Spring has, it seems, finally decided to show up and stay a while. There've been many reported sightings and tantalizing clues of its return over the last month, hopes always brutally squashed by another fierce winter storm dumping another nine inches of snow on the winter-weary citizens of Minnesota. This time I think it's real, although should winter decide to make a curtain call in May it certainly wouldn't be the first time.
Yesterday it was 70 degrees in Minneapolis and everyone was out and about, in shorts no less. There were people on the beach at Lake Calhoun despite it being ice-free for less than a week. Swarms of motorcycles cruised up and down Hennepin Ave, blowing off the winter cobwebs. Dawn and I made an ice cream run to Dairy Queen at dusk and it was hopping.
Winter took its last big swipe at the Twin Cities, and much of the upper midwest, the Thursday before last. I was flying the day the storm hit. It wasn't without warning - the 10 o'clock newscast was full of doom the night before, and the crew room was abuzz when I checked in for my day trip to Vancouver. The weather was still decent when we left, but the MSP aerodrome forecast was calling for high winds and heavy snow around the time of our return. Even before we landed in Vancouver, we were negotiating extra contingency fuel for the return leg with our dispatcher.
On the way back from Vancouver - which appeared to be in the midst of a fine Pacific Northwest summer - we monitored the deteriorating weather in Minneapolis. The winds were howling out of the northeast and increasing in velocity. Minneapolis usually uses its two parallel runways for most arrivals and departures, but they are oriented northwest-southeast. The crosswind component on those runways was approaching 31 kts, the JungleBus' maximum crosswind limitation for a wet runway. It must've posed a problem for other aircraft types as well, because ATC made runway 4 the active runway when we were an hour from landing. Although this eliminated the crosswind problem, it cut Minneapolis' arrival rate in half. Runway 4 also lacks a precision approach; the localizer approach to that runway has a minimum visibility of 3/4 mile, which was exactly what the airport was reporting. Even before Minneapolis Center issued us holding instructions 60 miles northwest of the airport, we were preparing for a possible divert.
We'd been conserving fuel the whole way back by flying higher than planned and throttling back to Mach .74 to take advantage of a tailwind. Our dispatcher had assigned Brainerd, MN as our alternate airport. Our fuel planning was contingent upon one approach at Minneapolis followed by a missed approach and subsequent diversion to Brainerd; this, plus the legally required reserve of 45 minutes gave us minimum landing fuel of 4500 lbs. The Captain added on several hundred pounds of fuel for delays we'd likely experience while being vectored for the approach, and from this calculated our "bingo" fuel for every point on our flight plan. When we were assigned holding, we already knew our minimum fuel to leave the hold: 5600 lbs. We entered the hold with 7500 lbs fuel, enough for about 45 minutes of holding. We were told to expect a hold for at least an hour.
We were holding quite near Brainerd, our alternate airport, so we listened in to their ATIS. They were reporting 1 1/2 miles visibility in moderate snow. That's well above the minimums for the ILS approaches to runways 23 and 34, but barely above the minimums for the GPS approach to runway 5, which the winds were strongly favoring. The winds were barely below the crosswind limits for runway 34...assuming it was merely wet, and not yet contaminated by snow or slush. This was setting off all sorts of alarm bells in my head, and I was happy to find the Captain on the same page. I text-messaged our dispatcher requesting a new alternate, and, mindful of their lack of assistance during my last divert, started pulling up weather for potential airports myself.
This time the dispatcher did return our message promptly, but we didn't like his suggestion of LaCrosse for a new alternate. Once again, the winds strongly disfavored the single runway serviced by an ILS approach, the marginally better runways have much higher minimums, and the one (rather short) runway that the winds favored most has no instrument approach at all. Besides, the storm was coming from the south and LaCrosse was right in the thick of it. I suggested to the Captain that we take a look at airports further to the north, ahead of the storm. I recalled from long-ago experience that Duluth's main runway has an ILS in its easterly direction, so I checked the weather there. Sure enough, although the winds were even stronger than Minneapolis, they were aligned with the 10,000 ft runway and the weather was otherwise excellent. Duluth isn't much further from Minneapolis than Brainerd so changing our alternate wouldn't greatly impact our fuel. I messaged our new plan to the dispatcher; he quickly agreed and sent us our new fuel numbers. Our new bingo fuel was a few hundred pounds higher but we realized it wouldn't matter in the end; it was obvious that rather few arrivals were making it into MSP.
When we decided on Duluth we still had about 20 minutes of holding fuel remaining, which we passed along to Minneapolis Center along with the change of alternate. The controller said he was doubtful we'd make it but he would put a bug in Minneapolis Approach's ear. While we waited we used a company frequency to talk to another NewCo flight holding 1000' above us; they were on the verge of diverting to Fargo. When we had five minutes holding fuel remaining, we again informed the controller and he told us to fly heading 360 - away from the airport - while he made one last entreaty to approach control. Shortly thereafter he told us we could expect the turn direct to MSP in two minutes, but one minute later reversed himself and said they weren't accepting any more arrivals from the north. He turned us direct to Duluth, now less than 50 miles away.
A divert is one of the more stressful things airline pilots do (short of actual emergencies), especially when the airport is nearby. The key is to slow down and give yourself time to do everything without rushing so much that you make mistakes, and to have a clear division of duties between the pilots. While the Captain flew and set himself up for the approach, I text-messaged our dispatcher to confirm the divert, briefed the flight attendants, made a quick PA to the passengers, and attempted to contact Duluth station operations. When I came back the Captain brought me up to speed on what had changed since I was gone, such as ATC clearances and his setup for the approach. I gave him a quick rundown of what I'd done, set up my instruments for the approach, and then we briefed the approach plate together. At this time we were rapidly approaching the final approach fix, so the Captain requested a 360 degree turn so we could complete the descent and approach checklists in an unhurried manner. We were finished by the time we were halfway through the turn, and then we broke out of the clouds and saw the airport. It was a rather leisurely visual approach since we had a 70 knot headwind at 3000 feet. The last few miles were pretty turbulent but the Captain made a graceful landing.
We weren't alone in thinking Duluth made an excellent diversion spot; several other diverted RedCo flights landed just before and after us. Seven airplanes quickly found themselves in competition for the airport's three gates. The ground controllers obviously weren't used to this and got pretty flustered rather quickly, giving us taxiing instructions that would've put us nose-to-nose with a A320 on a narrow taxiway. We challenged their instructions three times, becoming increasingly strident until they realized their clearance would've resulted in total gridlock in the terminal area. We requested and received clearance to taxi clear of the terminal ramp and await an open gate from a ramp across the airport. When the gate opened up an hour after landing, ground control gave us clearance to taxi to it as soon as a DC-9 under tow passed us on the taxiway; however, the tow crew was intending to drop the DC9 at our spot on the ramp and refused to tow further until we moved out of the way! The ground controller came to the verge of hysterics in compelling the tow crew to get their plane out of our way, and the comedy of errors had the Captain and I laughing to the point of tears.
By the time we got to the gate, the passengers had been on board for six hours; they were anxious to get off the plane. Then the ground crew told us that TSA had gone home so nobody could go outside the secured area, and there were no restaurants, shops, or even restrooms inside security. The Captain was told them that was utterly unacceptable; with Minneapolis' weather still down there was no telling when we'd be able to depart, and in the meantime we could have a JetBlue situation on our hands. The station manager said he'd call the TSA manager and try to get some screeners back to the airport; meanwhile we called the chief pilot and he said he'd make some calls. In the meantime we had to wait for our dispatcher to generate our release for the return to MSP; he was pretty overloaded so it took quite some time. Once we got the release, we called ground control for our IFR clearance and were told the earliest departure slot to MSP was in 90 minutes. By this time the winds had died down somewhat in MSP so they were back to 2-runway operations but they had a huge backlog of arrivals to get in. The Duluth station manager called the ATC liaison at RedCo's system operations control (SOC) and asked him to intervene on our behalf for an earlier slot time; he said he'd try but he was doubtful it'd make a difference. At an hour before our slot time, the TSA manager said he could have a security checkpoint open in a half hour, but by that time it wouldn't make sense to deplane because we'd be just about ready to depart - and if we missed this slot time there was no telling when another would be available. It was a pretty miserable choice to make but the passengers took it in stride when we told them. We'd been giving updates at 15 minute intervals ever since the diversion, and they seemed to appreciate being kept in the loop.
Fortunately, the flow control to MSP was cancelled 30 minutes before our slot time; we quickly completed our paperwork and closed up for pushback. It was Duluth's first time handling a JungleBus. They'd received the appropriate towbar only 2 days earlier and it was sitting in a box, disassembled, when we arrived. They did an admirable job getting us out quickly and smoothly. We fired up, taxiied to runway 9, and took off in winds gusting to 47 knots just as it began snowing. Two hours after we left it was 1/4 mile visibility in heavy snow.
The hop to MSP was just about the longest 45 minute flight of my life. It was turbulent, the radar was filled with yellow returns, heavy snow alternated with a deafening rain of ice pellets, St. Elmo's fire danced up and down the windscreen, and ATC was barely audible above all the static in the radios. We kept the cockpit floodlights up high in case we took a lightning strike. We diverted around the heaviest precipitation and then ATC turned us around and vectored us for a 40 mile final. It was rather anti-climactic when we spotted the approach lights several miles out and made an uneventful landing on a mostly uncontaminated runway.
I logged over 10 hours of flight time that day, which is legal since the 8 hour limit only applies to scheduled flight time. I really got off rather easy, as I only had two scheduled legs that day and was done when I got to MSP. My roommate Dan was the FO on the flight that diverted to Fargo, where his crew went through a saga rather similar to our experiences in Duluth. When he finally returned to MSP, he still had to fly a leg out to Kalispell, and logged even more flight time for the day than I did.
In the end it worked out for me. The extra flight time would've made me illegal for my scheduled start of Captain OE the next week, so crew scheduling dropped my scheduled day trip on Saturday, giving me the whole weekend off. My last day as a first officer was a Salt Lake City roundtrip that Friday, and I started Captain OE last Tuesday. More about that in my next post....