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  • Dyfrig Gibbs

I’ve been everywhere man

0655 Monday morning, Birmingham international departures lounge. I have an hour (ish) here before I set off for that sticky bench in Dublin departures for another 3 hour wait before my Vienna bound flight leaves. This is day 3 of my 3 days off. My melancholic departure from my cosy nest was at 4am which meant a 0330 alarm, cold shower outside in the dark, coffee in my travel mug, a kiss to my sleeping babies and a heart wrenching cuddle with my very own superwoman. I hate leaving them.

I dashed up the deserted motorway playing out the two days at home, savouring the memories we created in this brief moment. We swam in the enclosed sea pool at Clevedon, played tennis, viewed a house, went to the park, made pizzas, cosied up to watch a film together, read together and gave Snow her first ‘solid’ food - something which hasn’t got any less entertaining third time around! Along side this Bella and I endeavoured to prepare for the coming week: tidying where we could and tackling the weekly washing mountain. The challenge, I think we are finding, is forging the time to just ‘be‘ together: the time is so small and so precious we are a frenzy of activity and chores and pressured conversations. We will get it I’m sure but at the moment it’s tough.

It is for certain the hardest part of the job and in truth it’s a reality that so many of us face. I entered the profession thinking I could largely avoid this hardship - which was maybe a tad naive or more likely my omnipresent positive outlook coming home to roost. During our summer in Mallorca, my colleagues would assume I was commuting and express surprise and offer congratulations when I said we’d all moved together, many were jealous that we’d done it that way as it wasn’t possible in their case. Most of these colleagues were now at their home base with their family having done their time commuting. It is, it seems, the norm in the early days of your airline pilot career.

So that’s the hard part. Forgive me, for the somber tone of this opening, it is just the part that is effecting me most at present. Leaving home is the lull of what will be another rollercoaster week no doubt. As I tap out these words the First Officer on this 737 has just selected take off thrust and we are barrelling down Birmingham’s runway, a runway that I first saw when transiting the overhead on my PPL test - which was quite possibly the first time I really started to believe I was good enough for the profession.

That has been an ongoing discovery that has peaked and troughed like all emotions but, as inexperienced as I am still, I am now fairly sure I am good at this job - which is a wonderful feeling and something I’m proud of and want to cling onto. No matter what level of experience I’m at or element of the job it is, I want to remain ‘good’ at it because it’s a buzz and a privilege for sure.

My mind nudges me on a daily basis whilst I’m operating, be it in flight, on the ground doing a walk around, chatting to maintenance or helping someone in the terminal - whenever I am in uniform I get a tap on the shoulder from my internal passenger that says ‘Ha, Dyf can you believe you’re doing this’ In those moments I cast myself outside of my present back to the person who dreamed of doing this and say look, that’s you driving 70 tonnes of Airbus and people around an airport - it’s a great way to appreciate the moment.

Last week was filled with an abundance of moments that are becoming normal but were once fantasy. The week started with what was supposed to be a 4 sector day starting early in Vienna. I was scheduled as the safety pilot for a trip to Rome Ciampino (this is Rome’s second airport and far the nicer to fly to) and back, then directly to Dublin, scheduled to land back in Vienna at around 5pm. I was rubbing my hands at all those hours for the logbook from the relative comfort of the observers seat. Unfortunately, when the captain set 20-30% N1 on the engines to start our taxi the normal Newtonian laws that usually send us on our way seemed to have forgotten to turn up. Just a small advancement in the thrust levers connected to two 27,000lb engines is normally enough force to make a fairly full Airbus move in the opposite direction - but not today. It turned out that our fairly forceful brakes had stubbornly decided to ignore our command to let go of the wheels when we released the parking brake. Maintenance were called, we did the standard Airbus reset of off and on again, pumped the brakes a few times, wasted enough time and fuel to end up requiring a top up and when all was said and done and the brakes had been cajoled into playing ball we’d lost an hour and our flights to Dublin. I’d lost 5 hours for the logbook and €65 worth of flight pay. The Rome trip was great though, it has an interesting offset VOR approach to runway 33 which doesn’t really line you up with an airport let alone runway so it’s Auto pilot off, flight directors off and fly it like a Piper. The departure from the same runway takes you straight out over central Rome with great views of the Vatican.

Two dull standbys followed that, but I did discover on the second that I can call crew control and ask to be top of the list if they do need to call someone... fortunately for me I’m in the minority of people who actually want this and given the current situation it is a giant pool of FO’s on Standby so chances of getting the call are normally slim. It is honestly a version of torture for me: being away from home and not actually working... Stepping closer to the new goal. It was a great discovery because on my 3rd scheduled standby day I got called to go flying. We are required to live within 1 hour of the airport so they can call you 1 hour before a report time. On this day I was given 1hr 10 mins and told I was going to Gothenburg, all other details on my iPad. I wasted not a second in my blind excitement at being ‘activated’ - it was really a buzz. I jumped straight into an ice cold shower, dressed, grabbed my already packed flight bag and fled to the train station. I got there and discovered a 20 minute wait for the next train which would take 25mins and get me to the airport 1 minute late for our check in. Factoring in security and the walk to the gate I’d be at least 10 minutes late. No good. I called my first ever Uber and prepared for the flight in the back, hurriedly reading the weather, notams, flight plan and doing all our pre departure performance calculations. The whole crew had been called off standby so most likely another plane had decided it only fancied two of its scheduled 4 sectors and clamped its brakes around its wheels first thing in the morning. Swings and roundabouts. Despite the fluster we all felt and distinct lack of zen calm us pilots like to exude pre flight, it all went smoothly. I flew there and enjoyed my first landing on Swedish soil since I passed my IR test.

The next day was my 5th in my 5day block and finally home day! My alarm was set for 4am for an early flight to Barcelona (where I’d also not operated to before). At 0230 I was woken by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions, really it was like the sky was being remorselessly torn a new one. I lay there worrying about its health and the prospect of flying an aircraft through this war zone in a few hours. As they do, the storm passed but the opportunity for sleep had passed too and once again I was waking my senses with a cold shower and packing everything I needed for the flight and then immediately after the journey home. The Barcelona flight was enjoyable and punctuated with possibly my smoothest landing to date. We have software that reconstructs our flight from the data that’s captured and presented to us in the form of videos on our iPads for debriefing ourselves. It’s a great tool that’ll show you exactly where you fucked up and just how many G’s you subject your passengers to when landing... happily in this instance the Gload hardly registered the transition from flight to not flight.

When we returned to Vienna I walked out of arrivals and back into departures to dead head back to Palma Mallorca (dead heading was way more glamorous in Frank Abagnale‘s day). In Palma there was a delay to my flight to Birmingham meaning it was looking like a 2230 arrival in the UK (this was still the quickest way to get back home if you’re wondering why on earth this crazy dog legged route). Anyway the aircraft eventually arrived and I boarded last as per the dead head procedure. I always take either the first row, if I’ve got a quick connection to catch, or the over wing emergency exit seats if they’re free. You can normally bank on these seats being available as the airline charges most for them. They’re good for leg room but as I found out, you have to be careful in them...

It is mandatory for the crew to give those sitting in these rows an emergency brief in case of the need for evacuation, as they’ll be responsible for operating the door In this scenario. I had the window/door seat on this row and a nervous looking elderly lady had the aisle seat on the same row. After the emergency brief she gave me a look and said “oh at least I’m in safe hands”.

”Yes” I replied, “don’t worry, I know the drill” what a cool calm pilot I am. I got back to reading my book (The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe- because I can relate to it) and placed my bottle of water by my feet. I didn’t even look up as we started taxiing and made our way to the runway. I was vaguely aware we were lined up and about to take off as I heard the familiar call of “Cabin Crew seats for departure”, which is our drill when lining up, but was engrossed in tales of space flight so payed little attention. As per the drill, the flight crew then selected take off thrust, Newtons laws behaved themselves this time and we shot off down the runway, at the same time my bottle of water shot off under my seat and down the plane, I felt it go and immediately dived for it and blurted an involuntary short sharp “FUCK” as, with my head between my legs, I could see it 4 rows back. Darn it. I sat back up straight as we continued to accelerate down the runway, I looked sheepishly to my left and immediately realised I’d nearly killed an old lady of fright. I’d essentially taken the brace position and sworn at the same time as most people grip their seats in hope that all goes well. She was white and speechless, mouth wide open and eyes wider staring at me in sheer panic. Her appearance was troubling and she stammered “are we ok?”

“yeh“ I shrugged, “I just lost my bloody water”. Shear relief and realisation of what had happened hit us both at the same time and in equal measure the ensuing climb out over Palma bay was soundtracked by mine and an old ladies laughter.

We eventually landed at 2230, by 2315 I was filling up the car with a 2 hour drive home ahead. Nearly 22 hours awake now had me delirious and anxious to get home, a homeless fella illuminated by the neon forecourt started singing “Come fly with me“ at me and followed it up with (in a thick Manc accent) “Hey where you been man?” I responded with (In my best Jonny Cash accent) “I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been everywhere. Crossed the desert‘s bare, man.”

Again, I laughed with a stranger, he told me he was homeless but going home to see his family for the first time in months, I felt a connection, bought him a drink and wished him well on his journey, I pulled out of the forecourt to the sound of him shouting “drive carefully lad”. I did and 2 hours later, after a full day of awakeness and adventure I was home and it was heaven.

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