Shipwrecked, with smarter friends.
It occurred to me as I drove in to the airport: major league storms forecast for the afternoon, so what are the chances of getting out, or more importantly, getting back into DFW? Still, the facts of life in the airline pilot biz are this–roll with it. Be safe, but stay flexible. Can’t worry about stuff like that.
From the practical standpoint, you have to keep one major factor in mind: fuel. Jet fuel is flexibility, loiter time, options, both on the ground and in the air. Never a problem at American: the Dispatcher has already added a few extra thousand pounds. Now we just need luck, which means timing, essentially. That is, the storms need to stay outside of the danger zone that prohibits ground crews from handling the aircraft. We’re fine inside the jet, but standing next to seventy-five tons of metal and jet fuel, with a tail poking up nearly four stories high, is a danger for the ground crews. Once we push back, fine.
MyFirst Officer was already a castaway, based in Los Angeles, lives in Denver, but sent to fly out of Miami for the month, assigned to this DFW trip. He’s been flying for the last 5 days straight, bounced from one trip to another by Crew Schedule. The cabin crew was the usual suspects–we’d been flying this San Francisco turn all month. They were senior enough to hold the schedule; I was too, but beginning on that day to wish I’d stayed home.
As soon as we cleared the gate and our ground crew was clear, I fired up the radar. An ugly hook of weather from the west was advancing on the airport. On taxi-out, the tower assigned us a runway on the east side of the airport.
“Remind them we’re westbound,” I told the F/O as I pushed up the throttles and swung us out onto the taxiway.
“The west side is shut down due to weather in all departure corridors,” came the tower reply. “Contact Clearance Delivery.”
Which means our route is cancelled. Good thing we have tons of fuel–now we’re launching off the east side, heading north, then west. San Fransisco via Kansas City, adding another 150 miles or so to the route.
And now we get to painstakingly reprogram the navigation system with the new route and runway, then verify every waypoint, something I won’t do while we’re rolling. But I figure we’ll have plenty of time at the end of the runway with a few dozen other jets in line as everyone heads for the east side.
“Not my choice,” I tell Gilligan. “I’d rather go south to Waco, then west to Abilene, then north.” He shrugs. He’s just out of laundry, tired of traveling, and missing home.
I was right: huge line waiting for takeoff, as everyone gets squeezed out of the west side. But I was also wrong. As soon as we reached the end of the runway, the tower called out the take-off sequence–and we were number three. We looked at each other in disbelief, then I looked at the radar. The line was moving so fast that I couldn’t imagine the airport being open more than another fifteen or twenty minutes.
Within ten, we were airborne, arcing off to the east before we could finally turn north. The radar picture to the west was an ugly blob of dark red hooking around from the southwest, marching on DFW like Sherman’s army.
Lucky break, sneaking out before the thunderheads, but a pain to weave our way west. But the 737-800 is my best friend: we climbed right up to 40,000 feet, saving us a trip to Kansas on our way to San Francisco: by the time we reached Tulsa, we could top the weather and headed west.
That’s when the Air Traffic Control frequency began the bad news: “All aircraft inbound to DFW, slow as much as possible; airport currently not accepting arrivals.”
Bad news, but not for us. Then:
“All aircraft for DFW, the airport is closed, the tower has been evacuated due to tornadoes.”
That’s real bad news. But still, not for us–except something began to pick at the back of my mind. Didn’t I park between the towers?
“DFW is now closed for damage; estimating at least 2 hours.”
That’s something I’d never heard before. I pictured the inbound jets, imagining what they were going through: first, slow down as much as possible, buy time, save fuel and weigh options. The usual close-in alternate airports are probably out, given the size of the nastiness sweeping west to east. Which means a bailout to the far alternates like Oklahoma City or more likely, to the south like Austin or San Antonio. Which would mean huge delays with dozens of other jets waiting for fuel and god-knows-when DFW will reopen anyway. Probably be dead in the water wherever you land.
Which brings me back to us, knowing we too would be dead in the water at San Francisco International, figuring our return flight would be cancelled. Which brought up the big question:
I know there’s at least a pair of jeans in there. But doing turnarounds, I haven’t paid attention to much else. Although Mrs. Howell seemed to have a complete wardrobe aboard for just a three hour tour (Ginger too), my crew was a little short–except for Gilligan, but after five days on the road, his laundry situation couldn’t have been much better.
Regardless, gravity took over–we landed at San Francisco International and of course, our outbound flight back to DFW had been cancelled. And all I had as far as outerwear was, of course jeans. No matter.
One $8.99 souvenir T-shirt later (concession stand guy: “They’re 2 for $15;” me: “I really don’t even want one but I’m shipwrecked”) and I join my entire crew of castaways at Kinkaid’s on the San Francisco Bay to watch the sun go done over a bowl of chowder.
Heck of a storm, we all agree, having seen the CNN coverage of multiple tornadoes charging through our home-drome. “And,” I add, “The down side of seniority.” Like the flight attendants, who are on the top of their seniority heap, I too have the close-in parking at the terminal reserved for the fifty senior pilots at the crew base. But parking on top, with no protection for the car.
“Well,” I wondered out loud. “I wonder what’s left of our cars.” We get the up-close parking, but the airport restricts us to the roofless upper deck for employee cars.
Mrs. Howell, wearing a sweater over her uniform dress because unlike the real Mrs. Howell, she hadn’t planned on being shipwrecked, looked at me quizically. “I’m sure they’re fine. I’m near the bottom level.”
“Mine’s on the top deck.” Where it’s supposed to be, right?
She laughed, and her colleagues joined in. “We NEVER park up there. Now you know why.”
I learned eventually–when I got back to DFW. Now the car has a new set of dimples:
Well, so much for following directions. And the shipwreck itself wasn’t all bad, what with the sunset on the bay and the lobster bisque soup. The next day brought something I hadn’t seen in a good while: sunrise from the cockpit. But with the time change between home base and the west coast, even that wasn’t a problem.
So I took a lesson from Mrs. Howell, being sure to have a full change of clothes in my suitcase–and parking more judiciously when the sky turns nasty.
Not a bad haul from what was supposed to be a just three hour tour.
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