On Civil Aviation a few weeks I ago I posted that one of my great regrets in flying was not taking up an offer to ride aboard on a media trip on a Hurricane Hunter C130.
Well, I got the next best thing last night! Only this time my Hurricane Hunting airplane was an American Airlines MD-80!
I flew to Dallas on Friday morning to visit a close friend.
Here's a brief overview of that uneventful morning:
AA 424 PBI to DFW
Depart: 0745 Arrive 0950
Equip: Super 80 (MD-80 N406AA)
Security took about a half an hour. I was "wanded" twice, my bags were wiped down with a cloth to check for explosive residue and I had to match ID with boarding pass on three seperate occassions. I still think that private security at airports is a joke, but having said that I'll admit that the security people at PBI were quite attentive.
Our departure eastbound over the Beach was spritely, owing to the fact that the Super 80 was only about 70 percent full. I asked for and received a seat change to get a window up front. One thing about post 9/11 flying....lotsa empty seats. I had no one in front or behind (or to the side). That, combined with AA's more legroom in Coach, made the ride feel quite 1st class.
This was as great a flight as you could ask for, the kind you hope is the first for anyone afraid of flying. On boarding a huge Stars & Stripes hung from the bulkhead as you turn into first class. After climb out, our Super 80 cruised west across Florida and out over the Gulf of Mexico in brilliant morning sunshine without so much as a tremble from chop. Our Captain was Captain Pennington....at cruise level he came on and welcomed everyone aboard. He thanked us for trusting the system and the airline, and told us that in 17 years of flying he had never felt safer as a pilot. He encouraged us to tell our friends to get back in the air. He wrapped it up by saying the "airplane is flying beautifully and we expect a smooth ride all the way to Dallas"
Which we got, until about midway through our descent when N406AA started jiggling a little....and Capatain Pennington came back on and said "For any anxious flyers, that's just a little light chop...we have a very small front system just to left of the plane ...." He was basically explaining turbulence. It was the first time I've ever heard a pilot come on and reassure his passengers about turbulence. I give the Captain credit...he's gotta know many people are jittery about flying right now. His calm voice I'm sure soothed some shredded nerves. I could have used him two days later! HAHA...
The return trip!
AA 2002 DFW to PBI
Depart 1921 Arrive 2301
Equip: Super 80 (MD-80 tail number unknown...dammit!)
Anyone with the Weather Channel and an inkling of aviation can figure out what conditions would be like on their flight. And yesterday the Weather Channel was talking about just one thing, and her name was Michelle.
Hurricane Michelle was barreling northward between 3 and 10 mph, alternating between a Category 3 and a very potent Category 4 storm (Winds 133-150 mph). Her northern rain bands were already rolling over South Florida by the time I checked in with AA yesterday morning to see if flights were being affected. I was told EYW was closed, but that was it. Flight 2002 was a "go".
As my buddy Tony drove me to the airport after a great weekend of hanging out and partying, I wondered about our routing. I've flown the trip many times....the standard route between Dallas and South Florida , even for non-ETOPS mid-sized twins is to zip far out over the Gulf of Mexico, going "feet wet" around New Orleans and coming back over the beach around Sarasota...about 40 to 50 minutes of over-water flight.
Security in Dallas was more along the lines of what I was expecting....disinterested people who had searched way too many people and were bored by the mundane routine. Only the guy at the xray screen seemed un-distracted, something that had to b e a good sign.
Add one more reason to why I love America: The CNN Airport News monitors at DFW were all tuned to the Chicago Bears/Cleveland Browns game and practically every gate was making a party out of it. The stunning last second catch by the Bears illicited a massive "Whoop!" from the entire terminal. Proof we will not give up the things we love, even with guys in camoflauge and carrying M-16s around.
I again asked for and got a window seat, this time 9F. The seat behind and next to me was empty. This was a good thing, because on the aisle was perhaps the fattest man I have ever seen on an airplane, easily between four and 500 pounds. I'm not making a judgement on weight here...he was a very nice guy who was polite to everyone. But for the first twenty minutes aboard the plane, he tried to "get comfortable" and everytime he moved the whole set of three seats shook and a couple of times my head got bumped into the wall next to me as my seat lurched an inch to the right! Clearly this night was meant to be bumpy, in more ways than one!
Flying at night is in many ways far more visually rewarding than daytime flying. The nighttime climbout from DFW never fails to impress me....the Metroplex falls away underneath you as a carpet of glowing orange jewels stretching for miles. Lakes and rivers become defined black patches as the lights curve around their borders. I watched downtown, with Reunion Tower and that ridiculous lighted neon green skyscraper slide away behind me, signalling goodbye to a great weekend and friends I love enough to go visit during "terrorist alert" weeks...
As I expected, our initial trip east and south was crystal clear. Our Captain was 'Randy Franks' I believe...he wasn't as talkative as Captain Pennington...no speeches about how safe flying was, no soothing words about the inevitable hurricane drenched end of our flight in an area that was getting much play on the CNN Airport monitors at DFW. He DID take great pains to update everyone on the World Series score! He also confirmed something else I had pondered....the normal trip out over the Gulf would not happen. Our routing was over Shreveport-Jackson Miss.-to the north of Mobile and just south of Tallahassee....this Super 80 would have terra firma under her tonight.
The view was stunning....the long stretch of the roadway over Lake Ponchatrain confirmed we were flying about 60 miles north of New Orleans. 20 minutes later I could see Mobile Alabama below, and still look back to see the lights all the way to the Big Easy....Gulfport, Biloxi...no clouds blocked the view.
But they were coming and we all knew it. I got some reading in, then clicked off and watched the coast pass below...we did get some over-Gulf flying in after all, from about Panama City Beach down to just north of Tampa. And that's when I looked out and saw her.
Great towers of milky white in the clear satin blue evening....the stratus of her northern fringe stretched far above our FL 33,00 cruising altitude. A glance back over the wing into clear air showed the entire Gulf Coast back to New Orleans...a look forward showed only black.
The clouds started creeping up on us and the first shakes began....after about five minutes of light chop, we started to get some side to side movement as crosswind in the storm's higer elevations fought with the cool front we had just flew through. At that point the Captain came back on and said we were about 45 minutes out and the ride would be pretty bumbpy from here on in. He told us he had checked with ATC to find the smoothest altitude and was told "there is none" ....so he had us at FL25,000. Current PBI weather was rain with winds from the east gusting to 30 knots .He asked the F/As to make one more sweep of the cabin and have a seat.
As we penetrated the storm, the comforting lights of Central Florida could be seen here and there through the rain...but as we went lower even they dissapeered. The real show started about 25 minutes out when the landing lights came on. Outside my window was a visual 'static' of rain.....picture 'white noise' on a tv screen, except it was all streaking by from left to right...anyone who has ever driven a car in a snowstorm, think of that multiplied by about 50. . Sometimes it was thinner...sometimes it filled my little porthole and even the glow of the intense lights not just a few feet away from where I sat was dimmed. Our chop was constant and moderate..it would have been a chore to stand without holding on to something. There were a couple of drops and rises but the confident thrum of the twin turbofans never faltered.
We sank through layers of clouds....sometimes the never-ending rain was our only companion, sometimes great wisps of white went blazing by. The chop intensified accordingly as we zipped through the clouds.
After about ten minutes of this, vertigo set in. The airplane was shaking but without ground or visual reference, the sense of speed and up/down was lost to me. I sensed we were turning left but that sensation lasted for a good four minutes...so it would have been a helluva left turn. I cursed and asked myself why Douglas didn't build artificial horizons, altimeters and speed and heading indicators into their passenger seat backs!
Word to the nervous...if you don't dig vertigo, stop looking outside. Focus on something in the cabin and eventually it will go away, or at least be less noticable.
After a good twenty minutes of sinking through the soup, the first lights of the small towns out west of West Palm could be seen through the murk. They looked great. Actually the chop settled a bit too....we had flown through the boiling upper levels and here down around FL5,000 the wind was simply constant from the east. The rain was intense...I looked back at the wing (one thing I've always loved about the MD-80 is its' generous helping of lighting)...the wing inspection lights revealed a gleaming wet sliver of metal cutting through the water....the air pressure in front of the leading edge created a shock wave of deflected rain that ran down the front edge and went blasting off the wingtip. A midnight visual lesson in aerodynamics... and the reason for winglets!
Our adventure ended as the gleaming American bird punched over the airport perimeter and settled over the concrete. Our Super 80 driver made full use of ground effect as we stayed airborne down a good length of the runway's first half. Finally a surprisingly good landing considering the weather.
I realize I've sort of hyped up the event....that we were nowhere near the real evil parts of Michelle, that the pros up front wouldn't think of taking us near weather that could actually put us in danger....indeed I've landed in 30 knot gusts on the Florida coast plenty of times. But I can now at least say I've flown in a hurricane! (She got downgraded this morning and hopefully will blow herself out as a shadow of what she was later today).
It's something you should definately put on your "crazy nutty things to do" list!
Thanks to AA (can't say ENOUGH about expanded legroom. Whoever fought that one through to the top should be Sainted), and a collection of consumate pros...as if they didnt have ebough to concern themselves with lately, they made flying though a stormy beast look routine!