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  • Dyfrig Gibbs

Turning corners

I last wrote about winning and losing and the ebb and flow of those states. Interestingly, posting it seemed to precipitate a transition into the latter.

A somber low energy day saw me leave the fam and position back to Vienna in good time for a late check in flight to Tenerife. Tenerife is good for hours and… well, that’s about it. No, reading too. I studied a bit for my sim that was due the week after (week just gone as I write). However… it was late in the day and 10 hours of flying whilst not quite feeling 100% on top notch form was draining. That night I slept 9-10 hours. Rare - a unicorn even. Day two, I felt better, but was acutely aware I wasn’t at my fittest; definitely fighting something. I chose not to exercise and relax a bit before my Athens flight in the evening. Mid morning I grabbed a coffee with my flat mate, Brad. Remember I mentioned my slightly obsessive routine of checking what time I’m on duty and planning the journey and back up options? Yeah, well this time I just sat there in the sun on the banks of the Donau canal, a branch off the Danube that flows through the centre of The city, chewed on a sour dough croissant and idly worked out that I needed to catch the 1615 train to the airport. I did so while sipping coffee and musing with Bradders when or if we’d ever hear about our base transfer request.

Later, on the train at 1625, I got a call from Crew control asking where I was.

“Oh on the train” I replied nonchalantly

“Ahhh, just the Captain is wondering where you are”

“Oh really” I replied, “that’s odd, check in isn’t for another 55minutes”

“No” came the terse reply, “it was 5 minutes ago”

There is a saying, from back home in west Wales - used when you observe someone who looks to be in a state of shock, fear or sheer panic - and I could of used an old friend next to me in that moment to say, upon looking at my aghast face, “Shit myself have you?” It would’ve summed up exactly how I felt and immediately brought me back onto earth.

I had metaphorically crapped my pants. I put the phone down. This is like one of those ‘naked in school’ dreams. In an instant my version of reality was shattered and I was exposed as a sham! My heart raced and face flushed, how on earth did I manage this cock up?! I’d fucked it good and proper! Late for check in… surely proper pilots don’t do that!

The lady on the phone didn’t hang about on the phone to listen to my protests and claims that everyone else was wrong. She said she had an idea and would ring back in minutes. Good to her word, she did. Not long prior to this, she’d called another crew off standby to go to Gothenburg; fortunately the First Officer was already at the airport so she swapped him onto my flight and I took the Gothenburg. She promised me that if the Athens flight left on time I wouldn’t have a ‘Late’ assigned to my name. It did leave late but due to a ‘Slot’ (a restriction by Air Traffic Control) so I think… I think, I don’t have a late against my name.

The Gothenburg flight was otherwise uneventful, I just had to be conscious of my state of mind as I was definitely a bit rattled by having monumentally cocked up. My own words, that I’d literally just written, rang loudly in my ear… forget about it, Gibbs, get on with the job at hand.

The following day I was - for once - relieved to be on Standby with the opportunity to actually rest and get over whatever it was that was draining my energy. The chances of getting called off standby are fairly slim these days, but not wanting to miss the opportunity to fly if there was a chance (and probably also in a vain attempt to regain some Kudos with Crew Control), I rung up ops to put myself as ‘First call’: if something happens and they need a crew member I’m theoretically the first they’ll turn to.

It was a sticky afternoon in central Vienna. The apartment I share, with two good friends and colleagues, is in the second district of the city. It’s at the western end of Praterstraße in the area of Nestroyplatz, (named after Johann Nestroy, the famous Austrian singer, actor and playwrite) not far from the popular areas of Schwedenplatz and Stefanplatz, where the cathedral is. We’re just on the other side of the Donau Canal where it’s a little quieter and the buildings are taller. It’s an old part of the city though so the side streets are not wide. At this time of year, as for so much of Northen Europe, the heat and humidity causes a great deal of convection. In late evening the air in the narrow streets is still and thick with moisture. A brief walk to the Aldi around the corner cannot be accomplished without breaking a sweat. Ive become accustomed to the pattern: clear hot mornings leading to hazy muggy evenings, large parcels of moist air rising rapidly; unfettered by warm air aloft or high pressure they rise and build towers thousands of feet high. On the ground the rush of rising and cooling air above finally brings new air to the streets. From my first floor room I can hear it hurrying past outside; I feel the air sucked from my open window as the pressure drops on the other side of the glass. The evening storms are imminent. I’m on Standby but by 8pm there is almost no chance of being called. The last of our scheduled flights left 30 minutes ago.

I check a weather app on my phone and see that sure enough the thunderstorm is a real monster… red returns covering Vienna airport and Bratislava, too - always our first alternate. A check of Flightradar24 reveals that, Sam my other flat mate has just landed in Linz instead of Vienna… he’s the first of us to have to divert so it’s really interesting and we’re all whatsapping each other constantly - Brad is at the airport and trying to get back home to Stansted on the late departure. By midnight the storm has slowly moved to the east, Brad’s flight has got out and is heading to London, Sam has finally negotiated some fuel off Linz airport and is on his way back to a calmer Vienna. It’s been entertaining watching on Flightradar24 and my weather app. I relax and start drifting off to sleep.

00:21am, 9 minutes before my standby duty was due to end, my phone rings. Crew control want me at the airport… something about a rescue flight for one of the group airlines. Makes sense - i’ve watched the disruption. Time only to throw uniform on, grab flight bag and run to the station to catch the very last train to the airport at 00:45. At 01:19 I arrived at the station and watched the train pull bag out for the last time that night. It was weird being at the airport at such a late hour and I still didn’t know exactly why, crewing had said the details would follow. I wandered through a deserted security control and started to wonder if this was one big hoax… a punishment for my balls up the day before. Sam had coincidentally just landed and was walking the other way through the airport… without a train to rush for he came and met me to divulge the details of his diversion. Crew control rang as we bumped fists. Eagerly I answered, keen to know what this exciting midnight rescue mission was… flight cancelled they said… ‘sorry, we don’t need you now’. Fuckin fuckity fuck balls! I was now faced with an hour long queue for an expensive taxi back to central Vienna. Joy.

Day 5 of 5. Zadar in the evening with the same captain I flew with to Gothenburg. This was most definitely the highlight of the week. My energy levels seemed to be returning to normal after another fruitless standby day the day before. Zadar was new to me and the captain but he let me fly there as he’d taken the Gothenburg a few days prior. I love to fly first for two reasons: you get a new approach into an unfamiliar airspace and different runway - it’s a better challenge than the familiar structure of homebase arrivals;

Secondly, it means I’ll be Monitoring for the return leg so it’s my job to do the walk around in the new country. Now, you may think this silly, but it always feels more special if I get my feet on the ground in the country I’ve just landed in. I love liaising with the dispatcher, handling agents and the fuel truck guy. I drag it out if I can, savouring the opportunity to get the tiniest taste of this new land. To me the whole day is more worthy if I can do this small thing and bump fists with a smiling local.

The flight itself was a blast. 45 minutes in total, a slight tailwind gave us a cruise phase of exactly 2 minutes. Zadar is a small airfield with two runways. 31/13 is average length with an ILS on 13. 04/22 is pretty short with a visual and an RNP approach. There is no ATIS. The wind received at departure seemed conducive to an ILS on 13. I set it all up on the climb out. Briefed it during our brief cruise. Then confirmed it when the approach controller told us to expect ILS 13. He then duly handed us over to Zadar tower who told us it was 04 for landing… visual or RNP - our choice. At 15000’ this change in plan means you’ve gotta work fast and effectively together whilst re-adjusting your descent plan… always trying to get the Continuous Descent Approach with as much engine at idle time as possible. A quick re-brief and we were on base for finals. I disconnected the AP and smiled that now, after the fast and frenetic last 45 minutes, it was finally calm: all the work was done and the space was clear for me to tune in to the aircraft. The dusk air was still: a joy to fly in. At minima I called for the flight directors off and tuned into the touchdown markers. Short runways mean extra effort has to made to hit them… softly is not a priority in these cases. I hit them softly though and immediately deployed max reverse. We taxied to stand in a muddle of light aircraft biz jets and company craft. The sun set as I walked around our ship breathing it in and bumping fists with locals.

By the time we arrived back in Vienna it was 22:45 so no chance of getting home to Bristol that night. Fortunately there was a really early departure for Alicante that connected with an EZY flight to Bristol. Expected landing time 15:55 BST. Not how I’d want to spend most of my first day off, but at least I’d be home in time for Bella and the kids to pick me up and us to have dinner together. That was the plan anyway.

This of all weeks, I just needed to get home and give my loves lots of cuddles… I needed it and they did too: it had felt like a long week for one reason and another.

At 0330 Vienna time I got up to get to the airport for the first part of my mission. By 0600 we were on our way. I slept.

Jumpseating around Europe to get home is an interesting game. You have to know how airports work, where the security checks will be, where the staff security will be… how you can quickly transition from arrivals to departures. Knowing all this at each airport makes the whole process smoother. Jumpseating is a totally legitimate procedure… but just like as in the book/film, Catch me if you can, you have to look like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going otherwise all the human elements in the chain start taking more of your time than you have.

Fortunately I had about 4 hours between flights in Alicante because from the word go I encountered obstacles. Blocked pathways due to COVID layouts, hidden crew security with officious guards who seemed unfamiliar with my very familiar crew ID. Finally I got to where I needed to be for my EZY flight. I’d checked in already so I grabbed coffee, croissant and bought some trinkets for the kids and Bella. 45mins before the 1420 departure, I made my way to the gate and waited patiently for everyone to board - I always wait to board last as I know that the Cabin Crew will be pleased to see a pilot in uniform to put by the emergency exits if they’re free. This way I get leg room without making a fuss. Finally my turn to board, I present my passport and boarding pass to the team of gate staff, that when I look back now resembled a clutch of clucking hens.

“Passenger Locator form please”

“I don’t have one, I’m flight crew, I’m exempt”

Now, the astute and learned amongst you will know that, officially, if you’re travelling in the cabin as flight crew you still have to fill out a Passenger locator form for the government. Quite how ridiculous this is, is hard to fathom and explain - as are 99.99% of all COVID restrictions and protocol - but I’ll try. The pax locator form aims to identify those that travelled together on a flight so they can isolate if there was a case… but, I’m exempt and it asks this in the form. Exempt from the testing and from the isolation rules. It’s wasted on me. Also, no one checks flight crew for it on arrival in the uk.

I’ve been jumpseating around Europe all summer on crazy missions to get home, and back to work twice every week. Never done one PLF. This lady wanted it NOW. I reiterated my exemption, the situation and if needs be, my willingness to fill it out there and then. She rung her boss, her bosses boss and immigration - christ at one stage I thought she’d say she needed to ring Boris himself before she could make a sensible decision of her own. The dispatcher waited eying me impatiently. The crew on board would be wondering now if boarding was complete. She got off the phone… they all said no, he has to have it done 48hrs ago. I explained I could fill the form before the plane moved if they’d just let me on… I needed to get home to my family. “No” she said and shut the gate.

No more arguing was going to change her mind. I know the deal… when they close the gate it’s done. A swirling mix of anger, frustration, disbelief and sadness hit me like a train and I sloped off to a quiet corner to hide my physical and emotional reaction.

Telling Bella I’d not be on that flight to be picked up was tough… the kids tougher. A low point in this chapter.

I made a plan… I could catch a Stansted flight at 1730 and catch the last train back to a town 4 miles from home. It’d cost £65 and get me to the station at midnight. I’d walk the 4 miles. Just as I payed for the train on Trainline, I heard the last call for a company flight to Glasgow. An alarm rang in my head… EZY fly Glasgow - Bristol twice a day! I checked the app. Sure enough a 4 hour wait in Glasgow would connect to a Bristol flight and get me to the airport at 2300. As I ran for the gate I got a refund on the train and booked the easyJet flight with my friends discount. In an instant I saved £30 and would be home an hour earlier!

My company gate staff let me on with a smile. The rest of the mission home went as (re)planned and it even allowed me to catch up with one of my best friends from the flight training journey in Glasgow. At midnight - UK time - 22.5 hours after getting up to go home, I slumped into my own bed next to my very own sleeping beauty.

An exhausting week complete, more hours, more experience, good lessons learnt.

Next week the 6 monthly SIM.

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