Location: GIG (Rio de Janeiro)
I’m writing this on my hotel balcony in my pajamas. The sun is just beginning to rise, the waves and birds are the only sounds, pretty soon hang gliders will appear coming down from the tall cliffs a few miles away. The scheduling gods awarded me 40 hours on this tropical paradise and I’ve already spent the first 24 of them.. sleeping.
The mother of all winter storms hit Charlotte three days ago. The aircraft deicers were out in full force when the first snowflakes fell. Two dozen deicing trucks lined the edges of the runways and cargo pads- two powerful diesel engines running inside each. One for hydraulic and glycol pumps and the other for wheels. It began as a few snow flakes that melted upon touching the skin of the airplane. A quick once over with piping hot orange type I fluid and then a sprinkling of unheated green type IV, and the plane was good to go after a few minutes. My driver was a kid from the same neighborhood as I in Chicago. He’s one of the sharpest working for the company and not afraid to communicate any useful advice while I spray. I like him. I got three planes under my belt before I had to leave the truck to work a trip.
I leave the deicing hanger, take off my reflective vest and winter jacket. Underneath I am fully dressed in my flight attendant uniform. My flight is to Cleveland, where I’ll layover and work a flight back to Charlotte the next day. We board, shut the door, and wait for two hours to get deiced. The passengers are frustrated but appreciative of the frequent updates. A call bell goes off in the first row of economy. A passenger complains of being given a tonic water when he requested a soda water. It must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, I could tell he was genuinely far too angry about this than anyone should be. “Sorry to hear that, I can fix that.” I say. I return a few seconds later and I said with a smile, “Here is your tonic water sir.” His face drops, and he begins to protest, “I said sparkling water!”
“Ohhh you want sparkling water, I have a trick for that.” I rub my wings and say “Delta Aqueous. Now try it.” He takes a careful sip and smiles along with everyone else in his row.
We get to Cleveland, and the captain tells us that our return leg was canceled, we’ll be deadheading (airline speak for flying as a regular passenger) back to Charlotte. I’m disappointed because I’m flying with a tall young French gal. We flew once before when she was just starting and I was impressed by just how mature and diligent she was. She had all her training material spread over the galley countertops as it was her first time doing that (lead) position and she wanted to be sure she didn’t miss a thing. Now she was deadheading with me back to snowy Charlotte. The flight attendant working that flight asks for four of us to move to the back of the plane for weight and balance reasons. Frenchie and I volunteer. We pass the rest of the crew on the way to the back. My captain gives me a puzzled look. I say loud enough for others to hear, “They told us we’re too fat to sit in the front. Something about not being able to lift the nose wheel.” It got some chuckles, especially considering her and I are slim.
I go to bed at 9PM, I had a strong suspicion crew scheduling would be calling at 5AM. Sure enough, got the call, 5:15AM. I’ll be flying to Tampa at 5:50PM. Good, I can pick up a deicing shift. The snow has been falling pretty consistently since yesterday. Schools are closed. The roads and highways have a foot of snow on them. Only a few sane people, the ones threatened by severe disciplinary action from their bosses are out on the road. I get to the deicing hanger, and am immediately put to action. This time I’m a driver. My sprayer is experienced and it shows. His technique was quick and didn’t waste precious fluid. Together we sprayed 78 planes that day. The only time we stopped was to refill the truck’s (combined) massive 2,000 gallon tanks. If we had to piss, we did it on the side of the runway. As the shift pressed onto the 16th hour, the trucks were dropping of service like flys. One truck couldn’t couldn’t get their basket to move left without also moving up. Another truck’s type VI fluid would only dribble out. Another's hydraulics cut out completely and the sprayer was stuck three stories above the ground until the driver operated a backup electric pump located in the back of the truck. Everyone was on edge from working so long. The radio chatter became hostile at times. My sprayer asked if we could switch positions in the truck after our next refill. Spraying is by far the more stressful position. The company passed out a Whopper to each of us. My sprayer and I were both starved. We scarfed them down in less than a minute’s time then went to work on the next plane. The image that will stick in my head most from that night is getting out next to the 737, in front of the screaming engine #2 with no ear protection. I pull out the ground gun from the front of the truck and blast the underside of the wing and side of the engine. These conditions are the most difficult to deice in. Under the snow there is ice which has to be taken off by a combination of melting and prying with a narrowly focused beam of fluid. I spray upwards and watch the ice slide off the leading edge of the wing in front of me in sheets, shattering upon impact with the wet runway. Luckily the wind is to my back and the spray doesn’t come back onto my face much. My Tampa flight cancels.
During the next refill, we were given a one hour break. The driver of one truck tells me a plane started driving away mid-deice. The pilots mistook his tail number for a different one. The sprayer shouted over his headphones to his driver not to move, the driver shouted back that it’s not him that’s moving, it’s the plane! The driver released the break and drove the truck out of the way and the truck’s boom missed the plane’s horizontal stabilizer by a few feet. That could have ended very badly if the driver wasn’t so quick. Another tuck was missing a side view mirror. He was spaying behind the massive Airbus A330 when an engine ingested some ice, which struck the mirror and tore it off. I don’t think any wide-body plane should deice with engines running. The engines, even at idle produce too much thrust. When you’re behind the engines the whole truck wobbles, the hood of the truck flexes on either side of the mounting points and the windshield wipers always look as if the’ll snap like twigs any second.
At midnight I go home. I’m exhausted. I get two and a half hours of sleep and return to the deicing hanger. The snow is still falling hard and winds are gusting. The roads are only marginally better. I miss my exit because there is a snowbank in front of it. I use my GPS as a way to spot where the next exit is located. Most of the airlines canceled all their flights until 11AM, so there is time to top off all the trucks with fluids. A storage tank pump for the type IV fluid breaks down and there is no backup. First the battery dies, then the backup pull start cord breaks off.
At 6AM scheduling calls and asks me where I’d like to fly. I ask for Rio de Janeiro and it is granted. The airport is short on deicing fluid. There is just enough left to fill up all the trucks once. Luckily, almost all the flights are canceled so fluid won’t be a problem. So tired, I arrive at the terminal and look at the departure board for my gate information, everything is delayed or canceled except for a few high priority international flights. The Rio flight I’m working was scheduled to leave the night before, it was delayed and when it finally left the gate they waited to be deiced so long that the pilots timed out and they returned to the gate. All the passengers slept in the terminal. Hotels in Charlotte had few rooms left and even the economy hotels were charging $200/night. There were cots and blue yoga mats with the Charlotte Douglass Airport logo peppered all over the gates.
When boarding, there were a few polite smiles and plenty of people who looked angry. We waited an hour and a half to be deiced. Nobody was following their instructions to remain seated. I got requests for food before we took off (sorry it’s not ready). One passenger rang his call bell just to ask why we are so disorganized. I said we’re doing our best, the fact that this flight can even go in weather like this is amazing if you knew all the organization that has to go on behind the scenes. He rang his call bell again 20 minutes later and complained to another flight attendant the same thing.
It was the worst flight I can ever remember doing. I was tired, and the call bells were never ending. Every 30 seconds (no exaggeration) there was a ding, the only time I sat down in those 8 hours was during my 2 hour crew rest. The crew was just ok, mostly new(ish) hires, and a couple of them felt their few months seniority over me makes them bossy know-it-alls. A woman who checked her heart medication in her luggage came to the back galley asking for water and breathing heavily. She drank it and could no longer stand. Luckily one of the flight attendants was also a nurse and she took the woman’s vitals. Another passenger translated. She said she was feeling better and made her way back to her seat unassisted.
I got to my room at 5AM, shut the door, collapsed in bed and slept until my phone rang at 1PM. The crew wanted to know if I wanted to go to lunch with them. I declined, cooked the MRE that I brought, drank a bottle of water, and went back to sleep until 6AM the next morning. The hotel van leaves at 9PM tonight. I’ll be meeting a good friend of mine today. We hope to go to the beach, eat, and ride bicycles. Now that I’m rested, with a few cups of coffee on the plane I should be ok for this overnight flight.
Beat the boredom problem I was having. Life on the line continues…