Aliens in the dark

The radio finally starts to quiet down about 50 miles west of Nashville. For the last hour it’s been a constant squawk of airplanes looking for smoother altitudes and controllers telling them there aren’t any. A massive line of weather, stretching from the Florida Panhandle up to the Canadian border has been dumping rain and high winds on the surface and causing bumpy rides up high. Climbing out of Charlotte we hit the clouds at 1000 feet and since then have been riding the winds, alternating between light and moderate turbulence. On my orders both flight attendants stayed strapped in their seats in the back. Finally, just as we crossed the Nashville VOR and started our turn to the southwest, we popped out the backside of the weather and into clear, smooth air.

Despite the lack of clouds, we are still facing an almost 170 mile per hour headwind, driven by a southern jetstream. The mileage to go number on the display in front of me barely moves at all as we claw our way westward. What ground lighting that can be seen between the ragged gaps in the lower layer of clouds seems to stay fixed in place, only moving when I force myself to look away for a while and then turn my head back to check again. Overhead in the clear, dark skies, thousands of stars are visible. I quickly pick out the few constellations I am familiar with and then, pressing my face against the warm glass of the side window, stare into the void and ponder the infinite.

As the FO happily munches on a late dinner across the cockpit from me, I wonder how many other crews in other planes over the years have looked out at a view like this. High overhead a shooting star streaks across the sky, and before I can even utter a word, disappears back into the darkness. As I continue to scan for more stars the radio sputters to life as the Memphis Center controller advises us of opposite direction traffic; a United 737, 1000 feet below us. I swivel forward in my seat as the FO puts down his sandwich and sits up. We both quickly find the rapidly approach plane, visible as only red and green position lights and a single red strobe on the top. As it closes in I reach up and quickly flip on and off our landing light, a sort of wave of hello in the darkness. Seconds later their landing lights briefly illuminate and then go dark as they disappear under our nose. The FO finds it all hilariously funny and giggles for several minutes.

I press my face back to the side glass and go back to staring upwards. High overhead a dark shape passes by, momentarily blotting out stars as it moves. I see no lights on it and as it is so far away and a dark shape against a dark sky I have no idea what it is; A UFO in the truest sense of the words. As it disappears out of view I shrug it off. I’ve seen lots of strange looking things up here and yet feel very strongly that every single one of them is explainable as a normal aircraft, just viewed from an abnormal prospective. Not that I don’t think there could be aliens out there, just that I’ve never seen anything along those lines. I slide back around in my seat and see that the FO is done with dinner and has the voice boom back down on his headset. Figuring this is as a good time as any to tell ghost stories I ask him if he’s heard about America West Flight 564. He says no.

In the spring of 1995, AWA 564, a Boeing 757 flying from Tampa to Phoenix, was somewhere over west Texas at 39,000 feet when they encountered what the crew called a band of strobing lights. They were flying near a large line of weather and the lights were between them and the storm. Eventually, when the object with the lights was backlit by the lightning in the clouds, they were able to make out a large “cigar like” object that was upwards of 500 feet long. The queried Air Traffic Control about this object and were told there was nothing there on radar. ATC checked with the local area military controller as well as NORAD who also had nothing on their scopes. No other airplanes along the route saw anything.

There are plenty of stories out there like this. Crews or single pilots see something in dark of the night or in the light of the sun or in the shadows of the terrain. Nothing can explain it and nobody else sees it. Does it mean it never existed and that their eyes were just playing tricks on them? Maybe. Maybe not. As pilots we tend to try to justify whatever we see as normal as reporting the abnormal may bring our sanity into question. A pilot who has mental issues can’t be a pilot, so in the name of self preservation I’d guess these events are under reported. I lean towards the conclusion that 99.9999% of the time there is a perfectly logical explanation for everything anybody has seen in flight. The other .0001% I leave for people far brighter than myself to figure out.

I’m brought back from my story by the destination weather coming up on screen. Little Rock was forecasted to be clear when we got there but fog has formed on the banks of the Arkansas River and the field is reporting 1 mile visibility and low overcast skies. I grumble about the useless weather forecast we got when we left Charlotte but am quickly comforted by the fact that we have lots of extra gas tonight; More than enough to try a few approaches and then slink back to Memphis where I know the weather is nice because I can see the city out the window 10 miles ahead of us. As ATC clears us to a lower altitude I turn my focus from the other worldly to the more pressing issue of finding the right approach plate and setting us up to land.

King Winter

The latest weather report pops up on the small screen of the FMS head and I grumble to myself. Across the cockpit my FO is starting out the window at the undercast layer, trying to match the cities on his map display with the splotches of light shining through the clouds 20,000 feet below us. I glance out to the north west and quickly pick out the lights of Newark, New Jersey, which are all but dwarfed by the massive glow generated by New York City, just across the invisible waters of the Hudson River. Off to the east is nothing but black sky and ocean, punctuated by points of light which, depending on the speed of their motion are either stars, airplanes or boats.
I force my attention back to the weather report. Hartford hadn’t been forecast to by anything worse than 4 miles and 1000 foot ceilings. As I copy down the latest report of 2 miles, a 400 foot overcast and freezing drizzle, I’m reminded of a joke about meteorologists I heard the day before. I briefly think of trying to explain it to the FO, who know has his nose pressed up against the glass watching the arrival stream into JFK pass by us, but decide to let him enjoy the moment. He’s new and everything, including the possibility of shooting an approach to minimums on a slick runway is exciting. I try to remember that feeling and as I discover I can’t, realize I’ve been doing this for a while now.
Boston Center descends us to 11,000 feet as we cross over the Long Island Sound and go feet dry somewhere just west of New Haven, Connecticut. The coastline is visible as a bright blur of lights below the cloud layer, formed by traffic and buildings on the Interstate 95 corridor, leading towards the bright glow of New York to our west. As the bright coastline passes back beneath our wings I brief the approach, highlighting the possibilities of slick runways and reduced visibilities as well as the probably somewhat convoluted taxi instructions we’ll get once clearing the runway. The FO’s face lights up in anticipation.
A new weather report pops up just as the Boston Center controller hands us over to Bradley Approach. The good news is the visibility has held at 2 miles. The bad news is that the ceiling has dropped and the light freezing rain is now freezing rain. I take one more look at our fuel and satisfied with the number move on to double checking the minimums and radio frequencies for the procedure. The Approach Controller gives us a heading to fly and clears us down to 2500 feet. I slow to 250 knots, turn on the wing and engine anti ice and start down into the clouds.
It’s a smooth ride for the most part. At 4000 feet the airplane says we are picking up ice. I show the FO the attachment bolt in the windshield wiper that general collects ice first and sure enough there is a thin crust of milky white rime ice coating it. He tries to take a picture of it with his phone but in the darkness is unable to. I flip on the wing inspection lights and crank around in my seat to check the winglets and wing. The wings, warmed by the engine bleed air piped to their leading edge are clear, however the winglets are pretty well coated. He manages a picture of that. We keep descending.
At 2500 feet we are 10 miles out and the controller clears us for the approach. Frozen raindrops are visible in the landing lights now and the sound of them pinging off the windshield and metal skin above it can be clearly heard over the engines. I slow to 200 knots and call for flaps. Approach hands us over to tower who clears us to land and informs us that the runway has been treated with liquid deicer. The FO is now all but bouncing in his seat in excitement.
I call for the rest of the flaps and gear as we pass the final approach fix. The ice buildup on the wipers has diminished a bit and while the frozen rain is still blasting the fuselage, it doesn’t seem to be sticking. At 500 feet there is nothing to see in front of us except the swirling mists and horizontal lines of rain but directly below, through the ragged bottom of the clouds, ground lighting is sliding by. I orient myself to the approach path and quickly place the interstate, a small shopping complex and a car dealership as they pass through the gaps in the gray fog. At 300 feet, 100 feet above the approach minimums, we pop out the bottom and the runway lights come into view.
Visibility is still at 2 miles when we touch down. After the main wheels spin up I very slowly lower the nose gear to the runway and then deploy the thrust reversers, staying off the brakes incase the runway is slick. At 80 knots I stow the reversers and gently step on the brakes. We quickly decelerate and tower tells us to exit to the right. The plane smoothly turns to the right and then, as we pass from the treated runway surface to the untreated taxiway we start to slide. The FO’s eyes get really big and he pauses the after landing checklist he has been running. I quickly come off the brakes and adjust the power until we track straight again. Crisis averted.
The taxi directions are more straightforward than I thought they’d be and as I momentarily stop the plane to give way to a procession of snowplows, sand trucks and deicers, I glance out the front windshield, skyward. Briefly illuminated by our red anticollision light and by the rotating airport beacon, thousands and thousands of drops of frozen water are cascading out of the sky. I mentally think through the upcoming deice process and special concerns and considerations about getting out of here. Winter is here. I think about mentioning to the FO that he’s going to have to go outside in this mess in a few minutes to do his walk around but realize that will probably just excite him more. Hmph. New guys.

Southern Storms

Off to the south, somewhere over Wilmington, NC , a late season thunderstorm is flickering in the darkness. Our radar, even turned up slightly to exaggerate any returns is showing nothing on the route in front of us, despite the heavy layers of clouds below obscuring the ground lighting except in ragged, torn holes where the scattering of lights peak through. It’s the 4th leg of the day and we we’ve still got two more to go. However, with the weather creeping in from the south, the low ceilings and rain covering our destination ahead and the uncontrolled field we are now going to have to probably have to shoot an approach to near minimums to, my mind is far, far away from how much farther we’ve still got after this leg is done.

Because there is no control tower at our destination airfield, we get our updates from an ASOS, an automated system that takes wind, visibility, cloud ceiling, temperature and altimeter readings every minute and broadcasts them over a radio frequency. There are pluses and minuses to this. Instead of the hourly updates put out by a control tower you get up to the minute readings. However these broadcasts are very limited in nature and don’t provide a lot of the more useful information that can be passed along from a human set of eyes.

80 miles out and the weather is being reported as strong winds from the north, rain, mist, 2 miles of visibility and a 700 foot overcast. This poses something of a problem as the approach to the north only gets us down to 600 feet, just 100 feet below the reported layer of clouds. There is a much better approach to the south, but because of the winds we are just barely legal to use it. Combine the tailwind with a short and wet runway and I am more inclined to try the other approach and hope we break out of the clouds in time. I talk it over with the FO as we start to bounce through a layer of clouds and he agrees. Metal doesn’t get bent during a go around, but it certainly does if you go off the end of the runway.

He calls ATC and requests clearance to the Kingston VOR, which is the initial fix for the approach. Washington Center clears us that way and then advises us that they are showing moderate rain between our present position and the VOR, some 50 miles away. Our radar isn’t showing too much so the FO thanks the controller and we press on. As we start a descent out of 22,000 feet and into the clouds below the radar finally starts showing green and brown swaths ahead. I call the flight attendant and tell her to hurry up and secure the cabin.

Moderate rain is now drumming on the cockpit glass and the plane is bucking in the turbulence. The autopilot seems to be holding its own so I take a minute to brief the upcoming approach. It’s a straight forward GPS except for the fact that there is a quick stepdown fix where we will have about .5 miles to get from 800 feet to 600 feet and try to find the runway before having to go missed, which at the airspeed we will be going gives us about 14 seconds. I tell the FO that if we can’t find the runway from this side we’ll fly the published missed approach procedure which conveniently sets us up for the approach from the other side. If we can’t get in this way we’ll just have to risk the tailwind approach and if the landing looks the least bit too far down the runway go around again and head to our alternate.

We cross the Kingston VOR still bumping through moderate turbulence and heavy rain. The radar still isn’t showing anything too bad and as I watch the raindrops blast by, briefly illuminated by the landing lights, I realize we are very fortunate that this is just rain and nothing convective. Past the VOR I set 2400 feet in the altitude hold window and then command the autopilot down. A quick check of our fuel situation shows we are in good shape so I call for 8 and 20 degrees of flaps. The plane noses over slightly as the flaps slide down the backside of the wing. The FO makes a quick call on the local traffic frequency to let anybody crazy enough to be out in this weather that we are coming in.

At six miles out we level at 1600 feet and just about to cross the final approach fix. The gear and 30 degrees of flaps are now hanging out into the rain filled sky. I call for 45 degrees and the landing checklist and double check the next altitude. 800 feet is showing in the altitude select window, which matches the number on the approach plate. As the plane passes the invisible point in space that denotes the final approach fix I command down 1000 feet per minute on the autopilot. The plane quickly heads down, still with nothing but raindrops visible out the front windshield.

We briefly level at 800 feet and then as we cross 2.2 miles from the end of the runway we continue down to 600 feet. Despite both the FO and I having are radar displays on instead of the terrain displays, I am acutely aware that the ground is now just 700 feet below us, rapidly approaching and we can’t see a thing. Seconds later, just as the plane starts nosing upwards to level at 600 feet, we drop out of the bases of the clouds and the ground is visible below, looking ghostly and hazy through the rain and fog filled skies.

I scan the area and immediately find the runway directly ahead. To the left the mass of lights on the regional hospital reflect damply on the grounds around it. A quick flash of white light cuts through the darkness ahead as the beacon on the hospital heliport rotates around. I force myself to focus on the rapidly approaching runway ahead, now just a mile away. The winds are steady off the nose, which makes me glad we chose this approach.

At 500 feet we are stable and the windshield wipers, on their highest setting, are barely keeping up with the water streaming up the windshield. At 200 feet I feel the plane start to settle in add power. I quickly pull some of it back out as I don’t want to accelerate too much and risk landing long on the wet runway below. The result is that we drop to the ground quickly and thump on to the pavement harder than I would have liked. I quickly shrug it off and deploy the thrust reverses, applying the wheel brakes as the FO calls out 90 and 60 knots while we decelerate.

The runway exit comes up to the right and as we turn off I slow the wipers. Through the intermittently clear windshield glass I can see a rain soaked taxiway and the bright lights of the terminal beyond. To the south, over the treeline we’ve just passed over, the lights of the hospital reflect off the low ceiling and scattered lower scud clouds. Beyond that is nothing but darkness. I turn my attention back to the terminal where two rampers in bright yellow rain gear are holding lighted wands to guide us in. I momentarily allow myself to relax. I know it’s going to be short term though because as soon as we unload here we’ve got another load of passengers to take back out into the clouds again.

Summer Storms

The situation is rapidly falling apart. What, after three hours of sitting, was supposed to be a simple flight, sneaking in behind a large line of weather, has turned into an arrival and approach that may have us going around and bailing out to our alternate. Assuming of course we have enough fuel to get there. As I spin the heading bug five more degrees to the right to avoid a bright red splotch on the radar display, I stare into the rushing darkness punctuated by thousands of points of light; raindrops illuminated by our landing lights, and wonder if we should just throw in the towel now and head somewhere else.

My day started at noon with a deadhead down to Charlotte where I sat for 5 hours waiting to fly to Baltimore, on to Philly and then back to Baltimore for the night. Because of the lack of flights between my base and Charlotte I was stuck watching the world go by for most of the afternoon. That turned out to be not such a bad thing as our deadhead landed on the front side of a large line of weather, hustled in to the gate and unloaded into a rapidly gathering storm. I spent the next 4 hours wandering the airport observing a textbook example of how weather can make an operation fall apart.

By 6pm the weather had passed and the recovery was starting. The flight display boards which had shown lots of red cancellations all afternoon started to clear and show orange delay notes as well as more and more on time flights. The plane I was waiting on actually showed up on time and 30 minutes prior to departure we had a crew on board, ready to go. I asked the gate agent to hold off on boarding as I had a suspicion that we would be delayed as Baltimore was currently still in the weather. Sure enough, when I called for our clearance ATC advised us that our estimated release time was just about 3 hours from now, some 2 ½ hours later than our planned departure.

With nobody on board other than the crew we simply shut down the plane, shut the door and went back inside to sit out the penalty time. A quick check at of the radar showed most of the weather passing through the area right then, with one single line trailing behind it. Due to the delay, the Baltimore-Philly-Baltimore legs were canceled, leaving us with just one leg to do. This worked well for our passengers currently waiting downstairs, but would leave 50 people stranded in Baltimore and another 50 waiting in Philly. Reasons to not book on the last flight of the day I guess.

That trailing line of weather was still in play 2 hours later when I started up the plane again and the passengers began boarding. Because of that we were refilled by ATC to head 150 miles due west to Knoxville, TN before turning back to the north and then eventually Northeast over Beckley, WV and on to Baltimore. This reroute added almost 400 miles to the flight plan and stretched our fuel to pretty much the bare minimum we’d need to get to Baltimore and then on to an alternate if needed.

My hope was that once we got in the air, ATC would give us a shortcut to the northeast, saving time and more importantly fuel which is how it ended up playing out. As soon as we got handed over to Atlanta Center, he advised us that he’d have a turn for us soon. Climbing through 20,000 feet into a clear, star filled sky, we were turned northward to Beckley, cutting almost 300 miles out of the flight plan and putting our fuel back at a more acceptable number. The next 250 miles progressed quickly as I kept the speed up through the still dark air.

As another red splotch forms on the radar just of our nose and the sound of drumming on rain on the cockpit glass increases in intensity, Potomac Approach asks us when we can make a turn to the left back towards the field. The FO has his radar display scrolled out farther than mine, giving a slightly better big picture view. On his display going left doesn’t look any worse than going right, and much better than going straight ahead. I give a thumbs up and he tells ATC we can take the turn. The plane lurches left following the guidance cues generated by the flight director and we head towards the runway, invisible in the inky darkness ahead of us.

We’ve been following a Southwest jet for the last 10 minutes or so and now I hear them question approach if anybody has gone through the big cell right over the final approach course. I’m trying to get the plane slowed down and descending at the same time, which is nearly impossible, especially in the bumps but I vaguely hear the response from ATC; “No problems so far”. To me, there is no part of that that sounds encouraging. Southwest doesn’t seem to think so either as the sarcasm (or maybe it’s just stress) is clear in their voice when they reply with a quick “thanks” as they get handed off to tower.

Five minutes later we are handed over to tower as well as we join the ILS 10 miles out. As we switch over, the Approach controller, very offhandedly, advises us that the last two aircraft have gone around for windshear and to have a good night. Sure enough, on my multifunction display, the two blue diamonds ahead of us are showing rapid climb indications. We are descending. I start to realize that the situation is not very good but elect to press on. The cell the Southwest flight asked about, and the one I’m guessing caused the windshear is off the finals now. I’m hoping we will be the beneficiary of being 5 minutes later than the guys in front of us.

The ride down final is choppy as we pass through ragged dark clouds, each briefly visible in the cone of our landing lights. Rain is hitting the glass and metal skin of the cockpit so loudly that I reach down and turn up the volume on the radios so I can still hear them. On the display screens the cell that caused the go arounds for the two planes ahead of us is continuing to move off to the right with each sweep of the radar but the airport and surrounding area is still bathed in the dark greens and yellows of heavy rain.

With the gear out and the flaps locked at 45 degrees we pass through 1000 feet. The ground is visible below us as a confusion of reflecting lights penetrating the water filled darkness. The approach lights, on high intensity are clearly visible ahead and as our airspeed bounces all over the place due to the still gusty winds I take a firm grip on the yoke, disconnect the autopilot and focus on the rapidly approaching runway. At 500 feet we take a big gust and the plane skids to the right as the tail starts to come up. A small adjustment on the power and a quick blast of trim keeps us mostly steady.

The last few feet seem to take forever as we hover what appears to be, in the dim beam of the landing light, a raging river covering the runway. We settle to the ground and the spoilers quickly pop up, killing off the last of the lift over the wings. As the wheels start to spin up our movement feels sluggish and spongy. I realize the runway is in fact covered with water and our wheels are fighting not just the friction of the ground but also the weight of an inch of water as they move forward. I keep my feet off the brakes to avoid hydroplaning and let the thrust reversers slow us almost to a stop while imagining the huge cloud of spray we must be kicking up behind us.

Slowed to a safe speed I stow the reversers and gently apply the brakes. There is a slight sliding motion followed by the reassuring chatter of the antiskid kicking in. The runway exit comes up on our right and with our speed back to a slow crawl, I crank the tiller to the right and we clear on to the taxiway. As we turn towards the terminal and our gate, out on final a single light cuts through the clouds as the next arrival comes in. Hopefully it works out for them as well as it did for us, but frankly, I’m too tired to care right now.

Westbound again

The huge sprawl of the Phoenix metro area is sliding under the wing. My face is pressed against the smudged glass of an exit row seat, headed west to visit family. As the desert landscape passes by, a blur of browns, browns and more browns, I marvel at how fast it moves when you are at 38,000 feet and 78% of the speed of sound. I’ve flown this way before, following Interstate 10 west towards the glow and haze of the LA Basin and the sparkling waters of the Pacific beyond. Of course I was in a little trainer then, bouncing in the thermals which today are thousands of feet below us.

The Colorado River snakes across the landscape to the northwest, a gash of blue water and white sand, twisting and turning through the scrub. My mind wanders back to the time I took a student out of Phoenix, up to Lake Havasu and then down along the twisting path of the river towards Blythe, watching jet skis and wake boarders play in the water below our wings. I also remember another trip down the river, that time in the stormy darkness of an overcast and rainy winter night. As we crept south over the dark river, skimming the bases of the clouds, pushing through rain and mist, I kept my flashlight’s weak beam on the outside air temp gauge which hovered right at 33 degrees; icing territory. The chart showed peaks rising to 6500 all around which kept us pinned against the bottom of ice laden clouds. Finally the lights of I10 and the truck stop at Blythe came into view on the horizon, and with a huge sense of relief we descended into warmer, drier air.

Now 200 miles out of LA, the desert is giving way to ridges and hills of rock, rising from the sands. I am sitting on the right side so I can’t see it, but I known the great Salton Sea stretches away to the south, a relic from another time. Years ago, heading west in a beat up Seminole, my student and I ran into nasty ice around here. We were at 11000 feet and tried to climb out of it but due to the altitude and extra weight from the ice, ran out of climb power within a few hundred feet, forcing us to try to descend out of the weather and hope we got out the bottom before we got below ATC’s minimum floor. We popped out of the clouds at 8000 feet, perhaps slightly wiser and certainly more cautious.

We’ve started descending now. In the haze ahead I can see the terrain start to rise upwards, marking the beginning of Banning Pass. Even from this altitude San Gorgonio Mountain towers skyward on the passes northern boundary. I always felt that coming through here in a smaller plane, down low, was an amazing experience. The wet coastal air of the LA basin would often times be sucked eastward by the dry air of the desert, funneling through the pass at incredible speeds. We could be doing 100 miles per hour across the ground on the east side off the pass and be slow to 30 or 40 mph once we entered it. Human kind has taken advantage of this effect and a huge wind farm lines the eastern slopes dropping down towards Palm Springs.

Today, up high, and in a much bigger plane, the winds effects are negligible. I stare intently at the mass of wind turbines below, but from this distance I can’t tell if they are spinning or not. The turbines drop behind the wing and the peak of San Gorgonio slides by, looking like a giant boat straining towards the waters of the Pacific, 75 miles away. On the west side of Banning Pass the terrain rapidly changes from empty hillsides to the sprawl of roads, houses and buildings of the LA Basin. On most days an orange tint hangs in the air, but today the smog is absent. The plane dips a wing to the right and we turn to the northwest towards LAX.

Off to the right the terrain rises towards the northeastern edge of the Basin. Interstate 15 snakes its way to the north east, rising towards the rim of the Basin until it drops over the top and out of sight behind Mount Baldy. I’ve taken a little Cessna up that way, leaving Riverside at dusk, as the millions of lights started flickering on below us, the plane’s radio surprisingly quiet for the busy airspace. Climbing as quickly as possible to clear the ridgeline we eventually leave the bright lights behind and start to follow the steady stream of red car taillights heading towards the glare of Las Vegas visible as a white glow on the horizon, 200 miles away. Today however we continue to the northwest, descending towards the mass of humanity below.

As always here, the last little bit seems to take forever. The seemingly endless stream of houses, roads, shopping complexes and golf courses slide by, getting slowly bigger and bigger as we get lower. The nice thing about LA is that in general you don’t get vectored around a lot. Once you get headed the right way you tend to just keep going. This proves true today as the flaps are out now and the gear soon follows. From who made the in flight cabin PAs I’m guessing it’s the captain who makes one of the nicest CRJ 700 landings I’ve ever seen before slowing the plane and turning past the new International Terminal with a giant Air France A380 parked out from. Taxiing towards the gate with the high pitched electric whine of the flap motor running below my feet I realize for about the 100th time that whether the plane is big or small, fast or slow, traversing the landscape of the Southwest is very different than my day to day travels on the other coast, and I really do miss it. Maybe someday I’ll get back to these skies.

Mountain Mornings

It’s just barely daylight by the time we get the plane. The rain is still coming down at a good rate, as it has been all night. The concrete of the ramp is glistening in the floodlights that still illuminate it, despite the gray light sweeping in from the mountain tops to the east. The plane is buttoned up with the door still closed, and the jet way pulled back. I glance at the rest of the crew, who I just met up with for one leg yesterday and after seeing no movement towards the door leading out to the ramp, tighten my grip on my rolling bag, push the door open and step outside deluge. Sometimes you just have to lead by example.

The rain is cold but not unpleasant. Despite the altitude (we are up in the hills of western North Carolina) and the early hour, it’s not too cold out. Spring has arrived, but I am glad to have my blazer (required for another three weeks) on to ward off the chill. I splash through the puddles and push my bag and flight case underneath the body of the airplane to keep it out of the worst of the rain. With no weight onboard the landing gear struts are full extended and the plane sits much higher than normal. I have to reach up well above my head to grab the door handle and as I do rain runs down my wrist and arm. I rethink the whole not cold thing and shiver as I finally manage to pop the door handle and step back as it opens outwards, slowed by its assist cable and motor.

With the door sitting on the ground, leading steeply upwards to the empty plane I take a step back and check for the rest of the crew. They are still inside, looking at me through the glass door I recently exited. I grumble to myself as I lug my bag up the steps and out of the rain. It takes two trips and by the time I walk up the steps for the second time, a ramper has appeared in the jetway cab to move it against the plane. I now understand why the rest of my crew has remained inside. Sure enough, a minute later they join me in the forward galley, dry and warm, while I still shake rain off from my coat. My only consolation is that the FO still has to go out and do a walk around and endure the same conditions I just did. Of course he wastes no time in pulling an umbrella out of his bag and heading out while I think how nice it would have been to have that a few minutes ago.

By the time the FO is back inside I’ve got the plane running and am finishing up the early morning checklist items. The rain is still coming down and I flip the windshield wipers on and off a few times to clear this glass. There’s nothing to see outside except the gray wall of the terminal building and the short, stubby ATC tower that sits on top of it, but I do it anyway. Our passengers begin arriving shortly thereafter and the normal drama of our two Flight Attendants dealing with them begins.

Eventually we are loaded up and ready to go. It’s daylight now but the light is flat and gray, filtering through the low clouds overhead and the still steady rain. The rampers, covered in bright yellow raingear push us back, disconnect the tug, wave, salute and fade back into the terminal building. ATC tells us to expect no delays (which I find hard to believe with the amount of weather between us and Charlotte) so we spin both engines and taxi to the runway. I rebrief the departure one more time, taking time to highlight the fact that we are surrounded by 6000 foot tall mountains on all sides and what special procedures will be needed if we have problems on takeoff. That completed we taxi out onto the runway, I push the power levers all the way up and off we go.

The clouds obscure the view by the time we pass through 500 feet. Solid streams of water cascade across the windshield but as my focus is inside on the instruments, I don’t really care. I have the terrain display up on my side and it’s depicting brown and red swaths of obstructions everywhere. As we climb out the browns will fade to yellows and then greens as the terrain falls away below us. The FO has his weather radar on and it’s showing browns and greens as well. Unfortunately these won’t necessarily disappear out as we climb.

ATC clears us direct a fix down the road and after quickly checking that we will be above any terrain between our present position and there (something an ATC clearance technically does, but I don’t ever fully trust) we make the turn. As we roll out on the new heading, still bouncing through a gray, wet cloud filled world, I flip off my terrain display and switch on the radar. The image stabilizes and shows a mass of cells between us and the airport, now just 85 miles away with the white course line on the MFD heading directly into the middle of the mess. It’s not even 7:30 in the morning and I realize it’s just going to be one of those days.

Again…

I’ve been on the bench for the last two weeks and I’m feeling pretty rusty. The fact the surface winds are gusting to 30 miles per hour isn’t helping and despite my best efforts we are bouncing all over the place as I join the final approach course. It’s a clear blue sky day, which only means I can more clearly see the airport rising and falling through glass of the windshield in front of me. I realize we are still high and fast and tell the FO to drop the gear.

There is a momentary pause and then a solid clunking noise as the landing drops out of the belly of the plane. I can feel a slightly slewing motion as the gear doors momentarily deflect the airflow as they transition outwards and then upwards up against the bottom of the wing. It always amazes me that such a small surface can move such a large mass, but one only has to look at the small movements of an aileron on a wing to see this happen.

With the gear hanging out below the aircraft we quickly slow and the runway ahead of us slows it’s up and down pitching motion. Tower advises us that a flight of three military helicopters will be landing on a taxiway to the south of the runway and that they have us in sight. A quick scan spots three black dots, rapidly approaching from the south. I visualize our flight path (a straight line) and theirs (a leftward down sloping curve) and realize we will be ahead of their arrival so even if they overshoot where they are going and encroach on the runway, we will be well out of the way.

At 1000 feet we are still rocking side to side and the controls feel sluggish. I remind myself that this is how the plane feels and go back to my scan that is so ingrained into my mind that a simple two week break hasn’t put a dent in it. The airspeed is staying stable despite the gusty wind. I break sterile cockpit rules to comment to the FO that it is always windy and bumpy on this approach. He simply nods and calls of 500 feet to go. Obviously, I’m not the professional here.

At 200 feet I start to visualize my flare. The 70 seater (well, actually 67 seater now that there is a first class on board) requires a slightly earlier flare than the 50 seater due to its longer fuselage and longer landing gear. It also runs out of power much quicker so you have to leave the power in longer or you will find yourself falling the last 15 feet out of the sky. At 100 feet I start to increase the pitch and use the rudder to center up the nose on the runway centerline. At 50 feet I bring about half the power out and keep pulling back on the yoke to keep the nose up. The plane settles quickly in the swirling air currents and I realize I pulled too much power but there is nothing I can do about it now.

The plane quickly counts off 40, 30 20 and 10 feet. I pull the last of the power out and there is a gentle (ok, slightly more than gentle) bump and we are on the ground. The reversers quickly deploy and then stow as we slow through 90 knots. A gently brake application slows us to taxi speed and we turn off the runway towards the gate just as the first of the three Army Apaches touches down behind us.

Min Fuel

We seem to be barely moving. For about the hundredth time in the last few minutes I check our airspeed and then look back outside at the Georgia countryside, seemingly fixed in place, visible through ragged gaps in the clouds below us. All three airspeed gauges in the cockpit agree; we are in fact moving, just not very quickly. I briefly contemplate bumping up the thrust levers but a quick glance out at our project fuel an landing number makes me dismiss that thought and go back to listening to the abnormal quiet as we creep eastward through clear skies.

It’s the last leg of a four day trip. All that waits for me, 200 miles away in Charlotte, is a two hour sit and then a deadhead home where I am done for a few days. The FO and Flight Attendant are also both done in Charlotte, but only have a quick car ride to their respective houses. The joys of being outstation based once again rear their ugly head. Despite the slow speed we are flying and the 20 minute sit we just endured by the runway in Montgomery, Alabama watching Navy BeechJets fly practice approaches, we are still showing landing 15 minutes early thanks to an early push in Montgomery and favorable tailwinds. I’ve got no place to be but for the rest of the crew, ever minute makes a difference.

Due to a new fuel saving program, we are now being dispatched with less fuel than ever before. The thought is that “extra” fuel we used to carry around weighed a lot and actually burned even more fuel to carry it around. Spread across a fleet of 50 airplanes doing 8 flights a day, 365 days a year, the numbers add up. Apparently. The company brought in an “expert” who explained all of this to a number of captains and management pilots. I came away from the session understanding the reasons, but wondering about the specifics. After two weeks of flying under the new program I’m still wondering about the specifics.

The immediate effect of this program is that if we are planned for a certain speed in cruise, our fuel load is based on flying that speed. Flying faster burns more gas, and while in the past with larger margins we could bump up the speed if we needed to (or felt we needed to), it is no longer always feasible. We are currently showing landing right at our minimums. I check the weather report at Charlotte, guess which runways they will be using and mentally add that into the fuel burn calculation. The number doesn’t improve so I leave the thrust levers where they are and go back to watching the world slide by.

15 minutes will have to do.

Pawns

I’m beginning to feel like a pawn on a chessboard. We are being moved around the rainy darkness of the White Plaines airport by the invisible hand of fate, and I don’t like it at all. I set the parking brake, take a breath and check our fuel again. We have 300 pounds more than our min take off fuel, and as we currently are facing backwards down the taxiway, our tail pointed towards the runway, I seriously doubt we will be taking off before that 300 pounds burns away.

The rain beats down on the cockpit glass, running in rivulets down the side and then being blow backwards by the wind which is now gusting to 30 miles per hour. Off to our left a Net Jets Gulfstream blasts off from the runway amidst a cloud of water kicked up by it’s engines. As it disappears into the low clouds I watch the wing tip nav lights dance in the turbulence and think that maybe we should just go back to the gate and forget about trying to get to Washington. It’s been one of those days.

. . .

I picked up the trip in Charlotte several hours ago and got to the plane as a very light rain fell. Charlotte was just ahead of a large line of weather that was stretching from Alabama up to the east coast to about Vermont. It was moving east a good rate, driven along by almost 150 miles per hour of wind aloft. On the surface the gusts were hitting 40 miles per hour. Our planned route to White Plaines would take us right along (and at some points into) the leading edge of the front. Obviously this wouldn’t work, but as dispatch didn’t seem to inclined to work with us on a new routing, and plenty of extra fuel in the tanks, I figured we could just pick our way farther east if needed to stay out of the weather.

With that plan in mind we took off into a windy sky, bumping our way up to 31,000 feet. We were able to work our way to the east a bit and stay out of the worst of the weather, although we were in moderate turbulence for a good part of the trip. Fortunately, because of the hefty tailwinds the normal almost 2 hour flight took less than 90 minutes. Despite that, it was a physically exhausting flight due to the constant bumps, trying to avoid the cells, dealing with a way overworked ATC who was trying to vector too many airplanes in not enough airspace and an approach to minimums in the fog and rain when we finally got there. Thankfully we were 30 minutes early arriving so we had a little bit of time to catch our breath before the next load of passengers arrived for our flight to DC.

While waiting I called Dispatch to discuss the weather on route again. Having just fought our way through it heading north, I really had no desire to do so again heading south, and this time down low. Our dispatcher told us that most of the weather was well east of Washington now and the only stuff we would face was on the climb out from White Plaines, heading west until we got behind the front and turned south. The radar map on my phone showed about the same thing and when the FO picked up the clearance from ATC there were no delays anticipated so I gave the go ahead for the gate agent to start boarding.

It started pouring as soon as the first person got on board, leaving our other 41 passengers standing in the rain outside, trying to cover their heads with a mixture of bags, coats and newspapers. Some gentle prodding from our flight attendant got the line moving along and soon everybody was out of the rain and on board. ATC told us to expect no delays so we started up and taxied out, only to be told that we had a 30 minute wait. And thus our game of chess moves began.

We first were moved up to and short of the runway, then crossed over to the other side and told to taxi straight ahead and then take a right. Then we were told to instead, keep going straight ahead and then take a right on another runway, then a right turn off that runway and then turn into a holding pad in the middle of nowhere, which is what we did. After 30 minutes of sitting and waiting and watching the rain come down we were moved up to and short of the runway and told to expect to go shortly. They then change their mind and told us that all the west bound departures have been stopped due to turbulence.
The tower controller asked if we could turn around and go back to the holding pad to wait so we weren’t blocking access to the runway. I grabbed the radio call before the FO could and told them that we could turn around and then asked him how long the hold on west departures would be, which of course, he didn’t know. Once turned around I asked him if we could just stop where we were for a minute and figure out our plan. He said he had nobody else coming along so that would be fine.

. . .

The rain is beating against the glass now that we are facing directly into the wind, and I idly flip the wipers on, even though we are stopped with the brake set. The glass momentarily clears and then fills again with the splatter of water droplets. We have two realistic options, and neither one is too appealing and both require returning to the gate for more fuel. We can go back load up a small amount of fuel and then sit out the hold on the departures, which could be 15 minutes or could be several hours. Or we could also go back, add a bunch of fuel and try to get what’s called a tower enroute clearance which would keep us down low at 8000 feet, out of the busy Center Controlled airspace, and hopefully out of the bumps. I tell the FO to stay on the radios incase the ground controller calls us, and pull off my headset to make a PA to the cabin.

I quickly lay out the facts (departures stopped, not enough gas to just sit and wait, even if we shut down both engines) and the options (go to the gate, load gas and sit it out or attempt getting a lower altitude), apologize for the inconvenience and remind them that the Flight Attendant doesn’t know anything about their connections and to not bother her by asking over and over again. The PA complete I pull out my phone to call dispatch and inquire about fuel loads for a lower altitude and what weather we may end up facing down low.

I’m still trying to explain the situation to the dispatcher when my FO starts talking on the radio and gives me a thumbs up sign while mouthing the words “good to go”. I tell our dispatcher never mind, hang up and put my headset back on in time to hear the controller ask how quickly we can get to the runway. We still have both engines running and the FO tells her that we can be there just as soon as she can get us there. That unleashes a torrent of taxi instructions which we quickly follow.

I make one more PA to the cabin informing them that the hold has been lifted and we’ll be in the air in a few minutes. After click off the PA I comment to the FO that moments ago I told the passengers that we couldn’t go because it was too bumpy and we didn’t have enough fuel. Now I’m telling them that it’s not bumpy, we have enough fuel and we are going. I’m sure I’ve just instilled a boatload of confidence into all of them. I quickly put it out of my mind, listen while the FO briefs his departure and with a takeoff clearance in hand, center the plane up on the runway.

The climb out it turbulent to say the least. We are in and out of the clouds and through heavy rain and moderate icing most of the way up. All of the New York Area departures are complaining and ATC is ignoring it, not that there is much they can do anyway. Finally at 24,000 feet we break out of the backside of the weather. The ride smoothes out and in the clear air above the overcast we can see the fading light of the sunset on the western horizon. To the east a mass of dark gray and black clouds are illuminated by intermittent flickers of lightning. To the south the route looks clear. I ease by seat back and rub my temples. It’s been a hell of a day so far.

Back in the saddle again…

(What’s this? An update? No way!!! Really… I’ll try to be better about it for the next few months anyway)

It’s my first day back in the plane in almost a month, and things aren’t going well. After two weeks of Union work and two weeks of vacation, I’m working my first early morning in several months and as if that isn’t enough, I’m dealing with a broken airplane and nasty line of weather. Somewhere below us the rugged ridgelines of the Smokey Mountains are lurking in the cloud bases. Both the FO and I have our radars turned on trying to avoid the worst of the weather, which means we’ve lost our real time visual depiction of where the peaks are. ATC is keeping us clear of them, but I hate relying on them to do that and would much rather be able to verify their vectors.

About 20 miles away Knoxville is reporting low overcast skies, rain and gusty winds. Between our present position and the runway is a mass of orange and yellow radar returns and, if the current conditions continue, a whole lot of turbulence. On top of that it is below freezing up here and we are picking up light ice on the airframe. It’s nothing that the anti ice system can’t keep up with, but it is rapidly turning what was a quick 35 minute flight in a much more involved ordeal.

Our real issues, and the ones we left the gate in Charlotte with, are that the charger for one of our two onboard batteries is acting up and the valve that directs air from the auxiliary power unit to the aircraft’s pneumatic system is jammed closed. Maintenance “fixed” the charger problem while we were on the gate, although apparently the part they replaced is either broken as well, or not the culprit to begin with. Every large bump we hit knocks it off line for a few seconds, flashing a caution message onto our displays.

Although this is annoying, and probably has long term ramifications, I am less concerned about this issue than the lack of APU bleed air. Because the engines can’t supply all of the pneumatic systems’ needs (engine thrust, cabin pressure and wing and cowl anti ice) something has to get dropped during high demand periods like takeoff and landing. Obviously we can’t do without engine thrust, and because of the icing conditions, we can’t turn the anti ice system off. That means the only thing we can turn off is our pressurization which leads to some mild ear discomfort. We don’t have to turn off the system until we are about to put the flaps out, so as we bump along through the clouds I carefully visualize our descent path and associated speeds so I can have some sense as to when we will have to slow and put out flaps, necessitating turning of the air conditioning packs, and causing the cabin altitude (currently at a comfortable 1000 feet) to start to raise to our actual altitude.

ATC turns us towards the finals, now 10 miles away and on the other side of a nasty looking radar return. I have the FO request 10 degrees to the right from Knoxville Approach so we can slip around the weather, which they quickly grant us. The ride is still pretty rough and heavy rain lashes the three layers of glass making up the windshield. It’s warm enough now that the ice has stopped forming and is melting off in the deluge we are flying through, but the anti ice system still has to be on because the temperature and moisture outside could produce airframe ice. Realizing we are going to have to slow down sooner rather than later I give the go ahead for the FO to shut off the pressurization system.

As the engine bleed air valves close I can feel the cabin pressure rising in my ears and in my nose. I try to yawn to equalize the pressure but only one ear clears. By now the cabin has climbed from 1000 feet to about 2000 feet. Clear of the patch of weather, although still flying through heavy rain, we turn back towards the finals and are cleared down to 2700 feet. We get there about the same time the cabin pressure does. From here on in the cabin pressure will change at about the same rate our altitude does, which means I need to be very gradual in any climbs or descents.

ATC turns us toward the field and clears us for the approach. I remind myself I haven’t actually landed the plane in about a month and with the gusty winds and low visibility on the surface, I need to just settle for getting it down and worry about nice landings another time. We join up on the ILS and start down into the murk below. The rain lightens in intensity, just about the time my other ear clears. They are reporting 500 foot ceilings and as advertised, the ground comes into view just at the plane calls off 500 feet.

The plane buffets in the wind and I flip the windshield wipers on to clear the rain streaking up the glass. The runway is clearly in sight now, stretching out over the grey, rain filled landscape ahead of us. I take one more glance across the overhead panel, noting the multiple push button switches normal dark, now illuminated because of the odd configuration we’ve put the plane in due to the maintenance issues. The left wing drops slightly and the autopilot violently corrects in the other direction. I tighten my left hand on the yoke and my right hand on the thrust levers and then disconnect the autopilot. I may not be as precise as the autopilot, but I can be much smoother in this sort of weather. The plane slews slightly until I adjust the pressure on the yoke so that it flies straight towards the rapidly approaching runway.

I take a quick breath; remind myself how to land, and then grin. This one might be kind of sporting…