I’m beginning to feel like a pawn on a chessboard. We are being moved around the rainy darkness of the White Plaines airport by the invisible hand of fate, and I don’t like it at all. I set the parking brake, take a breath and check our fuel again. We have 300 pounds more than our min take off fuel, and as we currently are facing backwards down the taxiway, our tail pointed towards the runway, I seriously doubt we will be taking off before that 300 pounds burns away.
The rain beats down on the cockpit glass, running in rivulets down the side and then being blow backwards by the wind which is now gusting to 30 miles per hour. Off to our left a Net Jets Gulfstream blasts off from the runway amidst a cloud of water kicked up by it’s engines. As it disappears into the low clouds I watch the wing tip nav lights dance in the turbulence and think that maybe we should just go back to the gate and forget about trying to get to Washington. It’s been one of those days.
I picked up the trip in Charlotte several hours ago and got to the plane as a very light rain fell. Charlotte was just ahead of a large line of weather that was stretching from Alabama up to the east coast to about Vermont. It was moving east a good rate, driven along by almost 150 miles per hour of wind aloft. On the surface the gusts were hitting 40 miles per hour. Our planned route to White Plaines would take us right along (and at some points into) the leading edge of the front. Obviously this wouldn’t work, but as dispatch didn’t seem to inclined to work with us on a new routing, and plenty of extra fuel in the tanks, I figured we could just pick our way farther east if needed to stay out of the weather.
With that plan in mind we took off into a windy sky, bumping our way up to 31,000 feet. We were able to work our way to the east a bit and stay out of the worst of the weather, although we were in moderate turbulence for a good part of the trip. Fortunately, because of the hefty tailwinds the normal almost 2 hour flight took less than 90 minutes. Despite that, it was a physically exhausting flight due to the constant bumps, trying to avoid the cells, dealing with a way overworked ATC who was trying to vector too many airplanes in not enough airspace and an approach to minimums in the fog and rain when we finally got there. Thankfully we were 30 minutes early arriving so we had a little bit of time to catch our breath before the next load of passengers arrived for our flight to DC.
While waiting I called Dispatch to discuss the weather on route again. Having just fought our way through it heading north, I really had no desire to do so again heading south, and this time down low. Our dispatcher told us that most of the weather was well east of Washington now and the only stuff we would face was on the climb out from White Plaines, heading west until we got behind the front and turned south. The radar map on my phone showed about the same thing and when the FO picked up the clearance from ATC there were no delays anticipated so I gave the go ahead for the gate agent to start boarding.
It started pouring as soon as the first person got on board, leaving our other 41 passengers standing in the rain outside, trying to cover their heads with a mixture of bags, coats and newspapers. Some gentle prodding from our flight attendant got the line moving along and soon everybody was out of the rain and on board. ATC told us to expect no delays so we started up and taxied out, only to be told that we had a 30 minute wait. And thus our game of chess moves began.
We first were moved up to and short of the runway, then crossed over to the other side and told to taxi straight ahead and then take a right. Then we were told to instead, keep going straight ahead and then take a right on another runway, then a right turn off that runway and then turn into a holding pad in the middle of nowhere, which is what we did. After 30 minutes of sitting and waiting and watching the rain come down we were moved up to and short of the runway and told to expect to go shortly. They then change their mind and told us that all the west bound departures have been stopped due to turbulence.
The tower controller asked if we could turn around and go back to the holding pad to wait so we weren’t blocking access to the runway. I grabbed the radio call before the FO could and told them that we could turn around and then asked him how long the hold on west departures would be, which of course, he didn’t know. Once turned around I asked him if we could just stop where we were for a minute and figure out our plan. He said he had nobody else coming along so that would be fine.
The rain is beating against the glass now that we are facing directly into the wind, and I idly flip the wipers on, even though we are stopped with the brake set. The glass momentarily clears and then fills again with the splatter of water droplets. We have two realistic options, and neither one is too appealing and both require returning to the gate for more fuel. We can go back load up a small amount of fuel and then sit out the hold on the departures, which could be 15 minutes or could be several hours. Or we could also go back, add a bunch of fuel and try to get what’s called a tower enroute clearance which would keep us down low at 8000 feet, out of the busy Center Controlled airspace, and hopefully out of the bumps. I tell the FO to stay on the radios incase the ground controller calls us, and pull off my headset to make a PA to the cabin.
I quickly lay out the facts (departures stopped, not enough gas to just sit and wait, even if we shut down both engines) and the options (go to the gate, load gas and sit it out or attempt getting a lower altitude), apologize for the inconvenience and remind them that the Flight Attendant doesn’t know anything about their connections and to not bother her by asking over and over again. The PA complete I pull out my phone to call dispatch and inquire about fuel loads for a lower altitude and what weather we may end up facing down low.
I’m still trying to explain the situation to the dispatcher when my FO starts talking on the radio and gives me a thumbs up sign while mouthing the words “good to go”. I tell our dispatcher never mind, hang up and put my headset back on in time to hear the controller ask how quickly we can get to the runway. We still have both engines running and the FO tells her that we can be there just as soon as she can get us there. That unleashes a torrent of taxi instructions which we quickly follow.
I make one more PA to the cabin informing them that the hold has been lifted and we’ll be in the air in a few minutes. After click off the PA I comment to the FO that moments ago I told the passengers that we couldn’t go because it was too bumpy and we didn’t have enough fuel. Now I’m telling them that it’s not bumpy, we have enough fuel and we are going. I’m sure I’ve just instilled a boatload of confidence into all of them. I quickly put it out of my mind, listen while the FO briefs his departure and with a takeoff clearance in hand, center the plane up on the runway.
The climb out it turbulent to say the least. We are in and out of the clouds and through heavy rain and moderate icing most of the way up. All of the New York Area departures are complaining and ATC is ignoring it, not that there is much they can do anyway. Finally at 24,000 feet we break out of the backside of the weather. The ride smoothes out and in the clear air above the overcast we can see the fading light of the sunset on the western horizon. To the east a mass of dark gray and black clouds are illuminated by intermittent flickers of lightning. To the south the route looks clear. I ease by seat back and rub my temples. It’s been a hell of a day so far.