The chronometer now shows 0:51 minutes since we sat on the end of runway 28, advanced the thrust levers of our two CFM56 engines to around 50%, waited for them to stabilise and eventually set take off thrust for Vienna. We’re relatively heavy today, around 66 tonnes (max landing weight for an A320) with 160 passengers on board. At around 145 knots the captain lifted the nose of Victor Alpha (We often refer to aircraft by the last two letters of their registration, today we’re flying EI-CVA, one of the older A320’s in our fleet) and our journey began, only 2 hours 21 minutes to go! As I write this now we are sitting at 37,000 feet, making good progress as we cross overhead Rotterdam, Amsterdam on the left hand side, our speed is now 488 knots groundspeed, helped nicely by a 57 knot tailwind, looks like we’ll make it to Vienna early today, only 584 nautical miles to go!
The chime rings and Matt, our cabin senior asks if we’re okay, our procedure is for the cabin crew to check on us around every 20 minutes or so, there’s no kettle in the flight deck so we are pretty reliant on our colleagues in the cabin to keep us fed and watered on what can sometimes be very long days in the sky. Matt brings two cups of Java coffee and some salads to keep us going, that should suffice for now, I ask how are passengers are doing – it’s midterm at home so we have lots of kids on board today – looks like we’ll have a few flight deck visits when we land!
Perhaps one of my favourite parts of this job is being able to see and share other peoples enthusiasm for what we do – it’s very easy to forget that most people never see inside an airliner cockpit and only take one or two trips a year, I thus always try to accommodate passengers who want to take a look inside our office.
My brief conversation with Matt is cut short by air traffic control asking me to contact Maastricht control on frequency 133.490. I read the clearance back followed by our callsign so they know I’ve fully understood their instructions – our callsign today is Shamrock 66 Victor. I check in with Maastricht who simply tell me that we are ‘radar identified’, that’s it, no more instructions for us for now, we settle back and continue on our route, towards a waypoint called TESGA, around 20 nautical miles north of Frankfurt. I take this as an opportunity to cross check a few of our systems and take a note of our fuel, we still have 4720 kilos on board, we left Dublin with 6800 kilos, plenty of fuel for Vienna, looks like we’ll be landing with around 2500 kg today. A short stint with Maastricht control today as after only a few minutes they hand us over to Rhein radar, they then clear us to point ABUDO in the Czech Republic – not too far from Vienna, a handy shortcut, only 475 miles to go.
As we approach an hour to go I take our the next flight plan for flight 665 and begin to make some calculations to see how much fuel we want to take home with us. The plan says we need 10167 kilos, there’s a few changes to our inbound routing to Dublin today so we add on a few hundred kilos for that, along with a few hundred for some potential weather avoidance around Vienna. The A320 burns around 2.4 tonnes per hour, we need to make sure we have enough for our route back to Dublin and for any potential diversions that could occur, looks like the flight home is going to be a bit longer today, around 2 hours 40, that’s mainly due to the fact that the tailwind we have now will be a headwind on the way home, slowing us down. The captain hands me control briefly as he makes a short announcement to our passengers telling them the weather for Vienna which we just received via our cockpit printer, it’s slightly less summery there today, a little stormy to the west, cloudy with a temperature of only 11 degrees, moderate winds and marginal visibility should make for an interesting approach onto runway 34.
Only 347 miles left now, the captain begins to programme the MCDU (aircraft flight management computer) ready for our arrival into Vienna, he’ll update it again later with any weather and route changes which might occur in the next 45 minutes. Matt calls in again and we tell him all is fine, we’re still working on our last cup of coffee, we agree that he doesn’t need to call in again and that we’ll see him and the rest of the crew on the ground in Vienna. I print out some forecasts for Dublin and a few alternate airports (should we need to divert later on) and take a look at the weather, Shannon is our primary alternate today, the weather forecast seems fine so I’m happy – once we land in Vienna it will be my leg home to Dublin. We often share the flying between captain and first officer, today we only have a short day and two flights but we often fly four legs per day, two of which we actually fly the aeroplane and two of which we do all the support work such as radios and paperwork (which believe it or not, is a pretty busy role!). The captain asked me in Dublin which leg I’d prefer to take, I opted for the return trip today.
One great part of our job is the variety, Europe is a pretty diverse place, this week alone I’ve been to Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Berlin, Paris and Frankfurt, although I’ve been lucky enough to fly to all of these places before, there can often be gaps of several months between visits, it’s always nice to visit familiar airports, although no trip is ever exactly the same twice.
With only 250 miles to go the annunciation ‘ILS 34’ pops up at the top of my navigation display showing me the aircraft computers are starting to get ready for our approach. I recheck the weather at our destination, the ‘SHRA’ weather code on the cockpit printout tells me there’s a shower passing through, whilst there’s a good chance this will have passed through in the next 30 minutes it’s worth considering the impact this could have on us. I check the landing capability for a potential wet runway, luckily runway 34 is very long, the wet weather isn’t likely to impact upon us today.
Back in flight school when studying for my exams It was often hard to fully envisage the practical application of the very heavily theory-based subjects you have to master to become an airline pilot – we would spend countless hours studying weight and balance (essentially a very glorified set of see-saw calculations!) aircraft performance (will the aeroplane be able to take off and stop in differing weather conditions and weights) meteorology, flight planning- to name but a few! Now all of this theory is part of daily life for me, all now much easier to get your head around when it has a real impact on the operation rather than just staring at arbitrary figures in a textbook!
The captain now begins his arrival briefing, a standard procedure in all airline operations where the ‘flying pilot’ (often referred to as PF) briefs the ‘monitoring pilot’ (PM) on how he intends to fly the approach and landing, discussing any potential threats so they they are mitigated along the way – this allows both pilots to be fully aware of what is expected to crop up in the very high workload environment that is about to begin. We begin by reviewing the weather which I recently printed out via our ACARS system, we switch the system into ‘auto update’ which will automatically print out the weather reports for us every time Vienna issues a new one (a good idea when the weather is a changeable as today). We review any of the published NOTAMS (Notices to airmen, these are issued by all aerodromes and flight information regions and are reviewed by commercial pilots prior to every flight – luckily theres nothing of great operational impact today). We then begin studying the charts on our electronic tablets which are fixed onto our side windows for ease of reference when flying – we review the STAR (standard arrival procedure – this takes us from our airways routing to the beginning of the final approach onto the runway) and the ILS (instrument landing system) onto runway 34. We chat about the taxi routing on the ground and then discuss the threats, we agree that today our main threat is the changing weather, we opt to use the weather radar to give us increased awareness of where the storm clouds are – we’ll avoid these for passenger comfort! We discuss the fact that we have to cross a small ridge on approach (terrain clearance is always a very big factor, pilots don’t like flying jets at several hundred miles per hour in thick cloud close to mountains and hills!) and that the airspace could be potentially busy, I have no questions so our briefing is complete. I take control of the aircraft and maintain a listening watch on the radio as the captain picks up the cabin address phone and lets our passengers know that we will be landing shortly.
ATC calls us with our initial descent instructions, we wind the autopilot selected altitude down and begin our initial descent into Vienna, luckily it isn’t too busy today and we quickly receive a shortcut, cutting around 40 miles off our total journey. The captain increases the rate of descent as we now need to lose the same amount of height in a shorter time.
Passing ten thousand feet in the descent acts as a little trigger for us, we send a message to the cabin crew by flicking the seatbelt sign switch twice, this sends a triple chime noise into the cabin which lets them know they have about ten minutes until landing to secure the cabin for arrival. The captain selects the landing lights on as we are now in what we call the TMA (Terminal manoeuvring area) and we compete the approach checklist. Air traffic now begin asking us to fly headings, basically a direction denoted by a number based on degrees in a circle, 000 is North, 090 is East 180 is south and so on. We pass through 5000 feet and establish ourselves on the extended centreline for runway 34, we capture the glide slope and begin our descent towards the runway, as we break through the bottom of the cloud the runway ahead and the city in the background come into view. The captain disconnects the autopilot and gently guides the airbus down to a soft touchdown, brings up the reverse thrust and we slow down to a fast taxi as we exit on one of the rapid exit taxiways from the runway.
The Airbus A320 is an interesting aeroplane to fly, it relies on a very complex set of computers to move its flight control surfaces (it’s all electronically controlled through inputs through the pilots joystick). The aeroplane takes a bit of getting used to, especially when most of your flying experience is on more conventional types of aircraft – once you get that hang of it however, its an absolute pleasure to fly and very satisfying to land, even if sometimes it can feel like it has a mind of its own!
Vienna is extremely quiet today and a few minutes later and the marshaller is crossing his batons in front of us and we set the parking brake, shut down our engines and complete our parking checklist as the steps are brought up to the aircraft and our doors are opened. Now things get very busy as we begin refuelling, disembarking our passengers and setting the aircraft up for the return leg. In only 40 minutes we have to be ready to go again to keep our schedule, then its time to do it all over again!