The phone vibrates on the table beside the bed, but to be honest I was already half awake. I have been getting up in the early hours to go flying for more years than I have been driving a car. At first it was to steal a ride beside my father, now it is to sit at the front of my own aircraft. Back then there was no subtle alarm to wake me, if I was fortunate my mother would call my name through a crack in the door, but more likely it was my Dad. His less than subtle voice would accompany the bedroom light switching on and the sheets being ripped back from my cocooned form; “Come on boy!”
Today I reach across, silence the alarm and calculate the minutes to the hotel’s pre-arranged wake-up call. It’s a good start as I immediately know which city I’m in and my orientation is underway. This is not always the case and sometimes it takes a moment or two to assess the location of the TV’s red standby lamp and the streetlight’s glow creeping around the curtain’s edge to get my bearings.
I know that it’s a frosty morning outside and I throw my legs over the side of the bed in one action that takes me beyond the point of no return. Through the night, the cold has obviously infiltrated the concrete and now it greets my bare feet through the carpet. I just can’t wait for icy touch of the tiled bathroom floor! I metaphorically smack myself over the back of the head at being so precious. I’ve lived in caravans and literally slept under the wing; these days I have a hotel room and a car that takes me to the airport. Toughen up Princess!
Showered and shaved, everything is in its place from the night before. My bag is packed and the ironed uniform hangs in the wardrobe. I flick the kettle on and sit down to review the latest weather on my iPad to give me a ‘heads up’ for the day ahead. The cup of tea hardly touches the sides and I zip up my gear and turn off the light switch before going to ‘Reception’ and receiving the dreaded question, “Your room number?” I know which city I’m in and wonder why I’m the only one in the foyer satisfied with that depth of knowledge.
One by one the crew filter downstairs and greetings are mixed with complaints, conversation and the shuffling of the daily newspaper. All as one we move outside where the frozen morning smacks us in the face like a burst from an icy garden hose. Bags in the back of the van, we take our seats and move off as the personal introductions continue. However, the internal light of the mini-bus remains off and a few of the crew grab those last cherished moments of sleep.
Planning the Day.
At the airport, we move up the escalators and onto security where there are very few passengers, but delivery men having their newspapers and various goods scanned by the X-Ray. We split from the cabin crew and proceed to briefing where synoptic weather charts, ‘notices to airmen’, flight plans and a state-of-the-art coffee machine greet us. As usual, the chance of a winter fog is forecast just before the sun decides to arrive, but otherwise the dominant high pressure system over the country is providing fine weather across the nation. If we can escape without delay, it’s shaping to be a good day. We order the fuel and the ground staff let us know that our aircraft is parked on a stand-off bay without an aerobridge, so it’ll be a brisk walk to the aeroplane.
Leaving the warmth of the terminal, I head up the stairs as my partner in this venture walks around the outside and casts a particularly careful eye over the airframe for frost or ice. There is no fog at this stage, but Jack Frost can still visit the skin of the Boeing 737-400, or ‘Classic’, that we have been tasked to fly.
Up the stairs and into the flight deck, I walk into the darkened workspace that has not received its wake-up call. Bringing a cold aircraft to life always reminds me of the scene from Tom Hank’s Apollo 13 movie, where they crawl back into the lunar module that they’d previously shut down. A maze of switches and circuit breakers, frozen from the night before as my torchlight skips around the panels before a safety check and the battery switch brings the aircraft partially back to life.
There’s fire warnings and circuit breakers to check before the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU for short) in the tail-cone is brought online. As I turn the switch to do so I can hear the click of relays and watch the flick of gauges as the load on the battery increases. And then the low rumble and slow whistle moves up the aisle from the tail to reassure me that the start cycle is truly underway. It’s a characteristic of smaller jets on quiet mornings that I’ve grown to appreciate, for once the APU has come to life the aircraft has a pulse and a minute later, respiration to breathe warm air into the cabin. I carry out some further checks and ensure the galley power and coffee brewers are on their way before I settle into the ‘piloting stuff’.
Align the navigation system, scan the flight deck panels, check the oxygen system, set the radios and program the Flight Management Computer and so on. The list seems endless, but after twenty years and two airlines I’m getting the hang of it. The cabin crew now shuffles up the stairs and my partner is back from the walk around where some frost was sighted on the airframe. I cast a glance over my shoulder and the rugged up engineer is already aloft in the ‘cherry picker’ and spraying de-icing fluid on the wing. I grab out another manual as the spraying of this fluid calls for extra procedures and a little more time, but still there is no fog.
Over the next fifteen minutes the performance for the aircraft is calculated with due respect for the variable winds, de-icing procedure and hill off the end of the runway. The magic of the electronic flight bag provides us with the answers after we independently input the data and cross-check our findings. It’s still dark as the passengers cross the tarmac in their coats, gloves and hats, while the air traffic controllers have only just brought their control tower back on line. We verify the latest weather at the airfield against our calculations and trouble the controller to read back our airways clearance.
Time to Go.
It’s T minus ten minutes and we brief our departure and various scenarios before running a checklist. The log books and fuel docket rest outside against the window in a box on the end of a pole designed specifically for the task. The documentation is checked and the refuelling numbers are calculated and verified. As the last passengers are taking their seats, the final load sheet with its weights, stabiliser trim setting and persons on board is messaged to the aeroplane where the figures are again cross checked and entered into the computer. We pressurise the hydraulic system, check the flight controls, hand out the last of the paperwork to the cabin manager, shut the door, and complete the final checklist. It’s T minus two minutes, let’s go.
The engineer assures us that the airframe is clear of frost through our headsets before we ask for pushback clearance, release the brakes and start the engines. The oil pressure already sits quite high as the cold viscous oil pushes through the system awaiting the warmth of combustion elsewhere in the engine. With both engines started and providing electrical power, the APU is shutdown and the brakes are set. The tractor and engineer disconnect and the latter waves us goodbye. There are a few final precautions against icing to conduct before yet another checklist, request for taxi clearance and we’re underway to the accompaniment of the safety demonstration in the background.
We bump along the taxiway initially as the bottoms of the tyres have a frozen flat spot from sitting at below zero temperatures through the night. As they roll along the taxiway, the rubber warms and as the round shape returns, the subtle thumping dissipates. Our red anti-collision beacon has a stroboscopic effect on the scenery around us and still there is no evidence of fog except for the odd wisp around lights on the corners of nearby hangars. The chimes sound on the flight deck to let us know that the cabin is secure and ready for departure just as the clock confirms that the five minute engine warm up period has passed. The final checklist is completed to verify flap and stabiliser settings before we call the tower and let them know we’re ready for take-off. With no other aircraft on frequency and none sighted on approach to land, we’re cleared for take-off and line up at the end of Runway 35.
Our flashing strobe lights and landing light beams are droll by comparison to the runway lighting ahead. A mix of colours and lines of light illuminate the black strip of asphalt. The thrust levers are brought forward and the engine noise spools up, slowly pushing the aircraft from its stationary pose. The button is pressed to set the wheels in motion and the thrust levers move further forward to the take-off setting, now driven by their own servo motors as the Boeing gathers genuine momentum.
“80 knots.” The runway lights flash past.
“V1.” The hand leaves the thrust levers.
“Rotate.” The runway lights disappear beneath the nose.
Another day is underway. I love my job.