Battle of the Weather Systems!

The high pressure system has brought a lot of cold and snow to UK recently, and I took a couple of quick snaps to show the snow cover over UK:

Snow as far as the eye can see!
Iced with snow!

I am getting tired of the cold weather now though, and looking forward for it the ice and snow to all melt! There’s a really incredible photo taken by a NASA satellite of UK in snow here.

Lately, a low pressure system has taken hold, bringing with it some warmer air, so a lot of it has melted.  However it brought some strong winds!  I was flying between England, Ireland & Northern Ireland all day a few days ago in winds up to 20kt and gusting up to 40kt!  Not pleasant when it’s a crosswind and turbulent!

Enroute to Bergamo, over the Alps, during sunset.

I flew down to Bergamo (near Milan) this week for the first time.  We passed over the Alps just as the sun was setting – unfortunately the picture above doesn’t do justice to the amazing view we had!  As we were descending we got a nice view of the city of Milan, which looked like a web of lights since it was night-time by then.

Next week I’m visiting Latvia, Lithuania, Lanzarote, Ireland and Spain (Malaga).  I’m looking forward to Lanzarote and Malaga in particular as I’ve not been there before other than Malaga, for which the last visit was when I was doing my ab-initio training at FTE.

Happy 2010, Snow & Winter Ops!

Contrails from a jet passing over us, with 1000ft separation.

There’s been plenty of snow recently – and unfortunately it seems Britain isn’t very well prepared when it comes to weather!  This causes delays and just slows everything down, since we have to ensure the airport is safe to operate and the aircraft themselves are safe and de-iced before we go.  We recently had a winter ops roadshow at our base, which discussed winter ops and a handy manual was handed out which I read during cruise to just brush up on the winter operations.  This means knowing what the different types of fluids are, and procedures related to de-icing, and cold weather operations.  We have to add temperature corrections to the altitudes on the plates, since there will be a significant error when the temperature drops below zero celcius.  Since the air is colder, the aircraft will actually be at a lower altitude than registered on the altimeters, so this must be compensated for with a correction.

Wales snowed in - enroute to France
Wales snowed in!

The lowest temperature I’ve experienced so far outside UK is -7 Celsius, which was in Torp, Norway – my colleagues have experienced as low as -17, so I’ll count myself as fortunate!  December wasn’t as windy though – just lots of snow and ice, so it was a bit calmer in the air with high pressure systems moving in and November was rather windy with plenty of low pressure systems making their way across from the Atlantic.  I’ve been lucky enough not to experience any major disruptions such as airports closing for an extended length of time to add considerable delay to flights – that has happened on my days off!

Flying over Lisbon, enroute to Gran Canaria - experienced moderate CAT turbulence here due to a jetstream.

With all this winter weather, I was rather excited to be rostered to fly to Gran Canaria!  I flew there a few days ago, and it took just over 4 hours to get there, and another 4 to get back – so quite a long, but enjoyable day.  The weather, as expected, was beautiful there – 21C and it felt warmer and was refreshing after enduring the cold weather for a few months in UK!  It really felt great – in 4 hours we had gone from Winter to Summer!  The view coming in was amazing – it was clear and I could see the other Canary Islands, and this was my second time over to the Canaries, the first time being to Tenerife.  I have Lanzarote rostered as well, and I’m looking forward to it!  The controller vectored us over the ocean, and around the island, towards the South – giving us a fantastic few of the airport and its two 3100m long runways!  The runways are so long that it is actually an emergency landing site for the space shuttle.

I’m being sent to Marseille for a week at the end of January, so looking forward to that!  Will be interesting to see operations at another base and also tour Marseille.  I’ve got a few days off at the moment, and will be flying to Girona, Bergamo and then ending with a busy 6 sector day to Dublin & Belfast!

Agadir (Morocco) & Tenerife!

The trips to Agadir and Tenerife were the longest sectors I’ve done so far.  I went to Agadir on the 7th, and then a few days later, on the 12th was my trip to Tenerife.  The flight to Agadir was 3.8 hours and Tenerife was a bit longer and took 4.4 hours.  It was nice to have a long cruise, giving me plenty of time to reflect on the past few months, or even years of training.  University now seems like a past era, faded away – another life, however flight school is still fresh in my mind.  I didn’t manage to get any photos of Agadir, as it was night time, but the temperature in Agadir and Tenerife was a pleasant 21C, in comparison to the cold temperatures back in England!  I feel much more relaxed now and my confidence is increasing and with that my performance and capacity as well.  I’m still learning of course, and there’s always something new to learn and experience.

In the vicinity of Tenerife

It’s nice to hear the local pleasantries over the radio as you travel through the different boundaries and the one for Morocco was “Aslamu’alaikum” which translates to “peace be upon you”.  Agadir airport was dimly lit at night, so we had to be careful as we taxied in and extra-vigilent.  It’s interesting to see what all the different airports we fly to are like, they all have a certain character.  Agadir airport had armed guards, on the airside entrance to the terminal, which I’ve not seen in Europe.  I made the most of the pleasant temperature during the walk-around, as it’ll be a while till we get the same in UK!

The flight to Tenerife was during the day, so it was much more interesting in terms of the view outside!  I’ve never been to Tenerife before, even for holiday, so it was an interesting trip for me which I looked forward to.  I have seen the video re-enactment of the Tenerife disaster on the Air Crash Investigation TV series, so it was an island that I have read and heard about a lot.  However, the airport we flew to was the Tenerife South airport, which is the newer airport and the Tenerife disaster happened at the older, Tenerife North (formerly Los Rodeos) airport.  What’s interesting is that the weather between the North and the South of the island is quite different due to the volcano in the middle of the island.  Tenerife North is usually cooler and wetter in comparison to the dryer and warmer Tenerife South.  In addition, Tenerife North is about 2000ft above sea level, so it tends to get fog (which was in part to blame for the tenerife disaster), whilst Tenerife South is much closer to sea level at 200ft.

Over the Atlantic, on the way back from Tenerife.

Reflection on Line Training

I’m yet to fly with normal Captains – by that I mean one that is not a line training captain.  I almost feel like I’ve been in a training cocoon and I’m now I’m being sent off into the wild to fend for myself with the skills I have been taught!  That’s because I’m not sure what to expect from all the different Captains out there – I’ve been flying with one of five training Captains, and most often with one of them, so I got to know them and got used to them.

I think I’ve seen and been exposed to a wide scope of things during my line training, though I’m sure it’s just a taste of things to come.  After talking to friends of mine also in line training, I realised that I’ve been lucky to have experienced those situations, as they haven’t had the chance yet.  I still remember my first day clearly – I was nervous and excited, and I was glad that I had taken extra jumpseat sessions on, as they gave me a confidence boose, got me used to the environment and a better idea of how to prepare for the flight.  I was kindly helped by the safety pilot – who was senior first officer in the airline, with the paperwork and he took me through it.  Of course it all was a bit of a blur at first, but it would sink in as I flew more and more, and then be doing it effortlessly!  I had a bit of a “baptism of fire” as the safety pilot put it, on the first day.  This was due to the last minute changes in clearance & runway which I had on 3 out of 4 sectors and having to land on a runway 34 in Dublin.  This is a runway that’s not normally in use – it is shorter than RW28,  61m wide (which is more than the standard width of 45m) and has no centreline lighting.  This was going to be my first landing on line, with passengers in the back, and it was a really short sector with just under 30 minutes of time airborne – so not much time to prepare the approach, everything had to be slick and efficient.  The wider runway gave the illusion of being lower than the 3 degree approach path, and the lack of centreline lighting made tracking the centreline more challenging.  The Captain and safety pilot gave me plenty of assistance though – all the paperwork was taken care of by the safety pilot, and when required the radio too, and the Captain helped me set up for the approach and guided me through the briefing.  So I was in good hands!  In addition, we were going to land with flap 40 – which I tend to find more difficult than flap 30 landings.  So it wasn’t an easy first day!  Nonetheless, it was full of experiences and really great fun.  It was all a blur at first – certainly the first day! I found it amazing how everything came alive on line – with passengers, dispatchers, fuelers, ATC – it really was a lot to take in, coming from the safety of a simulated environment, where we could pause at any point.  There’s no pause button on line!  The learning curve is steep, however I found myself improving with every sector.

The first few sectors were all about getting used to the environment, getting used to the pace of things and improving my landings – especially for safety pilot release.  I found the night landings a challenge at first and it did knock my confidence slightly but as they improved, so did my confidence and vice versa.  I found that having confidence in myself was the major factor in my performance.  If I had low self-confidence, my performance wasn’t good, and as it improved, so did my performance.  Then there was also getting over the fear, of the responsibility of safely transporting up to 189 passengers at any one time safely to their destination on a real aircraft.  We didn’t have any passengers to worry about in the simulator, so this was a new realism to deal with.  This I got used to surprisingly quickly though – I remember looking behind me into the cabin, for my first ever sector and thinking “wow look at all those passengers, I have to get them from A to B”.  As the sectors piled up, I quickly got used to the idea of over a 100 passengers in the cabin and the fact that I was now operating on a real aircraft.

The other issue was the cockpit gradient – where you have an experienced line training captain and me – a new first officer with very little hours and experience in comparison, and so it did feel steep at first.  Before line training, I was used to working with my simulator partner – who was in terms of experience, on the same level as me, and a similar age also, so the gradient was shallow (we ensured it was positive since we took our roles seriously, to make it a more accurate simulation).  So, this was more so because of my own perceptions of the line training captains and secondly my lack of experience at first.  As I gained more experience and with positive training and encouragement from the Captains, and as I got to know the them, the gradient became shallower and more comfortable – which happened quickly for me.

I did have an odd day here and there, or even a week sometimes where I would just not be able to get something – such as my briefings, RT (radio) or landings.  This frustrated me, however I tried put in time at home to polish these areas off, even if it meant reading the whole CAP (CAA Publication of RT)!  I found demonstrations by the training Captains on things such as briefings and landings really helpful – it’s much better to see it done than read up on it – after all it is a practical matter.  I found that some simple as my seating position helped my landings – I’d say it was crucial.  I did plenty of chair flying to get the muscle memory in.  Muscle memory gives you far more capacity as it is embedded.  For example, as I my left hand reaches for the mic to tell the cabin crew to take their seats for departure, my right hand automatically goes to clear the scratchpad – something I used to forget to do many times before departure.  Another example would be the landing – I used to have moments where I would delay reducing the thrust or taking out the reverse thrust, and after a bit of chair flying, I was doing this much faster and without much thought since my muscle memory was in.  I have also found that my short-term memory has improved – when I first started, I could not even remember the frequency passed to me, even if it was the only item passed – I had to note it down somewhere as it was passed.  The wind passed to me also used to go in one ear and out of the other!  Again this frustrated me, but I’m now finding that ATC can throw many things at me and my memory will hold it – the holes have been plugged!

I really enjoyed my line training.  I had a fantastic set of Captains – all relaxed and friendly, positive and willing to give you a push when you need it!  It is a steep learning curve, but there’s plenty of support.

Line Checked!

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.

Winter weather!

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.

Cruising at FL380, looking towards the wing.
Cruising at FL380, looking towards the wing.

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!

Line training so far.

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.

Flying over the Alps on the way to Italy.
Flying over the Alps on the way to Italy.

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!

Line Training – Week 2

This week saw me going to destinations other than Murcia and Dublin!  I went to Porto (Portugal), Torp (Norway), Nimes & Carcassonne (France) and Alicante (Spain).

I was on earlies this week, so I was flying in daylight, which made the approaches easier.  I’m getting a bit more confident and accustomed to the fast pace of turn-arounds and have been fine tuning my organisational skills!  I was allowed to do more manual flying as well to get a better feel for the aircraft and did some of my approaches manually, which helped with improving my handling skills.

The Captain demonstrated a visual approach into Nimes, and it was especially difficult because of the turbulence on the approach, which suddenly kicked in below 4000ft.  The approach for Carcassonne was also interesting because it was a circling approach, and the PAPIs were set for a 4 degree glideslope.  This made the approach path much more steeper than usual and we were aware of the different aspect of the runway due to the steeper approach.  The approach into Alicante gave amazing views.  We were landing on the northerly facing runway, which meant we had to fly out over the mediterranean sea and make are approach from there.  On the way down to Alicante, we passed over the Pyrenees, and the view was amazing.

Flying over the Pyrenees.
Flying over the Pyrenees.

I didn’t find the earlies as difficult as I thought they would be since I managed getting in bed early, to get enough sleep.  I had to wake up pretty early – around 3am since I need 30 minutes to get ready and it takes just under an hour to get to the airport.  I enjoy the drive in the morning – the roads are nice and quiet and it helps me to wake up!

I’ve really enjoyed this week and have gotten to see a few more destinations and different types of approaches. Looking forward to next week!

Line Training – Week 1

Line training is flying with a training captain and a safety pilot in the jumpseat behind, on a scheduled passenger flight.  I was quite nervous on day one of line training – luckily, I had been doing my supernumeraries out of the same base, so I had figured out my way around the airport/base – which gave me less to worry about!  This was my first time flying passengers to their destination.

The jumpseating had given me a good idea of how the process works and what I’m expected to do, so I got out my roster to double check my times and destinations.  I was still a little unsure of how to complete the paperwork, as I hadn’t done most of it myself from scratch, so I started with what I knew – which was to print out the weather and flight plans.  Soon after I had done that, the safety pilot walked in and introduced himself and began guiding me through the paperwork. We usually sign in and check-in first, which gives us an idea of who we’ll be working with on the day – so the names of the cabin crew, the captain and a safety pilot.  The weather, flight plans & NOTAMS are then printed, which we read and highlight as we need.  The instrument plates needed throughout the day are collected.  Once all the bits of paperwork were complete, and discussed with the Captain and the rest of the crew, we were ready to walk out to the aircraft.

Since it was my first day, the safety pilot elected to complete most of the paperwork in-flight for me, so that I could concentrate on settling in and flying the aircraft.  Before I knew it, we were strapped in and ready for push-back! I was both nervous and excited. The first day was quite a blur and there was a lot to take in and everything happened at a phenomenal pace. In the type rating we had plenty of time to pause and for the instructor to guide us through procedures.  I still had both the Captain and the safety pilot to guide me, but with the addition of time pressure.  On top of that, I was unfortunate enough to experience last-minute runway and approach changes which I had to very quickly adapt to, on the first day!  Nonetheless, I enjoyed my experience and thought it was good to have some exposure to these situations early on and just got on with it, without hesitation.

I flew for 3 days this week, and I had the same flights each day – which was to Dublin and back first and then Murcia and back. I enjoyed the consistency in the schedule, as it made it easier for me to get settled and pick up the pace. I found the short flights to Dublin and back quite challenging because there was no time to relax and very little time to brief the approach, so everything had to be done efficiently to get things done in time. The longer sectors (a sector is a flight from A to B) to Murcia and back felt much more relaxed and there was time to relax and enjoy the view!  During these longer sectors, we covered some discussion topics such as pilot incapacitation and tail-strikes.  I found the environment to be very dynamic and that you have to be really flexible and efficient.  For example, in the type rating, we had a set sequence of tasks in pre-flight preparation, however on the line, I found that I had to be flexible since there will be changes and interruptions such as the loadsheet requiring changes due to passengers not turning up, or deal with delays due to various reasons.

I think what I’ve found most challenging over this week’s of flying is dealing with the paperwork and time pressure.  Other challenges was getting used to the radio and listening out for our callsign – I found it easy to miss.  In addition, the night landings were more difficult to do than the ones we did at base training during the day.  Despite these challenges, I felt that I was quickly progressing with each flight.

On top of all the excitement, I’ve seen some of the most amazing views.  I saw thunderstorms as we were approaching and climbing out of Murcia.  They look amazing and quite dramatic at night – the lightning strikes from within suddenly make them come alive and almost look like flickering light bulbs.  I also saw a moon-rise, and the most dramatic effect that I’ve only heard of before – St Elmo’s fire. The effect was really pretty and it was quite tempting to take a photograph of it!

I have a few days off now, and looking forward to some more flying next week!

Supernumeraries

I was lucky to have gotten my first choice out of my 3 given for the base to do my supernumerary flights out of.  This was less than an hour away from home, and so it was very convenient.  These flights also gave me a good opportunity to get to know the base and the people that work there.

I have sat on the jumpseat previously, when I was following my friends at Luton and Stansted, and those were early morning flights.  However, this was the first time I got the opportunity to see some night flying.  We were all rostered for a minimum of 12 sectors and I went to Alicante, Bergamo, Murcia and some shorter sectors to Ireland.  I carefully observed how the first officer organised himself with the paperwork, as this was in particular, a new element to line flying and was interesting to see how it was put into the flow to ensure a quick and efficient turn around.  I also got some advice on the essential items to carry in the flight bag – such as a torch to use during the night time when doing the walk-around, a print-out of useful volmet/ATIS frequencies we use to get the weather, a map of Ryanair destinations & bases and “The Pilots’ Atlas”.  I also bought myself a Sennheiser headset which has active noise-reduction (HMEC 25-KA), which made the environment much more comfortable.

I enjoyed the night flying – the flight deck had a very relaxed atmosphere at night.  The lighting was dim to ensure good night vision and it almost felt like mood lighting!  The flight deck really does look pretty at night.

I helped out with the paperwork to gain further practice at completing it, and also followed the first officer around on the walk-around to get a better insight into it.  I tried to absorb as much information and gain as much advice as I could, as I will be flying next week.