72 The tri­als and tribu­la­tions of deal­ing with a snow­storm

THE TRI­ALS AND TRIBU­LA­TIONS OF DEAL­ING WITH A SNOW­STORM

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Les Abend

About an hour away from JFK I pressed my truck’s ra­dio but­ton and lis­tened to the XM traf­fic and weather sta­tion. No ma­jor traf­fic is­sues. Good news. A snow­fall was pre­dicted for the re­turn home, but only a cou­ple of inches. Again, good news.

Via in­ter­net no­ti­fi­ca­tion I had been un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously as­signed the early evening three-day Lon­don trip the day prior. I had flunked our new sched­ule bid­ding process (the sched­ul­ing app re­quires a Ph.D.) and been awarded a month of re­serve. Per­haps my lack of com­puter ac­u­men set the stage for what was to come.

The evening be­gan with a me­chan­i­cal prob­lem that in­volved the left elec­tronic en­gine con­trol (EEC). The EEC is the equiv­a­lent of a fadec sys­tem on a GA air­plane with slightly more so­phis­ti­ca­tion. Be­fore my copi­lot Pete and I ar­rived in the cock­pit, the me­chan­ics had been at­tempt­ing to trou­bleshoot the prob­lem.

Even af­ter com­pletely pow­er­ing down the air­plane (the 777 is a gi­ant com­puter with wings) and then start­ing the en­gine, the EEC fault mes­sage wouldn’t clear, which was un­typ­i­cal. My con­cern was that we re­ally didn’t have a firm un­der­stand­ing of the prob­lem. An in­op­er­a­tive EEC was not a ma­jor op­er­a­tional is­sue, but there were some en­gine lim­i­ta­tions that would not have the nor­mal safe­guards.

A me­chanic su­per­vi­sor got in­volved. He even­tu­ally de­ter­mined that an ac­tual fault ex­isted. Now, with a defini­tive un­der­stand­ing of the prob­lem, the ap­pro­pri­ate min­i­mum equip­ment list pro­ce­dure could be uti­lized. Good deal. Un­for­tu­nately, the trou­bleshoot­ing process de­layed our de­par­ture nearly an hour and a half. The tardy de­par­ture would put our heads on the ho­tel pil­low around 0400 body time, a long day for a two-man crew.

Dur­ing the de­lay, Pete in­formed me that the up­dated New York fore­cast was look­ing nasty. A ma­jor snow­storm loomed. I pre­ferred my own re­al­ity and re­mained in de­nial — at least un­til we reached cruise al­ti­tude, any­how. I was on the back side of a head cold re­cov­ery, so I found it in­con­sid­er­ate that Mother Na­ture had other plans.

Our win­ter trek across the North At­lantic in­volved the usual cy­cling of the seat-belt sign. On two oc­ca­sions I in­structed the flight at­ten­dants to be seated be­cause of tur­bu­lence. For Pete’s ar­rival into Heathrow he was pre­sented a bumpy greet­ing in the form of a 35-knot quar­ter­ing head­wind. I had faced the same on our prior trip, with my par­tic­u­lar land­ing in­volv­ing a 35-knot di­rect cross­wind in­stead. Both of us man­aged to per­form the feat of air­man­ship with­out dam­age to man or beast. Even the flight at­ten­dants of­fered us a ver­bal pat on the back.

By the time Pete and I took a fi­nal sip of our adult bev­er­ages on the

A MA­JOR SNOW­STORM LOOMED. I PRE­FERRED MY OWN RE­AL­ITY AND RE­MAINED IN DE­NIAL — AT LEAST UN­TIL WE REACHED CRUISE AL­TI­TUDE, ANY­HOW.

Lon­don lay­over, the snow­storm had man­i­fested it­self into an evil blue­and-green blob that was spin­ning north­bound just off the East Coast. Evil now had a name: win­ter storm Grayson. The term bom­bo­ge­n­e­sis was be­ing used to de­scribe the mess, mean­ing the mil­libar pres­sure drop would be dra­matic.

Cer­tainly by the time I was deep in slum­ber a love note in the form of a can­cel­la­tion no­tice would be un­der­neath my ho­tel room door. To my sur­prise, and more so for Pete, we found our­selves en route to Heathrow from the ho­tel at our sched­uled time the next morn­ing. With the fore­cast in­di­cat­ing clear­ing con­di­tions about three hours be­fore our 1755 ar­rival, per­haps op­er­a­tional man­age­ment had de­cided to take the chance. That be­ing said, the weather was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing rapidly, with JFK re­port­ing one-eighth of a mile in heavy snow. For my brief­ing with 11 flight at­ten­dants I used the tech­ni­cal term yucky to de­scribe the weather sit­u­a­tion.

As we pro­gressed west­bound across the North At­lantic, Pete and I en­ter­tained our­selves with hourly up­dates of JFK’s ATIS re­port. Not­with­stand­ing the low vis­i­bil­ity and low ceil­ings with heavy snow­fall all run­ways were closed un­til 1500 lo­cal. A sub­se­quent re­port in­di­cated all run­ways were closed un­til 1800 lo­cal. And then a dis­patch-ini­ti­ated no­tam ar­rived in be­tween our lava­tory-break shuf­fle. The mes­sage re­quired a se­cret en­coder ring to decipher, but with a lit­tle per­sis­tence I de­ter­mined that JFK would be closed to ar­rivals un­til 2000. It was al­ter­nate de­ci­sion time. But where?

En route we had been in satel­lite text con­ver­sa­tion with our dis­patcher. Baltimore was still an ap­pro­pri­ate legal and pru­dent al­ter­nate, but our op­er­a­tions per­son­nel were balk­ing at han­dling our 777. Ap­par­ently, wide­body air­planes were not the norm. Be­cause of the storm, East Coast air­ports were no longer an op­tion. Al­though Philadelphia was not re­ceiv­ing the full wrath of Grayson, gate space was fill­ing up. Chicago O’Hare was in con­sid­er­a­tion, but I had trep­i­da­tions about po­ten­tial fuel min­i­mums upon ar­rival.

It wasn’t an idea I had con­sid­ered, but our dis­patcher pre­sented RaleighDurham (RDU), North Carolina. Pete and I liked the idea. No weather is­sues. Only about an hour beyond JFK, it was well within our fuel re­quire­ments. The only hitch was that our sta­tion per­son­nel were re­sist­ing be­cause of ho­tel avail­abil­ity and the pos­si­bil­ity that U.S. cus­toms would have to ex­tend their hours. Mirac­u­lously, the stars aligned. About an hour and a half from JFK, I di­rected Pete to re­quest a clear­ance to RDU from Monc­ton Cen­ter over New­found­land, Canada. Our ar­rival to Run­way 5L was via a visual ap­proach from the down­wind leg, a pro­ce­dure not of­ten ac­com­plished in my 777 world.

Af­ter a half-hour of chaotic com­mu­ni­ca­tion at­tempts be­cause of the nu­mer­ous New York di­ver­sions, we man­aged to reach the busy folks in crew track­ing re­spon­si­ble for our ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions. Be­fore our land­ing at RDU we had also con­firmed that our pas­sen­gers would be given ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions de­spite the fact it was not an obli­ga­tion be­cause the ir­reg­u­lar op­er­a­tion was caused by an act of na­ture. I was re­lieved know­ing that our Lon­don pas­sen­gers wouldn’t have to suf­fer the in­dig­ni­ties of a rest­less night in a gate lounge chair.

Al­though our new dis­patcher told me oth­er­wise, the fol­low­ing af­ter­noon’s re­turn to JFK in­volved the ex­pected flow con­trol de­lays due to the fact that snow re­moval had been com­pleted only on Run­way 31L. Shortly af­ter our level-off at cruise al­ti­tude Wash­ing­ton Cen­ter slowed us to a crawl of Mach 0.76.

To add in­sult to in­jury, our purser, the lead flight at­ten­dant, in­formed us that one of our pas­sen­gers had learned via on­board in­ter­net that JFK was closed due to a com­pany air­craft that had de­clared an emer­gency be­cause of some type of fire.

I con­firmed the in­for­ma­tion upon our hand­off to New York Cen­ter. We’re al­ways the last to know. De­spite a hold­ing in­struc­tion clear­ance over At­lantic City we only had to suf­fer a handful of de­lay­ing radar vec­tors. Our com­pany air­plane’s emer­gency was ter­mi­nated with­out is­sue.

Hav­ing cal­cu­lated the run­waylength re­quire­ments for a medium brak­ing ac­tion re­port and a 20-de­gree cross­wind gust­ing to 42 knots, we landed on a mostly dry 31L with con­crete to spare. In the “small fa­vors” de­part­ment I found my truck in a con­di­tion that didn’t re­quire a snow brush or a shovel. The wind and the ul­tra­cold tem­per­a­tures had worked to my ad­van­tage.

Snow day? No wor­ries.

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