Wilmington Approach turns us on to the localizer 15 miles from the airport as we bounce along through the clouds at 2600 feet. Through ragged gaps below us I can see the Carolina Piedmont slipping by at 220 miles per hour in a confusion of green fields, treelines and little clusters of buildings, tinted gray in the overcast light filtering through the clouds. The radio chatter coming through my headset is as confused as the landscape below. On COM 1 approach is giving us instructions to join the instrument procedure as well as working three other airplanes in the immediate area. COM 2 is set to the local traffic frequency for the airport and I’m trying to keep track of a V22 Osprey and two light singles who are working the pattern. I take a deep breath and check that our airspeed is holding and realize I am rapidly becoming task saturated.
The airport at Jacksonville, NC, like thousands of other airports around the country, has no control tower. In fact, there are many fewer fields with towers than those without, but the majority of our operations are limited to controlled fields and due to the lack of frequency we do it, coupled with the speed we are traveling while attempting to interface with the often times slower pattern traffic, an arrival into an uncontrolled field can be a challenge. Additionally, stacked against us today is the fact that the clouds ceilings, while legal for visual flight rules operations, are too low for us to get below while still showing up on the ATC radar display.
Because of that we have to shoot an instrument approach to get below the clouds and then, once visual try to fit in with the other planes in the area. The other problem is that the one precision approach into the airport happens to be to the opposite direction runway that everybody else is using due to the wind. It’s my leg and as the approach course comes alive and the autopilot turns the plane to join it, I rebrief the FO on the plan.
I have three different scenarios I am ready to fly once we break out of the clouds and acquire the field visually. The first, and most simple, although also most unlikely, is that the three other airplanes that have been talking on the local frequency will all be gone when we get there and the winds, as reported by the automated system and broadcast on a second frequency we can monitor will be light enough or in a direction such that we can land straight in on the runway the instrument approach we are flying is aligned with. We can land with up to a 10 knot tailwind and when we last checked the winds were at 8 knots from directly behind us down the approach meaning it would be legal to land with the tailwind, but probably not advisable.
If we are unable to land straight in off the approach, either due to wind or traffic, options two and three come into play. They are both about the same, just differing in the directions of the turns. The plan will be to level off at 1600 feet (1500 feet above the ground), as long as we are out of the clouds, and turn either left or right and fly a visual downwind, base and final to the runway opposite the instrument approach. There is actually an instrument approved maneuver similar to this and our approach plate shows circle to land minimums of 600 feet but we aren’t certified for this maneuver and have to have at least 2000 foot ceilings and fly a “standard” pattern. Whether we go left or right for this pattern depends on what the traffic already there is doing. A standard pattern is left turns, but the V22 had been reporting a right pattern earlier on so I am leaning towards doing that as well.
With the flaps at 20 degrees and our primary radio now set to the local frequency we start down the glideslope. I realize somewhat belatedly that we could have requested a GPS approach to the other runway, negating having to have three potential plans in place but figure this will work out ok one way or another and if it doesn’t we can always come back up with approach controller and request the GPS. As advertised we drop out of the clouds at 2000 feet with the runway clearly in sight two miles ahead of us.
I turn off the autopilot and level the plane off at 1600 feet while scanning the area, matching the picture on our onboard traffic display with what I see outside. One of the Cessnas is off to our right at 1000 feet, heading away from the airport. The second Cessna is no longer visible on the traffic display, but I see him taxing towards the ramp. The other target on our display is directly in front of us climbing out of 500 feet heading towards us about 2 miles away. This is the Marine V22 which as I acquire it visually starts to turn out in a right hand pattern and announces over the radio that he will be departing the area to the north.
Despite the left hand pattern being open I decide to go with the right hand pattern and turn to the left to get on the downwind behind the Osprey, now just 500 feet below us and less than a mile away. I bring the power back slightly to slow down more just so we don’t overtake him in case he changes his mind and stays in the pattern or starts to climb more. By the time we get abeam the end of the runway it’s clear he is leaving the area and I switch my attention to the runway 2 miles to our right. As soon as we pass by the end of it I can no longer see it and I rely on the FO to tell me when we are at a 45 degree angle from the end. At that point I call for 30 degrees of flaps and the landing gear and turn base.
Descending out of 1200 feet on the base leg the end of the runway comes back into view out the right side window. I start drawing imaginary descent and turning vectors in my mind and then add in the speed vector. Everything seems to be working out. At 1000 feet I roll the airplane to the right and align it with the runway. The last of the flaps are now in place and we’ve slowed back to our approach speed. I take one last good look at the taxiways to make sure nobody is about to taxi onto the runway and see nothing. At 500 feet we are stable and I note that the windsock is stretched out towards us meaning it was probably a good idea we circled and didn’t land straight in off the approach.
200 and 100 feet come and go. At 50 feet I start bringing the power back and raising the nose. The plane dutifully calls out 40, 30, 20, 10 and then there is a slight pause before we smack into the pavement as I completely misjudge the flare. I shake it off quickly and get the reversers deployed as the nose wheel comes down to the ground. You can fly a textbook perfect arrival and approach, but the plane doesn’t care about any of that and will still humble you in a hurry if you let it.
We clear the runway downfield and start taxiing towards the gate. Overhead the gray sky swirls northward driven by the winds. In 30 minutes we will be launching back into it on the way back to Charlotte, but for now we are among the landwellers of the world.