Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Fed

I first noticed him as I strolled up to our gate in Pittsburgh at 5:30am, bags in tow. He was wearing black polyester pants, a leather jacket with epaulet loops, and a plastic ID card on a lanyard; I mistook him for a jumpseating Southwest pilot. He was fourth in line to speak to the gate agent, so I just waved and motioned that I'd talk to him on the airplane as I continued down the jetway.

A few minutes later, I was sitting in first class and tucking into a Quiznos breakfast sandwich when our gate agent entered with jumpseater in tow. I put down the remnants of my sandwich, stood up, wiped the crumbs off my pants, and extended a hand as I introduced myself. "Hi, I'm Jerry with the FAA," he replied as he produced his credentials. That caught me off guard. "Oh! Will you be joining us in the flight deck?" I sounded a little too surprised. "Well, I'm traveling on official business, so yes, this will be a line check," replied the Fed somewhat gruffly. Not the most auspicious of introductions, I thought.

I'm no stranger to line checks. As a Part 121 Captain I'm required to have them at least once a year, but in reality it ends up being more often. There's a world of difference between being checked by a check airman and the FAA, though. The worst possible outcome of a company line check is being forced to undergo retraining, and a more typical "bad" line check simply results in being counseled by the check airman, with an accompanying note in your file. FAA inspectors, on the other hand, can and do issue violations on the basis of line checks. A Captain at Horizon, for example, had his license suspended on the basis of not challenging his FO over a few non-pertinent words below 10,000 feet. With a Fed in your jumpseat, your career is on the line.

That said, I've had a few FAA line checks where the inspector in question was clearly more interested in getting to his destination with a minimum of hassle rather than examining our work with a fine-tooth comb, or where the inspector was obviously unfamiliar with transport category airplanes and airline operations. It quickly became obvious that Jerry was not this sort of Fed. He accompanied Randall on his walkaround, carefully inspected every page of our logbook for ten minutes, and listened intently as I gave the longest and most detailed crew and clearance briefings of my life. Randall followed suit and went into ultra-conservative mode; I think he did the weight and balance worksheet three times! We pushed five minutes late.

It had been snowing in Pittsburgh for the last ten days, and the airport was as bad as I've ever seen it; I think they sent the plow crews home for sheer exhaustion! Several times we had to plow through sizable snow berms lying across the taxiways. The deice pad next to Runway 28R was closed so we had to take a detour to the south pad. Once we were finally off the ground, though, I could relax a bit; the air was smooth and the skies were clear with crystalline visibility from just west of Pittsburgh all the way to Minneapolis. At cruise altitude, our Fed proved to be more affable than we first took him to be. He had flown for USAir for 18 years, before which he was an FAA inspector for 20 years; since airline retirement, he had returned to the Feds to work in the aircraft certification department, which was why he was now enroute to Duluth for icing tests on a forthcoming Very Light Jet. His previous major assignment was A380 certification, for which he spent a summer living in France and amassed nearly 100 hours of stick time on the super-jumbo ("flies exactly like an A320!").

We talked about the Kingston overrun, the MSP overflight, and Continental's hull loss at Denver last year. "What we've been seeing a lot of lately are 'grey matter' incidents and accidents," Jerry said. "These aren't exactly tricky, insidious situations. They're simply dumb mistakes made without thinking. It's complacency in action." We had a long discussion about the Colgan crash, particularly as related to airline stall training. We asked about the new flight time and duty rules, of which Jerry disavowed any specific knowledge but said he'd heard the airline industry is gumming up the works by throwing out some ridiculous numbers for the cost-benefit analysis, so now the FAA is bringing in their own financial people.

The flight passed quickly and soon it was time to prepare for the approach into Minneapolis. The weather was beautiful with clear skies, unlimited visibility, and light surface winds from the south. We were vectored for a visual approach to Runway 12L. We called the airport in sight from a 15-mile left base leg at 4000 feet, and were immediately cleared for the approach with the admonition to maintain 180 knots or better to a five mile final. I initially slowed to 210 knots and called for Flaps 1. I heard approach ask the RedCo flight behind us to slow to his final approach speed for JungleBus traffic four miles ahead; I figured I'd help ATC out with the separation and stayed at 210 knots until joining the glideslope.

As we intercepted the glideslope and started down, I spun the speed selector back to 180 knots and started to call for Flaps 2, then caught myself. Despite the thrust levers being at flight idle, the plane had accelerated just above the flap limit of 215 knots. I disconnected the autopilot and pitched up a little to get under the flap speed. I stayed level to slow further, and as soon as we were below 200 knots, I called for Flaps 3. At this point I realized we were quite high and still very fast for how close we were to the runway. I glanced at the wind readout and was surprised to see that we had a 20 knot tailwind aloft. That's the sort of thing I should've checked before deciding to stay fast close in! I immediately called for Gear Down, then Flaps 5, and maneuvered to rejoin the glideslope at a few knots under the Flaps 5 limit speed.

Finally configured, the plane came down quite steeply. Coming through 1000 feet above the airport, we were rejoining the glideslope, but were still at 170 knots. I was starting to seriously doubt whether we'd be able to get stabilized at approach speed by the minimum altitude of 500 feet. We still had that blasted tailwind. How in the world could I let this get so bad, so quickly? I'd never bungled a perfectly good visual approach so badly, so why today of all days with a Fed peering over my shoulder? The speed bled off agonizingly slowly. I was going to be well over approach speed at 500 feet. There was only one thing to do, of course, yet I found myself surprisingly hesitant. I would never continue an unstablized approach in normal circumstances, so why even think about it with a Fed watching, when doing so would be a likely career-ender?

Five hundred feet. Twenty knots fast with unspooled engines. Moment of truth. "Unstablized approach, go around, flaps 2," I said as calmly as I could as I pressed the TOGA buttons and pitched up as the engines surged to full thrust. Randall repeated the instructions, retracted the flaps, and told MSP Tower we were going around. "Positive rate, gear up. Heading." MSP Tower gave us a left turn to 360 and a climb to 3000 feet, then asked if everything was okay. "We're fine, we just got a little fast," Randall replied. At 1000 feet: "Flight level change, speed 210...Flaps 1...Flaps 0...climb, descent, and approach checks please." Randall completed the checklists in short order, I made a very short "everything's ok" PA, and then we were cleared for another approach from a six mile left base. This time I configured immediately and the approach and landing went off without a hitch.

I avoided eye contact with the Fed until the engines were shut down and parking check complete. Finally I turned and ventured a lame, "Well, I really screwed the pooch on that one...." Jerry cut me off: "Never ever apologize for going around. Everyone screws up a visual approach at some point. I know I have. The real question is what you do about it. The guys who try to salvage a bad situation are the ones you eventually read about in the paper. I was proud of the decision you made, I know it had to be hard with me sitting there. But it was absolutely the right thing to do, and you both did a nice job on the go around. That's all I care about." Jerry shook our hands, gathered his things, and left.

The pep talk made me feel a little better, although I wasn't really upset about having to go around, I was upset about putting myself in the situation where a go around became necessary. Dwelling on mistakes, however, is not a luxury you have when there's flying left to do. I learned a long time ago - back during primary training - that when I beat myself up for mistakes, I tend to get preoccupied and make even worse errors. So I shook Randall's hand for a job well done, congratulated myself on making it through a FAA line check with licenses intact and a good blog story to boot, and walked up the jetbridge to retrieve the paperwork for the next flight.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere

After I finished the Portland to Los Angeles leg of my Round-the-USA motorcycle trip in December, I left my BMW in the parking garage at LAX and hoped for the best. I actually ended up returning the next week to hunt down a leak that I "discovered" at the last second when stashing the bike; it's too bad I didn't spend five more minutes looking into it, because on my return I quickly found that it was simply a poorly-routed breather hose. At least I got in a run up San Gabriel Canyon. A few weeks later I flew back out to LA after the Christmas snowstorm with the intention to take a short trip to Ensenada once Dawn could join me, which of course didn't work out due to the snowstorm and flight loads. My good friend Brad had a long Burbank layover so we hung out for the day before I flew back to Minnesota, again stashing the bike at LAX. In the time it was parked there, nobody messed with the bike, although I did lose a cover - whether to wind or theft, I don't know, but my helmet remained on the gas tank.

After a blissfully uneventful three day trip over New Years Day, I again flew out to Los Angeles to start the next leg of my trip: LA to Dallas. I'd been monitoring the forecasts for several days and was pleased to see that "good" weather, meaning no rain or snow, was forecast for the entire route, although I did note some alarmingly cold lows through the second half. Oh well - if I were to wait until a four-day-off stretch aligned with no precipitation and warm temperatures, I wouldn't likely get to Dallas until April. I ended up sitting on the jumpseat for the flight to LAX, and therefore got a front-row seat for a stunning sunset arrival in ultra-rare perfect visibility. You could clearly see Mount San Jacinto from the ground at LAX, some 100 miles away. I retrieved my bike from the parking garage, got on the pleasantly open 405 freeway, and headed south in the fading light. I stopped in Mission Viejo to gas up and have one last Double-Double at In-N-Out, then continued south to San Diego on I-5. I arrived by 8pm, got a bed at a hostel, and walked around the Gaslamp district enjoying the warm night. On my return, I chatted with my roommates, two Kiwis on their first trip to the states, and persuaded them to take the coast highway on their way up to San Francisco the next day.

I woke up at a quarter to six and dressed quickly in the dark, packing my saddlebags by feel and hoping I wasn't missing anything. It was already getting light by the time I got outside to my bike just after six. The air was still warm, but I knew the desert would be considerably cooler and put on a sweater and chaps right away. Soon I was squinting into the rising sun as I-8 climbed into the Laguna Mountains. I'd never been this way before and was grateful that the road spent little time at the crest of the range, where there was still frost in the shadows and I shivered behind the fairing. The steep drop to the Imperial Valley featured a series of sweepers that teased me faster until a couple of nasty bumps on a tightening-radius turn made me think better of it. At the valley floor, however, I quickly discovered that the local drivers have an internal speedometer that puts their Angeleno counterparts to shame. I got passed by all comers while doing 80; I adjusted my speed to "match the flow of traffic," as I imagined explaining to the local constabulary. I still got passed by Border Patrol and a sheriff.

Soon the irrigated valley gave way to the cacti of the Sonoran Desert and the dunes of the Arizona border. I stopped for gas in Yuma and Gila Bend, the miles of open road passing almost unnoticed as the sentinal ranges of the desert creeped by with deceptive languidness in the dry clear air. It occurred to me that I-8 is considerably more pleasant to ride than the average interstate, which was immediately confirmed upon rejoining the sun-blasted, rubber-littered stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. At this point I wasn't quite sure where I was going to spend the night, but after choking on the exhaust of dozens of roaring diesel behemoths for fifty miles, I resolved to leave the interstate as soon as possible after stopping in Tucson for a quick and delicious lunch of carne asada tacos.

Salvation came in the form of the exit to US-80 shortly after Tucson. Immediately the heavy eighteen-wheeler traffic was replaced by that of the two-wheeled variety, mostly Harleys with leather-clad riders enjoying the pleasantly warm day. I stopped in Tombstone and walked around admiring the old town in the dusty afternoon light and thinking about how hard and lonely life must have been in the Wild West, modern romanticism and nostalgic kitsch aside. Continuing southward, I followed a group of bikers with "Desert Heat MC Club" emblazoned on their vests for about twenty miles, until they pulled off just before Bisbee. I had been considering stopping here for the night, but snow alongside the road overruled the tempting attractiveness of the old mining town tucked neatly into the valley. I pressed on down to the quiet border town of Douglas, twenty miles further. The tourist office was closed for Sunday, but a map out front revealed two RV parks just out of town. When I tried the first one, located on the local golf course, the RV park portion was completely paved but there was a grassy area nearby the manager said I could camp on. I failed to notice that it was the designated pet run until a very squishy, very smelly misstep on my way to the restroom in the middle of the night.

After setting up the tent, I rode back into town for a light dinner and a call to Dawn, then headed back to the golf course and had a few beers in the empty clubhouse and talked to Sergio, the bartender. Soon his uncle arrived, then his brother, then his girlfriend and her friends and an amorous couple. The golf club turned out to be the local nightlife hotspot! I was asked repeatedly how I liked Douglas. What could I say? I'd just arrived and my first impression was that this was a dusty, isolated outpost for the primary purpose of departing to or arriving from Mexico. However, the surrounding mountains were beautiful and everyone I met was very friendly so I stressed those factors to the apparent satisfaction of all. It was finally getting late and I again planned to rise with the sun so I bid my farewells and walked to the tent to settle down for the night.

The last time I'd checked the Douglas forecast, it was calling for lows in the 30s. That was several days prior, but it felt a lot colder as I shivered through the night in my light spring sleeping bag. Why hadn't I brought the warm mummy bag at home!? Because I didn't want too much luggage while jumpseating? It seemed like a silly reason now. I finally warmed up enough in the fetal position to catch a few hours of sleep, interrupted only by the early-morning encounter with dog feces and subsequent loud outburst that may have, regrettably, woken a few slumbering RVers. When I rose a few hours later and checked the weather report, it was 26 degrees F. The BMW was covered with frost. I quickly broke down the tent, fumbling to fold and stow it with my thick riding gloves on. The bike turned over slowly but started on the second crank - Vielen dank, Deutschland! - and while it warmed up, I ran my hands under hot water in the bathroom and psyched myself up for a very cold ride.

The sun was coming up as I accelerated onto US-80, which turns to the northeast out of Douglas. It's a lonesome road, with dusty ranch turnoffs every ten or twenty miles the only signs of human habitation. The Animas Mountains, last holdout of Geronimo and his band of defiant Apaches, were turning a beautiful carmel color in the rising sun. I stopped to snap a picture just before the New Mexico border and my heart leapt in my mouth when the starter let out a whirr when I went to restart the bike. It caught on the second try. I was a little apprehensive about my planned route, New Mexico Highway 9, which straddles the Mexican border all the way to El Paso with only one dusty little town the whole way. Google Earth showed one stretch to be unpaved, but Sergio's uncle, who drives to El Paso often, insisted it was paved and in mostly good condition. I stopped at a small country store just before the turnoff to top off my gas tank, and the proprietress reassured me that Highway 9 is a good road and a nice ride she did often on her Suzuki Boulevard.

She was right. Highway 9 was empty and desolate, the sort of road I was praying my BMW wouldn't fail me on, but it was all the more wildly beautiful for it. I'd round a slight curve and come over a rise, and and another expansive vista would unfold of distant rugged mountains, a wide valley of unending desert scrub, and a long straight ribbon of road to the furthest horizon beckoning me onward. I cursed myself for ever doubting and reiterated my maxim for this trip: when in doubt, adventure wins out. I saw six other vehicles in the first 100 miles, four of which were Border Patrol. By now the air had warmed into the mid 40s, and I was perfectly comfortable at any speed. Several times, I stirred myself from reverie to look down at my speedometer and was shocked to find myself well into autobahn territory. Once or twice I may have exceeded the speed limit by truly ridiculous amounts. If not here, then where?

I fueled up in Columbus and was pleased to find that my flagrant lawbreaking didn't hurt my gas mileage much. Further east, the landscape became flatter, drier, more barren, yet somehow less lonely. Cars passed more frequently, and seventy miles off I recognized the Franklin Mountains standing watch over the metropolis of El Paso.

I was surprised to arrive in El Paso before 11am, much earlier than I had planned. I topped off my tank and sat down for lunch, pondering my options. I originally wanted to take US-62 northeast from El Paso to the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad, NM, before forging ahead to West Texas on side roads. Now I checked the weather for possible destinations for the night on my phone. I wasn't enthused about the prospect of another night camping in the cold. Carlsbad was showing a low of 25. Eunice and Hobbs weren't any warmer. To my dismay, everything in Texas was showing equally cold lows. Moreover, Google Maps showed an absolute lack of civilization on the 170 miles between El Paso and Carlsbad, which pretty well matched my memory of the road from 14 years ago. That's a problem because 170 miles is my bike's range, assuming conservative riding. An alternative plan began to formulate in my head. It was 650 miles to Dallas. If I stuck to the interstate and averaged 65mph, I could arrive before midnight. I would have all day tomorrow to look for storage for my bike and hang out with longtime friends Kelly and Lori before flying home to Dawn. The ride through Texas would be long and boring, but at least it would be warmer than heading up into New Mexico, and I wouldn't face another night shivering in my tent. I called Dawn to inform her of my new plan and headed eastward on I-10.

Almost as soon as I got on the interstate through El Paso, doubt began to nag. Why would you willingly endure 650 miles of this? I thought as an SUV cut me off. What exactly is the purpose of this trip, anyways? To get from point A to B as quickly as possible? The exit for US-62 passed by and a pang of regret hit me. When in doubt, adventure wins out! My mind was just mocking me now. Six miles past the original turnoff, I made a snap decision and cut across four lanes to exit, rode under the freeway, and got back in the westbound lanes to US-62. On the right road now and with my mind at peace, I rode to the easternmost limit of town and stopped at a gas station to fill my tank as full as I could possibly get it and call Dawn to tell her of my flip-flopping.

The road to Carlsbad was in much better condition than I remembered, and not quite so devoid of civilization as I saw plenty of cars and even the occasional gas station. The salt flats just west of the Guadalupe Mountains seem to have shrunk, or perhaps the desert scrub is just more extensive this time of year. Or maybe that one bit stuck in my memory and expanded as the rest was forgotten until salt flats covered all 90 miles to El Paso. The first time I saw the Guadalupe Mountains they were firey and glowing in a setting sun, and if the setting was less dramatic this time they were still beautiful and I appreciated the good winding road more this time. There was infuriatingly slow road construction the last forty miles into Carlsbad - thanks, stimulus! By the time I got there, it was still mid-afternoon but was starting to get quite cold again.

Past Carlsbad, I left US-62 for NM-176 to Eunice. By now I figured I had about two hours of sunlight left, and if there wasn't a campground or RV park in Eunice I could continue on to Andrews or even further in Texas before it got dark. This road was almost as isolated as Highway 9 from earlier in the day, but in a completely less pleasant way. There was no understated desert scenery, no endless vistas, just simple nothingness. The road was in poor condition at times, the cold was starting to get to me, and I had almost 500 miles under my wheels for the day. I passed through Eunice without checking for a place to stay, as I was utterly uninterested. I crossed the border into Texas and it proved to be more of the same except for more oil rigs and more traffic - mostly oil haulers and fleet pickups. I gassed up in Andrews and was uninspired. There was still light and the much bigger town of Big Spring was only 60 miles away.

With the setting of the sun, truly bone-numbing cold set in. I ducked down behind the fairing and laid on the gas tank, tucking my legs into the warm engine as hard as I could. Deprived of airflow, my face shield began to fog up. I sat back up and stretched my limbs out into the icy blast one at a time, my muscles protesting their long dormancy over the miles. I began to see isolated white chunks scattered across the road. It looked like snow...but it couldn't be, could it? Cotton or limestone from some truck? I didn't care enough to stop and check it out. Finally, as the dusk faded and I felt I could not get any wearier, the lights of Big Spring came into view. I rode into town and pulled over at a busy pizza joint. First order of business was to visit the restroom to use the hand dryer to thaw my hands into usability. A call to Dawn and greedily scarfing hot slices of pizza both cheered me up considerably.

I asked my waitress about a campground and was greeted with a blank stare. My phone wasn't any more helpful. A new idea began to emerge. Surely the small towns around here had some cheap motels? A warm room might not cost more than an RV park would charge to park my tent. I called motels in Big Spring and in Colorado City and Sweetwater, 40 and 70 miles away respectively. All had reasonable rates. By now I was actually feeling pretty good and I decided that if I were going to treat myself to indoors accommodations, I ought to at least put a few more miles on for the night. The temperatures were now down to the low 30s, but I felt pretty good for the first half hour eastbound on I-20; I passed up Colorado City. Shortly thereafter, the cold began to get to me again, and I was thankful to stop in Sweetwater. The motel owner was friendly, the room was warm and cozy, and the BMW even got to spend the night in a storage shed.

When I woke the next morning, I had a bright idea to try out before I left. I called the hotel that my airline stays at in Dallas, told the front desk lady about my trip, and asked whether, as a frequent guest, they would be okay with me storing my motorcycle in their underground garage for a few months. She replied that she was a rider herself, the trip sounded fun, and it should be just fine as long as the security department agrees. A few minutes later I talked to the head of security, himself a rider, and got permission to store my bike for free until my next leg! Feeling good about that accomplishment, I pulled the bike out of the shed, loaded up, and rode off into the 27 degree morning.

I succumbed to the cold much sooner this morning, stopping after 70 miles to warm up with gas station coffee. Then I toughed it out the remaining 140 miles to Dallas. The scenery was uninspiring but I was excited to be near my destination. I'd seen it from the air plenty of times, but never quite realized just how sprawling the metro area is. It was over an hour of riding from the suburbs of Fort Worth to downtown Dallas. Exiting the interstate downtown, I noticed that my steering seemed especially stiff, but attributed it to cold-induced stiffness of my own limbs. I visited with my friend Kelly for a few hours and then got back on the bike to ride it to the crew hotel and catch the 6pm flight to Minneapolis...and discovered that the front tire was completely flat. It was obvious now that it had been partially deflated when I had noticed the stiff steering. I carefully rode a block to the nearest service station and refilled the tire, then rode a few blocks, stopped, and listened carefully. I couldn't hear any leaks. There wasn't any sign of puncture. I verified that it was holding pressure with a pressure gauge. I decided it'd be good enough for the ride to the hotel.

By the time I got there, it was obvious that the tire was not fully inflated. Sure enough, pressure had decreased from 38 to 25 psi during the half-hour ride. It was too late in the day to take it to a motorcycle shop, though, and I figured I have two months before my next leg to Atlanta. I put the bike under cover, grabbed the right saddlebag, and caught the next shuttle van to the airport. I'd put on 1550 miles over the past four days, much of it over rather isolated roads, and I was grateful to my bike for not letting me down in that time. A leaky tire discovered in a large city without failing catastrophically seems like the very mildest of potential problems. In a few weeks, I'll go back and get it repaired or replaced. Then in March, it's onward to Atlanta...maybe via Florida? I've been playing with potential routes, and a sidetrip to Key West seems appropriate since I've already been to the northwestern and southwestern corners of the country.

View 2009-2010 Round Robin in a larger map

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

White Christmas (Part 3)

Day Three

At first the ground is indistinguishable from the sky and I don't realize we've broken out of the clouds until a lonely farm materializes out of the blowing snow, cut off from the outside world by shifting drifts that obliterate the country roads. We're still at two, maybe three thousand feet; I'd gauge forward visibility to be a mile, maybe less. Presently another farm appears, then several more, and soon the outskirts of Fargo pass below. I just spy the buildings of downtown when there's a thump that signals the landing gear is extending. I guess we're going to land in this blizzard, after all.

I'm not a huge fan of deadheading. If I'm going to be stuck in an airplane, I'd just as soon either be flying it or headed off to explore some exotic new locale. It doesn't help that I'm paid 75% of my hourly rate when deadheading. I guess to some that's easy money - "dozing for dollars" - but I always seem to be assigned a middle coach seat when deadheading on mainline, or crammed next to the biggest, sweatiest guy on the plane when on a CRJ. And then there's the safety aspect. We often get assigned deadheads on a certain Widget Connection carrier that I believe I've mentioned on this blog as one I prohibit my parents from flying on, and one I try to avoid when possible. In fact, this flight to Fargo was originally supposed to be on said carrier. I wasn't too enthusiastic about riding this airline to a podunk airport in a blizzard; they have a bit of history in that department.

While the storm is raging in Fargo, we again hit Minneapolis at an opportune time, making for an easy flight from Newark. Pilots always joke about the "B Team" working on Christmas Day, but the Air Traffic Controllers were all great and in a rather cheerful mood. We checked on our deadhead throughout the flight and saw its departure time getting later and later, so I wasn't surprised when we got on the ground and found out that it was canceled. I didn't really care if our FAR overnight got scrubbed, as I'd just be going home to an empty apartment for the night. Sure enough, crew scheduling decided to still send us, either out of faith that our plane for tomorrow will get into Fargo tonight, or simply without thinking about it too much. We were rebooked on a NewCo flight two hours after our original deadhead, giving us some extra airport appreciation time. I was quite surprised to find both our chief pilot and company president in the crew room. The last time the president was there, I was feeling punchy and voiced a few pointed opinions; this time I gave the guy some credit for showing up on Christmas Day, and took out my laptop to show some funny Youtube videos.

Now, as we land at Fargo, I get my first view of the snowstorm's toll. All the roads surrounding the airport look nearly impassable. Nobody is out driving around. Why the heck are we flying here? I was originally looking forward to this overnight since Dawn was going to drive up from her parents' place to join me for Christmas, but that obviously isn't happening; the interstate is closed, and one would need to be suicidal or driving a SkiDoo to attempt the country roads. Now we're looking at a long layover snowbound in our hotel...if we can reach it, that is. When I call for a pickup, the receptionist sounds frazzled and says it will be a while. Hmm, why does that sound familiar!? At least there's a good excuse this time. We wait patiently in the hotel lobby and after 30 minutes the hotel manager arrives, driving her personal minivan. It turns out that the hotel's van got stuck in a snowbank while leaving the hotel parking lot! The circuitous 20-minute drive back to the hotel proves to be one of the finest displays of winter driving I've seen in a long time, and is further proof that all Dakotans are born with this particular skill set. Then it's off to the room for 14 hours of rest and recuperation for our marathon final day, and trying not to think much about it being Christmas and being alone.

Day Four

Another snowy airport, another low approach, another crosswind landing on a slick runway. It's Chicago-Midway this time. We were already here earlier today, on our first turn out of Minneapolis, but it wasn't nearly this bad. Now the winds have picked up and the lake effect snow is falling hard. The visibility is right at one mile and 5000 RVR, the minimums for the ILS 13C approach...and the southerly winds won't permit use of any other runway. The irony here is that the storm is finally over in Minneapolis, four days after it began. We even spied a slice of blue sky as we taxied out to 30L. If we can just get into Midway, the last leg should be a cakewalk.

I'm flying with a new First Officer; Rob got taken off this round trip because earlier delays created a 30-in-7 conflict for him (maximum 30 hours of flying in 7 calendar days). Fargo was a mess this morning. When we showed up at 4:15am, only one person was manning the station; all the others had been delayed by the still-barely-passable streets. We pushed late and then it took an hour to free the airplane of all the snow and ice that had accumulated on it overnight. As in Madison, the truck ran out of fluid and had to be refilled. The extra time was enough to put Rob over his weekly flight time limitation. I, on the other hand, had three days off since my last trip, so I was still good for all five legs today. We've been playing catchup since that first flight from Fargo. If we're able to get in now, if the station turns the plane quick, and if deicing doesn't take too long, we stand a chance of getting into Minneapolis on time or close to it. I have a flight to LA that I'm trying to catch.

As we pass through 1500 feet, the glideslope starts wavering and the autopilot pitches the airplane aggressively to catch it. Perhaps a snowbank next to the antennae? Who knows. I disconnect the autopilot and fly manually. On low approaches like this one, I normally let the autopilot fly and disconnect it once I get the runway in sight, but at the same time I do my best to maintain handflying currency so it's not a big deal to fly a low approach manually. We get the ground in sight early; soon I see a strobe out ahead and start to call approach lights in sight before I realize it's just a factory smokestack that looks like a runway with REILs at the end. In the time it takes me to get back on the instruments, we've gone a half-dot low on the glideslope and I chastise myself for looking up before my FO called the runway. There's a very good reason the PF is supposed to remain on instruments until that point; I think that normally letting the autopilot fly the approach has blurred the division of duties between the PF and PM. Automation has unquestionably made the airlines safer, but it brings new challenges of its own.

"Two hundred to minimums," my FO calls. "Checks," I respond, and then hear "Approach lights in sight...runway in sight, twelve o'clock!" I look up and the runway is there for real this time. It looks remarkably clear. My touchdown is firm - no messing around at Midway, even in the best of conditions! - and I use maximum braking and reverse thrust. The braking action is good and I turn off on Kilo. In snow like this, I'd normally come to a nearly complete stop before turning off, but the runway's in good shape so I still have about fifteen knots of speed when I turn off on the high-speed exit. Imagine my surprise to find the braking action on Kilo is nil! The brakes have no effect whatsoever, I don't think we slow even one mph between the runway and Echo. I actually deploy the thrust reversers and am about to goose them when we hit dry pavement again on Echo and lurch to a halt. That was ugly. Midway is just full of lessons today!

We're only a few minutes late, the station turns the airplane quick, and even heavy snowfall doesn't deter the deice crews from working quickly. We get 22L for departure and ATC turns us around to the north and climbs us much quicker than usual. Looks like we're going to be arriving on time at last! Visions of palm trees and warm breezes and canyons begging to be carved on two wheels dance before my head; I'm headed to LA! The plan is for Dawn to fly out to join me, and then for us to take a run down to Ensenada. I don't know at this point that she'll be snowbound out in South Dakota for another several days, or that currently-open flights will fill up and she'll be unable to get to LA once she finally reaches Minneapolis. I shouldn't be all that surprised, though. Winter has had its way this Christmas, and it has not been benevolent to those of us who don't have the luxury of staying at home with loved ones, sipping egg nog as we admire the big white flakes floating down outside.

Friday, January 01, 2010

White Christmas (Part 2)

Day Two

"NewCo 5790, New York Center, say mach number."

Rob glances at me with a "uh oh, here it comes" look and keys the mic. "Mach seven-eight, NewCo 5790."

"NewCo 5790, maintain maximum forward airspeed, you're number one in line for Newark."

I grin as I flip the speed select knob to manual and rotate our selected speed to .81 Mach. Any day you're not holding for 30 minutes to get into Newark is a good day; being asked to go fast is icing on the cake. I open the PERF INIT page on the FMS and type "315/.81" into the cruise and descent speed lines. That's five knots and .01 mach below redline, a bit closer than I'd normally take it, but the air is perfectly smooth today. Actually, everything is going suspiciously smooth. After the last night's exhausting ordeal, I was mentally steeled for more of the same today. Perhaps this is some sort of cosmic apology? Or is the other shoe just waiting to drop?

The day certainly didn't start out perfect. Our crew met in the hotel lobby at 7am, bleary-eyed from the short night. Upon arriving at the airport twenty minutes later, we found our airplane entirely encrusted in thick clear ice, long icicles dangling from the wings and tail. The ground personnel were short-handed because the freezing rain overnight prevented several of their colleagues from making it to work on time. We pushed late and then sat on the ramp for nearly an hour as the deice truck doused the plane in hundreds of gallons of hot glycol, trying in vain to melt through the buildup. The first truck actually ran out of Type I fluid; our intrepid rampers simply switched trucks and kept going. Finally, they pronounced us clean and safe to fly; we started our engines, ran without bleeds or packs for a few minutes to clear out residual glycol, completed our post-deice procedures, and taxied out to Runway 18.

The flight to MSP itself was quick and easy. Our initially assigned altitude of 22,000 feet had some solidly moderate chop, so we went down to 16,000 early, but there was no icing until a thin layer of moderate mixed stuff we briefly sampled on our way through 4000 feet. I started out on an ILS for 12R but spied the airport through light flurries while still over Lake Harriet. We were 40 minutes late but Minneapolis turned the plane quickly and there was no line for the 12L deice pad - which now had six lanes open! The snow was light and warm enough to allow for Type I deicing only; we took off for Newark only eight minutes after pulling onto the pad. Heavy snow was forecast for the rest of the day, but our quick turn was sandwiched into a calm in the storm.

Now, as we check on with New York Approach, we are instructed to turn a heading of 100 after SWEET, a very good omen indeed. Newark is landing north; with heavy traffic you'd get a heading of 040 or 050 to join the wide left downwind somewhere north of Teterboro, and you wouldn't get turned onto base until a good 30 miles south of the airport, all typically flown at 170 knots! On DTW-EWR flights, it's not uncommon to spend more time getting vectored low over New Jersey than the rest of the flight! This time there's not a word about speed; I maintain 315 knots until just above 10,000 feet, then slow to 250 and continue the descent to cross PENNS at 7000 feet. The last several times I'd been into Newark there were winds from the west gusting to 40 knots, making for a positively wild ride down low; today there is nary a ripple. We maintain the 100 heading well after SWEET, getting turned to a short downwind just west of the airport. We pick up our traffic - an ExpressJet ERJ-145 - on a fifteen mile base, call him in sight, and are cleared for the visual. I'm still doing 250 knots, but our traffic is about six miles ahead so I stay fast and tuck up in behind him before slowing to match his speed at two-and-a-half miles in trail. That's just how Newark likes it, but this is the first time they've left speed entirely at my discretion all the way down.

The ERJ pulls off while we're on a one-mile final; my own touchdown is right on the 1000' markers, and we easily make our intended high-speed exit. We never even speak to ground control: tower simply tells us "Sierra, Bravo, Romeo-Charlie to the gate with me." If only Newark were always this easy. This is generally a slow time of the day, but the schedules are also likely pared down for Christmas Eve. The rampers are waiting to park us, the passengers file off the airplane quickly, and in short order my crew is dashing for the exits. We have motivation: nobody wants to spend their long Christmas Eve layover in the dreary Newark crew hotel, so we're heading for the bright lights, big city of Manhattan. To our astonishment, the hotel van pulls up to the curb right as we exit the terminal, and the van driver readily agrees to give us a ride to Newark's Penn Station, which saves us a slow, meandering bus ride. I can't remember the last time things fell into place like this. After last night, it sure feels good!

After the world's quickest uniform-for-civies swap, we pile back into the van, arriving at Penn just in time to catch the next PATH train. A quick transfer at Journal Square, a few minutes more under the Hudson, and barely an hour after landing at Newark, we're walking down Ninth Street en route to some of my favorite East Village haunts: happy hour at Continental, $1 pizza at Two Bros, soaking up the cozy time-stained patina of McSorleys by the ancient pot-bellied stove. Here we share a table with an older English gent whose fantastic tales seem a bit much until my FO surreptitiously googles the name on his iPhone and discovers the fellow is actually being modest.

Having our fill of beer and conversation, we take our leave into the night and hop the Lexington Ave Express to walk through a bone cold and ghostly-empty Central Park, then warm-up in Steve Jobs' Ice Cube, gnaw on lamb kebobs at a street stand on bustling Fifth Avenue, and visit St. Patrick's Cathedral to find it barricaded off, with stern policemen guarding against would-be mass-crashers. "Homebound" at last, we ride the E-Train to its last stop, walk past the still-scandalously-vacant WTC site, and hop on the Jersey-bound PATH. I settle into the molded plastic bench and close my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the heater under my seat and the swaying motion of the train. I'm feeling sleepy and pensive and...grateful, mostly. I'm grateful to have a job when only a year ago I thought I might be unemployed by now. I'm grateful to be doing something I enjoy, and able to afford doing the things I love. I'm grateful for an easy day of flying and a great layover with a friendly crew.

And occurs to me that the best crew cannot replace the ones you love. It doesn't feel like Christmas Eve with Dawn a thousand miles away. When I get to the hotel, I'll call her and we'll make small chat for a few minutes, each relaying the events of our day without expecting each other to take much interest, until we trail off into awkward silence, missing each other but unable to do anything about it beyond wholly inadequate words. We'll say our goodbyes and hang up lonelier than ever. We're normally pretty good at handling life apart but the holidays are tough. On Christmas Eve, normalcy doesn't seem all that bad to either of us.