Airline Dispatchers Federation.
Representing the professional interests of the Aircraft Dispatcher.

Special Articles

A Jumpseat Ride for the Ages

The Legendary Air Micronesia “Island Hopper”

Patrick Boyle, Secretary ADF

Total miles: 16,440

First, a short background about the Dispatcher’s requirements and personal thoughts on the requirements needs to be discussed.

During the course of our Dispatchers’ yearly training cycle, we must perform an annual route observation.  While the regulations (FAR 121.463) require a minimum of 5 hours, I personally try and do additional time for my own benefit.  I look at this time for personal education on what the flight Crews are dealing with and how I can better support them.  By doing such, I begin to build working relationships with the Crews.  With a better working relationship, I find the Crews are more open and trusting of the Dispatcher’s planning and en-route support.

Now, for my 2016 Jumpseat ride.
(Note: While I would love to be able to provide pictures of the approaches from the cockpit, both company regulations and the sterile cockpit concept prevent this).

Thursday February 11th
Deadhead ORD-HNL
It’s 5:00 AM and 1 degree F outside.  It’s time to warm up.  I arrive at the airport at 7:00 AM for a 9:00 AM departure.  With a flight time of 9 hours, this is a great time to set up for my next leg and get some needed rest for the next day’s grueling time table.

Friday February 12th -13th
Now, for the most grueling but most educational part, the “Island Hopper”, a 6 leg 16 hour duty day.
The routing of the island hopper has not changed much since its inception in 1968.  The island hopper first began flying on the 727-100.  Today it is flown on a 737-800.  This legendary route takes 16 hours and has many special requirements that my airline has incorporated into our Ops Specs.

This will be the longest leg today blocking in at 4 hours 57 minutes.  Once again it is an early show time.  I meet up with the flight Crew in the hotel lobby at 5:30 AM for a 5:45 AM van ride to the airport.  On the ride in we begin the briefing, where we look at the route of flight, the Dispatch Release and weather for the flight.  We are in luck; great weather and no turbulence are indicated.  Now, one thing about the hopper is unique, every flight leg is weight critical.  As I am watching the cargo loading I see a lot of coolers (the most common luggage used), mail, medicine, and urgent supplies that are needed.  This route is truly one of the last “milk runs” in existence.  Folks head from the islands to Honolulu or Guam for shopping and medical needs.  

We depart the gate on-time to do the normal taxi and takeoff.  After takeoff the action begins.  I observe the Crew checking in with Oakland Oceanic and the entrance into the ETOPS environment.  On my previous trips I have never been able to observe this, as the aircraft I have flown on were CPDLC equipped.  On the arrival, the Crew calls in range requesting the current weather and advise of their needs on arrival.  One of those needs was for fresh tuna sandwiches for all of the Crew.   As we are descending, at 15,000 feet the small atoll begins to appear ahead of us.  On approach, I notice that the island we are landing on is barely twice the width of the runway.  No margin of error exists on this approach as each side of the runway is a seawall.  The runway is only 7,900 feet long by 150 feet wide.

After landing looking towards the tail you see water.  Looking forward you see water.
There is not much land between the two.

Here is a welcoming sign seen at many of these airports.

Now is when the Crew change happens.  A security sweep is completed, cargo off-loaded and loaded, we also pick up our ride along mechanic who will observe fueling for the remainder of the trip and fix write-ups if they occur.  Additionally, at this time the Crew is calling in their on times and requesting their clearance for the next leg.  One thing unique on the departure clearance is an expected off time and a time when the clearance is canceled if the flight is not airborne.

Block time – 1 hour 2 minutes.  Just like Majuro, there is not much land between the runway and water on all sides.  The runway is also not large, being only 6600 x 200 feet.  The atoll of Kwajalein is a U.S. Military base.  Unless you have written clearance or are a Crewmember, you are not permitted to depart the aircraft.  Due to its sensitive military use, photography is strictly forbidden.  This leg, similar to the HNL-MAJ leg, dictates that on-time reports and clearance for the next leg is called in to Oakland Oceanic.

This is short hop blocking in at 42 minutes.  Now we are moving from atolls into islands.  Kosrae is a very small island with a few folks making this their final stop, while picking up additional passengers.  The runway was built up on a coral reef and the shortest we will fly to.  The runway is only 5700 x 150 feet.  While on the ground, Kosrae is also one of the most remote of the islands that we will fly to.  When the flight arrives here, it is a big deal, and much of the island shows up to greet us.  This is where the FO does a little community out-reaching by handing out wings to the children waiting around the airport.

Our aircraft on arrival into Kosrae (KSA/PTSA)

The terminal in Kosrae is so small, the check in counter and boarding area occupy a 25x25 room together.

Our two First Officers hamming it up for a photo opportunity.

After departure from Kosrae, we head west to Pohnpei.  This is another short hop blocking in at 44 minutes.  Pohnpei will be the largest of the islands we will be flying to today.  This is where we are starting to see build ups of weather along both sides of our route.  Visibility also now starts going from greater than six miles, to 4 to 5 miles.  The approach is an off set approach due to close proximity of terrain on the approach.  Just like Kosrae, this runway is also built up on a coral reef.  The runway is just like the others being only 6600 x 150 feet.

Our trusty steed is taking a short break.

Here is a look at the terrain that affects the approach into Phonpei.

It's time for a walk around and meet with the station agents.

This was a little bit longer of a leg blocking in at 1 hour and 2 minutes.  Just after take-off, I noticed a cargo ship that was stranded on the coral reef surrounding the island some time ago and just left there.  Going into Chukk (aka Trukk), we now have to begin to deviate around weather.  The Chukk lagoon is world renowned for its wreck diving.  During World War II, The US Navy surprised the Japanese making Chukk the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbor.  With a 6000 x 150 foot runway, this is short runway with terrain 600 feet adjacent to the runway.  As aforementioned, this is a flight where people head to and from for shopping and medical needs.  Today’s flight had a more somber tone as we were bringing someone home to their final resting place.

We are now thankfully on our last leg to Guam.  Blocking in at 1 hour and 24 minutes, this is one of the longer legs, thus causing weight restrictions on the short runway in Chukk.  It is legs like these where the Captain and Dispatcher must work together in planning just the right amount of fuel to minimize weight restrictions.   After landing, we do the post flight briefing and head off to Customs.  This is also where I take a few days off to rest and relax after a long 16 ½ hour day.

Wednesday February 17
Today is another early show as we depart at 7:00 AM.  This flight is now a 777-200 and a pretty smooth flight blocking in at 3 hours and 27 minutes.  This will also be my first Jumpseat experience in a 777.  After landing, I determine that the company has us staying at a hotel located in downtown Tokyo.  After going through customs, the arranged car service brings me on a 90 minute trek from Narita International Airport to the hotel.  Now it is time to rest for tomorrow’s final leg back home.

Thursday February 18

Today, I experience an afternoon show with the Crew at the hotel and a long van ride back to the airport.  During the van ride, the Crew begins their briefing on the route so they are prepared when they arrive at the airport.  Just like the GUM-NRT leg, this will be my first time jumpseating on a 747-400.  This is a very senior Crew that I have worked with many times and was a good chance to meet each other.  The winds will be in our favor tonight blocking us in 25 minutes early.  Weather and turbulence are also expected to be good the entire ride.  Today’s block time was 11 hours and 3 minutes, arriving 45 minutes early.

Lessons learned and lessons re-affirmed from this year’s Jumpseat ride:
1.       Our flight Crews need us to be diligent in our flight following.  Not all flights have updated turbulence or en-route weather, so we play a major role in the safety of each and every flight we Dispatch.
2.       Communications between the Dispatcher and Crew help ensure safety and reliability of each flight.
3.       Verbal briefings with flight Crew members does play a vital role in trusting each other and working together to complete the flight safely.
4.       Have a back-up plan ready to go when an irregular situation occurs.
5.       Be an open listener to the needs of your Crew.  While most flight communication lines are open and free flowing, some are more difficult and need an innovative (yet safe and legal) approach to complete the task at hand.
6.       A Jumpseat ride should not be looked at as a requirement or hindrance, but a new look on how we as Dispatchers truly are needed and where we can better our personal approach to how we handle our job.
7.       It does not matter if you are dispatching a small RJ or the mighty 747, they all need the same level of safety and professionalism on every flight.