Posted by: harrisonjones | August 25, 2011

Call out the reserves…

Watching Hurricane Irene track toward the east coast reminds me of the years I sat on reserve, waiting on a call from crew scheduling. An airline pilot’s life is controlled by his seniority number for the type of aircraft and seat that he flies. Some choose not to move to a bigger airplane or a captain’s position until they are senior enough to  hold a regular trip with weekends off. I, being the adventurous type, always advanced as soon as possible even though it meant I would be on reserve and at the mercy of crew scheduling. If things went smoothly at the airline, reserves would not be needed and I would have a lot of time off. Of course, that seldom happened. With the weather disruptions, caused by Irene this weekend, the reserves will be out in force. Does it give you comfort to know that the most junior pilots will be flying you in the most adverse weather? Not to worry;  everybody is equally qualified if you ignore experience. As a new Boeing 767 captain, I flew one of the first flights to land in Miami after Hurricane Georges blew through. A very gusty ILS approach to Runway One-Two with a lucky save at the last second for a decent touchdown, but the ground personnel were happy to see us and glad to be back in business.

Life on reserve is best described as chaotic and phone calls come at all times of the day and night. The only call that can be predicted with some certainty is the one that always occurs on Christmas Eve. The first question the scheduler asks is, “How soon can you be here.” No problem; a fast shave, a quick car wash rinse in the shower, into the costume and out the door. “See you in a week, honey.” 

I have had to walk away from half-eaten meals in expensive restaurants, the middle of movies at the theater, birthday parties, funerals, and…well you get the picture. Why does the reserve copilot seem to consistently arrive right after I do the outside walk around in the rain? Waking up in your own snug cocoon at home is always nice, but the possibility of next sleeping in Istanbul, Tokyo, or Moscow is ever present. If it was easy, anybody could do it. It’s not all bad, however. Sometimes the most senior captain in the category calls in sick and you get his excellent trip. Sometimes you get to fly a maintenance test hop and play with the airplane like you could never do with passengers on board. Ever seen a truly maximum performance takeoff and climb in an airliner? How about an emergency descent or steep turns? Awesome!  

You also get called out to fly charters to off-line destinations that you would otherwise never fly to. Charters for professional baseball teams, NFL football teams, and college teams are common. It’s profoundly frustrating to sit around the pilot’s lounge at one-o’clock in the morning watching the Atlanta Braves play extra innings,  knowing it will be at least an hour and a half after the game ends before they show up for the charter. How many times have I told the copilot, “If it wasn’t for the money, I’d quit.” The reply, without fail is, “If you do I can move up a number.” 

It will be a busy few days for all the airline personnel as Irene blows through. I know safety will be the top priority, as always, and let’s hope the storm turns east. I’ve always thought that Hurricanes were the low
lifes of all weather  systems.   

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