There’s a saying, almost as ingrained as the “old, bold pilots” nonsense: The most useless things in aviation are runway behind you, altitude above you, and fuel you left behind. Now, if those sayings really held water, there’d be no airlines performing intersection takeoffs (they happen daily), airplanes would routinely cruise at service ceiling (we actually try to avoid that), and every jet would lumber to the runway with its tanks carrying every drop available. And as for the line about old, bold pilots, let’s remember that Chuck Yeager and Bob Hoover lived many, many years.
I showed up one morning to the gate to begin a trip with a flight from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico. As I walked aboard, a full load of passengers sat at the gate, itching to go. The captain was already aboard, and she was on the phone with dispatch discussing a problem we faced: The airplane was significantly over-fueled for our flight. Apparently, this Airbus A321neo had been fueled and prepared for a flight to somewhere much farther away than Puerto Rico, as the fuel tanks had been completely topped off, even to include the aft center tank, carrying another 5,000 pounds—a loading I’d never seen in my few flights in the NEO. With the fuel we had aboard, a trip on down to South America would have been possible.
The dispatcher said he would whistle up a truck to come over and draw the fuel down to a more reasonable level. Even if we were down to the revised fuel loading, we’d be landing in Puerto Rico with 22,000 pounds of fuel aboard—enough fuel for the flight back to New York if you disregard the reserve fuel requirements, which we, of course, wouldn’t.
The NEO is a relatively new addition to our fleet. They’d been with the company for slightly more than a year at this point, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us had not flown them much. The chances of a NEO on a trip continually escalated as we accepted new deliveries and worked them into the system, but we were all still new enough with the type that each time we sat down in one, we compared our crib sheets on the thing to remind ourselves of the differences. There are subtle differences in various systems, but the stumbling block that day was the fuel system: Nobody could figure out how to defuel this airplane. Our books made no mention of any specific actions we should take to de-fuel, and the folks down on the ramp just said they’d tackle it, business as usual.
I got my headset plugged in and started to prepare for the flight, then grabbed an orange vest to wear for the preflight inspection. As I rounded the nose and started down the right side of the airplane, I saw no fuel truck yet, and nobody seemed particularly concerned outside the routine preparations to launch one of our flights. At 45 minutes prior to departure, we called operations, who sounded a little surprised as they said they’d call, “again,” for the fuel truck.
In our business, it seems that most times when you hear an emphasis on “again,” especially when you can hear their eyeroll over the radio, it means the first time only happened in someone’s mind.
The fuel truck rolled up, and we saw the annunciation on our instrument panel that the fueling panel had been opened. “Surely they can pump a thousand pounds a minute,” the captain reasoned out loud. I just stared at the sign on the terminal that ticked down the minutes until our departure, shook my head, and complimented her optimism. Defueling is a pretty rare operation, and it just never goes to plan.
Forty minutes later, a mechanic had toggled fuel pumps and crossflow valves on and off in every combination he could rationalize. The fueler down on the ramp had tried every trick with his truck to make things work. Now the airplane sat fully boarded, and the truck hadn’t offloaded a drop of fuel yet. The mechanic said he thought the truck was faulty. The fueler thought the mechanic didn’t know what he was talking about.
All of a sudden, the fuel load dropped by a tiny amount, and we all cheered!
The celebration halted seconds later as the Airbus rang out a master caution, alerting us that fuel had spilled out a vent. Sure enough, a steady stream was pouring out the left wing, and a puddle of jet fuel grew into a small pond of petroleum on the ramp at JFK. The captain ran downstairs and told the fueler to undo whatever he’d done, and the mechanic quickly killed power to the fuel pumps. A crew responded to contain and manage the mess of fuel on the concrete.
Protocols for a fuel spill are buried deep in the company’s Flight Operations Manual. It addresses various courses of action for a fuel spill, depending on the size of the spill. The FOM is a catch-all publication with all sorts of information from security and flight planning to the company’s attendance policy. By the time any of us looked to the book for guidance, the fuel spill was already contained and dried up. Luckily, our actions were mostly in line with the manual’s guidance.
At the same time, the captain and I hatched different plans to arrive at the same solution. Our weight limitation prevented us from taking off, but it was because we’d be too heavy to land in Puerto Rico. Our en-route fuel burn was predicated on flying the normal route at an efficient speed and an optimal altitude. “WE KNOW HOW TO BURN GAS,” she and I fairly well screamed at each other as the realization set in. “Let’s get dispatch to refile us over Florida and Cuba,” I suggested. She and the dispatcher outvoted me with a smarter route: We’d simply say that we were heavier than planned (a true statement) and request a much lower altitude. Instead of 37,000 feet, we’d go at 31,000; and instead of the normal Mach .78, we’d push it on up to .80. Dispatch re-ran our numbers and issued a challenge—we technically were still a few hundred pounds heavier than allowed; we’d be slightly over the max landing weight in San Juan. We’d have to burn a few hundred pounds of fuel before we took off. Challenge accepted.
“In our business, it seems that most times when you hear an emphasis on ‘again,’ especially when you can hear their eyeroll over the radio, it means the first time only happened in someone’s mind.”
I headed down to the ramp, where I told our mechanic and the fueler that we’d found a work-around and they could take the rest of the morning off. Settling back into the seats, we apologized for the delay as we got all the customers back aboard, and we pushed back. On the ramp, we started both engines and idled for several minutes before doing our entire before-takeoff flows and checklists, and only then did we release the parking brake and start taxiing out. “We’ll keep the APU running until we’re airborne and past the window for any emergency that would necessitate its use,” the pilot said to me.
Slowly, we crept to Runway 13R, riding the brakes and keeping the engines spooled a little faster than a normal ground idle. When we had to stop, we pushed the power up a little more—not to anything resembling flight power but enough to notice a higher fuel flow. The whole act was so counterintuitive in an industry where we’ve made great strides for a more efficient operation, but we reasoned that burning the fuel was less detrimental than risking another fuel spill by continuing the efforts to defuel the aircraft. As we rolled onto the runway, the fuel finally ticked down to the absolute maximum amount we could legally take off with, and we verbalized the indicated fuel amount as we pushed the power up. In this age where the computers can rat you out, sometimes a few words on the CVR are the cheapest form of insurance.
We rotated, and the heavy bird took flight. Riding down airway L455, we looked up at most all the other traffic from our perch at the bottom. But, pushed up to a fast cruise speed, we also smiled a little at being the one doing the passing instead of the other way around. A few hours later, we traded controlling agencies from New York Oceanic to San Juan Center and began our descent early—even the newfangled Pratt & Whitney geared turbofans on the NEO drink a lot more fuel down low than in the flight levels. Every time we were given a lower altitude, we descended as quickly as possible to maximize our time at the lower altitudes.
As we joined the localizer, the captain pointed to the aircraft’s gross weight, which is normally displayed on the secondary ECAM page. Once again, we were having a conversation mainly for purposes of being recorded. “Hey, Jeremy, would you mind telling me our current weight?” We were at 2,000 feet, crawling along with flaps hanging out, having probably set a record for the most fuel burned by a NEO on this route. “Sure thing. We’re at 174,400 pounds,” I said. For all our efforts, we would be landing 200 pounds under the maximum landing weight.
We’d have loved to have left some fuel in the truck so that we could have flown a little higher and maybe even taken off with a little bit of runway behind us. Sometimes, though, a little critical thinking, even when it contradicts the flight school fables, is what it takes to get the job done.