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Pilot Trip Report--Day One

Adventurer B
Captain Ray Stark sent us a rather long, but very interesting trip report about flying in springtime weather from one of his recent trips.  (His report refers to a storm system that is different than the one much of the nation experienced on the weekend of April 13. We will be splitting it into three posts--one for each day of the trip, and we will post a new installment next week.  (As always, click on the pictures to enlarge.) On The Road Again.... It is the day before I leave on a three-day trip. I turn on the morning news, and I see pictures of a mobile home that has been picked up by a tornado and stuffed into a treetop nearby. The frame is bent around the trunk of the tree. Scenes of devastation and tales of injury and death detail the march of a huge line of weather stretching from Laredo, Texas up to Minneapolis. A late spring cold system from the Northwest is bulging down into the central US, running into warm moist air. To make matters worse, the slower moving low-level air that is feeding the moisture into Texas from the southwest is overlaid by a jet stream wind of 100 miles per hour from the northwest--a 90 degree difference. Just the recipe for the tornado damage I have seen on TV. Colorado has been hit. Clovis, New Mexico has been hit hard. And the worry is that Dallas and Oklahoma City lie in the path of these storms. Sixty tornadoes have been sighted today along this line of weather. Hmmm? Where am I headed this week? A look at my schedule shows the first leg is out of Phoenix (PHX) to Kansas City (MCI) and back to PHX. Then over to Albuquerque (ABQ) for the night. Day two will take me three legs to Louisville, Kentucky (SDF) via Houston (HOU) and St. Louis (STL). The final day is back to STL, down to Tulsa (TUL), out to Las Vegas (LAS), down to San Diego (SAN), and then home to Phoenix (PHX) on Saturday afternoon. If this line of weather moves as slowly as the Weather Channel forecasts, I will pass through this line not once, but four separate times. Day One: At 2:45 A.M., I awaken early and stare at my alarm clock. Time to get the show on the road. Two hours later, I walk into the darkened crew lounge, the first to arrive this morning. I am not alone though. A couple of Pilots who arrived a few hours earlier on late-night terminators nap while waiting for their early morning deadhead flights home. Not worth getting a hotel for three or four hours.... I turn on the lounge TV only to be greeted by more pictures of devastation as a result of this storm. I turn on another TV which displays the Weather Channel and there I can see the strengthened line of weather. My hopes that the line would have dissipated have not been fulfilled. The moving weather depiction shows the weather just west of MCI and heading toward the airport. Hopefully, we can arrive (and depart) before the worst of it arrives. Tornadoes usually form on the southwest edge of a thunderstorm, so we have some time as the line is moving very slowly. Arriving at the jet, I grab the latest weather packet provided by our Ops Agent and the radar summary echoes what we saw on the Weather Channel. You can see the dark band of moisture in the radar map below. day-one-wx-w.jpgThe dark arrows I drew in indicate the direction the moisture is moving. The dashed line is basically our route of flight. The dot on the right side of the weather is the MCI Airport. (RW means rainshower. TRW means thunderstorms and rainshowers.) I call Dispatch (aka "Mom") in Dallas and my Dispatcher confirms what I have already gleaned from TV about the system moving through Kansas City. Based on our passenger load, we have room for extra gas so we opt to load a little more on just in case we need to end up holding while the weather moves through MCI. Our alternate is Tulsa which is also about to get rained on, and Mom advises that St. Louis is a better alternate, well clear of the weather. Armed with all the latest information, we push back for MCI. Our departure this morning will take us to the east off Runway 7L. This means we will stare right into the rising sun on takeoff. Tower has to watch planes landing so they prefer to look away from the sun all day. We only have to do it once. Winds permitting, they will always launch into the sunrise or sunset. That is why we call them "controllers." As soon as we can, we request a turn with Air Traffic Control (ATC) on departure to get the fireball out of our eyes and head directly toward the arrival fix for MCI.  Upon level off, the ride is smooth, so we let the passengers up and point out sights as we cross eastern Arizona. About 30 minutes after takeoff, ATC calls with reports of choppy rides over the front range of the Rocky Mountains. As a precaution, I turn the FASTEN SEAT BELT sign on and advise the folks to grab a seat. In ten minutes we are not only in the reported chop but, as we cross the Front Range, we experience wave action with occasional moderate bumps.  The first airliner to experience this, we call ATC and report our ride experience to all on frequency. Several aircraft inquire about our exact location in relation to theirs. Pilot Reports (PIREPS) are the best way to find out what Mother Nature has in store ahead. After 15 minutes of potholes, we are once again in smooth air. I let the passengers up, knowing the last part of the ride will probably see everyone strapped in quite early in the descent due to the weather west of MCI. I briefed the Flight Attendants of this possibility when I gave them my pre-flight briefing before boarding passengers in PHX. About 45 minutes out from MCI we can see the tops of the weather system forecast to hammer the Midwest later today. Due to the curvature of the earth, the cloud tops were hiding out of sight over the horizon as we left PHX. We can now start to see the mass of moisture in our path. We turn on the radar and try to get a "paint" on any thunderstorm activity, but radar only shows weather with any certainty at about 180 miles. Outside that range, we keep close watch on the radar for any indication of convective activity. About 100 miles out, we begin to see a little moisture in the air but between us and MCI, but no apparent thunderstorms. We get a report of the choppy ride in the descent and have the Flight Attendants pick up the cabin early and take their seats. Passing 16,000 feet, we break out between layers and see rapidly building clouds that will soon be thunderstorms. Ridges form where the lower turbulence "folds" the clouds, indicating instability in the air. Here is what we see mci-arrival-w.jpgin the midst of what should be thunderstorms: This view matches the latest weather advisory from MCI, and as we pass through these clouds, we get some good moderate bumps. Still, they are almost invisible to the radar as they contain little real moisture. MCI airport weather: winds from the south at 15mph, towering cumulus (baby thunderstorms), and a temperature of 60 degrees-much different than I had pictured the night before. But then as they say, I'd rather be lucky than good any day. Now, let's get out of here. MCI-PHX This kind of flight is easy. It is the reverse of the route we just flew, so we know the weather nearly every step of the way. We know things may have built a little taller or gotten a little bumpier, but we know what we are up against with a fairly high degree of certainty. During boarding, an elderly lady professes her fear of turbulence. Scott tells her what we will experience on the way out, and we remind her that the bumps are just "potholes in the sky." She looks at us like we are crazy. I get that look quite often, it seems. I brief the Flight Attendants to stay seated until we call, expecting more of that moderate bumpiness as we climb through the low-level clouds. My First Officer, Scott, is flying us back, and he tells the passengers what the ride will be like and why we are delaying cabin service. Our departure track will be about ten miles further south than our arrival track inbound. The clouds immediately to the west are building rapidly. During climbout, we manage to miss most of the really bumpy stuff and pop out on top about 15 minutes after liftoff. Approaching the Front Range, the bumps are less than what we experienced on the way out. Our arrival into PHX is uneventful. The lady who worried about the turbulence sticks her head into the cockpit as she deplanes and tells Scott she really enjoyed the flight. Now for a short one to ABQ. Every year, a SWA Captain is required to complete both a simulator check and a line check. On the line check, an Federal Aviation Adminitration-designated Southwest Airlines Check Airman rides on our jumpseat and watches our every move. I have looked at my schedule, and I expect this may be one of three possible legs a Check Airman rides with us. Sure enough, as we start boarding, one of our Check Airmen enters the cockpit and announces he will observe on this leg to ABQ. During this flight, I will make about 500 decisions about what, how, and when I do each task to get this plane 350 miles to the gate in ABQ. Even my verbal responses are subject to critique. After exchanging pleasantries, we buckle in and take off. The climb and cruise are in clear skies, but the descent into ABQ will take us through some clouds during descent. Ever cautious with our Flight Attendants, I play it safe and sit them down early in the descent-just in case. The ride during descent is lightly choppy but better to have them seated and wish they were up than have them up and wish they were seated. That I learned long ago. On final about 12 miles out, my HUD (heads up display) shows a 15-knot tailwind. In turbulence on final, the wind indicator is bouncing all over the place indicating convection turbulence in the ABQ area. I get another wind check from ABQ Tower to make sure the ground winds haven't changed significantly. Though landings are not usually graded, I manage to squeak on a good landing for my line check. (If you are gonna do a good one, that is one of the times you want to do so.)  Arriving at the gate, we shutdown the engines and complete our shutdown checklists. I then turn to the Check Airman and ask, "Suggestions? Comments? Critiques?" He responds, "I have nothing for you guys. Great job." As he departs to catch another flight back to PHX, I think, "What a nice guy." You can always find something to critique. It is the measure of an exceptional Check Airman to not nit-pick every last detail. After all, most Pilots will get no tougher critique than from themselves. Off to the hotel we go.