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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 5

July 9, 2014

“We’re done. That’s it.” John states flatly. Our sighs can fill an airship.

Have you ever been rooting for someone, say a favorite but hapless basketball team? You know…they are in the championship game, final period, a few ticks of the clock left in regulation. Your team’s down by one point. Everything is riding on this last play.   The team has a good chance. If they make it, they will make many people very happy. It’s been a tough slog, but deliverance is within reach.

Your pulse quickens as your adrenal glands secrete that magic stuff. Which makes you rise out of your seat crossing your fingers and holding your breath. You are hoping to cry out in joy and relief. You’ve been waiting for so long.

You watch the player pass the ball inbound. Your team has to hurry to cover the length of the court. A player is open at the far end. All he has to do is get the ball and make an easy layup.

The athlete is passed the ball. He eyes it, the spinning leather and rubber hurtling his way. Just as the player is to catch it, his mind shifts to the vision of a glorious, completed shot an instant too soon.

But he hasn’t caught the ball yet.

Instead, in this eye blink of inattention, the ball careens off of his fingertips and skitters away, out of reach. Time runs out. The final buzzer blares. The game is over.

Time has run out for us here in Kenai. John’s duty time, essentially eclipsed by our fueling catastrophe, has led us to the end of the road.

A mixture of anger and embarrassment bubble up inside me. “I should have watched what the fueler was doing.” I mutter ruefully to John. “Yeah, but we asked him if he knew how to fuel our airplane. And he said he did.” He replies in words meant to salve my bruised ego, but he’s just as disgusted.

We must now tell our hopeful, patient, faithful customers. They don’t yet know this finality.

What happens next for them, and for us—is unknown at the moment. In the torrent of phone conversations John has been having with our dispatcher, our crew schedulers and the FODM—all have focused on what needs to happen to get us the hell out of Kenai tonight—before we time out.

Now, on the bitterly cold, windswept and darkened tarmac here in Kenai, all 109 passengers, 1 jumpseater, 4 frazzled flight attendants and 2 very weary pilots need to be told of our fate. John and I exchange hangdog looks.

“Well, fuck.” concludes John.  I sigh and nod.

This could get ugly.  Or weird.  Or both.  Dave’s Awesome Adventure continues.

Logan, one of the two flight attendants up at the front of the airplane, pops his head into the cockpit. John tells him he’s timed out. A mix of surprise and grief contort Logan’s youthful, slightly scruffy mug. Logan blurts a string of questions. “What’s gonna happen to the passengers? What about us? What do we tell ‘em?” He’s obviously energized with the knowledge that his day will hopefully be over too, but his voice trails off with fatigue as he contemplates a hazy, indeterminate future for all of us. He and the other three flight attendants have been busy front and center with our passengers for almost 10 hours now.

“Don’t know yet.” John answers in a clipped tone. And he really doesn’t. Our airline might. I say ‘might’ only because we’ve been concentrating on all of our logistics to get us out of Kenai for the past three plus hours. Not what will happen if we can’t get out of Kenai. Lord only knows what our operations people are working on back in Chicago.

The company knows that John was running low on duty time. The company also knows that we have now been misfueled. It is up to John to connect those dots so our company can draw the picture of a now-completely marooned Boeing 737-800 in Kenai, Alaska. This will take yet another phone call to the company to do so.  But first, it seems to be John’s obligation to tell the bad news to our customers. No sense in delaying the inevitable.

Normally, most P.A.s are done from the cozy confines of the cockpit. This is not always deliberate—mostly it’s just convenient—that’s where we are sitting most of the time. And honestly, reaction to bad news seems remarkably muted when blocked by an armored cockpit door. At least to us pilots. One can’t much hear the groans of hapless customers through reinforced steel.

But as anyone who has ever flown on a commercial aircraft knows, there’s more than one P.A. microphone.

Here John surprises me. He rises from his seat and leaves the cockpit, steps over to the forward flight attendant jump seat and there picks up the microphone. Then he moves with it until the coiled cord stretches fully extended. He’s now standing in the middle of the aisle, almost parallel to the first row of First Class. He is definitely not hiding when he keys the mic.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” his voice measured but weary “…this is your captain speaking—again.” The few pockets of chatter in the cabin fall silent except for the distant roar of the wind and whine of the Auxiliary Power Unit.

“I know you are tired of hearing my voice, but I have bad news. It is my sad duty to tell you that I have run out of duty time here.”

As expected, a collective of grumbles rises from the rows of seats. He goes into further detail.

“We have had a technical problem while fueling the aircraft. And to fix it would exceed my legal duty time. We will have to fly you to Anchorage tomorrow.”

That last sentence is a complete guess. We have no idea what we will be doing tomorrow, though flying this aircraft to Anchorage certainly sounds plausible. Maybe not by us, though. We don’t know. John at least offers them some hope.

John goes on with what little detail we do know about how all of our passengers will be accommodated tonight here in Kenai. As I mentioned, there are but two hotels in this town of 7,000. And there is no one here from the airline customer service department. Just John, me and our four flight attendants. For all practical purposes, we are the airline.

John explains this last detail once more, stating that he will be making some more phone calls to our operational control center, and that all pertinent information will be relayed as quickly as it is received—and for the passengers to sit tight. Besides ruminating their fate and staring out the window into the bleak Alaskan darkness, there is little else they could be doing.

Just after the microphone is replaced in its’ holster, a young, rugged-looking woman in thick coveralls enters the aircraft. She works for the small regional airline in Kenai. After introducing herself, she says she is the local station manager. Her name is Karen. She turns towards the cockpit and stands in the doorway.

“All right, I just got off the phone with your company customer service and here’s the deal…” Her long blonde hair whips around her head as a cold blast of wind once again slices into the cabin. The tone in her voice is loud and a little shrill, as if she’s used to speaking with dolts most of the time. “Everybody is to grab what they have aboard the plane and come with us into the terminal building. We have free Wi-Fi in there, so anyone with a computer or smartphone can go to your company website and download a $75 hotel voucher.”

A voucher worth $75. That’s it. Believe it or not, ‘severe weather’ alone can indemnify most airlines from providing anything for their customers, harsh as it seems.

John and I look at each other and sigh. We know that our airline cannot control the weather. We also know that unfortunate circumstances sometimes befall even the most earnest of crews. We both hope this plan will accommodate everyone.

“Are there enough hotel rooms for all of them?” we inquire in stereo. Karen shrugs.

“What if someone doesn’t own a computer or smartphone, how will they be helped?” I ask.

“Well, it’s just me and another gal. We’ll try to help people as much as we can get online… “ Replies Karen. “Plus, the bar is open.”

This last feature of the Kenai Airport pastes a cynical smirk on my face. To summarize the charms to which we have been privy thus far: no TSA security available, no lavatory truck to empty our toilets, no Jetway to insulate us from the elements. But at least there’s a place to get drunk. Maybe that’s the reason there’s a bar in the airport. Whatever. Irony never fails to amuse.

John is back on the phone with Operations in Chicago. He confirms that six rooms have been reserved for our four sapped flight attendants and us. Further, he is told that none of the baggage will be unloaded from the two cargo compartments below the passenger cabin. There is no one in Kenai qualified and available to unload and properly deliver these bags to their rightful owners as per company policy.

John passes along this information via one last P.A. The outside air temperature still hovers in the upper teens. He broadcasts a fatherly reminder to bundle up against the subzero windchill. Our passengers file slowly forward down the aisle to the open doorway, wobbly stairway and cold darkness beyond.

Until this point, I have not made much eye contact with our customers, my focus being our crew and the logistical tasks at hand. Eye contact, or better yet a brief conversation with our unfortunate souls makes me feel self-conscious, embarrassed. Still I think it’s the right thing to do, to put a face on the other one of those voices from the cockpit.  I stand in the cockpit doorway with my overcoat and hat on, exchanging wan smiles with some. Others just look at me blankly and shake their heads. All I can do is nod, lips pursed tight and neutral in a non-verbal response to their show of dissatisfaction. There is nothing much to say, really, though some appear appreciative of our efforts and smile weakly. They are in the minority.

I look back into the cockpit at John. Again he has his phone pressed to his ear. He’s discussing our fuel situation. Given our predicament with too much fuel in the center tank, not enough fuel in the wing tanks and no way to safely balance it out (by us, anyway), the decision to add more fuel to the two wing tanks is made.

Through all of this drama, our burly, gruff aircraft refueler has wisely remained clear of the aircraft. He sits ensconced in the warm cab of his truck. We expect him at any time there seems to be a break in the steady stream of passengers filing off the aircraft. He still has not received any payment for goods provided, a point he made so clearly to us both prior to his misfueling—and after.

Drained deeply from the economy section, the aircraft is now almost empty of passengers. A few small children, remarkably composed, lead their parents down the aisle. Each clutches some sort of carry-on, rollaboards, purses, brightly colored stuffed animals and shopping bags that say ‘Garrett’s Gourmet Popcorn’, procured so long ago from the terminal at O’Hare. They look as bushed as we do. No one is in any particular hurry to leave the confines of the airplane.  They move with a certain trepidation.  However cramped and devoid of creature comforts, our aircraft is at least familiar and temperate. There is no telling what accommodations await them within the Kenai airport terminal building or beyond.

Finally pulling up the rear, Rex, our freight pilot jumpseater, trudges toward the front of the cabin. “Any chance of getting my bag out of the baggage compartment?” he asks simply.

I look back at him for a second before I respond.  My weary brain yelps reflexively.  “Why in the world do you, Mr. Jumpseater, not have your luggage with you??!?”

When commuting to or from work, it is common for a prospective jumpseater to always have his entire ensemble of luggage with him in the cabin of the airplane. This arrangement is preferred in case the jumpseating pilot needs to be removed from the aircraft due to revenue passengers arriving to claim his or her seat at the last possible moment, resulting in the need to find another way to one’s destination without much hassle. It has happened to me on numerous occasions.

My mind wrestles with the sentence but my lips know better to speak it. It’s an insult. And the guy seems like a very nice fellow, someone I’d be very pleased to beg a ride from if I needed to jumpseat someplace. Plus, he’s been through all of what our paying passengers have been through. There’s no need for me to be a jerk.

“You checked your bag?” I ask with the tiniest amount of incredulity.

“Yeah. Stupid me.”  Rex smirks and shakes his head.  “I thought the plane was going to be full, plus I had tons of time in Anchorage to claim my luggage, so I just thought it would be easier.” His response shows generosity and common sense. It suddenly makes me sad to think I came close to haranguing him for what I thought was a rookie ‘commuter pilot’ move.

“I’ve got my flight case with me, but no clothes. It’s supposed to be a three-day trip…” Rex continues. The prospect of flying halfway across the world with no other clothes than a wrinkled uniform shirt, scratchy wool blend pants and stinky undergarments sounds miserable indeed.

Before I tell him what I think the answer will be, I choose to defer the question to the boss. “Hey John,” I call up to the cockpit. “Rex checked his bag before we left O’Hare. Any chance of him getting it tonight?”

John responds quicker than I thought he would. He must have been expecting this question from somebody as they exited, though incredibly no one has asked. Perhaps everyone understood his P.A. describing this. “I don’t think so.” he states dejectedly while shaking his head.

He goes on stating our company’s policy of only allowing trained ground service staff to do this work plus our inability to know in which of the two baggage compartments his bag resides.  And those pesky logistics of literally crawling into the cargo holds 7 feet off the ground without proper equipment, namely a belt loader. He also restates the frigid temperature outside and the fact that other passengers could possibly learn of this ‘favoritism’ (really just professional courtesy) which allowed one of the other ‘customers’ to retrieve their bags. With all our passengers have been through, this might be the final spark to ignite a riot.

I don’t agree with all of the above given our particular circumstance, as I feel for this poor guy. He’s a compatriot. But once more tonight I shrug my shoulders and apologize. Rex nods mournfully. He gets it.  Rules are rules.  He thanks us anyway for trying, but his voice sounds funereal. He wishes us luck, turns and shuffles into the gloom with his flight case. This exchange saps what little energy remains in my body and I lean against the cockpit doorway dejected.

Our fueler now reappears. In his absence from our flight deck, he informs us that he has been in communication with his boss over the phone. More fuel is to be loaded aboard our plane to cancel our limitation, and this will be done promptly. He has also been provided that heretofore-essential payment information. Given the gravity of events that has befallen us, he now speaks softly, almost apologetically.

While this fueling takes place, our flight attendants begin to gather their own baggage from the overhead bins and bring it forward to the first class cabin. Heath, one of our two male flight attendants, has no uniform overcoat with him, a mind-boggling oversight, given his scheduled layover in Anchorage in March. He feigns concern for the bluster awaiting us outside. Logan, his coworker, shakes his head and chimes in. “Dude, you’re going to freeze to death out there.” I reach into my own suitcase and pull out my ‘off duty’ winter coat, a packable down jacket, and hand it to Heath. He takes it with a sheepish grin and puts it on. Everyone else in our crew is now wearing as many sweaters, overcoats, scarves and hats as we have brought with us to stave off the cold.

In what seems like only a few minutes time, our fuel has now been loaded aboard the aircraft. Satisfied finally with the correct quantity, John signs the fuel receipt and keeps a copy for our records. It is now time to put our aircraft to bed.

This procedure is complicated by a requirement made necessary by the arctic chill—all water must be drained from the aircraft. This is stipulated to prevent any damage from freezing and expansion of ice; much like what is done to RVs before they are stored in colder climates. Neither of us have had the need to do this before in this aircraft.  In fact, this task is typically done by our maintenance staff, who are obviously not here.   So John and I reference the appropriate written procedure in our flight manual. This book states that all water is to be drained from the aircraft, including toilets. Given the lack of lavatory servicing equipment here in Kenai, draining the toilets is not possible. Yet another phone call to our maintenance department yields approval to simply drain the freshwater tanks.

The control for this is not inside the aircraft. Rather, it is on the underside of the aircraft, toward the tail, behind a small hinged servicing door. John pulls on his overcoat and hat to tackle the chore. Curious about how this will go, I mirror him and grab my flashlight.

Outside now, beneath the scream of the still-running auxiliary power unit above our heads, we together find the appropriate panel in which to access this water valve. I hold the door open against the cold wind and steady my flashlight beam on the brass lever. John moves it counterclockwise and a gush of water spurts out of a small tube a few feet away, the spray partially atomizing in the gale. Eventually a long streak of ice forms on the frozen asphalt beneath. The flow of liquid subsides, indicating all water that can be drained has been. John closes the valve and snaps closed the fasteners that keep the door shut.

As we head back toward the front of the aircraft, I look up at the closed baggage door. “Too bad about the jumpseater and his bag, you know?” I offer, the sadness of our final conversation still present in my psyche. John stops in mid-stride.

“Oh my god.” John says.

“What? What’s up?” I ask. John looks back at the aft baggage door.

“We’ve got live cargo! Holy shit!  I forgot all about it!”  It’s easy to hear John even with the racket from the APU.

The realization hits me like an electric shock; a quick conversation took place between our ground crew at O’Hare and the two of us on the airplane interphone just before we pushed back from the gate.  “Hey guys…just to let you know, we’ve loaded 4 dog kennels into the aft bin as cargo. Four dogs.” John and I both heard it.

In fact, our paperwork containing the final weight and loading information made mention of this. Normally the presence of live cargo is a non-issue.  Small animals are transported all over our route system with care by our staff, all specially trained to load and unload them.  Usually the paper with our “numbers” on them is noted once before takeoff, then filed haphazardly in a stack with other papers, most with information quickly obsolete to our operation, such as hourly weather reports.

And in the rush to depart in a timely manner, this “Live Cargo” message can be quickly forgotten. Just like we have done. Until now.

“We got to get them out of there!” John says quickly. “They’ll freeze to death if we don’t!” I run back up the airstairs and into the cockpit and grab our radio microphone.

“Kenai operations, 1425.”

“Go ahead 1425…” comes the reply from the terminal building.

“Do you guys have a pickup truck or maybe a baggage cart that we might use? We forgot that we have four dog kennels in the aft baggage compartment that we need to rescue.” I’m trying not to sound desperate. At least the baggage compartment has been heated as a matter of course throughout this whole ordeal. But the thought of us forgetting about these creatures, then shutting down the aircraft and walking away would have meant that we had killed them.  I would have been devastated.

“We’re on it.”

In less than two minutes, the headlights of a pickup truck round the corner of the terminal building and head our way. John and I meet the truck as it backs up to the aft baggage compartment door. John pulls down the tailgate and hoists himself up, giving him the necessary height to climb into the cargo hold. I click on my flashlight and aim it at the door handle while John twists it open.  This is a task that pilots do only in the most uncommon of circumstances. We pretty much are redefining that term here in Kenai.

The door opens and pivots inward and up, revealing large plastic netting that has been fastened to the ceiling and floor of the compartment.  This is present to keep any shifting of cargo away from the door. The bottoms of four medium sized dog kennels can be seen behind one of them. John peels off his gloves to work with his bare hands to release the metal clamps holding the netting in place.

Once out of the way, he bends forward at the waist and reaches for the closest kennel and pulls it toward him. Inside rests a small terrier, not more than 18 inches long, trembling. John works with the driver of the pickup truck who has joined us in the cold to gently lower the kennel to the bed of the truck. This is repeated three times more.

Once all the kennels are in the pickup truck, I shine my flashlight in them. Through the metal grates, each of their sets of eyes glow in reflection, skittering dogs of indeterminate pedigree. They appear healthy, if not more than a little terrified. A small ziplock bag of dog food is taped to the top of each of their kennels.  John pulls the cargo door closed and hops off the truck. The Kenai ramp worker drives them back to the terminal and carries the kennels inside for us.

John and I once more climb aboard the aircraft to get out of the cold.

By now, our flight attendants have gathered their belongings and are ready to get to the hotel. They are waiting merely for us to escort them back to the terminal, each sitting in one of the wide first class seats with their hands deep down in their coat pockets, as if attempting to capture as much warmth as possible before they have to leave. John tells them about the canine calamity we’ve just narrowly avoided.  They are all too exhausted to offer up much more than a “wow”. I climb in the cockpit and proceed to shut down the APU.

Moving the APU master switch to OFF instantly causes the cabin lights to flicker to their emergency setting, greatly dimming the available light in the cabin. As the whine of the turbine fades, our flight attendants shuffle out the open front door and down the airstairs. A couple of more switches and the aircraft is completely dark. The only sound now is the omnipresent cold wind that roars over everything in Kenai.

I climb down the stairs as John turns to shut the cabin door from the outside. Pale light from the terminal building beckons us as we pull our luggage behind us. Even with my hand pressing the collar of my overcoat as tightly as I can against my chest, the cold air slices into me. My ears sting so much I gasp. It seems to take forever to walk back to the terminal, but none of us have any choice except to keep walking.

The inside of the terminal looks different from what I had imagined. For one, it’s bigger than I thought it would be, and two, most of our passengers still appear to be standing around, waiting. The reason for this is quickly evident.

“They don’t have enough rooms for us!” an obese middle-aged woman wearing a Chicago Bears parka states to Kelly, our perky brunette flight attendant.  She happened to be the lucky first of us inside the door. “There’s no other place for us to go.”

As if to protect ourselves from what looks to be an ambush, the six of us clump into a circle.  The florescent lights of the terminal seem especially harsh and bright compared to the interior illumination of the aircraft.  We are quickly surrounded by a gaggle of passengers.

“When are we going to get to Anchorage?” asks another. “They’re telling us nothing here!” Their disgust is hard to hide. Like it or not, we are still the face of the airline. But in the time it took between deplaning our passengers and putting the aircraft to sleep, we have not been privy to any further information about how our passengers are going to get to their destination, or how any of them might rest in the meantime.  None of us have spoken yet.

John finally speaks for all of us and restates what little is obvious. “Myself and my crew need to get some rest. After we are rested, we will hopefully be able to get you up to Anchorage.”

This doesn’t seem to satisfy one man. He’s tall, thin, unshaven, wearing a faded hunters ball cap. “Why didn’t your airline just fly another airplane in here to pick us up?!” He begins. “I used to be in the Air Force!”  

I consider that for a fraction of a second before I realize that means absolutely nothing to us or our situation.  The guy may have well stated that he landed on the moon. Not relevant. But his diatribe continues. “Why don’t you guys just fly another pilot in from Anchorage—one that isn’t timed out?! And why didn’t you just land in Fairbanks?!”

That does it for me. My hackles are up. Before John can get a word out of his mouth, I set my jaw low and dig in. “Sir,” I look the man straight in the eye. “…there is a blizzard raging in Anchorage right now. No aircraft are flying in or out of that airport.” More passengers begin to lean in to hear me speak as I continue my defense. I will not raise my voice because I will sound pissed off if I do.  I am kind of pissed off, come to think of it.  But I don’t want to show it.

“And…our airline does not have a spare aircraft in Anchorage that they could fly down here even if there wasn’t a blizzard.  And to answer your last question, we could not carry enough fuel from Chicago to use Fairbanks as a legal alternate.”  I keep looking at him squarely in the face after I am done speaking.

My recitation of logic and common sense must have hit the target as the man with the ball cap simply glares back at us.  He says nothing.

“But why did we come here? They’ve got no room for us here!” a young, thin female passenger exclaims. “It was our only choice in this storm, ma’am.” John replies, calmly.

“But there’s no one from your airline here to help us!” retorts the lady.

“Ma’am, no one is as disappointed in our airline as we are right now.” I state slowly in a low, flat tone, looking to our flight attendants and John. “All we can do is apologize, get adequate rest and hopefully get you to Anchorage tomorrow.” The questions stop coming. The skirmish has ended.  The group of passengers huddled around us disperses.  They realize that we can provide them with no other information.  Or at least I hope they do.

Karen from Kenai operations walks up to us and states that our four flight attendants will be staying at the hotel closest to the airport. She also states that our company has found John and I two rooms at a hotel about 20 minutes away. Why 20 minutes away, we wonder aloud. It appears that the local hotel in which held our reservation decided to give them to some of our passengers, she tells us. We shrug our shoulders and simply ask how we get there. Anything to get us out of this terminal building and away from our passengers. At least for a little while.

John and I climb into a worn minivan taxi and proceed to drive to this distant hotel. By pilot contract we are to be provided at least nine hours of time “behind the hotel room door” free from any work-related activity. Even in my fuzzy, tired mind, I think clearly enough that this will be barely sufficient.  A clock above the check-in counter at the hotel says 1am. I have been awake for the past 23 hours.

Tomorrow promises to be a time-compressed day at the very least.  Given our divert, what was supposed to be a 29 hour layover in Anchorage will be down to 12 or so.  Then we are to operate an always-challenging red-eye flight to Denver.  That is, if we get out of Kenai.

(To be continued.)

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One Comment
  1. permalink

    Thanks for the next installment. I was more concerned for the animals than the passengers…isn’t that the truth! Great writing; looking forward to the next chapter. Have a good rest. Peggy Vaughan

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