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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 1

April 14, 2014

When the phone rang, I was obliged to answer it. “Crew Desk” said the caller ID, and I was on call at the time. The life of a reserve pilot includes wearing an invisible collar, which I held to my ear and said “Hello?”

“We’ve got a 4 day for you…Anchorage the first day, then a redeye to Denver after the layover…” the faceless crew scheduler sheepishly intoned. I get the feeling all the crew schedulers go about issuing assignments to reserve pilots with the same “sorry to do this, but…” sound to their voice. Many pilots loathe having to be at anyone’s beck and call, and these assignments are often met with hostility.

But actually, I was good with it. I hadn’t flown much of February at all, and March had been quiet thus far, too. I got plenty of stuff to do at home, yeah, but getting an offer to fly someplace interesting typically rings my Pavlovian bell. It would be good to get out of the house for a few days.

Until late last year, I had never been to Alaska. Then—BOOM—I was assigned three trips to Anchorage in the span of 6 weeks. Thus concluded my quest to fly to all 50 states, which made the inner geography geek in me quite pleased. I’m attracted to “new”, to different things and places, so heading that way really excited me.

As is custom for the O’Hare-Anchorage flight, departure time is mid afternoon. This allowed me to get the kids to school as usual, then luxuriate in a quiet house that I tidied up a bit so the Missus wouldn’t have to when she arrived home after work. I packed carefully, taking note of the weather forecast for my layover cities. Anchorage was the coldest. They were forecasting some snow, so I packed a down jacket, scarf, gloves and hat. In the middle of March it can still be bitterly cold up there, even as winter loses its’ icy grip with each lengthening day.

At the airport, I checked in on our computer system and printed out our flight plan. Flight time today was calculated at 6:05 takeoff to touchdown—relatively short by previous experience. I’ve had some of my prior Anchorage flights take close to 7 hours due to strong headwinds. Not today. Still, the amount of fuel required for this journey was close to the maximum we could physically carry within the wings and belly of our Boeing 737-800 aircraft, as reports of turbulence spoiled the hopes of lower fuel burn that is commensurate with higher cruising altitudes. In fact, my paperwork said there was only room for about 600 pounds more—about 6-8 minutes of extra flying time.

The Captain I was to fly with chose to leave this extra gas in the tanks at O’Hare. This might come in handy, but we had no reason to believe it was necessary, and there are disadvantages of carrying extra fuel as well. Per regulation, we load enough fuel to fly to our destination, then to our “designated” alternate airport (if required), then for another 45 minutes or so. In this case, we did need an alternate airport—the forecast for Anchorage was showing light snow reducing the visibility to 1 statute mile by our scheduled arrival time. Not great, but not terrible, either. I’ve seen worse. It was supposed to be windy, though…

I met our four flight attendants at the gate. We exchanged pleasantries. Three of them were young and pretty new at the job—Logan, Kelly and Heath. Joann was the senior mama on the trip, though she didn’t look it. All were friendly and chatty. We settled into our individual duties to prepare the airplane for the journey.

In a few minutes, John the Captain arrived. A younger man than I, he had been flying as captain for only about 6 months. Like me, he was a reserve pilot. Unlike me, John started his day about two and a half hours before me in New Orleans. He introduced himself, stowed his luggage and sat down to look over the flight paperwork.

Our dispatcher this day designated Kenai, Alaska as our alternate airport in case the weather in Anchorage precluded our safe, legal arrival there. Because of its’ relative proximity to Anchorage, Kenai is often used as a “paper” alternate for arrivals in Alaska’s biggest city. Situated on the Kenai Peninsula across the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Strait, it’s a small fishing town, population 7,000. Most importantly, it’s only about 15 minutes flying time from Anchorage, so it makes a convenient fuel stop—if we have to. We don’t need to carry much extra gas for any diversion to Kenai. Neither John nor myself had been there before.

99.9% of the time, our flights arrive at our advertised destination, much to our marketing department’s satisfaction. Owing to federal rules, we cannot even attempt a landing into an airport if the observed weather is below charted “minimums” for that field. As we winged routinely northwestward towards Anchorage, we reviewed the latest hourly weather summaries as they were reported. So far, the Anchorage forecast was holding true—fair skies. Just strong southwest winds.

As we approached the 5:30 mark in the flight, the latest report noted light snow beginning to fall. Still, the visibility below the clouds was a very good 10 statute miles. We checked out of our lofty cruising altitude and descended into the misty gray below.

Approximately halfway down, the radio crackled with our air traffic controller’s voice. “Plan on holding with Anchorage Approach. The weather is going below minimums…” John and I exchanged bemused looks of surprise. I instinctively punched the buttons to make the latest Anchorage weather appear.

“One mile, light snow and blowing snow” was the decoded printout. Worse, an electronic eye next to the runway described the visibility in feet of horizontal distance, called Runway Visual Range— or “RVR” for short. 3500 RVR was the report for the only runway available to us due to the strong winds. Our approach chart stated 4000 RVR to be the lowest permissible visibility. Below minimums. We prepared to hold.

And hold we did. 10 mile long racetracks traced in the sky anchored to an invisible electronic point in space called a “fix”. Keeping us company here were three other jets, all equally hamstrung by the weather. Stacked above us in 1000 foot intervals, they each reported their position in our ad-hoc waiting room 3 miles above Anchorage. Noting our present fuel and the rate of thirst of our engines, John and I calculated only 20 minutes of extra fuel for us to use as we waited for conditions to improve. Any longer and we would be violating company policy and federal regulations by going below safe minimum fuel limits before we touched down.

By now most of our 110 passengers were probably wondering why we hadn’t alighted back on mother Earth yet. After all, we had already said our “goodbye, thanks for flying with us, we’ll be on the ground in a half an hour” spiel. Yes, they were told that it was snowing. But 30 minutes had come and gone. Now it was time for me to tell them that the snow was heavier than forecast, and that we only had a little bit of time for it to improve before we had to go find the nearest filling station for more Hi-Test, a new road map and a pack of Juicy Fruit.

Of course the weather did not improve. I thought this would be the case. Typically, when weather is worse than forecast, it tends not to improve very quickly either. Our 20 minutes was up. I keyed the radio mic and spoke “We need clearance to Kenai, our alternate.” I sent an electronic message of our plans to our dispatcher.

Air Traffic Control responded promptly, “Fly heading 180…you’re number 4 for the approach over there.” Apparently, each of the aircraft keeping us company at the holding fix had given up the foolish idea that Mother Nature had any sunshine and lollipops for them, but just minutes before us. We now had to wait for them to land at Kenai.

Luckily, the weather at Kenai was clear. Cloudy, bitterly cold and windy. 18 degrees Fahrenheit with 40 knot gusts. No snow, though. We pointed our jet invisibly through the clag toward the lone rectangular strip of asphalt within range that could take us. Hopefully we wouldn’t be there for long.

Descending through the base of the overcast at 4000 feet, John and I easily located the runway. When a mile and a half of pavement is laid down in the middle of remote wilderness, it tends to stand out. Our paperwork showed only the barest of information regarding the aerodrome. Radio frequencies, procedures to be followed, a small diagram of open spaces where we could hope to park a Boeing 737.

We touched down, cleared the runway and lumbered to a resting spot on the tarmac in front of two cargo jets. We started the Auxiliary Power Unit, shut down the engines and completing our checklists, noting that we had been in the air almost 7 hours since departing O’Hare. We had just over 45 minutes of fuel remaining. Legal, but barely.

Now what? More fuel for sure. What else? Better weather, of course. Did I mention that only yesterday I was looking forward to this flight? My exuberance would have to be converted to energy for what was to come. (To be continued.)

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One Comment
  1. Peggy permalink

    Waiting with baited breath!….

    Sent from my iPad

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