Friday, June 26, 2009

Round and round it goes...

On the way in to Kansas City flight operations we passed a mass of people waiting to get on our jet going to Denver. They pecked at Blackberrys and listened to I-Pods behind dull eyes. They had paid to get there safely. They expected it and that’s all that mattered to them. I’m cool with that.

I knew there were thunderstorms threatening Denver (DEN), so I made sure we had enough fuel to divert to Colorado Springs (COS), plus some extra in case we had a ground delay.

You guessed it, as we reached the end of the runway the tower told us DEN was in a ground stop. We were to expect over an hour delay. I looked over at my first officer, Mike. He was shaking his head. We couldn’t afford to sit there that long cooking fuel. Our APU was deferred inoperative. We decided to wait 15 minutes, and if the ground stop was still in effect we would go back for fuel, but that would incur still another delay. Fifteen minutes later the tower cleared us for takeoff. We smirked at our excellent decision. Where does the airline find such [lucky] men as us?

Then, approaching Denver, the dreaded call from Center: “Are you ready to copy holding instructions?” Upon hearing that question all airline pilots’ antennas go up. They know they will be earning their pay that day. Denver was covered in thunder bumpers.

We got our hold instructions. They included an expectation of holding for 50 minutes at the Oathe fix. We checked our fuel. Could we hold for 50 minutes and then go to Denver, shoot the approach, and still go to Colorado Springs and have 30 minutes fuel left? We decided we could. We let the jet fly the holding pattern on autopilot and while the cloudy world rotated around us we checked the weather at COS. A thunderstorm gust front was moving through. Now the stakes went up. Our alternate was socked in.

Our senses went into override. We got weather for Pueblo (PUB). It looked good. But would there be enough fuel to hold 50 minutes, shoot an approach at Denver and go to PUB? We didn’t know. We needed to know how much we would burn from Denver to Pueblo. We guessed 4,000 pounds. We asked our dispatcher, via data link, to give us our landing performance data at Pueblo. He did. We were good to land there if necessary. But we didn’t have the gas to hold 50 minutes.

But then, wa la! Colorado Springs reported frontal passage. We went back to plan A. We would hold for the full 50 minutes. But then Center told us the wait in the holding pattern had been extended to an hour and a half. That did it. We told them we were bolting for COS. They cleared us directly to it.

Just as we were approaching the COS airport, the Center said Denver was good and we could go direct to it if we wanted. We looked at our fuel. We had burned a bunch of it maneuvering at low altitude. What if we didn’t get in at DEN? Was there enough fuel to get back down to the Springs? We decided there was. We turned north to DEN. That’s when we heard the low level wind shear warnings at Denver.

So, what to do now? Turn back immediately to COS, or continue to DEN and “have a look”? We decided on the latter. I got out my checklist and reviewed the wind shear escape procedure.

Turning on final at DEN a flight ahead of us reported mild wind shear on his approach. We didn’t get it. The landing was smooth. We blocked in and every one got off and switched on their Blackberrys and donned their ear pods. They didn’t give any thought to what we had gone through. They didn’t need
to. They paid to get there safely. They got that, and I’m cool with it.

...and where its stops, nobody knows.

And now, this week's mind boggler:
Look at this pic I took out the front. We are high up, cruising east out of Denver with the sun setting behind us. What causes these unusual "sun rays"?