Monday, February 04, 2008


It's snowing in Minneapolis. An hour ago huge flakes were blowing sideways and obscuring even the shops across the street; now the wind has died down and the snowfall looks more picturesque than malevolent. Either way, I'm glad to see snow. Without new snowfall, the snowbanks turn into ugly barricades of ice, sand, and salt. More importantly, snow in Minnesota heralds the arrival of "warm" weather, 29 degrees F today. When we have long winter stretches without snow, it's usually because the atmosphere is too cold to carry enough moisture for significant snowfall. We've had several weeks of frigid weather with a few Alberta clippers that combine gusty winds with bitter temperatures for days on end of wind chills in the -30 F and colder range.

This would be a superb time to bid four day trips with overnights exclusively south of the Mason-Dixon line, but in my infinite wisdom I bid a line that contained nothing but hi-speeds to the one place we fly in North America that's colder than Minneapolis: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Saskatoon redefines the word cold. Last Wednesday we spent the day there with a broken airplane. When we finally ferried it out at 8pm, the airport was reporting -37C (-35F), which is only three degrees from the JungleBus' minimum temperature for takeoff. The wind chill was -52C (-62F). I offered to Paper-Rock-Scissors the Captain for the preflight inspection, since that's our standard method of determining who flies which leg; he just laughed at me so I dutifully grabbed my flimsy pilot cap and headed out into the maelstrom. I returned a few minutes later without any feeling in my ears, nose, or face.

I'm apparently a glutton for punishment because I bid the exact same line for February. I didn't really want to, but it was the one line I could hold that had the days off I absolutely needed off (Dawn's birthday & my sister's wedding). I then set about trading away as many hi-speeds as I could in exchange for warmer overnights - which would be just about anywhere. In the end I only gained Pittsburg, Nashville, and Detroit overnights and accidentally scheduled myself to fly during the weekend I was hoping to go to Florida with Dawn and her parents. My trip-trading technique at NewCo can obviously use some improvement. I do have five days off at the end of the month; an airline buddy and I are talking about going to Mexico for a few days. I think after another month of Saskatoon that'd be a very welcome change of scenery.

Other than the cold preflights, winter flying isn't all bad. The plane performs pretty well in the cold air. The stronger, more southerly jetstream can make for bumpy rides but the JungleBus usually has the performance to climb to smooth air; it's nice not cruising through the tops at FL250 all winter like you'd do in the Q400. Frequent deicing can be a pain from a keeping-the-schedule standpoint but our flights are long enough that we can make up most of the time by cruising at Mach .78 or .80 rather than the planned .76. I imagine that monster lines of thunderstorms in the summer carry more potential for schedule disruption. There are more low instrument approaches and crosswind landings than you'd expect in the summer but I'm glad to get that experience in the plane before I upgrade.

Besides all the north-of-the-border flying, I got a healthy dose of winter driving on a cross-country road trip the weekend before last. Dawn and I have been living in her aunt's basement since I came back from Montreal, a rather less-than-idea living arrangement. We've been looking to get our own place, but our budget is rather limited given that we're still paying the mortgage on our still-unsold townhouse. We ended up getting a two-bedroom apartment with a single college friend of mine who just started flying for NewCo. His Subaru was still in Washington while he was in Montreal; once he was done, I met him in WA to bring back the car, which had every square inch of cargo space packed with his stuff and ours, as well as a monstrous roof bag. We detoured up to White Pass to go skiing with his cousin, and then set out at about 8pm Saturday with the intention of driving straight through to Minneapolis.

We managed to time it just right to be driving through the middle of a major winter storm for the first 500 miles. The snow was dumping in the Cascades, then a sleety mix near Ellensburg, then snow again at Moses Lake and rain on top of previous snowfall in Spokane, a slushy mix that started freezing as soon as we started climbing into the Bitterroots past Coeur d'Alene. It was harrowing for a while until we got high enough that it was pure snow, no ice. Dan's all-wheel drive Subaru performed admirably. Dan woke up and took over the driving duties for me at Lookout Pass, ID, which we crested around 3AM. I settled into the passenger seat and fell fast asleep.

I woke up an hour later to Dan's exclamation, "Oh #%#!!!" as the car slid sideways straight into I-90's center meridian ditch. We were still going about 30 mph when we hit the snowbank and the car plowed about 20 feet into the ditch before grinding to a halt. Dan tried reversing without any movement. We were stuck fast. I got out and pushed, to no avail. It was sleeting outside; we had again descended to an altitude where freezing rain on top of previous snow made the roads absolutely treacherous. A snowplow stopped and called the state patrol for us; I suggested that we see if we couldn't dig out the car. We didn't have a shovel so I used Dan's snowboard to scoop most of the snow away, and then Dan used an ice scraper to break through the bottom layer of snow and ice to give the tires traction against bare dirt. We scooped as much snow from under the car as we could, and then cleared a path ahead and behind it so that by rocking the car and pushing we were able to dislodge it from where the undercarriage was hung up on the snowbank and clear that spot out so we had about a 30' clearway where the car was fairly free to move. Then we scooped and stomped a path up to the shoulder of the highway. I moved the car to the very back of the cleared area and got as much speed as I could before we hit the second path and the car had just enough momentum to claw its way up the path and onto the shoulder. After 90 minutes of shoveling heavy, wet snow in sleet and rain, we were exhausted, soaked, and exuberant. We stopped in Missoula to change into dry clothes and have breakfast. The weather was decent the rest of the way, but the trip took 29 hours instead of the usual 22 and we pulled into Minneapolis at 3am on Monday morning.

The moral of this story? If you're tempted to drive cross-country in the middle of the winter, don't. RedCo will fly you there in a fraction of the time for less than the cost of gas. Heck, half the time I think they'll charge you less than their cost of gas! [/shameless plug]

Blogging has been slow/nonexistent because we don't have internet in our new apartment yet so my only internet access is on my short overnights or during visits to Caribou Coffee. Heck, we don't really have furniture yet. The apartment is still mostly bare, a somewhat depressing sight. So much of this move has felt like moving backwards: back to first year FO pay, back to frigid Minnesota, back to living with roommates in a rented apartment. At least one thing is moving forward: my seniority. Another eight first officers are upgrading in February so I now have only 14 FOs above me. NewCo has moved up several deliveries and has begun several lines of flying more quickly than expected, so they're finally getting thin on Captains. It looks like I'll indeed be upgrading in April or even March. On Captain pay I'll be able to afford some furniture for the apartment and perhaps even internet access for more regular blogging!

Final amusing winter flying story: the day that we were stuck in Saskatoon, the plane was down on maintenance due to a leak in the crew oxygen system. The oxygen quantity went below minimum for dispatch just as we were getting ready to push back. The contract maintenance worker was able to refill the bottle within an hour but there was still a leak in the system; the captain and I weren't willing to fly it without knowing the location and cause of the leak. If it was from the oxygen bottle or associated plumbing, that's in the forward cargo compartment and it could create an oxygen-rich environment in that compartment (can you say ValuJet?). The mechanic mentioned that he's seen many bottles leak in bitter cold temperatures like those we were experiencing in Saskatoon, and went down to the cargo compartment to find the leak. He returned a short time later to say he couldn't find the leak using the standard method. The reason? The normal procedure is to spray water on the fittings and look for bubbles, but at -37C water freezes quite instantaneously!


Anonymous said...

Heh, at one maintenance shop I know they keep extra bottles of rubbing alcohol around for the express purpose of finding bubbles in winter. Have your maintenance guys worked in Canada for very long?

Nicole Bullock said...

Just wanted to let you know that I love your blog. My husband just started as an FO with Pinnacle in October. I just did the Los Angeles to Detroit roadtrip at the beginning of January, and am sooo glad I had good weather. It was bitterly cold, but we only had snow from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor. My husband is on the high-speed schedule this month, and so far we really like it. Hope your captain upgrade happens soon!

brian said...

Did the mechanic say he couldn't find the leaks using the traditional method AFTER he tried the traditional method? Or did he know better? That is the real question.

Aviatrix said...

Ha ha ha! I love my country. I was just about to suggest alcohol, but I see that your earlier reader has beaten me to it.

I believe my next posting is going to be north of Saskatoon. Eek.

Xaqman said...

The oxygen generated by the canisters on that Valujet flight certainly made things worse, but they didn't create an O2-rich environment that then propagated a fire (which I think is the impression your post gave). The intense heat from the canisters' operation is what started that horrible fire. That's not to say you didn't do the right thing- no question about it!!

Sam said...

Xaqman, wasn't saying the O2 caused the Valujet fire, but it's unlikely that the fire would have burned so hot and spread so quickly if not for that factor. It was only 6 or 7 minutes from the first sign of smoke until the crash, compared to 20-30 minutes in quite a few other accidents involving fire. Honestly, the forward cargo compartment on the JungleBus is ventilated well enough that I doubt oxygen levels could've built up to the levels necessary to turn some random spark into a raging inferno...but who knows. Taking off with an significant crew oxygen leak whose source can't be tracked down might well meet some FAA inspector's definition of "careless and reckless."

Russki said...

I really enjoy reading your posts, don't stop!
Quick question, what is a high speed schedule? is it short trips with quick turn arounds?

Xaqman said...

I agree, that's why I said you did the right thing! Far too many people in this business 'carry' far too much stuff around, sometimes without even knowing what's really going on! (Sam, at least, will know in what sense I use the word 'carry')!

Sam said...

russki- Refer to my post from a last month entitled "Fly By Night." A hi-speed, otherwise known as a CDO or standup, is where you report at the airport late in the day, do one outbound flight, stay there for 5 or 6 hours on duty (although you do typically spent that time in the hotel) and then operate a flight back to the hub airport in the morning for a total of 8 to 14 hours on duty. At my company they build some schedules that have nothing but hi-speeds, one of which I bid for this month.