I just got line checked today! The flights today took us to Girona and Belfast, and the line check was on the first two sectors. I had got all the criteria required for the line check signed off, so was feeling confident for it – all I had to do was keep the standard up. I’ve been to Girona before, so I knew what to expect, though it wasn’t the easiest of CDAs (continuous descent approaches) to plan and execute due to the high terrain around. As expected, ATC kept us high to avoid the terrain, so had to plan my CDA accordingly, but they were prompt enough with the clearances to make my CDA easier, so I was happy with that. The other effect we get coming into Girona, is a tailwind on descent and approach, which swings around into a headwind lower down. This makes it difficult to lose speed and also makes the CDAs more difficult since we have a tailwind leading to a higher groundspeed. In this sense, I was lucky again, we had no tailwind at all – a headwind all the way! Though, I had a plan if we encountered a tailwind, so in any case I felt prepared. The Captain asked me to do a non-precision VNAV approach, which is a required part of the line check if conditions permit. The approach and landing went really well, so I was happy with that, and so was the Captain! The Captain flew back and I took care of monitoring the aircraft, talking to the controllers and other tasks related to the “pilot monitoring” role. Once on the ground, the Captain congratulated me, and it took me a few seconds to realise, that it was for the line check! I had forgotten that I was being line checked because I had flown with this particular Captain often, and so it felt like a normal flight to me, except I was allowed to get on with the flight without any input from the Captain other than those necessitated by his role as pilot monitoring/flying.
The weather has been making the flying even more interesting lately! I’ve had plenty of chance to practice cross-wind landings. There are a few techniques in the FCTM (flight crew training manual), but we use two techniques, which are deemed to be the safest. One technique involves flying the approach with a crab into wind and landing with a crab, then straightening out onto the runway. I use this for light crosswinds, since there’s not much of a crab to correct. For stronger crosswinds, I use the other technique, which is to de-crab during the flare. I find that landings are much easier once the muscle memory is set in and chair flying or even practicing the movements in flight sim helps a lot, otherwise when you’re capacity is reduced, it’s easy to forget items which would otherwise be automatic or done without concious thought.
So far I’ve experienced two occasions where we nearly had to go-around (i.e. abort a landing) due to the weather. The first time was when we were flying to Cork and the wind and visibility/cloud ceiling was out of limits. As we were approaching Cork, we got the weather and then made a decision to hold to wait for the weather to improve since we had plenty of fuel on board to do so. Unfortunately the winds were too strong, and so we were out of CAT IIIA autoland limits. In order to use the autoland system, the winds must not be over 20kts headwind, 15kts crosswind and 10kts tailwind. The problem on the day was the headwind! We couldn’t attempt a manual landing either due to the low cloud and visibility. Fortunately, after about 30 minutes of holding, the weather had improved enough for us to attempt an approach. We flew a monitored approach – this is when the First Officer (myself) flies the approach and the Captain lands the aircraft. As I was flying the approach, I ran through the go-around procedure a couple of times in case we did need to do so. It was really windy, and gusting and the rain was slapping across the aircraft windows, reducing the visibility further. However, before we got to minimums, the runway lighting system was in clear view and the Captain took over and continued the approach to landing. I was quite relieved that we didn’t have to execute a go-around, though by the time we saw the runway lights it was quite clear to me we were going to make it in fine.
The other time was – and this was really close – was when we were flying to Kaunas, Lithuania. The forecast had told us that there was possibility of fog/mist and low visibility, so I was expecting another monitored approach. I was actually hoping the weather would improve so that I could have the landing, but the weather of course has a mind of its own! This time the winds were fine, but there were no CAT IIIA facilities, so we decided to go with a monitored ILS and go around if we were not visual by our approach minima. The weather reported the visibility and RVR to be above our minima, so we began our approach, however during the approach the visibility began to decay and so the chance of a go-around increased. It was only just at minimums did the Captain see the runway lights! I was flying the approach on instruments, so I didn’t immediately see anything, and as I was transitioning to looking outside, it took me a few more seconds to notice the approach lights. This highlighted the merits of the monitored approach. When flying the approach, there’s a transition between looking inside, flying on instruments and looking outside and flying visually, and there’s almost a certain lag in it. So since the Captain is looking outside already to capture any visual cues, there is no transition, and so there is no delay. Once he sees the runway or approach lights, he can just take control and fly the aircraft down to landing.
I’m glad I’ve been exposed to this kind of weather, now in my training, so it won’t be much of a shock if I do experience it again once I’m line checked! There are still a few more months of Winter to get through, so I’m sure there’ll be some interesting adventures yet ahead!
I’ve been to a variety of destinations now – and even had to handle a medical emergency, which went well. I think my favourite destination so far has been Alicante because of the amazing views on the approach of the mountains, the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. I feel like a lot of things are coming together now and so it has increased my capacity, allowing things to go faster and smoother.
In the beginning, I found the pace of things – particular the turnarounds difficult to keep up with and the paperwork did feel a bit overwhelming. I feel much more comfortable with it all now and feel like I’ve really picked up the pace and can get on with it without hesitation – almost becoming routine now. Energy management on descent & approach and landings were a challenge to begin with, and now I feel like I’ve got a much better sense for the aircraft and it has become easier. There are also a other aspects of flying that can be challenging but can be made easier with good preparation before each flight.
I usually prepare a data-card with all the useful frequencies, scheduled departure/arrival times and other notes on such as FIR boundaries and where we’ll be flying over. I find it useful to know and research what geographical points the route will take us over, as it improves situational awareness and also gives me a snapshot of the airports near the route that can be used if a diversion is necessary. I use the pilot’s atlas to do this, along with high-altitude and low-altitude en-route charts. I also look over the low-altitude en-route charts for terrain and airspace information. I find this research especially useful for routes I am not familiar with – which is most of them at the moment! This also helped make my approach briefings go more quickly, which made the descent and approach less stressful and smoother.
I find that it’s easier to pick up radio transmissions when you know what you’re listening out for. This especially applies to the names of unfamiliar taxiways, waypoint names (particularly VORs/NDBs). It also takes a while to get used to accents. To help alleviate the difficulty of picking out names of waypoints, I usually go through the flightplan, paying particular attention to knowing the VOR names. It’s not necessary to memorise the names or the route, but looking over them helps to recognise the names when ATC routes you to them.
With all the hard work, it’s quite easy to forget that there’s also fun to be had, and views to be enjoyed! I took a quick snap of the Alps as we were going over them – I had previously flown over them but they were covered in clouds, so was happy the clouds had parted to allow a lovely view. The weather lately has made flying more interesting over UK & Ireland, as Winter has come in – plenty of rain, fog and wind! Poland was quite cold, with the temperature being -1 there when we arrived, and I’m sure it’ll get colder!