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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Back to reality

I was at the airport in St Thomas, waiting for my flight home when the phone rang. It was the training department advising me that I had been removed from two days of my next trip because my captain had to give IOE, Initial Operating Experience, to another pilot.
Two extra paid days off! I was thrilled.
The shortened trip went without a hitch. Until the last leg, of course.
On our way into JFK, we are told to hold on three different occasions. While my captain flies, I run fuel numbers. Except for the delay, which means I'll miss my usual flight home, we're in good shape. We are soon vectored to the VOR 13L, my favorite approach into Kennedy. Over the CRI VOR, while still in the clouds, tower sends us around because of spacing with the aircraft ahead.
On a long downwind vector, I once again examine the fuel situation. We still have plenty but know that the way things have gone so far today it won't be a quick approach, so I ask the controller what his plan is for us.
"Yeah, I was going to turn you in a second," comes the curt reply.
"Just trying to think ahead and evaluate our fuel situation."
Moments later, we are back on the approach. As we get closer we hear several aircraft ahead going missed approach, meaning they have reached the point on the approach where they either have to see the runway or go around.
We cross CRI lower than usual, as assigned by ATC, then pick up the lead-in lights than run parallel to the highway. My captain points the aircraft's nose toward them while I search for the next set of lights to our right. Nothing.
We go missed, again.
Tower hands us over to approach. I declare minimum fuel and the controller gives us vectors back around.
In typical New York fashion, however, the headings look like they will take us far out and as the weather dips lower and lower my captain and I concur that we have very little leeway left.
"Flight 1234, we are declaring a fuel emergency."
The controller acknowledges our call, asks for the number of souls on board and gives us another vector around for the ILS 13L. On edge, we prepare for the third and what absolutely has to be the last approach.
Minutes later we break out of the clouds at about 700' to the very welcomed sight of runway 13L.
At the gate I weigh my flight options home . It looks like I can make the 5 p.m. flight that leaves from the terminal I am in. Because of the weather and its associated backlog, the aircraft is late getting into New York, so I call another airline to make a back-up plan. Their 7:50 p.m. flight has already cancelled, leaving only one more flight home at 11 p.m. I list for it, just in case.
I bump into the FO flying the 5 p.m. flight and chat with him for a while. We are soon joined by a captain trying to make that flight too. We all exchange stories, commiserate about the commute and try to help frantic passengers whose flights are cancelling or who have missed connections.
Once again, JFK is the center of many's unhappiness.
Two other Boston flights cancel but by 8 p.m. I'm on board the 5 p.m., on our way to 13R. I close my eyes for a second. It's been a long and hectic day, but in just a few hours I'll be home and I can already taste the rum punch I'll have to unwind.
Through the cockpit door comes the familiar sound of the single chime. It rouses me from my slumber, but it could be anything: the cross-feed might be on because of the single-engine taxi out to the runway or the FO might have changed to thrust setting for take-off. Nothing that would get in the way of my getting home. I lean my head back.
The aircraft suddenly makes a right turn, then another, heading away from the runway.
I turn around and the commuting captain and I exchange a look of concern. Guess we're not going after all.
A hydraulic problem ends up cancelling this flight too and I suddenly see my chances of making it home tonight dwindle. The 11 p.m. flight on the other airline is now delayed two hours and it looks like it'll probably end up cancelling altogether. This could mean having to sleep in the crew room.
An hour later, however, news comes that dispatch wants the crew of the 5 p.m. flight to reposition the aircraft to Boston when the hydraulic problem is fixed. This is my last chance for a ride home. So I wait with them.
Hours later we touch down in Boston. It's late. The airport is deserted and quiet. On the curb, the usual cacophony of buses and cars has been reduced to complete silence. I hop in a cab for the $80 ride to my car and pull into my driveway at 2 a.m.
Ten hours after my work day ended.
It's definitely back to reality...


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