Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hold for fireworks!

Today New York gave us a run for our money, and I’ll cut to the chase: like the founding and establishment of our great country in opposition to the British Empire, we won. But like the Revolutionary war we had with the Brits, it encompassed a journey which required endurance, among other things. I write this in celebration and honor of our Independence Day. Happy July 4th to you!

This morning we started out in DC and made our way to Dayton, Ohio first. A low pressure system, centered over our friends in Montreal, was rotating counter clockwise as best it could, and promised the possibility of an interesting day, weather wise. The forecast for New York, our next destination, included a temporary condition which predicted ‘CB’s’, weather code for cumulonimbus clouds. The smaller version of these is a tall cumulus cloud which gives a healthy rain shower at the surface. The larger version is a garden variety thunderstorm or worse, one which pilots want to avoid flying through.

We had a short break, then loaded up for LaGuardia. Clearance hadn’t told us about any delays for New York, so we pushed back to start engines on time at 9:25 AM. It seemed odd; my gut told me that we would get a delay somewhere. Climbing into the smooth overcast clouds, I wondered about the Wright Brothers and their bicycle shop, after glancing at downtown Dayton on takeoff.

I had a good crew I had flown with before to help me carry a plane load pretty full of tourists, mostly, to New York. We cruised in the sunshine at 31,000 feet above a seemingly heat reflecting white and puffy layer of clouds floating by. I noticed on our flight display that our jet thought we had 40 minutes left to go to make it to LGA. Optimistically, I started to think we could make it on time, even early.

Things started to change ten minutes later. We were still too far out from New York to get a good picture from our weather radar, but that didn’t matter now, as New York center just put us in a holding pattern at a fix called ‘Biley’. We descended to 15,000 ft, still bathed in sunshine, with large cumulus and towering cumulus clouds below us, and threatening to climb above our altitude. I programmed the hold into the ‘box’, our FMS (Flight Management System), a computer which takes various navigation inputs and ‘drives’ the autopilot. My FO slowed the aircraft down and confirmed that I knew what I was doing with the FMS. “Execute” he said, commanding me to press the execute button and ‘make it so’ in Star Trek Next Generation parlance. The FMS was now committed to flying the holding pattern neatly displayed on our moving map display screen.

This is a time when you appreciate that there are two pilots and that the one you’re paired up with is very capable and good at teamwork. There were lots of things to do now: Email our Dispatcher via our ACARS unit, brief the passengers and FA on what was happening, check our alternate airport weather and forecast (PHL), make an estimate on bingo fuel and wait on our Dispatcher’s numbers, get an update on LGA weather, judge whether the weather at our holding point was safe to remain in – if we had to descend especially, and last but not least, triple check that the holding pattern was correct.

We entered the hold and started the oval racetrack pattern, and it was beautiful. The cumulus sliding by below us made for an exiting sensation of speed, their rounded shapes of giant carved white granite figures of puff dragons and doughboys posed, laying down and smiling for the cameras. They were imposing, but size wise ones which we knew we could penetrate if we had to. My FO called the two bogeys in sight below us, and we watched them on our TCAS, which shows other aircrafts as diamonds on our moving map.

They were two other regional jets holding at ‘Biley’ as well, 1,000 and 2,000 feet below us, stacked right over each other. We could see their small but sharply defined silhouettes easily against the bright puffs of the cumulus below. There are only two words to describe this: very cool. Starting the first turn back toward Biley I wondered out loud whether we would penetrate a CB at the end of the turn that we knew they certainly would. We watched them with fascination, I’ll admit, as both were swallowed like gnats by the mashed potato behemoth growing in front of us. It turned out we were still a little too high to ‘enjoy’ the ride they did. Moments later both crews told center that the moderate turbulence they were getting in the clouds while holding was unacceptable, and they requested a hold somewhere else. Center kindly obliged them, as they usually do, and sent them closer to the big apple to hold again.

We retrieved a series of ACARS messages which updated us on the weather reports from LGA and PHL, and with information from our Dispatcher. He gave us a bingo fuel of 3,500 and changed our alternate to nearby ABE (Allentown, PA), then changed it back to PHL in a later message, which was fine with us. Our estimated fuel remaining on our arrival at ABE, if we held the entire time expected, flew to LGA, went missed and went to the alternate, was still good, about 2,400 lbs. The flight log I keyed up on our flight display agreed with this number, shown in a white color. Actually it showed two numbers, 1900, our IFR reserve of 45 minutes fuel, and 500, the extra fuel in excess of our IFR reserve. The numbers in terms of time were simple. We were burning about 2,000 pounds an hour, and had about 4,500 pounds of fuel on board by now, so we could hold for about 30 minutes before we had to divert toward Philly.

So we still had our warm fuzzies, still had an expectation we would make it to LGA this morning. But there were a lot of IF’s attached to this condition. Fifteen minutes later center extended our ‘EFC’ (expect further clearance) time 10 minutes, then 30 minutes more. The fuel numbers displayed now turned yellow. We couldn’t hold the entire time ATC told us to expect, so there was a pretty fair chance that we might actually go to PHL. I informed the passengers that this was a possibility, in the most optimistic voice I could muster.

A few minutes later we were released from the hold, to continue onward towards New York. Breathing easier but still anxious, we prepared to fly an ILS approach through a summer rain shower with considerable vertical development, something we would have to watch a little bit. “XX XX (our flight), Holding instructions, advise when ready to copy”. Now we started holding at another fix about 30 miles closer to New York than the first one, with the same expect further clearance time. The same flurry of activity ensued, and our Dispatcher gave us almost the same bingo fuel, 3,400 lbs.

This turn of events wasn’t good. Morale was sinking, and I was tempted to be resigned to our fate. We only had 300 pounds more than our bingo fuel, which translated down to just a few minutes till we burned down to it. Ten minutes, in fact, and our EFC was 25 minutes away. There was ten minutes left before it was Philly time for us and our 39 ‘victims’.

Even though this was typical treatment by center when there are big delays going into LaGuardia, we were getting tired and a little frustrated of them teasing us. Just when ‘the night was darkest’, we were released from the second hold and put back on the arrival route. The tone in the controller’s voices had sympathy for us, and conviction perhaps, that we would make it in. Onward, with faith, we made our way, even through two vectors off the arrival route for ‘traffic management’.

As my FO slowed our jet and we configured for approach while we flew through cloud layers and caught glimpses of the crowded New York boroughs below us, I evaluated the weather on the field. Using our weather radar a few minutes before showed that the tops of the rain cloud over the field was only about 15,000 feet. The view out the window matched that of the radar. It looked safe, just a summertime rain shower to fly through, not a thunderstorm.

On approach below the lowest layer, the clouds above LaGuardia were dark gray, with the surrounding areas a complementary white. The good rain on the surface called for full reverse thrust on landing, and my FO did a textbook job of stopping us before the intersection with the other runway. We were in New York! Finally.

Fast forward two days: Now that I’m back home with my three favorite girls, we’ve had to hold again for fireworks. Last night’s displays were cancelled because of rain. This morning the clouds are trying to move out of the way for tonight's July 4th’s fireworks, and for my youngest daughter's fifth birthday party. She thinks for fireworks are for her, you know. This weather is uncharacteristic for where we live on July 4th, so I guess we’ll have to wait it out as it comes, like we did during our flight to New York.

Happy Independence Day!

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