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Month: July 2019

Thunderstorms and Go Arounds

This day was a ‘four sector’ day again, so it would be a long day for me. In the middle of the day the rest of my crew changed. The first two flights were more or less uneventful and we had a nice flight over the Swedish coastline. The ground handling in Germany was pretty efficient but due to the large amount of baggage we still departed with a delay of around 15 minutes. While 15 minutes is not much, it is hard to catch up this delay as the time on the ground between flights is very short. Also it is virtually impossible to catch up and time during flight – on a flight duration of one hour thirty flying at maximum speed will usually reduce the flight time by one or two minutes only. While on the ground in Germany I reviewed the forecasted weather for the last two flights. There was a forecast of occasional thunderstorm activity. I agreed with my next first officer to uplift around 800kg of extra fuel on the phone. When we arrived in Oslo the next crew was already waiting in the jet bridge.

I briefed the first officer about the technical status of the aircraft and about the weather situation. I haven’t flown with that specific first officer yet, but he was highly experienced. He had many more flight hours than I have and could have upgraded to Captain already many years ago, but he prefers the lifestyle of a first officer. Most people want to become Captain as soon as they can, but I can fully understand his motive. In one way it is very nice to have your own command and to be responsible for the operation, but it can also generate a lot of headache as well – whenever something goes wrong everybody will be questioning the Captain. In a way it’s a question of personality and personal preference. We didn’t make up any delay but we were soon on our way to our destination in Poland. As I hadn’t flown to this specific destination before I wanted to be pilot flying for the first flight, which the first officer accepted. When we approached the destination area we saw a lot of thunderstorm activity. We arranged with air traffic control to fly around the storm clouds. When we crossed in the vicinity of the thunderstorms it was very turbulent. As we got closer to our destination we saw that there was a lot of thunderstorm activity quite close to the approach. I even considered to cross the airport and approach from the south to avoid the thunderstorms, but in the end and with the help of my first officer we found a gap between the storms on the northern side of the airfield. It was still raining heavily, so I turned the ignition system for the engines on. Jet engines, different from petrol engines (as used in many cars), don’t need a continuous ignition spark under normal conditions, but in heavy rain a jet engine can experience a condition know as ‘flame out’, which causes the engine to fail. This can usually be avoided by having the ignition system turned on.

We finally broke out of the clouds and got a clear view of the runway. I was relieved that we managed to find a gap in the storms to do an approach. Everything was normal now, so I disconnected the autopilot for landing. We were surprised when the tower controller told us to ‘go around, climb on runway heading’. We did not know why this instruction was issued, but I assumed it probably had something to do with the thunderstorm. Anyway, there was not time to ask any questions, so we immediately complied with this instruction and performed a missed approach. This is trained many times in the simulator and is considered a normal maneuver, but it is rarely done. During my career I had a total of five go arounds, this one was the first one after I became Captain last year. We pushed the thrust lever forward the engines responded and we were pushed back into our seats. I engaged the autopilot again – in situations of high workload like an unexpected go around it removes the workload of manually managing the flight path so we could focus on our navigation and following the procedure correctly. We managed to keep up good teamwork. We established the airplane at a safe altitude clear of the thunderstorms. In the meantime we had been transferred to an other controller and we now asked about the reason for the go around. He didn’t know yet and told us to expect an ‘undetermined delay’. Not good. I was very happy now that I took 800kg of extra fuel. I made a short announcement to calm the passengers. Air Traffic Control asked us to climb by another 2000ft, to 6000ft. The first officer remarked ‘the weather seems to be better down here – you want me to ask him if we can stay at 4000?’. I agreed and the controller approved our request to maintain 4000ft. We negotiated our way through the storms with Air Traffic control and were told that the airport was open again. We started our approach, the tower controller told us that the reason for the previous go around was bird activity on the runway. We finally landed and boarded the airplane. There was a new ramp agent (person in charge of all the ground activities) who was being trained by an experienced colleague. I discussed the loading with them and we could manage the ‘turn around’ very fast. However the thunderstorm had moved over the airport know and it was raining heavily. When we were ready to depart the rain had almost moved through but we were told that there was equipment on the runway to remove the huge amounts of standing water. After waiting an other 20 minutes we were finally cleared to depart, now with a total delay of around one hour thirty.

Thunderstorm on the way back from Poland

When we approached Oslo we saw some thunderstorms in the area once again. Cabin crew called us to inform about a passenger who was not feeling well, but it was not a life threatening situation. In consolation with the purser I decided to call for an ambulance after landing with our handling company. We passed an other thunderstorm during our approach and landed in Oslo after a very long day. We met the next crew who were now also late due to our late arrival. When we left a pigeon flew through the jet bridge and into the cockpit. The ramp agent managed to catch the pigeon and to let if fly outside. I was really happy to catch some sleep after this long day.

Finnair Airbus passing 2000ft/600m above us.

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Maximum Range

Apologize for not writing for a long time, but I had a few days off and was rather busy at home. I now started a new work period from Oslo. I was assigned a flight to Las Palmas on the Island of Gran Canaria. These kind of holiday flights are usually always fully booked. This flight is on limit of the range of the A320 and we were also supposed to fly to Las Palmas and back again during one day. This means that we would be working for 13 hours, which is the legal limit for day time flights. Under certain conditions this can be extended to 14 hours in advance by the company. The company agreed to apply this procedure, because a minor delay would otherwise put us over the limit. If there is a delay during the actual flight that could not be foreseen (for example due to weather or unusual airspace congestion) that Captain can increase this limit up to 15 hours after consulting with his crew. This option however requires a written report to the authority, so I try to avoid this option unless absolutely necessary.

When I received the flight plan I noticed that the company had already used all legal possibilities to improve our payload. Today we were both limited by tank capacity and Maximum Takeoff Weight. The minimum required fuel for our flight today would be 18700kg, which is exactly the published tank capacity of the A320. There is a possibility to have one or more additional tanks installed, however this is rather uncommon and our airplane today didn’t have them. With the full load of passengers we had an estimated takeoff weight 76.9 tons, 100kg short of the structural limit of 77 tons. We use a special application on our iPads to calculate the loading. When I entered the values that I estimated before the flight I discovered an other issue. Close to Maximum Takeoff Weight the aircraft is also limited by the Center of Gravity, i.e. the distribution of the loading [1]. With only a few bags the airplane would be too nose heavy, with too many bags the airplanes would be overweight. We only know the actual amount of passengers and checked in bags after the check in closes a short time before the flight, so we decided to wait and decided when we had some real figures. In these situations a decision has to be made to either leave passengers and their bags behind or to make a fuel stop. However making a fuel stop would have brought up the issue of maximum working times. A fuel stop adds around 1 hour of delay and because there will be an additional flight the maximum allowed flight time is reduced by 30 minutes – so in our situation a fuel stop would likely involve staying in a hotel in Gran Canaria and canceling or delaying the return flight by around 12 hours.

When we arrived at the airport we were told that many passengers were children and we had 153 bags, which was more than I anticipated. We put the values into our iPad App and noticed that we were exactly on the Center of Gravity limit and around 50kg below the maximum takeoff weight. However with our fuel load we would just be able to fly at the most economic speed, i.e. slower than normally and the company also used a procedure that enabled us to reduce the additional fuel carried, but meant that we had a Decision Point [2], over the Atlantic southwest of Portugal, at which we needed a minimum quantity of fuel. If we didn’t have it at this point we would have to divert to Faro in southern Portugal, if we had this quantity at this point we could continue to Las Palmas.

We departed at just under 77 tons and headed towards the UK. With our low speed against the headwind we expected a flight time of just under 6 hours. Air Traffic Control asked us a few time to speed up for the benefit of traffic behind us, but we managed to negotiate to continue at a slow speed and we also managed to maintain our altitude as close to optimum as possible. When we approached the decision point after around 4 hours flight time we noticed that it would be tight. We had already obtained the weather for our destination airport. I was a typical day in the canary islands, 25°C and generally good weather but strong winds. Our alternate airport was also useable. We passed the decision point with around 160kg more than we needed and estimated to land at the destination with around 200kg above the minimum required reserves, i.e. around 5 minutes of flying time. If there was some issue at the destination we still had to option of diverting to our alternate Tenerife and 30 minutes of ‘final reserve fuel’. Luckily there was not much traffic in Las Palmas and we landed in the strong winds in Las Palmas after just under 6 hours in the air. During our descend we got a nice view of the Teide volcano [3] on the neighboring island of Tenerife.

Mount Teide as seen from the aircraft

When we parked we had around 2400kg in the tanks, the minimum quantity to make the decision to go to Tenerife would have been 2200kg.

We felt a bit tired after this flight, but on the way back we only had around 150 passengers and also a tailwind, so we were not limited on that flight and added some extra fuel. Due to our slow speed on the first flight we had some delay now, but we could compensate for this by going faster on the way back. With the higher speed and the tailwind we estimated a flight time of under 5 hours. The sun set while we were crossing into Portuguese airspace, but once we travelled further north we could already see some light just after midnight. The sun below the horizon was illuminating some clouds which reflected the light. This phenomenon is known as noctilucent cloud [4].

Noctilucent clouds over the North Sea

When we landed the sun hadn’t risen yet, but it was already really bright at around 2am. After this long and exhausting day we were all happy to go to sleep.

[1] Center of Gravity
[2] Fuel Planing
[3] Mount Teide
[4] Noctilucent clouds

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