Winter Ops in July… – James McBride
The last of the passengers were boarding and the cabin crew were busy in the cabin of our Boeing 767 helping them to stow baggage and find their seats. As it was a military trooping flight, there was rather a lot of ‘baggage’. There was cargo too. The aircraft holds were pretty much full of essential freight for the military base — our destination airport. In the flightdeck we were completing the pre-flight preparations. I looked again at the Weather and Notams for destination. ‘Moderate Snow’ was falling and forecast to do so for the next few hours, after which it was forecast to get better. Additionally the destination NOTAM stated ‘SNOCLO’… Airport CLOSED due to snow!
Under normal circumstances, the dispatch of this particular flight would qualify as insanity, but these were far from normal circumstances. The schedule had already been delayed for more than 48 hours and everyone was pushing hard for us to go. There were military personnel waiting to be transported out of the base after finishing long tours of duty and two stretcher cases needed to be CASEVAC’d to the UK in the portable hospital section of our aircraft. Plus we were carrying much needed supplies and replacement people into the Theatre of Operations. So the pressure was on. Not only that, but our major enemy at this time was Mother Nature who had intervened with a succession of Cold Fronts dumping vast quantities of snow on the airfield.
Of course you might question why we should be talking about Winter Operations in July…? Well the reason for that is because our destination was Mount Pleasant Airport in the South Atlantic, Falkland Islands. Remember when we British kids learned at school that “Aussies eat their Christmas Dinner on the beach”? The same logic applies, everything is upside down in the southern hemisphere and July is deep winter for them all. Naturally we had prepared well for this flight — we’d certainly had plenty of time while kicking our heels for a few days on Ascension Island just south of the equator and over 1,000 miles from Africa. The inbound flight from UK had arrived 2 days before and we, as the new crew were ready to launch south immediately, but the weather put paid to that.
There had been a series of snowstorms blowing through and although the military had cleared the runway a couple of times, it was to no avail. One of the problems was that once they cleared the runway and declared the airport open, it was too late to launch from Ascension (ASI) because the flight time was eight and a half hours. We could see from the TAF that more heavy snow was imminent and could predict the runway would be blocked by the time we got there — and so it proved. Naturally everyone had been pretty frustrated by this sequence of events, so we had to adopt a new strategy. We liaised with the senior Met people at both ends of the route and we could see there was a weather window coming up. It was not going to be huge, but should be enough for us to land, provided that the Army and RAF cleared that runway for us and kept it clear…
The downside was that our departure time from ASI was the middle of the night and we would fly through the night to arrive shortly after dawn. We reported for duty at 2100 local time to have our brief with the on-duty Met officer. She was a nice lady, but had not been party to our discussions previously and only just returned from leave. When she saw the weather forecast and the NOTAMs (saying SNOCLO) she informed us that we should not fly. I took some time to explain to her that we had been through all of the scenarios and although the forecast was bad at the moment, it was a flipping sight better than what had gone before — she was not convinced. Outside the aircraft was being fuelled up and passengers and freight were being loaded — now was not the time for a row with the on-duty Met officer. I said in a much calmer voice than I felt inside; “Okay, you’ve provided the up to date forecast, which is similar to what we planned for 36 hours ago. We are going to depart now and have been assured by the military at Mount Pleasant the runway will be clear for us. Thank you for the Met Info, but as Aircraft Commander I take the responsibility if it all goes wrong and we divert the flight, nobody will blame you”. She seemed content with my assurance — well she looked happier than I felt anyway.
At the back of my mind I knew that a diversion would be a major problem, because the only usable alternate airport was Montevideo in Uruguay! The flight time if we had to divert there was 3 hours or more — we would have to fly off the coast of Argentina all the way north. Carrying enough fuel for this mission would put Boeing’s “ER” suffix to the test — we would have full tanks for takeoff. On the plus side, we would have enough gas for about one hour holding over the Falklands waiting for the snow clearance teams to do their stuff if required. I had been able to get through to the Senior ATC Officer on the phone earlier in the day and he assured me that the snow clearance teams would have the runway open for our arrival, provided the snow stopped falling when the met office predicted… That would be a few hours after our departure, but by that time we would be out of radio contact somewhere over the South Atlantic Ocean — it’s a really big place. In fact I was not even certain that the guy I spoke to was actually the Senior ATCO, “Comms” were not easy and it had taken quite an effort for me to get through on the phone at all! And this from the ‘communications island’ which received the first words from the moon landing back in 1969 by Neil Armstrong, “One small step for man…” etc.
Later with all passengers boarded and our checks complete, they were closing the cargo doors — we were all set for departure. In the dim floodlights of the flightdeck I looked across at my young colleague, “Call for start-up please” and now on the headset came the cheerful voice of the groundcrew chief Spike, “All doors and hatches closed skipper, chocks in position we’re ready down here…”
“Thanks Chief, the parking brake is set, Standby…” — another look across the cockpit and it was clear that the First Officer was having some sort of discourse with ATC, what NOW?! I thought. In response to my questioning looks he said, “the Met Office lady wants to talk with us on the radio…” I replied, “Okay, Ops frequency on Box Two — Let’s see what she wants”. Her voice was urgent and concerned as she transmitted from the Ops room we had just left, “Captain, I have just been talking with the Met-man in Port Stanley, the latest METAR is BAD. It’s snowing heavily! There’s low cloud with strong winds; it’s a BLIZZARD…” I took a deep breath and pressed the transmit button; “Roger…! That’s all copied. Thanks a lot. OUT!” The co-pilot looked at me waiting for my reaction, and I said “You wouldn’t do this job if you were superstitious would you?” we both laughed, then, “…tell ATC we are starting engines. WE ARE GOING!”
Three hours later in the cruise, with just over five hours left to run, I managed to get through to Mount Pleasant Operations on our hand-held Iridium Satphone. It was always going to be a bit hit or miss, but from the few words I got back from a sleepy airman it seemed that it had finally stopped snowing and they were busy clearing the runway. I couldn’t get any real sense of whether it was going to be done in time — he didn’t seem sure himself. At least I got the message across that we were coming! We passed ‘the point of no return’ heading south — it would now be a landing at Mount Pleasant or Uruguay. I said we should celebrate with a cup of tea and called the forward galley on the intercom, the stewardess was new. “Two teas please — Julie Andrews”. Her puzzled response indicated she had not understood the Sound of Music reference, so I clarified for her… “WHITE NUN!” Then she got the joke and guffawed loudly down the phone.
It was no guffawing matter nearly 6 hours later though. We were well into a solid IMC descent towards the Falklands; “no fighter escort this morning”. We flew through some really heavy snow showers and had the engine Thermal Anti-Ice system on most of the way down. Occasionally the build up of ice on the windscreen wipers and pillars outside the flightdeck indicated the wings were getting iced up too, so we hit the Wing Anti-Ice system — it was satisfying to think about all that ice being shed back there off those important leading edges. We broke cloud overhead the field and looked down on a very wintry landscape, there was whiteness as far as the eye could see… But there, down below us was one beautiful strip of black tarmac — the runway was clear!
As we shutdown on The Pan*, which like the taxiways was covered in ice and snow, the relieved smiles on everybody’s faces was worth all the effort and tension of the previous ten hours. Even the DAMO was cheerful — amazing! We were acutely conscious that the weather ‘window’ would only be open for at most 12 hours. After our minimum rest of another 10 hours, (including food and sleep in a real bed), we were back onboard our ship of dreams. There was no replacement crew down here and we needed to head north again as soon as possible — more snow was falling as we finished fuelling. I could see the overworked snowploughs hard at it on the runway outside the flightdeck windows.