Getting Off the Slope

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What do you get when you combine one of the harshest environments in the country with the only way to leave is by the Boeing 737 you are booked on?  You get crazy flight delays.

When you talk to anyone who has worked up on a rotation on the North Slope, they are bound to tell you about a time they either couldn’t get up to or couldn’t head home from Deadhorse.  I was scheduled to return home yesterday from the North Slope yesterday on a 3PM flight to get me home by 4:40 with more than enough time to pick up the pooch, change clothes, then make a run for a night of curling and beer.  However, signs were coming early that it wouldn’t be that easy.  Instead I made it home by nearly 9PM, and the pooch was still in lock down and the curling match was over.

When I arrived on slope on Sunday, the rumor of a Monday night/ Tuesday morning blizzard was all over.  The slope issues weather restrictions using Phase Conditions.  Phase 1 means there is problems out there, and if you aren’t careful you could be in some weather related trouble.  Phase 2 means the visibility is so bad you need to convoy from place to place.  The worst is Phase 3, where the visibility is inches or feet in front of you; security and safety requires you to lock down where you are at, and if it looks like it will be a while they will send a crawler out to get you.  As a reference, at the worst point the blizzard was so bad, we couldn’t see buildings along the road from the road itself — that is Phase 1.  There was a threat of Phase 2 or 3, but that was never issued.

To get home, you just need a plane on the ground.  If its Phase 2 or 3, the plane doesn’t even depart Anchorage to come get us.  Phase 1, they let the pilot make the call.

On Tuesday, our flight departed on time from Anchorage, which was a great sign.  We checked in, got through security, and waited to see what will happen.  As the pilot approached, he made the call that the visibility was too bad to land.  Since he used up most his gas, he landed at an airport an hour’s drive away (Kuparik Airport).  Typically, this means that we all jump on a bus and ride the hour to Kuparik, and they load us there to fly home (at least that was what the old hands said, that’s a good 40 minutes farther west than I ever been up there).  Trouble is, the main road between the two airports had an oil rig on it being moved from one pad to another, meaning no busing.  So we were told to load up the bus and head back to our camp.  The drive back only made it more obvious we were up against, as we couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of us.  Once we got there, we all got work calling our billeting office to get a place to sleep for the night, but as we checked with security, and they told us straight up not to go too far.  Thirty more minutes, and the buses were reloaded and we made our way back to the airport.  The pilot was going to make another go at it.  In that 30 minutes, we went from barely no visibility to over a half mile.  It was still blowing but we looked good to see a plane.   When we made it to the airport, the plane was leaving Kuparik for the 20 minute flight.  It landed safe and in an hour we were buckled in ready to fly.

Here’s the thing though.  Remember a couple days ago when I blogged about what it was light to fly to the slope?  The thing that is hardest to get across is that you couldn’t as a passenger treat the flights like it was just another airline.  Everyone on the plane was heading home … not just heading from a place to a place, heading home from work.  This would be like riding a bus or in a car pool.

If it was like any other airline, what do you think would have happened if a flight was delayed?  There would be a mass of people waiting in line at a counter asking questions — there was none of that.  An announcement came to head back to our buses and find a room there.  What do you think would have happened if any other airline threw you on a bus, drove you to a hotel, and said you’re on your own?  How often do you think would that hotel tell you, “don’t go anywhere, the flight is going to happen”.

Now what do you think when I tell you Shared Services is not your normal airline, eh?

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