By Captain Nancy Aldrich
I guess I was pretty fortunate in my career. I’ve only had to divert five times, and two of those were planned diversions. Both of the planned diversions were fuel stops.
We were flying from Denver to Honolulu with a full load of both people and cargo, and there was no way we could carry enough fuel. We stopped at Sacramento for fuel. I was the second officer and the captain had me make the announcement to the passengers that we would making the stop. I explained that the ground crew was waiting for us, and that we would be handled expeditiously. I told the passengers that this would only add about half an hour to our flight time. Well, of course, I was wrong. It added almost an hour.
Once we were on the ground and in the hotel, I changed and headed down to the Hilton Hawaiian Village where my brother was playing piano. As I sat there enjoying the beautiful surroundings and Bob’s music, I overheard a conversation at the next table. One couple was telling another couple about the fuel stop, and how some woman got on the radio and told them it would only be a half an hour. They were not happy and felt that they had been lied to. Actually, we were fully expecting to be back in the air quickly. I did not intentionally lie to the people, it simply took longer than any of us had expected.
The other planned diversion was a fuel stop in Taiwan on the way to Hong Kong! Again, I was the second officer, but this time the captain made the announcement. It was a very short stop. I got out of the airplane and did a quick ‘walk around’ while the ground crew was fueling the airplane. I’ve never seen so many people swarming around the airplane. There must have been at least 30. I can’t imagine what they were all doing, but they had the fuel on the airplane and we were ready to go about the time I got back on board. It was a very quick turnaround.
The other three diversions were not planned, but worked out well. The first happened on a flight into Chicago. We were coming in from the northeast. We had a woman on board who was in a lot of pain. She was groaning and the flight attendants told me she was on the floor. I did not go back to check on her. We had no doctors on board at the time. I had called ahead to have medics meet the flight. As were out over Lake Michigan, approaching Chicago, we were assigned a holding pattern and told to expect to hold for at least 30 minutes. We had not been dispatched with any hold fuel. I immediately told Air Traffic Control (ATC) that I wanted clearance to Milwaukee. They questioned me, and I explained that we did not have the fuel and that we had an ill passenger. At that point they cleared us directly to Milwaukee. We notified the company and after landing we were met with medics and people to fuel the airplane.
It turned out that the woman was experiencing severe menstrual cramps. The flight attendants said she stayed on the floor until the medics arrived and carried her off the airplane.
I walked through the airplane and talked with passengers as the plane was being refueled. One of the passengers happened to be Jaclyn Smith, one of the original cast members of the old TV show, “Charlie’s Angels.” She was very quiet and polite, and accepted the delay without comment. After getting our new clearance, we continued to Chicago without incident.
The next I talk about in my book, but not in this much detail. The first was on a routine flight from Boston to Chicago. But, this flight turned out to be anything but routine! It was summertime, that is a big clue – thunderstorms. As I mentioned in an earlier article, weather is one of the main reasons for delays, and also diversions.
While sitting at the gate, ATC called to say that Chicago was not accepting any flights because of thunderstorms in the area. They said they would get back to us when Chicago opened up. That was about 7:30 in the evening. We halted boarding, and waited. After about 2 hours, we were told to start boarding, the thunderstorms were dying down and Chicago planned to open shortly.
Around 10 p.m., we were given our clearance. We fired up the engines and were on our way. The flight was uneventful for the first hour. As we were approaching the Detroit area, we were assigned an ‘indefinite’ hold. That meant they had no idea how long we would be circling. I notified the company. They told me it would be a lengthy delay due to the thunderstorms in Chicago. They also said that the Detroit airport had all the airplanes it could handle, and told us to divert into Indianapolis.
We landed in Indy around 12:30 am. All hotels were full, there simply were no rooms to be had anywhere in the city. We heard a lot of groans when we announced to the passengers that they were stuck in the airport. All restaurants were closed. We assured them that we would continue into Chicago as soon as we could. The crew went into the ‘operations area’ and tried to get a little sleep, while the passengers slept in chairs or on the floor. About 5:00 in the morning, we were told to board the airplane and get ready to go. We copied our clearance and took off, arriving in Chicago at just after sun up. There were cheers from the passengers as we landed. It had taken about 12 hours to get them there, but at last we were in Chicago!
About 5 days later, I was flying from Chicago to Boston. As I walked through the gate area, several people recognized me from the diverted flight. We laughed and joked a bit, and I assured them the weather was good, and we would not be diverting to Indy on the flight back!
My most memorable diversion is another one that I talk about in my book. This was during a flight returning to New York from Sao Paulo, Brazil. As the crew was standing around the hotel lobby, a flight attendant came up to me and said he had not felt well all day long. That should have been a clue!
We took off and were a couple of hours into the flight when he called and asked if he could come up to the cockpit and lie down. In that airplane, we had an extra seat in the cockpit that would recline. I told him, “sure.”
When he entered the cockpit, I could see that he was in extreme pain. He looked like a ghost. As he lay on the seat, he was writhing and groaning. I asked the flight attendants to see if there was a doctor on board. No such luck. However, they did find a Homeopathic Practitioner. I asked them to bring him into the cockpit, which they did. I told him that I had an idea of what was wrong, and asked for his opinion. After a few minutes of examining the flight attendant, he said, “he is having an acute attack of appendicitis.” That is exactly what I had thought.
I contacted the company dispatch office on the high frequency radio, and asked for a doctor. This was approximately 2 am in Chicago, but they had a doctor on the line in less than a minute. He asked several questions, then said, “get him to a hospital as soon as you can.”
At the time, we were about half way between Manuas and Brasilia. The Homeopathic Practitioner said Manaus had better medical facilities. I called ATC and said, “United 986, requests immediate clearance direct to Manaus.” I got no answer. After a couple of minutes, I repeated my call, “United 986, request immediate emergency clearance direct to Manaus.” Again, no answer. In the meantime, the flight attendant is begging me to take him to an English speaking country. I told him that the nearest English speaking country was 7 hours away, and he would die before we got him there. Again, I made my radio call, “United 986, request immediate emergency clearance direct to Manaus.” This time I got a reply – from an American Airlines flight! They called, “United, do you have a problem?” Wonder what gave them that idea! I explained my problem to them. They started helping me call Brazilian ATC. Finally, I heard ATC say, “United 986, you are cleared direct to Manuas. contact Manaus approach when you start your descent.” I read the clearance back, and we turned left toward Manaus.
Now, I did not have a lot of confidence in that clearance. A “clearance” is supposed to mean that they have checked and there is no conflicting traffic with what you are planning to do, your course is ‘clear. However, I was not confident that ATC had checked that, so as we changed out route, I turned on every light on the airplane and broadcast to anyone in the area our location, altitude, and intentions. About every 10 minutes, I would make another broadcast.
Our other problem was that we had very little information about our route and terrain during our descent. As I thought about that, I decided to get out our ‘Low Altitude’ charts and see what I could determine from them. I found that we were only 3 degrees off a low altitude airway to Manaus. The first officer was flying, so I tuned his navigation instruments, and we got on that airway.
The flight attendant was very disconcerted about being dropped off in the middle of the night, in a strange city, and taken to a hospital where no one spoke English. I decided to have another flight attendant stay with him. Later, I learned that the company had sent an English speaking employee to Manaus to help him communicate, and act in his behalf.
The company was also very good with making arrangements. When we taxied to the gate, there were 3 people standing on the jet bridge. They had a doctor, with an ambulance on the ramp, a fueler ready to refuel the airplane for the continuation of the flight, and a representative from Varig Airlines, to help expedite our handling. They quickly got the flight attendant into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital, and the fueler gave us the fuel we needed to continue. We thought things were going ‘swimmingly,’ until we tried to get a clearance to New York. The tower said they had no paperwork on us, and no clearance. I contacted dispatch, and they refiled for us. We called again, no clearance. This time the tower controller said they needed a ‘hard copy’ of our flight plan. I handed copy to the Varig representative and he ran it up to the tower. Then the tower told me that they could not do anything, the main Brazil Air Traffic Control Center had to have a ’hard copy.’ Again, I contacted the dispatch office. I have no idea what they did next, but, finally,I got a clearance. The controller said, “United 986, you are cleared direct to New York, as filed.”
I told the first officer to fire up the engines we were ready to go. He said, “that’s not a good clearance, we don’t have a heading after departure, we don’t have a squawk (a transponder code), we don’t have an altitude, and we don’t have a frequency.” Of course, he was correct, we didn’t have any of those things that are standard in a clearance here in the States. However, I was tired of sitting there and figured we would get those things as we needed them. Under protest, he fired up the engines and I taxied out to the end of the runway. Once we were there, the tower called and gave us the rest of the information we needed, and we were off!
Once I got into the flight office in New York, I went into the Chief Pilot’s office. He told me that he had done a lot of flying in South America, and had I waited for the rest of the clearance, we might still be sitting there. He explained they seldom give that information until the flight is in position for take off.
A couple of months later, I received a very nice letter from the flight attendant for saving his life. I also received a very nice letter from the Chief Pilot and the Senior Vice President of Flight Operations. That made me feel good. I just did what had to be done in the circumstances.
Some diversions are pretty routine, but that one was not routine in any sense. I was happy with the way the company had everything ready when I arrived in Manaus. Because of their efficiency, that flight was only delayed a little over an hour.
I hope you are never involved in a diversion. If you are, please be assured, everyone is doing all they can to get the flight back up in the air and get you to your destination as quickly and as safely as possible!
By Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer