Cockpit Chronicles: Flying around Hanna and Ike

I couldn’t believe my timing. A four-day trip to the Caribbean with Hurricanes Hanna and Ike scheduled to be right in our way for almost every leg.

Would some of the flights get canceled? And if not, how far out of the way would we be flight planned to stay away from these storms?

This job tends to stay interesting if only because no two trips are alike, even if they take you to the same destinations. Some might think there’s a lot of monotony in flying a plane, but even if the destinations remain the same, there are always new challenges such as adverse weather, different ATC requests, or small mechanical issues to contend with. Not to mention the variety of pilots and flight attendants you might be working with.

I pulled up the satellite weather before leaving for the airport, knowing that it would be impossible to see the big picture of this storm once we’re inflight. While our airborne radar can keep us away from the bumps, it can’t give us an idea of the actual conditions until we’re within a few hundred miles or less of the storm.

The first leg, from Boston to Miami wouldn’t be a problem at all. It was the second leg, from Miami to Caracas that might be interesting. Before departing, my guess was that we’d be flight planned south over Cuba and then Jamaica before turning toward Venezuela.

Sure enough, as you can see from this satellite view below, we were sent around the west side of Hanna. The ride from Miami to Caracas turned out to be rather smooth, with almost all of the clouds associated with the outer edge of the storm well below us.

After our layover of 14 hours in Caracas, Hanna was sure to move west, but would it now impact our route of flight to Philadelphia?

I looked at the weather online while watching a little of Hugo Chavez on the T.V. in my room. If I could only speak Spanish, I’m sure it would have been far more interesting. I’m very thankful for the free internet, though, even if it isn’t much faster than a dial up connection at home.

The next morning the leg from Caracas to San Juan had little in the way of weather. We deviated around a few puffy build-ups over Puerto Rico, but the ride was smooth all the way there.

But the San Juan to PHL leg looked more interesting. Was Hanna breaking up? I couldn’t imagine a great ride, even if it looked like the storm was taking a rest off the east coast.

We had the seatbelt sign on for most of our second leg to PHL, but the ride wasn’t too bad. Looking at the satellite picture above, it seemed we managed to find a nice gap between the scattered storm. Four out of six legs finished and we still hadn’t been affected too much by Hanna. But what would Ike look like when we flew south in 36 hours?

We’d be staying downtown in Philadelphia for two nights–a rare long layover–before leaving on the 4th day of the trip early in the morning. Philadelphia has plenty of great things to do, I’m sure, but I couldn’t get past the Reading Terminal, a converted train terminal that has been made into a market in the heart of the city.

If you’ve ever been to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, well, this is all that except larger. Flowers, fresh fish, chocolate, books, spices, vegetables are all for sale, mixed in with a few restaurants selling crepes, gyros and my personal favorite, a turkey sandwich shop. I even had breakfast at a diner run by the Amish. Unfortunately, the diner is only open 4 days of the week.

This market has everything. Even chocolate covered potato chips:

I passed on those.

Hanna was approaching Philadelphia on the morning of our departure, but it wouldn’t arrive until a few hours after we left. It was Ike that was now directly in our way for our leg from PHL to San Juan.

As I was doing the walk-around inspection, one of the rampers asked me how we were going to get to San Juan with Ike right on top of the island.

I told him I was wondering the same thing earlier that morning, but the latest latest satellite view that showed Ike a few hundred miles north of the island. If it were covering the area where we were landing, there’s no way we would have been flying that trip.

I grabbed my iPhone and showed him the current weather. (wasn’t there a commercial about this?)

Essentially, we’d be flying from Hanna to Ike, landing in San Juan, before flying north around Ike again to Boston. Our eventual route of flight to San Juan and then up to Boston looked like this:

We were originally flight planned to pass to the east of Ike before working our way into San Juan. Just 30 minutes north of the storm, ATC gave us the option of passing to the west of the storm. Captain Mark and I saw far more blue sky to the west, so we turned right and worked our way around it, sending messages regularly en-route to our dispatcher to let him know that we were getting a very smooth ride this way.

His perspective is similar to the photo you see above, so he sent us a message which prints out in the cockpit.

“Your view of Ike must be spectacular.” His message said.

But it really wasn’t that impressive. I snapped a few pictures at that moment, which shows how the view from a satellite picture versus actually being there can be very different. In a sense, the dispatcher had a better view of the intensity of the storm, but we had a more detailed understanding of how we could stay out of the rough air with our weather radar and simply avoiding any of the clouds associated with the storm.

Here’s the view from our radar:

And this was the view out the window as we approached Ike. Not really that impressive, is it?

Amazingly, I came across this picture which shows Ike from the International Space Station taken around the same time we were flying around it. It’s hard to imagine a tiny little airplane passing on the left of the storm as seen from that space shot. Note the less clear route to the right in that NASA photo.

Staying to the west of the storm turned out to be a great move. We heard a Continental flight complain about moderate turbulence east of Ike on the air-to-air frequency, but we were in the clear with a smooth ride to the west.

Unfortunately for the flight back to Boston, we would have to go around Ike to the east, since the storm had moved further to the west, closing off our earlier route.

We spent the fi
rst hour in and out of some high clouds, and while the ride was worse, it wasn’t anything more than annoying. I’ve learned from some of the questions submitted to the Plane Answers feature that many passengers are extremely nervous while flying in any kind of bumps. So we really do our best to find a better altitude or different route for a smoother ride, even if it means using more fuel for that leg.

In all, I learned that maybe it’s better to be flying around Ike and Hanna than sitting on the ground in your non-moveable home praying that the storm misses you. I really feel for those people from Haiti to Houston that were affected by these two monster hurricanes.

In the next Cockpit Chronicles, we’ll go to Port-au-Prince Haiti, which may have seen the worst of Hurricane Hanna just a few days earlier.

I’m thankful to live in New Hampshire, a state that rarely sees any significant weather other than the occasional ‘noreaster’ that dumps a few feet of snow. And while Hanna did make it through our area, it only managed to give us a few inches of rain before finally breaking up over the Atlantic.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.