I’ve written before about the fact that I am a warm weather guy—my wife and I very nearly moved our family to the Virgin Islands several years ago—but I prefer to deal with many of the inconveniences of winter flying versus one minute of dealing with a thunderstorm.
That conviction was reinforced in spades in July, when I was scheduled to fly a CVG-GSO turn. This happened during the stretch of 90- to 100-degree days when a front decided to assume a stationary stance along the I-70 corridor.
Our normal route of flight on this city pair takes about 50 to 55 minutes, and essentially is a direct line from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International to Piedmont/Triad International Airport in Greensboro, N.C. I’ve done it enough times that I could do it with my eyes closed.
On this day, however, little was going right. We were running late because the airplane was late getting to us for our first leg in DTW. We had some passenger connection issues as well as some other run-of-the-mill airline stuff go wrong that put us about 15 minutes behind all day. Had we been on time, we just might have made it out of the CVG area in time to punch the line and fly the normal route to GSO.
Instead, we were forced to take a journeyman’s route, flying from CVG due east until we were past Pittsburgh, and then finding a spot to turn south and race the weather. I held off on the controller’s request to start south until we were well clear of the eastern band of weather that was on our route, and as a result, we got a nice smooth ride into GSO.
The return flight, however, was not going to be any easier. Our dispatcher loaded us down with a truckload of extra Jet A and wished us luck. He confirmed to me on the phone that the weather would not be a factor in CVG, though the forecast would require an alternate. In reality, the worst of it was west and south of the field. The radar on my phone seemed to confirm that.
Getting home required almost a reversal of our route down, but with one major constraint: We were filed for FL300, but we could not get past FL220 because of traffic saturation. We could see it on our TCAS, and when we checked in with Washington Center, we could hear it on the radio. More than once, the congestion was so bad that our initial transmission was a press of the Ident button on the transponder—we simply could not get a word in edgewise.
We, along with (it seemed) every airplane on the East Coast, were stuck in a “Valley of Blue.” The sky above us was clear, and it wasn’t too bad going north either. East didn’t look great, but even if it had, it didn’t do us any good, and we could not find a clear hole to the west—not one that both of us could agree to try. When I liked one, the first officer didn’t, and vice versa. We kept going onward, again sneaking in the Pennsylvania area. The controller occasionally would ask us when we planned to turn. We never had a good answer. We tried to get a higher altitude, because in several places, it looked as though even a few thousand feet would get us over the weather. No dice. It was one of the few times that I heard a controller announce, “[a]ll aircraft cleared to deviate as necessary.”
Finally, when I began to think that we might need to announce to the RCMP that we were coming to Canada, eh, we found a hole to our left and floored it. Three or four minutes later, we were firmly established on a heading that again paralleled the weather, going west. We had to argue with several more controllers as we worked around a sizeable cell, and we had to contact the dispatcher about the 8,000-foot difference in our altitude and the effect on our fuel burn, but the farther west we went, the better the ride got. A normal flight of an hour took 90 minutes. Two hours later, we were on the ground in Baltimore for the overnight.
I hate thunderstorms…but I so want to move to a tropical island and fly VFR for the rest of my days.—Chip Wright