Uplift - a pilot's journey

Coldest Flight of the Year (part 3 – conclusion)

Second Officer’s Log:
Winter 1976, B727, YWG Departure Gate 

“Okay,” captain Dal said, “let’s do this.” 

I began reading the unfamiliar checklist, speaking loudly over the outside noise. We accomplished each step slowly and deliberately. We couldn’t afford any mistakes. We were stepping beyond the standard daily routine. We were going the extra mile to accomplish this departure, but we were also intent upon not damaging our expensive aircraft nor any of the much-more-precious human beings working with us on the ramp. 

Gradually needles, gauges and lights flickered on, giving us minimal insight into the aircraft’s status. I kept reading checklist items as each of us responded by moving the appropriate switch or confirming a pertinent gauge reading. Then the moment of truth arrived. It was time to hit the Start-button. I looked up at the pressure gauge on my panel. “Looks okay—barely,” I called out the reading. 

“Start number two,” Captain Dal commanded. The center engine on top of the fuselage, our number two engine, posed the least risk to the ground crews who were yet to service the plane. As FO Bear held the switch, I watched the start pressure needle drop. “Valve open,” I confirmed. The captain was closely monitoring his indicators. They began to move, so slowly. We all stared at the gauges, compelling the engine to spin. “Now or never,” Captain Dal muttered, throwing the fuel lever on. There was a short hesitation. Then the exhaust temperature flickered and began climbing. “Light on two,” the Captain called in a flat tone. His hand stayed on the lever, ready to snap it closed if the temperature climbed too quickly, indicating a misfire inside the engine. The RPM increased sluggishly towards the point where the engine would become self-sustaining. Other parameters crept up slowly. “Forty percent,” captain Dal called out the magic number. Bear released the switch and I glanced up to the pneumatic gauge. “Valve closed,” I confirmed. 

All our attention turned to our barely-running turbine. It still had to stabilize properly in the frigid winter air or we’d have to shut it down. We glared at the oil pressure reading. My flight deck colleagues were as keen as I to avoid destroying a multi-million-dollar engine. “There we go,” FO Bear finally called when a full minute had expired. “Oil Pressure.” An air of triumph flooded the flight deck. We were in business! Goodbye warm bed, hello San Francisco. We continued our start procedures. When I flipped on the electrical power, we felt a shudder through the entire plane. The frigid generator kicked into action. It came on-line. It held! More lights, gauges and normal flight deck sounds sparked into action. For the first time that morning, things seemed almost normal. The ramp agent reappeared at the flight deck door, cheeks burning raw from the cold. 

“We’re in business!” I proclaimed. He grinned back, “Just in time too. The air cart died. We can’t get it restarted. This must be your lucky day.” My internal eight-track (Hey! This was a long time ago!) burst into a stirring rendition of “California, Here We Come.” 

As our overhead engine purred away, doing the job its little brother-APU couldn’t this morning, we launched into our pre-flight preparations. The flight attendants were soon onboard, organizing the galleys and cabin. The fuel truck was connected and pumping gas. The cabin was not warming up quickly, so we had the passengers don all their winter finery for boarding. As the purser closed our cabin door, I glanced back down the aisle and smiled again. One hundred-and- some passengers, wearing parkas and gloves and hats, were all huddled happily in the cold, exchanging smiles and laughter. I imagined the jokes being shared: “These cost-cutting measures have gone too far,” and, “I should have flown first class. This economy ticket just wasn’t worth freezing my toes.” (insert appropriate body parts at your discretion). 

Then the main door closed and we were ready to push back. The ground crew tractored us off the bridge into the dark morning as I carefully read the ‘Cross-Bleed Start’ checklist. Using bleed air from number two engine to start the others, we soon had all three jets idling. A draft of warm air poured out of the vents and we were finally back to normal and on our way. The rest of the departure went smoothly. We were all warmed-up and nothing could hold us back. We stopped at Edmonton, then Calgary to load more winter refugees. Soon we were sailing southward along the Rocky Mountains, San Francisco bound. As we descended into SFO, the flight culminated with the majestic Point Reyes arrival along the Pacific shores and over a fog- bound Golden Gate bridge. 

From the airport, I rented a car and drove to visit my American cousin and her family. We had arranged earlier that I would come spend this layover with them. As I made my way across the hills to Manteca, I felt a lingering sense of satisfaction. Though still a rookie second officer, I had played a significant role this morning in solving an unusual problem. All our crew-members, both air and ground based, had worked together to improvise an unusual departure, everyone contributing their talents, skills and effort. 

Over my career, I would discover that solving such unexpected problems, often caused by chaotic weather or mechanical failures, was one of the most interesting parts of the job. On these occasions, we humans truly shine. It seems to me that something in us is made for this— creating solutions to the problems that life and the universe throws at us. 

Next morning my cousin plucked a fresh orange from her garden to garnish our breakfast plates. I tried hard not to think about the return flight to Winnipeg. 

Note: The coldest-ever recorded temperature in Winnipeg was -47.8 Celsius (-54 Fahrenheit) on December 24, 1879. 

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