Aeronautical Randomness
Braving the non-radar environment
September 30, 2014

In aviation, there always seems to be something throwing the proverbial wrench in the gears.

I started my airline career flying a turbo-prop in a massive ice storm in the Northeast.  Since then, I’ve watched 9/11, hurricanes, accidents, runway closures, contract negotiations, mergers, sky-high fuel prices and over-hyped deadly diseases mess with my career.  Just when everything seems to be running smoothly, the next bump in the road comes along.  This is true for life in general… but, seemingly magnified when it involves aviation.

Honestly, things have been going really well for me recently.  For the last three months, I’ve been flying Temporary Duty (TDY) in bases other than Newark.  For July and August, I became a Houston pilot.  In September, trips started and ended in Chicago.  For October, I’m heading back down to Texas.

Per our contract, TDY includes extra per diem, a hotel in base and positive space tickets back and forth to home.

It’s really a commuting pilot’s answer to a lot of prayers.

Except for a few routine hiccups in the schedule, my commute has been easy.  Weeks ago, I was starting to feel like things were going too smoothly and began anticipating the next unforeseen event.

On Friday morning, a disgruntled individual decided to destroy the communications equipment at Chicago Center in Illinois.  From what I read, he wrapped gasoline soaked rags around the communication lines and set them ablaze.  He apparently succeeded in shutting down the radar services over the large swath of airspace.  Don’t ever be fooled into believing that one person can’t make a difference.

Of course, the media got it all wrong.  The reporters kept speaking about the control tower fire in Chicago.  Towers house men and woman who sit high above the airport.  They look out the window and control ground movement, takeoffs and landings.  Once en route, aircraft are “handed off” to facilities housed in buildings with no windows.

Air traffic control centers are scattered all over the country.  The controllers provide radar separation while staring at blips on big monitors.  To knock-out an entire center eliminates radar over a very large area.  Most aircraft operating in and out of Chicago’s two big airports must flow through Chicago Center.  Airplanes traversing east/west through the Midwest are also controlled by Chicago.  They can control jets without radar, but it severely limits the amount of traffic the airspace can handle.

Imagine waking up one morning to learn that every major road in and out of your city was restricted to one lane of vehicles.  What kind of traffic backup would that cause?  The aviation equivalent of that started happening in Chicago last Friday.

Chicago center (ZAU) controls some of the busiest airspace in the country.

Chicago center (ZAU) controls some of the busiest airspace in the country.

When I learned of the arson on Friday morning, I did what any respectable airline pilot would do: I selfishly asked, “How will this affect ME?”

On Thursday, we had flown from Dulles out to Denver and then back to Dulles.  Around 11:30pm, we took a forty minute van ride to our hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.  Friday evening, we were scheduled to fly a trans-con out to Seattle for a twenty seven hour layover followed by a red-eye back to Chicago.

On Friday evening, our aircraft was scheduled to arrive from Phoenix.  Therefore, the radar outage wouldn’t cause any delays for the flight to Seattle.

For the red-eye, I knew we’d fly in from the northwest and have very little traffic at 5:30am.  Again, I anticipated no problems on that flight.

The first impact I’d feel from the radar outage would be my commute home to Nashville on Sunday morning.

Friday evening, we rode the van back out to Dulles, loaded up a 737-900ER and launched off runway 1R for a four hour and forty one minute flight to Seattle.  Over Ohio, a Cleveland Center controller re-cleared us further to the north than we were originally routed.  With very little headwind, we still arrived early in Seattle.

Our radar track from the trans-con flight the night of the fire.  Note the turn towards the north over Ohio.

Our radar track from the trans-con flight the night of the fire. Note the turn towards the north over Ohio.

After a full night’s sleep, I woke early and started my Saturday morning with a long walk around Seattle.  I hadn’t been there for awhile, and it is was nice to walk through the Public Market and along the waterfront.  At 12:30, I went to the cinema, bought a large popcorn and spent the next two hours in a dark theater watching Denzel Washington kick ass in The Equalizer.  Gotta fill twenty seven hours somehow, right?

Later that evening, I attempted to check-in for my commute flight the following morning.  The app notified me that my 8am Sunday flight was canceled and I was re-booked to 9pm Monday night.  A little bit later, I was able to secure a seat on the 2pm flight on Sunday.

After a nap, I left the hotel at 10:30pm.  On the van ride, I noticed the 2:15pm Sunday flight to Nashville had also been canceled.

We arrived at the gate in Chicago at 5:15am.

A quick check of the app revealed that every flight to Nashville was canceled.

Flying from ORD to BNA was simply not an option on Sunday.

Flying from ORD to BNA was simply not an option on Sunday.

In the terminal, the flight status board looked like a winter blizzard was bearing down on O’Hare.  Canceled, canceled, and more canceled.

It’s not too bad commuting home immediately after operating a red-eye, but I was simply too tired to hang around for hours.

I had a basic backup plan in mind when I went to the hotel to catch some sleep.

At 11:00am, I woke and checked the app on my phone… The flight from Chicago to Huntsville had not canceled and was showing “On Schedule.”

Huntsville has a beautiful airport only an hour and ten minutes from my home.  I was able to reserve a rental car to pickup at HSV and drop off at BNA for $67.

With boarding pass in-hand, I walked back to the terminal and stopped for lunch at the Subway by the American gates.  I was surrounded by very frustrated passengers.

A woman near me was speaking very loud on her cell phone.  I heard her say, “Oh nooo…. It’s not the AIRLINE’S fault.  It’s AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL’S fault. Yeah, right.”

Undoubtedly, this woman was booked on a flight that was either delayed or canceled.  The gate agent probably tried to explain the situation, but most people don’t understand the magnitude of the problem.  Without radar services, airlines’ hands are tied.

I tweeted this while having lunch at O'Hare on Sunday.

I tweeted this while having lunch at O’Hare on Sunday.

My flight pushed back on-time for Huntsville.  I was a little concerned that the taxi would be lengthy due to the “in trail” separation required for departures.  Friends on Facebook had been complaining about one hour taxi times due to the spacing required between takeoffs.  After about fifteen minutes on the ground, the EMB-145 accelerated down 22L, lifted off and turned towards Alabama.  Although a little frustrating to fly past home, I was very happy to touchdown on-time in the same part of the country that I live.  Plus, it’s always a pleasure traveling through the Huntsville Airport.

Huntsville has a beautiful, modern airport that serves Northern Alabama.

Huntsville has a beautiful, modern airport that serves Northern Alabama.

I grabbed my suitcase and rushed through the ultra-modern terminal towards the rental car counter.  (That’s not sarcasm… It’s a REALLY nice terminal.)  I’d heard about seven or eight other people discussing renting vehicles to drive to Nashville.  I didn’t want to get stuck in a long line. (Yes, I offered a ride to an ExpressJet pilot and another passenger… Seemingly content to stick with their original plans, they both politely declined my offer.)

When I arrived at the counter, the nicest man in Alabama was there to greet me with a smile.  As he was retrieving my reservation, I again did what any respectable airline pilot would do: I asked for an airline employee discount.

With taxes and fees included, the new bill was $45.

Epecially for a smaller airport, Huntsville has a very nice, modern terminal.

Epecially for a smaller airport, Huntsville has a very nice, modern terminal.

After a pre-flight damage inspection and mirror & seat adjustment, I pulled the 2015 Chevy Impala out of the parking garage and headed towards the highway.

On the way home, I debated driving all the way up to BNA to return the vehicle and pick up my truck.  I saw some value in just “getting it over with” all the same day.

After some mental back-and-forth, I decided it would be best to drive straight home.  The rental car didn’t have to be returned until 4pm the next day.  I was tired and anxious to see my family.

Plus, I knew my kids would like to ride to school Monday morning in the dad’s “cool car.”  Don’t think a brand new Impala is cool?  Tell that to a child.

If the commute had gone as originally planned, I would have rolled into my driveway about 10:30am ready to sleep half the day.  Instead, I arrived home “somewhat” rested about 5:30pm.

Compared to what many travelers experienced this weekend, I consider myself very fortunate that my backup to my third backup plan was executed flawlessly.

How was your work commute last week?

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About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 12 comments

  • Nice to see you back. Enjoy your posts.
    I’m a high time private pilot so I like hearing about the other side 🙂

    Aloha from Hawaii.

  • Ben Vaughan says:

    Greg blog – I really enjoy your posts.

    I wasn’t affected by this but have been affected by the pesky weather in the past. Back in 2010 I was flying home from Chambery to Southampton, bad weather diverted my aircraft to Turin where we were bussed, only to wait for a crew to be flown in. Once inboard the captain informed us that Soutahmpton was shut and that we would go to Birmingham instead.

    I did reach Southampton in the end, but 27 hours late. Compensation from the airline? A free bag of coies on the flight…

  • Jordan says:

    I was lucky enough to be flying Friday, just wasn’t flying jets. I am working on my instrument rating at Western Michigan at Battle Creek. This unfortunate event has really hampered general aviation as well as the airlines. Rumor is going to be 2 weeks until things are back to normal? You hear that as well? The Friday of the event I flew at 11:00 eastern to do some practice approaches and Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Approach/Departure weren’t accepting any traffic because all of Chicago Centers work had fallen on their shoulders. Obviously these Approach Controllers hands are tied with what they can offer. It is very interesting the FAA doesn’t have any sort of a contingency plan other than flooding Class C and D approach controllers with this jet traffic.

    Love your insight into the industry, appreciate you giving us a snap shot into you life. Love the post and tweets. Happy flying.


    • I’ve heard the center should be operational by October 13. However, it was also noted that it may take longer to test all the equipment.

      I’m also surprised that there isn’t more redundancy in the system. One outage really brings down the whole system.

      Best of luck with your instrument rating!

      • Brandon says:

        Center outages are probably not expected to be weeks or months long. Power outages, single radar outages, things of that nature. Nobody expects an FAA employee to set fire to the Center, and take it down for three or more weeks.

        I imagine their contingency plans involve temporarily routing the responsibilities to TRACONs and other centers, expecting such outages to last hours, not days.

  • Rebekah O. says:

    Your experiences are very similiar to my husband’s (who works for a regional airline). Our two year wedding anniversary was on Monday and he got the last seat out of DTW that day…literally, the last seat anywhere within a reasonable driving distance to our home. We got very lucky to spend the day together. Commuting seems to be getting a little harder each day. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Glad he made it home for your anniversary.

      One message that I try to convey with this blog is that my stories are not unique. Hats off to all the pilots out there commuting back and forth to work. I commute by choice… I could afford to live in one of our bases if I decided to move. For some, commuting is the only option to make this work.

  • Cedarglen says:

    Thanks for another great post.
    For the life of me, I do not understand why you guys (and gals) put up with the commuting (and TDY) game, but… If it works for your family and QOL standards – AND you are properly rested when reporting, to each his own. You may not post often, but the posts and comments are worth reading.
    Once finally home, how many days off?

  • James Heath says:

    If it’s any consolation (and it’s probably not), this incident is causing a pretty major top down overhaul of contingency procedures within the agency and specifically between ARTCCs. At my center, at least, we have agreements in place to delegate airspace to our adjacent facilities, but there’s really no means by which to actuate it in the event, given that it requires an extraordinary amount of specific tribal knowledge in order to run an area of airspace. It’s sort of like riding around with a spare tire and no jack. The plan sounded great until it actually became time to implement it. However it seems that this episode has established a precedent in terms of emergency TDYing controllers to adjacent facilities to work their own airspace on spare outpost scopes. If this were to ever happen again, God forbid, I think we’d do it a little better. It’ll still mean reduced capacity, but hopefully a faster transition will mean less initial gridlock.

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