2011 Annual Line Check

Every 12 months, all Cathay Pacific pilots undergo an evaluation, known as the annual line check. This isn’t some run of the mill check that takes just a few minutes, but more like a three or four flight evaluation that is exhaustive and rigorous. Most of us study for weeks before hand because it is so stressful. The sad part of this story is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Most air carriers, especially in North America, and more specifically the U.S., it’s isn’t that big of deal. However, at Cathay, it is made into a big deal, mostly because of the culture that runs through its veins. It is what it is. I deal with it and move on.

This year’s check had a very auspicious start.

I was to fly from Hong Kong to Taipei and back, and then to Shanghai and back. Since I’m based in New York, I had to position from JFK to HKG and this was done on one of our 777-300ER aircraft. Positioning, or PX-ing as it’s known at Cathay, is always done in business class or better, which makes the 15 hour flight much more tolerable. This day was no exception and when I boarded early, I walked up to the cockpit to say hello to the captain. After taking my seat, I planned to relax and eat, watch a movie, and then dig further in my studies to look over route details for my line check flights.

About four hours into the flight, after the meal service was finished, my movie was over, and most people were asleep in the darkened cabin, I was studying under the dim light so as not to disturb those around me. Our route map showed us to be literally on top of the world, near the North Pole, with a direct line southward to Hong Kong over nine hours ahead of us.

Then it happened. I felt it, as it was unmistakable. We started banking to the left. What was this? I know that most all routings over the pole are direct, with very few track changes. We continued banking to the left and I realized we were certainly turning. Turning around. A quick glance at my moving map display showed us heading south, back toward the U.S. and southern Canada.

As I predicted, the captain soon came on the PA with those agonizing words describing a technical problem. He described the fact that the aircraft no longer had any potable water on board; no flushing of toilets, no washing of hands, no making of coffee, etc. The flight crew had discussed with Hong Kong the possibility of continuing on, but it was decided that the situation would become unsanitary. Therefore, we headed back South, to our divert destination of Toronto.

As an aside, the Boeing 777-300ER is a magnificent machine and highly fuel efficient. Talking with the captain later, I found out that the flight crew sped up to mach .88 (.88 of the speed of sound, with 1.0 being the sound barrier.) This is fast for airliner speeds and was done for two reasons: to get to Toronto as fast as possible, and to help burn more fuel. Why? Because in the end, fuel still had to be dumped en route back to Toronto to get below max landing weight. A testament to the efficiency of the 777, even at mach .88, fuel dumping had to occur!

Once in the terminal in Toronto, it was somewhat of a controlled chaos with the hour of midnight fast approaching. Luckily for me, there was a regularly scheduled Cathay flight leaving from Toronto for Hong Kong at one a.m. and I was to be on it! When the other passengers and crew had to go to a hotel, I got one of the last open seats on the departing flight. This was of the Lord because it allowed me to get to Hong Kong in time to keep me on my line check schedule. The last thing I wanted to do was arrive late into Hong Kong and get a new flight for my line check, one that I was not prepped or ready for.

the doomed 777
In the end, my line check to Taipei and Shanghai went well with Captain John Graham as my check airman. He is a great guy who was able to put me at ease. When we first met in dispatch, he told me this was not going to be some inquisition where he asks me a bunch of questions. He wanted this to be a training/learning event for me and that I could ask anything I wanted. He quipped that if he didn’t know the answer, well, then I didn’t need to know it because he’d been at Cathay for 25 years, and if he didn’t know it, I obviously didn’t need to know it either!

And the potable water problem with the 777? A valve had broken a few hours into the flight and it drained all the water down into the belly of the plane. At subzero temperatures, it froze into a solid block of ice so that upon arrival in Toronto, it couldn’t be removed (it was below freezing at the gate as well). The only option was to fix the valve, fill the tank, and carry the 700 kilograms of ice in the belly all the way to Hong Kong (expensive!) where it would melt after a few hours of being on the ground in the tropics. Amazing.

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