by Berck

[Note: This entry back-dated.]

Since I got my crew badge, I can theoretically ride in the cockpit of airliners. I got up early yesterday morning and had Jonah drive me to the airport. The weather folks said there was a 100% chance of snow the night before, and it did snow, but not much. I’d been worried that the flight I wanted to get on would be delayed, and at the very least, need de-icing. Turns out the ceiling was 600 feet with 3 miles visibility, which was plenty good enough to take off. Even good enough to land.

The gate agent was very skeptical about my plot, and didn’t seem to understand I didn’t want a seat in the back of the aircraft, but rather *wanted* to ride up front. She finally let me board after everyone else. I asked the flight attendant if I could take a left into the cockpit instead of a right, while showing her my badge. She nodded, and I was surprised to see 4 stripes on the shoulder of the fellow in the right seat. He introduced himself as Mike, and Cindy (who also had 4 bars on her shoulder) was sitting in the left seat. It turned out he’s a check airman. Cindy was completing Captain upgrade IOE (Initial Operating Experience) which explained the plethora of bars in the cockpit.

I stowed my stuff in the cabin, grabbed my sunglasses even though it was overcast with light snow, and plugged in my headset. Cindy briefed me on the cockpit door and oxygen mask, then briefed Mike on the takeoff, who had a few questions. I didn’t catch the whole briefing as I was getting settled, but I gathered that they’d be doing a full power takeoff because of the gusty crosswinds, reported wind shear, and anti-ice bleeds. Cindy headed out and checked the wings one last time to make sure the little bits of snow we’d seen weren’t adhering to the wings at all, otherwise we’d need to deice. There wasn’t, and we all strapped in. The flight attendant closed the main passenger door, and verified with the cockpit that the proximity sensors agreed before she shut the cockpit door. I locked the super-duper-TSA-mandated-terrorist-proof-kevlar door.

We had a substantial tailwind, so they got the ground crew to push us back and aimed the aircraft into the wind before starting an engine. Jet engines don’t like to start when air is going through them backwards. As they started the right engine, I quickly started noticing differences between this CRJ-900 and the CRJ-200 I’d been studying. (The plan is that I do my simulator stuff and check ride in the CRJ-200. Then we’ll get a day of powerpoint presentations about how the bigger aircraft are different, and supposedly that’s enough to teach us to fly it.) I noticed there wasn’t a choice of Ignition A or B, since there were no ignition switches at all, except one for continuous ignition. I figured this meant the computer handled it. The engine spun up very slowly, and while N2 (the core) was over 20%, there was still 0 N1 (which meant the fan wasn’t turning) when they added fuel. It lit off immediately, but took its time spinning up. They remarked it was some of the slowest they’d ever seen it spin up, it was so cold out. The oil temperature was reading -19C and the oil pressure was in the high caution range because, at that temperature, the stuff is sludge. They were about to start the second engine, when ground control advised that we’d have a ground delay, so the pilots elected to not start the second engine for fear of burning too much fuel before we could go. They made an announcement to the passengers and were about to kick back and relax when ATC asked if they’d accept a delay over some intermediate waypoint, and they agreed to that in order to get off the ground ASAP. They started the left engine pronto, but still taxied single-engine until the right one heated up a bit. Mike coached Cindy on taxi technique a bit, since it was still pretty new to her. (Captains do all the taxiing since the steering tiller is on their side.) There’s a lot to it when you’re moving an 86 passenger 90,000lb chunk of metal with wings around.

The takeoff happened a lot faster than I’d expected. I was amazed at how you couldn’t really hear the engines at all. V1, VR and V2 callouts all happened in a blur and we were immediately in the clouds. In what seemed like no time at all, we were in cruise at something like 32,000 ft. I asked quite a few questions once the cockpit workload had gotten reduced to nothing more than answering the occasional radio call and monitoring the autopilot to make sure it wasn’t doing anything stupid. The clouds were gone by the time we got to New Mexico, though the ground was covered in snow. On the way into Phoenix, they showed me how you can use the FMS to tell you how fast you have to descend to make a crossing restriction. We also had a speed restriction, and I asked how they planned to make that, and they showed me how you can insert a waypoint just before the crossing restriction, tell the computer to hit the designated altitude at that waypoint, then you’ve got the space between to slow down to the assigned speed. Nifty stuff.

We were assigned a visual approach into Phoenix, which they backed up with the ILS, and left the autopilot on until a few hundred feet. There wasn’t a lot of drama in the landing, power back to idle about the time the radar altimeter said “Fifty,” just a little bit of a flare instead of flying it all the way into the ground. She made it look awfully easy, but after having seen a couple of fellow newbies do it in the sim, I knew it was going to take a lot of getting used to.

We turned off the runway at what seemed like a million miles an hour, and there wasn’t much traffic as we taxied to the gate. Engines shut down, I opened the cockpit door and thanked them for the ride. I got into the terminal with just enough time to hit the bathroom and get to the gate for a flight going to Yuma just as it was boarding. I’d picked a Yuma flight because it was short and would get me back in time to catch lunch with Todd.

The Yuma trip was about the right length. No real time in cruise, so things were always busy. I helped fill out the trip can as well as make a few radio calls to the company and even made the cabin PA announcement from the cockpit. Despite my endless experience giving PA’s to aircraft cabins, I was strangely nervous about doing it while I couldn’t see the folks I was talking to.

There was no gate assignment coming into Yuma, as there’s only one. The pilots advised that I get off in order to get the gate’s paperwork straight about the return flight. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get off the plane without them making me leave the secured area. And then I had to wait for the TSA to get off their fat lazy asses and open the security checkpoint. Seriously, they only screen passengers about 30 minutes before a scheduled departure, security is “closed” the rest of the time. With 6 of them, it didn’t seem like it would be a huge imposition for a couple of them to screen people all the time. I was not happy, and they demanded to see my boarding pass despite the fact that I had no such thing. Eventually, they let me back through, and I got back on the plane.

Todd and I got pizza for lunch and hung out in his apartment for a few hours before I headed back to the Springs. The aircraft on the flight back had a deferred pack, which meant we were limited to 25,000 ft. That means we used more fuel and took longer to get home (jets are much faster the higher they go, because the air is thinner… thus a given airspeed gives you a much faster speed across the ground). It turns out we had to drop down to 23,000ft due to an Air Force refueling training practice going on in the area.

Jonah picked me up from the airport a little after 9:30pm. It was cold and I was exhausted– and I hadn’t even done anything!

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