A “Symphony of Your Life” blog with Mark Hardcastle
Seriously? Not on my watch. It’s all about having backups. Or we wouldn’t have made it to Seattle…
It has been said that in July of 1519, Spanish colonizer Hernán Cortés ordered his men to burn their ships after the battle of Veracruz on the eastern shore of Mexico, thus forcing the men to conquer or die. He had effectively removed any idea of a backup plan, should the invasion be repulsed.
I hear this notion bandied about frequently by so-called “motivational speakers.” (That phrase always conjures up the Saturday Night Live sketch of Chris Farley living in a van down by the river.) The concept these thought-leaders are getting at is the idea of commitment. Their challenge: how committed are you to the outcomes you say you want? Are you willing to burn your bridges, or in this illustration, your ships?
If you’re not, the thinking goes, then you will find a host of reasons not to advance. It’s too hard. It costs too much. Your friends or family won’t support you.
Here’s a thought. Your friends and family won’t support you anyway. Ask Darren LaCroix whose family told him he could never be a comedian because they knew he wasn’t funny. Which was true when he started out. Being a comedian is a learned skill. His close relations were comparing his first year of being a comedian with Jerry Seinfeld’s twentieth. Which, of course, is not fair in any world, but it happens all the time.
As usual, I digress.
Seattle, WA is not known for snowfall. It averages 5 inches per year, according to bestplaces.net. And February of 2019 was anything but average. February 8th saw over a year’s-worth in one day. By dinner time on the 11th, as I was winging my way there from Denver, heavy snow was falling fast, with another record in the forecast.
Together, the two days prior had seen another year’s-worth of 5 inches between the two of them. If you’re doing the math, you’re starting to get the picture. There was a LOT of snow on the ground before Monday evening’s snowfall even began. There was no way Seattle’s airport could have planned on that much snow at any given time. They did not have the resources to manage. Snow was piling up on the ramps and spilling over onto the taxiways. Still, as we departed Denver, the runways had not yet been affected.
The air force schools have a platitude they’re quite fond of. They like to say that “flexibility is the key to air power.” And let’s just say my copilot and I were feeling pretty powerful as we turned northwest from Cheyenne to point the nose at Seattle. We knew that it was likely to snow, so we’d added substantial fuel to give us options en route. We could hold along the way if necessary to get sequenced in, or in a worst-case scenario we had options to divert to land somewhere else. We could be flexible. So far, so good. Snow was again in the forecast, but it hadn’t yet started to fall.
That changed as we passed over Boysen Reservoir. The datalink message from our dispatcher in Chicago informed us that it had started snowing, but to his knowledge operations were normal. So we pressed on.
Message number two reached us over Dillon, Montana. This time the dispatcher told us that snow was falling heavily and that arrivals were starting to be impacted. We might want to slow down to build in options along the way (backup option A), but his recommendation was to continue for Seattle.
So we did both. The third message, received as we came abeam Mullen Pass, was that Seattle could no longer accommodate planes landing and taxiing to the gate. There was too much snow and planes couldn’t get to the terminal. We should plan on taxiing to a remote parking area to meet buses that would drive our passengers to the terminal to pick up their bags.
Odd, but okay. We’re flexible, remember? We figured we could execute on that plan (backup option B), unusual as it was, but we’d both done stranger things.
Westbound approaching Ephrata, we got the big one. Seattle Center advised that Seattle was no longer accepting arrivals. No further information was available. “Plan to hold at Ephrata (option C). I’ll get back to you.”
And there we were, being flexible, driving race tracks in the sky over central Washington state, thankful that we hadn’t “burned the ships” as we were flight planning safely on the ground back in Denver.
On any other day in just about any other year we would have held for a little while, then landed a bit late but uneventfully at our destination. That was not going to be our lot on the evening of February 11th, 2019. We flew around in circles for three quarters of an hour. Then with snow falling at a record rate, and Seattle airport in chaos with no plan for reopening before we ran out of gas, we engaged backup plan D, and turned southwest for Portland.
Our next concern was what would happen after landing in Portland. With Seattle closed, we wondered if there would be parking space available as all the planes planned for Seattle diverted to Portland. Thankfully, our dispatcher had been in contact with Portland operations who had reserved a gate just for us. We landed there, taxied to the gate, plugged in the fuel truck, and engaged with the recovery plan for getting our passengers to their intended destination of Seattle.
You may be wondering why we might have had an expectation of actually making it to Seattle. They were closed, right? They had more snow than they could manage, right? We had the same questions. As it turns out, while we were holding, then flying to Portland, then re-provisioning the airplane, Seattle had found adequate snow plows, front-end loaders, and dump trucks to keep the runways clear, and remove snow from the taxiways and ramps. And by the time we were ready to go, Seattle was back open and ready for business.
Ninety minutes after we departed Ephrata for Portland, our passengers were disembarking in Seattle. Because we had not “burned our ships” back in Denver. We had built in options, back up plans, to enable us to manage seen and unseen contingencies.
That idea of “burning the ships” has merit as a means to convey the importance of genuine commitment. I don’t want to minimize that. On the other hand, what you might find in the real world of grinding it out, dealing with the reality that stuff happens, is that while “burning the ships” sounds romantic, it may not have a lot of practical use. Now at the tender age of 60+, I don’t feel at all guilty about looking for ways that the plan can go wrong. Seems like a good idea to build in back up plans to deal with those potentials. And then maybe add a little extra fuel, just in case.
Burn the ships? Seriously? Not on my watch. Nor on yours. We have to get the folks to Seattle, and it looks like snow!
Thanks for reading!