Saturday, October 25, 2008

V.I.P. Movement

During our ride in the crew van from our hotel to the airport, the first officer and I were discussing how easy a day this should be. A little rain had kept us confined to our rooms for most of the morning but it was starting to clear up and all appeared to be going well as we arrived at the airport.

This day's trip would consist of just two legs. Cancun to Miami and then on to San Juan for the night.

It's interesting how many international destinations have a duty free shop immediately after the security checkpoint. Cancun is this way. All the passengers have to funnel through a gigantic duty free shop before reaching their respective gates. That's pretty good marketing. It worked on me....I felt compelled to buy a bottle of tequila for future consumption.

Arriving at the gate was our flight plan and all the other assorted documents already prepared for us and in a nice little folder. The plane had just arrived and a small army of cleaners had already begun to do their work on the cabin. They do nice work here in Cancun. Still looking good....

One of the first things I check on our flight plan is the arrival fuel at our destination. Today there was a little extra, so I looked down the page and saw that our dispatcher had put a note on it about adding extra holding fuel for a possible "VIP movement" right at our time of arrival. I smelled trouble.

"VIP movement" means a presidential or vice presidential aircraft would be at Miami. And that means that they have priority and all other air traffic will be cleared from the immediate area. In other words, nothing moves until the VIP is gone.

Having seen these VIP movements before, I knew that they don't always go as planned so I called our dispatcher and ordered 3000 more pounds of fuel. That should be enough I thought. So off we went towards the runway.
As we taxied out we had our eyes on a huge rain shaft extending downward from a very large thunderstorm that appeared to be heading our way. "Cleared for takeoff" said the tower just as the downpour let loose on the airport and visibility dropped to about zero. "Unable", we replied as I parked the brakes while we waited for the storm to pass. Did they really think we would take off in that mess?
A few minutes later and after an arriving AA 757, we were airborne, climbing out, and pointed towards Miami. Cancun sure has some nice beaches and very clear water.So far so good. Havana Center cleared us right on through their airspace and soon we were over Key West and ready to start downhill. But that's when we got the bad news. "Expect holding due to awaiting Air Force One departure from Miami...You may reduce your speed at your discretion."

So around and around we went in the holding pattern. A ten minute hold soon turned into twenty which then became forty! Good thing we added that extra fuel or we would have diverted a long time ago. But that extra fuel was running out on was just about time to divert. Still no word on Air Force One. The airport was still closed to all air traffic!

I had just made another PA to our passengers that we would be diverting to Ft. Lauderdale in five more minutes if Miami didn't open up when we heard Air Force One call in on the radio. They were finally airborne and on their way back to Andrews AFB. Cleared direct of course!
And then we received our clearance to exit holding and to expect a visual approach to Miami. Wow, that was close. Our total hold time was just over one hour. Multiply the expense of that by the multitude of airplanes that had to hold that afternoon and then figure in the inconvenience to all the passengers with their connections, etc. What a pain!

As expected, the terminals at Miami were a mass of annoyed passengers as we hurried to reach our next gate in a distant terminal. As we arrived at our gate, sure enough, the flight to San Juan was delayed about one hour due to "VIP Movement".

All in all, it was just another day at the airlines. The delays could have been caused by just about, ATC problems, mechanical problems, you name it. It just happened to be a VIP issue this time.
Ah, the joys of commercial air travel....

Lets hope our president had a good movement that day.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Visit To The Andes

As promised, my next trip would be to Santiago, Chile. There won't be much airplane talk in this post....mostly sightseeing. Sorry.

Another all-nighter I'm afraid. There's no getting around them if you want to go to South America non-stop from DFW.

I took my rest break during the middle portion of the flight so as to be rested for the approach and landing. The sun was beginning to rise as we started our descent about 100 miles from Santiago. The Andes were very close on our left wing. Our EGPWS (enhanced ground proximity warning system) was reporting some very high terrain in the neighborhood. The green numbers 224 indicate that an obstacle rising to 22,400 ft was in range. That would be Mt Aconcagua just inside the Argentine border. It's the tallest mountain in the Americas. That's it in the photo on the left.

A straight in approach from the north would require an full ILS approach due to some morning haze and fog. But the descent over the mountains to the north was clear and very impressive.
A short nap followed our drive into the city. The time zone in Chile is the same as the eastern US so there's not much jet lag to contend with.

Then it was out for some sightseeing around the city and later a nice dinner with the other two pilots. A huge steak, salad, side dish, dessert, and a beer only cost about $18. Not too bad! Sure beats the prices in Europe.

The next day we rented a car and took a drive up to the ski resort of Portillo. It was about a two hour drive north and east of Santiago. From ground level we could easily see how rugged these Andes really are. Most impressive!!
We encountered quite a bit of truck traffic on the way up. But we finally made it to Portillo.
The ski lodge overlooks a frozen lake.There was also a tour operator giving sightseeing rides in their Eurostar. Looked like fun.
But as the chopper flew off we knew we had to get back to town and pack up for the leg home. We only got lost once on the way back but still made it in time for the pick up from the hotel.

Nine hours enroute back to DFW this time. Yes, it was an all-nighter.

I'm looking forward to my next trip to Chile.

For a look at some more of my photos, please aviate over to Plane & Simple.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Deep South

Most folks think of the deep south as the southeastern portion of the United States.

But the words "deep south" take on an entirely different meaning when us pilots at AA talk about it.

"Deep south" refers to flying south of the border.....WAY south of the border. South America to be exact.

One of the negatives about flying these trips is that they involve all nighters. These flights typically leave DFW in the evening and arrive at their destinations in the early morning. Same thing on the way back....they leave there at night and arrive at DFW in the early morning. Not much sightseeing gets done in flight. It's too dark out.

First up was a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil. AA currently operates two flights a day to Sao Paulo from DFW and they are both usually pretty full. This trip was no exception.

Another maximum gross weight takeoff from DFW with a climb out to the south was the plan for the southbound leg. We were flight planned just slightly west of course due to Hurricane Ike that was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico just west of Cuba.

Our routing took us directly to the Yucatan Peninsula and over Merida, Mexico. Off to the east we were able to see the leading edge of the hurricane rain bands on the outer most limits of our weather radar screens.

Pressing on we passed Honduras, Panama, Colombia and then finally Brazil. Just because you reach Brazilian airspace doesn't mean you're close....Brazil is huge. We had 4.5 hours to go.
I returned from my rest break at sunrise and we prepared for the approach and landing. Sao Paulo was reporting a 500 ft ceiling with visibility at 500 meters. We would all have preferred a visual approach after an all night leg but the airport at Sao Paulo sits in a small valley that quite often has fog and low ceilings.

We briefed the approach, flew it, landed, taxied to the gate, parked, cleared customs, found the crew bus, and then promptly fell asleep for the hour long ride to our hotel in the city.
And an enormous city it is! I made it out for a short walk that afternoon. The buildings seem to go on for miles.

That night we all met up for dinner. Apparently I had a bad meal because the next day I was sick as a dog. I spent the entire day in my room. What a waste of a 36 hour layover!!

By that night I was feeling better and ready for the trip back home. The hurricane was on everyone's mind and throughout the flight we kept receiving inquiries about it from many of the passengers and crew.

4 hours and 39 minutes after takeoff we passed over the equator over the country of Ecuador. Note our position on the FMS screen. Zero degrees latitude.

Due to Hurricane Ike we had to reroute well to the west. Our route eventually took us over Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and then northward up through Mexico. The hurricane was slamming the city of Houston as we passed over the Rio Grande into Texas. We could see plenty of lightning off in that direction as we continued northward.

DFW was still in good shape as we landed at 6:30 AM. A quick trip through customs and the trip was over.

Next up...Chile. Stay tuned.

For a look at some more of my photos, please aviate over to Plane & Simple