Blackout 2003: bizav had an edge over the airlines

 - August 12, 2008, 4:59 AM

Fortunately, it was a clear, sunny day (rather than the proverbial dark, stormy night) over the Northeast when the electrical power gridwork gave up the ghost at 4:11 p.m. on August 14. Though 9/11 jitters surfaced, initial fears of terrorism were quickly calmed. U.S. and Canadian power providers were pointing fingers at each other long before most affected areas had their lights back on. The cost of the three-day (at its worst) blackout has been pegged at north of $1 billion in lost business and wasted food, but airlines took the brunt of the beating in aviation circles. General aviation–except at some of the major airline airports, such as New York La Guardia–escaped with minimal fiscal damage.

Good VFR conditions contributed as much as anything to the ease with which most of business aviation handled the “great blackout of 2003.” Airlines suffered mightily from the groundstops at major airports. An estimated 700 flights were canceled. The lack of backup power for terminal facilities and all the sophisticated new security hardware got most of the blame, since airside airport infrastructure is required under Part 139 to have backup power at airports with scheduled airline service. The few hang-ups at business aviation airports came, similarly, from lack of non-aviation infrastructure, such as rental-car counters with dead computers.

Signature Flight Support v-p of operations David Vaughan reported that the company’s 42 facilities have no set provisions for independent backup power. At the half-dozen Signature bases that were affected by the blackout, gas-powered fuel trucks were able to operate, of course. Fortunately, in most cases the power was back on before the trucks needed to be replenished because backup power for fuel-farm pumps was not available in most locations. Also, most terminal buildings, hangars and–most important– telephone and computer systems were down for the count.

Vaughan said innovative line technicians used the small generators on aircraft cleaning carts to operate telephone systems, fans and lights at Signature terminals. He said, “After this, we may be investing in a few more of those carts.” At Signature in Teterboro, N.J., passengers and crew on a visiting Gulfstream chose to camp out for the night on their airplane. Rather than fighting street traffic to get to a dark, non-air-conditioned hotel, they cranked up the auxiliary power unit and stayed comfortably cool, watching television and enjoying the onboard catering and cold beverages.

The FAA said as many as 6,000 aircraft were in the air when power was interrupted. Diesel-powered generators at tower-equipped airports and ATC centers had been upgraded in the late 1990s in anticipation of blackouts due to Y2K concerns. The backup generators provided an almost seamless transfer of power. They are designed to operate for three days with the fuel supply on hand, and indefinitely as long as additional fuel is available. Such backup generators are also available to operate the FAA’s control-tower equipment (radar, radios, and so on), navaids and lights.

New York Center did lose its juice for about a minute on Sunday, three days after the initial shutdown. The center’s power hiccup resulted in half-hour delays for airlines at the major metro-area airports, but no known interruption of general aviation flights.

For the most part, general aviation airports were able to subsist on battery and generator power for the duration. The Detroit area appeared to have the worst time of it, with FBOs at Metro (DTW) and Oakland County (PTK) rendered powerless for a time. When the weather worsened on Friday morning, Willow Run (YIP) was IFR with the ILS operating on batteries, and Detroit City (DET) was functioning without its ILS and operations limited to cellphone communications.

Cleveland, Ohio-based Flight Options’ operational control center continued to function on backup power “without any significant problems” during the 10 hours it was deprived of its primary power supply.

At the time the power went out, one New Jersey-based Piper Saratoga pilot was en route to Martha’s Vineyard (MVY) off the coast of Massachusetts receiving VFR flight following. Unaware of anything amiss, he made his customary request to enter the New York Class B airspace. It was denied (not unusual under normal conditions) by the Teterboro-area controller, but when he reached the next block of airspace, the White Plains-area controller cleared him through the Class B. The pilot remained unaware of anything wrong until he was abeam New Haven, Conn., at which point the sector controller made a broadcast announcement about the blackout, some 90 minutes after the outage began. The Saratoga pilot tuned his ADF to a local news station where he listened to reporters interviewing stranded New York commuters on the streets of Manhattan. He proceeded to MVY (where power remained on) and landed uneventfully.

White Plains Airport remained operational throughout the several hours that the area lost power. Mike Dolphin, president of Jet Systems/Westchester Avitat, said, “Fortunately for us, our facility is prone to power loss, anyway. It seems that if a thunderstorm passes within 50 miles the lights go out. So we’re always prepared with backup generators. We move them into the parking lot, plug them in and we can operate our lights, telephones and one computer on the desk.”

Dolphin was at his home in Pittsfield, Mass., on the day of the blackout and his son, Todd, was working at the airport, helping out general manager Wally Seipp. “Todd just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering,” said the elder Dolphin, “so after investing $100,000 in his education, I was confident he’d be able to plug in the power.” Todd convinced his father they’d be fine at the FBO without him, and, rather than drive to his dark apartment in Manhattan, he’d call his dad for a ride to Pittsfield (where the power was on) when he’d done all he could to help keep business under control. The call came about 9 p.m. and Dolphin took off in his Cessna 210 from Pittsfield at about 9:30 to pick up his son.

“South of Lakeville, Conn., everything was black,” the elder Dolphin told AIN. “I felt like John Glenn passing over to the dark side of the Earth on his first orbit. Except for a few scattered lights in the distance, I couldn’t see anything on the ground until I got to White Plains. It was a moving sight. Our airport stood out like a jewel on black velvet.”