Posted by: harrisonjones | October 31, 2011

Stranded on the tarmac

Okay, you are the captain. Your flight is scheduled to depart sunny Ft. Lauderdale, bound for Newark. The forecast calls for snow in the northeast. The company flight plan reveals that you have trip fuel, plus 45 minutes holding fuel, plus fuel to the alternate (Philadelphia), plus a thirty minute reserve. Is that enough? You’re the captain. Oh, you say you want another thirty minutes of reserve? The company dispatcher relents and orders up the extra kerosene. You have 130 passengers. Are you still within weight limits for takeoff and landing? The computer spits out a new weight data sheet showing the added fuel is not a problem. Check the weather one last time before heading out to the airplane. Newark is reporting 100 overcast with visibility at 2400 RVR in blowing snow and winds out of the northeast at 20 knots. Ceiling is not a criteria for landing minimums and you’re good down to 1200 RVR visibility with a max crosswind of 10 knots. Runway 4 L/R is well within limits. No more whining; are you going or not? Okay then, haul your suitcase and flight kit up to the airplane and act like you know what you’re doing. 

The preflight is done and everything is working, including the copilot, Fred, who trusts your decision. Susie, the flight attendant wants to know if it’s okay to board the passengers. This is not your first Rodeo and you tell her to sit on the jump seat while Fred gets the clearance. ATC reels off the clearance at 200 words per minute and Fred reads it back perfectly. ATC responds, “Read back correct, sir, you have a wheels up time of 1800.” Quickly converting to local time, you determine that there will be a 90 minute delay. Susie asks when she should board. You’re the captain. The wheels up time could be revised earlier or later. Oh, you’re going to split the difference and board 45 minutes before scheduled wheels up? Okaaaaay. 

How are you holding up so far? You’re number five for departure with both engines running when ground control informs you that the wheels up time is now extended until 1845. You are instructed to pull into the run up pad at the end of the runway and wait. You want to go back to the gate and replace the fuel you’re going to be burning for the next hour? You have the authority to do that, but it will require a new dispatch and a new clearance. Oh, you’re going to run the auxiliary power unit and shut down the engines to save fuel. Okaaaay…talk to the passengers…give them the bad news. Susie hates you now. 

Wheels up time comes 15 minutes early. ATC wants to know how soon you will be ready. Three minutes… four max…start the engines…tell Susie to prepare the cabin. You’re number one and everybody is waiting on you. Position and hold. Ten airplanes behind you. Checklist complete…waiting on the cabin. Susie… “Cleared for takeoff.” Susie… “Uh… standby one tower.”

“Sir, I need you to roll or clear the runway.” You’re the captain. 

Susie rings, “The cabin’s ready.” Release the brakes, takeoff power, 80 knots, V1, VR, V2. Positive rate. Gear up. Contact departure. “See ya.” 

You’re cruising…drinking coffee…telling jokes over Virgina. Washington Center calls, “You’re cleared to the Tar River VOR, hold southwest, expect further clearance at 43 past the hour.” That’s 35 minutes from now. You ask how many airplanes are ahead of you. “You’ll have to ask New York center when you get there, sir. Looks like 18 in my airspace.” You now have ten minutes of hold fuel left and you’re not talking to New York yet. You’re the captain. Oh, you want to check the Philadelphia weather. Fred calls company and gets the weather for Philly along with the news that there are 39 airplanes holding for Philadelphia International. You calculate 3 minutes for each airplane in the stack and come up with two hours. Talk to me, captain. Oh, you want to know what else is available. Company suggest Hartford. The weather is above minimums and there is very little delay. You can get there with 45 minutes of fuel left. You can do a couple of more twenty mile turns around the holding pattern while you decide. The copilot says, “I don’t want to put any pressure on you, boss, but I’ve got a wife and two kids.” Oh, you want a clearance to Hartford? Okaaay. 

New York center gives you a descent for Hartford and adds that you should expect holding from approach control. How long? Don’t know, approach will give you instructions. Fred asks if you want to declare an emergency or at least min fuel. You’re the captain. Oh, you want to wait and talk to approach. There’s a lot of paperwork if you declare. Fred says, “There’s even more paperwork for a funeral.” He just finished the CRM short course. Approach says to expect one turn in holding. No problem, runway in sight. 

You clear the runway with 40 minutes of fuel in the tanks. Ground control directs you to a remote pad for parking and you note 8 other airplanes already there and accumulating snow on the wings and fuselage. You set the parking brake and Fred shuts the engines down. You hope the APU will provide enough heat for the cabin. You pick up the PA for the tenth time today, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain…again…” 

Susie stopped speaking to you about two hours ago, but the number three flight attendant is new and feels sorry for you so she honors your request for coffee. Three hours later, when all the food and beverages are gone and the toilets have run out of flush water, the number three stops speaking to you also. All your request for a gate, or for fuel have been ignored and the airplane now looks like a pop cycle covered in a foot of ice and snow.  

That brings us to this morning’s newspaper articles about passengers stranded on the tarmac. For what it’s worth, tarmac is a paving substance that was invented in 1901 and declared unfit by Orville and Wilbur. Any reporter that uses the words Boeing and tarmac in the same article is highly suspect and deeply discounted by yours truly. See ya, captain.


  1. Have many flights like that one, Harrison? I’ve only been stuck in a plane waiting for take off once for an hour. Then they had us get off the plane and wait for an another hour so they could fix it and then we reboarded and took off. We had not left the gate when they discovered they had an issue with the ventilation/AC system.

    So many details to keep track of when you are in charge of everyone else’s safety.

    • Too many flights like that, Jeanne. When you receive a clearance with a wheels up time included you have to base your planning on it even though you know it will probably be extended or else they will call back in ten minutes and ask how soon you can get to the runway. All you can do is ask how firm the wheels up time is and hope for the best. I’ve been parked in the runup pad with 5 or 6 other airplanes many times and everyone knows to park at a 45 degree angle so any one of the airplanes can return to the taxiway without blocking the others. An hour in the pad is not uncommon. You try to find some good country music on the ADF receiver and relax. It only becomes tense if it is snowing and de-icing decisions have to be made.

      The other situation is when you have to divert to an alternate due to weather and when you get there the same weather prevents you from getting a new clearance. Ten other flights diverted also and there is no gate space. Two to three hours is probable.

      My worst case was a flight from Mexico City to Atlanta. An unexpected thunderstorm parked over the runway and we diverted to Savannah for fuel. When we got there, we were told to expect a two hour wait for a wheels up time. Then we were informed that all the customs and immigration people had gone home for the night so the passengers could not de-plane. Two hours later the tug pushed us out of the gate for departure and rammed the horizontal stabilizer into the jetway next door. The damage was not severe, but maintenance determined that the airplane could only be flown with a ferry permit and no passengers. Customs officials were called back to work and finally the 200 passengers were cleared and sent to hotels. I allowed the crew to vote whether to go to the hotel or ferry the airplane and we arrived in Atlanta at three in the morning after a very long and frustrating day. Crew sked (a rookie who thought I had arrived on time the day before) called at seven with a trip assignment. The conversation was much shorter than my response to your comment.

  2. Wonderful blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own site soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or
    go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that
    I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Appreciate it!

    • Thank you for the kind words. WordPress works fine for me as a basic platform. Of course there are a multitude of options depending on what you want to include on your blog. Once you establish a domain name, you can take it with you as you upgrade to other platforms. Best of luck to you. Enjoy the experience.

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