Airbus A-330 takeoff On the final leg of my trip I was in the seat for the last 2/3, having taken the first break. I usually try to take the break that has me sleeping near the right time for my home time zone. Copilots get either the first or last break since the captain will be in the left seat for both the takeoff and the landing.

Our A-330 aircraft configuration currently has the pilot bunk located between the cockpit and the forward galley. That location makes it easy to get to and from the cockpit but its not so good for the first break. That period is when the flight attendants are doing their main cabin service which means, more often than not, that they will be banging galley carts into the bunk room wall. That in itself is bad enough, but the bed folds down from and is firmly hinged to that wall. I have had a cart hit the wall so hard that I bounced  up off the bed.

There is a project underway to change the aircraft configuration to relocate the pilot bunk in ‘the basement’  between the cargo compartments, across from where the flight attendant bunk is now located. That will provide room for a second pilot bunk and allow the double crew that is required for flights exceeding 12 hours – which explains why the company is willing to spend the money for the change. So much for the security aspects of the relief pilots being half way back in the plane.

The flying part of the leg was enjoyable and challenging. Our route took us as far as 67 degrees north. For most of the flight it was night time off the right wing with a full moon in view while off the left wing the sun was just below the horizon. As we got to north-central Canada and started turning south we eventually came to the point where the sun became fully visible.

The A-330, as all FMS-equipped aircraft, computes and displays a point where a descent should begin in order to meet and restrictions that are present in the instrument arrival procedure for the destination airport. Our arrival had a crossing restriction at one point of 12,000 ft at 250 knots. The FMS assumes that you will make an idle power descent at 290 knots and uses the forecast winds to work backward to our cruising altitude of FL410.  At that point the FMS places a little downward pointing arrow to tell you to get the descent started. The Airbus will not initiate the descent by itself.

It was my turn to get an approach and landing, so as we approached that down arrow I asked the captain to request a lower altitude. Of course the ATC response was Standby. Just as we got to the descent point we were given  descend to FL390, expect lower in 50 miles. Getting behind in the descent at altitude is certainly not unusual and, in most cases is easily recoverable. The FMS calculation does not take into account using the speedbrakes for added drag and a greater descent rate. Also, unless you have an additional restriction from ATC you can always increase your speed, which at idle power means a steeper descent. One of the pages on the FMS display gives a calculation of how far off the calculated descent path you have deviated. By the time we were given a descent directly to that 12,000 foot restriction we were over 5000′ above the calculated profile. Idle power, full speedbrakes and holding 320 knots got us to the altitude and slowing through 270 knots as we crossed the fix. The captain had negotiated the deletion of the speed restriction in anticipation of our not being able to comply – thinking ahead is always good.

Before we started the descent I had briefed the instrument approach that I expected us to be assigned. Our destination has three parallel runways and 99% of the time we get either the right or center runway for landing. I briefed the approaches to both runways to cover myself. Twenty miles from the airport and at 10,000 ft we were were given a descent to 6000′ and a left turn to intercept the localizer for the left runway – of course.  I was half way through the turn when the captain reached to his left to retrieve his Jeppesen manual to get out the new approach plate. During his manipulations he inadvertently hit the autopilot disconnect button. We had chimes and bells galore and all the lights on the autopilot control panel extinguished. It’s really nice that the aircraft is so stable. A half dozen or so button pushes and we were back in business. The captain got the new approach and missed approach procedures programmed into the FMS and we re-accomplished all the required checklists for the new approach. We were then given a speed restriction of 160 knots and a descent to 5500′ as we approached the glidepath. I configured the aircraft for landing and waited for the approach clearance as the glideslope indicator appeared above us again. We were given a descent to 5000′ and still no clearance as we approached the glideslope from below for a third time. That little glideslope symbol came down to meet us and then buried itself on the bottom side of the indicator before we were given clearance for the approach, still restricted to 160 knots until 5-mile final.

This is a totally different way of being behind on a descent. The aircraft was already configured with all the drag it had available except the speedbrakes and we had a speed restriction. Luckily, the Airbus has no restriction on the use of the speedbrakes in the landing configuration, but the incremental amount of drag they would produce would not be enough to allow capturing the glidepath before the approach end of the runway. Our only option was to both extend the speedbrakes and increase our speed. The captain conveyed the message to the approach controller – increased speed or  vectors for another approach. We got the speed – less work for them. A 175 knot, idle-power dive managed to get us onto the glidepath by 1000′ agl with the speedbrakes still extended and our airspeed working its way down to the calculated approach speed. We were finally all stabilized by the required 500′ agl (VFR conditions) when I disconnected the autopilot and landed.  One turn off the runway another turn toward the concourse and two frequency changes and we were pulling into our arrival gate – twenty minutes ahead of schedule after a ten-hour flight.

The flying fun was over, then the commuting fun began. I won’t get into that other than to say that it was more of a zoo than the approach.  Now I have a week off before I start it all over again.


6 responses to “A Challenging End to the Trip”

  1. Nick Avatar

    Great update!

    It’s nice to know that you are working hard up at the pointy end while I’m in the back sipping on my champagne.

    By the way, you mentioned having to make a CATIII approach in a previous post. As a VFR pilot I find I tend to clench my butt cheeks together when I’m in the back of a jet making any type of instrument approach. I’d be interested to know how long it takes for you as a commercial pilot to feel at ease with descending through cloud towards the ground at low level. Maybe you are bit busy at that point to think about it.

    Anyhow I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now. Keep up the good work!


  2. Craig Avatar

    Thanks for a great post. Yes, that does happen. We do not know your destination and it does not matter. Approaches can be a pain and uncooperative – or disconnected ATC agents don’t help much. Of course, you must fly the ordered profile, but when very different from your (approved) plan, you folks need to Speak Up Loudly and raise some polite hell on the radio. ATC rules the air, but so does your fuel state and any pax needs.
    Yes!! briefing two or more approach choices is a good thing. Everyone knows the plan and any/all/both can execute a go-around (or bypass) if the alignment does not work. Ahem!! Those folks at approach know your airplane’s landing profile just as well as you do. Why the send you outside that envelope or require the hefty dives is beyond my understanding. You folks fly the machines as ordered and you can do it, the those extreme deviations are just nuts! A smooth, easy approach is why those approach plates were made. Save some urgent situation, why the heck do the controller not use the same path that you have. They wrote it!!
    On the outside, this is a great post – far better than a list of outside kinks and thank you. Yup, I can easily visualize that difficult approach. I am more than very happy that the “cruise pilot” got to make it. “Cruise Pilot” or “Alternate First Officer is a difficult role to fill. I am happy to learn that you line – and your captains allow the junior driver at least a few approaches and landings.
    I’ve said enough. More posts is a very good thing. We know that you and your professional services are abused at times, but when you get the set up and landing, we want the details! Thanks.

  3. Tracy Avatar


    Thanks for the comment. Flying into low weather can be dicey, yes, but modern transport aircraft make it pretty easy. Actually, the Regional Jets you see now are just as well equipped. When it comes to the CAT III approach, all the work is done before the approach begins – that’s completing all the required briefings and reviewing everyone’s duties. When the weather is at CAT III minimums the airplane flies the approach and makes the landing. Both of the pilots monitor the systems as the approach progresses. As long as all the proper indications appear at the correct time and you don’t hear any bells, whistles or clicks you let the plane land – then the pilot reduces the power and extends the thrust reversers. The automatic braking stops the plane and then the pilot has to remember to disconnect the autopilot before turning off the runway.
    I have a whole lot of respect for the flying abilities of the general aviation pilots who are flying instrument approaches by hand down to the published minimums, often using instruments and radios that are not the latest and greatest. They’re the ones working their butts off.
    Experience makes all things easier. How long it takes you to feel at ease flying instrument approaches in low weather is a personal thing. It depends on your training, your flying background and how often you are required to perform the approaches. I’ve been flying professionally for about 40 years, so I’m pretty comfortable in the air.

  4. Tracy Avatar

    Thanks for the comments. Deviations on the descent profile are almost expected when you are approaching a major international airport – though they’re usually not that bad. When you are as far out as we were the first time our descent was delayed it is usually due to a departing aircraft who is climbing up to it’s enroute altitude and crossing our path. It’s just the luck of the draw that we were both going through the area at the same time. Quite often the arrival restriction requires a speed change sometimes slower, sometimes faster and sometimes both – those are from the controller trying to fit us into a hole in the line of arriving aircraft.
    That second descent delay wasn’t obvious to us and we were a bit too busy to try and figure it out. There was a plane not too far ahead of us that they had to speed up for a while but that wouldn’t have delayed our descent. I can only guess that there was traffic below us for some reason. We were landing to the south at SEATAC and I imagine there was something coming out of Boeing Field below us that caused the problem. Who knows, maybe they got another 787 into the air…
    Airline pilots, just like all pilots have currency requirements to meet – landings, takeoffs and instrument approaches. In most cases we trade off legs during a trip. Most of the time a captain and copilot are paired for a trip and a second copilot augments the crew for the legs over 8 hours. One copilot will usually be in the seat for the takeoff and the other for the landing. If the captain needs the currency, he/she will usually make the takeoff and the landing on the leg. If it’s the copilot’s turn, the two copilots decide who needs which for currency and fly that way. If neither have any pressing currency needs, the more senior of the two will usually decide which break they want and fly the leg that way. It’s also probably safe to say that if it’s 20 degrees and blowing snow outside, the more senior copilot will take the seat for departure – leaving the exterior preflight to the more junior.

  5. Craig Avatar

    Thanks for the wonderful details. I well understand that flying 2nd FO (Cruise) can be a drag, but I’m happy to hear that you do still get a fair share of the ‘good’ flying. One way of another, those Hand Flying skills must be maintained. If they get stale, (or, forbid, lax) the benefits of the third driver are lost. Thanks for a great post.

  6. Tracy Avatar

    At our airline the second FO is more an augmenting FO because of the length of the flight than a cruise pilot. He/she will be in the seat for either the takeoff or the landing. It is rare, so far, that an augmenting pilot will only be on duty during the cruise portion of the flight. When the captain is taking a break both seats will be occupied by First Officers. All of our FOs have a full type rating in the aircraft and have complied with all the requirements of the captain position except the Initial Operating Experience flights as an in-command pilot.
    The only time when a specific FO will not be in the seat for either the takeoff or landing is when that individual and the captain are both over 60 years of age. Since 99% of our A-330 flights are dispatched under international rules, at least one of the pilots in the seats must be under 60 years old when the aircraft is below 10,000 feet altitude. Since I am older than 60 I have run into that situation a couple of times – and as more pilots delay their retirements the situation will come up more often on the international flights.