Both engines have been at flight idle for the last 50 miles as we gracefully swan dive down from 28,000 feet towards our destination for the evening. On my dimmed out multifunction display the runway is depicted by a thin line of white pixles on a black screen. Out the window the view is hardly that simple and as we drop out of the sky, the FO and I scan the confusing jumble of ground lighting for the runway or at least the airport beacon.
Passing through 11,000 feet the FO finds the beacon and vectors my gaze towards it. (“See the highway lights running away from us? Ok, now see the big mall parking lot looking thing midway down the highway? Yeah? Just past that there is a road to the left. Follow that to the east and then just south of the road at about ten thirty or eleven o’clock is the beacon.”) I somehow manage to follow his directions and realize I’ve been looking for the airport too far away from us when it is in fact much closer. In the darkness I’ve miss judged the mental picture I was transferring from the digital display to the real world out the window and now we are way too high and too fast to make a pretty approach.
My mind starts prioritizing altitude, airspace and position verses thrust and what drag I’ve got available to me for use, namely the flaps, landing gear and spoilers. Realizing that right now slow is probably better than fast I deploy the flight spoilers and am rewarded with both a reassuring rumbling noise and an even more reassuring decreasing airspeed trend. As soon as we are slow enough I call for flaps and gear and then pitch the nose downward towards the darkened Florida landscape below.
Things still aren’t looking good and the happy approach equation every pilot likes to see (where I am equals where I should be) isn’t balancing out right now. We are 6 miles from the runway. If I was where 2000 feet lower I would simply make a 90 degree turn to the left and join the final to the runway. Instead I’ve got about 40 knots of airspeed and 2000 feet of altitude to lose first, a nearly impossible feat in the amount of time and space I’ve got between me in the runway. I quickly come up with plan B and brief the FO that instead of making a 90 degree left hand turn I’m going to make a 270 degree right hand turn which should give me the time and space I need to get slowed and descend to the correct altitude. The FO passes this along to the tower controller who approves and then goes back to doing whatever he was doing before we interrupted him.
Passing through the final approach course with the runway lights clearly visible off our left wing I realize that I actually don’t need a 270 degree turn and the simple act of going through the final and then turning back towards it will give me the space needed to get down and slow down. I brief plan C as I make a lazy left turn back towards the runway and call for the last of the flaps. The tower controller again approves our plan. The runway lights center in the windshield and I roll the wings level.
At 1000 feet the speed is stable and we are on altitude. At 500 feet a puff of white blows by the left side of the airplane as a late flying bird of some sort passes by. I make a mental note to have the FO double check that side of the plane for bird strike damage during his walk around and then focus on the rapidly approaching runway. We pass over the perimeter road and the white strobe lights that make up the rabbit. At 50 feet I pull out the last of the power and the plane settles gently (well, that’s the story I’m telling anyway) to the ground.
Fifteen minutes later we are shut down at the gate with our passengers heading to the terminal. I’m outside on the ramp doing the walk around while the FO takes care of something else. With the plane shut down and drawing electrical power from the jetway the ramp is silent save for the quiet rumble of the engine on the belt loader parked next to the aft luggage bin. Coming around the back side of the left engine I shine my flashlight up on the vertical stabilizer towering 29 feet above my head. High above the tail, out of the reach of the flashlight’s weak beam, yet clearly visible against the night sky, flocks of white birds swirl and spin in the darkness.