Sunday, December 22, 2013

Glasair Rescue, Part 1

*** Guest post by Bob  ***


The saying in Michigan goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes!”  This is especially true in the Keweenaw Peninsula where Lake Superior has major sway over the weather.  Thirty miles south may be bright and sunny while the peninsula is under constant low clouds and snow.  This winter has been especially harsh in the U.P., with the snowfall hitting over 118 inches by late December, well on the way to break the record 390 inches set in 1978-79.  The two weeks after we left were especially harsh, with single-digit highs, 30 knot winds and half of the airline flights being outright cancelled if not greatly delayed.  I would constantly stalk the weather on my phone, sometimes it would show a good ceiling (over 2500’ is rare) but if I booked an airline ticket it would most likely be totally different upon arrival.  At one point I did see what was potentially a window, for Friday Dec. 20.  I booked a flight from Chicago to Calumet, a 50-seat United regional jet service ran by SkyWest Airlines for a 11:30pm arrival Wednesday night, the second of two daily arrivals.  To get to Chicago, I used a hidden city fare, a little trick to get a lower price.  I used the ITA Matrix search engine, a very powerful flight search tool that allows you to search every single flight that makes a stop at your real intended destination.  The result- a ticket from Dulles to Birmingham, which makes a stop in Chicago was only $125, compared to $380 for a direct flight!  I tossed the second leg and killed the layover by walking past every single gate at ORD, which was about 5 miles of walking!  When my flight was finally ready to leave I sat down in the gate area surrounded by Michigan Tech students and staff, the primary customers on this route.  (Michigan Tech is in nearby Houghton).

 Snow against a hangar at CMX

 The gate agent announced a 30 minute delay, as the flight crew had not yet arrived.  Annoying, but still doable, as the TAF was showing a 2500’ ceiling until about 3AM when it was forecast to go down to 1500’ with snow and mist, and continue that way for who knows how long as a front moved through.  When the crew arrived we boarded a few minutes later, and the captain announced that the aircraft was overweight with the passenger load and the fuel load for the planned alternate- back at ORD.  He was able to change the alternate to Duluth, which lowered the required fuel and made the flight possible- excellent thinking on the captain’s part.  This required refueling the aircraft, which unfortunately did NOT go nearly as smoothly as changing the alternate!


After about an hour one fuel truck arrived, and I watched it depart without even hooking up to the plane.  After that the flight attendant asked for volunteers- 4 people- to leave and take $300 vouchers.  That is about 800 pounds of fuel.  No one volunteered, so we waited for a second tanker which arrived about 40 minutes later.  It took 10 minutes to pump out a measly 112 gallons of Jet-A, and then we pushed back and started to taxi.  Unfortunately the taxi ended NEAR the runway but did not culminate with a takeoff.  I watched out my window as the heavy night-dwellers did their thing, a FedEx DC9 and DHL 777 departure followed by a Korean Air 747 arriving from Seoul.   This went on for about 20 minutes before the captain informed everyone that the refueling did not remove enough weight, and we were going to sit there and idle until enough fuel had been burned off.  During this time I watched the METAR at CMX slowly degrade to marginal VFR, which did not concern me in itself, but with lots of ice shown on the supplemental icing product at NWS, a very helpful tool for winter IFR flight planning that shows the chance of ice at various altitudes.  

The plane finally departed, almost 3 hours behind schedule on a 52 minute trip.  The sky was clear until about 30 miles from CMX, and I watched as we descended through clouds, mist and snow.  I popped my head in the cockpit before going down the air stairs and the crew said they picked up a "decent" ice load on the windshield on the approach, from the tops at 6000 down to the ground. Which brings me to a major complaint I had that night- a quick google search showed a CRJ200 burns about 3000 pounds per hour in cruise, that extra 800lb of fuel could have been turned into exhaust gas with only about 15 minutes of flying at cruise, probably about half that if doing a low-altitude lap around ORD before climbing out…  The airline would rather make 50 people wait 3 hours instead of burn off a few hundred dollars of fuel.  For everyone on board, this was not a major problem since they would just go home when they arrived.  But not me, my weather window was closed because of this decision, and I had no idea when the next one would open.   Looks like I would not be departing that night after all. Now I was stuck in Houghton with nowhere to go at 3AM.  I explained my frustration with this delay to the SkyWest gate agents in Houghton but they didn’t seem to care about the delay because the flight did actually arrive.


Snow plowed into small mountains in the parking lot at CMX


So I slept on a couch in the pilot’s lounge, wondering if I would be able to get home some time that week… 

The couch in the pilot's lounge- not as comfortable as it looks and possibly my home until further notice?




3 comments:

  1. Hi Bob,
    I can understand your frustration, but your plan to takeoff and burn down fuel/weight would only work if the landing weight was the limiting factor. One must also consider single engine performance. Suppose an engine failure at/past V1 and the plane is now too heavy to fly, but fly you must because you don't have enough runway left to stop. This is now exacerbated now by the extra 800lbs of fuel/inertia. The choice is to run off the end of the runway or crash off the end of the runway. The Captain made the correct decisions that ended in a safe flight.
    The idea that they saved fuel is also a little off of the mark. Fuel from defueling can not be reused in an aircraft. Usually it is saved for use in GPUs.
    I hope this helps some. Happy flights.

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  2. I did not realize fuel removed could not be reused in the plane. As far as single-engine performance, they could have gone to the engine test pad and throttled up and burned it off without needing to take off and that would have been quicker than the 2.5 hours it took to offload it by tanker. I don't think the crew realized how long that process would take. Even so, maybe my acceptable risk threshold is a lot different since I fly a piston single experimental without autopilot or deice in winter weather and over open water, but some of these airline go/no-go decisions are really, really really overly conservative. If it were up to me, I would have accepted the insanely low chance of a super-reliable turbine engine failing on takeoff if it meant arriving when we were supposed to.

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  3. A lot more goes into the decisions made by the air carrier and the Captain. Going to the 'penalty box' and burning off the extra fuel was certainly an option. I have done that before. Would the airport noise abatement procedures allow for a full power run up at that hour? What is the FOD risk in the run up area?
    Next consideration is the crew, did they have enough flight time left during that duty cycle to spend burning off the fuel. It was at the end of their day. How much flight time had they already accumulated? The clock starts at push back not wheels up. Believe me, they wanted to get there as much as you did. They had a cold beer and a warm bed waiting.
    Example - your flight was scheduled for :52 minutes. The crew had 1:15 remaining. No problem. The fuel burn off will take :15 minutes, now we are down to :08 padding. Three airplanes are lined up to land at :03 minutes each or a single plane fouls the runway for :08 minutes. The crew is out of flight time and must taxi back and get a new crew. . . which was probably in Detroit and had to be flown in. It sounds like FltOps played their least risky card.
    The company calls the shots on what to do about the extra fuel, I doubt the Captain made that decision, his responsibility is to operate the aircraft safely and legally. I believe if you were the Captain you would not have gone either. It was illegal.
    The Weight and Balance of every flight is reviewed and compared to the actual numbers reported by the automatic data reporting system onboard, usually ACARS. Almost all current commercial airliners have an 'big brother' watching. It is also reporting your weight on landing. . . don't save too much fuel enroute and land overweight. Each offense could get you some time off, maybe a violation and fine by the Feds or worst case, fired.
    Bottom line, if something goes wrong, one will have to explain his/her decisions over a long green table to the FAA. Then explain the same thing to the families of the non-survivors. Whenever I was tempted to venture into those gray areas I asked myself how I would explain my decision.
    Cheers.

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