Visual Approach

The weather has been fantastic lately, and that brings on the opportunity of visual approaches.  This is an approach that is done with visual reference to the ground, keeping the runway and traffic in the vicinity, in sight.  I did my first one in Liverpool yesterday.  We flew downwind of RW27 and then turned onto a base leg and finally over the Runcorn Bridge for final.  Visuals are much more fun and save a bit of time, as we don’t have to go for a longer final that ATC may give you on an ILS.

My roster this month is quite busy, with only one standby.  This week I’ll be flying to Poznan (Poland), Malaga (Spain), Palma and Bergamo (Italy), Dublin & Cork.  I’m flying to Poland later on today – and I just read in the news that they will be holding their first polls since the air crash that killed the President Lech Kaczynski and other officials.

Safety Course & Cygnets

I was rostered to go on a safety course this week.  This is a refresher course that’s done once a year and it was similar to the initial one that I did just before my type rating commenced.  The day involves various presentations on security, safety and CRM topics.  We also had to hand in a SEP (security & emergency procedures) questionnaire that was done in are own time, which tested and refreshed are knowledge on topics such as what to do in the case of a rejected take off.  We worked in groups with cabin crew – they explained and demonstrated the use of various safety equipment in the cabin and where they are located, whilst we did the same for the equipment in the flight deck.  An aircraft visit allowed us to practice opening & closing the over-wing emergency exits, arming/disarming aircraft slides and opening/closing the doors and having a good wander around to familiarise ourselves with the location of the safety & emergency equipment.  The day was quite long and tiring, exacerbated by slot times delaying some incoming crew and finding a spare aircraft to have a nose around in!  I had a day to rest between the safety course and my flying duties, so it wasn’t any bother.

Another shot of the Alps - I never get tired at marvelling at such a wonderful sight.

I flew to Rome Ciampino, Nimes, Carcassone and Seville.  Some of the flights were delayed resulting from slot times due to a go-slow by French/Spanish controllers.  Nonetheless, we managed to arrive on time at our destinations thanks to favourable winds or accommodating controllers along the route.  Flying to Nimes & Carcassonne was a long 4 sector day, and the approach to Carcassonne involved a circle-to-land on RW28 which is only around 1900m in length and has a 4 degree glide path.  On my birthday, I flew to Seville, which was a real treat, as it’s an area where I did my ATPL training.  Whilst we were there, we saw a couple of Seneca aircraft practicing their circuits and I recognised the callsign of one of my instructors.  I’ve flown to Seville twice before – once on the jumpseat and once as pilot monitoring, and this was the first time as pilot flying.  The last time I came into land on RW27 was in a Seneca, so I felt quite nostalgic again as we were coming in to land!

A line of textbook CBs!

500 Hours on Type

I flew to Ibiza, Alicante, Murcia, Treviso (Venice) and Palma this week.  I’ve not visited Alicante for a while – at least not during daylight, so it was great experiencing the gorgeous views again .  I love the views coming into the Canaries and Malaga also, they’re amongst my favourites.  Flying over the Alps and Pyrenees always give fantastic views on clear days as well.

A blanket of cloud partially covering the mountain range.

It was my first time visiting Palma, which is an Island just off the coast of Spain, between Barcelona and Valencia.  It has a rather large airport with parallel runways and though it should be a busy time of the year with plentiful charter flights, the Captain remarked that it was unusually quiet.  Visiting Palma reminded me of my first few times in Dublin – feeling unfamiliar with the more complicated taxi routing and sifting through various arrivals and approaches to get to the relevant ones.  The Captain had visited Palma before, so he was able to save me time in the brief. I think it’s easy to overlook the notion that the Captain is also a resource and it’s good to ask for help when you need it – especially when you’re unfamiliar with a destination. Don’t be afraid to ask the Captain or any other part of the crew for help!  I learnt this lesson during line training when I spent a good deal of time wading through information and charts, all the while confusing myself, when I could have just asked the Captain for some guidance and saved time. We work in a team after all!

Flying to the moon - enjoying a "moon rise"

I love flying in the Summer – it does bring some amazing views due to the extended hours of daylight.  I haven’t seen a sunrise from the air recently, as it’s already light outside by the time I set off for work on the early shift (around 4am), if not then definitely by the time we’re pushing back from stand.  However, the sunsets are beautiful and whilst flying North, we can see that a part of the sky stays alight, and would do all night around this time of the year – almost as if the sun is clinging on just below the horizon.

Sunset at 37,000ft

I reached exactly 500 hours on type on 1st June. A year ago, I was packing my belongings, ready to move to the training centre to begin my type rating. The year before than in June 2008, I was busy preparing for my CPL & IR flight tests at FTE. In June 2007, I was getting ready to move to Spain for a 14 month, integrated flight training course without an idea that I would be flying a 737-800 for one of the largest airlines in Europe today.

Safety Pilot

It was last year in October that I was in the same position as the newly-rated pilot for whom I was sitting in as for safety pilot, yesterday. It felt a little out of routine for me, as I usually organise the paperwork, and this time I only had to print out the voyage report, which has details such as the names of the crew, number of passengers booked on the flight and flight schedules. I read through the flight plans and weather once he was done, and helped out where he asked me to and answered any questions he had.  I hadn’t been in the jumpseat since October, so it was nice to take a back seat for this time and observe procedures from there.  The session was useful to me as well, as I picked up some additional tips from the line training Captain and also refreshed my knowledge as I followed through the discussion topics in cruise.

As I watched the first officer, it reminded me of the similar, if not, the same challenges and teething problems that I faced when first starting.  A lot of the procedures and flying skills are taught during the type rating, so the challenge then is to combine all of this with working in a live environment where you have to complete paperwork, communicate with various people such as ATC, cabin crew, the dispatcher, fueler and other ground staff.  The biggest challenge that I found was the time pressure, which you quickly begin to manage by being better organised and experienced as time goes by!  The aim is to stay ahead!  This is especially important with sectors as short as Liverpool to Dublin, where we could be airborne for less than 30 minutes – where we have to squeeze in completing the flight plog, getting destination & alternate weather, notifying handling of any special information, setting up & briefing for the arrival and approach… We do the route quite often, so after becoming familiar with it, it’s become a lot easier!

The Mistral

I had the pleasure of visiting Marseille for the second time and was flying from there over the last few days.  Unfortunately there’s no direct connection to Marseille from my base, so I had to travel to Stansted Airport to pick it up.  I opted to take the train this time, and the journey was far more pleasant – no waiting in traffic or having to concentrate on the road and it took 2 hours less in time to get there!

The first day of flying involved a flight to Eindhoven (Holland) and then to Malaga (Spain).  The winds were quite light in comparison to the strong winds I had encountered earlier in January and the temperatures were much more pleasant – around 20C or more by mid-day.  I had never been to Eindhoven before and there were some other destinations on my roster that I had never been to either, so it was quite exciting to explore these from another base.  Eindhoven is in the South of The Netherlands, near the Brussels and Germany border. The terminal looked fairly new and it has a viewing deck with seating areas, binoculars and a restaurant area behind it for aviation enthusiasts/spotters!  I wish we had something like that in the airports in UK.  Despite this facility, we even caught well equipped spotters/photographers perched up on step-ladders by the airport perimeter so that the fence would not be caught in between the aircraft and the lens!  Malaga’s new terminal is now open and we were connected to the air-bridge of this new terminal, which looked significantly larger than the older terminal.  The passengers had a good view of the flight deck and crew as they board the aircraft and we got quite a few waves from children (and some adults) and their teddy bears!

As soon as I thought I had gotten away with it, the mistral gave us a sudden visit!  The mistral is a strong northerly wind and often gusty as it reaches Marseilles.  Here are some metars (weather reports) from the days and times I was flying:

LFML 151230Z 32030G41KT 9999 FEW046 17/07 Q1004 NOSIG
LFML 161500Z 33029G39KT CAVOK 19/04 Q1013 NOSIG
LFML 171330Z 32024G37KT 9999 FEW040 20/05 Q1019 TEMPO 33025G35KT
LFML 180730Z 34018KT CAVOK 17/08 Q1022 TEMPO 34033G45KT
LFML 181300Z 32025KT CAVOK 22/07 Q1019 TEMPO 34030G50KT
LFML 161500Z 33029G39KT CAVOK 19/04 Q1013 NOSIG

The reported winds were often a little tamer than what we actually encountered and winds of over 30 mph gusting to over 50 mph were common, and it made the landings challenging – especially with the addition of a 4 degree glideslope and the turbulence that the wind brought along with it!

On my second day of flying, we returned to Eindhoven and everything was going as planned and was routine up to the point a baggage belt was driven with some force into the aircraft by mistake!  We were told that the brakes had failed on the truck and so it ploughed with force into the aircraft.  I was setting up the aircraft for departure at the time and felt the aircraft shake and heard a startling bang!  I stepped out to investigate, and saw that one of the VHF radio antennas had been damaged and other than that the structure of the aircraft seemed in-tact.  We called operations with the help of a very apologetic head of the airport authority and they sent an engineer over from one of the bases to investigate and fix the aircraft. After a few hours, we were on our way back to Marseilles, once the engineer had fixed the aircraft.  However owing to the technical delay, my flights to Madrid were cancelled as a result of duty time limits and standby crew were called in to take on those flights.  A shame, as I was looking forward to visiting Madrid for the first time – I still got that chance on my fourth day though!

New Airbus aircraft still with covers on in Porto

The third day went without a hitch – we flew to Porto (Portugal) and then to Tanger (Morocco).  The flight to Porto was pleasant and on arriving we noticed brand new Airbus aircraft, still with covers on!  The weather was brilliant – clear blue skies and the yellow colour theme of the airport services brightened the airport up even more.  The way to Tanger was quite scenic – we passed Valencia, Barcelona and were flying along the Mediterranean coast, then  passed Gibraltar and were quite literally flying between Europe and Africa!

Gibraltar - visited many times during my time in FTE for its curries and British food products!
Africa on the left, Europe on the right.

On my 4th day of flying, we visited Beauvais (just outside Paris) and Madrid. The controllers gave us a very early descent to Beauvais to keep us out of the congested Paris control area. Would have been far more fuel efficient if they would have had the capacity to be able to handle us!  I did eventually get the chance to visit Madrid Barajas Airport.  It has 4 runways and very long taxi times – up to 15 minutes!  We requested 33L since that runway was closer to the terminal, which would give us shorter taxi times and less fuel burn.  Unfortunately the controller could not accommodate us due to other traffic inbound, and so we were given the parallel runway, 33R.  They were conducting parallel approaches into Madrid using 33L and 33R, leaving the other two northerly facing runways (36 L & R) for departures.  The Captain remarked that the airport was unusually quiet and could be due to the aiport/airspace closures due to the volcanic ash.  I was lucky enough not to be affected by it, as I was flying from Marseille – I had heard that some airports in UK had been closed at the time including London Heathrow.

Nador Airport, Morocco

On my final day of flying, I visited Tours and Nador (Morocco).  I once again enjoyed the beautiful views on the way down to Morocco and for the last time I enjoyed a challenging landing into Marseille.  Runway 31R was out of use, so we had to establish on the procedure for 31R and then side-step onto 31L.  This was quite challenging with the weather conditions and the approach itself – we break off soon after we establish, so there’s not much time!  I had a great time in Marseille, visiting new destinations, having a go at landing in windy & gusty conditions and spending time with friendly crew.

Blast from the past (and the Volcano again)

I recently visited Seville – the first time I’ve flown back myself since flight school.  I have sat in the jumpseat whilst observing flight deck procedures to Seville during my training and it felt equally nostalgic.  During flight school, we used to visit Seville often on our training flights and my IR exam involved flying down the same ILS that we did on our scheduled flight a few days ago!  Unfortunately I didn’t get to bump into any former instructors as there wasn’t much training activity going on at the time, as it was a Spanish holiday.  Coincidentally, a friend of mine, who had also trained at FTE landed just a few minutes behind me, and only a couple of years ago we were doing the same in Warriors or Senecas!

Sevilla Airport

I do miss Spain – I miss the laid back lifestyle, the beaches, the weather and even seeing the orange trees in the street!  I do get to fly over, or at least the vicinity of Jerez on my way to Morocco or other parts of southern Spain, so it’s nice to admire the familiar view from a few thousand feet up in the air.

Unfortunately, as soon as I thought the volcano wouldn’t be causing much trouble anymore.. it did! It hadn’t caused as widespread chaos as it did last month, but it did cause to a fair few cancellations again, including my flight to Tenerife, which I was looking forward to!  I’m hoping that someone thinks up a better way of managing these volcano ash events!  I’m working out of Marseille again next week, so I should escape any disruptions!

Back after a month off!

I spent some of my month off touring USA.  I had never been across the pond before, so decided to reward myself with an 18 day adventure touring Arizona, California & Nevada.  We visited various cities and beautiful locations, taking my DSLR camera with me to shoot a record of all the amazing places we visited.

A whale caught playing in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Santa Barbara
Sat on the edge at the Grand Canyon... 4000 feet vertical drop!

Unfortunately, I ended up catching a cold soon after I arrived in UK, and so had to reluctantly take a couple of days off work whilst I recovered.  As if that wasn’t enough, I ended up having to take some more time off due to me requiring root canal treatment.  An infected cavity is incredibly painful – definitely not a condition you would want to fly with, as flying makes the pain worse due to the pressure differences at altitude and would certainly incapacitate you to some extent at the very least!  Nonetheless, I am back in the air and happily flying again.

Other than the disruptions to my flying schedule caused by my health, a volcano erupted and sent airline travel into chaos!  Many of my friends had been left stranded at airports that they had just landed in after being forced to stay there due to widespread airspace closures over Europe.  I was lucky enough not to be one of those left stranded.. and hoping it stays that way!

I was pleasantly surprised when I found that it was quite easy to settle back into the flow of things after a month of no flying. I’m looking forward to the Summer months now – not necessarily better weather since there can be quite a few thunderstorms around, but more day-light ours means I can enjoy the view.  I’m looking forward to the approaches to airports such as Malaga and Alicante which take you out over the sea and give you a fantastic view, which cannot be appreciated as much at night.  Having said that, the view at night can be quite majestic over large cities such as London – provided it’s a clear night!

Line Check (again) & First Sim Check

I started the month of with a line check. Line checks are usually done on an annual cycle, however an initial line check is followed up with another one 3 months later. I’ve had so many checks or assessments in the last few months during the type rating and line training, that I’ve gotten used to being poked and prodded with them! The line check was during the last 2 sectors of the day – a flight to Limoges, France and back, with a Captain who was also being line checked. This meant that a line training Captain was sat in the jumpseat behind us assessing our adherence to and knowledge of SOPs and line flying. I passed the line check and was told that I will now be checked on an annual basis. We were given a piece of paper noting the check and given grades on the check and some notes on our performance, which I keep with my license.

Once the line check was out of the way, it was time to concentrate and study up on my first simulator check since the LST, which I did at the end of the type rating! For each simulator check, we are given study guides, CRM modules, and technical & CRM questionnaires which we must complete. I used my time wisely in the longer sectors to study for the check, and whilst I had nothing to do in my hotel room when I was flying away from base, I focussed on studying for the check also! I found studying in the flight deck ideal since all the manuals are there and I could do touch drills to refresh my memory items and certain maneuvers. The CRM modules involved reading through notes that were made available to us, and CBTs – after which we were to complete some questions to test our comprehension. The technical questions tested our knowledge of the aircraft and SOPs. I found that using the longer sectors on one of the days out of the block of 5 days that we work at a time, to refresh my memory & other QRH items, technical knowledge (reading a chapter), and a few pages of the ops manual, goes a long way to lighten the load when it comes to a sim check!

The sim check was at the East Midlands Airport training facility, and was scheduled early in the morning and was over 2 days. This was for 2 simulator sessions, each session lasting 4 hours with a break after doing half a session. The first day was with a simulator instructor. The first 2 hours involved LOFT (line orientated flight training), which was a flight from A to B without input from the instructor – so as if we were on a line flight without anyone else in the flight deck. After a break, the next 2 hours involved flying through different scenarios such as dual engine failures, windshear on take off and recovering from unusual attitudes with input from the instructor. The LOFT involved a flight in winter operations, dealing with a malfunction in flight and pilot incapacitation – which I really enjoyed (in the sim only of course!) since I got to be the hero!

The sim check went well on both days and I passed, and so was happy to get it done before my month off (March)!

The Alps
A fantastic view of the Alps on the way to Italy.

Marseille

Approaching Marseille - stunning views!
I was rostered to fly out of Marseille last week, so it was a welcome change of scenery from the dull weather and I enjoyed it.  Though it was sunny everyday there, it was rather cold, and on some days quite windy with the mistral!  The mistral is a northerly wind, which can reach really high speeds (we experienced over 50mph and it can go higher) as it accelerates through the Rhone valley.

I made my way to Marseille the night before, so I was ready and well rested before my early start the next day.  Unfortunately, there were no direct flights from my base, so I had to travel to Stansted and take one from there.  I met a couple of colleagues there – another first officer and a captain whom were also being rostered in Marseille for a week.  We found it interesting to view the operation in the cabin and as passengers, we don’t really take notice of the procedures cabin crew must follow, so it was interesting to see it from a different perspective and appreciate what they do in the cabin – and it can be very busy during boarding!  I think just observing this will help us better co-ordinate our tasks between us  (flight crew), and cabin crew.  It’s difficult to appreciate and co-ordinate tasks with cabin crew when you’re new to the job and getting the hang of the basics and it’s easy to fall into the trap of interrupting cabin crew unintentionally, for example by making a PA whilst they are in the middle of one already.  We also realised how noisy it really is in the cabin, so it’s important to speak up when making passenger announcements!
Marseille Airport - the control tower from the hotel room window!
We arrived in Marseille and it was a short walk to the hotel and I went to bed right away to get enough rest.  The first day was a flight to Lille, followed by Nantes for the other 4 days and Fès (Morocco) on two other days.  The views coming into Marseille were amazing and two of the Marseille based captains demonstrated a visual approach which was amazing to see.  Marseille has 2 parallel runways, facing North-West and South-East – ideal when the mistral is blowing, leading to a strong wind down the runway.  The Alps are nearby and were often seen on approach.
Stunning view of Marseille.
Whilst I was there, 31R was in use, so if we approached from the North, it took us over the airfield via a continuous descent approach (CDA), out to the Mediterranean Sea, and then with a left turn, back towards the airport to intercept the ILS.  The glidepath for 31R is 4 degrees and is much steeper that what we’re used to, which is 3 degrees, so it can be tricky if there’s a tailwind on approach or a gusty wind.  We opted for flaps 40 most of the time, especially if heavy and got away with flaps 30 if we were light and the weather was gusty.  Flying the 4 degree glidepath felt odd at first since the runway perspective, power settings and descent rate on approach were not what I was used to, however it didn’t take long to get accustomed to it.
Flights to Nante and Lille took just over an hour and Fes took around 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Sierra Nevada near Granada enroute to Fès.
The flights to Fes were always interesting – not only because of the stunning views along the way, but also because of the passengers!  On the flight to Fès, I saw 4 mountain ranges along the way, starting with the Alps, then the Pyrenees as we flew along the coast of Spain, then the Sierra Nevada near Granada and on flying over Morocco, the Atlas mountains.  On my first trip to Fés, it was cloudy most of the way, so unfortunately didn’t get to see as much as I wanted, however on my second trip, the clouds gave way and I enjoyed the view!  Fés was very quiet – we were the only aircraft there at the time of arrival and departure and the weather was pleasant – sunny, and relatively warm – a nice break from the cold and dull weather back in UK!
Flying over the Atlas Mountains towards Fès.
Narrow streets in Aix en Provence
Whilst I was in Marseille, I took the opportunity to visit Marseille city and Aix en Provence with the new friends I had made at Marseille!  We used the airport bus to travel to Marseille – costing €8.50 single!  Marseille is a very busy city with parts of it looking a little run-down. The bus and train station looked new and the city’s high street and shopping district was only a walk away.  The port was not far either, also a walk away, lined with restaurants that were selling sea food.  Aix en Provence was a little further away than Marseille, and it was much more pleasant and well-kept.  The centre had plenty of narrow streets with shops and restaurants and friendly locals.
Taken from my phone from the bus/train station in Marseille

From -7 to 20+ºC in 5 days!

This week I went to Riga (Latvia), Kaunas (Lithuania), Lanzarote and Malaga.  Riga and Kaunas were still winter wonderlands with plenty of snow and a biting cold temperature to go with it!  I didn’t have to stay in the cold for long in Riga since I was just doing a walk-around, however in Kaunas, we have to operate the fueling panel since the fuelers do not do it there.  So, I had to stand outside for around 15 minutes in total in -7ºC which was not pleasant at all – my face had gone numb by the time I had finished!  I will have to bear this in mind if I go to Kaunas again and either choose to fly the outbound sector or come with warm hat!

After flying in the cold for two days, I was looking forward to my trips to Lanzarote and Malaga which invited us in with much kinder weather!  My flights on the 3rd day were cancelled due to a strike by the Irish controllers, which has been covered in the news recently.  So I woke up and called in to confirm the flights were not going and was told that I was on standby instead. I woke up anyway to ensure I kept my sleeping pattern consistent with my early shift.  It’s very tempting to sleep in – but it then makes it difficult to sleep at a time that’ll allow you to get enough rest before working the next day. Sleep management is especially important when it comes to earlies.

Approaching Lanzarote
A lone volcano off the coast of Lanzarote

It took us just over 4 hours to fly to Lanzarote and other than monitoring, I used the cruise to refresh my technical knowledge in preparation for the simulator training and check that I will be having next month.  The approach to Lanzarote was similar to Gran Canaria in the sense that ATC vectored us downwind and eventually onto base and final to intercept the ILS for the runway.  However, the runway in Lanzarote is shorter than Tenerife and Gran Canaria, so we had to ensure we were within landing weight limits and we took out flap 40 as our landing flap.

Arrived at stand at Lanzarote Airport

Once we arrived at stand, I went ahead and proceeded with the walk-around and fuel supervising (where we have to be in communication from the outside with the flight deck whilst fueling & boarding at the same time).  This was a pleasure in the sunshine and temperature over 20ºC in comparison to the freezing temperatures only a couple of days earlier!  It’s almost surreal when you come from winter conditions a few hours away and you’re in beautiful summer-like conditions all of a sudden!  It took us about the same time to return – just over 4 hours again, back to the winter!

On the last day of flying, we went to Malaga and Cork.  For this flight, I had a guest in the flight deck – a pilot that was recently type rated and was rostered for a jumpseat with us to observe line flying.  I was doing this only a few months ago before line training began.  We get rostered for 3 days out of a base, which is not necessarily the base we line train from.  The weather in Cork did not look promising, it was windy, raining and the visibility was low.  The same weather I had experienced when I went their during line training.  As we approached Cork, we go the latest weather and there was the possibility of going into the hold if it deteriorated further.  We planned for both a CAT I approach and a CAT II auto-land, and initially setup for a CAT II approach.  However, as we got closer, the wind was out of auto-land limits, it was 20kts down the runway and gusting higher.  We then setup for a CAT I, monitored approach.  The approach lights came into view just before minimums and we made a successful landing.  I was looking forward to the nicer weather in Malaga even more by now!

Beginning our descent to Malaga - plenty of high terrain ahead!

I’ve been to Malaga before, when I was training.  I took a trip to Malaga twice during IFR sorties – once in a PA28 and another time in a Seneca, so the area was familiar to me.  Our descent and arrival took us over plenty of high terrain, which we had to be aware and be careful of.  ATC did suggest a direct routing, but we opted to stay on the arrival to ensure our terrain clearance and reduce our workload by keeping to the planned and briefed routing.  The approach was to the southerly facing runway, which was as amazing as I had remembered it from my training days.  We descended down through the valley with mountainous terrain on either side, looking ahead towards the runway with the Mediterranean sea just off the end of the runway.  Clear skies, sunny and beautiful weather!

Arrived at stand at Malaga Airport

Once we arrived at stand, carried on with the setup, allowing the pilot jumpseating our flight to help me.  It was only a few months ago that I was jumpseating and trying to taking in as much as I could, so I knew how he felt!  Before we knew it, we were lining up for departure back to Liverpool.  The views out of Malaga were amazing again – we could see the Sierra Nevada mountains, capped with snow and the coastline.  The departure initially took us out to the Mediterranean sea and once we were above MSA, we took the direct routing ATC gave us out to the North.

View on departure from Malaga - the coast line and the Sierra Nevada.