Our inflight lead was signing us into the hotel when the captain’s phone rang. I could only hear half the conversation, but I knew it was someone from the training department.
“A line check on the Vegas leg tomorrow?” he said. “What’s the captain’s name? Uh huh, OK. Do you know the inspector’s name?”
The captain on my trip was a check airman. At an airline, that’s one step up the food chain from a regular captain, These men and women are qualified to perform check rides and conduct a pilot’s initial operating experience. (The first set of flights after simulator training before a pilot is signed off to fly regular trips. Both captains and first officers fly a few trips of IOE with a check airman.) Since there isn’t much training right now, this captain was flying a regular four day trip with me.
We had just finished day two of the trip with a flight from JFK to Los Angeles. The next day, we were scheduled to fly to San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York. It was already going to be a long day.
He briefed me after clicking off the phone: “Tomorrow, there’s been a change of plans. When we get to San Francisco, you’ll be flying with a different captain to Las Vegas. I’ll be giving him a line check. Plus, there will be an FAA Inspector observing me doing the line check.”
I’d been awake since 2:00AM PST… it took my brain a second to process what I had just heard.
Captains must receive a “line check” from a check airman every twelve months. The check airman rides on the jump seat and observes a normal flight segment. As a first officer, I sit through a bunch of line checks. Normally, a check airman shows up for one leg of the trip and checks the captain I’m flying with for the entire pairing. The next day was going to be a little different kind of check.
FAR 121.440: No certificate holder may use any person nor may any person serve as pilot in command of an airplane unless, within the preceding 12 calendar months, that person has passed a line check in which he satisfactorily performs the duties and responsibilities of a pilot in command in one of the types of airplanes he is to fly.
The FAA must also observe a check airman conducting a line check every twenty four months. While I’ve had FAA Inspectors on the jump seat countless times, I’ve never had one observing a check airman giving a line check to my captain. To complicate it more, the check airman was my captain for the other five legs of the trip and the captain for the Vegas flight was a reserve guy about to go overdue for his line check. Did you follow all that?
In the morning, we rode my favorite hotel shuttle out to LAX. With such a long day ahead, I was happy that the weather was forecast to be nice in San Francisco. After the pre-flight was completed and all guests were boarded, I radioed to push back from gate 33A. Oops. Blown forecast. SFO was reporting a ceiling of 200′ and 1 mile visibility and had just ground stopped all flights to avoid an airborne traffic jam.
After about a ninety minute delay, we launched off 24L out over the Pacific Ocean. The ground delay helped ensure we’d have minimal airborne delay for our turn to fly the approach down to Cat I minimums. By the time we arrived in San Francisco, it was clear. Go figure.
After securing the aircraft, we walked up into Terminal 2 at SFO. The plane we were taking to LAS was still not at the gate. I met the captain who would be flying the flight. My guy switched modes from captain to check airman. They really should give these guys labeled ball caps so everyone knows the role they are playing.
The new jet arrived and deplaned fairly quickly. After exchanging the customary Virgin America pleasantries with the in-bound crew, we boarded the plane and setup for the flight. The FAA Inspector arrived to commence checking the checker who began checking the captain. Four men in a cockpit creates a different dynamic… especially when one of them works for the Federal Government.
As anticipated, the line check went smoothly. We departed 1L at SFO and made the left turn all the way around towards Clovis and Bishop. From there, we headed towards Beatty and joined the Sunset Three Arrival into LAS. (The route from SFO to LAS is almost always the same: PORTE4 CZQ BIH LIDAT J92 BTY SUNST3.) Before we even started the arrival, we were slowed to 210kts. What seemed like an eternity later, but before reaching Lake Mead, we made two left turns, joined the final and landed on 25L in Vegas.
The one-leg captain and FAA Inspector said goodbye at gate E9 and left us with about thirty minutes to prepare for the next flight. I was hoping to grab something to eat in the terminal, but realized I’d have to settle for one of our sandwiches for dinner.
My captain switched proverbial hats and jumped back to the front seat. It had already been a long day, but we were still facing a four and a half hour flight to New York. It was my turn to fly and I was very thankful the day was over when we parked at gate A2A at JFK.
The layover was only ten hours and fifty minutes. In the morning, we returned non-stop to San Francisco. Next week, I work the same trip with the same check airman. I’m already hoping for an uneventful, more routine day three.