The Daring Last Plane Departing San Juan Ahead of Irma: All in a Day’s Work

Delta 431 landed in San Juan a few hours ahead of Hurricane Irma on Wednesday. According to Delta, the aircraft faced “nine miles of visibility and light rain. Winds were around 24 knots with gusts up to 31 knots — all well below operating limits for the 737-900ER to safely operate.”

That hardly captures the scenario. Earlier gusts had been up over 40 knots. But they had a window.

The plane then prepped for a quick turn taking off as Delta 302. And the flight and its captain became an internet sensation. It was the last commercial departure out of San Juan. 30 people had flown into the airport on this aircraft, 173 passengers were flying out.

Winds were picking up. The brother in law of aircraft captain Chuck Joyce says, “They definitely knew this was going to be tight,”

Passengers ran through an empty airport to board, and the cabin crew got them in their seats and battened down in record time, passengers said later.

“I’ve never seen people get on so quickly, and once people were on, everyone so quiet,”

…the outer band of the hurricane had passed over the airport, and a long narrow gap opened to the north — between the outer band and the core of the incoming hurricane. It was up through this gap in the weather that Mr. Joyce would fly the Boeing 737.

Here’s the plane taking off.

In what almost looks like a real life episode of Jackass here’s the narrow path the plane had to avoid the hurricane — between the outer band and core of Irma.

Inside the cabin passengers are heard saying “Goodbye Puerto Rico” and “We are in the air.”

According to one passengers, “I put my head in my lap and just covered my ears… On a scale of one to ten on that flight I would say I was an 11.”

While it’s amazing to see unfold — one commenter on Twitter suggested this was Captain Chuck Joyce to Sully Sullenberger saying “hold my beer” — it’s in fact more a testament to modern technology, weather forecasting procedures, and standard skill and well-tried procedures.

It wasn’t a cowboy move, it wasn’t the pilot going rogue, it was consultation between weather forecasters, dispatch, air traffic control and the pilot.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. People in Florida, we are praying for you. And we will continue to send our thoughts and prayers as you pick up the pieces and rebuild your lives.

    Don’t expect anything more.

  2. Best reporting ever of Delta flight 302 from SJU to JFK before the hurricane, “In what almost looks like a real life episode of Jackass here’s the narrow path the plane had to avoid the hurricane — between the outer band and core of Irma.” Keep climbing Delta.

  3. Big Risk on the part of Delta who always tends to gather Media attention on Themselves when it suits them. “If ” the flight would have encountered PROBLEMS of course,They would have blamed The Hurricane as a contributing factor. Cowboy Pilot at work and Careless Operation. This Hurricane has been devastating and some People like to Test their Odds…..Count Me Out.

  4. Uh, ever read an NTSB report? Pilots who do cowboy things with bad results don’t get a free pass. I am sure they were within the limits – which have a safety margin as well. The airport reports the weather to the pilots, the pilots compare the reported weather to the limits, and then they decide to take off. I suspect the pilot would not have ranked that as an “11” – I had a flight delayed out of Denver last year because of winds gusting to 60. This is different how, except for “winds half as strong”? I mean, how could you ever fly in and around a hurricane? Certainly NOAA doesn’t doesn’t do it! Ever heard of radar? Jet stream? Planes fly through very fast moving air currents all the time and don’t fall from the sky.

  5. Every pilot I’ve ever met is one the most sober and deliberate and almost boring people. They took off because they could do so safely. It’s still quite thrilling don’t you think? Where’s your sense of adventure? Don’t give me that “it was safe so no biggie”. They dared and succeeded. What have you done?

  6. Delta probably thought this flight would help their D0 statistics.
    How long does it take to refuel and load luggage for a full load 737?
    And how does the plane leave 30 minutes late and arrive 4 minutes early?

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