Jumpseat: Let It Snow

One line check that didn't happen.

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JFK International in the midst of the first major
snowstorm of the season. There's no difference
between the parkways and the taxiways.

I glanced out the windows in JFK International Operations. The white stuff had already started to fall. Although the intensity was adding only a dashed contrast to the darkening sky, the snow was beginning to swirl around the airplanes parked at the gate. The silver fuselages gave the impression that the airplanes would shiver if they were capable.

A pair of deicing trucks were poised on opposite sides of a 767 that was positioned at a ramp taxiway exit. The long insect arms of the deicing booms extended upward above the big Boeing. A stream of sherbet-orange spray flowed from the nozzles of the hoses that were held by the thickly dressed men perched in the buckets.

I thought of Bill Murray's classic line in the movie_ Caddyshack_. He was golfing with the bishop in the middle of a thunderstorm deluge, lightning crackling in the foreground, both men soaking wet. "I don't think the heavy stuff will come down for a while," he said. Considering the evening that we would experience, Bill Murray wasn't far from the truth.

Ironically enough, our destination that evening was into the heart of real snow country. I was conducting a special-qualification line check to Eagle County Airport (EGE) near Vail, Colorado, with one of our airline's New York-based captains. Because of the special nature of the approach and departure procedures as a result of the high terrain, captains are required to demonstrate proficiency in both a landing and a takeoff. The procedures are hybrids of FMC (flight management computer) navigation and ground-based raw data. The approach starts at unusually high altitudes and unusually low initial airspeeds. In order to maintain the qualification, a takeoff and landing have to have been conducted within the previous 18 months.

Considering that our destination was the focus, I would have never guessed that the actual challenge would come from sea level-based JFK. Weather conditions would prove that Mother Nature still calls the shots. And the first shot was called right at our gate.

As per our 757/767 airline procedure for arriving on a runway contaminated with a wintry environment, the flaps are retracted to the 20-degree position after landing. Maintenance performs a damage inspection and then returns the flaps to the full up position. In that regard, the inbound crew had complied with the procedure. The flaps remained drooped as I stepped out onto the ramp and began the walk-around inspection.

A mechanic was in the process of completing the flap assessment. I inquired. No damage noted. Good news. He then trotted away toward the jet bridge stairs. I assumed that he would enter the cockpit and raise the flaps with the handle.

The mechanic's perplexed expression upon his return to the ramp and the fact that the flaps had not moved was my first clue that the evening's downhill slide had begun. I suspected that the cold weather was the culprit. In addition, my walk-around had discovered that the right main gear strut appeared low enough to be at its limits. I felt guilty adding to the mechanic's burden, especially on a night when penguins would just as soon stay home.

Upon my return to the coziness of a warm cockpit, I conveyed the problems to the captain. He nodded an acknowledgement. We both began the process of preflight duties, anticipating that the mechanical issues would eventually be resolved.

I glanced at the alternate flap switch for a brief moment and paused. The switch was centered in the instrument panel, encased by a transparent plastic guard. The system was activated only in flight for abnormal flap operation, but I had seen it utilized by mechanics on the ground under similar stubborn circumstances. Could it solve our problem tonight? For the moment, it didn't matter. Our mechanic had disappeared in search of additional assistance, and I was not in a position to suggest a troubleshooting technique ... well, not without exercising some diplomacy.

On the subject of exercising diplomacy, I was beginning to realize that a dose of it was required with my captain. It appeared that he had loosely interpreted the requirement to review the EGE procedures and associated Jeppesen pages prior to operating into the airport. He was going to fulfill the requirement by studying the material once we reached cruise altitude. The rules aren't explicit as to the exact review time, but if it were me, the appropriate moment would be in the comfort of my own living room — or at worst, the comfort of Operations. And if I were to be the recipient of a check ride, I would be even more earnest in my efforts.

My role as a check airman is not only to oversee the adherence of airline procedures, but it is also to provide guidance. In that regard, if my role went beyond guidance because of the captain's minimal preparation, then the man would have to qualify on another trip. My pilot-in-command status makes safety of the flight a paramount responsibility regardless of the seat that I occupy. It is often a balancing act between fulfilling the roles of competent copilot and an observer without interfering with the decision process. My role was about to be tested.

Flying an airliner in winter precipitation requires attention to detail. The environment is not normal. Procedures are different. Operations are different. The airplane behaves differently. For those reasons, it is beneficial to slow the pace, especially if a particular pilot has infrequent experience in such conditions. I put myself in that category. I was hoping that my captain would do the same, but it appeared that he was being driven by the pace of the circumstances, and not his own.

Despite the professionalism of the deicing crew chief who had taken the initiative to discuss the unusual flap situation while we were parked at the gate, it became necessary to prompt the captain regarding various facets of the deicing process.

In the meantime, our flap problem was rectified by another mechanic who utilized the alternate flap switch. As discussed earlier, I wasn't surprised. The remaining issue of a low main gear strut was soon challenged by a different mechanic. He claimed that a full load of passengers and the cold weather was the cause. I claimed that the observation was made prior to passenger boarding. The mechanic argued further that the strut was still within limits. I argued that I hadn't seen the struts that low in 12 years of flying a 757. In addition, our operating practice requires us to notify maintenance when no "silver" is visible. The man grumbled a response that involved something to do with the time involved to inflate the struts. He retreated from the cockpit with the maintenance logbook.

I glanced out the cockpit side window and looked into the diffused yellow glow of an overhead light. The snowflakes had increased in size and intensity. The wind was creating streams of rolling white. Unfortunately, the mechanical delay would cost us much more than a late departure.

We completed our checklists, pushed back from the gate and began the deicing process. After minimal delay, deicing was completed. I consulted the captain on the use of the appropriate holdover chart for the type of fluid sprayed. We determined that, under the present snowfall rate, 80 minutes was the acceptable time before the fluid lost its anti-ice capability. I had my doubts. It wouldn't matter. Before we reached the five-minute point prior to takeoff for the required cockpit contamination check, I would make my own assessment of the airplane.

Surprisingly enough, taxi clearance was given in a relatively short period of time considering the conditions. The conditions were more conducive to boarding a chairlift at our destination. As the captain negotiated the first turn onto a taxiway, I recommended a slower and more gradual tack.

Years prior, after a landing in snowy Detroit, I experienced a taxi moment in a 727 that temporarily installed my heart in my mouth. While the copilot and the flight engineer were enjoying friendly banter, I turned the airplane from a high-speed runway exit to a low-speed taxiway. In the process, I soon realized that the airplane had intentions that didn't involve remaining on the pavement. It wasn't until I resorted to activating reverse thrust on all three engines that the impromptu power slide was discontinued. Once my heart rate slowed to below cardiac arrest rates, I explained the extra noise to my crew. In that regard, I didn't want a repeat performance at JFK.

In a half-hour, we found ourselves on a parallel taxiway in line behind about eight other airplanes awaiting departure on Runway 4L. That's when life became interesting.

First, a foreign carrier declared that, without an official braking action report for the runway, it could not depart. It requested a high-speed taxi. We watched as the glaring landing lights of a 767 rolled down the runway past our position. The report was "poor." This information sent my captain down a different road.

I was asked to contact Dispatch to determine our legality in reference to the report. I explained that takeoff speeds had already been calculated based on the worst possible runway conditions. The calculation had lowered our V1 decision speed such that an abort would theoretically leave enough remaining pavement to stop the airplane. Our Operations Specifications had no restrictions regarding braking action reports for takeoff — only for landing. I would honor a decision not to depart, but it was not based on our procedure. It wouldn't matter. During the course of our discussion, we would soon realize that another factor would dictate a decision.

A glimpse of the darkened silhouette of an A340 ahead of us on the taxiway showed evidence of snow accumulation. We couldn’t be too far from the same status. When we neared the departure end of the runway, I suggested a walk into the cabin to view the wings.

My walk was brief. A glance out a passenger window revealed that snow was obscuring the airline logo on the winglets. The anti-ice fluid had been compromised. It was no match for what had now become heavy snow.

As I walked back into the aisle, a passenger asked how things looked. I offered my best steely-eyed expression with gritted teeth and a smile.

"Not good," I replied.

In my head, the real response was, "We're done." But I needed to defer that decision to the captain.

As expected, the captain agreed without hesitation. We began the process of taxiing back to the gate. It was no small feat considering near-whiteout conditions and the fact that ours wasn't the only airplane in the dance. Despite a delay for plows to clear the snow in the ramp area at our assigned gate, we parked with minimal agony.

We sat in the cockpit and waited for the appropriate managers to make the inevitable decision. The flight was canceled. Passengers collected their belongings and began to shuffle off the airplane. Although frustrated, most people understood. One passenger inquired as to why deicing equipment wasn't positioned near the departure runway. Good question. Ask the New York Port Authority.

I shook the hand of the captain and apologized for not being able to complete his EGE qualification. We both realized that the highest risk of the evening was about to begin. We would have to drive home through the worst snowstorm of the season. Despite the four-wheel drives, the all-wheel drives and the front-wheel drives, nobody seemed up to the task.

I'd rather be inside a 255,000- pound airplane than braving the Van Wyck Expressway. Let it snow!