While I do not normally talk about work here on my blog, I have just spent the last three days operating through what must surely be the worst sustained thunderstorm activity that I have witnessed in my twenty odd years of flying for a living and feel it warrants a mention, if only for my personal amusement at a later date.
A large trough of low pressure has lain across south eastern Australia for the last four days. The ensuing instability in the atmosphere has seen these cells "pop" with incredible speed, just after midday each day and form into massive, impenetrable lines of thunderstorms.
I had the dubious pleasure of taxiing for departure in Sydney as a massive thunderstorm rolled over on Tuesday afternoon. Air Traffic Control(ATC) basically just "parked" us and all of the other aircraft attempting to depart, on the taxiways, until the storm passed and it was safe to depart. We happened to be parked about one hundred and fifty metres from the control tower and at some point during the light show I happened to look at the tower at the exact moment a bolt of lightning struck it about midway down! Shortly after, a sheepish voice said over the radio "we think that one just hit us". It sure did, but as testament to the design of the control tower there was no interruption to the service provided from ATC. I did feel like moving a bit further away from them though. Sitting in an open field with a metal tail sticking 12.5 metres into the sky makes you feel somewhat like a fish in a barrel!
Tuesday proved to be just a warm up for the main event on Wednesday though. Scheduled to operate from Melbourne to Adelaide, we never actually got onto our flight planned track!
A cold front was moving in and (referencing the Mean Sea Level chart above) the blue line with the sharks teeth exactly represented a complete line of thunderstorms that stretched from just south west of Melbourne to about 180 kilometres to the north east of Adelaide. Unbroken. 780 kilometres long. 39 000 feet high.
Fortunately we had gassed the aircraft up to almost ludicrous levels and flying 180 kilometres out of our way was no fuss. We actually managed to deliver our load of passengers to Adelaide without so much as a bump. Icing on the cake for our professional egos!
The return flight to Melbourne would be the more interesting sector though. It was obvious to me that these storms would be overhead Melbourne Airport by the time we arrived. These fronts usually move from west to east at a fair clip and you can count on an affected airport being clear within an hour or so. The fact that these were moving northwest to southeast was somewhat disconcerting though. In this industry you must always have a plan "B", "C" and "D", with the possible option of an E and F too. It will simply not do to paint yourself into a corner and need to be on the ground, now. With this firm rule in mind we yet again rang up big numbers with the refueller.
Nearing top of descent into Melbourne and the picture wasn't pretty. The aircraft's radar was painting a picture with lots of red and yellow returns. Now, bright colours are fine on a lollipop, but not at all what you want to see on the weather radar. That white arrow is the direction of the wind and the speed is 101 knots(187km/h) and it was blowing the line of cells along, keeping them continuously over Melbourne Airport (the small green circle near the top of screen).
ATC let us know that Melbourne was closed for arrivals and departures and to hold in our present position(which was about 80 kilometres northeast of Portland). Fine with us as we would not make an approach with this kind of weather around the airport anyway.
So, we proceeded to hold. For about fifty minutes we went in circles or speared out over Bass Straight in the Cape Otway area as we made room for more aircraft to hold. Eventually we reached a point where ATC was estimating (read guessing) that the airport might reopen in 20 minutes and then we would be about number eight or ten in the sequence to land. Hmmm, the unpainted path out was about as small as we felt comfortable with and we decided to bug out back to Adelaide, take on more fuel and try again as the front would have progressed about three hours further along.
This done, we eventually arrived in Melbourne at 11pm, after leaving the first time at about 6:45pm! Not bad for a fifty two minute flight! I avoided pointing out that if our passengers had driven to Melbourne they would have arrived at a similar time! Sometimes the old addage "got time to spare?, go by air!" assumes more truth than a pilot would like!
I would like to point out that our cabin crew were fantastic throughout and ninety nine percent of our guests disembarked in Melbourne with a smile on their face and a kind word. The other one percent were too tired to talk! It is pleasing to see that we must have done something right and kept peoples spirits up despite the loooong day that were on duty. This job has too many sublties for the average traveller to grasp whether we are doing a good job up the front, so we tend to take kind words as a measure of a job well done.
It certainly made me feel better about clocking on late morning and clocking off at 1am!