The pilot who wouldn't be grounded

February 21, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

During the second of our two big snowstorms, the one that blew into Maryland on Feb. 9-10, hundreds of flights to and from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport were canceled. In fact, the airport had been at a general standstill since the Super Bowl blizzard, and the second storm made things worse.

Winds exceeded 58 mph over parts of the Chesapeake, and 40-mph gusts were common everywhere. Another 20 inches of snow came with those high winds, and the combination reduced visibility so much that plow drivers had to come off the roads.

Somehow, workers at BWI managed to get one runway cleared enough for one plane to take off on Wednesday, Feb. 10, in the afternoon. The governor of Maryland noted this with some awe and amusement in his press conference that day. "A UPS pilot with a heart for adventure," Martin O'Malley said, had flown out of the airport when all other flights were grounded.

Because I like to put a name on things, and because this kind of workaday heroism hardly ever gets recognized, I tried to track down Captain Blizzard. It took more than a week to find the man who "flew brown" during a near white-out. Pilots are notoriously -- one might say wisely -- hard to reach on their days off. Plus, I get the distinct impression that Capt. Doug Buckey does not like to be the subject of a fuss.

That's our man's name: Doug Buckey, United Parcel Service.

I finally spoke with him the other day, and while he doesn't have a Chuck Yeager poker-hollow drawl, he has a concise, polite and relaxed way of speaking that approaches the laconic. If he were flying for Southwest, and you heard Captain Buckey's voice over the cabin speakers, you'd be quite comfortable with him. Doug Buckey once pulled advertising banners through the skies over Rehoboth Beach. He flew for commuter airlines and did some corporate work before becoming a cargo pilot. He's been with UPS for 19 years.

On the morning of the second big storm, Captain Buckey flew a Boeing 757 into BWI, and that was no picnic.

He'd taken off from a UPS hub in Rockford, Ill., at 4 a.m. By the time his aircraft reached Baltimore, there was a good bit of snow on the ground, and it had drifted against the glide slope antennae system that's essential to an instrument landing in bad conditions. The system can't be accurate in so much snow, so some flights were diverted to Greensboro, N.C.

Not Captain Buckey's.

"We were right at our minimums," he says. That means that, at the moment of his approach, he was coming into BWI at the minimum height and speed considered safe -- and that he could still see the runway. So Captain Buckey used the lights he could make out on the ground to land.

He knew his next scheduled flight, to the main UPS hub in Louisville, Ky., might not happen for a while, if at all. But instead of writing off the day as a loss, UPS looked for a safe window through which Captain Buckey might fly again. In good years, UPS ships about 2 millions packages and documents every day through the air, with close to a 1,000 domestic flights and more than 700 international flights daily. That means there's a lot of brown in the air each day -- even in the occasional white-out.

"You can take off in light snow, but this was heavy snow for a while there," Captain Buckey says. "So we sat for a couple of hours. ... The [ground crew] in Baltimore did a really good job de-icing. We were the only flight going anywhere, so it was kind of neat to get all that attention."

The ground crew tried to keep up with the snow and open one runway. Visibility was bad, but, says Captain Buckey, "If you have a lot of visual references, you can take off. I could see the center line and the edges of the runway." When minimum takeoff conditions were reached, in the afternoon, he left -- at a time when the rest of us were still gazing through our windows at a fierce, howling storm.

"We were not out there for adventure," Captain Buckey says, "but merely doing our job to get the packages to their destination in a safe manner. Thank you for your interest."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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