Saturday 25 May 2013 00:57 UTC
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I'd been with a bizjet operator for about a year as first officer. They were expanding very quickly and I'd been told that I could expect a command upgrade sooner rather than later so was actively accruing as much experience as I possibly could, with only 350 hours jet time I needed it. Fortunately for me two of the senior pilots, the fleet manager and a training captain (let's call him Vic), had taken me on as their pet project so I was getting lots of help.
The Company had started operating in Europe with some fairly old aircraft including the type I flew, the Citation S2. They were high houred, tired looking and when the newer Bravos started to arrive slated for return to the US, refurbishment and sale. I'd never flown transatlantic so fervently hoped to get at least one of these trips and one morning the phone call came. Vic and I were off to San Antonio, Texas via Lisbon, Prestwick, Rekjavik, Sonderstomfjord, Toronto. Yes, I know it's quicker in a straight line but the S2 just didn't have the legs so we were going the northern route.
In the week or so that led up to the trip we were in constant contact with each other and Ops. This was the second S2 to be returned this way and the Company assured us they had it all in hand. The aircraft had been in the hangar for a thorough going over with (at Vic's insistence) particular attention to the radios, the HF hadn't worked on his first trip. We airlined in to Lisbon two days before our planned departure to give us time to double check everything but right up to an hour or so before departure there were still two things left on our 'to do' list, HF radio and maps/charts. The former was being held up for the want of a part, the latter were being prepared by Ops in the form of a trip kit. Vic and I had a last minute query over our visas to deal with and needed to visit the US embassy so our fleet manager offered to see that these two last things were ticked off. We arrived back at the airport to find the aircraft fuelled, our bags on board and our checklist marked up so off we went.
The first leg was a bit of a mess to be honest. French ATC were acting up (Mais non!) and as PNF I had my work cut out finding a route we liked while trying to fend off their suggestions that we go via Italy. The cockpit was a small one and those airways charts fold out a long way, Vic said it reminded him of his missus shopping for wallpaper. We eventually reached a compromise that included us landing with at least some fuel in the tanks and set down Prestwick a little later than planned. The fuel truck was waiting and the handler had our weather and NOTAMs. While poring over the latter we realised we'd not had a chance to test the HF so gave Stockholm a call. Nothing. Shanwick? Nothing. Hmmmm. A phone call to our fleet manager and we were assured it had worked when he tried it that morning so we were confused. Luckily an avionics engineer was nearby and within ten minutes of arriving at the aircraft found that the antenna wasn't connected. "Worked in Lisbon though, eh?" said Vic with a raised eyebrow. Radio fixed and the engineers palm crossed with silver from our slush fund we swopped seats and headed westward for an uneventful two legs. Arriving exhausted in Sonderstrom we saw the aircraft hangared before heading off for bed.
The next morning gave us the chance to see the landscape properly, it was all white. And cold. And windy. And cold. Did I mention the cold? As I'd flown in the previous night it was Vic's turn again to be PF with me as PNF. As quickly as we could we got airborne, the weather forecast showed heavy snow showers heading toward Toronto and we wanted to beat them to it. Strong headwinds slowed us down though (we were cruising at max range speed which didn't help) and each weather update from the Volmet looked worse. We checked our fuel and seeing that our reserves were good increased speed, it was going to be close though. We started our descent and at about FL280 all hell suddenly broke loose as we hit unforecast clear air turbulence or CAT. Vic immediately reduced speed as I lowered my seat and fastened my harness as tight as it would go but even so I came close to hitting my head on the ceiling as we were bucked, rolled and bounced around. The autopilot had surrendered almost immediately and Vic was wrestling to keep us on an even keel but his inputs had little effect, it really felt like we were just along for the ride. After a long, long five minutes things calmed down and we were able to take stock. We were unhurt, the aircraft indications all seemed normal but the cabin was a mess with the contents of the rear baggage area (engine covers, charts, manuals, etc) thrown forward and strewn about the place. The two sliding doors at the rear which separated the cabin from the toilet and baggage area were hanging out of their runners, an indication of how much the airframe had flexed. The subsequent inspection during refurbishment also revealed some popped rivets in the tailplane.
Back to the matter in hand, another weather update and it was not good. The bad weather was closing in on Toronto which would soon be below minima and it was looking like Montreal, our alternate, was deteriorating too. "Right then" said Vic with a smile on his face. "As part of your upgrade assessment, if you were captain what would you do?". The answer was obvious, head for our alternate. "Correct" said Vic "Make it so". I already had the approach plates to hand and set about advising ATC of our intentions, getting the ATIS, setting up the approach, tuning, identifying, testing (I said it was an old aeroplane, didn't I?) and after five minutes of going like a one-armed bricklayer in Beirut told Vic I was ready to brief him for the approach. That accomplished we relaxed a little, all seemed fine. We were handed over to Radar who said "Runway 28 is available for a straight-in approach if you'd like it". Great, a straight in approach. Even better. Hang on a minute though, there isn't a runway 28. Errrrm..... We were getting very close now and there was no time to faff. I told Vic and immediately queried their offer. "Radar, we were expecting the ILS for 06 Left and ummmm, don't have plates for approaches to 28". "Ahhhhhh" came the reply "You want Montreal Mirabel. This is Montreal Dorval. Turn right heading XXX, climb to XXXX, contact .....". With no time to discuss it we accepted the handover to Mirabel, flew the approach and landed just as the snow arrived and reduced conditions to below the minima.
Mirabel, it seems, is almost exclusively a cargo airport and nobody was expecting us. The taxiways were covered in snow, we were not familiar with the place and our request to the Tower for taxi guidance was met with "Contact your handler". Our explanation that we didn't have one was ignored. It seemed everyone had packed up and gone home so we slowly taxied around until we found a spot that we were reasonably certain wasn't on a taxiway and shut down. With no APU the temperature in the aircraft immediately began to drop so Vic delegated. "You want to be a captain? Off you go". Captain Oates, maybe. "I am just going outside and may be some time" I muttered as I opened the door into snow driven by a 20kt wind. After traipsing around a place the size of Gatwick I eventually managed to attract a security guard's attention by banging on a window before sliding down the glass into a heap where the snow immediately began to cover my prone form as the camera faded to black.
Lessons to be learned are obvious. Trust nobody, check it yourself.
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