All in a Pilot’s Day: Thunderstorm Zen and the Captain’s Firewall.

Head pounding. Look down at your right calf: a liter bottle of water, mostly full.


Just flew 3 hours from DFW to DCA–should have paid attention to hydration. Now, sitting near the end of runway 1 at Reagan national, it’s too late: the damage is done.

Been sitting here for over two hours now. In a thunderstorm. Which has hit the tower with a lightning bolt that fried their primary radios–so now they’re using a weak backup radio that sounds like the controller is using a tin can on a wire.

More delay while the radio situation gets fixed, plus the hand-offs from tower to departure ain’t working. Wait.

Call the tower: “Tower, American 445.” Wait.

“American 445, go.” Sounds like her head is in a bucket.

“We’re wondering about a take-off time, as we’re bumping up against some Passenger Bill of Rights time constraints.”

Like three hours–an hour from now–then we need to go back to the gate and probably, cancel the flight. Passengers have a right to not go anywhere, rather than sit on a plane waiting to go somewhere.

“We don’t have any information,” comes the tinny reply. Thanks for your help.

Ignored several phone calls from the cabin crew already, saying passengers are antsy, wondering what the latest is. When I ignore the interphone chime, the F/O has to field the questions to which there are no answers anyway. I prefer to isolate myself to focus on weather, fuel, timing, the departure procedure to the north (the FAA will violate you for even a tiny stray from the radial) and a clear path on radar. Which I can’t see because our nose–and our radar dish–is facing south. I make a PA every thirty minutes or so, telling passengers what I know: westbound departures are on hold due to weather on the departure routing. The lady in the tower sounds like her head is in a bucket. I don’t tell them that, but still.

Already tried to negotiate a departure to the south or even east in order to air file a route west–craftily uploaded an extra 3,000 pounds of fuel before pushback, after seeing the storm front marching on Washington as we landed.

No dice.

More calls from the back: passengers want to use their cell phones; they’re getting up . . .

Tell them no–if they use phones, the cabin crew has to make another aisle pass to ensure they’re off for take-off (FAA regulation) and if we’re cleared, we need to take the runway, check the weather–then go.

Sure, they have connections and people waiting. But that can wait till we get there. What I want to attend to is a new and higher power setting that creates less time on the runway; an optimum flap setting that gives a better climb gradient, and a wind correction to stay on the safe side of the departure radial.

That’s where the “firewall” comes in: if I let connections, cell phones, Passenger Bill of Rights or even my own next flight tomorrow (not going to be legal if we keep delaying) mix with the important considerations like fuel, weather, radar, performance and power settings, something’s getting messed up.

It’s not that I don’t care–I really do. But if I don’t attend to the latter set of considerations, the former won’t matter, will they? Drink some water, rehydrate. Relax. Run through your list of priorities for right now. Pay attention to right here, right now. Be ready to do “now” right; worry about later, well, later.  That’s the thunderstorm zen, the captain’s firewall.

It happens fast: “445, start ’em up–you’re next to go.”

Fine. I reconfirm with the F/O the heading plan (310 is good–but 305 is better. If we have to correct back right to the radial, fine–but we do not stray east . . . a full radar picture before we roll, static.”

Raining cats and dogs, hard to see, swing out onto the runway and grab every inch. Stand on the brakes, full radar sweep–decide.

“You good?” I ask the F/O as a formality–because I’m looking at him and I can tell from his face whether he is or isn’t from his look no matter what he says. And if he isn’t okay or doesn’t look okay, if maybe his firewall or zen are under seige, I’ll know and we won’t go until everything adds up.

We roll; relief when we’re past abort speed; mental chant “engines only, engines only” reminding myself of which of the hundreds of warnings I’ll abort for on that rain-slicked postage stamp of a runway; throttles speedbrakes THEN reverse, amen. The jet rockets into the whipping rain undaunted; love the big fans at a high power setting. We climb, buck, dodge, weave and finally . . . cruise at 40,000 feet above all the turmoil as the lights of the nation wink out.

Landing after midnight, home finally at 1:30am. Crew Schedule calls: “Sleep fast, we’ve slipped the departure of your Seattle turn just long enough to keep you legal. You’re still on it.”

Eight hours in the cockpit today; another eight tomorrow. Plus a few hours to sleep in between.

Erase today–it’s over, safely and smartly done. Rest, and save a little zen for tomorrow. No doubt, you’re going to need it.

13 Responses to “All in a Pilot’s Day: Thunderstorm Zen and the Captain’s Firewall.”

  1. Randall Sohn Says:

    junior, ho-boy, ‘nuther day at the office, BT,DT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! “you speak’um truth”!!!!!!

    • I know have, Randy, in the left seat of a 747 around the world!

      And after getting back from the Seattle turn last night, I’m needing the weekend off: just plain old tired. DCA again Monday.

  2. Well done, Chris. Thanks for ignoring us passengers, you just worry about the jet!

  3. Another great post and thank you. As I’ve said countless times, that’s why they call you Captain! I especially liked hearing your visual read on the FO’s opinion; it ain’t about what s/he says, but the non-verbal stuff. Did I mention something about being The Captain? Perhaps not the pr oper place, but I’m delighted to note that you are at least trying to fly, not taking a ‘sick day’ – or calling the fatigue that perhaps you should have, for that next day. Good work, Chris. Please keep them flowing. -C.

    • Yeah, the only reason they would ever delay an outbound and the subsequent flight from Seattle was because of the manning shortage, especially at the end of the month.

      I personally refuse to take part in any illegal job action that ultimately does nothing constructive and a lot that’s exactly the opposite. Makes no sense to me.

      • Amen and thanks. “Professional Responsibility” includes showing up for work as ‘legally’ scheduled, even when one does not the terms and conditions. I’m glad to hear that you are flying. And I think we’d better quit before we get into territory that off limits for your your blog. Best wishes, -C.

  4. Lego Spaceman Says:

    I always love to see Mt Rainier from the air. I am also always amazed to see St. Helens, a little to the south of Rainier. It is easy to see that half of that mountain is missing.

    There has been a lot of wild fires in eastern Washington (state) lately. Do these affect route planning at all?

  5. great post. My husband used to fly for Braniff and i enjoy your posts.

  6. Great Blog!

  7. blackwatertown Says:

    Hi Chris – You’ve just been nominated for two blog awards. I know – very exciting. Be still your racing heart! To accept them you have to follow some rules – list seven things, recommend some other bloggers, yadda yadda – details are here
    The awards are – the Versatile Blogger Award and the One Lovely Blog Award.
    I suppose it’s mainly an excuse for me to point other people towards what you write, rather than keeping all your good stuff to myself.
    Still enjoying your high altitude thoughts.

  8. Hi Chris…really nice blog 🙂
    Just wanted to ask a question, not related to this blog, Do pilots fly with sunglasses on? If not then how do you manage with the sun? Also, are flight engineers allowed to interfere and use cockpit controls?

    • Actually, we don’t have flight engineers any more. We wear sunglasses when required, although I’ve never owned a pair of “aviator” sunglasses–I think they’re kind of cliche and goofy-looking.

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