Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Merry Christmas (Sorry for the Delay)!

Being a junior Captain, I don't get to pick my own schedule.  As such, I found myself working this fine Christmas.  The trip to the airport started out quite well, as I was pleasantly surprised to find a very striking flight attendant on the hotel shuttle this morning.  We started talking and wouldn't stop!  We ended up walking through security together until we had to split paths.

A very fine day indeed.  :)  Merry Christmas!

I was supposed to grab a flight as a passenger this morning at 8:30, then fly the flight back.  About that.  When I woke up this morning, I found the entire D.C. area covered in thick fog.  I mean THICK fog...even worse than last week which was hard to believe!  The thickness would get down to visibilities of just 800 feet.  That's not much!

Fog thick as pea soup on Christmas!

Needless to say, Christmas flights in D.C. started out with a bunch of delays, my flight being one of them.  So those of us stranded or sitting on-call just chatted it up!  We wished each other Merry Christmases, played football with a paper towel roll, and just sat around and laughed.  A fun crowd this morning.  I grabbed a second cup of coffee and a lil' breakfast bagel and waited for our inbound flight to come pick us up.

And certainly noticed the crying female in the Customer Service line.  I did a double-take.  Yes, I most certainly did.  Not because I wanted to gawk or anything...but just because I am FASCINATED with peoples' stories.  I mean, fascinated.  I made sure to get a third glance on the way back from picing up my coffee.  Yup, she was most certainly crying.  Probably missing a Christmas celebration.  Maybe a Christmas lunch.  Maybe her kids.  Maybe her dying grandma.  Who knows.  But it's certainly a reality to realize that every delayed flight is a life altered.  I never forget that.

I texted my parents Merry Christmas and made sure to call my nieces!  The oldest was sooooooo excited!!!  Just a chatter box!  I certainly don't think about it much, or else that can really wear on you as I noticed in others, but I did miss being there today!  Such is the life I've chosen, though.  I knew I wouldn't be celebrating Christmas until the 29th...and I just kind of roll with it.  But hearing the excitement in her voice!!!  I wanted to be there so bad!  She was just thrilled to be alive!  Love it!

The fog burned off almost immediately around 10:00 A.M.  One minute, thick as pea soup, the next minute, the pea soup was eaten.  Our 8:30 A.M. flight finally departed at 12:35 P.M.  Not a bad way to start out Christmas for these folks.  Sorry, family, I'm going to be late!!!  The good news for me was that my 4 hour and 44 minute sit in Charleston, West Virginia, was now going to be a quick turn!  That was fine by me.

And sure enough, it was.  After we landed, I grabbed the paperwork, told my flight attendant I loooooooooove to be early, and loaded up the passengers.  We departed 10 minutes early after verifying that we had all the passengers (only one open seat!)...I always make sure I don't leave anyone behind if I'm leaving early...and then took off through the low overcast!

I flew this leg, and the flight was just delightful.  Smooth skies, a 45-knot tailwind, and early vectors to final.  I told the passengers I was trying to get them there 15-20 minutes early "if that was ok with them."  I find myself using that phrase a lot...I guess I like it.  But it's kind of funny...I'm sure there's always one that can't stand to sit in the next airport for those extra minutes.  Well, too bad!  :)  I love being early!

But I surprised even myself today.  With the blazing groundspeed, the easy-in vectors, and the early departure, we arrived at the gate 34 minutes early!!!  No joke!!!  Sometimes you can't control the circumstances around you in flying, but for those that I can control, I love using them to my advantage!  I was thanked by more than a couple of passengers when they got off the airplane.

"Thanks for the extra time."  "Thanks for getting us here early."  "Thanks for the extra time...we needed it."

How satisfying!  I won't know exactly how I affected these people, but if I made their brisk walk to their next tight connection just a little bit slower, if I gave them the opportunity to grab their Starbuck's or lunch without checking their watches, if I gave them the simple joy of knowing that airlines can be enjoyable, then I take deep (albeit unknown!) satisfaction in that.

Merry Christmas, passengers!

And I was pleasantly surprised to find that my company  had ordered us catered meals when we landed.  The company met us at the gate and gave us turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie.  Pumpkin pie!!!  I had two slices after repeatedly begging a flight attendant for hers.  :)

I flew on Christmas.  Some people were quite agitated this morning, but here's to hoping that my quick 46-minute flight found 36 happy people able to focus on what Christmas really is all about.  The less I can have them focus on a delayed flight or a missed connection just might give an open door for some other mental time for the true reason of the season.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


One of the hardest things about being a pilot is the simple fact that most of the passengers you fly around have no idea about everything aviation.  Most of the time it's easy to just brush off and ignore, but other times I try to help people understand what's going on.  The comments are endless...

"I just hope we don't lose an engine.  Then we're toast."

"I didn't even know they still made these prop airplanes."

"United really needs to put a jet on this route."  [Yes, and put all 16 of you on it.]  ?!

As winter nears, the confusion simply multiplies.  We have some pretty wicked weather, de-icing, long delays in the sky and on the ground, cancellations, diversions, oversold situations, and on and on.  But at the heart of it all is

We've been quite fortunate so far this winter.  Here we are in the middle of December, and I have yet to see any appreciable amount of snow!  I first saw snow in Syracuse, but it's been so mild so far.  And today was no different with the snow anyway.  But for the past couple of days, we've been dealing with another sometimes more problematic issue:  FOG!

The fog in D.C. was so thick yesterday that the flight I was piloting was eight hours delayed!  We simply had to wait for the fog to rise, and although the forecasters swore that would come during the middle of the morning, it never burnt off until after noon.  The 6:00 A.M. flight finally departed five minutes before 2:00 P.M.  Talk about a long day.

Well, today was no different outside of the fact that the fog finally did burn off...eventually.  To keep it simple, fog is simply a low cloud.  This cloud hovers right on top of the earth.  It needs calm winds and temperature and dewpoint to be equal, and today those factors lined up perfectly.  The problem is that fog can be very, very much so that we pilots can't see.  That's all fine and dandy when you are flying at 15,000 feet through the problem.  But when you are trying to find a runway at 130 MPH and don't have it in sight at 200 feet above the ground...all while descending at 700 feet/minute, well, you are a few seconds away from hitting asphalt...that you cannot see!!!

So we have parameters in place to prevent that.  One being visibility requirements.  The best approach we can do requires visibility of at least 1/2 mile and a cloud deck of 200 feet.  That's still very low.  But we are trained to land in these conditions.  The problem becomes when that visibility is 1/4 mile...or an 1/8 mile.  Plain and simple, we cannot take off to go to that airport with that type of fog.  That's what happened to me yesterday.  The visibility was so poor that I could not fly to D.C. and rightly so...we would get there, shoot the approach, only to find that we can't find the runway, then head back for the skies and head to another airport.  Oddly enough, my alternate airport (where we go if we have a problem like weather at the destination) yesterday was where I was taking off from.  So had we taken off, we would have done a big 140-mile circle only to end up where we just were.  Passengers don't really like that.

The fog turning to patchy, burning off before departure

The good news about today is that the airport I was flying to was calling for 10 miles visibility...perfect!  My departure airport (Washington, D.C.) was the one under fog.  But we don't worry too much about that...taking off in poor visibility is much easier than landing in it.  Just follow the lights down the center of the runway...always hoping that the next one appears!  What we do in this situation is take off, and if we have an engine problem, we'll just fly to our takeoff-alternate (a back-up plan) knowing that we can't land back at the departure airport.  It's pretty simple.

So there we were, in Washington, with heavy fog.  The traffic was backed up, and we were number 13 in line for departure, but we knew we were going to get out.  Our destination was perfect, and the only things to watch were fuel (we burn a lot just sitting there on the taxi-ways) and the return trip back to this socked-in city.

A jet appearing out of the fog.  One of the reasons we have such high parameters...we can't see far!

The flight was uneventful.  We took off, immediately hit the fog deck, then broke out just above it, very typical with fog.  It's just a low, low deck with clear skies on top.  You could actually see the clear skies from the ground as we were waiting to take off...the dense fog turned to patchy fog as it burned off and beckoned us to the skies.

So as you sit back there and wonder why we are not moving and getting you to your city, just know that we are doing everything we can to get you off the ground.  But when you have 12 planes ahead of you or a city where you know you can't find the runway, it's best just to trust us.  :)  We do know what we're doing.

Oh what a beautiful morning for flying!