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.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Before the Storm

"Cherokee 43408, winds 070 at 17 gusting 29, runway 6 cleared for takeoff."

"Runway 6 cleared for takeoff, Cherokee 408."

The little red, white, and blue Piper was already rocking in the gusty winds as I shoved the throttle forward; the airspeed needle jumped to life only seconds after we started rolling down the runway. Angry grey clouds skimmed overhead; a diagonal rain shaft scooted by a few miles east.  I glanced to our left; the only airplanes left at the Nantucket Airport were three good-sized jets, all the small planes having cleared out the previous day. Maybe this wasn't the best thought-out plan. I hesitated to rotate, letting the speed build a bit above normal, and then gingerly pulled back on the yoke. The lively little Piper sprang up into the maelstrom, shrugging off the gusts. Hurricane Sandy was predicted to be one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the Northeast, and now I was playing Hurricane Hunter in a 2000-pound, single-engine airplane.

Dawn and I had made plans to visit Nantucket weeks before anyone ever heard of Sandy. My ex-student Johnny, whose beautiful 1983 Piper Warrior I helped ferry across the country earlier this year, urged us to use the airplane whenever we liked. A windstorm had stripped Minnesota's trees bare early this year, so we thought a late-October flight along the New England shoreline would be a perfect second chance at leaf peeping. Flight loads in and out of BDL were wide open, car rental was cheap, and I got a good off-season deal on a beautiful B&B in the middle of Nantucket Town. It was all set, and then came the pesky monster that the press irritatingly dubbed "Frankenstorm." I reloaded the NHC website five times a day and eventually made the first "Go/No-Go Decision" only an hour before our flight to BDL on Friday night. Saturday was forecast to be gorgeous, the winds weren't supposed to really kick up until Sunday afternoon, and the hurricane wasn't forecast to make landfall well down the coast until Monday night. We'd be long gone by then.

Saturday indeed dawned as a beautiful, crisp fall day, and the pattern was already busy when we drove up to tiny Chester Airport. The plan was to fly to Nantucket, land, and fly back early if the forecast had changed appreciably for Sunday. The flight up the Connecticut coastline at 1500' was stunning, though most of the trees were a bit past peak. We lingered to circle around Newport, RI a few times, ogling the beautiful tall-ship megayachts swinging on their moorings. A gaggle of Lasers were racing further out in the bay, and a few J-24s were running downwind under colorful spinnakers past Newport Bridge. It certainly didn't look like a town bracing for a superstorm.

New Bedford and Buzzard's Bay were similarly resplendent and I decided to detour across the base of Cape Cod and over Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown. From there we flew east and south down the length of the Cape, eventually splitting off to follow the spit of Monomoy Island and then climbing to a more suitable altitude for the short water crossing to Nantucket. The airport was lively when we landed, but the parking attendant looked a little doubtful when we told him we'd be tying down for the night. The forecast was still holding fast, though: moderate wind and high clouds in the morning, but nothing too crazy for VFR flight until late afternoon. I decided to stay and leave early in the morning.

We had a fantastic time in our short stay on Nantucket; it's a perfectly charming little island and town, with quaint cobblestone streets and lots of architecture dating back to its days as a whaling village. It was a perfect sunny day for exploring, but there was a touch of anxiety in the air, especially on the waterfront as nervous mariners scrambled to get their boats out of the water or, failing that, tie them up securely for the blast that was forecast to come straight into the harbor. It seemed half the town was at a pier-side bar called Captain Tobey's for what turned out to be a going-out-of-business party. The talk there centered on the storm, which combined with the last-party aspect gave the whole shindig a bit of an end-of-the-world vibe complete with rounds of free shots, increasingly frenetic dancing, and nearly culminating in drunken fisticuffs. We excused ourselves before it got too out of hand and walked to dinner through darkened streets swirling with newly fallen leaves driven by a suddenly brisk, chilly breeze.

The overnight change in weather was grimly apparent at first light. Most of the trees were suddenly bare and stark against the leaden sky, and hearty gusts spilled down the narrow lanes. At the airport, though, the VFR weather briefing showed ceilings along our route at 2500-3000 feet, good visibilities throughout, few radar returns, and wind at our destination still almost calm and not forecast to exceed 15 kts crosswind until that evening. We loaded up, preflighted, and taxied out to Runway 6.

Banking to the west over the town and towards Martha's Vineyard, the air was surprisingly smooth. We leveled off at 2500', with a good 1000' to go before the lowest cloud deck. I could see the Cape shoreline to our north. Nearing Martha's Vineyard, though, a scattered cloud layer appeared 500' below us. Halfway across the island, it was starting to close up, so I dropped down underneath and proceeded northwestbound 1000' off the water with scattered rain shafts ahead. I didn't like that at all; an engine failure would give us precious little time to broadcast our predicament to the world before ditching in a very choppy, very cold sea that happened to boast a large shark population. I turned due north to the mainland shore, where the clouds were considerably higher. I figured that here, if the weather got too bad, there are plenty of airports to land at and file IFR the rest of the way. In fact from that point on it was an easy flight back to Chester, where we landed in a light 8-knot crosswind.

Johnny and his son met us at Chester, and after putting his faithful little plane to bed we all went to breakfast at a local diner. There too, talk of the impending storm predominated conversation. In the coming days, Johnny's home would be spared from wind and water damage but he and his family would be forced to evacuate and later cope without power for several days. Other friends of mine who live on the Jersey shore have destruction all around them and are without electricity "indefinitely." But we didn't know any of that Sunday morning. After breakfast, we wished Johnny's family well and left them to their last-minute preparations while we scooted up to Hartford to barely make it onto a NewCo flight that had suddenly filled up with last-minute passengers trying to escape the storm. I was scheduled to return to the east coast a few days later with a LaGuardia-based trip, but how much of it I'd actually fly, I could only guess. (to be continued...)

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Have Wings, Will Sail

Six or seven years ago, I wrote a post about my interest in sailing and the many similarities it shares with flying. Since then, I've been able to sail occasionally, but the reality is that it's but one of several rather expensive hobbies I have - skiing, international travel, motorcycling, and flying small airplanes also compete for my time and money. So I've sailed my in-laws' 25' MacGregor now and then, borrowed friends' dinghies a few times, and more recently took quite a few of my crews out around Newport Harbor on SNA overnights in a rented 17' Hunter. My skipper's resume remains pretty brief.

Late this summer, I came across a craigslist ad for an old Santana 21 at a very good price. I sent it to my brother Steve as we've talked about getting a sailboat together for years, and his response was immediate: let's do it. The boat was in fairly good condition for its age, with several upgrades and a new outboard engine, and we were proud boat owners a few days later. Steve never sailed before but proved to be a quick study. We had the boat out several times over the remainder of the summer, camped on it over Labor Day weekend, took friends & family sailing, and are already making plans for next season. Since we keep it on the trailer ($3500 for a dock space for five months? No thanks!), we have to raise the mast and do other setup before each launch, a process we have down to about 30 minutes now.

One thing I've been wanting to do for years, and never got around to, is sailing in the Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands. It's a legendary annual party and sailing extravaganza for airline people (and friends & family) from around the world. I actually ended up going this year, through a quite accidental last-minute change in plans.

My friend Brad and I had been planning a dirt bike ride down Baja California for mid-October, but it had to be postponed until February after Brad lost part of a thumb in a motorcycle accident (in his garage, heh). I still had over two weeks off work, though. Right around that time, I got a call from my friend Jill, my sim partner in initial training at Horizon in 2004. Jill and her husband Timo used to own a 22' Catalina, just bought a 25' Catalina, and have done quite a bit of chartering with friends in the Caribbean. On a lark, I asked Jill if she and Timo were doing the Interline Regatta in the British Virgin Islands this year. She said yes, and their crew had a few spots left if I wanted to go. Thus did Monday October 8th find me jumpseating (and reliving my freight dog days a bit!) on a Cape Air Cessna 402 from San Juan PR to Tortola, BVI.

There were a total of 17 people in our crew - four Horizon pilots, one ex-Horizon (me), wives, in-laws, and friends. We chartered two boats - a gorgeous Beneteau 505 (rebranded as a Moorings 50.5 for chartering) monohull that we raced in the Regatta, and a massively spacious Moorings 4600 (nee Leopard 46) catamaran that served as our support/spectator/party boat. It was this crew's first year actually racing in the Regatta. Indeed, only 19 boats raced out of an estimated 60 boats participating in the regatta. And that's ok - the regatta would have been massive fun even without the racing. Sailing around the BVI, snorkeling beautiful coves, exploring neat spots like The Baths, meeting great airline folks, and just chilling on the boats with our fantastic crew was all really enjoyable. And then there are the massive themed costume parties held at a different spot every night - the sole reason many come to the regatta.

But I was really glad we raced. Prior to this, only a few of us had racing experience - one who crews on long-distance races like the TransPac & Newport-Cabo, and a husband-wife team who campaigns their E-scow across the Midwest. They and our skipper were regular fixtures on the race boat, and the rest of us rotated into the other four crew positions. All 17 of us crewed at least one race, including a few with zero sailing experience at all; our veteran racers did an excellent job of getting us all up to speed. I crewed on three practice days and two of the four racing days and had a fantastic time. It's a surprisingly intense sport for taking place on vessels that seldom exceed 9 knots. We started the week a little rough but continuously improved, ultimately netting several third place finishes to end the regatta in the middle of the pack. By the last day everyone was talking about racing in two classes next year. I'm certainly hooked...I met several Wayzata Yacht Club members this fall on Lake Minnetonka who invited me to race with them next summer, and now I think I'll be taking them up on it.

Sailing on a larger boat for the first time was interesting. It's faster and points (near the wind) much better than my boat, and with its heavy deep-draft keel it stood up to wind gusts much better and waves affected it less. The forces involved in managing such a huge sail plan are much greater, however, with more chance for injury. In small sailboats I'm admittedly careless in use of the jibsheet winches; the heavy-duty powered winches in the Beneteau scared me a bit, as they'll take your finger off if you're not careful. The things I love about sailing - the peacefulness of gliding along on the wind, the beauty of a boat heeled over under full sail, the feeling of power in a gust, the camaraderie of working together as a crew - remain the same.

One of the long-term goals I've had since I was a teenager is to do some long-distance cruising, perhaps even a circumnavigation, by sail. This may have to wait for retirement, or perhaps my first furlough. But before I even think of asking Dawn to sail away with me for one or two or three years, I need a lot more experience. Buying the Santana & sailing in the Interline Regatta were one little step towards that, but it's a start. Future steps will include racing, chartering, and perhaps crewing on a few passages. I'm eager to learn.