Winter Arrives

The wind is kicking up huge whitecaps on the Delaware River, visible just for a moment as we rotate skyward off the end of the runway. Within seconds we enter the clouds and the ground disappears in a fadeout of milky whitet. Heavy rain drums on the cockpit glass and on the roof overhead. When the tower controller tells us to contact Departure the radios buzz from the static that has built up on the airframe. The radar is showing splotches of green and yellow all around us, but thankfully very little red. And despite all of that, the ride is smooth. I relax my left hand on the yoke slightly and let out a small sigh.

Winter has come on December 1st in the form of a massive storm system that is moving up the east coast. Departing Nashville, just before sunrise, the air was mostly still but the clouds overhead were slipping quickly by. Heading east towards Washington, DC we were pushed along by almost 150 miles per hour of wind. With the ground hidden beneath a solid layer of clouds we watched our progress as it was depicted on the moving map display. Passing over Beckley, West Virginia a wall of clouds began to form on the eastern Horizon, blotting out the now risen Sun. Even with power pulled back and the engines just barely pushing us along, the clouds still moved closer at a rapid rate so that by the time that we’d begun our decent towards Washington, we’d run into the back side of the weather.

DC was reporting rain winds out of the south, gusting to 20 miles per hour when we started the approach. To land to the south at Washington National, when the weather is down, is one of the busier instrument approaches we fly, involving a number of quick (just 2 miles apart) step down fixes that come up very fast. Throw in the bumpy ride and the heavy rain and the fact that when you do get the bottom of the approach you still have to maneuver visually to find the runway (about a mile away and off to the left somewhere), it can be a somewhat stressful time. As advertised at 600 feet above the ground the clouds parted slightly and there ahead of us, around a curve in the Potomac River, was the runway.

I touched down on the wet pavement and using max reverse thrust and heavy braking got the airplane stopped in a hurry. Normally I don’t like throwing the passengers forward in their seats, but DC was trying to pump out a departure before the next arrival chasing us down the river landed. Once clear of the runway and parked at the gate our passengers got off and boarded a bus to the terminal. While we waited for out outbound passengers to arrive we watched aircraft break out of the clouds, come down the river and touchdown. To the northwest, where the planes were breaking out, the clouds started to get darker and darker while the wind and rain started to increase. Within about a minute the winds went from being out of the south to out of the north, causing a plane to go around due to the sudden tailwind.

With no passengers in sight, I had the flight attendant shut the main cabin door as the rain started to come down in sheets. Our door was facing north and if we didn’t get it shut, the plane would soon become a swimming pool. With the door shut, sealed off from the outside world, we watched the rain come down, blown almost horizontally by the wind. In the middle of this our bus of passengers showed up, but we elected to let the rain ease up a bit before boarding. After 10 minutes it let up slightly and a ramper arrived to load bags. We then popped the door and one at a time our passengers (all 15 of them) ran from the cover of the bus, up the aircraft stairs and into the plane.

15 minutes later we were taxiing out in the driving rain. After waiting for several arrivals we blasted off into the clouds for a very bumpy trip up to Philly. It was the FO’s leg and coming down the approach we got bounced around pretty good but broke out with plenty of time to find the runway and land were we swapped out 15 passengers for 20 new passengers waiting to head out to Dayton. With the wind reported to be topping 40 miles per hour out of the south, on taxi out we requested the north-south runway, which is not the normal departure runway. After warning us that it “may be a while” before we’d be able to take off from that runway they cleared us to taxi to it. A while turned into 30 minutes of watching airplanes break out of the clouds, lurch and bounce over the fence and slam into the runway amidst a driving rain. At one point a Southwest flight behind us asked tower how much longer until they’d be able to take off. Before tower could respond a voice from another plane (I’m assuming it was another Southwest flight that had just landed) said “I wouldn’t be in any rush to get back up there”.

Tower finally told us to get our engines started up again as we’d be released in a few minutes. While we spun them up and ran the appropriate checklists the wind started to shift from the south to the west and increase in speed. Two planes coming down final went around. By the time we were ready to go the wind was now straight out of the west at 45 miles per hour, well exceeding our crosswind limitation for the north south runway we were set to launch off of. Laughing at the irony of it all my FO told tower we’d be unable to depart and would have to taxi over to the other runway; the one we’d refused to use 30 minutes ago. Tower wasted no time in clearing us to taxi over there and somehow, when we got there we were number one to go.

The ride is still mostly smooth as we climb out. At 10,000 feet the grayness of the clouds begins to lighten and by 12,000 we are on top. There is nothing but blue sky ahead. I gently push the nose over and pick up airspeed. We’ve got almost 100 miles per hour of wind in our face and I’m going to use every bit of speed I can coax out of the plane to get us home. Several minutes later I rethink that slightly as the latest weather report from Dayton comes across the ACARS: 2 miles and blowing snow. I lean back in my seat letting the warmth of the sun wash across my face. We might as well get it over with I think and push the thrust levers forward some more.

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