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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 2

April 16, 2014

As the whine of the engines fades, a dull roar fills the cockpit. Winds, unseen but heard and felt, buffet the aircraft. The flat gray overcast make it look like we’ve parked in an upside down bowl of oatmeal, with only a few rows of pine trees and small buildings along the rim for flavor. This benign weather softly belies the blizzard raging a scant 50 miles northeast of us in Anchorage, precluding our arrival there. The late evening sun, understandably, is muted trying to define daytime.

Outside the cockpit window stretches the rest of the concrete apron used to park itinerant aircraft. To its’ left is a single story flat-roofed building not much larger than a modest three bedroom rambler. This is the airline terminal at Kenai. Beyond that, a chain link fence and parking lot. In the distance beyond is what looks like a business of some sort—perhaps a hotel. I can’t make out the sign. That, and the squat control tower and small outbuildings over our left shoulder pretty much define our landscape. If there are mountains anywhere nearby, they were obscured by haze in the waning light. Nothing looks terribly inviting, I think to myself. Perhaps I’ve figured out why this is a town of only 7,000.

Milling about in front of us are a few airport employees, each dressed in dark coveralls against the chill and all looking our way. They’re probably wondering to each other “What the hell are they doing here?”, if not saying it outright.  My airline brags about its’ global reach, from London to Los Angeles and Lima to Lagos. But Kenai is not yet on our route map. Understandably then, no one runs to greet us.

John approves turning off the seatbelt sign, a curious omission from our “parking” checklist. Not that our passengers had any place really to go. Sure, they could stretch their legs after being seated for the past 7+ hours. But no doors would be opened. Anchorage is their destination, and Kenai is not.

We both turn on our cellphones—just like every other person 13 years or older on the airplane.   The upper left corner of my phone displays “Searching…” accompanied by a little clock symbol annoyingly rotating like a slow motion carousel as it strains to lock on to any cell tower in range. Not expecting much, I try dialing my wife. Nothing goes through. No wi-fi signal, either. I put the phone back in my pocket.

I look down at our communication keypad above my left knee. In the bottom center of its’ display screen are the words “NO COMM”. Translation—no ability to send and receive messages directly from our airline operations control center to our computer here in the cockpit. No ability to print essential weather or flight plan information on our printer, either.

What makes an airplane fly?  Cynically, money and paperwork, the reams of which will now have to be brought to us from outside the airplane. Exactly where is unknown to us right now.  This will add time and complexity to our efforts in recovering our flight to Anchorage.

I look up at John. He has his phone squished to his ear so he could hear above the wind outside. “Hello…? Yeah, it’s the captain for flight 1425… Yeah, we’re here in Kenai…” Obviously he got a hold of somebody, I surmise. Thank God someone’s phone works on here, I think to myself.  How we got along without cell phones for as long as humans have been roaming this earth still baffles me.

John is talking to our dispatcher, a gentleman faceless to us. His voice emanates from a tall building in the middle of Chicago. From this perch, he shares joint responsibility with the Captain for the planning and execution of all company flights assigned to him. At any given moment these flights could be anywhere. We have the unique distinction of putting Kenai on his map. He’s probably as chagrined with this fact as we are.

The dispatcher peers at several desktop monitors displaying real-time data of all the flights he’s shepherding across the network. He has the ability to speak directly with aircraft inflight via cockpit communications system or by radio. But not when the words “NO COMM” appear on our display. Thankfully he has a phone system and all the free minutes of talk. And we are on the ground somewhere where we can use ours. At least the Captain can anyway.

While stuck in Kenai, Dispatch will be our most-used point of contact. But the process is as tedious as it is time-consuming—our dispatcher is busy. We are not the only flight needing his attention. However, our dispatcher passes along one essential nugget of information to us—the radio frequency that we can use to communicate to the local airline operation office within the Kenai terminal building. I twist the knobs on one of our radios and John keys the mic.

“Kenai Operations, flight 1425…”

“Flight 1425, Kenai Operations. Go ahead…” comes the voice of a young man in a crisp tone.

Beside the businesslike voice in the Kenai control tower clearing us to land, we finally talk to someone else on the airport. Someone that might be able to help us get some gas and get the hell out of here.

“Yes, your company just called. We spoke to them. You’re gonna be number four to get gas, as those three other airplanes that landed before you get it first…”

Not quite what we wanted to hear, but whatever. The filling station is open at least.

“How long will it take?” asks John.

“Um…not sure exactly. Lemme check.” says Kenai.

This process of getting information through several sources only by what is spoken on the radio or telephone will get very annoying and time-consuming. It will, however, eventually make time pass rather quickly. At least to me, anyway.

“45 minutes or so…maybe an hour?” offers Kenai.  This is more of a question than a definitive answer.  Besides, 45 minutes to an hour sounds kind of on the long side to both of us. John keys the mic and asks why.

“Well, they only have one fuel truck…and it only holds 2000 gallons at a time.”

Ah. John and I do the calculation for ourselves and the other airliners behind us waiting for their fuel. For every airplane fueled, the fuel truck will have to refuel itself, too. This is going to take at least an hour.

O, optimism! Maybe it’ll work out that way. John and I look at each other and shrug our shoulders. I glance at the clock above my right knee and punch the timer “on”. I’ve learned from past diverts that it’s easy for us pilots to lose track of just how much time has elapsed while we wait things out. I didn’t want to lose this situational awareness. Meanwhile, John picks up the PA mic and makes an announcement to our passengers and flight attendants with a slow, deliberate cadence so the words are enunciated clearly lest he be pressed into having to repeat himself. This will prove to be good strategy.

He calmly goes into detail about the reason for the diversion in the first place—the Anchorage weather, why we could only hold for 20 minutes, and why Kenai was our only port in the storm. Then he mentions that our only choice is to wait out the weather and get more gas. “And it should be only an hour or so before we get our fuel…”

He mentions one more very important detail about our wait here at Kenai:  No one may leave the aircraft.  Given the relative quiet of the airport, no blue-shirted officials of the Transportation Safety Administration are available here.  If a passenger leaves the airplane for the terminal building, they are no longer considered “sterile” in the eyes of the TSA, so they cannot re-board the aircraft.  This is to verify that illegal material is not allowed to be brought aboard the aircraft.

Hopefully this will not be an issue, he tells them.  He signs off with a thank you and a promise to pass along any other information as either he or I receive it. I look at the clock. Surprisingly, we’ve only been on the ground for about 10 minutes.  It feels like an hour already.

John gets back on his cell phone now. He talks to dispatch again, then the meteorologists that are on staff in an attempt to put together a realistic plan for us to fly back up to Anchorage tonight. It doesn’t look too promising.

The weather is still lousy in Anchorage. The all-important visibility now shows 2400 RVR, an indication that the snowfall has increased in intensity. Additionally, crosswinds that exceed the operational landing limitation for our jet on snow-covered runways have been measured. Not only will the visibility need to improve, but either the wind will have to diminish or the snow will have to get scraped off the runway. Both seem unlikely from my experience. Having to spend the night in Kenai is now a distinct possibility.

Before taking off again, our company procedures insist that we perform an exterior inspection of the aircraft, so I figure I may as well knock that duty off of the list while I still have some daylight. This is typically easy to accomplish given a jetway plugged in to the aircraft main entrance door. But there are no jetways here at Kenai. Without it, it’s about 11 feet from the aircraft floor to the ground. And I’m not using the escape rope to rappel from the cockpit unless the airplane’s on fire. Happily, it’s not.

So now the challenge is to get portable airstairs brought to the aircraft. More calls on the radio to Kenai operations. “Yeah, sure…but it’s gonna be a few minutes…” comes the reply. “We got our own flights we have to board and get out of here.”

Sure enough, a Beech 1900 turboprop airliner taxies in and shuts down about 200 feet in front of us. The door pops open and a few passengers slowly disembark, clutching their carry-ons. Minutes later in reverse order, a few more passengers walk briskly across the ramp to the open cabin door. It looks very cold out there.

Eventually, the airplane taxis away almost silently, the howl of the wind carrying the sound of twin turboprop engines away from our ears. The airstairs arrive a couple of minutes later. Only after I don my suit jacket, overcoat, hat, non-airline issue scarf and gloves do I give Kelly permission to open the door. Frigid air floods the small vestibule separating the cockpit from the first class section. Though the temperature difference is breathtaking, the air smells clean and fresh. Before I head into the Arctic I tell them to keep the door open because I’ll be back soon and don’t want to have to wait to reheat my shivering self.

I trundle down the airstairs, the whole structure trembling with my weight and the force of the wind. I hold my overcoat collar pressed against my neck to keep the biting chill at bay. Fortunately, the inspection goes as planned—the aircraft is in exactly the same shape it was 8 hours ago when I performed the same at O’Hare. Except for one minor but very important discrepancy. The leading edges of the wings and tail have a thin layer of ice on them, as if painted with baker’s glaze. This accretion is due to our extended hold in the clouds over Anchorage. Although we had removed some of this ice in flight with our airborne ice protection equipment, a small amount reformed during our final descent toward Kenai. It will need to be removed before we take off again for Anchorage.

This is more bad news for us, as deicing a Boeing 737 is not as simple as deicing a Beech 1900, mostly because of the size and the quantity of deicing fluid needed. Fortunately, we observe another Beech 1900 being deiced in front of us. At least they have a de-ice machine. Hopefully they have enough deice fluid. And know how to deice us. While this process is generally under the supervision of someone else at one of our regular destinations, only John and I are left to confirm this here in Kenai. Ah details, where the gods and devils live.  (To be continued.)

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One Comment
  1. Did seeing the Beech getting deiced bring back some memories? I’m loving this story and can’t wait to find out what happens. I’m hoping all goes well.

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