White Christmas (Part 3)
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.
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.