At the height of the Thanksgiving travel weekend, we were scheduled to fly forty-two peeps (passengers) from DC to SRQ (Washington DC to Sarasota, FL). Sarasota is a nice retirement and vacation city midway down the western coast of Florida. I had never been there before, and neither had my FO (First Officer). That fact alone promised adventure and a little excitement.
There was a long, strong cold front stretching from north to south along the eastern US. It was moving in an east direction at a pretty good clip, and was currently still in the Gulf of Mexico. The weather packet in our flight paperwork predicted strong gusty crosswinds, heavy rain and thunderstorms with the passing of the cold front at SRQ at about 1:30 P.M. We were scheduled to arrive at SRQ at 12:30, 0:30 later than normal because of very high headwinds associated with the low pressure system and cold front.
So, we had quite a lot to think about, and an hour of predicted buffer between landing and the weather rolling in. The crosswinds predicted at SRQ were right at our jet’s limit of 27 knots, and that didn’t include the gust factor, the maximum momentary winds to be expected. This was a challenge in itself. Additionally, you never want to tangle with a thunderstorm, especially on landing. The low visibility heavy rain can produce was another factor to consider.
I and my FO both wondered out loud “Why didn’t Dispatch give us an alternate?” An alternate airport would give us a way out if the weather arrived at SRQ before we did. We would have fuel to hold with to wait out the weather, and to go to an alternate airport if we needed to. Legally, we didn’t require one, as long as our predicted arrival was at least 1 hour before the weather moved in. As I was scratching my head, I realized our dispatcher was new, I hadn’t seen his name before. We were hurrying to get out on time, and I was concerned about beating the weather in. I should’ve noticed that I had a case of get-thereitis already developing. I reasoned if we asked for fuel and an alternate, our chances of meeting the front, gusty crosswinds, thunderstorms, rain and all, were increased because of the time required to get fuel and do the paperwork with dispatch. I thought that if we leave now, on time, we had a good chance of landing at SRQ before the front passed. In flying, you always want to manage the risk, and always have a way out. We checked the forecast for Tampa and Orlando, they would be fine to divert to, if it came to that.
So, after my FO had no major protests to what I favored, we left DC on time and headed south. At the top of the climb I realized the full effect of the strong headwinds. Did I mention the headwinds? Yea, an average of about 170 mph at our cruising altitude of 33,000 ft. About 1 hour before landing, our dispatcher contacted us, and gave us an alternate airport of Tampa Bay, which is north of SRQ. Apparently the activity we didn’t want was becoming more likely at SRQ, maybe the front was moving in quicker than forecast. It was good that we now had an alternate. The flip side was that this reduced our holding fuel, we didn’t have much, about 0:15 worth.
Trudging onward, we were now about 0:25 from SRQ. The radar was painting a few developing cells along a NE-SW line toward SRQ, unfortunately. Orlando approach gave us vectors to the west around this activity, which we appreciated. I thought that we were almost home free, that the activity we saw out the windows had passed by SRQ. It was not to be. Within about ten minutes, the weather report at SRQ changed from basically ‘nice’ to the direct crosswind of 25 knots, gusting to 39, with heavy rain and cumulonimbus clouds. The front was passing through, and this was connected to the line we had just been vectored to avoid. ‘Expect holding with Jacksonville center next frequency’. SRQ was now a closed airport and we were going to be one of many holding aircraft.
Things got busy as both of us sighed, set up the holding pattern ATC gave us at an intersection basically north of Tampa Bay (TPA), and contacted dispatch using our electronic box (ACARS) again. It didn’t look good, our fuel status I mean. Center told us to expect to hold for 40 minutes. Our FMS (Flight Management System) spit out a yellow number at us, which isn’t a color we like. If we held for the 40 minutes, went to SRQ, abandoned the final approach and flew to TPA and landed, the FMS thought we would taxi in with 600 lbs of fuel. Our minimum IFR FAA legal fuel to land with is 1900 lbs (a 45 minute reserve). We obviously weren’t going to be able to hold for 40 minutes. Meanwhile our dispatcher got back to us and gave us a ‘bingo fuel’ of 2500 lbs. In stereo my FO and I say out loud ‘2500 lbs?’, obviously knowing that wasn’t going to cut it. After talking it over and massaging the FMS to show 1900 lbs landing at TPA if we held, went to SRQ, then TPA, the FMS numbers were white, and the bingo fuel we calculated (the FMS rather) was 3550 lbs. What do you know, we had 3550 lbs on board, after holding for about ten minutes.
I said ‘well we’re diverting now, I’ll tell dispatch over the ACARS, why and what our bingo fuel we calculate is, you tell center and we’ll head toward SRQ’. There is a lot of decision making and coordinating that goes on with different parties when a diversion occurs, and I could feel the stress building. When you divert, it’s supposed to be a joint, coordinated decision between the Captain and the Dispatcher. In this case, we didn’t trust the information we were receiving, and I hoped dispatch would see the error of their ways, as we were compelled to divert right then, without their concurrence. We didn’t legally have enough fuel to continue holding for SRQ. So essentially we were wasting fuel with every minute we spent in the hold.
The weather at Tampa wasn’t great either, but it wasn’t closed, and it was much more doable than SRQ. We landed 0:15 later between partly cloudy skies with good visibility, a little horizontal rain, and a pretty strong crosswind.
Most of the passengers understood the situation, but they were all tired and hungry. After a call to dispatch to get more fuel ordered, to get filed again for TPA-SRQ, and to prepare and send paperwork to TPA, we made a normal and uneventful flight to SRQ, where the improved weather was similar to what we had at TPA.
Our dispatcher was apologetic to us. He mistakenly considered our bingo fuel as the minimum we needed to leave the hold and go to TPA with, not go to SRQ and then to TPA. This is what we suspected, and I understood of his side of the situation, I didn’t give him too hard a time over it.
He wasn’t the only person making mistakes, however. At DC I should’ve insisted on an alternate airport for SRQ, considering the forecast and strong headwinds. If we had taken the time to add an alternate airport and take on the extra fuel, we would’ve been able to hold until the weather moved out of SRQ and land there instead of diverting. As always, hindsight is 20/20.
I’ve had a similar situation in the past which I asked for an alternate and fuel, got it, and still held near our destination until the thunderstorm, still just north of it, moved slowly away enough so we could land in a slight tailwind after making a wide berth around it.
It’s interesting, in that a situation I prevented from occurring in the past has now occurred in the future. Flying, like life, has a way of presenting and teaching lessons more than once.