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Divert To Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) -Part 3

April 21, 2014

“We are going to need to get deiced.” I sigh with resignation to John as I re-enter the cockpit, slowly peeling off my layers of insulation from the frigid bluster outside.

Slumped in the Captain’s seat, John frowns and keys the radio mic to Kenai operations. “Put us on the list to deice, too.” he says, knowing full well he is asking a considerable amount of manpower be set aside for us from the small airline operation. A Boeing 737 is a much larger plane than a Beechcraft 1900.

“Will do…” comes the cheerful response from Kenai, “…after the -1900s are gone.” Those guys have jobs to do for their company first. Makes sense. We are needy freeloaders here.

“Wings and tail?” asks Kenai as a follow-up to clarify where the deice liquid needs to be applied.

“Just the leading edges.” I say. John parrots our needs through the radio to Kenai.

“Roger.” comes the response.

The deicing procedure checklist needs to be followed up here in the cockpit now, too. Not very involved, but an important set of instructions that we must comply with exactly, lest a host of other problems be created—the least of which is fumes from the alcohol spray seeping into our aircraft environmental system, which heats the cabin air and delivers it to our passengers. This switch will need to be turned off by us while the deicing takes place. We wait for the deice crew to appear.

I glance at the clock by my right knee. The timer I started on my side of the cockpit now shows 75 minutes elapsed since we were told it would take an hour for the fuel truck to show up. I mention that to John and he calls Kenai operations on the radio again. The wan March daylight is quickly fading beneath the leaden sky.

“He’s still fueling that DC-9 freighter behind you. It’s probably gonna be a while.” comes the milquetoast response.

Obviously, it’s not what any of us aboard this aircraft want to hear. Yet I am not really surprised. A 2000 gallon fuel truck with a single person manning it in 18°F weather isn’t going to do much of anything very quickly. From what we understand, the DC-9 is the number 2 of 4 aircraft waiting here for fuel at Kenai, though nobody really can verify that information for us. The fueler does not have a radio. As far as we know we are still number 4 to get our gas.  John picks up the PA mic and delivers this less-than-satisfying news to our passengers.

A radio report from the soon-to-be-closed-for-the-evening Kenai control tower indicates the weather at Anchorage is essentially unchanged—below minimums—and showing no positive trend. John glances at his watch and thinks aloud, “I wonder if they have a pizza place here.”

Good question. I wonder as well. It is entirely possible that, except for our 16 first class guests, none of our other passengers have had much to eat for many hours. Complimentary meal service on domestic flights was discontinued years ago for our coach customers. And it’s been almost 9 hours since the main cabin door was shut at our departure gate at O’Hare. Although John and I were fed twice on our way to Anchorage (two small meals—both contractually required, neither terribly sumptuous), neither of us are the least bit hungry. Stress can do this to you.

“Let’s call Kenai and see.” I wonder aloud back to John. He keys the radio mic and inquires.

“Yep. There’s a Pizza Hut here in town. How many pizzas do you want?” asks Kenai.

John looks over at me. “20? I really have no idea.” I shrug. “20.” John intones.

“Okay. We’ll call ‘em.” Once again, Kenai operations is pressed into service to meet our immediate needs.

John is back on his cell phone with our company operations center. Man, do I wish my cell phone worked. I could Google all of these little logistical questions we have.

“These guys are gonna hate us.” I mutter. John looks up and nods his head.  I wish we had our own company personnel here.  We don’t.

A single tone chime rings in our ears. It’s the interphone between the cockpit and our two flight attendant stations in the cabin. One of them has a flight attendant wishing to speak with us, but not wanting to walk all the way up to the front of the plane to do so.

It’s Joann, the most senior of our four flight attendants calling from the aft galley.

“Hi Dave…”, she starts. Her voice sounds sheepish. “Uh…our lav system is showing ‘Full’ back here.”

Crap. Literally. This means that the two tanks holding all of the toilet waste aboard the aircraft, both liquid and solid, are either full or about to be full.  This is not welcome news.

“Do the toilets still flush?” I ask.

“Yes. We just had someone use one of them in the back here just a second ago.” Joann replies.

“Good. That means at the very least there’s still a little room in there.” I respond. “Because if they are truly full, the toilets will no longer flush.” And nobody wants to deal with that issue right now. There’s no telling when they will cease to operate entirely.

“Okay, good. And we’re pretty much out of bottled water now, too.” she adds.

Good grief. Although the thought of no more water being consumed equals no more people using the toilets, I know that’s not quite how the human body works. People need water to drink. We need to provide for people’s physiological needs. No one else is going to do it.  And not with soda, alcohol or Bloody Mary mix. There isn’t much of that stuff left after 9 hours, either. We need bottles of water.

“I’ll order some more with the pizzas.” I reply.

I interrupt John in his cell phone conversation. “The lavs are showing full.” He sighs and rolls his eyes in exasperation.

“And now our lavs are full. Do you know if Kenai has a lav service truck here?” he asks into the phone. The person on the other end of the line at our operations control center has absolutely no idea. We are alone to juggle yet another hot potato.

“Kenai operations, 1425…” I key the radio mic. “Do you guys happen to have a lav truck?” I ask hopefully, my question hanging in the air. There is a long pause over the radio.

“Negative.” comes the response with finality.

I squeeze my eyes closed and shake my head. ‘Oh shit’ is right.

Recall that the Kenai airport has no TSA security structure in place. This means that if any passenger leaves the sterile confines of our aircraft, they may not be allowed to re-board the plane. Full restrooms or no full restrooms. It doesn’t matter to the TSA.

The mandate here is that any prohibited item such as a gun, knife, large container of liquid of dubious origin or anything else that might be used as a weapon must be verified to not be on the body of anyone boarding a large airliner within the United States of America. None of that stuffed into a suitcase or purse, either. That’s the rules. This was accomplished as a matter of course at Chicago O’Hare. But not here in Kenai.  Kenai does not have scheduled air carrier service with large airplanes.  Just the very occasional refugee Boeing, Douglas or Airbus looking for gas.

So all the glistening white porcelain toilets and urinals within the warm confines of the airport terminal building just steps away from our aircraft are as off-limits to our passengers as if we were flying overhead Kenai at 37,000 feet.

John the Captain gets back on the horn to start chipping away at this proverbial iceberg with a pen knife. I am dubious that anything can be done about this, but he’s going to try. Good on him, I think.  I am glad he is trying.

The radio squawks again. “1425, Kenai. There’s a problem with the pizzas…” What’s that, I ask. “Uh…well, Kenai is a pretty small town. They don’t believe us when we tell them we need 20 pizzas.”

Of course they don’t. Who, in a town of 7,000, would be ordering 20 pepperoni pizzas? Well, an airplane with 110 men, women and children sitting on the ramp at the Kenai airport would, I reply like a wise guy.

“Yeah, we told them that.” Kenai picks up on my sarcasm. “They think they’re being punked.”

I can believe that. So can John. “What’s the phone number? We’ll call them ourselves.” says John, now finished with his other phone call. He dials each digit as it is radioed to us from Kenai ops.

“Hello? Yeah, hi. This is the captain of flight 1425 here at the Kenai airport…” John begins. The conversation ends quickly. John looks at his phone then turns to me.

“They still don’t believe me. They’re sending someone out to the airport to confirm we are really sitting here.” He’s slack-jawed, as am I. Captains may hold great sway with the operations on their airplane. But it is now apparent their stature at a local pizzeria is equivalent to a high school student trying to prank the local supermarket over the phone with the smartass question, “Do you have Prince Edward in a can?”

A few more minutes tick by. Kenai operations calls over the radio. “Pizza Hut just called us back.” the voice continues. “The manager drove out here himself. They believe you now. They want you to call them back with your credit card number.”

John does so, biting his tongue, then nonchalantly pulling out his own personal Visa card as if he were ordering delivery of a pizza to his home back in Houston. He tacks on two cases of water. They tell him we’ll have the pizzas in 45 minutes or so. Another wait. Another simultaneous glance at the clock.

One more issue associated with time confronts us. Duty time. By law, airline pilots can only be on duty for a certain defined period before a mandatory rest period must be taken. For our flight attendants and me, this countdown began when we reported for duty in Chicago. On the other hand, John was pressed into service today two hours and thirty minutes prior in New Orleans. This is commonly done to reserve pilots like him. Nobody expects to be delayed. Certainly not like John and I have been here in Kenai.  Any delays must be absorbed by the duty time allotted.

So, along with the abominable weather conditions raging at the Anchorage airport, the fueling and deicing, John’s total duty time is the limiting factor to our flying to Anchorage tonight.  He will turn into a proverbial pumpkin before anyone else on his crew.  We cannot go without him.

Yet another phone call to the crew scheduling desk at our operations control distills John’s exact ‘drop dead’ time: 14 hours and 30 minutes of total duty. John and I count on our fingers from his start time, convert this to 24 hour military time, then to Zulu time and then make a final correction for local Kenai time.  We do it again and again, making certain not to fail grade school arithmetic with our rapidly fatiguing brains.

We are relieved to discover that our crew schedulers have deduced exactly the same ‘critical crew off’ time as we have.  For John, it is precisely 60 minutes from now. Meaning, if we are not literally rolling down the runway here in Kenai in exactly 60 minutes, John will need to find rest for his weary head at a local hotel somewhere here in this small town.  We will gladly follow him.  I look at my watch, still set to my bedside clock three time zones east:  it’s 1:30am.  I’ve been up since 5am yesterday.

When I ask Kenai operations how many hotels they have here in town, the answer comes quickly. “Two.”

Kenai knows we are pressed up against the duty time wall too.  None of us want to test the hotel capacity of what is likely a very nice small community here in southern Alaska. We would be much more comfortable sleeping in our high-rise hotel rooms waiting empty for us in Anchorage. We are certain our passengers would agree with us on this. For now, we keep John’s duty time limit a secret from them.

We are now waiting for weather, fuel, deicing, food, water and a stack of paperwork. Oh, and the permission from the TSA gods, whoever they are, to allow our passengers to use the restroom here in Kenai if need be. All of it, but not necessarily in that order. I poke the ‘Start’ button on my timer again. 60 minutes and counting.  (To be continued.)

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