[This is a “p.s.” of sorts to my last post. Click HERE if you’d like to read it for reference.]
If you’re following my daily travels on Twitter, then you know that I still occupy the right seat of a Boeing 737 and that I’ve recently started flying to mostly international destinations. I have a standing bid in place to fly the Boeing 777 or 787, whichever comes up first, and decided to dip my toe into the shallow end of the international pool. Except in rare situations, the 737 doesn’t have the legs to make it across “the pond,” however, we do fly it all over Latin America, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and a few destinations in South America. The timing of this move was intentional. I wanted to attend the international school offered by my airline and hoped to eliminate some of the newness of international flying before jumping in with both feet on larger, longer range equipment.
However, I may have made a slight miscalculation. I made the transition at the first of September hoping to enjoy warmer temperatures and a winter on the beach while domestic pilots battled another snowmageddon. That may still be the case, but what I didn’t know, is that September is the single wettest month of the year for many of the cities in this region. The storms have been fierce. One of which, that parked itself over the island of Jamaica, resulted in my first international divert. Here’s what happened:
Let’s make a deal.
I was scheduled to fly a relatively uninteresting three day trip that signed in late on day one and ended around midnight on day three. Then, on the day before departure, the company called me at home with what they described as “a deal.” It’s a commonly held belief among pilots that if it’s good for the airline, then it must be bad for the pilot. What can I say? We’ve learned from experience. But every now and then, a truly good deal comes around that benefits us both. You see, the company was short of pilots who were legal and available to fly the early morning departures on the following day. Apparently, they were all out of reserves and scrambling to cover the morning schedule.
Desperate for bodies, the company agreed to remove me from my three day trip (and pay me for it) if I’d fly a three leg, one day turn. Sounded good to me! The plan was to leave Dallas early in the morning on a flight to Montego Bay, Jamaica. After about an hour in Jamaica, we would fly to Miami and I’d deadhead home in time for dinner. What could possibly go wrong?
The airline I work for provides positive space confirmed tickets to pilots deadheading to cover revenue flights. With a full airplane waiting to get from point A to point B, the airline is willing to bump a paying passenger to staff a flight. But when the same pilot is deadheading home at the end of a trip…well…no one except the pilot really cares if he gets home and the airline will bump him from the flight if there aren’t any available seats. That was the danger. I knew it, but getting three days of pay for one day’s work was worth the risk.
Storms on the horizon.
Early the next day, we took off from Dallas on a beautiful, unseasonably cool Texas morning. The air was smooth, the skies were clear, and everything seemed right in the world. I know that sounds a little melodramatic, but there’s something about climbing in crisp morning air with my hands on the controls and the warm sun on my face that just feels right. It’s one of those things I’ll dream about some day when I’m an old retired guy chasing my wife around the house.
The first half of the flight was entirely uneventful. Now on a southerly heading, the bright sun shifted out of my eyes and onto the Captain’s lap. That was fine with me and I removed my “sun in the face” gear - ball cap, sun glasses and window shade. We passed a little east of Houston and went “feet wet” near Sabine Pass, leaving Texas behind with the Gulf of Mexico below. A short time later, the Captain, who was working the radios, checked in with Houston Oceanic for a short flight through non-radar airspace. A little more than half way to Montego Bay, we were back in radar contact and speaking to Merida Center, located on the Yukatan Peninsula, before the first sign of trouble appeared on the horizon.
More fuel, please.
I checked the radar and satellite images before departure and was happy to see the absence of any convective activity. There was a small chance of storms in the forecast, both along the latter portions of our route and in Montego Bay, so we had extra fuel onboard for enroute deviations and a possible divert to nearby Kingston.
For me, as a relative international newbie, the possibility of diverting to Kingston added a new level of complexity. Domestically, there’s almost always a long list of possible diversion airports. Can’t get into Miami? No problem. Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm, Ft. Meyers, Tampa, and Orlando are all close by. They’re also served by my airline and it’s definitely nice to have your own personnel, a place to park, and a standing agreement with the fuel vendor. Conversely, when you’re flying to an island, alternate airports are often scarce and a significant distance from where you really wanted to land. That’s all fine as long as you’re prepared.
There are three things in aviation that are of no use to a pilot. Altitude above you, runway behind you, and fuel in the fuel truck. It’s also been said, that the only time more fuel is a bad thing, is when you’re on fire. As thunderstorms began to build on the horizon, the Captain and I turned on the weather radar and began to consider our options, thankful that we had a little extra fuel to burn.
We were abeam the western tip of Cuba before we made our first deviation for enroute thunderstorms. Most of the significant weather was below our altitude and we easily made it around the tops of everything else with small deviations to the left and right of course. When you’re actively deviating around storms, you need the radar to be on a relatively small scale, getting increasingly smaller as you approach a storm. It’s also important to take a look ahead every now and then to make sure you aren’t boxing yourself into a canyon of storms without a safe way through. As we cleared what I thought was the last thunderstorm, I set the radar scale to 320 miles. Montego Bay was just barely on the screen at that range and it was completely covered up by red radar returns.
Storm or island?
It’s unusual to see a strong radar return from that distance. There were bright white cloud tops on the horizon, but I still held on to the hope that what I was seeing on the radar display was just the island, and not a storm. Since we don’t get radar returns off the surface of the water, land masses sticking up out of the water often have the appearance of a storm on the radar screen. When you’re painting a land mass on the radar, it doesn’t take much positive tilt to clear the screen of the return, but the closer we got to the airport, the clearer it became that we had a problem.
|An example of radar mapping. With the radar beam tilted down, the only visible returns are from the land mass ahead. Recognize the southern tip of Florida?|
As we started our descent, I decided to level off at an altitude above some of the smaller build-ups and asked for a holding pattern north of the island while we decided on a course of action. The airport appeared to be completely engulfed by the storm, but another airline ahead of us on the arrival decided to go in for a look. That flight made it all the way to the missed approach point, reported heavy rain and “at least moderate turbulence,” but never saw the runway. The Captain and I immediately agreed that we had no interest in attempting the approach.
This is where the whole island thing complicated an already complex situation. We planned for this eventuality and had enough fuel to hold for about 30 minutes, but the storms were building and some were headed for Kingston, our one and only alternate. If we waited, the skies might clear over Montego Bay. On the other hand, the storm might intensify and spread far enough to the east that landing at Kingston would no longer be an option. You’ve probably connected the dots here, but if we exhausted our holding fuel and couldn’t land at Montego Bay or Kingston, then we wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to another island. I’m no Sully - and I had no desire to recreate his “Miracle on the Hudson” landing down in the Caribbean. The situation forced our hand a bit, but we decided on the more cautious approach and headed for Kingston while we still could.
“There are no problems in Jamaica - only situations.”
Generally speaking, we were well received in Kingston. The storms hadn’t reached the airport yet and we had no trouble landing. We weren’t exactly sure where to park, but our station personnel took good care of us, providing a gate, catering needs, fuel, and all the paperwork we needed for the short flight back to Montego Bay. All was good until a representative from the Jamaican Health Ministry arrived.
Now keep in mind that we were supposed to land in JAMAICA, and diverted to another airport in JAMAICA. It’s not like the country wasn’t expecting us. We were about to fly a short distance across the island and drop all these people in the same country, but the health ministry acted like we were trying to unload 160 people infected with the Bubonic Plague. Each passenger had to be inspected. We were required to sign documents indicating that none of the passengers were ill and the health ministry sprayed some unknown mist throughout the cabin before we could leave. The whole thing was very strange.
I would describe the passengers on this flight as young, college types. They were playful and in good spirits, most wearing shorts and flip-flops, obviously ready for the beach. Two hours later, that’s exactly where they were. The weather at Montego Bay never improved to what I would call “beach worthy,” but did improve enough for us leave Kingston and make a safe landing in Montego Bay. Thankfully, there was no sign of the Jamaican Health Ministry when we arrived.
P.S. Remember that part about not wanting to deadhead home at the end of a trip? I was originally scheduled to deadhead home on the second to last flight to Dallas. This was a fact not lost on me as we diverted to Kingston earlier in the day. As a matter of fact, while politely arguing with the Jamaican Health Ministry, I made peace with the idea of having Cuban food and a cold beer in Miami that night. We finally made it to Miami with 35 minutes to spare before the last flight home – and I still had to make it through customs.
Thankfully for me, Montego Bay wasn’t the only place with nasty weather that day. Earlier storms in Miami delayed the operation there and my flight was delayed. I arrived just before they closed the door and took the last available seat on the plane.