Recently, I was THAT GUY …

Have you ever slept in for work? In aviation that takes on a special meaning, given the way the tasks of dozens of people and departments revolve around the scheduled departure time of a flight.

In my previous company we were collected for work by crew transport – a blue Volvo Station Wagon. The car would come and collect each crew member in turn until both (or all four) crew were in the car, then head for the airport. Every now and then you’d be in the car, waiting outside someone’s villa, wondering where the guy was. A few phone calls later and you’d be on the way to the airport on your own while “that guy” got up, dressed and headed to the airport under his/her own steam. Meanwhile at briefing, at the aircraft – you’d manage the departure – doing the job of two pilots – while you waited for your collegue to turn up.

Recently, for the first time in my career, I was That Guy.

I was due to operate Melbourne to Johannesburg on a Saturday. As is my custom, I e-mailed the crew (including Mark the Captain I was to be training) on the previous Wednesday evening, introducing myself, discussing the flight and the training that was to take place, laying out a suggested rest pattern for the flight. I mentioned the departure time of 22:00 (10 pm) and said I would not be staying in the crew hotel the night before, but driving up from Geelong for the flight. I received two replies and one phone call as the result of the e-mail, none of them raising the point that I had written 22:00 whereas the actual departure time was 10am.

The stage was set. Roll on the First Act.

So I’m in bed Saturday morning at 8:30am, grumpy at the kids because their noise downstairs had woken me when I was trying to sleep in, when the phone rang.

Sleepy Me : “Hello?”

Strange Female Voice : “Hi this is Mark’s girlfriend.”

Confused Me : “Ok.”

Mark’s Girlfriend : “I have his mobile phone.”

Confused and increasingly dis-interested Me : “Ok.”

Mark’s Girlfriend, trying harder : Can I give it to you, to give to Mark?”

Increasingly confused Me : “Sure. Are you in Geelong?”

Mark’s Girlfriend, becoming confused : “Geelong? No, I’m near the airport.”

Seriously confused Me : “Well, I’m in Geelong. How can I get his phone?”

Mark’s Girlfriend : “Mark is at the plane – why are you in Geelong?”

Still slow on the uptake Me : “Why is Mark at the plane? The flight is not until tonight.”

Slightly alarmed Mark’s Girlfriend : “No, it’s a 10am departure this morning.”

Not yet alarmed, but mildly concerned Me : “No, it’s 10pm tonight.”

Annoyingly sure of herself Mark’s Girlfriend : “No it’s 10am. I just dropped Mark off, and the crew were there.”

Me : ” … ”

Me : ” … ”

Me : ” … ”

Mark’s wondering Girlfriend : “Hello? Are you there?”

Me : “Hang on. I’m having a Moment.”

Me : (having collected myself) “I’ll call you back.”

I headed to the nearest computer and logged on the company web site. Eventually … 10am departure. “Oh Shit.” I said. My wife Meg called over – what’s wrong. “Departure is in ninety minutes” I said. Un-said is that Geelong is a 70 minute drive from the airport, I’m in pyjamas, un-shaved, un-showered, unpacked, un-breakfasted, generally un-all round. “Oh Shit.” says Meg.

I headed for the shave/shower routine, while Meg rounded up the kids and doled out jobs. Then she threw clothes into a suitcase for me, dressed and headed down to iron a uniform. I raced through the morning routine, threw a few extras into the suitcase (including a jumper after a quick look at JNB weather) and headed downstairs. Fin had made Brekky and Coffee for me. Ruby had packed a sandwich. Lewis was headed for French tutoring that morning, and was getting ready to get himself home afterwards. I threw on my uniform, attached the pilot paraphernalia (wings, ID, name badge, pen, calculator, etc) and grabbed my flight jacket and headed for the car. From the first phone call at 8:30am, it was now 8:50. We were on the road by 8:55am. There was no time to drive myself – parking at the airport could cost me 30 minutes.

After dropping Lewis at tutoring, we hit the highway for Melbourne Airport.  I rang the FO and discussed Flight Plan, Weather, NOTAMS, Johannesburg and how the departure was progressing. To complicate matters, immigration was chaos and the entire crew was late getting to the aircraft. The GPS gave us an ETA of 9:58 (for the 10:00am pushback). I eventually got through on the phone to Crew Control who were bemused and of course unable to make any impact whatsoever on the chain of events that were to come.  But it gave them that feeling of being part of a team …

Pulling up at the Airport at 9:55 I got out, kissed my wife and she said “Are you going to wear that jacket?” I looked down and found I was wearing my Tamair pilot bomber-jacket from 1995. Hm. Jacket off and I went in.

Check in was quick – funny how quick it is when there’s no-one else there and the staff are waiting for you-and-only-you – and the ground staff escorted me to the aircraft. I only began to slow down as I entered the aerobridge and had to work my way past 100+ passengers waiting to board. So much for a surreptitious arrival …

It was 10:00 am and we were obviously not going on time – I hoped that wasn’t because of me. I arrived at the flight deck and Mark (Captain under training) and Stuart and Wayne (FO’s) had things well in hand. We were still waiting for a final weight from load control so we could determine a fuel load. We were going to be delayed 20 minutes for connecting passengers. I sat down, and caught up.

After that, the departure became the normal routine.

Because of connections, the passengers weren’t all on board until 10:25. We received a final weight at 10:15 and tried to advise the refueller, to find that he’d decided he had better things to do than wait for a fuel figure from the pilots, disconnected his truck and driven off (we were still 5 tons short). We eventually got him back at about 10:40 to finish us off. ATC delayed our push 10 minutes because of Ramp congestion. When we finally did get push clearance, ATC could not contact the Tug Driver – and so cancelled our push/start clearance. For some reason known only to themselves, Melbourne Airport is the only airport IN THE WORLD I’ve ever encountered where ATC insist on talking separately to the tug as well as the pilots. When they were unable to contact the tug quickly enough, ATC cancelled our Push/Start. It would have been nice if ATC’d told us as well …

As I said, things settled quickly into a normal departure. Not. We pushed an hour late.

Once we were on our way, I apologised to the crew and thanked them for their efforts to get things going without me. Once in JNB I realised that I was woefully under packed with no warm clothes and an overnight low of 1 degree. I wished I’d kept the Tamair jacket actually, it would have fitted in nicely in JNB society, although may have gotten me mugged. I bought a round of drinks or two in JNB and a box of chocolates for my wife and Mark’s girlfriend. About halfway through the trip I realised I had only the pair of shoes I was wearing (nothing extra packed) and they didn’t match. They were close enough that no-one else noticed (or so I keep telling myself) but I kept looking down at them, thinking …

So I have been “That Guy” finally. Congruent with my past experiences, the wheels didn’t fall of the trolley as a result, despite some wobbly-ness. As usual the rest of the team pulled together to get the job done. One of the many benefits of working as part of a crew as opposed to an individual in an office – where they probably wouldn’t notice me being late for work!