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IOE or Initial Operating Experience is what every pilot has to go through to be a qualified crewmember flying the “line”. Under the supervision of a highly experienced captain, at Eagle, we are required to complete a transition of at least 25 hours. During this period, every aspect of the job are discussed and experienced, and this obviously includes flying the airplane during a three or four day sequence. After a few days of waiting after my check ride, my first sequence was fast approaching with mixed feelings ranging from anxiousness to excitement. I have been trying to get used to the idea that behind the reinforced door of the cockpit will be sitting 70 people relying on me. A big change from flying packages. As Saturday morning rolled in, I suited up in my new uniform on which the company wings, the three bars epaulets and the tie with an embroiled eagle were proudly displayed. I added the sunglasses to hopefully appear somewhat confident but probably more so to hide the lack of. I grabbed my blazer, my suitcase and my flight bag and had my better half drop me at the terminal on time to catch the early morning shuttle to O’Hare.
First I had to meet with the assistant chief pilot for my base orientation, during which we covered the rules and toured the crew facilities inside the terminal, located under concourse G. After a few years of dreaming of being part of a big airline, I finally get to see what goes on behind the curtains. The sight of hundreds of crew bags that are decorated with stickers representing anything from flags to messages and lined up on racks clearly say that this is a sizable operation. I was due to report at noon for a turn to Columbus, Ohio. This was not my first trip as a crewmember, but what is called an observation flight. This is basically the opportunity to watch from the jump seat, a qualified crew operating the aircraft on a regular line. The experience was very interesting as it was my first time being in the cockpit of the CRJ700. After a quick return flight to ORD, I headed to the hotel before officially starting the next day, my IOE. As I woke up from the rumbling thunder and a very dark sky with an impressive lighting show, I realized that my first day on the job might get a little trickier than what I had bargained for. None the less, by mid afternoon, I started heading toward the airport where I was to meet with my captain and start my sequence. We were supposed to deadhead to Bentonville, in Arkansas. From there I was to fly the airplane back to Chicago then head to Newark later in the evening, where I was scheduled to spend the night. Unfortunately, the local weather had other plans for everybody in the biggest airport in the world. As the building cumulonimbuses were passing through Illinois, all inbound and outbound movements came to a sudden stop and delays started increasing steadily.
By five o’clock, chaos was the name of the game and landing traffic were being sent to the “penalty box”. This is the nickname given to an area on the airport where airplanes can be parked while waiting for their terminal gate to be available. Our flight progressively got delayed from a late afternoon to a late evening departure and along dozens of other trips finally ended up being cancelled forcing scheduling to change our sequence. I was sent back to a hotel for the night and my sequence was planning for me and Cleve, my captain, to deadhead the following morning to Newark in order to catch up with our original trip. I was obviously a bit disappointed but such events are part of the job.
The next morning, I got an early phone call by my captain who let me know that our trip was modified once again. Our deadhead to New York and flight back to O’hare were cancelled, leaving us with just one flight for today. We decided to meet up at the gate for our flight down to XNA around 4 pm. After dropping my bags in the crew room, we sat down to review some of the local procedures especially the communications between airplanes and controllers to get in and out of Chicago. Due to the enormous number of movements, taxiing between a gate and a runway requires a lot of attention and precise lingo from both parties to make for a smooth, safe and efficiently run operation. As our departure time approached, we made our way to the airplane for a thorough preflight under Cleve’s expertise. We first went down on the ramp to do a walk around. This was my first time looking at the airplane from this angle and as we were walking around it and inspecting everything from the nose to the tail, I stopped a moment kneeling by the main gears and realized how big this airplane actually is. The tires are as big as the one on an 18 wheelers. While I didn’t feel overwhelmed, I most certainly was in awe looking at this modern piece of engineering and technology with its tail standing 25 feet high.Afterward, we settle inside the flight deck and proceeded to test the systems and set up the flight plan. It was not long after that our passengers started boarding the 70 seats Bombardier and were greeted by our two flight attendants and music playing over the P/A. The captain decided to let me fly the leg and I was looking forward to do so. After having briefed our takeoff and having the jet bridge pulled away from the main cabin door, we were being pushed out and started our engines. Soon we were on our way to runway 22L. After letting the 63 passengers know of our eminent takeoff, we lined up on the 2 miles long stretch of concrete and the captain, after calling for takeoff checklist, handed over the controls to me. With our takeoff clearance issued by ATC, I tried to apply the thrust as smoothly as possible and in less than 30 seconds I rotated the 72000 pounds bird at 145 miles an hour to initiate our climb toward 36000 feet.
Flight 3712 was airborne. After a few turns to clear Chicago’s airspace, I aimed the airplane for the Ozarks, the national park surrounding the Northwest Arkansas airport. The feelings I experienced during this takeoff are hard to describe in words. With almost the full power of our engines unleashed, my heart was pounding as fast as the turbines were spinning. As we were reaching our cruise altitude, the CRJ started accelerating toward 550 miles per hour and I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the view from my new highest altitude as a pilot. As I turned my head to the right to look through the side windshield, I found myself searching for the wing only to realize that on this long airplane, they are located so far toward the back that I could only see the wing tip with the six foot tall winglet and the bright pulsating strobe lights. I have to say that the view is magnificent from my seat. Within an hour, we were in range and I was about to complete my first landing. The sky was setting down and the weather was clear in a million and after a few vectors from towers, I was cleared to land following a visual approach. With a bit of oral coaching from Cleve, I flared the airplane at about 140 miles an hour to touch down within the dedicated zone but a bit firm to my taste. I quickly applied the powerful reverse to slow us down and in no time we taxied to the gate where our passengers deplaned. It was the end of my first flight but only the beginning of the new adventure. With the rest of the crew, I headed to the hotel where a dinner and a good night sleep were waiting for me.
The next day was a busier one as we went from Arkansas back to Chicago, followed by a quick hop to New York and finally Toronto, in Canada. It was very interesting as while on approach, we made a turn coming from the Atlantic ocean to intercept a visual approach which took us over east river. Located between Manhattan and long island, it offered us and our passengers a view of the statue of liberty as well as all the skyscrapers and the beaches along the Hamptons. From a young pilot’s perspective, landing in JFK is a memory I will cherish forever. When I first came in the US in the mid 90’s, Kennedy was the first thing I saw in this country and to be landing there today, as a professional pilot, between Lufthansa’s airbus 380 and Jet blue’s A320, meant a lot to me. I feel like I have achieved my goal to succeed on this side of the pond. While I took some time to enjoy this moment, we had to turn the airplane in 30 minutes to head for Toronto. In no time, we overflew the Niagara falls, and I landed the airplane to officially make this my first international visit as a pilot. We got to spend part of the afternoon and the evening there, and early the next morning made our way back to Chicago to complete my first sequence of IOE.