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Cockpit Chronicles: One long date with Hurricane Irene
"I'd just as soon call it quits here and go to a hotel." the captain said, looking at the latest weather report for Santo Domingo and the radar picture of hurricane Irene which was just northwest of our destination. All of Puerto Rico, where we were contemplating our decision, had just been through the hurricane and much of the island was without power. In our 200 square foot operations room at the San Juan airport, water was leaking all around the room.
Plunk, plunk, plunk.
We had just flown down from New York heading to Santo Domingo (SDQ) on what was supposed to be a turn-a one day trip, just down and back-but prior to beginning the approach, we were sent a message from our dispatch telling us to divert to San Juan.
Another flight just six minutes ahead of us had just touched down after breaking out of the clouds shortly before the minimum height required to see the runway. They said it was just heavy rain on the approach.
There were four surprised pilots in our cockpit at that moment; the captain and myself, along with the relief co-pilot and a check airman who was giving a line check to the captain. All of us were in agreement that we needed to go to San Juan. Dispatch could have had information that we just weren't privy to at the moment. The same policy applies (at our company) if any pilot had said 'go-around' during the approach, the flying-pilot is required to climb away from the ground and ask questions later. In this case, dispatch is very much part of our team. In this case, we didn't have time to discuss the particulars with our dispatcher. We had to trust that they had information about the airport, terminal, gate, runway, or some other operational need to get us back to San Juan.
After working our way around the tail end of the hurricane, we were now faced with turning back and flying through the same turbulent weather on our way to San Juan. Fortunately fuel wasn't a concern, since we had more than four hours available for our 45-minute flight to our alternate airport.
The climb out was just as bumpy as the arrival. Most of the time we were in the clear, but the chop would still be an issue for our passengers, who were probably nervous after we discontinued the approach into Santo Domingo.
As we intercepted the glide slope at 2,500 feet, which is done by joining a radio beam that goes from the runway threshold out along the centerline at a three degree angle for more than 10 miles, the airplane began to descend on the autopilot. The glideslope then seemed to bump up, causing the airplane to climb when it was supposed to be descending. After it settled down, we were now high, and we weren't likely going to be able to 'capture' the glideslope in a way that would be stable.
As I've detailed in a previous Cockpit Chronicles, an approach that is no longer stable must be discontinued. We have a 'no-fault' go-around policy at the airline which is designed to remove any chance a pilot would want to continue an approach that doesn't look right. The captain made the right choice and elected to intercept it again after going around.
"Go-around, leave the flaps at 5, positive rate, gear up." The captain called out while flying the go-around manually.
"Tower, one-five three-eight is going around," I told the tower as we climbed through 2,500 feet.
A go-around is a busy moment. And just as you're going through the litany of calls and performing the actions required, ATC becomes interested in just why you're going around.
"Roger fifteen thirty-eight, can you turn left to 360 degrees?" they ask, assuming we're going around because of the weather.
The heading looked fine to me, and I glanced at the captain who was flying. "Sure." He said busily performing the missed approach.
By this point, the 226 passengers on board were justifiably nervous. But neither go-around was caused by the weather conditions immediately in front of us, and at this point, we were too busy to give them an update or explanation for our second go-around of the flight.
Coming back for the second time, the captain elected to hand-fly the airplane in case another 'bump' of the glideslope occurred. With 100 feet to go before arriving at our decision altitude, the runway came into view. The relief pilot didn't wait for the captain to call for the windshield wipers and reached up between us to turn them on. With all the fuel on board, we were heavy, and since the runway was likely covered in water, it was important to touch down early and stop quickly. The captain did just that, and as we turned around at the end of the runway to back-taxi to the exit taxiway, I felt spent.
On Cockpit Chronicles, I probably incorrectly give the impression that every flight is easy and routine. That's the case far more often than not, but there are days where you earn every penny. Before we left on this trip, the captain had been talking about retiring as early as next week, and I have to think this flight made the decision easier.
Plunk, plunk, plunk.
"Captain, do you have an estimate on when you can go? I need to tell the passengers something," the gate agent said while standing in the doorway of the office.
"Let me talk it over with these guys and I'll let you know," said the captain while motioning to his two first officers.
The agent closed the door and went back to the gate.
Our view of Hurricane Irene as it left the Dominican Republic
We talked about the weather in Santo Domingo and what the radar was depicting. SDQ was reporting good ceilings and visibility. The hurricane was a few hundred miles west of the airport, but we'd likely have a similar bumpy ride back. The radar depiction (shown above) looked far uglier than what was outside.
We talked to dispatch over the phone and they said planes were getting in to SDQ. Staying in San Juan would have been difficult anyway as there were likely no hotels available anyway, and the agent told us the power was out in much of the city.
"I'm good to go," I said, while the relief pilot agreed enthusiastically.
"Ok, I'll pull up the paperwork," the captain replied.
Two passengers elected to stay in San Juan probably because of the long and eventful flight getting here and the ominous lightning off in the distance, and I can't blame them if they were scared. But this was going to be an exceedingly safe flight as far as I was concerned.
The rest of the passengers were boarded again and we pushed back two and a half hours after we arrived. It was my turn to fly and while there were clouds along the route of flight, the ride wasn't too bumpy. I was relieved to see the lights from the Santo Domingo airport nearly ten miles out.
The outbound passengers were glad to see us, and seemingly happy to get off the island after experiencing the effects of hurricane Irene. Little did they know the same hurricane would be arriving in New York just four days later.
Three pilots are on all flights that are scheduled to exceed 8 hours, and while ours was originally supposed to go over by just five minutes, I was glad to have the relief pilot on board after clocking in a challenging ten hours. The three of us all slept during our breaks in the back (the check airman, deciding that the captain had passed his check ride, elected to go back to New York on a direct flight from San Juan.)
While on my fifty-five minute break, I slipped into a deep dream-something that rarely happens during my crew rest period. But this time I dreamt about an oversized female dispatcher staring at a computer screen while picking up a phone.
And I think her name was Irene.
Unfortunately this isn't my last rendezvous with hurricane Irene. I was scheduled to fly to Rome Saturday night but that trip from JFK has obviously been cancelled. So now I get to have a closer look at the hurricane, this time while on the ground in New York.
Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent's trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.
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