Flying into the Nor’easter October 29th, 2011: juggle a thousand moving parts.
Ah, the point of universal equality: all of the alternates you’ve loaded into the Flight Management Computer doing a thousand calculations of time, distance, airspeed and fuel flow have reached the same number: 9.5. Which is 9,500 pounds of fuel on the deck at each–if we leave the holding pattern we’re in over the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia.
Yes, that’s a blanket of snow down there, and uncommon October dumping of thick, wet flakes wreaking havoc on the surface: fall foliage still on the trees gathers the fat flakes in a blanket that snaps branches and snags power lines.
The alternates now line up for a second with the same arrival fuel and they’ll tick down that way as we hold, geographically in the middle point between Baltimore, Syracuse, Boston and our destination, LaGuardia.
You tell the First Officer, “When the fuel prediction reaches 7,000 fuel on deck–we divert.” Because 7 eventually shrinks to 5 due to the air traffic glut all competing to get to either a destination or alternate. The fuel prediction should come with a little caveat, “results may vary.” We ain’t stupid–done this a few times before.
Our flight 9409 from Miami checks in on frequency, entering a holding pattern. “We have the Miami Dolphins on board,” the pilot says, pleading with New York Center, “Anything you can do to get us into any of the New York airports would be appreciated.” Must be coming up to play either the Giants or the Jets.
We laugh in our cockpit. “We have the Omaha Women’s Bowling and Quilt Team on board,” I say cross-cockpit, “anything you could do . . .” But New York Center has no options: “Diverts allowed south only,” comes the answer. “Or maybe we can get you Boston or Hartford.”
Crap–looks like Syracuse is out for us. Didn’t want to go there anyway–too small, slow turnaround–but it takes away from my perfect geographical display of options. I like options. Okay, add Richmond. The First Officer is busy reading out loud the terminal forecast for our various divert options, but I tune him out–I don’t give a damn about the forecast an hour ago for an hour from now. But it gives him something to do.
We’re cleared down track, exiting the holding pattern–but don’t get your hopes up: that just means someone in the holding stack 70 miles ahead finally said “uncle,” reaching their fuel bingo, and diverted. A dozen jets are heading for your stack and the controller is shooing you off to the next sector.
Now that’s funny: starting to see holding? We’re in a holding pattern. But there’s the bad news: JFK is landing south which conflicts with the LaGarbage traffic pattern landing north. Crap.
Why does JFK get priority? Because it has a couple dozen westbound transatlantic widebodies inbound and they’ve been in the air for 5 or more hours already. LaGuardia with it’s postage stamp sized runway (7,000 feet versus 13,000 at Kennedy) cannot land with tailwinds due to stopping distance. So if Kennedy is landing south, LaGuardia arrivals are shut down.
“I can get you Boston or LaGuardia, eventually,” says the air traffic controller to our Dolphins team charter. “Standby,” comes the tense answer, and I know why.
We already did the math: we’ll weigh 132,000 pounds on landing; the runway is wet, so we need 5,660 feet to stop. Gives me 1, 400 as a safety margin–which will require all other perfection–screw the charts–in my mind: not only no tailwind, have to have some headwind and no bad braking reports or we go to Kennedy (sorry Lufthansa). But the 757 landing distance number will be different, stopping the jet may be a problem. He’s looking closely at his Boeing chart, no doubt.
Which is another piece of the puzzle we both did as captains before launching off into the Nor’easter: take more fuel for increased loiter time, but then know you’ll deal with a heavier landing weight on a crappy surface due to the freak snow storm. Clearly, fuel wins, but he’s dealing with the stopping distance problem. And Newark is flying a complex RNAV approach that I don’t believe the 757 can do. Plus, its minimums are so high and the ceiling so low–it probably won’t work out anyway. That just sends you off on a gas-guzzling low altitude divert.
There’s a screaming headline in the weather-related alphabet soup: 1/4 mile visibility in snow and fog at LaGarbage. And previous American jets reported the ceiling really at 300 feet. Left quartering crosswind at 14 knots; you get about ten seconds to see the runway, line up and find the touchdown spot.
Jill calls from the cabin: “We have an elderly woman who stepped out of the lav feeling dizzy; she passed out and we’re giving her oxygen.” First officer stops reciting the weather forecasts and adds, “I sometimes pass out after a huge dump too;” I laugh, Jill doesn’t.
“Keep us posted,” I say, adding one more moving part to the dozens in play: medical attention for the woman, quick landing if she gets worse.
My magic fuel numbers have shifted dramatically: the closer south alternates show less arrival fuel than the more distant and verboten northern divert options. Why? The 125 tailwind we’re riding. That forces a Hobson’s choice: divert earlier to a southern divert base arriving with less fuel into worse weather; or hope to sneak in after the last international Kennedy arrival. If you can wait. Do you feel lucky today, punk?
“I may be able to get one more jet into LaGuardia,” the controller tells the Miami boys. Sure: football takes priority over all things, at least in the northeast. But with the powerlines down, they can’t watch anyway, right?
Jill calls from the back again: “Our lady on oxygen just passed out again. The number four flight attendant is also a nurse, says she’s probably having some blood sugar problems.”
“She’s a nurse?” the F/O asks; “Could she look at this rash on my butt when she gets done there?”
I laugh but Jill doesn’t. “We’ll get her on the gate as soon as possible,” I promise. Still laughing, I tell the F/O cross cockpit. “Let’s grab that one spot he’s talking about–declare a medical emergency and tell them we need LaGarbage.”
We set up the approach; one shot, zero tailwind, some headwind, reliable braking action report or we go right to Kennedy either on the approach or on the missed approach (again, sorry, Lufthansa; this will only take a minute and we’ll be out of your way).
Sit the cabin crew down; the radar is showing angry purple in the frontal clash ahead and below. All checklists done early; anti-ice on. Hang on–she’s gonna buck.
Crappy ride through tangled air: a hundred knot wind out of the south clashes with the nor’easter roaring in with icy air; we’re in the atmospheric rapids, blinded by driven snow which has also not incidentally given me vertigo: looking through the geometric structure of the Heads Up Display on the glass before me, the horizontal snow has my senses screaming that we’re in a left bank of 20 to 30 degrees. And I’m hand flying because the speed changes have the nose pitching more than I’m willing to tolerate at a low altitude as the autopilot struggles to correct.
Patience, concentration; do the job. A glance at the ground speed shows 95 knots; airspeed is 135 knots; Mr. Math says it a 45 knot Nor’easter is winning near the surface. And the 95 knots is making this take a lot longer than I’d like.
The radio altimeter is calling out altitude until go-around; we’re down to a hundred feet above and still in the muck.
“Ground contact,” my F/O says; I pick it up peripherally but not ahead. There–the glow of lead in lights. “I have the runway;” I announce.
“Minimums,” the audible radio altimeter declares. Barely time to check the sink rate–god I love me some Heads Up Display–kick in the rudder to track the nose straight ahead; right main gear, then the left; the nose wants to slam down as max autobrakes grabs with 3,000 psi of hydraulics, but I hold the yoke in my lap, steering with my feet. We stop.
“Tell ’em the braking action is good,” I tell the F/O as we start running the after landing checklist. That’ll help the next guys in for planning purposes. Now all we have to do is park, turn around, and fight our way back into the air through de-ice and crappy runway problems.
But that headache is an hour away. A cup of coffee is waiting in the terminal–we’ll worry about the rest later.