November 9, 2012

Ebbs, Flows, Storm Surges and Schedules

Let me begin by saying that I grew up on Long Island.  I have friends and family who live all over east coast.  I am thankful that they are all OK.  I remember a few hurricanes that hit NY when I was a kid, but this one is different.  The size, shape and ground track taken by Hurricane Sandy allowed this storm to wreak still incomprehensible damage.  I am safe, warm, mostly dry and writing this post on my computer which is plugged into a working power outlet.  I intend no disrespect to anyone living in the affected area at my casual mentions of this storm or how relatively easy my life has been in the last two weeks.   I am thankful for my outcome, cognizant of how quickly natural disaster can change one's life, and those who reside south of my locale are constantly in the thoughts and prayers myself and my coworkers.   The intent of this article is to discuss the operational impacts (from the viewpoint of Boston Center Area A's skies over upstate NY) on the ATC system caused by Hurricane Sandy.


I usually have Sunday/Monday/Tuesday's off.  But not this week.  I had a my girlfriend's brother's wedding to attend in Oklahoma on Saturday, November 3rd,  but couldn't get the day off.  So I swapped days off with two coworkers - Monday for Saturday, Tuesday for Friday. After working a normal week prior, I then had only Sunday off so as to work Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, followed by five days off without taking leave. My flight was scheduled for Friday morning.

When I arrived at work at 1pm on Monday, most traffic to/from NYC and south was already cancelled for Monday night and Tuesday morning.  It was very IFR already, and windy.  During my commute from Manchester to Nashua, the wind increased about 15 knots.  It was starting to rain.  The altimeters were falling so rapidly that the computers weren't updating them because it was assumed that the data was faulty.  Every half hour or so, I would call the approach controls and manually input the altimeters.

At 3pm, the NH DOT recommended that everyone should be off the roads and that the public should avoid travel.  The building switched to the backup diesel generators.  The pressure dropped, the wind increased, and the rain intensified.

We only had two scopes open at this point, with the high sectors still a little busy with overflights.

The wind is almost always out of the northwest, west or southwest.

Hurricane Sandy

But for three days during this storm, the wind was out of the east, northeast (the red box at the top left is the corner of my airspace).  I draw the blue wind vectors on this picture to emphasize the winds aloft and how different they are during the storm's approach compared to a normal jet stream.

I've discussed before how fast an eastbound sector like RKA can be, when everyone normally has a tailwind. Here that sector had a headwind and the planes moved relatively slow.  Conversely, the westbound sector was now much quicker, and all of the Europe - Western US overflights took full advantage of that tailwind. A few brave souls even departed upstate NY for destinations south of the storm, flying southbound  through eastern PA, basking in the 70-80 knot tailwind, even at low altitudes below icing levels.  

As Sandy slowly approached the coast, a few last commercial flights departed the inland airports in my airspace to calmer destinations out west.  The planes may have been empty, to spare the planes from possible damage, or as last flights out for anyone needing to get away from the storm.  Either way, the flight numbers were not normal and everyone's scope were mostly blank by 6pm.  At this point, we had full staffing and maybe one or two planes at a time flying through.  Dare I say, we were bored!?  Emphasis during position relief briefings was put on the fact that FL190 was lowest usable in the northern half of the area, and FL200 was lowest usable in the southern half.  The altimeters were so diverse and changing so rapidly, lateral separation was the safest bet below FL210.

I would like to note how smooth everyone's ride was through my area.  Usually, the northern edge of storms like this are VERY bumpy.  This storm was very low- hardly any deviations other than around the first band beyond the eyewall.  The wind was strong, widespread, but, again, surprisingly shear free.

It was strange to zoom out the scope and see ZERO planes in New York Approach.  Surreal, really.  Normally, it is such a cluster of targets, with only three distinct features - the final approach courses to LGA, EWR, and JFK.  It was a ghost town all night.

Finally, management gave up and let us go home about an hour and a half early, around 9:30pm.  Not sure what they were waiting for.  The late rush?  The drive home was through pretty much the worst of the storm that hit NH.  It was pouring down rain, which was being blown horizontal in white sheets.  The wind was gusting in the 40-50 knot range.  I only had to dodge a few trees on the highway...  I made it home in one piece to power and heat.  A few hours later, the wind died down, and I felt comfortable sleeping upstairs without the tall trees in my backyard creaking and swaying so much.


Back to work at noon.

We started with two scopes, optimistic that EWR and PHL would open in the afternoon.  They might have "opened," but no one was flying.  It was still IFR, windy, and everyone was focused on the disaster that happened the evening before.  There was no business being conducted as usual.  A few control towers had been abandoned the night before and they remained "ATC zero".  LGA was completely under water.  DC airports had a trickle of traffic.  But as far as air traffic goes,  Tuesday was a lost cause.  We combined all of our sectors up to our normal overnight configuration around 4pm.  There were lots of breaks, of course, and I was able to get in touch with people I knew in NY, NJ, and DC.  

Late in the evening, there was a steady flow of empty airplanes returning to New England.  They were being repositioned, apparently ready to pounce on the NY Metro as soon as the airports would take them.  Wednesday could be interesting.


Into work at 2pm.  I got my A-game on.  Everything except LGA was open.  Imagine the pent-up demand to get into these places!?  It was going to be crazy!  But, it wasn't.  The subway was still shut down.  No one had power.  Focus was on recovery, not business or recreation.  There were flights now in an out of EWR and DC, but not many.  BTV, SYR, ALB were operating mostly normal, light traffic.

By the end of the night, though, BOS was pretty steady.  Again, they strangely all had headwinds being sequenced for the QUABN.  And the departures were hauling out to the west with tailwinds.


I got to work at 1pm.  BOS, MHT, PWM, BDL, PVD,  and ALB were all operating normal, if not above normal.  LGA opened, without lights or instrument approaches.  EWR and JFK picked up, under similar conditions.   As the day went on, traffic to PHL showed up.  By the time evening rolled around, we had ourselves a good, solid, busy Thursday night.

My girlfriend made it out of Logan fine.  Her parents made it out of ALB the day before just fine, also.  Hopefully the seats on my AAL 757 would be bolted down...... I got out of work on time at 11pm, finished packing, and had a 6:30a bus to catch to the airport.  

Luckily, the ATC system was mostly back to normal, as far as en-route operations goes, by the end of Thursday.


The storm had pretty much stalled out, and its immense size was obvious once my flight took off.  It stretched out to sea to the east of Boston as far as the eye could see.  We were over a solid cloud deck until southern Indiana, an hour and a half after takeoff.
 There was one little break in the clouds....right over my hometown of MHT!

Till next time...