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Divert To Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) -Part 4

April 30, 2014

Row 21 is an exit row aboard our plane. Along with the obvious benefit of a convenient hatch with which to leave the jetliner post-haste, it also offers a corporeal benefit: more legroom from the seat row staring one in the face. Frequent customers desire these slightly more spacious accommodations, as does pretty much anyone who wants a little more room, especially if you’re taller than 5’6”. Or if you’re going to be seated there for 6+ hours on your way to Alaska.

Perpetually in search of more revenue, marketing types at airlines have been charging a not-insignificant tariff for the privilege of sitting in these rows. Depending on the flight, these seats can be the first snatched up by customers, or not—presumably if someone doesn’t wish to pay the extra cost.

Today, this row is pretty much empty. Except for one rather tall, middle-aged gentleman who poked his head into our cockpit before we left O’Hare. Also a professional pilot, the identification badge he holds in his hand indicates he flies for a global small package delivery carrier. In short, he’s a cargo pilot. His name is Rex.

Rex is our jumpseater. A jumpseat is the extra seat in the cockpit used on an irregular basis to accommodate observers to the flight deck proceedings. If not used in an official capacity for company flight checks or such, this seat is open for almost any airline pilot, our line or others, who might not otherwise get a ‘space available’ seat in the cabin. It is first come-first served.

On our Boeing 737, this seat is not very comfortable. It actually swings out of the sidewall of the cockpit like a Murphy bed and locks bolt upright into place in the only space left to stand while the cockpit door is closed. When someone occupies this seat, the cockpit interior resembles a sardine can.

Rex introduces himself to John and I before departure at O’Hare. It’s a matter of courtesy—a way of saying ‘thanks’ for the ride. Rex explains that he is actually commuting to work this day. He is technically based in Anchorage, but he does not live there—quite common for pilots to live somewhere, yet work many miles away. Jumpseating makes this life possible. But this commute is fraught with peril. As one of the former, I always try to be gracious to anyone wishing for a ‘free ride’ on one of our airplanes. It’s just a small way for me to show my gratitude for all the jumpseats I’ve had the fortune in which to sit.

After we both shake Rex’s hand, I ask him if he has to sit up here with us. Given our relatively light passenger count this day, he replies in the negative. “I’ve got a comfy seat in the exit row…”

“Great. Make yourself at home.” John says cordially. He’ll be much more comfortable there for the long flight to Anchorage. Actually, having Rex seated in the exit row tends to guarantee that if the overwing exit needs to be utilized for emergency egress, it will be likely done correctly. We are both glad he has been assigned this seat.

John and I silently exhale; selfishly knowing we will not have to share any of our limited space up here for the flight northwest bound. Seeing that the overhead luggage compartments appear to be filling rapidly, and to not delay the boarding of the aircraft, Rex hands his roll-aboard bag to an O’Hare ramper in the jetway before he heads back to his seat. The ramp worker will place his bag in one of the two cargo compartments beneath the plane.

In the flurry of activity before departure, this friendly, routine interaction is quickly forgotten.

Now, as darkness completely envelops our refugee operation, Rex rises from his seat and steps up front to the cockpit to speak with us. Simultaneously, John and I are distracted by the sudden appearance of a Jeep just to the left of the aircraft airstair. We are both startled to remember that there is yet another professional pilot aboard sharing in this great adventure.

We both recognize him by his uniform pants and shirt, though not presently emblazoned with his company insignia—he’s traveling in relative anonymity for his own privacy—no one wants to be bombarded with insipid questions about airlines and flying when one is just trying to commute to work. We offer him a bemused smile and a half-hearted “Hey…”

“Hey!” Rex responds. “How’s it looking at Anchorage?” A fair question, but also a loaded one.

Knowing he is probably familiar with the pickle we have all found ourselves in, I am not concerned.  I offer a brief summation of our travails, but with much more technical detail than either of us have relayed over the PA. Sometimes too much ‘tech talk’ can confuse our customers, leading to stress for everyone. We don’t have to dumb it down for Rex. He might even offer us some sympathy.

“The winds are screaming up there.” I start to rattle off. “230 at 25, gusts to 38. Only shot for us is the ILS to 15, but the mins for that approach are 4000 RVR. And it’s been sitting at 3500 now for over an hour…” Rex slowly nods his head in acknowledgement as he pieces together our collective dilemma.

“There’s no TSA for the pax here, so we are stuck.” John summarizes before I can add any other color. He shakes his head for emphasis. “And now I’m up on my duty time.”

Rex groans. He knows how that works, too. “Why did you guys divert to Kenai anyway? Couldn’t you have gone to Fairbanks?”

This is a question John and I have mulled over ever since we entered the hold outside of Anchorage. Fairbanks is a much larger city than Kenai. They have TSA there. It is also many miles away on the other side of Anchorage.

I beat John to the punch. “Once we started our descent into Anchorage, we were committed to either Anchorage or Kenai. We no longer had the gas to climb back up and fly to Fairbanks.” John nods. It’s the truth.

It all sounds like an inquisition on a superficial level, but we know Rex is prying this information out of us for a reason.

“I’ve got a morning show. I’m supposed to fly one leg to Narita…” John and I both look up at him, our weak smiles replaced by winces and slow shakes of the head. With all the logistical hurdles we are facing at the moment, this plan seems just as dubious as those of our other 109 passengers, whatever they are.

“The pizzas are here!” chirps the excited voice of Kelly in the forward galley. Rex steps aside as we turn our focus to something possibly pleasant for a change.

Cold air rushes in when the forward left cabin door is opened. But this time it carries the aroma of warm bread and Italian spices. Plates, napkins and bottles of water arrive too. Our cabin crew fan out along the plane’s single aisle to dispense this manna from Kenai.

Other ground workers scurry up the airstairs, too. We are personally informed that our deice crew is ready to begin the ice removal regimen. I reach down and to the left of my left knee and grab the deicing checklist. Reading aloud, I carefully complete the steps, resting my fingers on each switch for confirmation before I move them. John follows my every action. In less than 30 seconds the plane is ready to be deiced. John tells the lead deice crewmember to commence.

John’s phone rings. Tethered to the wall charger above my head after its’ strenuous usage, John leans over to my side of the cockpit to answer it. It’s the flight operations duty manager, or FODM. He’s our on-call worldwide pilot liaison at our network operations center. Like our dispatcher, he has a host of resources available at his fingertips, including telephone lines to the Senior Vice President of Flight Operations, who reports directly to our CEO.

He also has flown the line as a Captain, so his ability to provide empathy and offer assistance is usually present. I say usually, because his primary role is that of a firefighter—that is, he puts out ‘operational fires.’ Ours is not quite a conflagration, but we hope for our sake it is producing enough smoke to be seen clearly from where he sits. If he can help facilitate our expedited departure, we want him to do so. Our 60 minute duty time clock is down to less than 45.

Surprisingly, the FODM relays the news that permission has been granted to allow any passenger to leave the aircraft to use the restroom contained in one small brick outbuilding immediately adjacent to our left wing. Just one condition—each passenger wishing to do so must be personally escorted by a local Kenai airport employee to and from this oasis. They will not be allowed to deviate from that path between the aircraft and the restroom. Sounds cumbersome to us, but whatever. Any stipulation is better than overflowing toilets on an aircraft that is to be used to transport people expecting a minimum level of communal hygiene.

A fresh weather report arrives via yet another phone call, this one from our dispatcher. Anchorage weather is now exactly at 4000 RVR—literally our legal minimum for attempting an approach and landing. We can depart once we have the correct fuel load and accompanying paperwork.

These puzzle pieces appear to be falling into place. But John and I are wary. Any detail that is left unchecked by us could act as a Siren’s song, singing us to shipwreck. Our final dispatch release arrives in a thick raft of freshly printed paper. Just as John dives in to the stack of information, the long-awaited fuel truck arrives.

We know the fueler has boarded the aircraft before we even see him standing in our doorway. The distinctive musk of kerosene soaked coveralls replaces any lingering scent of pizza.

“How much fuel do you want?” asks the burly, bearded man standing at least 6’3”. He looks like someone from Central Casting sent to play the role of an Alaskan aircraft refueler.

“Hang on, we’re figuring it out now.” I tell him. John is hunched over trying to read in the shadowy light.

“Sixteen-seven.” John says, finally. That’s a total of 16,700 pounds of jet fuel. We turn and look at the refueler to confirm he understands.

I point to the three fuel gauges in the center of our control panel. “See here? Left wing, Center and Right wing tank.” I show him the three places the fuel can go. “Just fill the wings. Are you comfortable refueling a 737?” I raise my eyebrows and look him in the eyes.

“Yeah, sure. I just finished fueling Alaska…” he shrugs with palpable confidence.

He is referring to the Alaska Airlines 737 that diverted to Kenai a few minutes before we did. A 737 is a 737, right? Good enough. We tell him we only have about 30 minutes left before we time out of duty. Before he leaves the cockpit, he mentions he’s going to need a credit card number before we go.  With this fueling company, we apparently have the carte blanche of a West German Cessna making a pit stop in Red Square.

“We’ll get the company credit card number for you, I promise…” says John, emphatically. I shrug my shoulders and shake my head for the umpteenth time at all of the little crap we are having to do tonight to get the hell out of Dodge, I mean, Kenai.

Satisfied with our response, the fueler trundles down the airstairs as fast as his large frame can take him. I bet he’s tired. He tells us he’s been working alone all night.

“Okay.” I remark after the fueler leaves. “We might just get there.” I add, trying to sound optimistic.  I sense John would appreciate any show of buoyancy I might provide.

We both hope that the fuel now finally available to us will be the key to our imminent departure to Anchorage. John calls Dispatch again, this time for a company credit card number. John is not paying for the gas with his own credit card. Neither am I. We work for a big company.

Kelly pokes her brunette head into the cockpit. “We ever get permission to have the passengers use the bathrooms inside?” She asks.

“As a matter of fact, yes. But it’s too late now. We should have our fuel in a couple of more minutes.” John explains to her. “Don’t tell anybody.”

Her eyes widen, she nods quickly, almost imperceptively, and retreats into the forward galley without saying a word.  She understands the crush of time, too.

We’re not trying to be cruel.  The toilets are mercifully still flushing, indicative that ‘Full’ on the cabin gage does not yet correlate to ‘full’ in the toilet holding tanks. And having a passenger leave the aircraft to use the facilities inside would waste precious minutes of John’s remaining duty time. It is only a 20-minute flight to Anchorage, assuming the weather holds.

I glance at the fuel totalizer below the three fuel gauges. It conveniently sums up the quantity in all three tanks. “16.7” It shows. Just what we ordered—16,700 pounds of fuel. “We are out of here!” my mind yells.

Then I notice something.  It doesn’t look right.  There is a problem.

My instructions of “Just fill the wings…” to our fueler have not been followed. Instead, 3100 pounds of fuel now resides in our center fuel tank, between both of the wings. The rest of the fuel is where it should be.

This center tank fuel quantity exceeds a Boeing 737 aircraft limitation. One determined by structural engineers, steeped in the metallurgy and physics that designed the airplane. Essentially, this limitation prohibits more than 1000 pounds of fuel to be carried in the center tank if the wing tanks are not filled. Sounds counterintuitive given the symmetrical fuel loading, but a limitation is a limitation. John and I know this number. And our fueler has exceeded it by over 2000 pounds. This is potentially very bad news.

“John, look…” I point to the center tank quantity.

“Holy shit.”  Up until this point, I have not heard John utter any profanity.  But John knows this aircraft limitation too.

“Call maintenance. Maybe we can transfer it out of the center tank and into the wings.” I offer quickly. “They do it all the time. We can hopefully talk him through it.”

I’m grasping at straws, and I know it. Transferring fuel is going to take time. We are almost out of it. John calls Dispatch and has them patch him through to our maintenance department.

Our fueler reboards the plane. His husky form blocks the cockpit doorway. He has no idea what trouble he has just caused us.

“My boss says we’re gonna need a credit card number.”  Of course he does, I think.  “Fuel look okay?” he says in a gravelly voice.  John looks up momentarily, annoyed, then squeezes his hands over his ears to hear the voice at the other end of the phone.

I am left with the delicate task of telling our fueler that he has not followed our instructions. I am hoping that John merely hands the fueler his phone to speak directly to our maintenance controller in Chicago. He doesn’t.  John’s phone remains jammed against his ear.

“Um…it looks like the number’s okay” I remark in as cool a tone of voice as I can muster. “But I told you to only put the fuel in the wing tanks.” These last two words hiss as I speak them.

My sarcasm hits the target.  “I just…threw the switches, just like I did on that Alaska plane” retorts the fueler, his voice rising an octave in defense. “This is a 737-400, isn’t it?”

I reply, sighing, “No. This is a 737-800.” I have no earthly idea what the difference is between the fueling of a 737-400 and a 737-800. All I know is this guy got it wrong.

John looks up at me, cupping the receiver of his phone with his hand. “We can transfer gas, but not with passengers on the plane.” he blurts.  Yet another limitation—this one not widely known, but not typically an issue for us anywhere—except Kenai.

Our passengers have no place else to go.

We are left with only 15 minutes of time on John’s duty period to solve this last conundrum.  The weather gods have momentarily relented.  And after arranging airstairs, deicing, pizza, water, permission to potty, reams of paperwork and fuel (as ignominious as that has become), we must face a fact that is as cold as the air outside our plane.  Legally transporting 109 men, women and children, one jumpseater and our four frazzled flight attendants up to Anchorage tonight is now impossible. (To be continued.)

  1. Peggy Vaughan permalink

    Wow! And the plot thickens…..

  2. Bill and Judy Reidy permalink

    Your story bring us right on the plane with you. Can’t wait for Part 5…….

  3. Really looking forward the next bit… and relieved to know you made it home in one piece!

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