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?