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Late Night Summer Fun

rstark
Not applicable
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.
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