Salty Lookin' Lake

Jan 3, 2009 A snow-painted landscape reveals monochromatic beauty. Just needs some help from the Fahrenheit brothers.

This should rightfully be in the Boeing log but it was over one of my favorite soaring sites so here it goes. The trip that brought me to the point of this picture could have actually been a most unpleasant experience but alas, it really wasn't. Maybe it's why this job is so well suited to me, this stuff just doesn't stress me.

Paramotor flying is done when we want, when the weather is good and when our time allows. Not so flying for work. Yes, the weather has to be good enough, but what's passable for the Boeing is a darn lot broader than what's passable for other craft.

Oh, and about that bit on airlines canceling flights due to a lack of passenger? Set it to rest. Certainly not Southwest! You'll see why on this story of my final 2008 trip, supposedly a two-day affair.

Day 1

Leaving Chicago wasn't pretty. In fact, we had to get deiced twice. First to clean off the aircraft then again with a longer lasting green slime. Arctic Shield they call it—its green color, no doubt, coming from the high concentration of pureed $100 bills that it takes to make it. Honestly, I don't know how an airline makes money during winter.

Soon enough we launched, slicing our way through the gloom and into a bright blue sky—winter's undercast receded below. One of the job's great benefits: nearly always seeing sunshine.

Our first stop was nice, California nice. Kind of chilly but that's relative. It's always chilly in Oakland, even in July, it seems. Two more stops were planned, one to Salt Lake City and then terminating in Boise.

An early arrival in Oakland would be our last early anything. After taking on fuel, food, and fares, we launched eastward, heavily laden with extra fuel.

The extra fuel was because Salt Lakes weather was forecast to go from yucky to really yucky. Those meteo terms aren't tossed about loosely, either. At departure it was raining. Not hard, but moderate rain showers with occasional thunderstorms. Yucky. The forecast called for a cold front to pass by, the winds to increase and precip to freeze. That easily qualifies, in my metoroligic mind, as "really yucky."

Enroute it was still raining. Good. Maybe we'll beat the freeze.

Other Shoe Drops

When we got the weather report to start approach planning, the other shoe had dropped. And it was a boot.

Snow was blowing right across the now-slickened runway, dropping visibility to a half mile. Not good. It was still within our limits but barely. And I wasn't confident it would remain so. Our alternate was Boise whose weather was perfect, further decreasing my thrill-level to deal with SLC's rapidly changing runway condition. Crosswinds were 30 to 40 mph and the barometer was 29.17 inches, the lowest I've ever seen it in my flying career.

Sure enough, holding instructions ensued and, in short order, we were flying racetrack circuits in the stack. We listened as one runway closed while another opened for a brief time while plow crews struggled to stay ahead of moderate to heavy snow.  Airplanes may have made it in but I didn't hear any. Didn't matter, the refrain echoed in my mind "just because airplane 123 landed successfully doesn't mean your conditions will be as welcoming."

After getting established in the hold we determined how much fuel we'd be willing to burn down to. "Bingo Fuel" as the military says. We'd leave holding at that fuel level and go to the alternate. Bingo fuel would allow getting vectored around, shooting the approach, missing, flying to Boise (our alternate) then an additional 45 minutes (required reserve). I came up with an amount, made sure the First Officer concurred then called dispatch.

It's an awesome capability to converse with someone having so many resources at their fingertips. They also come up with a fuel amount that they think we can hold down to, always lower than our own number. I never argue, though, that's silly. But when I'm ready to leave hold, I do so. And in this case, I just didn't like the rapidly changing conditions, the unlikeliness of improvement, and the fact that the weather would probably expend it's worst in a mere hour or two. So we were the first ones to bolt, well before our fuel or holding time was up.

On climb out, we were offered a turn back for the approach. What's the vis? "1/2 mile in snow." Legal yes, but no thanks. It wasn't the vis, it was the chance of ending up on an unreported slick spot with 30 mph worth of crosswind.

Vindication came about 10 minutes later when they announced the airport was closed. Even without that vindication, I think of how much cheaper it is to refuel in Boise than to slide off a runway. And mind you, I (along with probably every other pilot) harbor the delusion that I could handle about anything the weather could throw at me. But I'm also a realist and know better. This is about probabilities and the probability of a mishap in such conditions was probably 1 in 1000 which may seem low but that's about 1000 times more likely than a mishap in better conditions.

The flight into Boise was beautiful. Clear and a million miles of visibility. F/O John performed a flawless landing.


Now mind you, Boise was our original destination. Half our passengers were going there anyway. They were, of course, one happy group. Salt Lake weather was still lousy so I figured we were done and they'd cancel the flight. Especially since we were, by now, over two hours late and there was a reasonable prospect of holding again. No dice, we were told to head back. Back it would be, then. By the time we refueled, SLC weather reports showed improvement. Snowy yes, but the wind had mellowed and was more directly down the runway.

Off we went into the clear night.

On arrival into Salt Lake's terminal area, while getting vectored for the approach to runway 35, the instrument approach went out of service. Oh great. Back to holding. But we had plenty of fuel so it was no worry, but still went through the fuel calculation drill and came up with a "bingo" fuel.

After only 10 minutes of holding, they fixed the problem and we got vectored in. It took a long time for approach control to work all the aircraft in, but nobody had to divert. Landing was routine. We saw the runway probably 300 feet high, comfortably above minimums, and taxied clear well before the end of its very long runway. Runway surface conditions were good but the taxiways were another story. Everything was white. Everything. Only blue lights poking up through the drifting snow gave us a clue as to location. That was one very slow taxi with frequent admonitions to keep watching for any signs of going off the pavement. There was no yellow centerline to follow like normal.

When we finally got into the gate, flaps left partially down due to slush, it was a relief that we weren't having to go back out in that mess. I felt bad for the next crew.  

Not so fast, Boeing breath. There was no next crew.

We'd put in 8.5 hours of flying in a 12 hour duty day and I assumed the flight time made us illegal to continue. A call to scheduling educated me on the finer points of interpreting crew rest rules. I'd always thought that "legal to start, legal to finish" applied as long as you remained on your originally scheduled flights. Having added a leg, I figured, would negate that allowance. But it turns out that if you divert and simply return as the same flight number it's still considered to be the same series of flights. Ergo, we were legal to go back.

Our airline has a great safety culture and I wouldn't have hesitated to beg off the flight if I, or my First Officer was fatigued. But we weren't. Not wanting to deal with sub-prime weather is not fatigued. Back to Boise.

Boise Reprise

It was actually fascinating to partake of the process. They had to do the two step deicing again, including a good spray of the flaps. Then a final coat of green goo is applied that lasts for almost an hour even in the moderate snow that was falling.

Taxiing out was slow but the distance wasn't too long. Flying to Boise was another exercise in routine. This is one time where routine is oh so welcome. We got our load of only 50 or so people into Boise late but safely. They understood.

Final Approach

So the next time someone suggests that airlines cancel flights just because of light loads, refer them to this story. If ever there was a time to do so, this would have been here.

My hat's off to the deicers and ground crew that had the ugliest job. Great work guys!

Now on to some warm PPG destination where the only ice to be seen is in my glass of Diet Coke.


A wonderful benefit is that, in spite of winter's gloomy grip, I'm almost always in sunshine for much of my trip.

© 2015 Jeff Goin   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!