• Golden Argosy Part 1

    Golden Argosy Part 1

    By Tony Vallillo (1 June 2004)


    Way back in the late 1960's, Universal Pictures took Arthur Hailey's bestseller "Airport" and made it into one of the better airline motion pictures of all time. The movie is memorable for a number of things, not least being the casting of Dean Martin as the Check Captain and main protagonist, a role that ol' Dino played surprisingly well. But the real main character of the movie turned out to be none other than the Boeing 707 wearing, in this instance, the livery of the fictional Trans Global Airlines. It was operating a flight from "Lincoln International Airport", (a thinly disguised version of O'Hare) to Rome. This was in the latter portion of the era in which airlines, catering to the whims of the imaginative poets in the marketing department, occasionally bestowed names upon their most glamorous flights, and so the flight went by the evocative title of "The Golden Argosy".


    Screen shot from FlightSim.Com file library.

    By any name, or even by no name at all, a flight from the USA to Rome is special. Just think of it: Rome, the eternal city, city of the Caesars and the Popes, city of history and romance, and Anita Ekberg forever romping in the Trevi Fountain. One never tires of Rome, no matter how familiar with it you may become. At least not yet, and it's coming up on two years of once a week!

    In a flying career that started in 1971, I had, until last year, never set foot in Rome, despite having been in and out of Naples and certain other NATO bases in Italy on various occasions through the years. Of course, when I started my career as an airline pilot with American (1977), the company was almost totally domestic in focus, with only a few routes into the Caribbean to add an international flavor to the operation. Deregulation changed all of that, of course, and AA, along with just about every other sizeable airline in the USA, embarked upon an international expansion in the mid 1980's. Yet Rome continued to elude me, even after we began to fly there from Chicago a few years ago. I have, you see, been based in New York for almost all of my career, and I saw no point in commuting.

    Finally, in the spring of 2003, JFK-Rome was announced, and by that time I had accumulated enough grey hairs to hold a bid on the route. So many grey hairs, in fact, that I was able to bid the inaugural flight, which was only appropriate considering my heritage! This was the layover I had waited my whole career for.

    One of the regular features of this website is the series of articles about simulated flights from point A to point B. Many of these are surprisingly realistic (considering that the authors have probably never laid hands on the controls of a real jetliner!). They are usually accompanied by screen shots, which have, over the years, become more and more impressive as MSFS has matured. There seemed to be a great deal of interest in realistic depictions of airline operations; and, as Carrie Bradshaw is fond of saying in a certain well-known cable channel sitcom, "I couldn't help but wonder"... Would you like a look at the real thing?

    So you are hereby invited along on AA flights 166 and 163, the JFK-FCO (Rome) and FCO-JFK services, the modern day Golden Argosies that constitute the source of most of my daily bread these days. You'll even join us on the layover, for a peek at just what makes Rome such a great destination. One thing must be noted for the record: during the course of any flight, certain situations are considered "sterile" and nothing must distract the crew from the duties of the moment. Generally, this sterile period is said to exist any time the airplane is in motion below 10,000 feet. None of these pictures of (or from) the cockpit were taken during a sterile period.

    Flight 166 leaves JFK in the early evening, at 17:50. That means sign-in time (the reporting time for the flight - one hour prior to gate departure) is 16:50, in operations. But for an airline pilot, the day does not begin then. No, we all commute to work in one fashion or another, some by car and some by air. (This is perhaps the only aspect of being a virtual airline pilot that is better than the real thing!) I am now one of the "bridge and tunnel people", to recall a phrase from the disco era of the late '70's when I used to live in Manhattan. So around two in the afternoon, we'll get the motor running and head out on the highway. A pilot lives by the traffic reports on the radio, and so the two-plus-hour drive is spent listening to news, weather, traffic and, in my case, Rush and Sean!

    Assuming no major tie-ups on the greater New York interstate highway system, we block in at the employee lot at JFK and catch what bears a striking resemblance to a school bus over to the terminal. I often wonder what I'd have thought if, as a schoolchild on just such a bus, I had any idea I'd still be riding one in my mid 50's!

    Once settled into operations, it's time for the one really undesirable part of being an airline pilot - revisions! Elrey Jeppesen was one of the real old timers at what became United Airlines, and his little book of notes on the airmail routes he flew turned into a big business. But with all due respect to the old Captain, inserting page after page of tissue paper sheets into a binder that is already bulging and overweight (not unlike its owner!) is a thankless and miserable task indeed. There is talk of an "electronic kitbag" and other space-age paraphernalia in the offing, but it won't be here in time to do me any good!


    Doppler radar display, typical of the displays in Operations
    With our manuals up to date, it's time to take a preliminary look at the weather. Actually, I've been taking preliminary looks at the weather for the last two days, courtesy of the Weather Channel website. But that's just to decide how to pack. Now it's time to check for real. We have a nice weather computer in ops that can depict just about anything you want to know about the atmosphere between here and there (and everywhere!). Tonight, there is a small area of rain shower activity just west of Teterboro that appears to be moving east. Hopefully, it won't turn into thunderstorm activity, but we'll keep an eye on it.

    Enroute, the weather is not too bad, although a change in direction of the Jet Stream over Newfoundland promises a bit of turbulence during the first few hours of the flight. Beyond about 50 degrees west longitude, it will be a tailwind most of the way, although not too terribly strong.

    Rome will be cloudy in the morning, with clearing around noon, and it should be sunny later in the day. Sounds good!


    Europe satellite.
    Flights from the US to Rome are in excess of eight hours, and Federal Regulations specify a third pilot for relief on flights over eight hours. So tonight we have an additional First Officer on the crew. We will each have an opportunity to take a break during the cruise portion of the flight. The union contract specifies that a seat in Business Class, the highest class on the 767-300 at AA, will be set-aside as a crew rest seat. Some of the longer range Boeing 777's have a special bunk room aboard for rest purposes, but the 767's do not fly routes long enough to warrant a bunk (over 12 hours). Right now, though, the FB, as he is known, will assume the duties of the long gone Flight Engineer, and proceed directly to the airplane after our initial briefing. There he will complete a preflight and walk-around inspection and set things up prior to our arrival. We, the First Officer and myself, have other things to keep us busy.

    Airline flight planning these days is a lot different from the early days of transoceanic flight, when the crew consisted of at least one navigator and a radio operator in addition to the pilots and a flight engineer. This cast of thousands was fully occupied for well over an hour with weather analysis, route selection, takeoff performance calculations, and the actual preparation of the flight plan, including calculating the time and fuel burn between each waypoint. This latter task was performed with a circular slide rule, called by many pilots the "whiz wheel". For reasons no longer apparent, (perhaps a sense of history, or an arcane form of ancestor worship!) we still have such a whiz wheel as part of our kit bag. I can honestly say that in a 27+ year career at AA, I have never used it in anger! I have, however, occasionally taken it out of its case just to see if it still spins!

    The reason the whiz wheel hibernates in its case these days is that, from about the early 1970's onward, computers have taken over the purely calculational tasks of planning, and dispatchers handle much of the route selection and weather analysis. This is not to say that the pilot does not look carefully at these things; indeed, the last word belongs to me. But by the time I arrive, a thoroughgoing professional dispatcher with a license nearly equivalent to mine (the dispatcher written exam is essentially identical to the ATP written) has already selected a route and planned a flight. On most occasions, I have merely to review, agree with and approve the plan, and the number of times that I have found the plan wanting in one way or another have been few indeed. The dispatchers do a very good job.

    Tonight the plan our dispatcher has chosen calls for a flight of just under eight hours from takeoff to touchdown. We will proceed from JFK to Yahoo, a point just southeast of Nantucket, and from there more or less parallel to the Canadian coast south of Halifax, to a waypoint called Rafin, about 150 miles south of St. Johns, Newfoundland. From there we will step out across the Atlantic.


    FL 340 winds aloft chart.
    Most air routes throughout the world are fixed; that is, they reside in the same geographical place anchored by the same end points defined by ground based radio transmitters (VORs and ADFs) or else defined by waypoint coordinates of latitude and longitude. They are thus like highways in the sky, and when followed they will lead you over the same terrain every time.

    The North Atlantic, however, is different. Decades ago, in an effort to both increase the amount of traffic that could be handled, and to improve efficiency and economy for all, a program was established whereby the routes across the North Atlantic would be determined twice a day, based largely upon the forecast winds. The traffic across the Atlantic in these latitudes between North America and Europe is very directional. That is to say, in the evening, virtually all of the flights are eastbound, and most leave North America between 16:00 and 23:00, with the real jam occurring between 18:00 and 20:00 Eastern time. During the day, the flow is westbound, with most departures from Europe occurring between 09:00 and 13:00 Europe time. The tracks, known as NATS (North Atlantic Tracks), are determined taking into account the location of the jet stream winds. So for the evening tracks, which are laid out by the oceanic control center at Gander, Newfoundland, the location and orientation is selected to make best use of any tailwinds that exist. If, like tonight, the winds are mostly crosswinds, then the tracks are selected to minimize overall distance. Day tracks (westbound) are put together by the center located at Shannon, Ireland and Prestwick, Scotland (known as Shanwick) and generally strive to avoid the headwinds, thus lying either north or south of the jet stream.

    The tracks are published twice a day and sent to all operators, such as airlines and the military. There are generally six tracks, each 1 degree of latitude (60 nm) apart, all parallel with the exception of one or two that lie farther to the south, and serve flights from Miami and points south. Our dispatchers let the computer calculate each track and select the most favorable in terms of time and fuel.

    (Flight simmers can take advantage of a website that has the NAT tracks available each day. There is even a freeware program that plots these tracks onto a nice map to make orientation easier. Check it out at http://www.natroutes.glideslope.de/)

    Fuel planning is the most important part of the overall flight planning process. It is nice to know how long it will take to get there, but it is imperative to know that you will get THERE, and not to some intermediate point, perhaps in the middle of the ocean, for lack of fuel! When we plan a flight, we attempt to do two things at the same time - first, to ensure that there is enough fuel, and second to minimize the overall usage of fuel for the sake of economy.

    Like it or not, air transportation is a business, and it must follow the general guidelines of the economics curriculum of Father Guido Sarducci's famous "5 minute University" comedy routine; namely, "you buy something and you sell it for more"! Notwithstanding the number of times since deregulation that it has seemed as though the entire industry had forgotten this simple maxim, it still applies; therefore, we try to avoid wasting expensive resources, fuel among them. So the dispatcher and I look for a balance that results in the lowest cost, a function of both time and fuel, for the complete operation.

    All other things equal, a shorter trip is a cheaper trip, since the engines burn fuel every minute they run. Yet to speed up, more fuel must be used per hour, and so careful calculations must be made to see if it is worth speeding up (which might use more fuel) to arrive earlier (which might otherwise save some fuel, as well as crew time, which is also money). The computers, of course, solve this problem in the usual computer way - brute force! They calculate every reasonable combination of altitude, speed, and route in a matter of seconds and decide upon the least cost solution. This is then compared to standards such as the overall schedule, and unless it would result in a very late arrival which would compromise passenger connections and convenience, the plan is finalized.

    Fuel-wise, however, we aren't finished yet! Federal law requires us to incorporate additional fuel for unforeseen circumstances. The simplest requirements apply to all flights, domestic and international, and mandate sufficient fuel aboard to fly to the destination, then to the alternate (if applicable) and finally an additional reserve amount to account for delays at the alternate. This is the absolute minimum fuel required, and rarely if ever does a commercial airliner take off with only these amounts aboard. In normal operations, extra fuel is added for such things as delays or holding at the destination, delays on takeoff, delays enroute, and so on. Internationally, additional reserve fuel is required when flying over water for more than an hour or so.

    Since our departure time of 17:50 puts us right in the leading edge of JFK's evening rush hour, we must account for an historical average of 30 minutes taxi time before taking off. An enroute reserve equal to 10 percent of the flight time, is also aboard to protect against the possibility of our not getting the optimum altitude we filed for, or for the winds being less favorable than forecast, or for temperatures at altitude being warmer than forecast, all of which can result in an increased fuel burn. Finally, the dispatcher and I have selected Roma Ciampino airport as one alternate, with Genoa as a second, since Ciampino is only about 12 miles from Fiumicino, and will likely be affected by the same weather. Fuel will be aboard to proceed to Genoa, the furthest alternate.

    This all adds up to 113,500 pounds of fuel, which is our required fuel load for tonight. Added to the airplane, which weighs around 204,000 pounds empty, and tonight's payload of around 49,500 pounds, we get a planned ramp weight of 367,000 pounds, well below the maximum takeoff weight of a Boeing 767-300, which is 408,000 pounds. Once the weight of the paperwork begins to approximate that of the airplane, we gather it all up and head on out to join the FB.

    The walk from operations to the airplane can be considerable hike, although at JFK it is within the limits of reasonableness. Halfway to the gate, we must clear security. I actually remember the days, up until the mid to late 1960's, when you simply walked onto the airplane, with only a ticket check. Nowadays, and of necessity, security is a gauntlet. Pilots have to go through everything that the passengers go through, with only some "head of the line" privileges to speed us up a little. Many, including some of the brethren, wonder why pilots have to go through all this; after all, the logic goes, they mostly know each other and can vouch for each other. Well, yes and no. An airline like American has over 12,000 pilots (around 10,000 or so still working at the moment) and it is not at all unusual to fly with someone you don't know. And if anyone thought that the uniforms and ID cards were some kind of guarantee, just rent "Catch Me if You Can" from your local video store!

    Having passed through security, we arrive at the gate. It is here that the reality of this business hits you. The gate area is already full of people, all of whom are eager to go to Rome, and willing to trust us to get them there on time, in comfort, and of course without a scratch. Captain Auggie Keim, an AA old timer featured in Ernie Gann's "Fate is the Hunter", had a simple creed: "If my ass gets there, so do the passengers!" For the most part, he was right. We don't normally spend a lot of time thinking about what is following us around behind the cockpit door. Probably just as well. But here they all are, waiting patiently, some looking up with obvious interest when we make our grand entrance, garbed in the suit of lights, the toreador image sullied only by the wheelie suitcases we all drag around these days!

    After checking with the gate agent, who has been checking passengers in for the last half hour or so, we board the airplane, which, at this point, is usually in the process of being cleaned. Airliners are staggeringly costly these days, and an investment of this magnitude cannot be allowed to sit idle for long. As the old crop dusters used to say, "you can't make money with the hopper shut!" So our airplane has arrived within the last several hours, most likely from Europe, perhaps even from Rome itself! A small army of cabin cleaners goes to work as soon as the inbound passengers have deplaned, and they are still hard at it when we arrive. You would not believe the mountains of detritus that are removed from an inbound long distance flight! Suffice to say that many large (and I do mean large!) garbage bags are sitting, bulging, on the Jetway. Several more will accumulate before all is done. These cabin cleaners are a real unsung group of heroes at American Airlines. Just in time for our outbound passengers to begin boarding, the cleaners will have this airplane looking like it just came from the Boeing factory! They really do a terrific job, and against some tough time constraints. Which is all the more astonishing when you see what greets them upon their arrival!

    In addition to the bustle of the cleaners, there are several additional bustles going on! The Cabin crew, tonight numbering eight Flight Attendants under the leadership of a Purser, have been busy since their arrival ten or fifteen minutes ago. Working with the caterers (the third bustle at the moment), they are preparing the galleys: stowing things in the proper places, inventorying the supplies, and getting the coffee brewing! The coffee thing goes back a long way in aviation. The first Stewardesses, all registered nurses prior to WWII, served coffee and, at American, fried chicken box lunches on most of the DC-2 and DC-3 runs, and the practice went back even farther to the Condor sleepers and Ford Tri-motors. So much so that American Airlines was known, in the pre-war era, as the "chicken" airline, a moniker that had nothing to do with courage! But the coffee stayed as a constant link with aviation's origins, long after the chickens had flown the coop! In contrast to the thermos bottles of hot (?) coffee that were loaded onto the early airliners, the coffee is brewed fresh onboard nowadays, and I suppose, if you like such things, it is very good. For me, however, coffee is an emergency procedure! I never developed a taste for the stuff, and prefer to get my caffeine from an infusion of Diet Coke!

    Legally, I assume command of the entire crew when I board the airplane, and command of the airplane when the door is closed. "Command" has had a long evolution in the airline business, and has its roots in maritime tradition. But the application of maritime tradition to aviation can be traced to one man - Juan Trippe, the legendary president of Pan American Airways. Trippe had a great love of all things nautical, and he was the first to establish marine nomenclatures such as First Officer and Captain. It was only natural on an airline that operated mostly flying boats! In fact, the two highest ranks at Pan Am prior to WWII were "Captain Coastwise", and, the ultimate glory, "Master of Ocean Flying Boats". That last has a nice ring to it, and it is perhaps a shame that we settle today for the simpler title "Captain"!

    But whatever you call him or her, the pilot who sits in the left seat is the aircraft commander, and is completely responsible for the airplane, crew, passengers and cargo. It is a benevolent despotism, but a despotism just the same. Notwithstanding modern developments in "crew coordination" or "crew resource management", there is still only one man or woman charged with making the important decisions. It is not, nor has it ever been, a committee task. This is all codified in law, and the law states that, although I am charged with operating the flight in accordance with a myriad of regulations and policies, in an emergency requiring immediate action, I can take any action necessary for the safety of the flight, including actions which, in other circumstances, would be grossly illegal.

    Despotism it may be, but it is not, hopefully, a tyrannical one! There is plenty of room for collegiality on the flight deck, and everyone today tries to operate in as casual an environment as regard for regulations and good conservative operating practices will allow. In my experience, the Captain Bligh's are few and far between.

    My colleague and I arrive on the flight deck to find that the FB has completed his inspections and has the airplane set up. Tonight, the FB is one with whom I have not previously flown, an unusual but not unknown event. Airline crews form and re-form every month, as bids are run and pilots select the runs they will fly. Sometimes, you fly with the same crew for several months, but this is rare these days, at least at American, and is either a coincidence or the result of relatively senior people specifically bidding to work together. Standardization, therefore, is obviously essential, and it is achieved by training and evaluation. All training for pilots at American Airlines is done at a single location, our Flight Academy just south of the DFW airport in Texas. American was the first airline to set up a single standardized school for the entire pilot corps, back in the 1960's. Prior to that time, when most training was done in airplanes and not simulators, a great deal of the training went on at the individual crew bases, under the supervision of the chief pilots. Today, though, I trot down to Texas every nine months for a week or so of ground school and simulator training.

    Our pilot corps, typical of the pilot groups of all of the major airlines, is a well-seasoned group of professionals, especially these days. The First Officer, for example, has served as a Captain on domestic flights for several years. The downsizing after the 2001 terrorist attacks has cost him his Captaincy, at least for the moment. Both he and the FB are also Captain qualified on this Boeing 767, although neither hold a Captain bid. The qualification is required by the FAA on flights that need a relief pilot - there must always be at least one person on duty on the flight deck who holds a license to command.

    Both the FO and the FB had years of flying experience before they came to American. All of us spent years, either in the military, or in the various levels of general aviation, acquiring and honing the skills and experience needed to meet the hiring standards of the airline industry. These standards have always been very high, and for one reason -- they can be. There have always been more people who want the airline pilot job than there are airline pilot jobs. This, caused in part by the generally prevalent supply of ex-military pilots, has ensured that the nation's airlines have always been staffed by highly experienced crews. It is a serendipity that has benefited everyone.


    The Nest.
    Once within the cockpit, it is time to get to work! Off comes the jacket and hat, and the kit bag and suitcase are stowed. After settling into the left seat, I spend a minute or so adjusting it to my liking. Boeing builds a good seat, although the very latest 767's have a harder cushion that takes some getting used to. The seat adjusts in a variety of directions, and for some perverse reason, the little holes that the pins pop into to lock position always seem to be a few millimeters too close or too far for my preference! C'est la vie! After the seat is adjusted, the process of "building a nest" begins. A great many charts, approach plates, taxi diagrams and the like must be out and readily available once we get going, and an organized pilot plans ahead, arranging these in a convenient location and a sequential order.

    The most important thing now is the loading and checking of the flight plan in the Flight Management Computer. When the Boeing 767 was introduced, these computers were a brand new concept, and state of the art, as far as the hardware was concerned. Today they are still state of the art, circa 1982. That is to say, around the Intel 286 level of processor. Even so, they still do the job; just like that old 286 would, with software written for it! Those of you who use Wilco's 767 Pilot in Command, as I do at home, are already familiar with the loading and use of the FMC. The major improvement over the loading of the old Inertial Navigation Systems is the ability to enter waypoints and navaids by name, rather than the more error-prone method of typing in the coordinates. Additionally, the route may be entered by airways, rather than entering each waypoint separately. Nowadays, the entire route and all of the performance numbers can be sent to the FMC over the ACARS, an Airinc data link radio system. No matter how it gets into the computer, the route and all of the performance data must be carefully checked. We compare each waypoint in the computer to each waypoint on the flight plan, and the airway routing in the computer to the route filed with the FAA. It is a drill, pure and simple, but embarrassing errors have occurred when the drill was ignored!

    Tonight the route portion of the FMC looks like this:

         * Hapie Three   -Yahoo
         * Direct        -Vitol
         * N21C          -Jarom
         * Direct        -Bobtu          
         * Direct        -4450N
         * Direct        -4540N
         * Direct        -4730N
         * Direct        -4820N
         * Direct        -4815N
         * Direct        -Etiki
         * Direct        -Reghi
         * UN480         -Kolek
         * UN470         -CGC
         * UN460         -Fouco
         * UT187         -Lerga
         * UM728         -BTA
         * UL146         -GRO
         * L153          -TAQ
         * ILS16R        TAQ Transition
    

    (If you want to fly this yourself in MSFS, and you don't have the ability to input all of the flight plan by airways, you can either use a high altitude chart for Europe to get all the waypoints along the airways, or you can cheat and use only the significant points that define the airway changes, as indicated above. After all, you aren't actually dealing with ATC!)

    We'll start off at FL 350, which we will maintain for the Atlantic crossing, climbing to FL 370 once across, after we get somewhat lighter from the fuel burn. The plan calls for cruising at Mach .80 the entire way, which happens to be the typical best economy speed for a 767-300 under most conditions.

    For the takeoff, planned for runway 13R at JFK, the numbers show:

    Flaps 5
    V1 153
    Vr 157
    V2 164
    Once all of this is entered and checked in the computers, I brief the crew on the plan for takeoff, including the runway, flap setting, departure to be flown (in this case the Hapie 3 departure from JFK with the Yahoo transition), altitude for level off, and the procedure and plan for an engine failure during or immediately after takeoff, including the runway and approach by which we will return to the airport if necessary. All of this is required by company policy and we are now all aware of what will happen during the first, and most critical, few minutes of the flight.

    Briefing accomplished, I call for the first of many checklists that we will run tonight. Checklists are an age-old tradition in aviation, and it is hardly possible to remember a time when they were not used. Certainly one would have to go back to the wartime years at least, but there was indeed a time, even in the airlines, when the pilot's memory was all that ensured that every switch, knob and lever was in the correct position. Since embarrassing and even tragic things happened when memory failed, as it often did and still does, the written litany was developed and mandated, no doubt to the chagrin of at least a few of the old timers! Today's airman, however, has been using checklists since his or her first introductory flight as a student pilot. To go without the checklist today would be unthinkable!

    If everything has gone according to Hoyle, we have 5 or so minutes left until departure time. Departure time is the time the airplane first moves, not the time it takes off. This has been a source of confusion and even consternation for some passengers, who think that "padding" the schedule to account for the inevitable delays from first movement to actual takeoff is somehow cheating! Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Any scheduled transportation system has systemic delays that are a result of more than one person wanting to use the system. Accounting for the probable delays when they are predictable is nothing more than plain old honesty.

    The gate agent checks with us one final time to ensure that all is in readiness, then proceeds to close the door. My speaker crackles to life, as the ground-man makes his presence known and calls for release of the brakes. This action on our part triggers the ACARS unit to transmit an "Out" time, and we are officially on the clock. Most laymen probably know that pilots and flight attendants are paid by the hour, but they likely think it is on the basis of hours on duty. It is not. Our pay has always been calculated on the basis of block-to-block hours. Everything that has happened up to this moment, from arrival at the employee parking lot onward, has been gratis! (In actuality, however, the hourly pay rates do take into account the value of the time worked when not in motion. And that time can be considerable, especially on multi-leg trips with long sit-arounds between flights.)

    Brakes released we get clearance from company ramp control for pushback. The practice of pushing airplanes with tugs became common in the late 1960's, when the search for space on the ramp led to airplanes heading directly at the building for parking rather than parking parallel to it and simply turning away on taxi-out. Smaller planes can actually back up under their own reverse thrust, but large engines like the GE CF-6's on the 767 would create too much blast and subject themselves to Foreign Object Damage. Slowly we trundle backwards into the "alley", as the ramp between concourses is always called. We have departed from gate 8 in terminal 8, the original American Airlines building at JFK. (You may remember the large stained-glass window that covers the entire front of this building, said to be the largest stained glass window in the world.) Once we get placed in the center of the alley, the ground-man clears us for engine start.

    Starting a jet engine is simplicity itself compared to starting a big radial recip. One switch (on the 767, a button on some other types) opens a start valve, which allows high-pressure air from the Auxiliary Power Unit (or a high pressure air cart) to spin the starter motor. This motor in turn spins the spool that carries the compressor and turbine blades, thus creating a flow of air through the engine core. Once the high-pressure spool (N2) speed is above a certain percentage, fuel and ignition are added to the mixture by the operation of a fuel cutoff switch. With fuel, air and a spark, ignition cannot be far behind, and we watch the EGT gauge for evidence of light off. This is not long in coming, and within a minute, the engine has accelerated to idle RPM, and the start cycle is complete. Once more, with feeling, for the right engine, and we are ready to bid the ground-man a fond farewell -- he wastes no time in unhooking and delivering a smart salute before getting out of the way!

    From now until we tie up at the gate at Rome, our every movement will be at the pleasure of Air Traffic Control. Ground control clears us to taxi to Runway 13R, via taxiway Bravo to November to Papa. I nudge the throttles forward a bit, and the beast moves under its own power. A 767-300 loaded to around 370,000 lbs will often start rolling on its own if the ramp is not sloped upward. Oddly, the smaller sibling, the 757, seems to have square wheels, even at relatively light weights, and needs frequent blasts of thrust to keep it rolling.

    JFK at around 18:00 is alive with aircraft and vehicles moving in every direction, and so a high degree of vigilance is in order. We give way to a 767 just in from who-knows-where, and turn left onto the outer taxiway, now known as Bravo. Around 10 years ago, the FAA moved to standardize the taxiway nomenclature around the country, and we lost the old, more descriptive, designations of Inner and Outer. O'Hare lost a good deal more - The Wedge, Cargo, Lakeshore Drive, Old and New Scenics, Wolf road; just about every taxiway at O'Hare had a name! The names were a little tough to get used to, but once you got the hand of it, it was way better and more descriptive than Yankee or Lima. You just never forgot where the Wedge was!


    The rain shower on radar, in max mode. Doppler indications (purple areas) are absent.
    By now, that rain shower that started out at Teterboro has moved overhead LGA. We can see the clouds just to the north. It still doesn't look like a serious threat; certainly not a severe thunderstorm, for example, but I decide to turn on the radar and check it out. The radar picture shows the rain area, the display changing as we switch from max mode, the most intense, to calibrated gain. We have a Doppler turbulence function in this radar, and it is not making itself known at the moment, indicating that the returns are most likely just rain. But to get a better feel for it, I take advantage of a unique fact about the New York area; namely, that EWR, LGA and JFK are in some ways just one huge airport without connecting taxiways! So, we listen to the tower frequency at LGA to see if the rain is wreaking any havoc on operations over there. It is not. So it is unlikely that we will experience any microburst or windshear problems in our takeoff. Didn't cost anything to check it out, though.

    With about five airplanes ahead of us in the line, we complete all of the pre-takeoff checklists. This runway is one of the simpler departures at JFK - just fly an assigned heading, which usually involves a turn of only 20 or 30 degrees to the right. On the reciprocal runway, 31L, you have to turn all the way toward Canarsie, and then turn another 70 or so degrees to the left, while retracting the flaps and speeding up. No problem, really, but a lot of maneuvering. 13R is much more straightforward.

    Takeoffs in transport category jet airplanes are planned carefully around a worst-case scenario - the loss of an engine at the critical point, just prior to rotation. By law, every takeoff must be planned so that if an engine failure occurs, the airplane can, depending upon speed, either stop on the runway or become airborne and achieve 35 feet of height over the runway end. This performance edge is achieved by limiting the weight of the airplane to a maximum level, determined by extensive testing before the airplane is certified. The weight, of course, is then essentially a function of the runway length, any obstacles beyond the end of the runway, and any contamination on the runway itself that would either retard acceleration or impede stopping, such as ice or snow. Runway 13R is one of the longest civil runways in the world; at over 14,000 feet in length, it is a legacy of the needs of the original Boeing 707's, which were by no means stellar performers on takeoff. Twin-engine jets are much more sprightly, even on just one engine, and so tonight we have a generous surplus of runway at our disposal. Would that it were always so!


    Liftoff! He's heading for Rome too, and he'll get there before us.
    Cleared into position to hold, we run the final checklist and check that the final approach is clear. JFK usually lands on 13L when using 13R for takeoff, but Delta and a few other airlines with terminal buildings on this side of the airport often prefer to land on the left side, saving several miles of taxiing. With the airplane ahead of us safely up and away, we hear "American 166 Heavy, cleared for takeoff 13R" and a wind report. We zero the ship's clock, the last preflight checklist item, and I push the throttles forward slowly. We're off to the races!

    Authors note: To be continued in Golden Argosy, part II, the flight to Rome!

    Anthony Vallillo
    [email protected]

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