Monday, April 21, 2008

The Divert

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....


Sarah said...

Sounds like quite a trip! Nice writeup.

As an amateur, I have to admit "some" envy of you turbine jockeys, until it is indefiniteceiling skyobscured RVR weather... Then, I'm just as happy to be on the ground. I'm in MSP myself, by the way, so I know how nasty it was. Spring is here now though! 75 degrees & sunny until the forecast thunder.

"Lairy"Liam said...

Its days like that that cause me to work very hard, I work in an operations department in the UK..

We do things slightly different over here as the department you refer to as dispatch is actually split into two roles. a dispatcher here is solely responsible for the aircraft turnaround and weight and balance.

The Ops department on the other hand will take care of the aircrafts whereabouts, what the aircraft do during the day, crewing, and flight planning.

A day of snowclo' is a headache and a lot of fun if the ops team work hard enough.

It was really good to read about it from your perspective in the front office.



Tom said...

congrats again on upgrading. Did/do you have to attend a specific groundschool or "classroom" course in order to upgrade to captain, or is it just IOE in the cockpit?

zb said...

Despite all the stress, this does not sound all too bad. Things seem to have worked out for you, even consideering your upgrade. Congrats on the completion of a diversion and, especially on the upgrade.

Sam said...

ZB - yeah, compared to my last divert in December (inop autopilot and dispatch MIA) this one was a piece of cake, went very smoothly. Does it mean NewCo dispatch is getting their act together? One can hope!

Tom - Usually you'd have to go through a complete upgrade program including class and sim. However, since I did that in the last six months - concurrently with new-hire initial - I only have to complete OE in the airplane. It's a pretty unique situation not often seen at the airlines.

Joel P. said...

Congrats on the upgrade! I'm looking forward to hearing about your first days as a captain.


ts said...

Sam - great story, glad your diversion worked out. And congrats on your upgrade!

Doug in Dispatch said...

Talk about a nice little welcome back to the real world from your little jaunt to the other side of the world ;)

See ya around the funny farm...

Matt said...

"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"

As a dispatcher, it pains me to hear this. This is one of the things that new hires have the most problem with. Sure an airport meets alternate limits, but they dont always look at the winds and which approach the crew will most likely have to use to get in. Good job of keeping up on the weather in other diversion airports. I'm glad it all worked out for you.

And by the way, I'm happy spring has sprung for you. Here in YYC, it's been snowing for 3 days and looks like January outside.

Anonymous said...

I believe that same storm system that hit you guys blew threw my area (DFW) causing a ton of damage. A 'wedge cloud' passed right by my grandparent's home west of here. They were lucky it didn't tear the whole town to shreds. It seems like every week we have some violent storm roll through. Last thursday heavy hail, that piled up into DRIFTS pelted us, along with high winds, and flooding. Quite a spring eh?

Michael said...

Well, the internet just got a little more "small world" for me, as I was a passenger on this exact flight. I give my highest praise to you guys on the flight deck, who did a great job of sticking the landing at Duluth. While you were up front talking with operations, many of us passengers were in the back on cell phones scrambling to re-schedule our connecting flights. Just before we left Duluth, the earliest seat I could confirm was on a flight to DTW the next day at 5pm! Once we got to MSP and I saw the chaos in the boarding area I knew it was going to be a long night. A long series of events led to me sleeping on the floor at gate F6, and getting a lucky seat on a late morning flight back to Detroit.

Again, many thanks to you and the Captain for keeping us folks in the back informed, and for some excellent foul-weather flying.

I will be posting a blog entry about my trip to Vancouver, I hope you don't mind if I link to your blog.

Sam said...

Michael, that's really cool, I've met readers of my blog on flights before but this is the first time one of my passengers found a post about their flight after the fact. By all means, blog about it, I'll link to your writeup when you're done.

Next time you're on one of our flights and it's stuck on the ground for a few hours you should come up front to say hi and check out the JungleBus' flight deck!

Anonymous said...

Great story, your blog is the first thing I check every morning...the more pics the better!

Aviatrix said...

"My roommate Dan was the FO on the flight that diverted to Fargo..."

That was the flight that diverted to Fargo while the FAs put out a fire in the washroom?

Sam said...

Hahah nope trixie. Read the post again, there was another NewCo flight holding 1000' above us that diverted into Fargo shortly after we went to Duluth. The washroom fire happened just the other day, well after the events of this post (and after the post was written).

I do know the captain on the washroom fire flight, though.

Aviatrix said...

Ah ha ha. And I thought you were being really subtle there.

Rick Barlow said...

Good Blog Sam, should be required reading for the traveling public who continually think we pilots are "way overpaid for the little work we do". ;-)

McLanahan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
McLanahan said...

Great post, I just discovered your blog and am hooked.

I was actually on one of the flights that diverted to Fargo (came in from MCO). There were a lot of families on that flight.

It was quite amusing listening to the other passengers behind me on the approach to MSP. Not the worst I've been in but there was some fun chop (and a few white faces in the back with me). Of course a few of them probably thought the roller coasters in Disney Land were pretty fun but didn't really seem to care for one last ride.

The landing coming in was one aborted approach (crosswind + icy runway... smart move) followed by a really beautiful crosswind landing. I have to say it was the first time I've been in the back when a plane crabs in... very cool experience. I had a big grin on my face with one passenger behind me talking about how it was the worst flight of her life. I guess she must not fly that much ;)

When these types of delays happen, my opinion is to take it in stride, find the humor in the situation, and realize the flight crew is doing whats best for all of us.

Of course, I did complement the crew on the crosswind on the way out. I figured it probably would be nice to hear at least one thank you in the crowd.

I hope to be on one of your flights out of MSP one of these days!