Day two of a three-day trip: (Three legs) San Diego-Phoenix-New Orleans-Philadelphia
Leg One: San Diego (SAN) to Phoenix (PHX)
We arrive at the SAN airport to find a brand-new 737-700 waiting for us. The outside is shiny new and the inside reeks of brand new leather. (Don't tell anyone, but I'd fly this one for free!) Upon returning from my walkaround inspection, I tell Bill, my First Officer, "I'll take this plane as my early retirement gift!" The cabins of airliners lead a hard life flying everyday so getting to fly one that is in showroom new condition is a real treat. Even the inside of the engine cowls are clean enough to eat off of.
After a slight delay for last-minute passengers, we push five minutes late. The snowball effect takes control, and we find ourselves behind a slow "elephant walk" of jets headed to the runway. The one ahead of us is also going to PHX and Air Traffic Control (ATC) is requesting five minutes in-trail spacing between planes. That means we are stuck in lovely SAN for at least five more minutes after he blasts off. Once airborne, the computer indicates we'll barely make it to PHX on time. I know from talking with passengers that delays at the end of the runway are no fun for some, so I make an announcement explaining why the delay has occurred. Pulled to the side of the hammerhead at the end of the runway so other jets can pass by, another jet pilot comments, "Wow, you guys are in the "penalty box!" as they pass by us. I make a "NEENER-NEENER" face at him as he passes, and he smiles as they take the runway to depart. Finally, it is our turn.
Enroute, the ride is great with only a few intermittent bumps. We leave the seatbelt sign off for most of the leg after we level off and determine the ride is satisfactory. Due to the Great Air Battle for Gila Bend, we are unable to make up time en route to PHX. Gila Bend is in the middle of a HUGE military airspace complex, and there is only a small corridor through it. When not in use, ATC will clear you through this airspace. When in use, dogfighting, practice-bombing, and other air support training goes on daily. They don't like it when airliners wander into their airspace. Many of my former military cohorts here at SWA have flown throughout this range complex and know every topographical detail like the backs of their hands. We land in PHX, and as luck would have it, no departure traffic blocks our taxi to the gate. We cross the inside runway without delay and arrive at the gate right on time.
Leg two: PHX to New Orleans (MSY)
The weather (WX) forecast shows thunderstorms throughout the Louisiana coastal area about the time of our arrival. The WX map shows the bulk of the WX in the US well north in Oklahoma and north Texas. Our flight will cross El Paso direct to Lake Charles, LA right across the middle of Texas –well south of the line of building weather. We have extra gas and Birmingham, AL as a weather alternate should it be needed. Armed with all the weather information we can get, now we just need to "beat feet" to the East and see what the weather looks like up close.
As we level off out of PHX, a layer of high Cirrus clouds tops out right at our cruising altitude. The sun's energy bounced off the high reflective cloud layer sometimes makes for a choppy ride. That is the case today. We keep the passengers seated and tell them why. We are too heavy to climb to 41,000 feet and ask ATC if we can climb to 390 (39,000 feet –an altitude for which we are not too heavy). In our case, traffic keeps us in the chop for about 20 minutes; when the traffic eases, we are finally cleared up to 390 where we are out of the clouds and the ride is smooth. We let the passengers up and enjoy a smooth ride all the way across Texas. Approaching the eastern edge of Texas we can see building thunderstorms ahead. The weather radar confirms large building storms from basically the western edge of Louisiana all the way to the edge of the airport. I turn on the fasten seat belt sign and notify all that we'll be picking up the cabin early and seating the Flight Attendants (FAs) before beginning descent through the clouds around the storms. Minutes later we "ding" the FAs, their signal to clean up and be seated. We begin our descent into the clouds as we deviate around a large cell off to our left.
As we descend, we break out and have Lake Ponchatrain in sight, and our path will take us right out over the middle of the lake. Now in the clear, we can see lots of lightning activity in the huge cell to our right. We advise the passengers that they'll see plenty of lightning during the descent, but we assure them we are keeping clear all the way to landing. If only they had a front window view like we have. Even the view to the left is of dark clouds and intermittent lightning. Out front it is clear and only sprinkling intermittently.
We are satisfied, based on tower reports and pilot reports (PIREPS) from aircraft departing that it is safe to land to the south. The wind lets up for just a moment as we settle in on Runway 19. I brake rather firmly with high reverse as a message to the passengers: This ride is over. As we taxi in our concerns shift to getting out of town before the storm on the western edge of the airport moves in.
Leg three: "Nawlins" to Philly (PHL): Escape from New Orleans
Arriving at the gate, our hopes for a quick turn are dashed when the Operations Agent advises us we will hold ten minutes for late connecting passengers from another flight. All we can do is get off the gate as quickly as possible. To avoid taking off into bad weather, we will sweep the skies with our own radar and check with the tower for pilot reports from other departing aircraft. Only with a safe plan will we proceed. Finally, we are loaded with our late connecting passengers, and their final bags are loaded into the cargo hold. We push back and start the engines.
Once we arrive at the end of the runway, we are number two for departure to the west. Miraculously, the storm has lessened somewhat, and there is still a five-mile boundary between the edge of it and the airport. The plane departing ahead is going to Houston, essentially back through the way we came. It turns sharply to the north to escape the weather to the west and later turns west over the lake following the reverse of the route we used coming into New Orleans. With no bad reports from his departure, we accept our takeoff clearance and prepare to follow the preceding aircraft's route. Our new 737-700 pays off handsomely now as it is equipped with the newest higher-thrust engines. We brief an adverse weather takeoff profile using max thrust. As we takeoff, climb, and turn, barely over the edge of the airport, we are clear of the storm to the west. Now, we just need to dodge randomly scattered storms enroute to the northeast. We slowly deviate left and right, and twenty minutes after takeoff we find ourselves staring into clear air over Montgomery, AL. We turn off the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign, and for the next hour and a half, our route of flight misses the few isolated storms along the way.
As we descend into Philly, there is a line of weather moving in from the west. We easily skirt it to the east and marvel at Mother Nature: Lightning bolts in the distance careen from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground. Not a factor for us as we pass smoothly by. We land in Philly ten minutes early. Neither Bill nor I have ever been to Philadelphia before. The weather is beautiful for our first visit. But by morning, the storms we skirted inbound will dump a light rain on Philly. The next morning I awake to the sound of dripping water leaking through my hotel window. Not to worry; it's day three of three, and today we'll go home.