The day started with my bottom parked on a chair under a thatched umbrella on the beach in the Dominican Republic.
I enjoy the beach and clear blue water, but there was no sense in burning my milky white skin. It had enough sun exposure during the thirty minute walk around the resort before I reached the ocean.
A morning at an all-inclusive resort really is a great way to start a workday. How can anyone argue with a free breakfast, warm temperatures, multiple pools, beach and beautifully manicured landscaping?
Like most layovers, it came to an end all too soon. Around 2:30pm, we were riding back to the Punta Cana Airport. Along the way, we shared stories about some of the things we’d experienced that morning at the resort.
The flight to Washington’s Dulles Airport started as a routine flight. We took off over the ocean and the controller issued a right turn all the way back around to the north. It may have taken a few extra seconds, but I enjoyed the view of the east end of the island as we circled over it. The captain was flying, so my only duties were to speak on the radio and look out the window. In those moments, I become very aware of how fortunate I am to fly a 737 for a living.
Soon, San Juan Center took control of our flight. Then, we traversed the eastern side of Miami Center’s airspace. A little while later, I started speaking to New York AIRINC on the HF radio. I always enjoy communicating on the HF… I feel like I’m giving position reports to someone stationed on the moon.
Before departure, the forecast for IAD called for some rain at our arrival time. As we approached North Carolina and Southern Virginia, we started to realize the forecast vastly underestimated the intensity of the weather.
A line of storms had formed west of Dulles and was about to shut down the airport. Soon after our realization, the controller issued a holding pattern just east of Richmond. About the same time, we received a message from our dispatcher. He advised that BWI was no longer a good alternate and suggested Norfolk, VA if we needed to divert. With blue skies on our tail, we concurred with his analysis.
Staring at the massive wall of weather near Dulles, we both knew that thirty minutes of hold fuel wasn’t going to suffice. Once the airport was back open, we would need to fly all the way around the weather and arrive from the west. A diversion was virtually inevitable, so we messaged the dispatcher that we intended to divert immediately. He agreed and said he’d notify ORF of our impending arrival.
Rule #1 with diversions is to safely land the aircraft on the ground.
Rule #2 is to be first in line for fuel.
The captain flew a nice visual approach to runway 05 at ORF. After a right base and final, I found myself back in Norfolk for the first time in nine years. I flew there many times in the Citation during my years at the fractional. I’ve always found the local tower controllers to be very friendly and helpful and that day was no exception.
There was only one aircraft in front of us. Once it left, we entered the ramp and shut down our engines.
As an international arrival, we were not permitted to open the doors without a customs agent present. Since we have procedures in our manuals for fueling with the doors closed, we did not need to get customs involved in our diversion.
The plan was to refuel and launch once the weather cleared out of Dulles.
Then, we got the radio call: “The company we use for fueling is refusing to fuel you with the door closed.”
That had the potential of becoming a huge problem.
We asked our operations person to confirm the rule with the fueler. On the 737, with all the doors “armed,” passengers can evacuate through any usable exit via the slide. The fueling company at ORF was accustomed to fueling regional jets. Once they understood the difference between an aircraft with slides vs one with stairs, we figured they would budge.
However, the fueling company refused to break “their” rule.
It became a huge problem.
We could not leave ORF without more fuel. We could not get more fuel without opening our door. We could not open the door without customs. So, the ops manager notified customs and we waited. I was beginning to wonder if I was becoming involved in one of those “Jetblue at JFK in a snowstorm” type scenarios.
We had no idea how long we’d be stuck on the ramp.
During the delay, we exhausted our supply of toilet paper and bottled water. Through our operations, we obtained permission via telephone from customs to pass those essentials through the flight deck windows.
After a very long time, customs arrived and supervised the fueling with door 1L open.
The other doors remained safely closed with the slides armed.
The weather had moved out from Dulles and formed a large curved pattern from east of Baltimore all the way down to the North Carolina border.
We switched roles and I became the flying pilot for the ORF-IAD leg. After we departed runway 05 and climbed to cruise altitude, the radar immediately displayed the weather we needed to deviate around to reach Dulles. The Washington controllers were very accommodating in helping us navigate around the tight wall of weather. Off our right side as we deviated, a continuous lighting show entertained our weary passengers.
Dulles was reporting VFR conditions at our arrival. We were cleared for the visual approach to runway 19L and arrived at the gate a few minutes after landing. The arduous process for reaching Dulles customs began as we deplaned and boarded the archaic people mover to the main terminal.
After we cleared customs, we were greeted by a Dulles supervisor tasked with bringing us to our next flight. We were facing a duty-time limitation and the company wanted to get us to our flight to Houston as fast as possible. Via SUV, the nice man delivered us plane-side with plenty of time to depart.
Well, until we realized our flight attendants were coming in late from someplace else.
Without us agreeing to a duty-time extension allowed under FAR p117, the flight to Houston would have been canceled. The two of us discussed it for a few minutes and decided we were both fit to fly the next leg. Not that I let it influence my decision, but I’m sure the people already sitting in the back of that jet really wanted to depart to Houston.
The flight to Houston was fairly uneventful. The captain decided to let the auto-land system complete the journey on runway 27 at IAH. We taxied to the gate and felt very grateful the day was over when the parking checklist was complete.
Fortunately, in Houston, we were staying at the hotel located on the airport. We went downstairs to board the underground train that connects the terminals and hotel. As soon as we stepped off the escalator, I saw the sign on the entryway to the train. We were too late… the train stopped running hours earlier.
At that point, we had two choices. We could have called the hotel, walked back upstairs and outside the terminal and waited for a ride. Or, we could have walked the pedestrian corridor located between the train tracks.
We never discussed our options. We turned, looked down the corridor and started to walk.
As we started the final trek of the night with rollaboards in tow, I read the sign overhead: HOTEL 2600 FEET.
Grr… Nothing like a half mile walk in the middle of the night to end a very, very long day.*
* I won’t mention arriving very sweaty at the Houston hotel to find it under construction and needing to walk outside the hotel in the oppressive humidity to another lobby… Or, that the clerk had us wait ten minutes because she couldn’t find our keys… Or, that my room key didn’t work when I went upstairs. We’ll just consider that the beginning of the next day… which, very well could be the subject of my next blog post.
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