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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 6

October 23, 2014

The sound of my cellphone alarm clock rattles me awake. My body jolts beneath the covers as my right hand reaches toward the sound on the bedside table. I fumble to silence the bell. I look around in the darkened room, my eyes focusing on what shadowy shapes I can make out. Nothing looks familiar.

For about 5 seconds I have absolutely no idea where I am.

Then my brain puts it together, peers through the mist and things become clear again. I’m stuck somewhere outside of Kenai, Alaska. At some no-name hotel with a design ethos apparently focused on and inspired by the magnificent color beige. Beige walls, beige carpet, beige furniture, beige bathroom, beige towels. Even the little wrapped bars of soap are beige.

I look at the little placard above the telephone keypad, also beige. It lists the hotel address as someplace in Alaska called Soldotna. I’ve never heard of it. Before yesterday I had scarcely heard of the town of Kenai, either. But, due to a long string of bad luck requiring us to divert and cancel our flight to Anchorage, ultimately culminating with a lack of hotel space in Kenai, John and I have been banished here to rest.

I grab the edge of the window curtain and stick my head into the light. Instantly I’m blinded by the glare of the sun reflected off of dirty glass. I squint across an open field to the road that likely runs back to Kenai. Beyond that, not much more than a nondescript strip mall and a fast food restaurant of indistinct lineage. Blue sky, though. It still looks cold. Probably typical of weather in Alaska in March, I think to myself.

It takes a few moments for my fuzzy brain to convert local time to Central Time and my family, but I come up with somewhere around noon there. That means it’s about 8am here in Soldotna. I figure I’ve slept about 7 hours. This total is typical for me after a normal day. But probably on the low side of the scale after being up for 23 hours straight, like I was yesterday.

A hot shower in the beige bathroom wakes me up more. I pull on some jeans and attempt to call my wife. Surprisingly, the call goes through. My cell phone works here—unlike back on the airplane in Kenai. The Missus picks up the phone and I regale her with my Awesome Alaskan Adventure still in progress. Like a good spouse, she offers compassion and tells me that she’s just glad I’m safe. I tell her I wish I were back home.

“Tough day.” I mumble, summing it up. She says she wishes I were home, too. I explain the time difference to her and she lets me go with the admonition to get some breakfast. It occurs to me that I haven’t eaten anything in almost 18 hours.

I meet John downstairs at the little beige breakfast bar adjacent to the hotel lobby. Over soggy beige corn flakes and poorly reconstituted orange juice, John and I catch up.

“Hear anything from the company yet?” I ask John. He looks a little tired, although better than he did last night.

“Nope. I haven’t spoken to anybody since last night, after I got to my room.” He says between sips of coffee from a Styrofoam cup. “I told them I was going to call them back in nine hours…” This 9-hour reference is a contractually mandated minimum rest requirement ‘free from duty’ including work-related phone calls, of which we are well aware, and have taken full advantage of. “Have you heard from anyone?” John asks.

I shake my head. There’s a brief silence as we finish our meal and clear the table. We both wonder aloud at what the plan is for us, our crew and our airplane today. Noting the clear blue sky outside the window, we are guessing that the weather will not be the impediment it was for us yesterday. Then again, we are not in Anchorage yet, nor do we know what the weather is doing there. We shall find out soon enough.

Suddenly, my phone rings—now irrefutable proof that the thing actually works better than it did all night at the airport in Kenai. It startles me. John and I both look at the caller ID on the screen. It displays a telephone number from South Bend, Indiana. I don’t know anyone from there but I answer it anyway, curious to know who might be trying to call me in Soldotna, Alaska. Maybe it’s just a wrong number.

“Is this Dave?” a male voice asks. “Yeah, this is. Who’s this?” I reply. Doesn’t sound like a wrong number now.

“Dave, this is Cam. I’m one of the Assistant Chief Pilots here in Chicago. Given it’s the weekend, I’m the guy on call here today, which explains the funny number you see on your phone. I understand you and your crew had an eventful night in Kenai last night…” He begins. ‘Eventful’ is right, I think.  Cam’s tone sounds engaging, maybe a little boisterous, but still cordial.

Each pilot base has a Chief Pilot and several Assistant Chief Pilot positions. They are our supervisors at the base level. If I am one of thousands of anonymous pilots at our company just doing his or her job without any drama or fanfare, my phone won’t ring with one of these guys on the other end. It is evident now with this phone call that John and I are no longer anonymous.

Knowing what one of our “chiefs” is doing calling me piques my curiosity. Word must have gotten around from our FODM and dispatcher last night to our mutual supervisors. They either have kudos or concerns. Usually the latter.

The timbre of Cam’s voice indicates he’s trying to establish a rapport with me.

I answer his question briefly in the affirmative, though I am hesitant to go into further detail. I look up at John. It strikes me that the company has chosen to call me first. Usually the captain of the flight should get the first call from the company, not me. But that’s my logic.

“Listen, I’m going to call the captain here in a minute. But I called you first because you’re a Chicago-based pilot and you guys took off from Chicago. I understand he’s Houston-based.” I verified that for him, looking across the table at John while I say it. I ask him if he knew what the plan was for us today.

“I’m not sure, actually. I’ve just begun to follow your flight this morning. I just wanted to call each of your first thing today to see if you were doing okay. And, if there is anything you need, just ask. Now you have my number!” Cam sounds downright chipper from way off there in South Bend or wherever he is.

It would have been redundant for him to answer the same specific questions that John might have, so I just thank him for his concern, say good-bye and hang up. I’ll let John get the details, I reckon.

I put my phone back down on the table. “Some assistant chief pilot from Chicago—I don’t know him from Adam.” I shrug my shoulders, feigning any association. “Said he doesn’t yet know what the plan is but that he’d be calling you in a minute. Sounded nice enough, though…” I add.

John shrugs his shoulders back at me. “My phone’s up in my room charging” He states flatly. “How about we meet back down here ready to go in 15 minutes? I’ll have the front desk call us a cab.” John motions toward the stairway going up. I nod, follow him up the stairs and tell him I will be ready. I can hear his phone ringing as he opens the door to his room.

Now fully attired in our midnight blue and gold uniforms exactly 15 minutes later, John and I board the same dilapidated minivan taxi that dropped us off at the hotel last night. As we leave the hotel, John shares with me his conversation with the company.

“Well, I spoke to Cam, that assistant chief pilot. Also our dispatcher. And the FODM—a new guy today. The weather’s fine in Anchorage…” As he speaks, I peer out at the wilderness. Everything I see is new to me in the light of day. Deep evergreen forests and patches of brown scrub line the two-lane road, which gives the landscape a stark, austere beauty. Not a trace of snow, ironically.

“They want us to meet up with the flight attendants, get the plane ready, load everybody up and go.” comes John’s distilled summation.

Well, no kidding, I think sarcastically.

“But what about screening our passengers? Have they set up TSA security?” I inquire.

“Nope.” John says simply. “They want us to board up and fly to Anchorage. There, we will park at an ‘unsecure’ gate where the passengers will deplane, enter the terminal, get re-screened, and then go on their way.” Simple as that.

I am surprised to hear this. Our ordeal yesterday was made immeasurably more difficult because of the lack of TSA security screening at the Kenai airport. Everyone had to stay on the airplane while we waited for fuel and food, waited to be deiced, waited for the weather to improve—just waited. Almost three hours total time waiting after we touched down on the runway at Kenai stuck inside the cabin of a Boeing 737-800.

All because a U.S. mandate states that everyone aboard a scheduled commercial air carrier operating across state or federal borders must first be screened for weapons, explosives or other dangerous goods. Kenai Airport, tucked a scant 56 flying miles from Anchorage and not privy to scheduled flights from other states or countries, did not have this capability last night. Apparently, they do not have this capability this morning either.

“Why didn’t they just send TSA agents down from Anchorage to Kenai to screen our passengers?” I wonder aloud.

John merely shakes his head. “I dunno.”

Although I am vaguely familiar with the concept of flying unscreened passengers aboard an airliner, I haven’t done it in almost 20 years—long before 9/11 changed everything and created a new paradigm in aviation security. At the time I was flying small turboprop commuter airplanes with 19 seats and no flight attendant. Back then, the prevailing belief was someone might try to smuggle a weapon on a small plane to get to a big aircraft—then hijack that plane. Not us little planes. The rules were much more general—even cursory—and so was the security screening.

I tell this to John. Although he also has flown smaller regional aircraft, he has never personally flown an airliner with passengers in this manner. But in the spirit of the moment, under this cerulean Alaskan sky, after the night we had last night—we are both energized with the prospect of leaving Kenai and all this unpleasantness behind. It is to be a 20-minute flight.

(to be continued)

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