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Final Argosy - Under The Southern Cross



Final Argosy - Under The Southern Cross

By Tony Vallillo (9 October 2008)



I have, in the course of a long career, traveled both East and West; though rarely have the twain ever met! (The only occasion when they did was a flight from Paris to Los Angeles a few years ago...but that, as they say, is another story!) The delights of the 767 International Division at JFK are not limited to these directions, however. Although tales of flying north come mostly from my Air Force days, I need only put the "S" under the lubber line of memory to find a rich assortment of flying.


The Caribbean has more or less been American Airlines' happy hunting grounds ever since one O. Roy Chalk decided to sell Trans Caribbean Airlines to us back in the early 1970's. From that day forth, the Eagle logo has roamed far and wide across the Spanish Main. Later, in the course of my own career, we made yet another purchase - this time of a parcel of routes throughout South America that trace their ancestry to Pan American Grace Airways, via Braniff and Eastern. With the routes came a nearly complete airline-within-an-airline: ground staff, facilities, radio stations and flight attendants, and a storied history.



C-141A at V.C. Bird airport on the island of Antigua, 1973




The author, as a much younger pilot (!), at the controls of a C-141A in the mid 1970's. That big grin would be a feature for over 38 years whenever I was in the air!



My own first exposure to flying with a Latin flair occurred quite early in my career, while I was flying C-141A's out of Charleston AFB in South Carolina. We were occasionally sent south, to places like Antigua and Guantanamo Bay, in the Caribbean, and sometimes further - to places like La Paz, Bolivia, at 11,000 feet elevation, or Lima, Peru, or even Uruguay and Paraguay. These flights served the various diplomatic outposts on that continent, and were referred to as the "embassy runs". I still remember the La Paz layover - even in my youth an elevation of over 11,000 feet was a literally a dizzying height, and it was difficult to sleep because of the continuing need to gasp for breath! We used oxygen, as do all crews today, for at least 30 minutes before engine start, and made the entire taxi out, takeoff, and initial climb with the mask on. Not until the cabin altitude got below 9000 feet or so were we freed from the encumbrance of the mask assembly!



La Paz, Bolivia in 1974, on a MAC Embassy Run trip.



These South American jaunts were few and far between in my Air Force days, since there was no real seniority system in place at the squadron, and these were considered plum assignments! Naturally, they rarely percolated beyond the scheduling officers - pilots who, on what would otherwise have been their days off, worked the schedules in the squadron offices. These worthies considered it their rightful due to have their pick of the trips as the taskings came off the teletypes. So those of us who would rather be at the pool on our days off usually wound up flying the less desirable assignments. At the time it mattered little to me, since my main goal was simply to log as much flying time as I could, the better to impress my future potential airline employers!


When at last I managed to cross the threshold of American Airlines, I found that even my own humble seniority level (originally number 3698 out of 3714!) carried, at least occasionally, the ability to fly south instead of west. Both of the airplanes upon which I started my career, the Boeing 727 and the venerable Boeing 707, were big players in the Caribbean. Places like San Juan, St. Croix, Aruba, Curacao, Barbados, Santo Domingo and Port Au Prince found their way into my logbooks during those halcyon flight engineer days.


There were good layovers in those days, since the round trip was often over 8 hours and we rarely used relief pilots in that era. Anything south of San Juan usually involved a 24 hour layover, and many a delightful afternoon was spent on the beach after we arrived, to be followed by dinner under the stars. On passenger runs, we would have the company of the flight attendants on the layover, and this often made the beachside afternoon even more enjoyable - for the conversation, if for no other reason! American goes to most of the same places today, but more often than not both flight attendants and pilots simply make the round trip in a single duty period, a trip known in the trade as a "turn around".


Many of the 707 runs were pure freighter trips, using one of the 15 or so of our seven O's that were either built as freighters or converted to that status in the late 1960's. In those days, and indeed until the mid 1980's, American operated a considerable fleet of freighter airplanes, both the 707 and the larger 747. It was not until the 1980's that the 707's and 747's went to the boneyard, and with them the pure freighter concept. The cargo, which was and still is a robust market, went into the bellies of the other widebodies, particularly the Airbus A300-600R, which was deployed almost exclusively in the Caribbean, and eventually became known around JFK as the Caribbean Cruiser! More's the pity, because the freighters had plenty of room to bring back the larger trophies of the Caribbean, things like wicker chairs and carved wood tables, all of which had to be tied into the back seat of the Fiat convertible I contrived to drive in those days!


Navigation in those early days of my career was primitive, by today's standards. The 707's had by that time been equipped with inertial navigation - although most of them had but a single unit, which was sufficient unto the simple task of getting to and from San Juan. The 727, on the other hand, still had the old "Chinese Television" LORAN sets, which looked like relics from the 1950's. This set featured a three inch CRT, thus the "television" part of the moniker. The oriental aspersion arose from the fact that the entertainment consisted of nothing but sine wave patterns dancing across the green screen. The copilot applied himself to the matching and interpretation of these waves, and when correctly set up, the matched patterns revealed numbers that could be used, on a special chart of unbelievable complexity, to determine the position of the airplane.



A Loran chart from the mid 1970's. The elliptical lines are the lines of position from a given Loran chain, and each is identified by a number. Careful manipulation of the controls of the loran set would yield numbers which could be identified as lines of position from the chart.



Meanwhile, as all of this navigational mumbo jumbo being handled by the FO, the Captain was, like as not, flying by the ADF needle. Tuned to either WCBS in New York, or the Dorado (DDP) radio beacon on Puerto Rico, the needle would provide reasonably good course guidance for just about the entire flight, especially at night! And with no prying radar eyes keeping track, we were assumed to be where we said we were.


None of this, of course, troubled me. Sitting at the FE panel, I was absorbed in the temperatures, pressures and flows of fuel, hydraulic fluid and electrons, to say nothing of the consumption of a great deal of chicken! In the opening years of my career, there were always two steaks and one chicken provided for the crew, and the FE always got the chicken! Fortunately for me, I have always preferred chicken to steak.


When at last I ascended the heights and assumed the lofty perch of the left seat, things had changed considerably in the Caribbean. The 707 was long gone, of course; the fuselages to the boneyard and thence to the Alcoa smelters, and the engines to the Air Force, where they replaced the truly obsolete water injected motors on the KC-135's. The 727 was now fitted with Omega, a radio navigation system considerably more sophisticated than the LORAN sets it replaced. In fact, it resembled the early non-mapping GPS units both in function and, much of the time, in accuracy. And the new A300's were a real marvel - FMC's and triple IRU's with moving maps and sophisticated auto-flight systems kept the darn things within feet of the centerline of the airway! Where previously we had looked to one side or the other to wave to the opposite direction traffic, we now looked directly up or down! Such is the state of affairs nowadays, as I contemplate flying the 767-300 to the other other side of the world.


For some unfathomable reason, all of the South American flights, at least from New York, are all-nighters. I suppose this makes a certain convoluted sense to a business traveler, since nothing of a business day is wasted. However, after a flight of nearly 11 hours, especially in coach, no important business should be conducted for at least 24 hours, until the traveler resumes a state of rationality! Even business class leaves a good bit of meaningful rest to be desired. But, as in so many things in life, Vox Populi Vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God). And so it is that I point the Honda in the direction of JFK airport in the late afternoon. At least I got to sleep really late that morning!


Long haul flying like this demands careful physiological preparation starting at least a day in advance. I am lucky in a way; because, left to my own devices, I am a night owl, and would prefer to sleep until noon every day. This actually works fairly well on overnight flights like the Buenos Aires trip that I am now about to embark upon. The poor soul who arises bright and early every morning will be absolutely devastated by a trip like this. A strategic nap in the early afternoon would be a must for him, and I have also availed myself of it, because the most useless things in aviation are the runway behind you, the altitude above you, and the nap you didn't take!


The work/rest planning for a BA trip is almost as important as the fuel planning. Of course we have three pilots, and thus we'll be taking breaks. In fact, this flight is long enough that the breaks are in excess of 3 hours each, leaving open the possibility of splitting them into two 1:45 or so segments. There are times when this is desirable, such as a delayed departure, when the last break might begin 12 hours after the last nap ended. And that is if you actually took the nap! If your last sleep ended in the morning, you would be in real trouble if you got stuck with the last break. With a split break plan, each of us would have a sleep opportunity within the first 5 hours of the flight. All of this must be considered, along with the relative rest states of each crewmember, as part of the overall plan.


The good thing about a 22:10 departure is that there is little road traffic in the early evening, and the commute is painless. Operations is also nearly deserted at this hour, with only a few crews milling about, bound for Paris or London on the late flights, or Sao Paolo, Brazil. The chief pilots and the other denizens of the flight office have long departed for hearth and home! So we can and do avail ourselves of an extra bit of informality at this hour, and ties are removed and collars loosed, the better to engage in revisions and flight planning more comfortably!


Planning a really long trip like this BA flight is a bit more involved than a flight to Paris or Los Angeles. For one thing, the distance, roughly 4800 miles, is very near the range limit of a 767-300 with a full load. So we will be filling the tanks nearly to the tops, and our weight is occasionally right at the ramp limit, 409,000 pounds. This must be monitored carefully at the gate, and we will not be able to push back until we have confirmed that the actual weight is indeed at or below this limit. The takeoff limit is 1000 pounds less, 408,000 but that should be no problem since we will burn at least 1000 pounds of fuel and probably much more on taxi-out. That leads to another consideration - the fuel for taxi.


In olden times, prior to the big expansion of operations at JFK a few years ago, there were no delays out-to-off after around 21:00 unless the weather was bad. Nowadays, for a variety of reasons, the late evening delays are often mind boggling, with over 80 jets in the conga line and delays in excess of two hours. This calls for careful planning indeed, because the FAA recently changed the law regarding fuel on board. Prior to the change the legal fuel was that required at the gate prior to departure, and, although anticipated takeoff delays were, of course, accounted for, there was no legal requirement to have a specific amount of fuel in the tanks as the takeoff roll began. It was up to the Captain.


Nowadays, the legal specification is for a certain amount in the tanks as the throttles are advanced for takeoff. It now makes no legal difference how much fuel we have when we leave the gate, so long as we can take off with the Min Takeoff Fuel onboard. Generally, on the 767-300, the "spread" between the dispatch release fuel at the gate and the min takeoff fuel is around 1500-2000 pounds. But, since the beast burns around 2500-3000 lb/hour on the ground with both engines running, and since we cannot even think about taxiing around on one engine at weights above 310,000 pounds, it is obvious that a potential 2 hour delay would require at least 5000 pounds of taxi fuel. Or more. And that much extra fuel, over and above that needed for the flight itself, is not always possible on this flight, due to the max takeoff weight already mentioned. You can easily get caught between the rock of fuel and the hard place of weight!


This has been on my mind since before I arrived at the airport. Tonight I actually called dispatch from the car on the way in, to get an idea of what the departure delays might be. My thinking was that if we wound up in the situation where only around 2000 pounds of fuel could be allotted to taxi-out, and the delays were in excess of around 30 minutes, we might consider delaying the departure from the gate until the out-to-off times were more reasonable. We'd still get airborne about the same time, give or take 30 minutes or so, but we would avoid the ultimate Bad-Day-at-Black-Rock scenario: burning all of the taxi fuel and having to return to the gate to get more. This would mean losing our place in the line, but that would be a moot point - we would also be illegal to fly the trip. This flight is fairly close to the limit of a duty day, which is 14 hours from sign-in to debrief. A delay anywhere near two hours would make us illegal if we had to return to the gate. It has happened, and it's not a pretty sight! Dispatch had determined that the delays are not likely to be a problem tonight. Well, we'll just have to see about that, but for now there is nothing more that I can do about it. I must turn my attention to the flight plan itself.


A JFK-EZE (the IATA identifier for Ezieza Airport in Buenos Aires; the ICAO identifier is SAEZ) flight plan is actually long enough to choke the onboard flight management computer on occasion. The physical flight plan that emerges from the computer is around 10 feet long! More than a few forest giants bit the dust so that I could make this flight tonight! There are 55 waypoints just to get to the initial approach fix. Total time from takeoff to landing is estimated to be 9:59, which is interesting since the scheduled block to block time is 10:45. The historical taxi times, out and in, come to 47 minutes, which means that there is really no way we will arrive on schedule tomorrow morning! Especially if the out to off delays end up being as long as they have been running lately!



The log for an earlier BA flight - same route, different day and load! Still 55 waypoints, though!




One of the weather depiction charts for South America



Our route tonight is one of the several possible routes between these cities. The departure will take us over SHIPP and then to LINND, DIDLE, WAYDE, A300 KIKER, UA300 MAN, UA316 VALLE, UL793 GUA, UW65 PAGON and the PAGON 6A arrival, probably to runway 11. This is not too far from a direct great circle route, diverging a bit to the east between Puerto Rico and southern Brazil. From JFK to DDP this is just like a flight to San Juan. Beyond Puerto Rico, we will continue southward to Margarita, about 200 miles east of Caracas. From there the route takes us down across the eastern part of Venezuela to Boa Vista, just inside Brazil, where we hang a bit of a right turn and head to Manaus, the old rubber baron capital on the Amazon. 182 miles north of Manaus we will cross the Equator, and the water in the toilet bowls will reverse its rotation!


From Manaus we head southwest to the border with Bolivia, passing just to the east of Santa Cruz and a bit west of Asuncion Paraguay on the way to Resistencia, in the north of Argentina. From there it's a straight run down to BA. If we get airborne anywhere near 23:00 tonight, which is pretty much the normal time, dawn should catch us somewhere south of Manaus, probably between there and Santa Cruz. Of course, if we are very late, we may actually get a daytime view of the Amazon and the jungle! We shall see what we shall see.


The fuel load is just shy of 153,000 pounds, just about full (max fuel is about 160,000). That and the passengers and cargo put us right on 409,000 pounds planned at the ramp. The fuel planned for the taxi out is only around 2000 pounds, and obviously there is no room (weight wise) for more, so we'll have to see about those delays. A quick phone call to JFK tower brings forth the assurance that delays are running only around 30 minutes at the moment. So far so good.



The airplane waits for us at the gate, taking a short breather between the Paris trip it came in on a couple of hours ago and our own marathon voyage. These things never seem to tire, which is often more than can be said of the crew!




Snow often lies in great piles at this time of year, shoved up by the ramp plows. It may not melt until April!



The weather forecast for Buenos Aires is good, with light winds and visibilities at arrival time of around 3000 meters (approximately 2 miles) but forecast to improve to essentially clear later in the afternoon. Montevideo and Cordoba are the alternates, and there are plenty of CAVOK's in the forecasts for those airports. Enroute, we should see mostly crosswinds from the west, strong just north of Puerto Rico and again in southern Brazil, so we can anticipate a bit of turbulence, but not for any length of time. There are a few areas of thunderstorms indicated over central Brazil, not uncommon for this or any time of year. These will probably be dissipated by the time we pass through the area.


The Notam section of the plan is a mile long, as might be expected for a flight halfway down the Western hemisphere! After checking them, and printing out a few charts of the enroute weather, we pack the paperwork up in a green folder and get ready to head out to the plane. This being February, the snow lies heavy on the ground, although fortunately none of it is falling tonight. Deicing would add to the delay factor, and there have been trips where the glycol bath alone took over an hour, by the time all was said and done! But that will not be the case tonight.







Often in winter, the departure festivities are enlivened by a session with the deicers. This is what it looks like from the cockpit!



The passengers are already boarding when we arrive at the gate, and after a quick word to the agent that the cockpit crew is present and accounted for we board the plane and greet the flight attendants, or at least those of them that are in the forward galley at the moment. Several of my favorite flight attendants are with us tonight, so this should be a good trip. All we have to do is depart JFK in good order!


The FB (third pilot) now returns from his exterior inspection and pronounces the airplane fit for flight. I am happy to leave the walkaround to him tonight, since the temperature is such as to discourage lingering out on the ramp! Ah, such are the fruits of seniority! I myself made many a sub-zero walkaround in my days as a flight engineer, and I am glad to be rid of the task today. As the FB revitalizes himself with a quick cup of hot Java, the FO and I start preparing the FMC for its evening's work. Fortunately the ARINC upload works tonight and much of the flight plan is already in residence deep within the rather limited memory banks of the computer. I say much of it because the plan is so long that the ARINC upload fails to get it all, and we have to put the last few airway segments in manually, a frequent task on this flight. I remember the earlier days of my A300-600R flying, before the FMC could be loaded by airways. That must have been some task - loading 55 waypoints manually! Fortunately, at least at the airline, those days are long gone. Garmin GPS's used in general aviation still work one waypoint at a time, but I doubt if anyone is planning a trip from New York to Buenos Aires in a Cessna 182!



The moment of truth - the FMC after the closeout is loaded!







Right on schedule the door closes, and we are ready to go. Well, not just yet, of course; we now have to wait for the load closeout to find out exactly what the airplane weighs. Normally, we get those numbers on taxi-out, but tonight we cannot even move the airplane until we determine that we are OK weight-wise. Moving an airplane above the max ramp weight brings on the need for an extensive inspection, hardly the way to start a 10-plus hour trip! So we cast an impatient eye on the ACARS printer, trying to will it to spit out a favorable closeout. As always, in these situations, the wait is not a short one!


In due course the printer spits out a short stream of numbers, and we find that our weight is 408,900 pounds, just below the max ramp weight and acceptable for movement. After a brief exchange with the ground man, who has been doing a little dance outside to keep warm, the tug belches out a cloud of black smoke and, with a throaty roar, digs in and starts pushing. It is a slow go, as heavy as we are, and it is obvious that the tug is throwing all of itself into the struggle, like the little engine that could! In order not to add to the difficulty of the tug's task, we hold off starting the engines until the pushback is complete. Then, having saluted the ground man and freed him to seek warmer climes, we taxi up to the end of the ramp and contact ground control.


Ground issues us taxi instructions, and they are not what I would expect for a runway 04R operation. This is a bad sign, and sure enough, as we clear the ramp area and move onto the field itself, we can see that the conga line is almost endless tonight. We are, in fact, headed not for 04R but for 13R, and the line of airplanes goes all the way around the end of 13R, down the length of 13R and the parallel taxiway, and then out Kilo to 04R. As we turn onto the outer perimeter, taxiway Bravo, I hear another airplane, one obviously ahead of us and probably by a good bit, being told that he is around number 80 for departure! Darn!!


In the hour or so since I talked to tower on the phone, it seems that every airplane east of the Mississippi has developed the immediate need to take off from JFK! This puts us in a real bind, because, as I indicated earlier, we do not have the fuel for a delay of anywhere near this magnitude. And the entire line is moving, albeit at the pace of an arthritic snail, which eliminates the possibility of shutting down both engines for awhile. But we very much need to be able to do just that, or face a return to the ramp, and, for us, a return home.


Ground control at JFK is best dealt with delicately. Their job is incredibly difficult, especially at night, and often the controllers are not in the best of humor. Such is the case tonight, but I will have to risk their wrath. Taking advantage of a brief break in the radio traffic, I quickly acquaint ground with our fuel predicament, and suggest that the way is clear to taxi over to the other side of the airport, near the departure end of runway 31L. That is very much out of the way in the current operation, and once relocated we can shut down both engines and run the APU for power. Surprisingly ATC, after a bit of consideration, is agreeable. Perhaps they are motivated by the thought of the goat-rope that would ensue when we requested a return to the gate from the middle of the conga line. (That did happen to me one night, due to maintenance issues, and because of our position in the line it took another hour before we could begin taxiing back.) Whatever the reason, ground agrees with our plan, and clears us over to the other side, adding that they will probably be using 31L for takeoffs by the time our turn would come up. Serendipity rears its pretty little head!










Almost immediately, a number of other flights chime in and allow as to how they, too, would like to save some fuel! Ground makes short shrift of most of these requests, apparently on the grounds that mere fuel savings not complicated by an imminent need to return to a gate are insufficient grounds for special treatment. I'm glad that I seem to have dreamed this up first, since the ploy seems to be less successful for imitators! I will remember to debrief this with dispatch after the trip, so that some kind of accommodation can be arranged here for this flight on a regular basis.


So we taxi over, shut down and wait it out. The good news is that we are all on the clock, so to speak. While we wait, the flight attendants improvise a beverage service, and we turn the seat belt sign off to let people stretch their legs. This will be important; because once the flight starts they will have little opportunity to do so, especially in coach. We certainly want to avoid anyone coming down with DVT, or any other diseases for that matter! There will be plenty of time to get them seated before we have to get moving again.


Anyway, to make an already long story a bit shorter, we wait with the engines shut down for nearly two hours until the call comes to crank them up. The APU only burns around 800 pounds per hour, so we have more than we need when the moment of takeoff arrives. Advancing the throttles on 31L, I prepare for a lengthy tour of one of the longest runways in the world. The bird does not disappoint me - our takeoff run is long but distinguished, and as we finally break ground just after midnight we are up and away on what I hope will be another exciting Argentinean odyssey! Left turn to Canarsie and straight on until morning, and with any luck at least a few Pollywogs will have become Shellbacks by then!


Continued in Under the Southern Cross part two - King Neptune's Court


Anthony Vallillo

Final Argosy Series

Final Argosy

Final Argosy - Under The Southern Cross

Final Argosy - King Neptune's Court

Final Argosy Part Three - Viva Tango!

Final Argosy Part Four - Adios Amigos

Final Argosy - Last Tango In Paris!

Final Argosy - Fini Flight

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