'Perfect Storm'

By Capt. John Blonsick (Delta)
Air Line Pilot,
February 2003, p. 28

When I was a kid growing up in Miami, we had plenty of grazing tropical storms and lots of depressions. I remember helping board up windows, throwing the patio furniture into the pool, listening to the howling winds and battering rain outside, spending hours without lights other than candles or flashlights, drinking water stored ahead of the storm in buckets and coolers, and eating canned food right out of the can.

"Andrew was now a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful storm level on the scale, with sustained winds of more than 155 miles per hour and an 18-foot storm surge."

Having left Miami in 1979 to join the Navy, I returned in 1991 as a newly hired flight engineer. My parents still lived in my childhood home just north of Homestead Air Force Base. Five miles inland, the house had survived high winds and strong storms before. My wife, Sonia, and I lived on the 10th floor in a high-rise apartment on the Dade-Broward County border, equidistant between the Miami and Ft. Lauderdale airports—about ½ mile inland from Miami Beach.

Just off probation, I was called out on a short-call 4-day trip on Aug. 20, 1992. Hurricane Andrew was far offshore, a weak Category 1 hurricane. Just another over-the-horizon event in my life as I packed my bag. Sonia and I talked about some contingency plans if the storm came but it was not something we were overly concerned with. Living on the coast brings specific concerns every hurricane season. For most people, those concerns usually amount to stockpiling some extra water, batteries, and canned goods. The well-prepared reinforce their homes with storm shutters, generators, and strong roofs. Tracking storms and hurricanes on the map is a seasonal activity. A "good" season map can end up with a dozen or so wobbly lines in different colors and dots with time/date notations.

Every chance I got, I checked Andrew’s location and strength on the news or with other employees or with phone calls home. Day 1, Andrew was a Category 1 hurricane, far away but strengthening. Day 2, it was much stronger and barreling toward the Bahamas, as if someone had pulled the string on a massive top and aimed it straight at south Florida. Day 3, layover in West Palm Beach. Sonia drove up to spend the night with me for a romantic layover rendezvous. We spent the evening, however, watching the news.

Andrew was now a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful storm level on the scale, with sustained winds of more than 155 miles per hour and an 18-foot storm surge. The hurricane that leveled Galveston in 1900 and killed more than 8,000 people was a Category 4 storm. Florida had suffered two other Category 4 storms and even a Category 5 but not for more than 50 years. The Florida coastline was much more crowded in 1992. Local news channels were running 24-hour coverage of projected landfall estimates, airport closures, mandatory evacuations, evacuation routes, and now-almost-too-late advice on how to prepare for what was possibly going to be the worst storm in Miami’s history.

I knew it was going to be bad. But calling Crew Scheduling was a futile exercise in frustration. The scheduler was either completely ignorant of the threat or incapable of processing new information. Having grown up in Miami, I knew a fair amount about hurricanes. I tried to describe the effects of a Category 5 hurricane but to no avail. I relayed the TV and radio news statements about planned airport closures by mid-afternoon the next day. The response was almost blandly infuriating: "We have no reports of airport closures. Besides, you are scheduled back in hours before the hurricane will arrive." Never mind that the projected arrival time that Scheduling was quoting was for the landfall of the storm’s eye—an event that occurs hours after the outer bands of the storm would slam ashore with massive gusts. Scheduling’s attitude was, Don’t know, don’t want to know; besides, we don’t have reserve coverage.

Just off probation, at 10 o’clock at night, in a hotel room and scheduled to fly in the morning, I worked with Sonia to make a list of things for her to do in the apartment—mostly take whatever she valued most and mentally abandon the rest. The storm’s projected landfall was aimed right at our apartment on the Dade-Broward line. Staying in a high-rise apartment during a hurricane is untenable. The winds hundreds of feet above ground level can have a geometric rise in strength. She would have to evacuate—but to where?

She wanted to drive to her sister’s house in Orlando. But driving 200 miles in a 10-year-old VW that was in the shop as much as it was on the road was an unacceptable risk for a woman alone during a massive civil evacuation. One answer seemed to solve two problems. My parents needed help securing their house, and Sonia needed a safe, relatively nearby rabbit hole to take shelter in. I sent her on her way after a sleepless night with the to-do list and assurances that I would do everything I could to get out of the trip before the airports closed.

I don’t remember the day’s schedule, but we somehow were supposed to go from West Palm Beach through Ft. Lauderdale to Boston and then back to Ft. Lauderdale, scheduled back home around 8 p.m. The first thing I did was ask the captain to have us removed from the rotation. He tried but was also told that no reserves were available to replace us. At the West Palm Beach airport, a Boston B-727 crew deplaned and rode off to a faraway layover. I have always wondered why they couldn’t have flown the airplane back to Boston—they’d only flown the one leg down—and why we couldn’t have just been released from the trip?

In Ft. Lauderdale, I wanted the Chief Pilot’s Office to remove me from the trip, but no one was in the office—the staff had gone home to prepare their homes and property for the approaching storm. The chief pilot was out taking care of his sailboat. Two calls to Atlanta yielded no better results—no coverage.

Resigned to the fact that no one was going to help me get off the trip, I went to the gate to perform my duties. During the walkaround, I noticed a steady stream of light airplanes landing—Bahamians getting out while the getting was still good. As I reentered the airplane, I looked back into the cabin to see every seat taken, every face a mixture of apprehension and relief.

As I entered the cockpit, I saw two professionals performing checks but not quite seeing what they were doing. It was all rote activity—positioning switches and reading checklists, but the occasional overly long gaze out the window or delayed response to a query indicated that their minds were wandering to their homes and families.

We had a gate hold because of the steady stream of refugees from the islands flooding the airspace into Florida. I sat in my flight engineer seat, my mind torn between sucking it up or just walking off the airplane. I wanted to walk off, to call in sick and just go help my family prepare. But then I thought about some other Miami-based flight engineer at home with his family preparing his home. Maybe he has children; Sonia and I didn’t yet. I didn’t want to have him called out on reserve and have to abandon his kids. What if they couldn’t get anyone to come out? The passengers—148 of them—would possibly be stranded away from home as a massive hurricane bore down on them—because of me. No, I have a job, I thought, and even if I shouldn’t be here, I have to do it. It was too late now. Crew Scheduling was promising that we would be on the first plane to Miami in the morning—as if a Category 5 hurricane is like a summer Atlanta thunderstorm, and they’ll sweep up the damage in the morning, and flight operations will resume as normal.

Hours later, we took off. The sky was brilliantly clear. The ocean was glassy calm. It was so beautiful you couldn’t imagine what was churning out over the horizon. The high clouds of the outer band were visible as we performed the climb checklist. Bright red circular bands could be seen on the 320-mile range on the radar. But we put those off our right wing and soon behind us as we made our way through smooth, crystal-clear skies. We three professionals were doing our jobs, occasionally missing a radio call; occasionally flipping a wrong switch, sitting for hours in silence in the cockpit. Two professionals were staring thousands of miles out into nothing, while another one was staring at the panel, not quite registering gauge indications. But soon we started our descent into Boston. More checklists, a touchdown, a reroute message from operations. Ferry the plane to Atlanta, all south Florida airports are closed.

I thank God for preserving my family. I thank ALPA for preserving my faith in people.

Another quiet preflight, another mechanical observance of checklists and duties, then into the bed of a pickup truck at the Atlanta jet base to take a cab to the airport Westin Hotel. After landing, I called Sonia and my folks. Dad—a former high school NYC longshoreman, World War II enlisted Marine, Korean War Navy officer, Navy fighter pilot, Eastern captain—was sure they would be O.K. Mom was a little less sure but by the time they learned of the evacuation order for their neighborhood, it was too late to go. Sonia was nervous. Can’t say that she didn’t have reason to blame me for putting her in harm’s way. But she didn’t say anything—either about being there instead of safely at her sister’s or about my not being there at all.

The storm by then wasn’t headed for the Dade-Broward border, it was wobbling north and south along a westward track so that by then no one was exactly sure where on the south Florida Coast it was going to hit.

The northeast quadrant is the most deadly part of a hurricane. Its counterclockwise rotation causes the highest pressure gradients to build up in that area. Hundreds of tornadoes are embedded within the mass of swirling, howling winds. Historically though, water is the most deadly element in a hurricane. Flying debris can kill but flooding from the storm surge kills a lot more. The storm literally pushes a wall of water before it.

In Andrew’s case, a 20-foot wall of water came ashore just east of my parents’ house. An 80-foot sea-going research ship came ashore a half-mile inland between two houses about 3 miles from their house. The drainage canals that crisscross Miami backed up, and salt water came in under my parents’ front door—5 miles inland. The lawn grass died from salt immersion.

As the storm worsened, I called the house every half hour. From midnight to dawn, I spoke with my wife and parents a dozen times. My father was stoic but by then was somewhat questioning his decision to stay. He described the "freight trains" going through the back yard. He admitted that maybe they had made a mistake, maybe a very wrong decision. But he was going to try to go to sleep because he knew that the morning’s cleanup would be rougher. Mom was amazing; she was holding it together with a brittle strength, scared to death but so casual about what was going on outside—the moaning, screeching winds. Roof tiles from other houses were slamming into the shutters, which held, but only by half an inch; had they failed, the house would literally have exploded outward from the force of the in-rushing wind and the pressurization differential inside the house.

They were going to sleep in the hall, the only place in the house without windows. Sonia was describing the evening’s progress, what she could hear in the dark. A candle and a radio were the only things that provided some illumination in their world. I tried to keep her current on the news reports; but they, too, were in the dark, positioned too far north. The reporters were where the storm was supposed to hit, the Dade-Broward border, but Andrew wobbled at the last minute and instead crashed ashore farther south, in the less densely populated suburbs and rural areas. Lucky for the more densely populated cities of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, but not so for the millions of people trapped in their homes and shelters by raging winds, flying debris, and battering rain.

At my parents’ place, things were slamming into the house, and Spanish barrel tiles from the house next door were relentlessly beating the garage door and patio shutters. The freight trains were still running around outside the house, on no particular timetable. Sonia and my parents never felt a calm eye of the storm; they had no respite from the shrieking winds for 5 hours. They were in the northern eye wall the entire time it passed through—the roughest part of the storm.

As the sun began to rise, the storm finally pulled away. Sonia’s description as she peered out the front door was sobering but limited. Trees were down, my car looked like someone had stepped on it, the roof on the house across the street was missing. She sounded relieved but exhausted. The sun was coming up, but the world outside had come apart.

After dawn, the phone calls stopped. As the rest of the eastern seaboard awakened, phone calls began pouring into Miami. The lines were clogged, and those at home could not get a dial tone. Calls to Scheduling yielded more of the same—we’ll get you out of here as soon as we can, etc. One call by the captain gained him an invitation to feel free to come over and do the job himself if he thinks he can do it better—this from the same people who didn’t want to listen to us native Floridians just 2 days before.

I finally did get through to the house via telephone 2 days later from the Atlanta airport while waiting to board our flight to Ft. Lauderdale. I took orders on what they needed: water, ice, mini-Ruger clips—the latter from Dad. He already had the ammo but wanted more loaded clips. Looters were appearing in the streets. People were wandering the neighborhoods, picking over the debris for treasure and plunder.

Downstairs later in Ft. Lauderdale operations, the flight attendant who had sat two rows in front of me on the flight down was crying hysterically—a single mother of two, she been out for 6 days and hadn’t spoken with her children since she sent them to the neighbors’ house before the storm hit. Scheduling had just assigned her a 2-day trip, saying take it or be fired. The captain gave her his business card and told her to go home. If they give her any trouble, he said, call me, and my lawyer will take care of you. She nodded and sort of staggered up the stairs, still in tears.

I won’t go into more detail about the damage the storm caused. You can see it in pictures. What you can’t see is the humidity, the heat, no electricity in south Miami from August through October, the smell of dead things buried under debris, the pastel green that covered everything since the wind whipped the chlorophyll out of the plants and spray painted every surface. Detouring through yards to avoid streets blocked by high-voltage lines; seeing massive banyan trees toppled with their monstrously complex roots exposed like a black, dirty wall; navigating when all references were gone—street signs, landmarks, the yellow house with the big tree in the yard—things that we use without thought to get home. I got lost two blocks away while driving to the house I grew up in.

Everything was just so unrecognizable. Pulling up in front of my parents’ house, I saw Sonia and my mother with gloves on, pulling out shattered 20-inch razor-sharp barrel tiles buried almost completely in the lawn. The fractured ceramic edges were almost a perfect penetration-point shape, and the force of the wind had driven them deep into the soil. They caused a portion of the roof to fail when they struck the base tile, and the tiles then dominoed up one after another like a deck of cards being shuffled. Good thing it was a new roof, or they would have lost the whole thing. Our 30-foot mahogany tree was embedded in the windshield of the car next door. An SUV-sized air-conditioner unit weighing more than 1,500 pounds lay in the street—somehow it was blown two blocks, between several houses, without crushing anything. It looked like it just fell off the back of a truck.

Days of hard labor, cleaning up the debris, came next. My parents had bought a generator 2 days before Andrew and used it to run their refrigerator 2 hours a day and stored food for the neighbors also. Sonia and I made runs up north to get supplies and always needed ice. Price gouging was rampant: $5 a gallon for gas, $5 to $10 for a bag of ice. Looting had broken out in the shopping mall in Cutler Ridge. A man who was standing in his driveway talking to his insurance representative shot and killed a kid on a bike who fired a shotgun at them. No charges were filed. The National Guard was on patrol, but after a local TV reporter advised everyone that they had no ammunition in their weapons, local gangs with ammo in their weapons relieved a checkpoint patrol of their M-16s. My dad and I took turns standing guard at night. Dad drew a bead on someone on our patio stealing the aluminum from the pool frame. He didn’t care about the scrap metal, but a perimeter is a perimeter. The scrap metal was just feet from the open patio doors into the house. Why in the world anybody would want to risk his life for $20 worth of scrap metal is beyond me.

Meanwhile, the airline was ignoring any input from Miami people on the situation. The news coverage was just beginning to penetrate the worst areas of damage. Their initial location showed battered boats and palm trees but not much more. But as you made your way farther south, though, entire neighborhoods were flattened—roofs, walls, gone; clothing, possessions, and 26 lives, gone; tens of thousands of people without homes; hundreds of thousands without electricity or running water. The Chief Pilot’s Office and individual employees tried to describe it to management, who refused to believe them. A senior executive had to fly down himself and tour the disaster area before they did. One pilot called in to tell Scheduling that he couldn’t make his trip. Threatened with a "no show" and discipline, he replied that he couldn’t fly the trip because he didn’t have a uniform because he didn’t have a house. He and his family were living in a tent in their yard.

ALPA came through with supplies and volunteers. Those who had, gave to those who had nothing—repairing roofs and delivering food, water, and clothes. Management did agree to pay trip drops for pilots in the affected area after being convinced that the damage was real and not some fabrication. I guess they finally did learn how a Category 5 hurricane affects an area. Years later, when I was a union representative, I worked with the Orlando Chief Pilot’s Office to allow pilots to drop trips—albeit without pay—to go take care of their families and homes whenever a hurricane threatened their coastal area. I spent the better part of 2 days calling pilots whose homes were in the path of Hurricane Floyd to let them know of the program and that ALPA’s Emergency Relief Fund would be made available if needed. A first officer recently told me that a management pilot sent his captain and him home from training when Floyd threatened the east coast of Florida—so I guess the message got through to some. We don’t want to leave our people unprotected again.

Andrew made me a unionist. Management came through after ALPA showed them the way. I was pretty much a just-damn-glad-to-be-here guy before Andrew showed me who had the pilots’ interests in mind. Management followed up because it was the right thing to do, but ALPA was there, hammer in hand, on rooftops while management was still taking guided tours of roofless neighborhoods. When I was asked if management would furlough in 1993, I already knew the answer because I had seen management’s lack of concern for employees’ lives and families firsthand.

During contract negotiations, management talked about how the "distractions" of the negotiations process could create stress that could negatively affect cockpit operations, and then admonished us to be professional and ignore it. Right now, we work daily in an environment fraught with stress with the promise of only more to come. We fly millions of passengers safely to their families and destinations. We preserve our airlines’ good names and reputations, safeguarding billions of dollars in corporate assets and countless lives every day. And airline managements furlough more pilots and work to hammer down our pay and benefits, blaming us for their business mistakes.

Andrew destroyed $30 million in property, damaged or destroyed approximately 126,000 homes, left 125,000 people homeless, and killed 65 people. I thank God for preserving my family. I thank ALPA for preserving my faith in people. The pilots did the work; ALPA provided the organization for them to be able to help. Our people rose to the occasion when Andrew struck and helped their fellow pilots and employees while management initially ignored our pleas for help. Maybe that’s why I have faith that ALPA will always be more concerned about taking care of its people. I have seen it myself.

Capt. John Blonsick also wrote "The Missing Link," May 2001.

Continental Pilots Help in Guam Typhoon Relief

By Jim Moody

In the true spirit of the holiday season, Continental and Continental Express pilots responded to the needs of friends and neighbors in Guam who were still struggling in the aftermath of super-typhoon Pongsona, which struck Guam on Dec. 8, 2002.

With winds exceeding 180 mph, Pongsona did extensive damage to the island. The local infrastructure was severely strained, with a shortage of housing and many areas remaining without electricity 2 weeks after the storm. Many of the stores remained closed, making replacement of essentials as well as Christmas shopping impossible. Schools were closed and converted into shelters.

Continental and Continental Express pilots based throughout the airlines’ domiciles donated children’s clothing and toys, which were collected in Houston on Friday, December 20, to be packed and shipped to Guam to arrive in time for Christmas. The more than 70 large packing boxes that were filled could not all be flown out on one flight.

The last of the donations arrived on a flight at 1:30 a.m. Christmas morning. At 8 a.m., pilots with their wives and family members sorted the almost 1.5 tons donated and began deliveries to the UPI Elementary School, which had been turned into a shelter. There, the pilots delivered toys to more than 100 children.

"We saw a lot of excited kids," says Capt. Bill Sutherland, an officer for Local Executive Council 173. "We made Christmas for a lot of the kids and their families who otherwise would have had none."

Five pickup trucks were needed to make the deliveries, which eventually carried clothes and toys to eight different shelters. Even so, the 30 or so boxes that were left will be donated to the company’s "We Care" program to go to employees’ families.

Currently, about 130 pilots for Continental Micronesia are based in Guam. Continental Micronesia has provided commercial air service in Guam since 1968.

"We have shared the good and the bad with the people of Guam, including earlier typhoons," says Capt. John Prater, chairman of the Continental Master Executive Council. "Many Continental pilots have spent part of their careers flying in Guam, and no one ever forgets the experience or the people," Capt. Prater says.

After learning the extent of damage from local ALPA officials—Capt. Bill Sutherland and First Officers Nick Bonacci and Eric Anderson—Continental ALPA initiated the relief drive. Continental Airlines Flight Operations joined the effort, offering to provide shipping of the donations to Guam. "Once we knew what was most needed, we let our members know and they responded magnificently," says Capt. Prater. "Pilots in bases outside Houston overnighted donations to Houston to get them here in time for shipping."

With less than a week to collect the items, the MEC offices stayed open until 7 p.m. December 17-20 to collect the donations. Pilot volunteers staffed the phones to alert the pilot group to the need and helped keep the offices open late.

After the last of the donations came in Friday evening (December 20), the donations were packed. Several van and truck trips later, the boxes were delivered to the Continental docks for loading and delivery to Guam by Christmas.

Jim Moody, an ALPA communications specialist assigned to the Continental pilots’ MEC, serves as editor of the MEC’s magazine.