It’s 11:30 at night and our passengers are probably about ready to kill us. Outside the plane, the tail end of the last departure bank is roaring off into the night sky as flashes of lightning illuminate the low laying clouds to the west. I’m trying to work two radio frequencies at once while still monitoring what the FO is saying to the ground controller. It’s turning into a big mess in my head and I take a deep breath while double checking the parking brake is set so we don’t roll anywhere.
My evening started 5 hours ago with a planned deadhead down to Charlotte. Several hours prior to that the captain who was scheduled to fly that flight called and asked if I would mind flying it as he wad supposed to deadhead up just to fly it back. That was fine with me so at 6pm, instead of taking my seat in the back I strapped in up front and we launched for Charlotte. An hour later we were taxiing in to the gate and the start of my planned 3 hour sit before going to Savannah for the night.
Walking through the terminal to the crewroom and eventually dinner I ran into the FO who I was supposed to be going to Savannah with in several hours. He, the Flight Attendant and the captain I would be covering for later had to do a turn to Tri Cities, TN (a quick 25 minute flight) before going to Savannah. The FO told me they had loaded up the plane to go and pushed back at 6:30 as scheduled but had to return to the gate and unload the passengers after they had problems starting one of the engines. They were now on their way to another plane. I immediately started wondering just how late I’d be leaving for Savannah.
An hour later I was walking back from dinner and ran into the FO again. I commented that they had made a very quick trip to Tri Cities if they were already back but he just laughed and told me they still hadn’t left yet. Apparently plane number 2 also had engine problems which required them to return to the gate and unload the passengers for a second time. Maintenance was working the issue but didn’t have an update time for them. The captain had a sim ride in the morning (which is why I had gotten the trip in the first place) and was anxious to get the hotel. I offered to take the Tri Cities turn as I’d be sitting around waiting for them to get back anyway. And just like that it all became my problem.
Dispatch called and told me the plane would be good to go at 10pm. By 10:30 we had our passengers back on board and after a 20 minute wait for the fuel truck we were taxiing out into a giant traffic jam. After 11pm Charlotte closes their three north-south runways and utilize their single east-west runway to prevent aircraft from flying over noise sensitive areas. It cuts down on the complaints from nearby neighborhoods but it puts a large crimp in the operation.
Sitting at number 10 in line to go, now 5 hours later than scheduled I had a thought, which is never a good thing for me. Tri Cities is a small airport and we get our fuel from the local Fixed Base Operator and since we were so late it was entirely possible that the guy driving the fuel truck there may had already gone home for the night. I assumed that this is something that dispatch would have checked up on but I decided to make sure. Charlotte has a radio frequency we can use to call dispatch and a minute later a dispatcher was assuring me that there would be fuel when we got there. Satisfied with the answer I went back to the monotony of releasing the parking brake, creeping forward one plane’s length and then setting the brake again.
30 seconds later we got a text message saying that there was in fact no fuel truck driver and that the flight was cancelled and to go back to the gate. I told the FO that we owe it to these passengers to get them to Tri Cities, that I was going to call dispatch on the second radio and to tell the ground controller that we would need a few minutes to work on an issue.
Somewhere behind us I hear a plane spool up, the sound a harsh whine that fades into the night. 5 minutes of negotiations with dispatch have gotten us approval to go back to the gate and load an additional 1000 pounds of gas on board so we can go and come back without refueling. I flip over to the local ops frequency and tell them we need a gate and a fuel truck and make it fast. They give us a gate (the one we left from 25 minutes ago) and promise a fuel truck. I let the Flight Attendant know what is going on and apparently some of the frustration I am feeling creeps into my voice because she reminds me to be nice when I tell the passengers. That taken care of we taxi back to the ramp where there is in fact a fuel truck waiting for us.
Ten minutes later we are pushing back again (my second time, the passenger’s fourth) and heading towards the runway. It’s midnight now and there are no other planes in sight. The ramp controller jokingly asks if we are really going to go this time. The FO looks at me a shrugs. That’s about how I feel. We make it to the runway without any issues and then after waiting a minute for a truck to finish an inspection downfield, blast off into the night. Lightning is still flickering in the clouds to the west as we turn north towards our destination. We will get our passengers there 5 hours later than scheduled and a full hour later than the last flight of the night got in, but we will get them there. And then we will turn back to Charlotte and then Savannah beyond. It’s going to be a long night.