Friday, August 25, 2006

Well yesterday was certainly fun. On Wednesday night we left Timmins and flew to Rouyn-Noranda for an overnight. It's just east of the Ontario/Quebec border, about a hundred miles from Timmins. Rouyn is a beautiful little town of 40,000 or so, very picturesque and quaint. It seems to be built on tourism and on a large industrial plant just north of the town, with smokestacks that tower above the town, belching out grey mist as soon as the sun goes down. Somehow it doesn't spoil the town though, and it really is a nice little place to visit. It's also very, very French. As in unilingually French. My fellow pilot and I had a truly hilarious experience trying to order food from a pub, mostly because we only knew like 5 words of French between the two of us, and our waitress didn't know a single word of English. For real, she works in the service industry in Canada and didn't know a single word. I know I sound like a white middle-class imperialist, but I mean really. With much pointing and acting and rubbing of tummies and laughter we eventually were able to communicate our food order, and what we got from the kitchen actually resembled what we ordered, so we were happy. Well, I asked for no croutons for my salad and instead got croutons and shrimp added but it turned out that the shrimp made the salad better, so I was happy. It got me thinking a little bit about the waitress - I wonder what her experience of Canada and life in general is, only speaking French in Canada. I was thinking she must miss out on a lot of things, but then again I probably do also by not being able to speak French. I took it for 8 years in school, and I know pamplemousse is grapefruit, but that's about it.

Anyway, on to the flying part. We noticed on the 20-minute hop from Rouyn to Timmins that we were getting some vibration on the right engine, which is very unusual for a jet and generally means expensive repairs are on the horizon. The vibration correlated to a spike in our right generator load-meter, so it looked like we had a sick generator that might not hold out very long. We have a generator on each engine and either one can provide enough juice for the airplane, but we can't fly with a dead one.

So yesterday, Thursday, we got to the airport a little early and fired up the right engine to see if the plane had healed itself. No such luck, there was still vibration from the right engine, and the right generator was still unable to maintain a steady load. Our next destination was a 45-minute flight to Montreal, then back home to Toronto later in the day. The weather yesterday was perfect, with just a scattered/broken layer around 6,000' and nothing else. We agreed that we'd limp to Montreal and get the generator looked at there.

So our pax arrived and we loaded up. It was my flying leg, so I hopped in the left seat while the other pilot gave the safety briefing and made sure our pax knew where their catering was. We fired up and headed out, but on the runway backtrack the dreaded yellow master caution came on and the right generator fail light came on. I tried to reset it, but it was dead.

Now here's where I earn my outrageous salary. Departing on one generator isn't technically allowed, but the weather was great all the way to Montreal and our remaining generator was more than capable of handing the electrical load. Our passengers were high-level business execs who had some serious business meetings in Montreal and if we stayed in Rouyn, they would not be able to make their meeting and would have to cancel. They were finalizing details of an $18 billion (yes, billion) dollar deal and any delay would be costly. There were good maintenance facilities in Montreal, and nothing in Rouyn. All we'd have to do was pretend we didn't see the light until we were airborne.

But there was that damned vibration on the right side accompanying the generator failure. And it didn't go away when I shut the generator down.

That could mean the generator shaft had broken and it was just waiting to fling metal pieces at high speed all around the engine gearbox. There are hydraulic lines and fuel lines and all sorts of expensive, necessary items in that area and a catastrophic failure would instantly make a routine flight turn into a very exciting flight.
Yup, I earned my outrageous salary by turning around, taxiing back to the ramp and shutting down. That's right, I took the legit path, I bet you weren't expecting that ;) Despite the incredible inconvenience, it wasn't worth the risk to take a sick airplane up into the sky. I told our passengers the story, and said we would work on getting them to Montreal as soon as we possibly could. I called Propair, who had a base in Rouyn and asked them if they had any planes nearby. They only had a medevac King Air and I doubted our passengers would want to be strapped into a stretcher for the flight, so that was out. I called Air Creebec and reached the voice mail of the charter coordinator who still hasn't called me back, so that was out. I talked to dispatch and they arranged to have one of the larger jets come rescue us, but it wouldn't be there until 3pm and our passengers had a meeting in Montreal at 2pm. Faced with that, our passengers elected to cancel the Montreal meeting, so they wanted to return to Toronto directly.

Now here's the cool part: Falconbridge mining has a 737 they use to haul workers from Rouyn to a mine in nothern Quebec, and it was due to return to Rouyn in a couple of hours, then head back to Toronto empty. Our passengers had business dealings with Falconbridge, so our dispatcher made a call and set it up for us - we would all fly home to Toronto on the corporate 737, letting the pax take a look at their own corporate aircraft, and saving thousands of dollars by not having one of the Bravo's sister jets make the trip from Toronto to Rouyn and back. There was no sense in us sitting and waiting for the Bravo to get fixed as dispatch said a new generator wouldn't be in for at least 2 days, so the mechanics wouldn't be up in Rouyn 'til the third day to fix the plane, assuming that the generator was in fact the problem.

We unloaded the Bravo and sat in the Rouyn terminal for a couple of hours until the 737 came back from the mine. It's a really cool beast - they call it the BBJ - Boeing Bush Jet. It's an older 37 with the cigar-shaped low-bypass engines that burn lots of gas and are loud, loud, loud. It has some unique features though, like a gravel kit that lets it go into gravel strips - there is a huge skid plate on the nose gear the prevents rocks from being thrown up into the fuselage, and on the front of each engine are 2 long metal tubes that extend a couple of feet forward of the engine, mounted underneath it. They blow powerful jets of compressed air straight down, which prevents gravel from being sucked up into the engines when they are on an inimproved strip. The belly has strengthened skin and paint also, and all the aircraft antennaes and lights have metal screens on them to prevent an errant rock from damaging them.

The 5 of us jumped on board and settled into the leather seats, very swanky indeed. My fellow pilot wanted to nap for the flight, so I begged for the jump seat and managed to snag it. It was pretty damn cool, watching the crew fly the 45-minute leg from Rouyn to Toronto. This 737 has a custom avionics package, totally unique to this aircraft. There are 2 EFIS tubes on each pilot's side, and a large one in the middle of the cockpit panel that has a digital map, showing airways, VFR charts, IFR charts, radar, whatever. The rest of the cockpit is old-school 737, with a bazillion switches and dials, so it really was an interesting mix of old and new technology. Because we were light going out of Rouyn they did a reduced-thrust takeoff, but we still hauled ass on takeoff; the f/o told me they have the highest-thrust engines you can get on an old series 737. Their SOP's were pretty much identical to the ones I use at my company, and that was neat to see. I won't have to learn a totally different way of flying should the gods smile down on me and grant me a job flying a huge jet. We flew uneventfully to Toronto, then set up for the visual approach and landed. They work 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off, and in summer their 2 weeks on translates into flying every single day, while in winter their 2 weeks on has just 2 scheduled runs per week. It looks like a pretty sweet job.The crew said they will probably have to get a second airplane to keep up with the planned expansion of the mine in Quebec, so I tactfully taped my resume to the cockpit door, just in case.

They taxiied to the north end, shut down and we disembarked. I thanked the crew, got my bags and headed to the car. Another day in the life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You've made a very wise choice as regards the job offer. Everything points to a better offer coming along the way and your integrity intact now.KM/nanimo