Double Trouble

IMG_1661I realized something wasn’t right when I saw the Southwest Boeing 737 flying low and slow over my neighborhood. It was much lower than it should have been. Plus it was coming from the wrong direction, completely outside the normal approach and departure patterns.

Being the dedicated (OK, obsessed might be a better word) avgeek that I am, I quickly looked up my airport on FlightAware. I could see from the flight tracker data that the airplane in question had taken off from the south runway and immediately circled back around. It proceeded to do two low approaches, first over one runway and then the other. Then it turned sharply to the northwest, which is what had brought it over my house.

IMG_0831Hoping to pick up some information from ATC communications, I listened intently to LiveATC while my brain went over a list of potential scenarios. Bird strike? Flap issue? Gear or tire problem? Then I heard one of the Southwest pilots come on the radio and use a word that caught my immediate attention: emergency. I have listened to a lot of ATC communications over the years, but this was the first time I have ever heard that word used concerning a flight from my airport.

Over the course of the next few minutes I learned that the plane had apparently blown one of the nose gear tires on take-off. They needed to hold for awhile, so ATC directed them into a holding pattern to the east of me. A friend who is a captain on the 737 explained that the pilots needed to burn off fuel to get the plane as light as possible to lessen the load on the remaining tire for landing.

FullSizeRender (83)At this point I had a decision to make. Should I drive the 15 miles to the airport to watch the flight come back in? I was tempted.  But I was afraid that while I was driving I might miss out on important communications or other developments. I consoled myself with the fact that when the plane made the western arc of its holding pattern I could see it from my back yard. Granted, I had to stand on the patio table. On my tiptoes. Doesn’t everyone watch airplanes that way? Actually… don’t answer that.

Anyway, it’s just as well I decided to stay put because right at this time I heard the pilot of a Cirrus call up ATC. He announced that they were losing oil pressure and needed to land right away. Suddenly the controllers were handling not one, but two emergency aircraft. Emergencies happen – ATC and airports are well trained to deal with them.  But two emergencies at once?  Definitely less common, especially for an airport the size of mine.

IMG_1361During the time that the Southwest flight was holding, ATC had allowed other planes to take off and land. However, when the pilot of the Cirrus called in, the Southwest flight had just left the hold and was preparing to do a final low approach before landing. As a result, ATC had stopped departures and was clearing traffic from the area around the airport. This presented something of a problem for the emergency Cirrus, who had requested immediate clearance to land.

IMG_1360Fortunately, we have a large cargo airport located just a few miles to the south of the passenger airport.  ATC recommended landing there and the Cirrus pilot agreed. ATC then proceeded to give him vectors to the airport. The Cirrus landed without incident.  Shortly afterwards, the Southwest flight completed its final low approach and circled around to a safe landing. They were even able to taxi to the gate with no issues.

I’ll admit – following along while these two events unfolded was quite riveting, but not for the reasons you might think. You may have noticed that my account does not contain any of the following words: panic, terrified, frantic, dire. These are words often used by the media to describe emergency situations in aviation. And occasionally they might be warranted, but not in this case. In fact, not in the majority of cases. More appropriate words would be: calm, professional, efficient, collaborative. It was an excellent example of the training and hard work by pilots, ATC, ARFF and Operations that goes on every day at airports around the world.

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Note: The planes featured in the photos on this post are not the planes that were involved in the incidents described.

© 2017

The Next Firsts

IMG_2775You may recall a while back I wrote about some of the exciting first experiences I had when I started my job over a year ago – first time hearing the bird cannon, first time walking out on the ramp, etc. Well it has taken some time but I finally have another collection of firsts to share.

Single Runway Operations

At the beginning of April the airport closed the north runway for resurfacing. This is an involved process that is going to take a good six months to complete.  During that time we are a one-runway airport. The closure was timed to coincide with the end of winter and the arrival of spring.  So guess what happened the day after the runway closed?  You guessed it – we got snow!  Snow ops with a single runway can be something of a challenge.  Normally we’d land planes on one runway while the other was being plowed and then switch.  Obviously that isn’t an option when there is only one runway. Fortunately the snow was light and the only real issue was moving everyone through the deicing pads.IMG_2779

Single Runway Operations… and a Bird Strike

When you only have one runway to work with, even routine things become more of a challenge. Obviously you can’t do maintenance on or mow around an active runway, so all that has to be done in the middle of the night when there aren’t any scheduled landings. The operations department did quite a bit of planning to try to prepare for as many potential problems as possible, including what to do if the remaining runway ever has to be closed. The hope, of course, was that the plans wouldn’t be needed.  And those hopes were dashed in the second week when a bird strike forced the runway to be closed for 20 minutes to allow crews to clean up debris.  During that time at least four flights had to divert to alternate airports. In a truly extreme situation, however, the airport could land airplanes at the cargo airport instead.  It is only a few minutes away and more than big enough to handle the traffic.IMG_2736

First Aborted Take-Off

I have seen quite a few missed approaches in the last 17 months, but it wasn’t until just a couple weeks ago that I got to witness my first aborted take-off. The airplane involved was a small business jet.  It came from a hangar located on the northwest side of the airfield, which is about as far away from the south runway as it is possible to be.  I was actually checking out the construction on the north runway when I first spotted the airplane taxing along the length of the airfield and I continued to watch as it made the journey all the way to 28L.  I remember thinking what a hassle it must be for them to have to taxi such a long distance.  At last they were cleared for take-off.  I watched them line up, heard the engines spooling up, saw the plane start to go and then… nothing.  Instead of accelerating they throttled back.  It was incredibly un-dramatic.  Of course then they had to taxi all the way back to their hangar again. Ouch!IMG_2780

A Soldier Comes Home

One afternoon in late March my coworker called out that there was a hearse parked on the ramp next to one of the gates. I got up to look and saw that not only was there a hearse, but also a number of soldiers in dress uniform. This could mean only one thing – a fallen service member was coming home. As we waited for the plane carrying the casket to arrive, I saw the ground crews form a line next to the hearse where they waited in silence.  In the meantime, pretty much everyone in my department had gathered as well.  We stood in a line along the glass hallway looking out at the ramp. Everyone got very quiet when the American MD-88 pulled up.  IMG_2776

The pilots and a military representative disembarked the plane and stood together by the ground crews.  Then the airplane’s cargo hold was opened and the casket was handed out.  During this time, no one got off the plane, none of the ground crew moved and neither did anyone in the hallway.  We all stood in silence, watching as the honor guard lifted the casket and placed it into the hearse.  I have never, ever heard my department so quiet.  Not a single one of us moved a muscle until the hearse pulled away. It was an incredibly somber and powerful thing to witness. Even though none of us had any idea who the soldier was, quite of number of us were in tears.  I was proud to see how many people stopped what they were doing and took the time to honor a fallen hero.FullSizeRender (35)

First visit to the Communications Center

My first visit to the Communications Center happened totally by chance. I had to deliver some papers to one of the admins in the Public Safety department and I brought along my new coworker who hadn’t been to that department before. The admin gave us a quick tour of the offices, the police lockers, the interrogation room and the holding areas.  Then she asked if we would like to see the Comm Center.  Would I? Are you kidding me?!?!  In my mind I had always envisioned a room filled with monitors that were constantly flickering as they switched from camera to camera… and I was not disappointed because that is exactly what it looked like.


One of the airport K-9s

As you know, airports have TONS of cameras everywhere. The Comm Center monitors the cameras for all three of our airports. We recently installed digital cameras at the passenger airport and let me tell you – they are crystal clear.  I asked one of the technicians on duty how well they could zoom in. She proceeded to show me by zooming in on a table in the food court. I could see pretty much every drop of moisture on the table and read the words on a discarded food wrapper.  Wow!

While we were checking out the monitors I noticed a buzzer kept going off periodically. The tech explained that every time someone attempts to open a secure door without scanning their credentials, it sets off the buzzer. The techs then have to check out the situation and follow up if necessary.  The Comm Center fields most of the incoming calls to the airport’s general number so they get stuck answering questions about where to park, how to get to the airport and if flights are delayed. They also field calls from the various emergency phones installed around the airport, as well as handle emergency communications during a crisis.  The most common call they get on the emergency phones? People calling from the parking lot to ask when the next shuttle will be there to pick them up.  Doh!

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This mouse’s last flight

My First Flight

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my first flight, which I wrote about in my last post. It was quite an eye-opening experience for me in many ways.  It occurred to me that there really aren’t that many people in this world who can say they have flown a plane.  For example, neither of my parents have done it, nor any of my grandparents, nor my aunts, uncles, or cousins, or even my brother.  I guess that makes me the first one in my family to give it a try.  I haven’t scheduled that second lesson yet… but I find myself thinking about it.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the next round of firsts, which should include the return of an airline that hasn’t flown out of my airport in a couple of years, two new K-9s and potentially (hopefully!) a visit to check out some simulators.  Stay tuned!


ARFF To The Rescue

IMG_0140I have mentioned in previous posts that it’s common to see ARFF (Airplane Rescue and Fire Fighting) out on the airfield. In fact, there are days when it seems like ARFF is EVERYWHERE.  And no, it isn’t because they are protecting the mobile stairs from me.  (The airport police handle that.)  Although I’ve seen ARFF providing medical assistance inside the terminal, I’d never seen them assisting an airplane in trouble until recently.  And then it happened twice in 24 hours!

Emergency #1 (Maybe?)

IMG_0142About a month ago I was enjoying my lunch break as I often do – plane spotting on top of the parking garage. I happened to see an airplane on approach to runway 28L.  I looked down to fiddle with my camera when suddenly something didn’t sound right.  I looked back up in time to see that the plane on approach had decided to abort and go around – right over my head!

IMG_0133Much to my disappointment, my airport is not on LiveATC, nor do I have a functioning scanner so I am not able to listen to communications with the tower.  Otherwise I would have had a better idea about what was going on.  I decided to hang around a bit and wait for the plane to come back in and land.  By now I had lost sight of it, but I figured it would likely try again on 28L so I walked over to that side of the garage and I waited.  And waited.  And waited. I’ve been watching airplanes come and go long enough now that I have a pretty good idea of how long it should take to get back on final. This seemed to be taking quite a bit longer than usual.

image1 (1)Just as I was thinking I would have to give up because my lunch break was almost over, several ARFF vehicles came blasting out of their facility on the eastern edge of the airfield and took up positions along 28L. One fire truck was near the start of the runway, one was along taxiway C1 and another was along taxiway C3.  Then there was an ambulance and a smaller ARFF vehicle waiting on the ramp.

IMG_0137At long last the plane appeared once again on approach to 28L. It seemed to take forever before it finally got its wheels on the ground and then it made the shortest stop I have ever seen an airplane that size make. As soon as it got stopped the ARFF vehicles quickly surrounded it. I couldn’t tell from my vantage point exactly what they were doing, but the airplane sat on the runway for several minutes.  Then finally it began to taxi down the runway, with the ARFF vehicles following behind.  I IMG_0145expected it to turn towards the terminal and head to a gate to let the passengers off.  Instead it went directly to a maintenance hangar.  I realized then that the plane had been able to stop so quickly because it didn’t have any passengers or luggage on board.  I never did find out what exactly happened with this airplane, or even whether it officially declared an emergency. However, given the ARFF response it seems likely that it did.

Emergency #2 (Here We Go Again!)

IMG_0144The next morning I was chatting with a coworker when we heard sirens which grew louder and louder. Sure enough ARFF went blasting down the ramp and took up the EXACT same positions as they had the day before. My coworker is one of those lucky souls whose cubicle is along the windows, so she has a clear view of 10R-28L from her desk. Several of us crowded around to watch out the window. About that time the department manager appeared.  He gets text messages whenever there are emergencies at the airport.  He told us that the plane coming in had reported brake problems and a possible flat tire.  He noted that if the landing went horribly wrong the plane could easily careen into our office.  Then he wished us a nice day and left.  (Have I mentioned that he has an incredibly dry sense of humor?)

IMG_0147Undeterred we continued to watch out the window. As before, the plane landed and managed to stop very quickly.  Not quite as fast as the plane from the previous afternoon, but still much more quickly than usual.  Once again the plane was immediately surrounded by ARFF vehicles. Once again it sat on the runway for several minutes.  This time, however, when it finally started to taxi it turned towards the terminal and headed for a gate with all the ARFF vehicles in tow.

Closing The North Runway

IMG_0018During both of these events planes continued to land as usual on the north runway, which allowed airport operations to continue without too much disruption. However, all that will change next spring when the north runway will be closed for 6 months for resurfacing. During that time we’ll be operating as a one-runway airport.

As you can imagine, this involves a LOT of extra planning.  If there is an emergency that forces the closure of the south runway, flights will have to be diverted.  We are extremely lucky to have the cargo airport nearby.  It has parallel runways and can easily handle whatever passenger traffic needs to be sent there. IMG_0662Even something as basic as airfield mowing has to be carefully scheduled.  You can’t mow near an active runway, and if there is only one runway you can’t shut it down for mowing.  So all mowing and regular maintenance activities will have to happen in the wee hours of the morning when there aren’t any regularly scheduled flights. Since it’s


The view from Concourse C! At last!

not exactly very sunny here in the middle of the night, the airport is going to have to bring in special lights so the maintenance crews can see what they are doing. Airlines that operate out of gates near the closed runway will have longer taxi times, which will impact the amount of fuel they’ll use.  For all these reasons, the decision to close a runway is not made lightly. But in this case the resurfacing is needed and in the end it will be worth the hassle.


I, of course, am unreasonably excited about the closure because it means the south runway will be very busy.  I happen to be a  I park next to it.  My department windows look out on it. There should be lots of good plane spotting opportunities next summer. And when ARFF gets called to the rescue again, I’ll have a front row seat!  I promise to keep you posted.