Second Officer’s Log:
Winter 1976, B727, YWG Departure Gate
We were stumped and stuck in Winnipeg. We retreated into the bridge just as Captain Dal and FO (first officer) Bear arrived with our flight attendant crew close behind. We all huddled together taking stock. We had no electrical power from the ground power unit. No APU. No heat source to raise the cabin temperature to a survivable level. The Shell fuel-truck driver showed up and chimed in. Without electrical power, he couldn’t load our fuel. Our coveted February layover in San Francisco was definitely in jeopardy. Minus 40 is a powerful motivator to get out of Winnipeg, so we scratched our heads looking for solutions. Everyone seemed highly-motivated to find a solution, so I shivered in silence and refrained from suggesting that we just forget everything and head home to hibernate until spring.
Then an idea burbled to the surface of my sleepy brain. “If we had an air starter,” I said, then hesitated as I realized everyone had turned to look at me. Apparently, I was using my “out loud voice” and was now committed to sharing the thought, no matter how silly it suddenly felt. “Could we get one main engine going and use it like a big APU…?” I trailed off. Even as I said it, it seemed like a strange idea. I was vaguely remembering an alternative method for starting jet engines. What we needed was a high-pressure air cart. Many airports still had these kicking around. The older jetliners from the 1960s, like the DC8s and 707s, depended on them because they lacked APUs. However, running a main engine for an extended period while parked at the gate was an unusual idea and nothing we’d learned in ground school. There was definitely no SOP for the situation we faced this morning.
The mechanic turned to the ramp agent, “Don’t we have an old air cart stored somewhere behind the big hangar?” Then he said to Captain Dal, “How badly do you want to dangle your toes in the ocean today?” Captain Dal nodded enthusiastically. “Well, then let’s try it,” the mechanic said. He turned to leave with the ramp agent. “Let’s see if we can dig it out.” The winter-warriors trundled off into the bitter cold. The rest of us watched them go as we shifted from foot to frozen foot in our summer shoes, wondering what to do next. This was uncharted water. From here we would be creatively addressing issues one step at a time.
Our flight attendants shuffled back to the warmth of the lounge to plan their strategy. We three pilots dragged ourselves and our baggage into the flight deck, shivering in our skimpy airline overcoats. We kept these on, along with our hats, stowing our flight cases beside our chairs and climbing in, as if we were actually going flying—which was still highly doubtful. As I glanced at my colleagues in the front seats, it’s the only time, other than in a low-budget Hollywood movie, that I ever saw pilots sitting at the controls wearing full uniforms. Anything to ward off the cold. FO Bear pulled a toque (the Canadian term for beanie) from his flight bag and donned that too. I couldn’t help smiling. We looked more like a comedy team filming a TV sketch than a professional flight crew.
After a short discussion, Captain Dal laid out our plan and we began preparations. As I settled into my work station, fractured songs played from the jukebox inside my head. Tony Bennett left his heart, then cross-faded to Eric Burden finding no place left to go, followed by Scott McKenzie wearing flowers in his hair. Apparently, my mental playlist was loaded with Top-10 Odes to San Francisco.
A solitary air-start cart somewhere on the far side of the field, frozen into a snow bank, represented our only chance of getting to California. Our entire escape plan, er . . . I mean departure plan, depended on the mechanic and ramp crew finding it, digging it out and getting it going. I was in awe of their dedication and obvious desire to get rid of us. Meanwhile, we shivered and worked, using our flashlights to find our way, and continued our preparations in hope and faith that our scheme was going to succeed.
Part way through an inspiring rendition of “California Dreaming,” Mamma Cass was interrupted by the hulking, winter-dressed mechanic bouncing back into the flight deck. “We got it!” There was a definite smile in his voice. Within minutes the growl of the pneumatic cart roared to life below the flight deck. “Air’s ready,” a voice called into our headphones. “Okay,” captain Dal said, “let’s do this.”
To be continued: “Uplift – A Pilot’s Journey” part 3