DC Nights

It’s the tail end of my fifth leg of the day and the same sun I watched rise over the Florida/Georgia border 10 hours ago is now setting somewhere behind us as we start to descend across the darkening Maryland landscape. The FO, my second of the day, is on the radio with Washington Operations to double check that they are aware that we don’t have an APU and will need ground power and an air start cart once we get there. I’m giving him 50-50 odds of getting the message through. The last rays of the sun drop off behind the wing and I dim out the cockpit lighting slightly. 15 more minutes (and a deadhead back to Dayton) and I am done for the day.

Air traffic control clears us to descend via the arrival and I quickly verify that the correct altitudes are loaded into the flight management computer. They appear to be and high tech meets low tech as I manually match the altitudes and the altitude bug on the autopilot to the next altitude on the computer display. Then I coax the autopilot to descend at the rate the flight computer suggests to meet the next altitude restriction (which I manually have set). New aircraft are able to do all of this automatically at the touch of a single button but we are stuck with what we’ve got. I remind myself I should be thankful that we have an autopilot and a working air conditioning system.

The fixes slide by as we descend over the top of Washington Dulles and past the solid stream of red and white lights traveling along the Beltway. Level at 8000 feet, approach vectors us off the arrival to join the final over the Potomac River. The Sun’s rays are now completely blocked by the darkened horizon behind us. Despite the lack of light the River is easy to pick out, a ribbon of darkness, sliding between brightly lit banks of humanity. I dump the autopilot as we switch over to the tower controller. Off the right wing the mostly empty parking lot of CIA Headquarters passes by.

20 degrees of flaps are hanging off the back of the wing as the Chain Bridge jumps out of the trees and across the Potomac at a narrow spot. We are down to 1800 feet now and getting to the start of the tricky part of the approach. I call for the landing gear and 30 degrees of flaps and as they click into place I slow to 160 knots. Off the left side, the Georgetown Reservoir reflects the building lighting surrounding its eastern edge. Just beyond it, Georgetown University is ablaze in light and as I dip the left wing down to start the turn at Rosslyn I got a momentary glimpse of green sports fields lit by bright stadium lighting.

The Washington Mall with the floodlit Monument anchoring its center comes into view as I roll back to the right, following the course of the river. Just off our right wing, and mere feet below us, the top stories of the Rosslyn apartments slide by, full of people just home from work, starting in on their evening routines of dinner, TV, internet or who knows what. The last of the flaps slide into the now dark sky and I slow back to our approach speed as the Lincoln Memorial disappears underneath the left wing.

The runway is in sight now, with a plane just starting to roll and another one ready to go as soon as we touch down and clear. At 500 feet I start rolling farther to the right to align with the runway. Unseen, directly below our outstretched landing gear, traffic rolls by on the 14th Street Bridge. The plane in front of us rotates skyward and the runway is ours. I pull the power back at 50 feet and we settle to the pavement below. I start braking almost as soon as the nose gear touches down and follow immediately after with full reverse thrust. DC likes you to get off the runway quickly, which we do. As we turn and start taxiing towards the gate the lights of inbound arrivals are visible as they stack up over the River.

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