Wintertime Blues

Wintertime Blues

Wintertime Blues

There was no drug test, strip search or detention. This story was not penned from the City jail or an interrogation room. And I was grateful that they didn’t install a parking boot on my jet, or an ankle bracelet on my leg, right then and there. But, when an angry, bulletproof vest-wearing Chicago Police Officer boards your airliner after a flight, enters the cockpit with his pistol drawn, and with a quivering lip insists that you “not leave the area” until he says so, your day is not going well. Especially if the officer’s name isn’t Joe Friday. The story you are about to read is true (except for the drawn pistol part). Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. My name is Dingman and I work here. I’m a pilot. (Cue the Dragnet theme song).
Weather Event
This is the city. Chicago, Illinois. Third largest in the country; the airport is part of it. O’Hare International airport, and these are the facts. It was a Monday. Monday, December 28th . It was windy, dark and snowing in Chicago–snowing ice pellets. My partner John and I were working bunko, I mean a flight from Dallas to Chicago, a flight in the weather, a long flight. After an hour delay on the gate, and another hour off-the-gate due to an EDCT, the flight from DFW to ORD would consume another five hours. Seven hours in the jet that would make the passengers wish they’d stayed home. EDCT is an acronym for Expect Departure Clearance Time; pilots call it a wheels-up time. Administered by ATC to manage arrival rates, it’s the last piece of data pilots read-back in an IFR clearance. Sometimes issued for the security of a politician, a runway closure due to an accident, or snow removal, EDCT’s are more commonly used during a weather event at the destination airport. And, yes ma’am, the windy city was having a weather event, a big one.
Our entire four-day trip had been peppered with EDCT’s. Peppered like the choppy, Joe Friday dialog in this story. Eventually, the winter event would pepper most airports east of the Mississippi. Pepper them with high winds and low visibility. Two alternates were listed on our flight plan and we left passengers stranded in DFW to accommodate the fuel load. Our planned enroute fuel burn, plus reserve and alternate fuel, would require us to arrive in Chicago at our maximum landing weight of 130,000 pounds. The trip went smoothly during cruise and, except for some vectors and speed reductions, the descend-via arrival into O’Hare was normal. We couldn’t use just any runway, however. At 130,000 pounds, with reports of poor braking, we would need one at least 8,700 feet long.
Even though one of the fixes on the 10R ILS is KVENN, we couldn’t fly that approach because the runway is too short. Our landing assessment calculation indicated that, by using full flaps and maximum manual brakes (as opposed to auto-brakes), the available runway length on either 10C or 10L would be sufficient. More than sufficient with a headwind and by using maximum autobrakes. We asked Chicago Center to pass along our requirement to approach control. As it turned out, 10L was the only runway open on the field. The runway condition was reported as braking action poor with ice pellets, snow, slush and water. Six to nine inches of these contaminants also covered all ramps and taxiways. At 1,500 AGL, the winds aloft showed a 50 knot direct headwind. At the threshold it had dropped to 25 knots. The landing was uneventful with smooth deceleration – even using maximum autobrakes which is normally an attention-getting event. The touchdown was smooth, according to passenger comments as they deplaned. Deplaned after Officer “Stay-In-The-Area” finished with me, that is. But just the facts please. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Room to Pass
Most taxiway painted lines were not visible. During the taxi from the 28R holding pad to the gate alleyway, I noted a significant amount of ground contamination with ruts, slippery surfaces, the need for slightly above-average power to taxi, accompanied by reduced steering effectiveness. The conditions warranted an extremely slow taxi speed. I was assigned the North line of the alley, and told to use caution for an exiting S-80 on the South line. Only small lengths of taxiway and ramp painted lines were occasionally visible. The other S-80 and I communicated to each other on ramp-control frequency and we both assessed the maneuvering room to pass as being adequate. I used the main landing gear tire tracks of the aircraft that had pushed back from our gate as a guide to align with the run-in line. Approximately four aircraft lengths from the gate, I stopped and set the parking brake because the automatic DGS (Docking Guidance System) displayed WAIT, and a ground marshal at the gate was displaying the stop signal with lighted wands.
The delay was due to an aircraft on both the left and right of our gate having a deice vehicle near the tail of each aircraft. After a several minutes, the DGS became active, showing the come-ahead display, and a wing monitor with lighted wands was stationed at both the left and right wing tips; both were presenting the signal for clear. There was a marshal at the front of the aircraft as well with his wands deactivated, monitoring the wing marshals and our approach. As we moved forward, John and I repeatedly told each other that our respective wing monitors were still displaying the clear/continue signal. As we slowly moved forward and began to lose sight of the wing monitors, John opened his side window and looked aft to his monitor and confirmed the clear signal. As I lost sight of my monitor I transitioned to the partially visible run-in line and the DGS which was displaying the normal indications to continue forward. I could see pieces of the run-in line, and both it and the DGS showed me as centered. A couple of seconds later the aircraft nose slid to the left and we came to an abrupt stop. I set the parking brake.
A Buried Chock
After my taxi experience from the 28R pad, I first thought that I had slid into a rut or developed a nosewheel steering issue. I signaled a ground crew member below the left of the nose to come here, slid open my window and yelled that my NWS had malfunctioned. He and the nose marshal moved out of sight near the nose and left wing. One of them reappeared and moved to the front and began to give me the signal to come forward. I released the brakes, added power and the aircraft did not move. I set the parking brake and signaled to them that I could not move. The nose marshal then moved out of sight on the left side of the fuselage. This time I thought that perhaps they noticed a chock buried under the snow that I had run into. I have heard that if you forget to remove a chock or a tail tiedown, you can’t move – but I’ve only heard. He reappeared and moved to the front of the nose; again signaling me to move ahead. I released the brake and added power; the aircraft did not move. I set the parking brake.
Hit a Truck
In the ensuing minutes, passengers reported that one of the wings had hit a truck. I slid open my window, stuck my head out and looked aft – it was true. The left wing, approximately three feet in from the tip, had impacted a deicing truck. After inspections by multiple entities, a tug and ground communication cord were attached to the aircraft and the tug pushed us back fifty feet or so, the deicing truck was moved, and we were towed forward to the gate. I can no longer claim to have never bent any metal on an airplane. Yes ma’am. I bent some metal; I bent it all right.
And that’s the way it was on the last leg, of the last day, of the four-day trip day that began on Christmas Day, 2015: talking with mechanics, the FAA, the union attorney, company safety officer, my chief pilot and the angry, stay-in-the-area guy. We will be “invited” to a hearing hosted by the ERT (Event Review Team) at company headquarters in the coming weeks. Hopefully, the lack of an ankle bracelet will accentuate my innocence. I suspect they won’t ask us to bring a dish to pass though. The mechanics say that it can be fixed and that it will return to service. I hope so. And I’ve been told that the officials involved are satisfied that we were not negligent and that’s a good thing. But I hurt one of my beloved MD-80’s and we don’t have many left in the fleet to hurt. It breaks my heart and that’s a fact.•T&T

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