Underneath

The workload is starting to increase and out of the corner of my eye, as I re enter landing data into the FMS for the third time, I can see the FO is starting to get behind. Approach has just changed our runway again and a new weather report has just popped up. The visibility is dropping rapidly and what was originally briefed as a visual approach is quickly turning into an instrument approach down to minimums with the very real chance of a go around at the end.

The data entered I flip through my binder of approach charts to the one we’ve just been assigned and check the visibility requirements. As I glance back at the newly arrived weather we enter the top of the cloud deck and start to bounce up and down. Across the darkened cockpit, the FO is madly leafing through pages of arrivals, airport diagrams and approaches, trying to find the right one while also keeping one eye on the instrumentation of the airplane he is supposed to be flying. Before I can tell him to slow down to avoid getting a paper cut we drop out of the bases of the cloud layer we’ve been in and the ride smooths. He finds the correct chart and starts setting up his side of the cockpit.

This is the tail end of the first leg of the day. After spending all of the morning and most of the afternoon sitting in the hotel in Jackson, Mississippi watching a line of weather blow through, we loaded up 11 passengers and headed out, following the storms east. We passed through the weather somewhere over Atlanta. At 33,000 feet we missed the worst of it and other than some bumps and a great display of St. Elmo’s fire it was a non event.

Now Charlotte lies 100 miles from the front edge of the storm and the rapidly moving cold front is dropping the altimeter and temperature causing fog and scattered rain showers. When we first picked up the weather 80 miles out it was calling for 10 miles of visibility and clear skies. Now, as we get vectored over the city, visible only as a bright splotch of white light through the clouds below us, they are calling for 400 foot ceilings and 1 mile of visibility. I take a quick look at our fuel and am happy to see 5,500 pounds remaining. More than enough to try to get in a few times and then head to our alternate, farther to the east, and clear of the weather.

The FO briefs the new approach as we turn base, 18 miles out. We join up on the localizer 15 miles from the runway and watch as the flashing strobe lights on the plane in front of us disappears into the low overcast. We too follow them downward and into the clouds and fog. Approach control hands us over to the tower controller as the gear comes out into the darkness and after I check in we are cleared to land. The last of the flaps slide into place as the Radar Altimeter shows 1,500 feet to the ground and I take one more quick glance across the cockpit. The FO is just back from 5 years of military leave and has very little time in the plane. So far he’s been doing fine and I’m sure as an Army helicopter pilot for 30 years he’s seen way worse than this. (A continuing joke throughout the trip was saying “at least nobody is shooting at us”!) Despite that I double check he’s caught up and ready to land.

At 1000 feet we are still in the fog and I review the minimums and missed approach procedure just in case we need it. The aircraft calls out 500 feet above the ground and I start to see lights on the ground below and in front of us. I remind myself there is no approach lighting for this runway which means the first airport lights we see will be the actual runway and nothing leading in. 100 feet above the approach minimums and 300 feet above the ground I can see lights ahead of us but nothing that looks like a runway. Just as the plane calls off “minimums” I see the green end lighting of the runway and call it in sight. My hand is resting on the bottom of the yoke and I feel it twitch in my fingers as the FO disengages the autopilot.

Visibility below the ceiling is at least a mile and as we settle towards the pavement the airport environment, ablaze in fog haloed lighting takes shape. At 50 feet I feel the power come back and the nose start to inch higher in the flare. I focused on the rapidly blurring white runway centerline strip, illuminated by our landing lights. It grows larger as we drop towards it. The plane calls out 30, 20 and 10 in quick succession and with a light thump the main wheels touch down, followed seconds later by the nose wheel.

I’m still focusing out the window, my feet hovering just above the rudder pedals. I sense more than see the FO move his hand to deploy the thrust reversers. 80 feet behind us I can hear them slide open and start to direct air forward. We quickly slow on the wet pavement. At 90 knots they start to stow and at 60 knots we are silently coasting forward down the runway. I slide my feet up on the pedals, tap the yoke twice and let the FO know I’ve got the plane. As we turn off the runway onto the taxiway the first drops of rain start to fall from the leaden sky just 400 feet above our heads.

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