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
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
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.
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
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."