Flying Stories
Philadelphia stories
May 17, 2012

This week, I returned to Philadelphia.  Every flying job since college has brought me in and out of the City of Brotherly Love.  As you may recall, we just started flying there from San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I like the city.  I don’t care for the airport.  Like so many others on the east coast, it was designed before anyone could have predicted the demands of current-day airline operations.  That breeds delays… both in the air and long taxi times.

I returned rather unceremoniously after a long red-eye flight from SFO.  The captain made a nice landing after breaking out of clouds at 1000′ on the ILS to runway 9R.  We taxied and parked at the E Concourse.  Throughout the day, little things jogged my Philadelphia memories.

We now fly to Philadelphia International Airport.

My Regional Airline Days

Our new gate space is very close to where we parked the Saab 340 at Business Express Airlines.  When I worked there, I flew to PHL almost every trip.  In an earlier blog post, “You can’t make this up either…,” I wrote about one of the funniest conversations I’ve ever heard on an airplane.  You can click the title if you haven’t read it.

In those days, we stayed at what I thought was the dumpiest hotel near the airport.  (Later in my career, another hotel would beat it.)  There was a local convenience store just down the street.  It is the only establishment I’ve ever frequented that sold both Philly Cheese Steaks and fishing worms.  The sandwiches were great… although, I’m still hoping they were 100% steak.

United Days

During my years at United (both times), we had nice accommodations.   Short layovers were at the airport and long ones were downtown.

I really enjoyed the downtown layovers.  I’ve explored the city and have taken in most of the historical sites.

On one memorable downtown layover, I agreed to have dinner with the captain.  After walking out of the hotel, she informed me that she was a vegetarian.  We walked all over the city trying to find an “acceptable” place to eat.  Although I am respectful of other pilots’ lifestyle choices, I will never make that mistake again.  I’d rather eat a (worm free) steak sandwich by myself.

Fractional Philly

During my fractional corporate jet years, I landed in Philadelphia many times and parked at Atlantic Aviation.  The most memorable stay happened on a night when we weren’t supposed to land at PHL.

It had been “one of those days.”  We had flown several legs and ended up waiting for late passengers at the Charlotte Airport.  When they finally showed up, we departed for one of the general aviation airports just north of Philadelphia.

The weather was low and the instrument landing system was out of service.  We held over Pennsylvania until we were forced to divert to the international airport.  The folks at Atlantic arranged ground transportation for our passengers while our company made our hotel arrangements.  All the regular hotels were booked.  It was 2:00am.

“Are you sure you want to stay there?” the van driver asked when we told him which hotel.  Never a good sign.

That was the night the regional airline hotel lost its title for the dumpiest hotel in Philly.  It was a low budget national brand name in a very questionable part of town.

When we walked in at 2:30am in our bright white shirts and yellow ties, the lobby was full of people.  They were all competing for the attention of the woman behind the bullet-proof glass.  She had taken the call from our company and motioned us to the front of the line.

After getting a key, I turned to make my way to the lobby exit.  A man approached me.

“You got a room?” he asked.

“Ah, yes sir.”

“I need a place for me and my girls.  You willing to share?  I got cash to give you.”

No… it was not a father with his daughters.

Virgin Philly

I thought of that night as we checked into our clean, comfortable airport hotel.  Long layovers are downtown, but this was a short stay.

After a great day sleep, we went back out to the airport for our flight to Los Angeles.  The ride, security, pre-flight and boarding went smoothly.  We pushed, started the left engine and taxied out towards 9L.

When the runway came into view, I counted the jets.  We were number fifteen for departure.  Yes, that was the Philadelphia I remembered.

It moved along… Soon, we were number four for the runway.  I configured the airplane and moved the “ENG 2” lever to the start position.  The start valve did not open.  High pressure air was not being fed to start the engine.  I noticed it right away, but waited for the ECAM system to detect the fault and instruct us to turn off the master switch.

Since it is really difficult to takeoff with one engine, we had to pull out of line. (That’s a joke… it is impossible, unsafe, and illegal.)  Subsequent start attempts yielded the same results.  We taxied back to the gate, loaded more fuel onto the jet and received a maintenance deferral for the start valve.

Here’s how a jet engine normally starts: high pressure air is sent through the start valve to begin engine rotation.  Then, spark and fuel are added and the engine spins faster.  When the engine reaches a self-sustaining speed, the start valve closes.  Once at idle, the start valves serves no purpose.

With the start valve deferred, the engine can be started at the gate with a mechanic’s help.

After the jet-bridge pulled back from the aircraft, we started the left engine.  The mechanic waited next to the second engine with a headset plugged into the communication jack on the pod.

The “ENG 2” switch was placed back on…The valve was still stuck.  Through the headset, the captain ordered the start valve open.  With a wrench like tool, the mechanic manually turned the valve open.  The engine started normally and the captain ordered the valve closed.

I’ve seen it done many times.  It still amazes me that someone stands next to the engine as it starts.

The mechanic closed the panel and we pushed back and taxied with two engines.

That time, we pulled up behind six other aircraft waiting to depart.  There’s no preferential treatment just because it’s the second attempt.

Everyone waits their turn… especially in Philadelphia.

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 2 comments

  • Joan Demshock says:

    Years ago, I worked as an assistant to the British Aircraft (BAC) manufacturers rep to Braniff Airways. Once, a pilot (with a reputation of calling a mechanical when he wanted to extend his layover w/ his girlfriend) reported ‘mushy brakes’ and asked for a bleed. With mechanic under gear doors, pilot decided to reset the brake, somehow causing thelanding gear to retract. Planesettled on gear doors, cutting mechanic’s tool box in half. Fortunately, mechanic not injured, not so sure about his drawers though!

  • Joe says:

    Big fan of your blog. I’ve been wondering how long it would be until a trip brought you through Philly. I gotta say, you guys got the short end of the stick as far as terminal assignments, but in my 10 years working at PHL I’ve learned a few things. One is that PHL is in a state of perpetual renovation. Hopefully, they’ll get around to re-doing the rest of E besides the WN gates sometime this decade.
    Next time your in town and have a long layover, cheese steaks are on me!

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