The Trials and Tribulations of Dealing with a Snowstorm

Snow day? No worries.

airplane snow storm
The updated New York forecast was looking nasty. A major snowstorm loomed. Les Abend preferred his own reality and remained in denial — at least until he reached cruise altitude, anyhow.iStock/LSANNES

About an hour away from JFK I pressed my truck’s radio button and listened to the XM traffic and weather station. No major traffic issues. Good news. A snowfall was predicted for the return home, but only a couple of inches. Again, good news.

Via internet notification I had been unceremoniously assigned the early evening three-day London trip the day prior. I had flunked our new schedule bidding process (the scheduling app requires a Ph.D.) and been awarded a month of reserve. Perhaps my lack of computer acumen set the stage for what was to come.

The evening began with a mechanical problem that involved the left electronic engine control (EEC). The EEC is the equivalent of a fadec system on a GA airplane with slightly more sophistication. Before my co­pilot Pete and I arrived in the cockpit, the mechanics had been attempting to troubleshoot the problem.

Even after completely powering down the airplane (the 777 is a giant computer with wings) and then starting the engine, the EEC fault message wouldn’t clear, which was untypical. My concern was that we really didn’t have a firm understanding of the problem. An inoperative EEC was not a major operational issue, but there were some engine limitations that would not have the normal safeguards.

A mechanic supervisor got involved. He eventually determined that an actual fault existed. Now, with a definitive understanding of the problem, the appropriate minimum equipment list procedure could be utilized. Good deal. Unfortunately, the troubleshooting process delayed our departure nearly an hour and a half. The tardy departure would put our heads on the hotel pillow around 0400 body time, a long day for a two-man crew.

During the delay, Pete informed me that the updated New York forecast was looking nasty. A major snowstorm loomed. I preferred my own reality and remained in denial — at least until we reached cruise altitude, anyhow. I was on the back side of a head cold recovery, so I found it inconsiderate that Mother Nature had other plans.

Our winter trek across the North Atlantic involved the usual cycling of the seat-belt sign. On two occasions I instructed the flight attendants to be seated because of turbulence. For Pete’s arrival into Heathrow he was presented a bumpy greeting in the form of a 35-knot quartering headwind. I had faced the same on our prior trip, with my particular landing involving a 35-knot direct crosswind instead. Both of us managed to perform the feat of airmanship without damage to man or beast. Even the flight attendants offered us a verbal pat on the back.

By the time Pete and I took a final sip of our adult beverages on the London layover, the snowstorm had manifested itself into an evil blue-and-green blob that was spinning northbound just off the East Coast. Evil now had a name: winter storm Grayson. The term bombogenesis was being used to describe the mess, meaning the millibar pressure drop would be dramatic.

Certainly by the time I was deep in slumber a love note in the form of a cancellation notice would be underneath my hotel room door. To my surprise, and more so for Pete, we found ourselves en route to Heathrow from the hotel at our scheduled time the next morning. With the forecast indicating clearing conditions about three hours before our 1755 arrival, perhaps operational management had decided to take the chance. That being said, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, with JFK reporting one-eighth of a mile in heavy snow. For my briefing with 11 flight attendants I used the technical term yucky to describe the weather situation.

A major snowstorm loomed. I preferred my own reality and remained in denial — at least until we reached cruise altitude, anyhow.

As we progressed westbound across the North Atlantic, Pete and I entertained ourselves with hourly updates of JFK’s ATIS report. Notwithstanding the low visibility and low ceilings with heavy snowfall all runways were closed until 1500 local. A subsequent report indicated all runways were closed until 1800 local. And then a dispatch-initiated notam arrived in between our lavatory-break shuffle. The message required a secret encoder ring to decipher, but with a little persistence I determined that JFK would be closed to arrivals until 2000. It was alternate decision time. But where?

En route we had been in satellite text conversation with our dispatcher. Baltimore was still an appropriate legal and prudent alternate, but our operations personnel were balking at handling our 777. Apparently, widebody airplanes were not the norm. Because of the storm, East Coast airports were no longer an option. Although Philadelphia was not receiving the full wrath of Grayson, gate space was filling up. Chicago O’Hare was in consideration, but I had trepidations about potential fuel minimums upon arrival.

It wasn’t an idea I had considered, but our dispatcher presented Raleigh-Durham (RDU), North Carolina. Pete and I liked the idea. No weather issues. Only about an hour beyond JFK, it was well within our fuel requirements. The only hitch was that our station personnel were resisting because of hotel availability and the possibility that U.S. customs would have to extend their hours. Miraculously, the stars aligned. About an hour and a half from JFK, I directed Pete to request a clearance to RDU from Moncton Center over Newfoundland, Canada. Our arrival to Runway 5L was via a visual approach from the downwind leg, a procedure not often accomplished in my 777 world.

After a half-hour of chaotic communication attempts because of the numerous New York diversions, we managed to reach the busy folks in crew tracking responsible for our hotel accommodations. Before our landing at RDU we had also confirmed that our passengers would be given hotel accommodations despite the fact it was not an obligation because the irregular operation was caused by an act of nature. I was relieved knowing that our London passengers wouldn’t have to suffer the indignities of a restless night in a gate lounge chair.

Although our new dispatcher told me otherwise, the following afternoon’s return to JFK involved the expected flow control delays due to the fact that snow removal had been completed only on Runway 31L. Shortly after our level-off at cruise altitude Washington Center slowed us to a crawl of Mach 0.76.

To add insult to injury, our purser, the lead flight attendant, informed us that one of our passengers had learned via onboard internet that JFK was closed due to a company aircraft that had declared an emergency because of some type of fire.

I confirmed the information upon our handoff to New York Center. We’re always the last to know. Despite a holding instruction clearance over Atlantic City we only had to suffer a handful of delaying radar vectors. Our company airplane’s emergency was terminated without issue.

Having calculated the runway-length requirements for a medium braking action report and a 20-degree crosswind gusting to 42 knots, we landed on a mostly dry 31L with concrete to spare. In the “small favors” department I found my truck in a condition that didn’t require a snow brush or a shovel. The wind and the ultracold temperatures had worked to my advantage.

Snow day? No worries.