November 28, 2013
0312 Greenwich Mean Time West 87 Degrees
Altitude 4000 Feet
As we continued westward, we maintained radio contact with other aircraft on 123.45. It appeared that the entire electrical grid for the United States was wiped out. No one had any idea what caused it or how long it would take for the system to be restored. It seemed pretty clear to us that once we were on the ground, it would be quite a while before we would be able to travel anywhere.
This was a major concern for Jim and me. While Mark lived locally, in Schaumburg, Jim and I were both commuters, from Denver. Initially, we discussed perhaps renting a car and driving from Chicago to Denver, then reality set in. Without electricity, it would be impossible to rent a car or conduct virtually any other type of financial transaction, since pretty much everything is done with computers and internet connections.
And, even if we could get our hands on a car, we wouldn’t be able to reach Denver on a single tank of gas. The previous year’s aftermath of Hurricane Sandy demonstrated how fragile the fuel infrastructure is. Without electrical power, there was no way we would be able to refuel enroute from Chicago to Denver. So driving home was out of the question.
Mark listened to us discussing our predicament, and finally chimed in.
“Hey, guys, you can stay at my house.”
I wanted to at least make an effort to object, but it would have been totally transparent. He offered his help, and we needed it badly. We accepted his offer. I momentarily felt sorry for his wife and kids. They were expecting Mark to be coming home to their own rescue, and here he would be dragging complete strangers with him. And, with all communications out, there wouldn’t even be any way for him to give them a heads up.
We allowed our FMC to guide us to O’Hare, and set up for a visual approach to Runway 32 Left. I configured the aircraft a bit early, so that we could see if all of the onboard equipment was operating normally. Everything worked pretty much as advertised except for the autobrakes.
The Autobrake System was designed to automatically apply the brakes to slow the airplane at a predetermined, pilot-selectable deceleration level upon landing. It wouldn’t be a problem to use manual brakes and get the airplane stopped on the runway. What concerned me more was the potential for the Anti-skid System to also malfunction, so I would need to be extra careful with manual braking, since I would be the human-powered antiskid. Still, not a problem.
I easily picked out the landmarks along the shoreline of Lake Michigan and set myself up on a long straight-in final approach to Runway 32 Left, using the TCAS to give myself five miles spacing on the aircraft ahead of me. When I was on a three-mile final, I gave a quick call on 123.45, then on 121.5.
“WorldJet Airways 407 on three-mile final to three-two left.”
On short final, I looked over toward the control tower to see if they would flash a green light at me, the backup system to provide landing authorization. Nothing. There was no way to know if there was even anyone in the tower. I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had abandoned the tower hours ago, since there was nothing they could accomplish without any form of communications capability.
After we landed, I cleared the runway and shut down the left engine. My weight was light enough that a one-engine taxi would be no problem, and I wanted to save as much fuel as I could, to operate the APU if necessary. The Auxiliary Power Unit would provide electrical power and air for heating and cooling, if we needed to be self-sufficient for a while, such as remote parking.
We proceeded along the outer taxiway in a counter-clockwise direction to the International Terminal, the only terminal authorized for flights originating out of the United States. I knew from previous experience, inner taxiway goes clockwise, outer taxiway goes counter-clockwise. I just hoped the other airplanes on the ground knew it also.
And there were a lot of airplanes. They were everywhere. From what I could see at the concourses of the main terminal, every parking spot was occupied, probably by aircraft that were on the gate when the power failed.
Frequency 123.45 became the de-facto CB radio, with everyone chiming in on their location and intentions. I could see that there were some open gates at the International Terminal, but the automatic Accu-Park parking system would, obviously, be inoperative.
I picked an empty gate, turned in along the lead-in line painted on the tarmac, and slowly approached the gate. As I got closer, I reached up to the overhead panel and started the APU. Just as I was about to slow to a stop, I saw a mechanic running toward our parking spot, with directional wands in his hands. As he got to our gate, he started marshaling me to the parking spot. When he gave me the “stop” signal, I set the brakes, confirmed that the APU was running, and shut down the right engine. The mechanic plugged his headset into the communication jack in the nose wheel well.
“Welcome to Chicago, Captain. We’ve had an exciting day!”
“So have we. Can you fill me in on what’s going on?” I asked.
“About five hours ago, a huge sun spot storm knocked out all power, pretty much all
over the world, as far as we can tell. Internet, phone lines, everything is out. All of our electronics are fried. The only radios that work are the hand-held transceivers that were in the garage and the baggage sorting area. Not very many. Let me ask you something, Captain. How much fuel do you have?”
“Twenty-two thousand pounds. Why?”
“We’re trying to get an idea how much fuel we have if we need to rob one airplane to fuel another. I’m going to be off headset for a little while to try to get some boarding stairs hooked up to door six left.”
“Why can’t we hook up the loading bridge?”
“The terminal backup power is out, and the loading bridge needs power to position it up to the airplane. Also, even if we had the bridge up to the airplane, we couldn’t use it without power, because the auto-leveler wouldn’t work.”
Of course – the auto-leveler. As people enter or leave an airplane, the weight of the airplane changes, and the auto-leveler adjusts the height of the loading bridge so that it remains at the height of the bottom of the aircraft door. When you offload over two hundred people, the aircraft can raise as much as three feet.
So we waited for portable stairs. At least we had the APU, so we could have electrical power for lighting and services, such as toilet operation. And heating. The sun was starting to go down, and the temperature was dropping quickly. After about an hour, portable stairs were positioned at door four left, and everyone slowly deplaned. It took about forty minutes for everyone to deplane, with all of their carry-on luggage. When everyone was off, I shut down the APU, turned off the Battery Switch, and headed to the back of the airplane, where the stairs were located. The Captain is always the last to leave. No telling when I’d be flying this baby again.
By now it was dark inside the airplane, and I reached into my flight bag, pulled out my new LED flashlight, and pressed the switch. Nothing. I cycled the switch a few more times, with the same results. About this time, the mechanic had entered the plane to make sure everyone had gotten off okay. His flashlight was working fine.
“Is that an LED light, Captain?”
“Yes, but it’s not working.”
“The radiation has wiped out pretty much all the LEDs. If you have HID headlights in
your car, they won’t work, either. As far as I can tell, most of the cars are operating okay, though.”
“Thanks for your help. We have a good ship. The only squawk we have is the autobrakes aren’t working. Other than that, clean bird.”
“Good to hear, Captain. Have a safe trip home.”
A safe trip home. With no way to communicate to the airline planning department, no way to flight plan without weather information, no way for the airline to even know where its planes or pilots were located, no way to communicate to the flight crews or passengers, and a winter storm approaching, a safe trip home would be nice. Really nice.
But it wouldn’t be happening very soon.