So, after several weeks of indoctrination, ground school, procedure trainers, simulator sessions and check-rides, we’re finally going to go fly the jet.
The first few trips are a pilot’s Initial Operating Experience (IOE). A training captain flies with the pilot to ensure he/she was trained properly in the simulator. There are also some things that can only be taught during actual flights. The IOE serves as a nice bridge between training and actual operations. When Virgin America called, the scheduler informed me I would be flying a three day trip:
- Day One: San Francisco – Seattle – Los Angeles
- Day Two: Los Angeles – Boston
- Day Three: Boston – Los Angeles – San Francisco
On the first day, I commuted uneventfully to San Francisco. A few hours later, I met the captain. He gave a brief tour of the crew-room and took time to show me some of the more important functions of the crew computers. We spoke at length about the expectations of the next three days. He seemed pleased I already had a lot of experience flying the A320.
We made our way through security and out to the jet. After performing the initial cockpit pre-flight items, we walked down the jet-bridge to complete the walk-around training. What normally should have been new-hire training quickly turned into a friendly game of “try to stump the other.” When we finished, we returned to the cockpit confident the aircraft was more thoroughly checked than any Airbus A320 in history.
Virgin America uses an electronic flight bag (EFB) on a tablet PC in lieu of bulky paper charts. (I plan to do a whole post later on the EFB. It is pretty impressive!) I was walked-through the procedure for setting up the charts. When we received the final passenger and bag counts, I plugged all the numbers into the EFB software to complete the load manifest. It was now time to push.
Unlike the simulator scenarios, everything worked. We pushed, started the engines, and started to taxi towards runway 01R in San Francisco. Along the way, we checked the flight controls and completed all the check-lists. Per company procedure, the captain would fly the first flight of my IOE. I would be the non-flying pilot.
After receiving the takeoff clearance, the thrust came up, we rolled down the runway and lifted off. Pretty standard stuff out off 01R at SFO: 030 degree heading, initial climb to 15,000 feet.
As we climbed through 10,000 feet, the workload dropped off dramatically. I had a moment to gaze out my window towards Sacramento. It was another moment of reflection. You may recall in “The rest of the story…” I wrote about my IOE when I returned to United after my first furlough. After takeoff, Captain Ross said it was “good to see me back in the saddle.” I started thinking about that flight and his comment. I never thought I would be starting over again in the A320. But, here I was again…. back in the saddle.
My little daydream was interrupted by the Captain: “How’s it feel to be back in the saddle?”
Seriously? Did he really just say that? Was I thinking out loud? My thought was just verbalized behind me. I turned and looked at him with a dumbfounded smile.
“I said, you’re back in the saddle. How’s it feel?” he repeated thinking I didn’t hear him the first time.
“Great. It feels great.”
I didn’t even bother trying to explain the surprised look on my face. I just smiled and enjoyed another one of life’s little ironies. I hoped the outcome of this rodeo would be much different than the first.
A little more than an hour later, we arrived in Seattle. I took special note of the “sight picture” out the window during the approach, flare, and landing. It had been over a year since I’d flown the airplane. A quick mental review of some visual cues certainly couldn’t hurt.
As we taxiied to the gate in Seattle, the after-landing flows and check-lists were completed. We arrived at the gate, shut down the engines, turned off the seat belt sign, and completed the parking check-list. The first flight was done. Now, it was my turn to fly.
Forgive the cliche, but, it really was like riding a bicycle. As we accelerated down runway 16L in Seattle, it felt as if I’d never taken any time off from flying the airplane. As we lifted off, I felt completely comfortable. We climbed, turned, climbed and turned some more. I turned on the autopilot and settled in for the two hour flight down to Los Angeles.
As we approached LAX, the controller surprised me. We were heading east, abeam and paralleling our landing runway at 5000 feet. From that point, the controller cleared us for a “visual approach” to runway 24R. The clearance permitted me to descend, slow, and turn anyway I saw fit to land on 24R. That is a little unusual for a busy airport like LAX… they usually micro-manage every approach.
So, I brought the power back, slowed, and lowered some flaps. Basically, I made a wide descending arc back around towards the west. With the flaps and landing gear lowered, the A320 comes down fairly fast. When we turned back towards the runway, we were lined up and on the proper glide-path. The landing was decent. Privately, I was thrilled things were coming back so quickly.
After a short night at the layover hotel, it was time to takeoff for Boston. Years ago, I flew commuter turbo-props out of Logan. I’ve flown in and out of there hundreds of times. Plus, I grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts. It is always nice to return.
My second Virgin America takeoff was off runway 24L at LAX. Standard stuff again… out over the ocean, turn around, cross LAX at or above 10,000 feet heading east. We were on our way to Bean Town.
A mere five hours later, we approached Logan Airport for a visual approach to runway 22L. Logan is notorious for ridiculously long approaches. Not that night… we arrived just north of the field, made a right turn, and flew it right down to 22L.
One of the things I love the most about being a pilot is being able to see friends and family all over the country. With a long layover in Boston, I was able to visit with my family. The next day, my sister, niece, and sister’s friend picked me up at the hotel. What a treat. My niece was now three months old and that was the first time I’d seen her. They brought me to the Cheesecake Factory at the North Shore Mall. There, we joined my mom, dad, and brother-in-law for a nice lunch.
I met the crew in the lobby of the hotel an hour and fifteen minutes before departure. That evening, we flew two flights. Boston to Los Angeles, then back to San Francisco. On each flight, I became more proficient completing all the pre-flight computer work. Flying the A320 was familiar, but the Virgin America procedures were new. Over the three days, I felt I’d received very good training.
We finished up at SFO around midnight. I needed to get home early the next morning to prepare for my son’s birthday party that evening. The first flight out of town was 5:45AM. It didn’t really seem worth going to a hotel. So, I stayed in the crew-room and watched television for a few hours. I did not sleep, because I refused to be “that guy” who slept in the crew-room. I’d slept in late in Boston, so I really wasn’t that tired anyway.
By the time my ride home lifted off at 5:45AM, I was pretty tired. I easily drifted off to sleep and woke up on the descent into Denver. Have I mentioned life is more relaxed when employed doing what you love to do? Who knows how this story will end. But, at that moment, things were definitely starting to fall back into place.