as sitting around an airport goes, we definitely got the better end of the deal. Finally, word came that the part was on an airplane departing London and would arrive at 5:00 PM.

As 5:00 was approaching, you could feel the excitement building in the cabin. People were waking up from naps, milling about the airplane, talking about whether or not we would be coming back the next day (as a few of the flight attendants were working with me the next day). Finally we got word that the part was on the ground, about a half hour later it showed up and the mechanics put on their jumpsuits and got to work.

The captain and I walked outside to watch them work, mostly because we had nothing else better to do. As we were watching them a security vehicle pulled up and we got a very stern lecture about how we were required to be wearing “high vis” reflective vests. Well, we didn’t have any vests and the person who normally is in charge of giving us the vest had gone home hours ago. So, like a young troublemaker sent to his room, we walked back onto the airplane where we would stay, all because we didn’t have a reflective vest.

I was incredibly impressed with their work. It was like watching a combination of an Indy pit crew, and an operating room full of surgeons; fast, efficient, effective. Forty-five minutes later, they had the part installed and had run a test on it, then it became a scramble to get the passengers back and get our new flight paperwork. Within an hour of them installing the new starter, we closed the door and pushed back. When it came to start the engine with the new starter, our fingers were crossed.

I selected the start switch to GND, just as I had done previously...and just like earlier in the day, nothing. No oil pressure, no fan rotation, NOTHING!!! At this point, I just about lost it. I couldn’t believe our new starter wasn’t working! Then I looked up at the overhead panel and realized that I didn’t have the air pressure going to the engine which is one of the necessities of starting. I opened the valve that provides air pressure to the engine and tried it again. That’s when I saw what I thought I was never going to see; fan rotation, oil pressure rising, and finally...a good engine start.

We taxied out, took off and headed west, across Ireland, across the North Atlantic, just south of Greenland, over Canada, down the St. Lawrence Seaway and finally back into the United States. After 15 hours spent on the airplane, we finally landed in New York at 9:30 PM on a beautiful night, the lights of the city welcoming us home. What was even more welcoming however, was the down bedding waiting for me at the hotel. And as far as the next day goes, we left on time, arrived early, I saw all the shows I had tickets for, and it was one of the best layovers ever!