A Day In Airline Hell

2016-02-28 The St. Louis Experience

I knew it wasn't good when I opened the hotel room curtains.

A vastly different scene appeared than when I closed them last nightóeverything was white and obscured by heavy, blowing snow. I thought about trying to get to the airport early but there wouldn't be time, plus, the van would be struggling with his own schedule.

Our airplane looked like this one, parked next door.

Not surprisingly, we arrived a few minutes late to our jet covered in winter.

The ops agent had everything ready for us: weather, de-icing sheet, flight releases, etc.

During the First Officer's (FO) walk-around he reported snow and ice caked onto at least one of the landing gear brakes. He scraped away what he could but said it needed more. We were going to need a de-ice anyway but I called "Iceman," who does the de-icing, to let them know about spraying the gear when we come out. Normally we'd leave the engines run during de-ice but this meant that they'd have to be shut down--not a biggie since we start them with APU air (see sidebar).

Sliding Pushback, Balky Engine

Once all the paperwork was done, we started the pushback. Nothing happened. The tug's wheels spun with no motion. We were stuck. They shoveled around the nosewheel, did some rocking, and we started moving. Oh boy, that's slippery. Moderately heavy snow continued to fall.

Once we were moving nicely I called for the FO to start number 2 engine. He turned the switch. A few seconds later I looked down at the N2 engine gauge that should first indicate a starting motor. Zero. I looked up at the APU air pressure and it was zero. Everything was configured properly but there was no air pressure. You first wonder what you've done wrong but there's precious little to check. Even if there was a popped circuit breaker we're not allowed to just reset it.

We told the tug driver to stay connected and that we may need to go back into the gate.

More troubleshooting. Attempting to cycle the APU bleed valve did nothing. That's what releases the APU's air pressure outlet to run the airplane's air-based systems. It also meant we had no air conditioning but that's always the case during engine start since there's not enough air output for both air conditioning and engine start.

Sliding Gate Return

After about a minute, we gave up and got pulled back into the gate.

The tug got stuck trying to pull us back in. Again they shoveled, rocked, and got us moving but the continued snow was playing havoc on traction.

With no APU air, engine start would have to be through an external air cart, or "huffer." But we only use that for one engine then go somewhere on the airport and use air pressure from the running engine to start the other engine. It reduces the number of people sucked into engines which causes engine indigestion. We're working to keep that number a big zero.

Now What?

Normally it's no big deal to start one engine then taxi out, set the brakes, power up the running engine and use its air to start the other. Not now, not with this surface. So we were stuck.

To make a remarkably long story short, we pulled back in, got maintenance, and went out with the APU working. Alas, it wouldn't be for long. While waiting for de-ice, the whole thing shut down, not just the air. Thankfully we got restarted but now we're done. Without an APU we were not willing to put the passengers through any more and wound up getting another airplane.

Bad weather puts enormous stress on any airline and this was no exception. Kudos to the untiring work of our pushback driver whose efforts haven't all even been covered. And to the dispatcher, chief pilot on call, ops agent, and flight attendants who helped keep the people informed, hydrated and, considerting the circumstances, in pretty good spirits.

When I make my announcements during these times I figure I might as well be painfully accurate. Like after the APU shutdown, when we needed to come back to the gate, they had all filled up. Uggh. After we conveyed the urgency they wound up opening a gate that we apparently lease as a last resort. They said 15 minutes. When I made the announcement I explained that it was 15 airline minutes, a variable quantity. They get it, they know we have limited control over these things and were pretty reasonable.

In the end we got another airplane and, by the time, the snow had stopped and we didn't even need to deice.

Another day in "As the Turbine Turns."

The Auxiliary Power Unit (APU), a small jet engine, provides air pressure and electricity to power larger airplanes when their engines aren't running. It's air pressure is used to start the airplane's engines. If it can't produce enough air pressure for any reason, an external air cart can be used.

¬© 2016 Jeff Goin & Tim Kaiser   Remember: If there's air there, it should be flown in!