Tuesday, November 27, 2012

After the Storm

"Cleveland Center, NewCo 5831, checking on flight level three five zero."

"NewCo 5831, Cleveland Center, good morning...uh, are you really going to LaGuardia?"

"Yeah Cleveland, they tell us we are. We have our swimmies and goggles on."
I wasn't quite sure I believed it myself. Three days prior, the airport was under water, a lot of water, and dirty seawater at that. Hurricane Sandy proved to have just a bit more punch than I sampled flying through the very outer rings in my friend's Warrior, with storm surge of up to twelve feet in New York Harbor. LaGuardia didn't get that much, but it didn't need to; most of the airport sits mere feet above Flushing Bay. Floodwaters covered the runways, the taxiways, the ramps, and came all the way up to the various terminals. By Tuesday, photos of the flooded airport were circulating around the internet. I had a four day trip with turns through LaGuardia every day starting on Wednesday. I strongly doubted I'd be flying much of it.

Indeed, crew scheduling rang me up on Tuesday evening to inform me that Wednesday's schedule had been modified. Instead of flying MSP-CLT-LGA-MSN, I would fly the revenue flight to Charlotte and then reposition directly to Madison. That struck me as a little insane since we were scheduled to fly MSN-LGA on Thursday morning, and surely that wasn't happening! The crew scheduler said that WidgetCo had declined to cancel the flight just yet. Ok, then. Wednesday morning we flew to Charlotte, and then treated our brand new flight attendant to her first jumpseat experience on our Part 91 repo up to Madison. That night I kept expecting to hear from crew scheduling, but they never called.

So we dutifully showed up Thursday morning in Madison. Our plane was there. We had a gate agent, and his gate display said we were flying to New York. He had our release and paperwork pulled up. Indeed, the NOTAMs showed the airport open for business at 8am - but there were five pages of lights and signs and navaids out of service, it took me twenty minutes to work through the list! Basically, they were down to one runway (13/31), no ILSes, no approach lights, no VASIs or PAPIs or any other sort of crutch for us button-pushing airline-pilot types. So we loaded up our surprisingly light load and took off for New York, me still wondering if we'd really land there.

Well, we did. It was an easy arrival and a nicely challenging Expressway visual starting directly over the field, almost like an overhead entry to the downwind at a GA airport. Eyeballing our distance versus altitude the whole way through the circle, rolling out on a one-mile final at 300 feet, no sweat for a Cub pilot! Who needs a VASI? My first impression on arrival was how busy the airport was already, considering it had just opened for arrivals barely two hours prior. My second impression was how surprisingly clean it was. I was expecting a bit more of a post-apocalyptic vibe.

In fact, most of the busyness was WidgetCo traffic. Both of their terminals were already chock-a-block, before USAir had landed even a single airplane. Our rampers charged out enthusiastically as we approached the gate. The gate agent gave our flight attendant a big hug when she opened the door; we were her first flight. Being a few minutes early, I went inside the terminal and found things humming right along. The list of cancelled flights on the information screens was surprisingly short. Gate agents told me about the absolutely massive cleanup effort on Tuesday and Wednesday. They said Widget was housing and feeding pretty much all their employees in a nearby hotel, since the lack of public transit made it nearly impossible to commute between their homes and the airport. I asked about how the ground equipment survived the saltwater. Turns out somebody smart had convoyed all the ground equipment over to a nearby parking garage before the storm. Good on em.

Our exit wasn't quite as seamless as our entrance; we had to wait holding short of Runway 31 for a good 25 minutes before there was an opening in the arrivals big enough to let us take off. That's okay, we got to watch a bunch of Expressway Visuals and grade the efforts. I also noticed a few small signs of the flood around the taxiway - a sign bent backwards, a patch of seaweed on the tarmac. Overall, though, LaGuardia got back on its feet very quickly, a hearty credit to an oft-maligned airport. And WidgetCo did a magnificent job of getting their operation humming at nearly full strength only days after being inundated by a hurricane. I'm occasionally critical of airline mismanagement on this blog, but not this time. The situation was clearly very well managed. It was also resolved though a lot of hard work under difficult conditions by the fine folks Widget has working for them in New York. Bravo.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Sam. How often do airline pilots have to land completely visually -- like you did into LGA -- without any of the "bells and whistles" (ILS, VASI, PAPI, etc.).

Sam said...

Very rarely. Some airlines prohibit it entirely. Mine allows it during the day but our order of preference for glideslope aids is ILS->GPS/VNAV->VASI/PAPI->mental math & eyeballin' it.

Mind you, even during normal operations the Expressway Visual at LGA (and the River Visual at DCA) don't give you vertical guidance until you roll out on final, at LGA typically 1-2 miles out...basically enough time to make a small last-minute correction if required, but for most of the approach you just have to use skill and judgement. That's what's fun about it, because you so seldom do in this job.

Roma S. said...

Excellent post, thoroughly enjoyed reading it! It's crazy how the LGA came back to full operation in such a short a time with the all mess around it. I'm really curious how they managed the fuel situation for the aircraft and the ground vehicles with the fuel shortages and queues for gas being VERY REAL and VERY LONG in the surrounding areas?

Tom B. said...

just wanted to mention:
- Great post!
- After Dave's blog going down, I'm even more appreciative of your blog - you are the last aviation blogger I still read. Really hope you keep this going!
- I have a new appreciation for widgetco myself after flying US Airways on the DC-NY-Boston corridor a few times this month. Horrible customer service even for a mainline, though part of me wants to believe it's relegated to their 'shuttle' operations in the northeast.

Arik Air said...

It is a fact of life, even though hard to accept, that things may not always go the way we want them to go.

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