An incredibly short-haul airline flight

Three AM is an awful hour to awaken to the strident ringing of the phone. Bleary-eyed, I glance at the little screen – it is crew schedule.

I have very little contact with crew schedule these days. I haven’t been on reserve (that is to say, on-call) for way over a decade, and the only other time we speak is when I must recuse myself from a trip due to illness, or if I am looking to increase the bottom line, so to speak, by doing a bit of extra flying. The latter is the case now, over the Christmas holidays, since extra flying is always easy to come by at this time of year.

The lady from crew sked (as always, courteous to a fault; unlike a few of the brethren who react, when called, like bears rousted from hibernation!) proceeds to acquaint me with the latest offerings from the New York catalog of 757/767 flying. Interestingly enough, the main offering for tomorrow is a 757 ferry flight from EWR to JFK. This brings back some long forgotten memories.

Back in the 1970s, at the beginning of my career, ferry flights were fairly common at the NY crew base, often occurring with almost schedule-like regularity. They mostly involved the Boeing 727, but occasionally one of the bigger birds would need moved between EWR and JFK. As time went by, this happened less and less often, since the not-inconsiderable cost of flying an empty airplane around for 30 minutes or so is a serious financial burden, and so it is that a co-terminal ferry, as we used to call them, has become something of a “rara avis” these days.

New York airports map
It’s only 18 miles, but when moving a 757 between two New York airports things get interesting.

The thought of reliving a portion, at least, of my oft misbegotten youth was intriguing enough that I pronounced “accepto” to the offer of the ferry flight! The fact that sign-in would not be until 17:00 that afternoon was also a big plus. I could now roll over and resume my interrupted slumbers, the better to prepare myself for an aeronautical “quickie.”

Upon awakening at a more civilized hour later that morning, I turned my attention to the first important consideration when dealing with co-terminal ferries – the limo ride. Only on the rarest occasions does one get to fly another airplane back from the ferry destination, and so ground transportation is necessary to get to where the Honda is parked. In the event, I decided to drive to JFK and limo over to EWR, since that would get me home sooner. It turned out that the FO opted to do the same, thus requiring only one limo.

Arriving at JFK at the appointed hour, I was delighted to find that we were provided with an actual limo — today, lo and behold, we have a real Caddy, and a white one at that! As I climb aboard, I wonder where the bride is!

Today is the Saturday before Christmas, and the local roads are packed with cars full of people headed for the various malls in the area. So we settle in, the FO and I, for a potentially long ride. The FO, as it turns out, is just back from furlough, having sat out the last 4 years or so in the aftermath of 9-11 and the turmoil in the industry. This is his first month back with us, and I am quick to welcome him back aboard.

The ride to EWR is surprisingly free of traffic jams, and we arrive in good order, a little before sign-in time. There is no need to go to operations – we can acquire the flight plan and other necessary paperwork right at the gate, where we also discover that the airplane we are to deliver to JFK will be almost an hour late arriving at EWR, due perhaps to delays at its origin, EGE (Eagle, CO). I am not surprised at this development, since the entire Midwest is in the grip of a major storm today, and delays no doubt abound.

Ferry flights are usually fairly low priority affairs, especially maintenance inputs like this one, and even more especially on holidays with bad weather. Quite understandably the main effort is being expended getting passengers to their destinations as expeditiously as possible. Inevitably, since we are standing at a gate counter in the full suit of lights, we begin to attract questions from passengers eager to find out why things are not going smoothly in the world of aviation. We do our best to answer their questions, which we often can if the inquiry is simple and does not require knowledge of the arcane entries required to wrest reservations information from the bowels of the computer.

In the fullness of time our airplane arrives, and after it disgorges its load of passengers, we meet the arriving crew on the jetbridge and inquire of the condition of the bird. It turns out to be AOK, and we board, making our way to the cockpit through the usual detritus of a long flight. This airplane will not be cleaned here, since it is bound for the maintenance hangar, and thus the galleys have the remainders of the sodas and, delight of delights, several trays of unconsumed mixed nuts!

Since the FO is singularly underdressed for the climate, being without an overcoat, I decide to do the walkaround myself. After a brisk excursion around the bird, I return to the warmth of the airplane and check on the loading of the flight plan. The flight plan is simplicity itself, with just one waypoint (SANTT) between EWR and JFK. This I know to be wishful thinking of the most outrageous sort, and we will have to await our ATC clearance to find out the actual route. We therefore call clearance delivery right away, and are given a clearance that has both of us scratching our heads and scrambling for charts! What ATC reads out to us, in the frenetic pace of a Brooklyn auctioneer, is this:

EWR taxiway with airplanes
Rush hour at Newark – get in line.

“American 9653 cleared to JFK via EWR 7 departure, BDR radial 248 and CCC radial 285. Maintain 2500 feet.” Plus a few other tidbits that now escape my volatile memory!

We have to get a repeat of this to copy everything down, and then it is time to enter it into the FMC. Radial to radial routings like this are rare indeed, and few pilots can recall the procedures for entering them without referring to the manual. Fortunately, the FO is just out of the school and he does indeed remember the entries, sparing me from setting the whole thing up on VOR raw data, which would be easier than rummaging through the kitbag looking for the book. What it appears that this clearance will do is take us north and east of LGA. I also know, from experience, that our actual route is likely to be different than this clearance; indeed, we will probably get vectors most of the way around.

We are ready for pushback after entering and checking the route, and without further ado we shove off and start the engines. Once they are both running, we receive clearance to taxi. Now comes yet another delay – the controllers at the TRACON have their hands full with JFK arrivals, and we must wait for release, probably around 30 minutes or more.

While we wait, we study and brief the EWR 7 departure. This will be a delicate affair with an airplane this light – we weigh only 149,000 pounds all up – because the departure calls for an initial level off at 2,500 feet. At this weight the 757 is vastly overpowered, and 2,500 feet will come very quickly, so we must be on guard lest we either over-speed the flaps or bust the altitude, or, God forbid, both! In addition, there are two turns right after takeoff, the first a 20 degree turn to the right, followed a few miles later by a 60 degree or so turn to the left. (Degrees of heading change, not bank angle.) A lot will be happening in the first 60 seconds of the flight, and we prepare as best we can for the sequence of events.

Finally, after 45 minutes or so, we are told to start ‘em up and head for the runway. We will be using 04L tonight, so we trundle past the FedEx area and head toward the south employee parking lot. We’ll be setting off more than a few car alarms as we set takeoff power tonight, since the sound tends to be of greater intensity beneath an overcast such as we have now. It is always comical, when in the lot awaiting the bus, to hear the symphony of alarms start up as each departing aircraft wafts its many decibels of low frequency noise across the area. It actually shakes the cars enough to trigger whatever sensors activate the sirens, and the ruckus lasts for a minute or two before quieting down, just in time for the next departure to start it up all over again.

Clearance for takeoff comes immediately, and I turn the controls over to the FO. Even with reduced thrust set the ship reacts like a horizontal rocket and shoots down the runway at the speed of stink! V1 is an absurdly low number tonight, somewhere around 110kts, and we reach it almost immediately. Up comes the nose and we are away and climbing, turning right to a 060 heading. We are handed over to departure control and I waste no time contacting them, because I suspect that we will not be making the turn to the 290 heading.

Indeed we do not – they give us direct to LGA VOR. Now things really get busy, because we are in the middle of flap retraction, watching carefully lest our surging speed get out of limits for the flap settings. For the moment, I simply spin the heading cursor around until it lies right over LGA. That will get us headed in the right direction until I can make the entries in the FMC that will set up the LNAV to go direct to LGA. We also get clearance to 5000 feet, which spares us the ballistic level-off that would have ensued at 2500.

Boeing 757
The 757 is a powerful bird, especially when light.

Once we are clean and established at 250 kts and 5000 feet, we can breathe easier. Less than 3 minutes has passed since liftoff, such is the gusto of the light 757. Just then we get another vector, this time to the left of LGA. So much for direct! Actually, we will have nothing but vectors from now on, as I originally suspected. JFK is also on the 04s, and the approach will be to 04R, which means a good deal of vectoring around and out over the water for the downwind leg. This gives us some time to relax, eat a few nuts, sip a bit of Diet Coke, and send the ACARS messages indicating our ETA. We also brief the approach, having already set it up on the ground before takeoff.

Downwind leg is 7 or 8 miles out over the water, and we descend to 3000 feet a grand at a time. The TCAS is lit up all over the screen, with aircraft above, below, left and right, reminding me of that line from “Charge of the Light Brigade.” As usual, though, there are no intruders at our altitude. These controllers are among the best in the world, and they squeeze a lot of aviating into the confines of the New York airspace. Of course, this requires almost non-stop talking on their part, and it is often difficult to get a word in edgewise on these frequencies. Occasionally, they have to call us after a changeover since the patter has been continuous.

A few right turns later we are on final approach. The glide slope intercept altitude for the 04R ILS is only 1500 feet, and once we intercept the glide slope things happen quickly. In the slot at 1000 feet with the runway in sight, the FO clicks off the autopilot and autothrottles, choosing to savor a minute or two of hand flying after his long hiatus. At this light weight (our approach speed is very low – less than 120 kts) the airplane handles a bit like a kite, making the actual landing more difficult than it would be if we were heavy. But the FO has lost none of his touch over the years, and he does an excellent job of it, notwithstanding a crosswind from the right. Brakes and reversers, and turn off at taxiway FB. Now begins the long taxi over to the maintenance hangars, our destination tonight.

Approaching the hangars, we fall in line between two Airbuses under tow. The one we are following disappears into the cavernous hangar, and we are told to shut down on the taxiway outside. This we do, and after the checklists are complete, we await someone to bring a stair stand and free us from our admittedly comfortable prison.

All in all, from gate to hangar, the elapsed time is almost two hours! The on duty time, including the limo ride, is around 6 hours. The actual off to on time is 25 minutes, which is typical for a co-terminal ferry between any two NY area airports. As I walk to my car, which I had prudently parked not at the regular pilot parking lot but at the hangar itself, I think back to the days of yore, when I did this sort of thing as a 707 and 727 Flight Engineer. The runways are more or less the same, but everything else, save the accents of the controllers, has changed. The planes have changed, and the airline has changed. I have also changed – older, presumably a bit wiser, certainly a good deal heavier, and sporting another stripe on the sleeve of the jacket.

But the most important thing that has changed is the novelty of it all. Back then this was all new, and pretty exciting to boot. Today, while still enjoyable and even fulfilling in a professional sense, it is routine and not at all exciting. Excitement, it seems, is the stuff of youth and in all likelihood cannot be reclaimed. But it can be fondly remembered, and as I amuse myself by whistling the theme from “The High and the Mighty” as I walk through the mist to my car, I am grateful for that legacy of ferry flights and Christmases past. In the words of the immortal Bob Hope, “Thanks for the Memories!”

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