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.