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Late Night Summer Fun

rstark
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Our day starts in Burbank (BUR), where we pick up our plane at noon and fly five legs to Phoenix (PHX) via Oakland (OAK), Seattle (SEA), Spokane (GEG), and Las Vegas (LAS). The monsoons have not yet officially kicked off yet in PHX, but the days preceding this one have shown towering thunderstorms lurking just beyond the mountains to the north and east of the city. We want to get home ontime and manage to stay on schedule all the way to our last stop, LAS. I call my wife to tell her we are running ontime and that I should land in PHX in about an hour and a half. She informs me the local TV news channel just had a piece on the weather, and the PHX Sky Harbor airport is closed now due to weather right over the airport. After short conversation with my wife, I return to the cockpit where my partner has just gotten the word from Air Traffic Control (ATC) that PHX has groundstopped all arrivals. They are not accepting anyone right now, and the next update will be in 45 minutes. I inform the passengers what the delay is about and what our tentative plan is. I call my wife and let her know I'll be late and then turn my attention to getting us to PHX. I arrange for more fuel to be loaded, in case we need to hold near PHX and wait out rapidly changing weather conditions. In discussion with Southwest Dispatch personnel in Dallas, I inform the Operations Agent boarding the flight that we will plan on pushing back right at the update time in anticipation of an immediate release based on what the Dispatcher guessed would be the end of the threatening weather. About halfway through boarding, we get another call from ATC, and they have extended the delay another 45 minutes due to more weather moving in from the south. The Operations Agent informs me there is another plane on arrival for this gate so we elect to push back and go wait near the end of the runway to await our departure release. The passengers are again updated on the fact that we will be first in line if we are ready to go at the runway. I also mention the extra fuel and a good alternate of LAS--just in case the weather doesn't allow us to get into PHX. I assure them that my belief is we will get in with, perhaps a few minor delays. After pushback, we no sooner taxi down to the assigned parking location near the runway when ATC calls us and issues us a "reroute"--an adjustment to our route of flight. Instead of flying directly southeast down toward PHX as we originally filed, ATC now wants us to fly south of LAS and enter PHX via an arrival starting over Blythe, CA. Following that clearance, we are cleared for takeoff and wing our way south toward the start of the arrival. Cruising south along the Colorado River, we can see against the stars fireworks to the east as the thunderstorms, or "cells" launch lightning from cloud to cloud, lighting up the cloud like a huge light bulb. Before making the turn over Blythe, I have already pulled the latest weather for PHX, and it looks great with 20 mph winds and light rain. As we start the arrival, I advise the passengers we will be shutting down cabin service a little early this evening due to the potential for bumps with all the weather in PHX. I read them the latest weather and ask the Flight Attendants (FAs) to secure the cabin as we start our gradual descent. About that time, I get a call, and one of our FAs has a passenger who is having difficulties breathing. The passenger is a 12-year-old girl who is an asthmatic and left her inhaler at home. The FA asks for a patch to MedLink where a doctor is sitting by waiting for airliners with ill passengers to call in. Within a couple of minutes, my FA is talking directly with the doctor in PHX describing the symptoms to the doctor. It is decided that the FA will administer some emergency medical supplies we keep onboard for just such emergencies. Before doing so, the FA asks the passengers if there is a doctor onboard. Fortunately, for this young girl, there is. Using clues not a available to the MedLink doctor working via radio patch, the onboard doctor quickly realizes the situation is a severe panic attack, not an asthma attack. While I am coordinating medical radio links with my FA, my partner is doing a great job of dodging weather to the west of PHX on our arrival. By the time I join him, we are on the outskirts of town looking at the chain lightning running from well south of Chandler all the way north to Payson, about 40 miles. The light show is amazing. We run a few checklists and prepare for a windy and bumpy approach with a reported of winds gusting to 30mph. Between us and the runway, it would appear that there is only light rain. When we check in with Approach Control, we find the weather we got only minutes ago has been updated twice in twenty minutes due to rapidly changing conditions. Ahead of us about ten miles is another jet only a couple miles from touchdown. This airplane encounters a microburst (intense windshear) losing 39 knots of airspeed in a couple of seconds. That Crew executes a go-around and rocks their way though the winds and rain moving in from the south of the airport. Advised by ATC of this new angle to Mother Nature's wrath, I advise ATC, "Nahhh.. we would rather just mill around out here and wait out the weather for a few minutes."  The controller begins giving us lazy vectors around west Phoenix with people on both sides of the plane getting a front row seat on the fireworks bearing down on the airport. We spend about ten minutes cruising around while another jet appears above us and mills along with us, waiting his turn. The lightning show from 5,000 feet only ten miles away beat any 4th of July you have ever seen. Through all this, the 12-year-old is seated next to the doctor who is talking to her and stabilizing her emotionally. Glen, my First Officer, was doing a great job of flying and had planned to land for this final flight of the night. While I had no question he would do a great job, I had a handy instrument on my side of the cockpit he did not have on his side: the Heads Up Display. This nifty piece of space-age technology shows me ever changing energy conditions along with my flight instrument parameters repeated through a piece of one-inch-thick Lexan I simply look through. This could come in handy for the gusts and possible windshear we might encounter during landing. I offer to do the landing and Glen backs my decision as we hear the microburst warnings at Sky Harbor have now ceased. Only five miles from the runway, we call the field in sight and are cleared for the visual approach. We drop our landing gear and flaps and head for the runway. As we contact Tower, we are advised the winds are from the southwest at 20 mph, and we run final landing checklists verifying the gear are down; the flaps are set correctly; and the speed brake is armed for landing. Once established on final, I advise Glen I'll fly slightly faster than our planned approach speed should we get surprised with another shear. There is an old saying in aviation, "Speed is life." Other than few bumps down final approach, we encounter nothing unusual, and touchdown only about five minutes after our scheduled arrival time. Lined up on the departure runway, we see a dozen or so planes waiting for weather conditions to improve before departing. Some of them begin taxiing back to their gate as we taxi to our gate. From the ground, the lightning seems to come from all over the sky almost continuously. Upon arrival, I advise the passengers who will be heading down to baggage claim that their bags may be slightly delayed due to the close proximity of the lightning. Aircraft make great lightning rods, and while the people inside are fine, the Ramper's outside risk electrocution should they be standing nearby when the plane is struck. For that reason, we evacuate Ramp Employees during lightning near any airport. After saying good night to the passengers and ensuring that our anxious 12-year-old needs no further assistance, I thank Glen for an outstanding job and all the help he gave me. We bid each other goodnight and begin the most dangerous part of our evening: The drive home.
22 Comments
Cindy9
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WOW!!! What a story!! I almost felt as though I was there in that plane with you!! You should write a book... I have to admit that as much as I like to fly, I am glad I wasn't there with you on this one!! lol Cindy
Rebecca14
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Hey Ray, My bro-in-law was out flying in the weather yesterday and my sister and I were talking about what it must be like. It's nice to read about it in first-hand perspective. Rebecca
joe-mdw-plane-d
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Nice trip report Capt. Looking forward to your next one. Now Hemi powered. Ding! boy Joe
Artie
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Dear Captain Ray, I know you have heard this before, but I feel compelled to restate it: the vivid descriptions of your experiences in the cockpit are just awe-inspiring! I thank you for taking the time to write them down and share with the rest of us! Perhaps after I'm finished with medical school and worked long enough to pay off my debts, I will follow my other passion and dream - of becoming a pilot! Your stories certainly make me wonder if I shouldn't have pursued in the opposite direction! 🙂 Of course, I really have no idea what/where/how pilots earn their wings. Perhaps a post for another day? Thanks again!
Cygnus
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Wow, what a fascinating story,Captain Ray! Gives me a great idea of what all you go through in trying to get from Point A to Point B in quickly-changing conditions. And I'm glad the girl was OK.
Vicki4
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Wow! I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat as I read this. I knew there was a lot involved in getting a plane down safely in less-than-ideal weather, but I really appreciate knowing just how much really does go on! It never occurred to me that lightning storms in the area would pose such a risk to the baggage handlers. too. It's good to be reminded of the validity of the behind-the-scenes delays. Your last lines also provide a little "ammo" for me as my husband and I are sitting down tonight to plan a trip during Nov. or Dec. I'd rather fly (MCO to BNA and back); he prefers to drive. Thanks for all that you ALL do!
Leah4
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Oooh, I LUV storms! 🙂 Thanks for another interesting post, Captain Ray! It's interesting to read about what goes on in the cockpit. That reminds me; when I was coming home from Peru (1999), I went N/S from Lima to Miami, Miami to DAL, & DAL to TUL. When the plane landed in Miami & taxied off the runway, it started storming all of a sudden. The radar was knocked out & the airport was closed for a while. All we could do, of course, was sit & wait for the storm to pass. Once it did, the airport reopened & we pulled up to the gate. I got off, went through customs, & got back on.
Robert_Carner
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Again a perfect reason why Southwest Airlines is #1 is Customer Satisfaction year after year! It's not just one employee here and there, but the whole 38,000+ dedicated luving and caring people who make up Southwest Airlines. I'll trade an assigned seat and first class for compassion and LUV anyday!
rstark
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I was flying into Baltimore many years ago on the 4th of July. A typically huge thunderstorm system was sitting over the Inner Harbor and up and down the Chesapeake were bolts pf lightning flying from cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground and everywhere inbetween. The lightshow was only a few miles off our right side and straight ahead, the airport was in the clear. With light turbulence I felt compelled to inform the passengers, "It's alright folks, the airport is in the clear ahead, enjoy Mother Nature's show off to our right as we are well clear of it all." Seconds later, as I looked down I saw small explosions underneath us and intially thought it was someone shooting off fireworks on the ground. As we got closer, I realized what it was: power transformers on power poles exploding as the lightning off our right overloaded the electrical grid underneath us and popped the transformers like sparklers. And they actually pay me to do this.... Ray
Leah4
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Wow, Ray! I felt like I was on that BWI flight! That must have been quite an experience!
Geoff1
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Out of curiosity, do doctors who step in during an in flight emergency get any compensation from the airline?
David_M
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Good call on heading out to the runway at LAS hoping for the early release. Last weekend I flew from SAN to SFO on the airline where you can listen in on the ATC communications. SFO had a foggy morning and things had gotten badly backed up. We pushed off from the gate more or less on time and headed down to the runway, where we pulled off onto taxiway D to wait for release, pulling up behind the same airline's flight scheduled a half hour earlier. As we got there, a release came through for a third SFO flight, on another airline, that was still at the gate. With a wheels up time in three minutes. Obviously, that flight wasn't going to make it, so the ground controller got things switched around so the plane that had been waiting got out. We still had to wait about 45 minutes (engines off to save fuel), but ended up only about 10 minutes behind the other airline's flight.
Francisco_Delga1
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CAPT... Wow!! what a story... question for you.. have you flown into ABQ recently? I know summers in ABQ are a bit tricky.. rains one minute.. sunshine the next... take care... USS BLOG BOY
Jennifer_Singh
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What a great story! I always read and re-read Ray Stark's post. I echo the feelings of other commenters here -- that your writing is excellent and gripping, and it's so refreshing to see what goes on behind the delays, re-routings, weather complications, medical emergencies, everything. Keep it up!
rstark
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Geoff, Doctors are Good Samaritans at large. I think their willingness to help comes from their Hippocratic Oath and their dedication to mankind: To keep the good of the patient as the highest priority. I have never heard of a doctor anywhere called to help a person in distress outside a hospital ever ask for compensation. Francisco, ABQ is like most places in the summer except for the nearby Sandia mountains which generate some thunderstorm activity a bit more reliably than flat terrain. ABQ is a bit windy at times but other than the "wiggly-jigglies" caused by wind over the rougher terrain, the approaches in and out of ABQ aren't that much different than any other location. But, the Mexican food is better than most. Ray
Arlen_R__Isham
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Read this website. We beat this Southwest pilot into Phoenix on Monday, July 30, but we watched the light show to the west on the way in. We had to wait for about 90 minutes to get back out while the storm blew through. We were on flight 749 from Seattle to Houston, with the stop at Phoenix. Landing fast was the way we did it too. I noticed we were coming in hot, a few bumps too. He used most of the runway to get it stopped. The plane unloaded and filled back up. However as mentioned in the website blog, the airport had shut down now. We were on gate hold. The most amazing thing was during the wait. They had not been able to load the luggage that was sitting on the carts outside the plane. With the lightning, Southwest had issued a ramp clear order. The lightning had stopped, but as the rain continued, the Operations Agent, named Mary Macht, appeared outside the plane adjusting the rain covers over the luggage, and moving some luggage so it would not get wetter. I commented to Jo Beth that I had never seen anything like that because at the time, I thought it was one of our flight attendants, who had been notified by a passenger that the luggage was getting wet. I later found out that she was not a flight attendant, but looked very similar to a flight attendant on the plane. Later as the rain got less, Mary Macht appeared again and started loading luggage onto the belt conveyor. Then the regular men who load the luggage arrived, and they completed the job and she was still working with them. Then as one cart was empty, she got around to the front and pulled that cart away from the belt as part of the process of clearing the plane, so it could depart. She actually physically moved two of the carts. Once again I told Jo Beth that it was the first time in some 20 plus years of flying Southwest that I had seen anything like this. An Operations Agents provide legendary Customer service by assuring efficient boarding of aircraft and coordinating ramp, ground operations, provisioning and aircraft servicing to accomplish on-time performance. This is from the Southwest Airlines website. This woman really met that description since her work to get the luggage loaded allowed the plane to leave immediately as soon as the Airport was ready to let planes fly. I am going to send a letter to Southwest Airlines regarding her work so she can receive recognition.
joe-mdw-plane-d
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Check out this crosswind landing picture! http://www.airliners.net/open.file?id=1242626&size=L
Chris_C_1
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Thanks for mentioning to the passengers that their bags might be delayed. This bid I have the bag runner position, and it's good to know that a pilot thinks of the workers on the ramp. I work in Denver and there have been times where we've had ground stops and I've thought how the customers might not understand why their bags are taking forever to come up to them. I hope all pilots think of this when they land and the rampers might have delays due to ground stops.
Cygnus
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Looks like there were some folks at BWI who needed to read this and other Captain Ray postings: Storm delays flights for some at BWI - Canceled Southwest flight to Las Vegas irks passengers P.S. A tech request: Can there be a PREVIEW button for our posts?
Cygnus
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Link for the above: http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bal-delays0810,0,1500246.story?track=rss
blusk
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Paul T. I will pass on your request for a preview button to the folks who take care of the technical side of the blog. We know this past weekend was a real mess for our BWI Customers. Our Proactive Customer Service Department is in the process of writing to many of the Customers who were on these flights. Brian
Jeff_Bateman
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I fly on the Boise - Salt Lake City route each week. I always fly home on the scheduled 1901 flight that is always scheduled to leave at 9:10 P.M.. I love Southwest and their service. During the summer month this flight always gets bumped back I don't mind the delay because the incoming flight is coming from Chicago and I realize how busy that airport is. I just have one question? Why do the flight stewardess always say at the end of the flight will make it up to next time. Its been three straight weeks where this has happened and I don't think it will end until Summer is over. I just wonder how many other individuals who fly wonder the same thing.