Life on Reserve: Maintenance Ferry Flights

I checked my schedule online Saturday evening before going to bed in my hotel room in Dulles, Virginia. I had been on temporary duty assignment in D.C. for over a month, and had gotten used to the typical flying in and out of Dulles International Airport. However, this assignment was a bit confusing and daunting. It consisted of multiple flights to airports not even served by Atlantic Southeast Airlines, along with flights, resulting in over 16 hours of duty. I did some extra checking and discovered that I had been assigned to conduct Type II Non-Revenue Ferry Operations for the entire day.

Not sure what to expect, I went to bed, ready to report at 7 AM the following morning. I dutied-in for my assignment half an hour early, and made the arduous journey across Dulles International Airport. If you ever find yourself trying to navigate from Concourse to Concourse in Dulles, find yourself a tour guide who speaks the native tongue. With the complex system of one-way robot trains and dune-buggy style shuttles, each with confusing part-time operation, it can take a good 45 minutes to transition the airport.

My deadhead took me to Charleston, West Virginia. Affectionately called “Charlie West” by most regional pilots, Charleston’s airport looks as if someone sliced off the top of a mountain and threw down a runway. I climbed aboard a Saab 340 operated by Colgan Air and settled down for the flight. A lot of pilots I’ve flown with dislike deadheads, but I’ve always taken pleasure in the idea of getting paid to take a nap. So I snoozed.

Once on the ground in Charleston, I met up with the Captain I was slated to fly with. He had arrived on a deadhead from Atlanta, Georgia. He called me while I was still in the terminal, and told me to meet him in the rental car garage. By this point I knew that we were going to make the 90 mile drive to Clarksburg, West Virginia. I was kind of dreading it. When I walked outside, I was surprised to see my captain in khaki pants and a short-sleeved polo shirt.

On the road, he explained a little of what we were going to be doing. My captain was essentially part of a maintenance-only flight crew who flight-tested airplanes that were returned from maintenance, and completed Type II Non-Revenue Ferry Flights, which typically included something non-standard, like a failed flap system or other issue that caused it to be removed from passenger service.  He explained his lofty goals for the day – we would flight-test a plane in Clarksburg, and if all went well, we’d ferry it to Dulles. Then, we’d pick up another plane, due for routine maintenance, and fly it to Macon, Georgia. Then he’d flight test a CRJ-700 airplane with a 700-qualified first officer (I fly the CRJ-200), and then we would all fly it back to Atlanta.

It was a lot to accomplish in one day – and we needed everything to go right. One mechanical issue, one weather delay, and it would devastate his plans. I was surprised that scheduling had put so much on the schedule – it was over 16 hours of duty for me, legal only because my last flight was a deadhead.  He explained to me one of the most fascinating and alluring aspects of his job as a maintenance pilot. He made his own schedule.

He made his own schedule! Any reserve pilot out there can appreciate the impressiveness of that. Any line pilot can appreciate that. His department was not a minion of Crew Scheduling in any way. As evident by the phone calls he made, they worked for him! I was shocked, impressed, and mostly jealous. Having been sitting on reserve for three months, I had gotten used to bending to Crew Scheduling’s every whim – which wasn’t all that bad, honestly. But to be the one making the decisions? To be the one choosing when, how, and even where? It was awesome. I felt like the coolest kid in the universe.

One of the other neat aspects of his job was that he had his own crew – there was another girl first officer who he typically worked with, and they were all dual-rated on both the CRJ-200 and the CRJ-700.

We made a pit stop and he told me I could change out of my uniform. I didn’t have any business casual clothes, but he told me that skinny jeans and t-shirt were just fine. I decided to keep my work shoes on and skip out of the Converse sneakers. But still! I was going to get to fly a 50-seat jet around in jeans and a tee. I was obviously pumped.

We took the airplane up for its return-to-service flight in Clarksburg. Everything went as planned. There was something incredibly exciting about hand-flying an empty airplane around. The Captain performed all sorts of in flight tests while I hand-flew at 7,000 feet MSL, operating in a IFR box, basically able to maneuver as I pleased. We then vectored back around for an ILS, and the flight test was over.

With everything signed off for a legal return-to-service, we departed for KIAD. Upon landing, we jumped in the other airplane and headed for Macon. The long part of my day was now over. Once in Macon, I got to relax at the impressive Bombardier Maintenance Facility while my Captain and the CRJ-700 First Officer continued to work.

Unfortunately, as the day grew later, weather started to pick up. Despite our perfect and ahead-of-schedule performance throughout the day, we were now facing a severe weather delay, which would put my Captain over 16 hours of duty. He reluctantly called an end to the mission, and we caught a cab from Macon back to Atlanta, unable to return the CRJ-700 to duty.

Despite the anticlimactic end to the day, it had to have been one of the most thrilling days of flying I’ve experienced. Aside from the somewhat trivial perks of bossing scheduling around and doing a pre-flight walk-around at an international airport in jeans, the change up from the typical scheduled flying was a perfect break for a reserve pilot.