Nothing related to preflight preparations offered even a hint that our 10-hour trip home to JFK from São Paulo would be anything but a normal operation. Reflecting back on the flight, a visit from a fearful flier just prior to our gate departure might have foreshadowed the outcome.
With the enthusiasm of a child anticipating a hypodermic needle to the arm (tears included), a young lady stepped into the cockpit. Her boyfriend escorted her. The boyfriend was demonstrating his best Academy Award performance for toleration. Although directorial assistance was not required, we offered sincere compassion for her fears. In addition to stating the standard summary of our combined flight time experience, my two copilots and I reassured the young lady that the ride would be relatively void of turbulence — a declaration that I would regret later.
We pushed back from the gate on schedule at 2110 and took our place in the taxi sequence. São Paulo was experiencing its typical northbound rush hour. The conga line leading to Runway 9L was moving at a moderate pace.
Once airborne at cruise altitude, we settled into our normal routine. With the metallic thwack of the cockpit door accenting his exit, the relief copilot left the flight deck to begin his break. I retrieved a yellow highlighter from my flight bag and began to mark the en route chart over our filed jet airways. (Highlighting the route satisfies my paranoia for terrain situational awareness.)
It was my copilot’s leg home. On the leg south from JFK, he had just passed the 100-hour mark as a 777 copilot. One hundred hours is significant in the airline world from the standpoint that a crew member is no longer restricted from operating in Category III approach weather conditions. Flying with a pilot relatively new to the airplane should have added another layer of wariness. It is a known fact that if something is to go awry it always happens with a new guy. I never learn.
Within a few minutes we began to experience light chop. Much to our dismay, light chop would be the best ride for the entire flight. I thought of our fearful flier. My credibility had probably taken a major hit.
In addition to credibility damage, my comprehension skill with the Brazilian controllers was also suffering. Although the accent with poor fidelity of radio transmissions is notoriously difficult to understand, this evening seemed particularly bad. Unfortunately, despite International Civil Aviation Organization policy, Portuguese is spoken to the native carriers. That fact reduces situational awareness. Their country. Their rules.
Almost seven hours later, as we approached the southern coastline of Puerto Rico, it was time for my rest break. I was grateful. All-night flying is not conducive to my personal body clock. I am certain the cognitive value of that nap was responsible for assisting in the decision process that was required later.
My copilots greeted my return to the cockpit with a piece of ACARS (aircraft communications addressing and reporting system) paper. The paper displayed the printed readout of the latest weather. The New York-area airports were being assaulted by an evil line of thunderstorms. The metar at JFK advertised one-mile visibility in heavy rain. As I plopped back into the left seat, I adjusted the radar. A fat blob of red, yellow and green displayed. Nice wake-up call.
As expected, the New York frequencies buzzed with chatter related to the unwelcome early-morning weather. Holding instructions were being issued. Within moments we were given a clearance to fly oblong circles in the sky with an EFC (expect further clearance) time of 0600. Our position was approximately 150 miles south of JFK. The EFC time raised my eyebrows.
After bringing pen to flight plan paper, a quick calculation indicated that 15 minutes was about all the comfortable fuel we had available to hold before an alternative piece of concrete would be necessary. Why? The combination of a long flight, a heavy passenger load and a forecast that gave no indication that convective weather would influence our arrival had dispatched us with an appropriate amount of endurance.
I made the mistake of inquiring to New York ARTCC (air route traffic control center) as to the realism of our EFC. The response was simply to add another 25 minutes to the original time. Not good. Continuing to hold was certainly an option, but experience dictated another decision.
Dispatch and my crystal ball predicted that the weather would wreak havoc on all New York-area arrivals. Even nearby Philadelphia was beginning to show signs of deterioration. Why not beat the rush?