Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Week in the Life - Day one

Woke up, got out of bed, dragged the brush across my head
My wife fed the girls and got 'em dressed
and we sped off to church to be blessed

Once back home I quickly packed
Soon I'd be leaving highway tracks

Now I'm riding in the jumpseat to DC
There's just no room in the back for me

AAaaahhhh aaaaahhhhaaa aaahhhaaaAAAaaaaaa

I'd love to turn you on . . .

That's the beginning, ala Beatles (thank you J.P.G.R.) and 'A Day in the Life' of my week in the life. I've got an excellent view out the NWA Airbus A320 cockpit windows, seated behind Captain Steve. I'm heading out on a four day trip starting Sunday evening, leaving Shannon unfortunately with a hurt back. She'll go to the Chiropractor tomorrow, and I'll be home Thursday for lunch.

Heading east, snow covered Minnesota transitions to a tan and frozen Wisconsin, with a fluffy comforter of clouds covering Lake Michigan from the WI/IL coastline eastward. With a blue sky above us, the air is tranquil, for now, but Captain Steve says we're racing a low pressure storm system to DC which has already dumped 4 inches of snow on Atlanta, just to say 'not so fast spring'.

Our surroundings changed to flying in the 'lampshade' with light, occasional moderate bumps. The weather had arrived in DC, and was going down as we were. From over Steve's shoulder I got a nice view of a CAT 3 ILS approach through star wars style warp speed snow down to a 500 foot overcast. The runway was wet because the ground was warm, but it wouldn't be for much longer.

The snow was horizontal, heavy, and wet. Add those up and it would be an interesting evening. All we had to do was take an airplane full of peeps down to CLT (Charlotte). What would that entail? We would find out soon enough.

We were scheduled to depart for CLT at 9 PM, and the weather wasn't good there either. CLT had moderate to heavy snow falling, 1/2 mile visibility with a 400 foot ceiling, braking action reports of fair and poor, and thundersnow. Great. It was all still legal, just daunting, especially for CLT, NC.

The plane arrived a little late. Then the gate had a delay in boarding the passengers via buses (at DC peeps take a bus from the terminal to the planes on the ramp). About an hour late, we had the peeps boarded and the plane kept giving us a temporary message on our TV screens (flight displays), this one was a 'WOW INPUT' caution message, with a yellow light and a bell dinging every time it went off. It would stay on for a moment and extinguish. It means the airplane can't tell if the nosegear is on the ground or not, basically. Could the snow now caking on the nose gear be causing it? I didn't know, but the QRH (quick reference handbook) read that with a WOW INPUT message airborne you may not have nosewheel steering on landing. In CLT, on this night, on a snow contaminated runway after an approach, that would be a WOW INPUT for the pilots! A call to maintenance was definitely in order.

MX (maintenance) came and told us the nosewheel strut was completely deflated, and needed to be serviced, which required that the passengers be off the plane. We got that done in quick order, and requested an aircraft swap, which dispatch did with surprising efficiency. The passengers were transferred directly to the other plane from the bus they got on. This was the only thing that got done quickly this evening, unfortunately.

The large, cold, wet, heavy, sideways snow was slowing down everything. Ramp employees seemed to be disappearing, and OPS (operations) was slow in producing the required paperwork for our flight. The ramp was slow in transferring the checked and gate checked baggage to our new jet.

We settled in the new aircraft and the flight displays started heating up. I determined that one of the display cooling fans wasn't working properly, and the previous flight crew hadn't written the problem up (thanks guys!). Selecting an alternate fan gave the displays the cooling they needed, and a quick call to maintenance and some paperwork would make the fix official. It added to the workload though, I was quickly feeling 'task saturation' approaching.

Finally, at about 11:15 PM, we had received all the paperwork we needed and were about to start engines when our dispatcher ACARS'd us (sent us and email over the ACARS system, 'Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System'), saying to call him immediately and don't take off or move the airplane. Puzzling, so I asked my FO 'Don' to start the engines and I'll call 'Ed'. Fortunately, he had been paying attention to the notices on our paperwork. Down at the bottom of our notices, or NOTAM's, it listed that both of CLT's runway's had failures of the navigation facilities used to fly instrument approaches to those runways. What? This meant that with the current weather in CLT we couldn't legally fly an approach to either runway, effectively it meant the flight would be cancelled if it was confirmed true. He let me go so he could actually call the CLT airport and ask, he would ACARS us the news. I found it on our paperwork where it printed it out, plain as day. Runway 36R had the localizer OTS (out of service) and runway 36L had the glideslope OTS. Presumably the heavy snowfall had been the culprit. Usually I check the notams, I should every time, but trust and depend on the dispatcher checking them for me. I was thankful he had, and soon I was on the FA's (Flight Attendant's) PA in front of the cabin sharing the bad news and the dreaded C-word (Cancelled). Times like this, I bite the bullet and face the news and the passengers myself.

The next stage of our circus (the music had already been playing in my head by now) was the frustrating task of getting our passengers and their bags off the aircraft and into the terminal. We had immediately called OPS for two busses to take people inside, and we waited 30 minutes for the first one. They couldn't find a driver, everyone had simply gone home. We were the last express flight attemping to leave DCA and none were coming in. Finally, in the freezing wet snowy wind we loaded up one bus, twice. The airstairs were so slick with slushed and frozen snow that myself and another deadheading pilot guarded the airstair rails for fear that someone would fall.

Meanwhile, crew scheduling (their official name) had reassigned us to reposition the aircraft to RDU (Raleigh-Durham, NC), where the jet was supposed to spend the night. We still had the aforementioned dead heading pilot with us as well, trying to make it home that night, he was based in RDU.

After more mysterious paperwork delays we were, and the plane was ready to go to RDU with the four of us including the deadheader. Except for the whole left side of our jet caked in snow, however. We would need a good deicing and anti-icing. My good FO 'Don' had been keeping track of the weather in DC, and at times the visibility was down to 1 mile, which in night conditions was equivalent to 'heavy snow'. In heavy snow, there are no holdover times established for us, meaning that even if we got the aircraft de-iced and anti-iced in heavy snow, we couldn't take off, even immediately, without a legal guarantee that the wings and control surfaces wouldn't be contaminated by snow. It's a legal and practical technicality and limit to what we can take off in.

Fortunately, when we were ready to crank the engines for the 'repo' to RDU, the visibility was reported to be 2 miles. OPS had kept bugging us that we need to take off in the 'next ten minutes' at least two times. I had no idea what they meant, finally they communicated that the airport operations people wanted us off the ground ASAP, and gave us the number to call them. We had just started the de-icing process, and it would take a good 20 minutes probably. I called the airport number at 1:20 AM and got a gruff but persuasive man on the other end telling me that no aircraft has landed in the last two hours, the braking action on the runway is at least poor, there's quite a bit of new snow on the runway, and most importantly that they were going to plow and treat the runway for three hours, starting at 1:30 AM and wanted us to take off or cancel, in polite toilet terms. Faced with the fatigue we were feeling, the time pressure to get de-iced and takeoff, the runway conditions (snow and slush contaminated, possibly in excess of the aircrafts limitations - max 0.50 inch of slush or 1.0 inch of wet snow), and the airport operations priority to get the runway cleaned and treated for the early AM flights, I added all those up and the sum was to tell the 'plow chief' that we were giving up. We were going to tell our dispatch we weren't comfortable going and wanted to cancel.

Shortly afterward, I called our dispatch and heard words come out of my mouth that I had never uttered to dispatch before: "I'm not comfortable going because . . . "; and it wasn't a problem at all, no opposition at all to my request. I kind of felt defeated but relieved. Pilots have to balance a desire to 'finish the mission' with safely managing the risk in demanding conditions, and I was hesitant to give up, but in retrospect it was exactly the right decision to make.

I had been concerned with overcoming all our troubles in trying to just get the airplane moving, and admit I hadn't completely considered what the weather had been doing to the runway condition. Thanks, good FO 'Don', great job in looking out for us! The FAA requires that we have a flight deck crew of two, and a dispatcher in a dark cubby hole. We used all of them to full advantage this trying evening.

Too many things had gone wrong, the weather was horrible, and by midnight things just didn't feel right anymore, feel safe anymore. We stumbled back out of the airport through an alternate exit, as the regular passenger exit was closed, flagged down a taxi I had to pay for myself to be reimbursed for later, and made it to the Holiday Inn Old Towne Alexandria, VA, at 2 AM.

Settling into my nice bed and pillows (the most important part of a room, followed closely by the air conditioner, light, and noise), I was lights out by 2:45, with the circus music stopped temporarily. Instead of flying from CLT that morning, on the second day we were re-scheduled for a noon deadhead down there to then fly CLT-MDT-CLT-MKE.

After this roller coaster first night, I fell asleep missing my three lovely girls. Why couldn't I have been off this night and warm and comfy in my own bed? Sometimes this job is like the NAVY, 'It's not just a job, it's an adventure'. And this was only the first day.

No comments: