Destination Weather: Do You Feel Lucky Today, Punk?
I have one eye on the fuel flow, the other on my watch: the two are inextricably linked with the only variable being the rate of consumption. Always have hated math, especially in a situation like this where the stubborn numbers refuse to add up as I’d like them to do. We have only so much fuel and therefore only so much time, with the factors of altitude and speed governing the number of minutes till we fall out of the sky.
It’s a major factor because DFW is experiencing the fallout of a normal summer weather pattern: storms.
Here’s where we can often expect a call from the back. “The guy in 4B says his office emailed him and the weather’s fine at the airport.”
Of course, the flight attendant’s call isn’t to pass along the special knowledge Mr. 4B’s office has forwarded (busted! we’re holding for the fun of it) but rather to give us a laugh while also letting us know that the typically self-righteous know-it-all’s are being themselves which is to say, a pain in the ass.
Because actually, the weather at the airport is clear, as is the weather between us and the airport. But the weather ninety miles beyond the airport is blocking the aircraft from the other coast from arriving–so where might they go?
Bingo! To our arrival corner post! That is, if the two corner posts–mandatory overfly points that sequence the arrival crowd of flights into the airport–on the far side of the airport are blocked, there’s going to be a fuel-hungry crowd gathering on our side which means–everybody gets to hold. Despite what Dwight can see out the office window.
So now options are limited, but there are some choices to be made and with those choices, I cast our lot among the other fifty jets all negotiating the same decision process. First, speed: should we push forward fast and burn a lot of fuel to get to our arrival post first? That would put us at the head of the line–except for those from the far side ATC may vector in front of us. In that case, we’ll have wasted precious loiter fuel getting there fast for nothing. And it’s a long way–in distance and fuel–to our alternate.
Or–and this is what I usually prefer–we can slow down, save gas en route, maybe even stay in the high altitude sector to save even more fuel rather than enter the descending holding stack where fuel flow increases with the lower altitude and the high banked turns required to stay in the holding airspace. Then, if we must divert (I hope not) we’re closer to our alternate and will get in and out before the crowd of other diverting aircraft do the same thing.
But that option might put us too far back in line to hold until everyone else lands. Double-edged sword, this weather strategy biz. No matter what you choose, there’s a downside: the fuel flow continues regardless and even “slowed down,” we’re rushing toward the arrival corner post at about 400 miles per hour. So the question is, do you feel lucky today, punk?
But what can I say? Especially between fast-changing options: F/O is off searching for the best and lowest-fuel required alternate and weather for each, I’m doing the math with the speed and fuel flow and guesstimating how long ATC is allowing folks to stay high plus how fast and in which direction the weather is moving and on our radar, how it’s developing or decaying and at what rate. That, plus the close-fast-low or lag back-slow-high equation that’s in constant flux.
So I will make a P.A., not for the backseat drivers but just to prepare the crowd for the delay–which is all we can be sure of at the moment. Plus, it seems to me best to make no promises or predictions because I realize how frustrating it will be if after a few minutes, I have to explain why what I just related is now irrelevant. And, I need to have my attention and concentration back in the cockpit so as to not miss a single clue in the arrival puzzle that’ll get us in earlier, or any weather awareness via radar or reports from a half dozen other airfields that when put together, give me a clearer picture of our best course.
That’s what’s happening on my side of the cockpit door when you feel us slow down dramatically or even go into a series of turns that often indicates that we’re in a holding pattern. It’s that time of year again and with the ever-increasing density of arrival traffic, this scenario is going to arise often.
Maybe now you can help me out by explaining to the Dunder-Miflin guy seated next to you steaming over the delay exactly why I’m not saying much, plus what you now have a pretty good picture of up front. I’ll get to you as soon as I have a free moment and something definitive to say. Which for me would be “flight attendants, prepare for landing.”
And if I’ve been able to maximize all the variables I just described, that will be at our scheduled destination.