A pilot's mission
What a storm !
I was in the Washington-Dulles crew lounge looking at one of the 12 computer screens last night, one hand on the computer mouse, the other holding a telephone handset. Dispatch was running some numbers and I was waiting patiently.
I was the Captain of flight United 7709 from Washington-Dulles to Cleveland Hopkins International. The line of thunderstorms drawn before me was extending from Detroit to New Orleans, moving at 30 kt and extending to FL400.
After a couple of clicks I pulled the proposed flight plan, it showed 270 Nm, 1 hour and 10 minutes enroute, final altitude of 16000 feet. The alternate airport would be Buffalo, NY. It’s going to be tight.
Buffalo was not a good idea. A line was starting to form over the Lake Erie and I knew it’d be moving East. John Paul, the dispatcher, agreed with me and changed the alternate to Dulles.
I didn’t argue with Dulles. This was my last round of a 4-day trip and my last day before I started a long-awaited 19-day vacation. Dulles was my base and I live about 15 miles from the airport. Dulles made also more sense if the company needed to rebook passengers on other flights. But I knew it would cost the company dearly.
The new flight plan popped up and showed 3600 pounds of Jet-A. Our maximum takeoff weight was 23,780 pounds and we were overbooked. I would have to come up with some limits. They wanted to know how many passengers and bags we could carry.
A passenger was 175 pounds in the Winter, a bag 25. There were also heavy bags (50 pounds each), carry-ons (10 pounds), crew bags (15 pounds) and a basic operating weight of 15270. The math was a headache but I did it everyday. The company wanted me to try to beat the storm to Cleveland, and turn around if it didn’t work. It was crazy but not impossible.
If we made it we would be stuck in Cleveland for the night since the line was extending across the whole country and crossing it would be too dangerous. I wasn’t sure staying in Cleveland was a good idea, either. Devastating tornadoes were starting to rip through Ohio, several people were confirmed dead and more would be injured. A weather spotter had seen at least four twisters hit rural northwestern Van Wert County. Tornadoes would be spotted all the way to Alabama.
I felt like a WWII bomber pilot on his last mission before he’s sent home. After hanging up, I dialed home and told my wife I’d be late. How late, I didn’t know.
Amy was my first officer. She was close to her 20 hours required before sign off but like many of my new female FOs I was training she was struggling. A graduate from UND and a CFI, she knew her stuff. Though FOs are not required to hold an ATP, all of our flying is at ATP standards, and that is what she had struggled the most with.
Tonight I needed her and I needed her to fly the airplane while I managed this flight. I would be in constant communication with Dispatch and ATC, pulling weather reports from my onboard computer, my eyes going back and forth between the enroute charts and the fuel gauges while ensuring a safe and comfortable ride for the passengers.
The storm beat us. Cleveland was blanketed with level 5s when we reached Ohio, and airplanes were holding left and right. The lightnings intensified as we got closer. Watching a storm like this at 16000 feet at night was amazing. Maybe that’s what Afghanistan looked like in October last year. My onboard weather radar was painting all colors on the scale. Fortunately, the electronic HSI showed our route slaloming between the cells for the next 30 miles.
We got some reports that an EMB-145 made it in by being vectored over the Lake Erie. Cleveland Center asked us if we wanted to do the same. Though this was good news, this report was worthless in my book. The storm was dynamic and there were no guarantees.
Then, the interference on the radios became unbearable. I was losing both the controller and my dispatcher. It only takes one lightning to fry my radio, I thought, and I didn’t feel like getting a better view.
It was time to get out.
I picked up a new clearance inflight and had Dispatch run the burn-off numbers. Amy set the torque to long-range cruise--a standard procedure when you divert. Dulles was another 50 minutes away and we gladly left the storm and its lightnings behind. Next to the wind information shown on my onboard computer an arrow was pointing forward. I could see Amy’s face now only lit by her instruments relax. I got on the PA and decided to break the news to the passengers.
I had warned them before we left the gate in Dulles. I’d given them an extended weather briefing and told them bluntly what we were trying to do. I had kept them informed at cruising altitude before we reached Ohio and they’d expected an update before our descent into Cleveland. I spoke slowly because I knew they’d hang on every word. I have to admit it was frustrating to not being able to provide what they had paid for.
Though maybe I did.