Flying into Hurrcane Sandy’s Wake


You get the call from Crew Schedule. You don’t have to take the flight–but you do: it’s time to bring jets back into the New York metro area, ravaged as it is by Hurricane Sandy.

Means a different kind of thinking for you: more fuel (you’ll take any excuse for more fuel, won’t you?) for more loiter time and options depending on the weather, because you know the navigation aids and ground-based approach equipment has been damaged or may be without power.

There are twenty deadheading crewmembers on the flight roster, needing to get home, plus a half dozen others trying to commute to the three crew bases there (LGA, EWR, JFK) not to mention tons (literally) of backlogged cargo waiting to head east. All of that raises the jet’s zero fuel weight, but fuel is primary. You get hit up by commuting crewmembers–“Can you agree to land with less fuel?” No, I shouldn’t, I can’t, I won’t. You’re the captain, so you’re the asshole; you’re the asshole, so you’re the captain: all you want to see when the gear goes down on final approach is plenty of fuel to go somewhere else if need be. What a dick.

The First Officer today is one of the guys I really like flying with: serious, quiet, pragmatic; ex-Navy fighter jock, good guy. He’s one hundred percent behind the “Fuel is God” philosophy. Makes it easier.

We blast across the southern United States, bang a left at Atlanta, head for Tidewater Virginia then up the coast. Sandy’s loafing her way north and west, leaving the curved cirrus as her calling card up the eastern seaboard.

We grab the high ground, the 40,000 foot level to keep the fuel burn low and the tailwind high. As soon as we turn north over Norfolk, we begin to pick up Sandy’s claw marks along the coastline: even from seven miles up, starting around northern the Maryland coast, the shore looks as if a giant hand had raked the sand from right to left, east to west, as Sandy’s hurricane-force roar washed the sea and sand inland.

Lower now, abeam Atlantic City, New Jersey, we’re peeking through cloud breaks in Sandy’s sloppy remnants, and the view is ugly: the shoreline is swept clean of anything man made, and you know from a hundred flight through here that the shoreline was much more “humanized” until Sandy clawed it clean.

Sinking through ten thousand feet, the disaster takes on a detailed face: boats piled in front of houses; the normal geometry of streets and blocks skewed by wreckage, things that don’t belong; jumbles of homes, cars, boats; you name it.

Sand driven blocks inland. Cars strewn akimbo. Roofs ripped off. No lights; no warning lights–and no navigation signals, due to no electricity. You see the couple of blocks burned to the ground by uncontrollable gas fires.

Humanity, flashing by at 160 miles per hour. I don’t have time to look–but I can’t help seeing the destruction below. These photos are courtesy of a deadheading flight attendant, taken sideways from the “A” seat just forward of the left wing.

No worries up front in the 21st-century jet: our navigation and approach guidance is all based on satellites, processed on board and projected right in front of my fat face:

We lumber to our gate, with a mixture of relief and satisfaction: we’ll get the normal jet service up and running once again, get people moving, unstranded, reunited, home.

And we’ll ferry another 160+ souls westbound, away from the storm and the shipwreck that is the northeast coast. There are crowds inside “Fort Kennedy” who are waiting like refugees to move west, to go home. We’ll do the fuel numbers, the flight performance calculations, the take-off numbers down to a rat’s ass to make it work–and work right. If; no–when that makes me the asshole again, so be it: we will be safe, we will fly smart.

We’ll get that bird’s eye, god’s eye view of the coast one more time, at dusk, and try not to worry–but how can you not?–that in the gathering darkness, there are few if any lights below. We put that behind us at .8 Mach, but the human face doesn’t go away no matter how high you climb or how fast you go.

Can’t help but feel for those left behind. And those you know, stalwarts of Jethead like Miss Giulia and her husband Mike, the voice of Jethead Live: the remnants of the super-hurricane are headed their way; Peggy Willenberger, stormchaser who has made such extreme weather her stock in trade; Cedar Glen–didn’t he mention Ohio once, now taking a pounding?

And the millions left behind, salvaging what they can, rebuilding. We’re a quiet ark sailing westward, away from the storm, to a different and better now for the lucky ones making their escape.

Keep the fires burning; navigate, light the way west. Do it right–that’s your job, your part in this journey. Follow the night sky home.

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23 Responses to “Flying into Hurrcane Sandy’s Wake”

  1. Fr. Jeremiah Says:

    What a reflection! Thanks, Captain. I especially resonate with the line: “We put that behind us at .8 Mach, but the human face doesn’t go away no matter how high you climb or how fast you go.” How true is that?!?! Maybe we’ll cross paths on the way and maybe we won’t. But you’ll be ferrying many like us, I’m sure. Several lectures recorded for my students while I’m gone and “leavin’ on a jet plane” in the morning to joint the Catholic Relief Services effort; we want to make a dent in the devastation on Staten Island, which seems to be getting so little aid at the moment. If I look up and see a 737 sporting the signature chrome glint of the AA livery, I’ll wave and know that our friends devastated by the wake of Hurricane Sandy are duly remembered.

    Clear skies!
    Fr. Jeremiah

  2. Why wouldn’t you want extra fuel? I’m not a pilot so I don’t understand this. Thanks!

    • To make room for cargo and passengers: we had so much cargo, that either passenger weight or fuel weight will have to be reduced. If you’re a passenger wanting a seat, you don’t want to hear about fuel options–but the pilots look at it the opposite way.

  3. Cedarglen Says:

    Thanks, Captain Chris; a great and cogent post. I was not sure that my note got through, so do and some do not, but you’ve nailed it. Many folks understand that it takes several days for a big airline to recover from a Sandy-like event, but what most don’t consider is the work involved before the storm strikes. You’ve got to move those airplanes out of harm’s way, be they filled with paid pax – or empty. I always appreciate your notes about the fuel load and here, flying into questionable or varying conditions, you cannot have too much. If some freight of a few souls are left at the gate, at least those aboard will have a safe landing – somewhere. As I’ve noted before sir, that is why they call you Captain! Great post!! -C.
    P.S. Did you have any unusual flights before the storm h it, perhaps just ferrying valuable airplanes out of the threat area? Best wishes, -C.

    • I stay mostly on the west coast flights–better weather, less airway congestion, better hours–that’s seniority at work.

      But there were a bunch of start-up flights open and I figured I’d give it a shot. It was an eye opener.

  4. Fascinating – thank you!

  5. The aftermath of any severe storm, especially hurricanes, is just so sad. People like me who try to predict and warn severe weather feel so defeated–especially by the unnecessary deaths of those who could have evacuated, but chose not to. I’m glad when you flew over, on your way to restoring normalcy, you felt the sadness, the disorder of something that won’t ever be quite the same…

  6. Chris, I never thought of you as an A-Hole but of course I was the only one. :0) Kidding, nice, heartfelt article with some great pixs. You even managed to fit “Akimbo” in as well.

    • I think we both did a fair share of damage all around the Pacfic, but then as I recall, that was part of our mission, and as a crew we were damn good at it: Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Guam, Okinawa, even Alaska–there are lots of places where we’re no longer welcome! But when we lived in Hawaii, what did we care?

  7. AA Retired Says:

    Chris, In the night cockpit picture are the spots on the windscreen bugs or star? As to the A-hole part, I don’t think we’ve met, but since you were senior to me, that automatically pushed you toward that category. Nice post, Jim (at AA known as Carola’s husband).
    PS Her interview reminded of somethings I had forgotten. Thanks.

  8. Lego Spaceman Says:

    One thing I really like about this blog; words like ‘akimbo’ show up regularly.

  9. So sad to read news of the residents still struggling with the lack of electricity, the cold temperatures, and the feeling of being forgotten.
    :(

    Thanks for thinking about me…but we were so lucky. Nothing but lots of rain and crazy wind. Apart for a few fallen tree limbs here and there, we certainly don’t deserve to be mentioned with those people who are truly suffering right now.

    Really nice post, Chris. Thank you for this reflection.

    Hope you are well…and that “school” stuff is coming along.

  10. Rough season around the east coast this year. Take care

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