The airport at night is a dark void from the air, but down here it's lit like the proverbial Christmas tree. There are blue taxi lights, white runway lights, green centerlines, red and green navigation lights, blinking red beacons, rotating yellow beacons on ground equipment, and the ghostly glow of klieg lights on the deice ramp, all haloed with snowflakes flying past. This snowstorm is only a few hours old and already causing lots of kinks, but I can't help enjoying the bewitching atmospherics of a snowy night. It feels like Christmas. My reverie is pierced by the blinding glare of a taxi light. A company JungleBus has turned onto a taxiway perpendicular to ours and the Captain is displaying a regrettable lack of courtesy. I mumble a few words under my breath and right on cue, the light goes out, leaving me seeing stars.
When I can see again, I glance at my watch. We haven't moved an inch in ten minutes. For reasons not readily apparent to me, the powers that be have chosen to only open three lanes of the 12L deice pad for the opening salvo of the biggest Christmas storm in years. The few crews present seem to be working extraordinarily slowly: it's taken two trucks over 40 minutes to deice a 757-300. It's not snowing that hard yet. Rob speculates that the crews are intentionally working slowly to signal their displeasure with intentional short-staffing on management's part. It's plausible; the tactic isn't exactly unknown among pilots.
I started the day in darkness, too, rising some fifteen hours ago to prepare for an 8:15am show time. Dawn gave me a ride to the airport before heading to school for her last day of work before Christmas vacation. Despite my best efforts in bidding and trip trading, I'd been unable to get Christmas off, so Dawn would be heading to her parents house in South Dakota after school tonight. I look out at a rapidly drifting snowbank by the taxiway and hope she stays safe on the lonely country roads west of Alexandria.
Our earlier roundtrip to Jacksonville passed smoothly and quickly. The winds aloft were unusually southerly, ensuring a fast return leg and signaling the size and strength of the approaching low. The subsequent three hours of unpaid "airport appreciation time" seemed longer than the six hours to and from JAX, particularly since our crew room has no sleeping facilities or even couches to rest on (our former chief pilot, when asked about this, reportedly replied that he didn't want crews fornicating in the crew room!). I'm definitely getting tired. I yawn, stretch, and look outside again to spy the A320 ahead of us creeping forward. I drop the parking brake and roll a few feel closer to the deice pad.
An hour later, we roar down a quite snow-covered 12L, reach V1 mercifully quickly - I'd rather not abort in these conditions - and bound into a night sky full of snowflakes whipping past our landing lights. It took an hour and a half to taxi out and deice for a thirty minute flight! Now there is plenty for me to do. As we pass through 18,000 feet, I complete the climb checklist, stow my Minneapolis charts and retrieve those for Madison, complete the flight release, and begin preparing for the approach into Madison. Over 100 miles out, I pick up the latest weather: a relatively high ceiling and three miles visibility, but a nasty gusting crosswind, an ugly mix of snow pellets and freezing drizzle, and worse yet, runway friction readings around .28 Mu. This is on the low side of "poor" braking action and approaching "nil," which we cannot land in. I check the weather at Green Bay, our alternate; it's still holding up, so I have an easy out if Madison gets any worse. As we begin our descent into Madison, I use Comm 2 to call the tower directly to inquire about the latest field conditions. They inform me that the runway is being plowed and sanded as we speak, and new and improved braking numbers are forthcoming. Sure enough, within a few minutes Madison Approach passes along friction readings around .40, still slick but a lot better than .28.
Descending through 5000 feet, we pass through a layer of warm air, and rain pelts our windshield. The massive low is sucking in warm, moist air from the gulf, which is resulting in sleet and freezing rain over a wide area around Chicago tonight. Another two thousand feet lower, we encounter colder air and the rain pings sharper against the fuselage and runs sluggishly up the windscreen before freezing on every unprotected spot. Freezing rain is the bane of every pilot; no aircraft, however well equipped, can withstand it for long. We request short vectors, the controller obliges, and soon we are bumping down the glideslope to Runway 36. It's a wild ride but Rob handles it well, making an textbook crosswind landing.
Upon touchdown, Rob uses full reverse thrust, as is normal procedure on a contaminated runway, but it seems to me like he's being awfully light on the brakes. Once I take control, I discover why; there is very little braking action to be had. However recently it was plowed, this runway is slick. I slow to a nearly complete halt before gingerly edging the tiller over for a careful turn off the runway. As we pull up to the gate, we are two hours late. The passengers are nonetheless unfailingly polite and grateful as they deplane.
I call the crew hotel for a pickup after putting the airplane to bed, only to learn that the company has not booked us rooms there. In fact, the receptionist informs me that the same thing happened last night and the crew stayed on the Captain's credit card - but that's not possible tonight, for they are fully booked. I call crew scheduling; the supervisor tells me he will contact our hotel booker right away and get right back to me. Fifteen minutes pass; I call crew scheduling back and get a voicemail message. Suddenly, the hotel van is there; we file out into the snow and the driver announces that he is picking up the NewCo crew. We get in, and we no sooner drive off than the driver gets a call from the front desk: it's a mistake, we're not coming to that hotel, we're supposed to be at their sister hotel across town. The driver gamely agrees to take us there, but we've barely left the airport property before crew scheduling finally calls back to say that the hotel booker swears up and down that we should have reservations at the first hotel but he is finding us a new place as we speak. Back to the airport we go.
The van has just disappeared when crew scheduling calls to reveal our new hotel: the one the driver had just been bringing us to! I wearily call the hotel directly to request pickup. Sorry, says the receptionist - we have no driver, we require a 24 hour notice for airport pickup. I sprint outside to see the very last of the taxi cabs departing with the last of our passengers. Another call to crew sked, another apology, another promise to get things fixed right away - and ten minutes later, rooms have magically opened up at the first hotel! What a goat rope.
It takes a while for the van to come back for us, and then it's a twenty minute drive to the hotel through deserted, slickened streets flanked by tall snowbanks. By the time I get in my room and wearily strip off my uniform, it's 11:30pm, and we've been on the ground an hour and a half. Having been on duty some fifteen hours, we are now on a reduced-rest overnight, a good portion of which was spent waiting for the hotel van. I wonder what tomorrow's passengers would think about their pilot landing in a snowstorm after five and a half hours sleep to recuperate from nineteen hours of wakefulness. It's perfectly legal - you can thank the spineless FAA and morally bankrupt airline management for that. At the end of the day, though, I'm the Captain, and if I feel too fatigued to fly safely, I won't. For exercising this discretion, I would face the very real possibility of being called into the chief pilot's office to explain what personal problems are preventing me from being properly rested for work. I collapse wearily into bed and try to calm myself enough to sleep. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.
To Be Continued....