“Captain, we need to change your alternate to Shreveport. You can’t go to Dallas,” read the ACARS message from the dispatcher. “It is full.”
We were about halfway into the three and half hour flight from Newark to Houston. It was day one of a three day trip, but day four for me. I’d just finished another three day trip on Friday. Sometimes, I bid back to back trips to cut down on the commuting from Nashville.
Honestly, with Hurricane Harvey approaching the southeast coast of Texas, I expected to be canceled on Saturday and reassigned to a completely different trip. However, the forecast for the IAH area was reasonable enough for the airline to send the flight. Winds were not expected to exceed 30 knots at the outer boundaries of the massive storm.
The forecast was wrong.
Just before we received the message from dispatch, the METAR was reporting 41 knot gusts with 1/4 mile visibility and heavy rain. Aircraft closer to Houston held as long as possible and then diverted. Since our original alternate of DFW was inundated with diversions, we prepared for the possibility of a landing in Shreveport until the weather improved.
Fortunately for us, a landing at Intercontinental was feasible as we approached Texas. The convective activity had moved just east of the field and we had an opportunity for a safe approach and landing. We were re-routed north of the field and around the back side of a line of weather for a landing to the east.
On the base leg of the approach, we flew through some very heavy rain and encountered a little bit of moderate turbulence. Once on final, the ride was fairly smooth and relatively clear until the end of the approach.
At 500′, we entered heavy rain and the 737-700 windshield wipers barely kept up.
As the aircraft approached Category I minimums, the runway came into view.
Under the circumstances, the captain made a nice landing on 8L.
We had safely and successfully landed in proximity of the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey. After a slow taxi to the gate, shutdown and parking checklist, we focused our attention on preparing for a flight to Boston.
Neither one of us wanted to stay on the ground at IAH any longer than absolutely necessary.
We had a plane, two pilots and three flight attendants.
We were good to go.
Then, the flight was canceled.
When we walked into the terminal, we learned just about everything was canceled.
From a crew perspective, when “irregular ops” occur at a hub, nothing happens fast. Literally hundreds of pilots and flight attendants are all stuck in the same place waiting for further instructions. It takes time for the crew schedulers to come up with a plan for each individual crew member. So, we found a quiet area and began to wait. There was really no sense in calling and waiting on hold to be told they were “working on it.”
About an hour later, our phones buzzed to notify us that our schedules had been modified. Our Boston “turn” was canceled and we were going to resume with our scheduled deadhead to Nashville on Sunday.
We called our hotel accommodation people and they confirmed we were staying at the hotel on airport property.
With forty inches of rain in the forecast, none of us wanted to travel downtown.
When we arrived in the hotel lobby, there were about thirty other pilots and flight attendants waiting to check-in. Everyone was patient and understanding and the hotel staff did a remarkable job of getting everyone a key to a clean room.
A few hours later, all the same people were in the restaurant debating what was going to unfold over the next few days. Many thanks were given to the hotel’s waiters and waitresses. They served us with smiles as some of their loved ones faced rising waters at home.
Midway through dinner, our phones buzzed to reveal another schedule change.
“Plan C” was to operate a flight to Newark at 10:00 am the following morning. The Nashville layover vanished, but we were scheduled to finish the trip on day two.
Around the time I was ready for bed, the weather started to change. There was a line of heavy thunderstorms that had been approaching the airport all day at a very slow pace. Once it arrived overhead, the north to south line of storms stayed most of the night.
Lightning flashed and thunder shook the building. I slept off and on. The cell phone periodically woke me with warnings of flash floods.
I pondered turning off the phone, but I kept it on solely in case of a tornado warning. On the fifth floor of the hotel, I could sleep through a flood, but needed to get out of bed and hunker down if a twister was approaching.
By morning, the thunderstorms had moved on, but the hotel was still being pelted by heavy rain.
As I started to put on my uniform, the captain called and said the airline was canceling every flight for the rest of the day.
Reality started to sink in.
I knew I was facing days in that hotel and wondered how much food the restaurant had to keep us fed.
Thirty minutes later, the captain called and said our flight was reinstated.
They wanted our flight to depart as soon as possible.
We both dressed quickly and headed over to the terminal.
The atmosphere in Terminal C was surreal. All the restaurants were closed and there were very few people walking in the hallways. It felt like the middle of the night even though it was mid morning. There were a lot of people waiting at our gate. Many were eager to ask if we could safely transport them away from the storm.
Immediately after stowing my suitcase, I looked out the cockpit windows. The rain had subsided to a moderate intensity, so I grabbed my safety vest and headed out for the walk-around.
Because of the lull in the weather, I was only moderately soaked when I returned.
The passengers boarded, but the catering truck never arrived.
So, we waited.
(I know what you’re thinking… screw it… just go without the food. However, the caterer had bins that were required to be on board before we departed.)
Once catered, we learned that the airport was closed and our flight would be canceled imminently.
Then, we learned the airline was applying for an exemption to launch our flight.
All morning, our hopes for departing went up, then down, then back up.
Moments later, everyone’s cell phones emitted a warning within a few seconds of each other: TORNADO WARNING IN YOUR AREA.
Briskly, the passengers deplaned back into the terminal.
When the warning expired, every person with a seat assignment re-boarded the jet. Not a seat was empty… we even had a pilot in the jump seat.
Everything had finally come together and we pushed, started up and made our way to runway 15L.
The delays were a blessing in disguise. During the time we waited, the weather shifted to the east. Although it was raining at the airport, the skies were clear to the west.
The tower controller assigned an initial heading of 270 and cleared us for takeoff.
I reached up, selected my windshield wiper to high and pushed the thrust up to 40%. When the engines stabilized, I continued to advance the thrust. With my finger, I pushed the button that automatically continues the levers all the way to maximum thrust.
We began accelerating down the 12,000′ strip of concrete.
At V1, we were committed to fly.
By rotate speed, the forward visibility was marginal. The center-line lighting was exceptional.
I visually lifted the nose wheel off the ground and began a normal rotation.
Then, my eyes went immediately to the the instruments.
There were no more visual references to follow.
At 400′, I commenced the right turn towards the west. The ride was decent and we soon broke out into a clear area between cloud layers a few miles from the airport. We continued to the west for a bit before turning towards Texarkana. From that border town, we proceeded northeast on a more standard routing to Newark.
Deep breath, it was over.
We were lucky. That day, we operated the only flight between Houston and Newark. As of this writing, another one hasn’t left since. The airport has been closed except for military and humanitarian flights.
I have no idea why our flight was chosen to depart. I felt a little guilty leaving while so many others were left behind. However, within the confines of safety, I just do what I’m told.
I’m happy to be home with my family and not stranded in the hotel room in Houston. Please keep the airline employees and all the citizens of Houston in your thoughts and prayers as they deal with the aftermath of the storm. I personally have a dozen or so friends and family living in the area. Many of them have helped rescue people from their flooded homes.
As of this writing, United Airlines has helped raise $341,000 to help employees affected by the storm.
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