Last Sunday I experienced one of the most completely screwed up days of flying I've ever had. Everything that could go wrong - except loss of life, limb, or license - did go wrong. The entire time I was thinking I'd have to write about it in the blog, but it got so ridiculous that I started doubting whether anyone would believe it all actually happened. Nevertheless, here's the whole sad tale: how weather and maintenance troubles were compounded by incompetence and apathy to create a miserable holiday travel experience for passengers and crew alike. It's a long post, but it was a pretty long day too.
We started in Missoula at 5:15am. Our schedule for the day was MSO-MSP-MSN-MSP, with a 1pm release time. The first hint of trouble was when the captain saw that we were flying Ship 609 and let out a groan. “This thing is the biggest piece of crap,” he exclaimed. “We've had nothing but trouble with it since getting it a few weeks ago.” Apparently he had flown it a few days prior and had the autopilot fail; it was still MEL'd, so we'd have to hand fly and stay below FL290 since RVSM airspace requires use of an autopilot. Also, he'd written up the cockpit door for opening in flight with a closed & locked indication; it had supposedly been fixed.
The mountain peaks were still enshrouded in pre-dawn gloom as I pushed up the thrust levers to begin our takeoff roll from Missoula. The Captain called off V1, then “rotate” and I pulled back on the control column and rotated to 11 degrees pitch and the plane began to lift off. Suddenly there was a loud crash and the darkened cockpit flooded with light. I kept flying. “Positive rate, gear up.” At 400 feet I called “Nav,” and then at 1000 feet: “Flight Level Change, Speed 210.” Then I glanced back and confirmed that the cockpit door had indeed come crashing open on rotation despite a “closed and locked” indication. The Captain was able to pull it closed with his right hand but was unable to get it to latch or lock. He asked if I was okay flying the departure by myself, and when I said I was, he took off his headset and slid his seat back to a more advantageous position for wrestling with the door. At 7600 feet I began the left turn back towards Missoula VOR for the transition from the KONNA2 departure, and shortly thereafter the Captain got the door to cooperate and joined me again. “That's definitely getting written up in Minneapolis,” he said grimly.
Halfway to MSP we used ACARS to pull up the most recent ATIS and it was worse than forecast: 1 ½ mile visibility in light blowing snow with strong gusty winds out of the northwest. The Captain, like most at NewCo, is on “high minimums” since he has less than 100 hours in the JungleBus; this requires adding ½ mile and 100 ft to all approach minima, making the minimum visibility for MSP one statute mile or 4500 RVR. We got frequent updates but fortunately the visibility held steady at 1 ½ mile. I flew the bumpy, gusty approach and saw the runway well above decision altitude.
Fixing the cockpit door delayed us by about a half hour, and then we had to get deiced before departure. The weather in Madison wasn't great, about the same as it was in Minneapolis but forecast to get better. We had a Green Bay alternate, and although the weather wasn't really good there it was forecast to be well above alternate minimums by the time we'd get there. Our dispatcher gave us decent contingency fuel but some got burned during the lengthy de-ice process; we were still well above minimum fuel when we took off.
The flight to Madison was very quick; we were barely leveled at FL230 when I got the newly updated ATIS with some very bad news: ¾ mile visibility in blowing snow with strong gusty winds out of the west. We got instructions to hold over the final approach fix for the ILS for runway 21. As soon as we knew we couldn't get in yet, the Captain had me message our dispatcher via ACARS with current fuel load and a request for updated weather in Green Bay. Once established in holding, the Captain had me fly (no autopilot, remember!) so that he could figure out our fuel state and options for diverting. He messaged our dispatcher again, still with no reply. He asked Madison approach for Green Bay weather and it, too, was making a mockery of the forecast: ¼ mile visibility in freezing fog and blowing snow. We had to come up with a new diversion plan. The Captain texted our dispatcher to request a new alternate, but wasn't hopeful about a prompt reply and started looking at his options.
Madison notified us that Milwaukee, a mere 60 miles east, was reporting VFR weather. That sounded like a wonderful place to go until we realized that MKE approach plates had been removed with the last Jepp revision. Whoops. Chicago was doable with our current fuel if there was no delay getting in, but that's always a big gamble with Chicago. Our dispatcher finally sent us a message telling us to go to Des Moines; that required 6000 lbs of fuel and we were now down to 4800. The dispatcher had apparently assumed we had enough fuel because of our message from nearly a half-hour prior! The Captain was disgusted and was about to pull the trigger on going to Milwaukee – approach plates or no – when our dispatcher told us they wanted us in Cedar Rapids. Despite high winds the weather was still decent there and we had the approach plates. We had just enough fuel to fly there and still land with 3000 lbs, which is basically “minimum fuel” for a JungleBus. We quickly got re-cleared, pointed our nose southwest, and climbed to a more fuel-friendly altitude of FL240. With “captainy work” complete, the Captain took the controls back.
When I called Cedar Rapids operations a few minutes before landing, they informed us that the gate was not plowed and we'd have to sit tight at remote parking for a while. The JungleBus has no airstairs and the station didn't have jetstairs, so the passengers would have to remain on board. When we touched down in Cedar Rapids, they'd already been on board 3 hours for a flight that was supposed to take 38 minutes! We sat on the ramp for almost another hour until the gate area was plowed; the passengers were on the edge of revolt. Everyone clapped when we announced that we'd be starting our engines and taxiing to the gate.
We soon discovered that being able to taxi to the gate and being able to use the gate are two very different things. As soon as we were parked our marshalers bolted for an adjacent gate. I called operations to figure out what was going on. Cedar Rapids is a small station that's run by another RedCo Regional. They only had a few people working, and it turned out that both of them were needed to turn a scheduled flight that was arriving soon. “We want to get this one out on time. It'll be at least an hour before we can get the gate up to your plane.” The Captain got on the radio and told him in no uncertain terms that was unacceptable: “These people need to get off the plane, now.” The station manager was unmoved. We called our dispatcher, then the chief pilot, and then tried to call the company president before salvation arrived in the form of a United Express gate agent (Air Wisconsin, actually) who had some experience with the JungleBus and agreed to drive the gate. She ended up working the whole flight. She was wonderful – in fact, she was the only real support we got all day, and she wasn't even affiliated with RedCo. Absolutely pathetic.
Our passengers got themselves fed and composed while we waited for the weather in Madison to improve. When it did we loaded everyone up and pushed back to get deiced. By now it was 5:30PM, so we'd been on duty 11 hours, which was longer than we'd thought our day would be but was well under the usual 15 hours maximum duty or 16 hours with reduced rest. We'd be able to make it to MSN and MSP just fine so long as everything went smoothly. Yeah, right!
Deicing in Cedar Rapids took about 45 minutes, first because the rampers apparently had trouble with the deice truck and then because their headset was broken so they couldn't communicate with us. With the station being understaffed, there was nobody in Ops to relay our radio calls to them. They ended up driving around the terminal to Ops to talk to us via radio, then came back to deice us, then returned to Ops to give us our numbers. It was 6:30pm by the time we took off from Cedar Rapids, four and a half hours since we had landed.
The flight to Madison was short and bumpy. The visibility was improving but the winds continued to howl out of the west. The crosswind component was near our maximum for a contaminated runway. I saw Runway 21 shortly after the final approach fix but the approach was still a real workout with continuous moderate turbulence and a 25 degree crosswind correction angle as low as 1000 feet. I told the Captain I'd plant it on and then unintentionally made my smoothest greaser to date, a big no-no on a contaminated runway with a crosswind. Fortunately, the runway was actually pretty bare and braking action was quite decent. “Great landing!”s and handshakes abounded when the passengers deplaned and I privately found it deliciously ironic that their highlight of the whole ordeal was my one screwup.
When we turned off the runway in Madison, I retracted the flaps and shortly thereafter got the ding! of a master caution along with a Flap Handle Disagree message. I ran the QRH which instructed me to reposition the handle to match the actual position of the flaps, and was rewarded with Slat/Flap Fail and a host of other messages. This was no good at all. This had all the earmarks of being broke hard. We called maintenance control while we waited for a Chautauqua E145 to deice so we could get into our gate. When we pulled in at 7:30 pm, maintenance personnel were there to meet us as they'd been working on a RedCo A320 that had been on the ground waiting for a part since 6 am. That part was, as you may have guessed, in our very own cargo hold.
Timing out was now a very real threat. We'd gone on duty at 6:15am central time, so the normal 15 hours max duty time would require us to be on the ground at Minneapolis by 9:15 pm. That clearly wasn't going to happen. However, if we used eight-hour reduced rest, then we'd be good until 10:15pm. When we got the paperwork it showed a flight time of 42 minutes so we figured we'd need to take off by 9:33pm to be legal. However, when cutting things so close we agreed it'd be prudent to run our calculations by crew scheduling and make sure they concurred. The captain called and asked their opinion. The crew scheduler was completely frazzled; unforecast low visibility across the area had thrown the operation into disarray and he had a half-dozen crews close to timing out. He promised to call us back.
We headed upstairs to keep the passengers abreast of what was going on. Many of them had been at the airport since 5am, for the aforementioned canceled A320 flight. Some had been waiting since 6am the previous morning. They were understandably at their wits' end but were grateful that we were keeping them in the loop. One man who was on his second day confided to me that we were the only positive contact he'd had with RedCo through the whole ordeal. I didn't tell him that we're not even RedCo but the cost-slashing bottom-feeder subsidiary.
The maintenance guys rebooted the airplane a few times and it was yielding positive results. I headed up the jetway to give the good news to the passengers. I hadn't been horribly positive in my previous assessment so the news that the flaps would get fixed was welcomed all around. The bigger question was whether we could beat the clock. Crew scheduling still hadn't called. The Captain asked me to call them back; I kept getting a busy signal but finally got through only to be royally chewed out for calling the crew scheduler when he had said he'd call us back. The Captain and I weren't really willing to leave without talking the crew scheduler but figured we could get loaded up and ready to go before he called. We summoned the gate agent, who'd had a long day and had been rather brusque with us to this point, and told him that we had 40 minutes to get loaded, pushed back, deiced, and taxi to the runway. He flatly stated that this was impossible and it would take at least 30 to 40 minutes to get the people boarded. The Captain said that if that was the case then there was no point as we'd have to turn around and deplane them when it became clear we couldn't get off the ground by 9:33pm. “Fine, I'm canceling the flight,” snapped the gate agent as he turned to head up the jetbridge. I guess that's that, said the Captain. We awaited crew scheduling's inevitable call.
It wasn't the call we expected. “Why aren't you off the ground yet? I show you fixed!” They hadn't even been informed that the flight was canceled and were furious to find that we were sitting doing nothing while the precious final minutes ticked away. It was too late now. There was no way to make it to the runway in time under the best-case scenario. Crew scheduling asked us if we wanted to ferry the airplane back under FAR 91, which has no duty time limitations. We were all tired but felt that we could make the flight safely, and just wanted to go back to our families for Christmas Eve Day. We said yes, and then the Captain and I plodded up the jetbridge once more to retrieve the paperwork for the ferry flight.
Big surprise: all the passengers were still standing around, looking at us expectantly as we entered the gate area. The gate agent had not canceled the flight as he threatened; he had not told the passengers anything. I was furious, at this point I felt like going up to the guy and screaming at him. It wouldn't help, though, it could only come back to hurt me. I held my cool and helped the Captain explain to the passengers why we couldn't legally take them. Meanwhile the gate agent spoke to ops on the phone. I later found out that he told them – within earshot of many passengers – that he believed the Captain wanted to time out so he could spend the night in Madison.
Of course as soon as we canceled we went from top priority to last priority. After the passengers left, the gate agent started to do so before I reminded him that we still needed our flight paperwork. “Of course I can wait on you, I've been doing it for over two hours already,” he grumbled. Then he changed his mind: “I gotta be downtairs. Call Ops for your paperwork.” Ops had just sent our paperwork over the printer when the Captain emerged from the restroom, and then I realized that we were both locked out of the gate with no way to get in.
We called ops with no answer. We waved for rampers. We searched for other gate agents. We tried waving to our flight attendants through the terminal windows and cockpit windows. Nobody saw us. I'm not sure how long we were locked out but it was at least a half hour. The day was getting more and more ludicrous. Finally we were able to get ahold of Ops and they sent a ramper upstairs to let us in. We quickly set up for the flight, pushed back, and got the heck out of dodge.
The weather had passed by MSP when we finally touched down around 11:30pm, but the day had a few annoyances left in its bag of tricks. Our gate was occupied and we taxied around the airport for a few minutes; then the rampers guided us into the gate wrong and we had to remain on board while they located a tug and realigned us so the gate agent could open the door. It was 12:15am by the time Dawn picked me up in front of the baggage claim. It was an 18 hour day for three measly scheduled legs.
It turned out to work well for me. Crew scheduling gave me the 24th off in an unusual fit of compassion, although I had been scheduled for reserve. Dawn and I had our Christmas that morning, and then traveled to my parents' place for the extended family Christmas that afternoon and the immediate family Christmas that night. I did end up getting called to fly a Vancouver turn on Christmas Day but that was alright because the 24th was a fine Christmas. I did, however, have to restrain myself from hysterical laughter every time a family member asked, “So, how are things going with NewCo? Are they a good company?”