Last month saw us as far as sitting down in the cockpit – and that’s where I am when I notice a silent STS box appear on the upper display unit, in front of the thrust levers.
STS is Airbus for Status. The ECAM (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitoring) system has detected something its not happy about. The electronic complexity of this family of aircraft is designed around this all-seeing system, which looks for both normal operation of systems and of course alerts the crew about abnormal and emergency conditions.
The First Officer, who through my natural generosity, is flying us to Dar, has commenced with the cockpit set-up, and it would make sense that the detected condition is transient as he corrals all the computers into a semblance of order.
Selecting the Status button on the ECAM control panel calls up the status page on the lower display unit, and in the lower right corner, in white (colours mean a lot to this aeroplane) is FCTL, which is Airbus for flight controls. It appears that some rogue electron has upset one or more computers, and it will have to be attended to. I make a mental note about it, and go back to the forward galley to brief the cabin crew, as it appears the chaos of cleaners and caterers is subsiding.
After brief introductions and my standard corny jokes, we briefly discuss our imminent mission. Passenger load, taxi times, flight time, our planned use of seat belts, fuelling procedures, anticipated turbulence en route and how we will be handling communications with our locked cockpit door policy are some of the items we cover.
I informed the cabin crew that the FO is flying, and thus letting them know the landing in Dar is his fault.
On returning to the cockpit, an engineer is in my seat and doing a system test through the left side MCDU, which is the interface with the Flight Management Guidance System, as well as the Central Maintenance System. On interrogation, the system appeared to admit defeat with regard to the FCTL meassage, and the minor snag cleared itself.
The standard turn-around maintenance entries are made in the technical log, and I am now obliged to sign the next page, certifying that I am in all ways satisfied with the technical status of the aircraft. This is my reality check before each flight. Have I done everything legally required for me to sign that page?
Our Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) describes the process of preparing the aircraft for flight in great detail. Likewise, today we are not carrying any DAs (Deferred Actions), which refer to the correct and legal process of accepting an aircraft with un-resolved technical issues. On our iPads, we have an electronic version of the MEL, or Minimum Equipment List, which is hugely comprehensive and covers every single system and sub-system, and the certified effect it has on the behaviour of remaining systems when an associated is item inoperative.
In general terms, the clever Frenchmen who designed and built the aircraft have provided the necessary double and triple redundancy where it is required, and thus we can dispatch with a certain item not working, provided we comply with the requirements, and, sometimes new flight limitations detailed in the MEL.
So, with a clear conscience, I boldly take on all the responsibility of operating the aircraft until the next time the engines are shut down in Dar.
Accepting the offered cup of tea from a cabin crew member (“Captain, how do you like your tea? Steve Hofmeyr?” – which is code speak for white and bitter), I continue with the cockpit preparation and cross-check all the FO’s inputs.
The aircraft announces that the preliminary loadsheet has arrived, and I print it out to check the figures, and double check my tankering calculations. The final Zero Fuel Weight is a couple of hundred kilograms lighter, so I can take a little extra gas. This is duly communicated to the engineer, and refueling is then completed.
While this is happening, passengers are boarding, freight and baggage are being loaded. The exact positions of all the weight will be confirmed to our Load Control office by the loading supervisor, and this will be reflected on the final loadsheet.
Being Pilot Monitoring (PM) for this sector, I get to do the radio work, and it’s an appropriate time to obtain our ATC clearance. As anticipated, we are cleared to Dar-es-Salaam via the EXOBI 1A RNAV departure, which the FO has already loaded into the FMC (Flight Management Computer).
As per our SOP, it’s time for the sing-song of the performance data and briefing, sung out by the FO and confirmed by myself. This is all accomplished on the Airbus Fly Smart and Jeppessen apps on our iPads.
This is where we are meant to trap any errors in terms of takeoff performance data, as we calculate the data separately, and we never discuss the actual takeoff gross weight, as a misleading number here has been the source of a few tailstrikes and runway over-runs in the past.
Our single biggest cause of delayed departures has been late or missing passengers. True to form, we are informed by our Station Control that we have two outstanding passengers, with three bags between them.
This initiates a security check, as we have to remove the baggage of the unaccounted for passengers before we can depart. It now becomes a game of finding the baggage or finding the passengers. The latter means they fly, the former means they don’t, irrespective of whether they show up after the baggage is removed.
I am always amazed at how many people think the departure time is when you stop drinking / eating / shopping in the terminal and start looking for the departure gate.
In this case, the baggage is less elusive than its owners, so they get hoofed off the flight and the bags are sent to lost property. This allows load control to send the final loadsheet, which I check and then the FO enters the figures into the MCDU. It indicates a NOTOC (Notice to Captain), which means we are carrying dangerous goods.
A quick reference to another app on the iPad shows we have hunting rifles and ammunition loaded in the aft hold. We make a note of its position, so that should we come to a fiery halt during the takeoff we can tell the fire crew about it.
Now that we have the final, and performance figures are adjusted accordingly, we can read the first half of the before start checklist.
The doors are suddenly closed and it’s game on. Ahead of schedule.
As per most things in life, clear communication allays most problems. The words spoken to the ground engineer are very specific. As it is the FO’s leg, he does the talking and the engine start, with me monitoring like a hawk. All is well, and a normal push-back and start is accomplished.
After completion of the after start checks and checklist, the taxi route takes us to the India intersection of 03L. Despite our weight and present outside air temperature, and intersection departure provides us with all the necessary performance and safety margins.
Once lined up for departure, I take a quick look into the future with the weather radar, and note a few storm cells along our departure route. Not a problem, as we’ll have ample time to negotiate with the radar controllers for the anticipated weather deviation.
With all checklists complete, confirmation that the cabin is ready and our takeoff clearance is obtained, we’re off.
As it is the FO’s takeoff, I take the thrust levers before 80kts in anticipation of a Rejected Takeoff (RTO). Everything behaves itself, and as we reach 146 knots, I call rotate and flight happens. Positive climb, and the gear goes up. It’s a lovely afternoon, so as per our briefing, the FO hand flies the aircraft for a while.
Speaking to radar, we get our weather deviation as expected, and we accelerate to 250 knots once we’ve retracted flaps. Above ten thousand feet, we accelerate to 290 knots, and bump our way through the scattered cumulous cloud until around 17 000 feet and then we are suddenly in the smooth blue.
Seat belt signs off, autopilot 2 is then engaged, and its time to update the FMC with the latest upper level wind and temperature information, and start the paperwork.
I fill in the SITA flight plan, which is now essentially a navigation log, and my computed estimated time of arrival is within two minutes of what the FMC worked out the moment we were airborne.
The ACARS (Aircraft Communications, Addressing and Reporting System) will be our primary tool for company communications and updating our destination weather information. I push a button on the MCDU labeled ETA and the time is sent to Johannesburg and Dar, and another labeled Ops Normal, which we do once an hour to comply with the requirement of flight following by our home base.
We reach Flight Level 350 around 160 miles from Johannesburg, and settle into the cruise phase, which should only be about two and a half hours.
The most important part of the flight is expected around now – lunch.
Being a regional flight, the company actually loads meals for the crew. All of our domestic sectors have no crew catering, and we wait for passenger left-overs. On this flight, we get a couple of choices of main courses, and generally the food is not too bad. I have to squeeze in radio calls between mouthfuls as we are handed over to Maputo control, and I finish my cheese and biscuits while chatting to Beira.
We have our contingency plans in place. Should we loose cabin pressure, we have established our minimum height to level off in the event of an emergency descent, and then what course of action to follow once down there.
Likewise, en route alternates are entered into the Equi-time points page of the MCDU, and updated weather for these airports is obtained. These include Maputo, Beira, Harare, Blantyre, Lilongwe and then a bit of a gap until we get to Dar.
We make half-hourly fuel consumption checks to ensure we are not surprised by the dreaded fuel-leak scenario that spoiled Air Transat’s evening around 15 years ago…
After a step-climb to FL 370, its tea time for me. I order my normal, while the FO opts for Coffee Malema (black and bitter)….yes, you guessed it.
We are handed over to Dar Control, frequency 119.3 at position BONAP, and we are ignored for about five minutes before getting a response. We are told runway 23 is in use, so that means the Alpha-Floor Go-Around approach. This is a light-hearted reference to an Airbus crew that got behind the aircraft on the RNAV approach for runway 23 and had an exciting time.
Being Africa, we programmed the RNAV for 23 into the primary flight plan on the FMC, and the ILS approach for 05 into the secondary flight plan. This allows us to change the whole set up at the push of a button. The only certainty is change with African ATC.
The descent into Dar was standard with minor left-and-right deviations around towering cumulous clouds, which looked spectacular with the setting sun to our left. The weather information (ATIS) from Dar can only be received fairly late on the descent, but confirms through the universally canned American accent that runway 23 is in use.
Having thoroughly briefed the RNAV approach, we wait in anticipation of the ATC curved ball that may or may not materialize. We listen to an approaching Qatar A320 with very similar estimates to ours and wonder when something will be done by ATC to separate us.
They are approaching from the North, and us from the south. This means they have a different lead-in point to the same RNAV approach, and at the final approach fix, we will be on top of each other.
I call the other traffic, (Qatar), and put it out there that this will not work. Luckily, ATC get the hint and ask the Qatari to do a hold at the first point.
The evening stillness of the approach belies the ATC pandemonium, and being number 1 for the approach, we’re enjoying the view. Turning base leg over the sea is spectacular – the evening sun still has enough strength to illuminate the clear blue depths and sandbanks around the harbour. We both make an effort to keep our attention on the flying, as anything can happen.
We turn final approach into a sun that is below the horizon. A smooth approach and landing is pulled off by my right hand man.
The next challenge is parking the aircraft without hitting anything. The apron is congested with construction works and other aircraft.
The Fastjet aircraft are everywhere, with their giant African Grey parrot emblazoned on the tail.
Would hitting one of those constitute a bird strike?
More to follow.