Chicago O’Hare Travel Nightmare

If you know someone who had a wild story about traveling through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport this week, they might just be telling the truth.  In fact travel across the United States was probably quite interesting for anyone.  If you were on either of my flights I’ll apologize now for the interesting rides.Storms Brewing ORD

It all started out Monday afternoon in typical summer fashion.  Just after noon, some thunderstorms started building to the west of Chicago causing airplanes to do a little extra flying and slow down to avoid the storms.  As our flight approached Chicago, something new showed up on our radar screen.  Little red dots appeared all around the large thunderstorms we could see on the radar and out the window.

Salt Lake Center issued us a clearance to go direct when American Airlines dispatch sent a text message saying the storm we were aiming at went up to 45,000 feet or as we call it Flight Level 450, and had 2″ hail coming out of it.  1″ hail bangs up the airplane, 2″ hail can do severe damage.  We asked for a deviation around that little storm and didn’t see much beyond it.  This is when things started changing fast.  We were just 1 hour and 10 minutes from Chicago O’Hare Airport.

As a pilot the best way to avoid really bad turbulence is to fly around the weather, but sometimes we don’t have the gas to do it so we “shoot the gap”.  The radar shows the intensity or level of the weather as green, yellow or read.  Sort of like you see on  We also get an extra color, a purple for severe turbulence.

The basic rules of flying into weather you can’t see is don’t fly into anything red or purple on the radar at all, and avoid yellow if at all possible.  Monday I learned that I need to add “watch the dots”.

We grabbed our manuals and found the page for the new radar.  Red dots mean the radar thinks the storm is “fast growing”.  Within minutes the red dots turned to green clouds then yellow clouds then red clouds on the radar.  Basically the red dots mean things are about to get bad.

The controllers could see this too and said “American if you can speed it up and beat the storm to the airport, you will be the last one to land before we close”.  I asked for altitude at my discretion so I could use a couple of small holes in the clouds I could see through.   If you go faster through turbulence, it makes it much worse and increases the chances of someone getting hurt or damaging the airplane.

They gave me the clearance, I shot the gap and I took a dive at the runway.  From the back of the plane it had to be a very interesting ride.  The weather was now just five miles from the airport and had grown to over 100 miles wide and 10 miles deep.  All of the flights behind us were put into holding or sent to other airports.  This is among my top three most aggressive approaches ever, both as an airline pilot and military instructor.

We also knew if we encountered wind sheer we couldn’t do the standard go around, so we asked to be allowed to make a hard right turn and fly over the tower if we can’t get to the runway before the weather.  It was approved.

In flying we joke that we earn our whole years paychecks once or twice a year, the rest of the time we just have the best seat in the house.  Monday night I earned a big chunk of this years pay.

We touched down just as the last airplane allowed to leave lifted off the ground.  Everything worked exactly like we train.

As we slowed down, we noticed the airplane on the other runway.  It looked like they were using a lot of runway and we saw the airplane make a huge drop as it reached about 200 feet.  They found the wind sheer.  Wind sheer is when the winds change very rapidly.  In sailing it capsizes boats, in flying, you can go from a 20 knot headwind to a 20 knot tailwind in a matter of feet.  That changes your airspeed by 40 knots.   If you don’t have 40 extra knots you might stop flying.  If we are lucky, the radar warns us first.  Our radar was on, and it didn’t pick it up.

I am sure a camera watching us in our cockpit would have looked like it froze.  We both stopped and stared to see what would happen.  It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion.  The pilots did the right thing, they lowered the nose first to regain speed.  This is very hard to do 200 feet off the ground, normally you pull back to go up, and it this situation that would have been disastrous.  Good training paid off for both of us Monday afternoon.

The airplane dropped to about 100 feet, started climbing and requested an immediate right turn out of the weather.  They had just recorded a 25 knot wind sheer.  That means they went from about 200 knots to 150 in an instant.  At 150, a 737 is barely flying.  Lufthansa heard the call and when the tower said “Are you going to take off?  You are the last to leave”.

In the perfect professional pilot voice with a stern German accent, he replied simply “Negative”.

We taxied to the gate, and the rain was so heavy we could only see 100 feet or so.  Our gate was open and the auto park system worked so we could park the airplane.  For all the time I have cursed that thing, this was one I was happy to see work.

The passengers got off the airplane, most just thinking it was just another bumpy ride to Chicago.  A few seasoned travelers thanked us for beating the storm.

Since the storm was only ten miles wide it passed within an hour and the airport opened back up.  We left an hour behind schedule with only minor delays.

Then there was Tuesday……

Tuesday I was scheduled to fly the same Chicago turn.  A flight that is already within 50 minutes of the legal limit, so if you delay or divert, the flight doesn’t make it.  The airlines are so short of pilots, they are trying anything to keep the flying schedule alive.  As a pilot, the long days are nice because, if it all works out, you get another day or two off work.  We are limited by law as to how many hours we can be in an airplane each day, month and year.  More hours in a day is more days off at home.  Something I learned to appreciate more while sharing a tent in the middle east.

Normally we don’t schedule two of these trips back to back because they are very long days and hard on the body.  Flying is quite fatiguing with all of the noise, vibration and mental headwork required.  I did this to help out a fellow pilot so he could make his son’s Open House Night.

Tuesday we didn’t have the advantage of the new radar system, so we didn’t see any red dots to warn us of quick changes in the weather.  Our experience told us this was worse than Monday.  The weather guessers predicted worse weather today so we had more fuel giving us a lot more options.

Eventually ice covered the nose cone of our airplane.  When this happens the radar starts showing everything as green.  You have no idea what you are flying into.  Suddenly you are back in the 1940’s.  You listen to the flights ahead of you and make educated guesses about the weather, and which holes are real and which holes are “sucker holes”.

After 40 minutes of zig zagging through the sky, we landed in Chicago.  The storm hadn’t reached the airport so our ground guys were there to wave us to the gate, no auto park needed.

Safely inside the terminal we pulled up the weather radar and for the next hour, we watched that storm grow from Chicago to San Antonio Texas.  50 miles thick and solid red the entire way.  All flights west were on hold.  All flights coming from the west were in holding or diverted.  Passengers were lining up behind anyone in any kind of uniform.  Wheel chair pushers were running off from passengers who were yelling “Can you get me on a flight?  What is happening?”

As all storms go,  this monster started to die out about 8 pm Chicago time.  We still had enough legal time we could try and get back to the west coast.  First we needed a jet,  ours was taken to go to New York.  By now nearly 1000 flights had been delayed.  Gate agents and passenger service reps were scrambling to keep people from rioting.  This event wasn’t our airlines fault, and it wasn’t just effecting American it hit everyone.  “Cancelled” started to show up on the boards as the airlines ran out of pilots and flight attendants because so many were sitting on the ground in places like Grand Rapids or Milwaukee waiting for a slot time to take off and land at Chicago.

Since the storm really never reached the airport, people were confused.  They would ask us things like “Can’t you fly over it?” or “Can’t we just go south first like we always do?”.  It was as if we didn’t want to fly.  Pilots only get paid when the airplane is moving.  The last thing I want is another unpaid break at Wolfgang Pucks Express chomping on a salad or a slurping another McDonalds milkshake in the airport.  If we could fly home we would trust me.  This is true for all pilots.  If we don’t look ready to go, you really don’t want to go.

Eventually a gap opened up.  We boarded the airplane, got in line and the gap closed.   The Catch 22 of being in the jet is we are ready if there is a hole to get out, but we are also on the clock and our maximum day is getting closer.  One by one, jets in the line would call up and say “117 day exceeded, need a gate” and get out of line.  FAR 117 is the regulation that limits the time pilots can be in the airplane to safely fly.

The studies leading up to FAR 117 being approved this year are pretty conclusive that after 9 hours, errors start to climb rapidly.  Even though we felt good in Chicago, sitting in the back of an airplane at 150 miles an hour landing at one of the shortest airports in the country isn’t where you want to be when the pilot makes an error in judgement.

Eventually our clock ran out too and we returned to the gate.  The airport was filled with thousands of stranded travelers looking for hotels or giving up and lying on cots, hunkering down for the night as the storm finally approached the airport and once again closed it down.

Wednesday morning, we didn’t have a jet, didn’t have flight attendants and were told to “deadhead” home.  Deadheading home is a glorified version of standby.  You go ahead of other standby’s but never a paying passenger.   All Those paying passengers ahead of us made it clear that we weren’t getting home as dead headers.  Thousands of stranded passengers where once again lined up behind anyone in a uniform.

After telling a hundred or so people the same thing,  I wandered to ops where I could look at the weather and computer and see what was really happening.  It was exactly the same information until…..

Just when the weather cleared and everyone was scrambling to find a seat out anytime this week, the Chicago TRACON had a small fire and had to be evacuated.  TRACON is the major area radar center.  Without it only about one tenth the number of airplanes can fly in or out of an airport.  Once again aviation rolled back to the 1940’s where pilots flew by their watch and had to arrive at a certain place in space at their reserved time.

Basically, 90% of the airplanes coming and going from all Chicago area airports were shut down.  The lines got longer, the restaurants started running out of food and tempers were getting shorter.  One lady told me she was supposed to start a new job on Monday and they didn’t believe her story about not making it to California for two days.  I did and I hope her new boss reads this.  This was totally out of the control of American Airlines and every other airline with an airplane in the Chicago area.

Several hours later we noticed airplanes starting to taxi again.  Hope springs eternal.  Without an announcement being made people started crowding the flight boards and scrambling to get on the next flight out.  The gate agents were making PA’s like, “Every seat on this flight has been sold please go to the rebooking center. This line is only for people with tickets”  No one listened.  The line at rebooking was 2 hours long.

We started looking at the computer for a way home, when Kerry found that our same flight from the day before had cancelled out of the west coast.  The flight back wasn’t yet cancelled and better, it had an airplane already assigned to it.  He called our control center in Dallas and after holding for nearly an hour, convinced them we were legal to fly it home.  They agreed.

We left 20 minutes and one day behind schedule.  Not bad given what many other people were going through.

As we approached the west coast, Kerry and I discussed the landing at John Wayne Airport.  John Wayne is one of the shortest commercial airports in the country.  Many of the major airlines do special training to fly there.  At American we call it a “special qualification airport”.  American Airlines flies the largest and heaviest 737 model available in and out of John Wayne a dozen times a day.  It is my home base, and as with all things more practice makes it easier.  This approach got an extra long briefing and was a bit more work than normal.

As we got closer we were advised of low level wind sheer warnings in effect.  Above the ground the Santa Ana winds were blowing, on the ground the sea breeze had started.  I would have a 28 knot tail wind all the way to 500 feet and then it would suddenly turn into a 5 knot headwind.  A change of 33 knots is what we were told to expect.  We made our plan and talked about going to LAX if it didn’t work.

The first challenge is getting down.  When you are moving towards the airport 28 knots faster than normal, it means that you have to point the nose down more to descend on the same path.  Unfortunately this increases airspeed making it more difficult to get ready to land properly.  This is why we normally don’t land with a tailwind.  The worst case is the nose of the airplane might hit first, and that is how you get on the 5’Oclock News.

There are “energy management maneuvers” the military teaches that the airlines don’t, but most pilots understand from experience.  Normally we could have “gone around” and asked for a much longer approach than normal or headed over to LAX.  Since both of us were military, we did a quick energy losing maneuver and got on the final approach with 10 knots extra planning on the wind shift.  It is a simple trade of Kinetic Energy to Potential Energy.  Potential Energy is more easily managed if you can get slow enough.

It worked perfectly, even though the wind shifted again from a 5 knot headwind at 10 feet and became a slight tailwind we were ready.  I doubt anyone even noticed on our flight.  The other airliner behind us went around and the airport was shut down so they could “turn it around”.  For the second time in three days I was the last pilot to land before the airport shut down.  I have earned my paycheck for the year, I am hoping for smooth sailing from here on out.

Scott Bourquin is a 737 Pilot for American Airlines based out of Los Angeles and a retired Air Force Reserve KC10 Instructor pilot.

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