We’d been up all night, a common event in the lives of freight pilots, the nomads of the dark. The trek started the evening before, launching from some city in the midwest, making a stop here or there to pick up more of the precious overnight cargo before making the longer stop in the hub city, Memphis, Tennessee, to disgorge the huge cans of packages and letters carried in the hollow fuselage of our DC-10. While we were on the ground in Memphis the hundreds of thousands of pounds of freight from hundreds of airplanes went through the famous FedEx package sort system and was reloaded into freight cans and placed back on the aircraft headed to the same part of the world as the addressees on the packages. Most of the United States was slumbering away while all this took place, but the activity around the “Hub” was such that Memphis International Airport was one of the busiest airports in the world at night, all due to the single resident cargo carrier we worked for. We even had a fond nickname for the place: Planet Memphis. The place is in its own little orbit at night.
While the freight was making its way to our particular DC-10 we were inside flight ops evaluating the data we needed to plan the next and last leg of our duty night, Memphis to Newark, New Jersey.
Newark is a major FedEx hub in the Northeast, the bulk of the overnight deliveries that land in Newark are actually destined for New York City. The flow of packages into and out of “Noo Yawk” is amazing.
The traffic in this area is amazing, too, both on the ground and in the air. The ground traffic is constricted by tunnels and bridges, all of which are nearly overwhelmed in the morning and evening rush hours. FedEx pilots learn early on that a one minute delay for a truck trying to get into the high density business districts can mean–quite literally–hundreds of service failures, a service failure meaning a package didn’t get to the destination on time as promised by FedEx.
The air traffic is equally constricted. Within a limited area of controlled airspace are big airports. Lots of them: JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, and Philadelphia head the list. Geographically they may seem to be disparate, but in the high speed world of air transport all of these airports are close together. Even on a good weather day smoothly managing all of the arrivals and departures in this corridor is a huge air traffic control feat.
One hiccup can have far reaching effects. The best example I have heard of is the snafu that resulted when a just landed 747 at JFK made a wrong turn, which translated into a nose to nose with another large aircraft, which translated into an aircraft with its tail out over a runway. Said tail closed the runway for arrivals, and the net daisy chain effect for the next hour or so was such that takeoff clearances were cancelled for aircraft as far away as Paris, France!
The Captain for my flight to Newark this morning (I was a relatively inexperienced First Officer) had been to the Northeast many times. He looked at all the paperwork, the weather forecast, and the radar images for the East coast. I thought all was in order, save for a little thunderstorm somewhere between Philly and Newark. We had plenty of fuel to get there and a decent reserve.
Or so I thought. The Captain looked at the bottom line fuel quantity for the flight and told me to call ops and order another 22,000 pounds of fuel.
“Twenty-two thousand?” I asked. “Are you sure?” New guys ask questions, they want to know the reasoning behind decisions they don’t understand. My background was Navy jets and then the little Falcon jet FedEx first operated. Twenty-two thousand pounds extra was a dizzy number to me. With that much fuel and a KA-6D I could top off several F-14’s and still have fuel left over for the entire air wing recovery. But that was in a previous life…
“See that little thunderstorm?” asks the Captain. “The traffic between Philly and Newark already has to go around the thing. If the storm gets bigger or moves closer to the coast we’ll be in holding before you know it.”
So I ordered the extra 22,000 pounds of fuel.
Sage man, that Captain. On the way to Newark we entered holding some 200 miles short of the coast, then moved on to another pattern 100 miles closer. The airways were getting clogged. A long night seemed to drag on and on…
By the time we got to the approach controller at Newark I was respectful of the Captain’s decision to load the extra fuel. We needed it.
The “little” thunderstorm had moved across New Jersey and was walking across Newark, and once again we entered the stack of arriving aircraft in a holding pattern.
It was the time of day that the body hates if you’ve been up all night. The sun was cracking the edge of the far horizon, the dim edges of the clouds were beginning to sharpen, grays were morphing into blues and whites. The stars were slowly washing out in the light and the moon was fading from view. We were in the clear and could see the lights of other aircraft above and below us.
I was tired, sometimes the fatigue eats at you and is a real weight on the shoulders, your eyes are irritated and it feels like the blood circulating through your body and brain has turned to molasses. My body had reached that state, I’m sure the Flight Engineer and the Captain felt exactly the same. The heck with getting the packages delivered on time, how about getting on the ground and to the hotel and getting some sleep!
We always carried a big thermos jug of coffee. I’d slowly put away several cups over the last hours. Not sure if the caffeine helped keep me alert or the act of juggling a cup of coffee and handling the mike at the same time was just enough challenge to keep me active.
Newark approach came up on the radios. The controller was checking on the fuel status of his wards in the holding pattern. Each time we turned back toward the airport in our holding pattern our radar was showing the storm slowly moving on to the east. Maybe it was time to start the approaches.
I turned to the guy in back and held showed him my empty coffee cup. He passed me the jug.
The voice of the controller came over the headset: “United 310, how’s your fuel holding out?”
United 310 replied, “We’re good for another 45 minutes or so.”
The controller made another call. “Continental 220, how are you fixed for fuel?”
“Not bad yet” was the response, “about a half hour or so before we have to make a decision to divert.”
And so the conversation continued through the stack of aircraft. I made a mental note of the fuel we had remaining and cross checked my thoughts on time remaining with the Captain. He agreed that we were OK for at least another 40 to 45 minutes. Thank goodness for that extra fuel he loaded on.
I loosened the cap on the coffee jug and tipped the jug over to get yet another cup of java. As the bottom of the jug rose higher and higher a pitiful little stream of slightly warm brown stuff poured into my cup. The little stream stopped before there was even an inch of coffee in the cup. Rats. Empty.
The guy in back took the jug from me, and a moment later came the call from approach checking on our fuel state. “Express 212, what’s your fuel situation?”
I picked up the mike and answered. “Express 212 has enough left for about 40 minutes or so,” I said and then looked at the cup in my hand, clicked the mike once more and added, “but we just ran out of coffee.”
“Roger,” came the voice in reply. “That makes you number one for the approach, turn left to a heading of zero-two-zero for vectors to intercept the final approach course, descend and maintain two thousand.”
The Captain smiled. The guy in back gave me a pat on the shoulder.
Ahhh. First on the ground. Sleep was not far away.