A Wind in the Darkness

We clear the runway at the end and as the First Officer flips off the landing lights and brings up the flaps I stow the reversers. Ground clears us to parking and guiding by our dim taxi light I follow the undulating taxiway centerline southbound. Off our left wing a departure roars off into the darkened sky at full power, its nose and wings rocking back and forth in the wind and as I press the brakes to slow us, I realize my legs are shaking.

15 minutes ago…

There is a scattered layer of clouds at 5000 feet which we drop through 15 miles out. Ahead of us the Potomac River stretches north backed by the lights of the Washington skyline. The Washington Monument, with its red blinking beacon anchors the center while the Capitol’s glowing white dome holds down the eastern end. Closer in the lights of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge span the dark river flowing beneath it.

Between the Bridge and the Monument the runway lighting of Washington National Airport shine brightly.
Approach asks if we have the River in sight and then clears us for the visual approach and tells us to contact Tower. The bumps start as soon as the First Officer switches frequencies. I move the heading bug a few degrees to the left and the autopilot dutifully follows it. As the wings roll level we lurch and drop quickly. As the airspeed jumps up I pull the power back but just as quickly we start to climb again and I have to add power. The surface of the river is visible now and despite being only dimly illuminated by the shore lighting I can see whitecaps being wiped across the water’s surface.

The FO finally is able to cut into the steady stream of instructions the Tower Controller is issuing and announce our presence. Tower responds that the winds are out of the Northwest 29 knots with gusts reaching 43 knots. He then clears to land on Runway 33, which requires a circling maneuver but is more closely aligned with the wind. I grunt an acknowledgment to the FO and then go back to trying to keep the airplane steady. By now I’ve given up on the autopilot and am hand flying trying to keep a slow descent rate while keeping the airspeed steady. The best I can manage is 30 knot range as we bounce up and down over the River.

At 1500 feet above the ground I call for the landing gear with the hope that it will steady the aircraft some. There isn’t much improvement with all three gears struts hanging out into the blustery sky and the flaps at thirty degrees. We go feet dry over Boiling Air Force Base on the east bank of the River. I’m trying to get the speed back some so we can put out the last of the flaps but the airplane (and wind) has other plans. We take a large hit and the airspeed quickly increases by 25 knots causing the overspeed clacker to go off. I ignore it and pull the power back some but I don’t want to completely unspool the engines uncase the speed drops off just as quickly. Before the thrust levers even move we get a hi-low tone and a verbal “Wind shear! Wind shear!” aural alert.

The wind shear labels that pop up on the main displays are yellow which means the shear is positive and it is an advisory message only so we can continue. Over the annoying chirp of the overpeed clacker I tell the FO to call my airspeed and that we are continuing. Seconds later the speed drops back down and the clacker shuts off followed immediately be the windshear message clearing from the primary flight display. I call for the last of the flaps and for the FO to bug the approach speed. I quickly glance to the right to make sure he’s still in the game and despite his eyes being the size of dinner plates, he seems ok.

Even with the flaps in place the ride is still very rough and as I roll out onto final the airspeed is still all over the place. Ahead of us, on the runway, an American MD80 powers up to take off. As we pass through 500 feet I can see their lights start to move forward and verbalize to the FO that the spacing should be ok. He agrees and goes back to calling out the airspeed variations.

At 200 feet off the ground I see the MD80 rotate skyward in front of us. At 150 feet I sense the airplane starting to sink. I start adding power but have a pretty good idea what is coming next. At 100 feet we are still dropping and the airspeed is falling rapidly despite the fact that I’m increasing the thrust. We get another hi-low tone followed by a red wind shear message on the PFDs. I push the thrust levers all the way forward, tap the go round button located on top of them and as I feel the engines surge behind us pitch the nose upward into the command bars. I vaguely hear the airplane call of 50 feet and then feel us slowly, very slowly, start to climb.

The FO calls the go around to tower who tells us to turn left immediately to a due west heading. Normally during a windshear event you want to keep the plane heading straight ahead, but the wingtip lights of the just departed MD80 are rapidly growing larger in the front windshield so I roll left as claw skyward. By 400 feet the windshear message goes away and our airspeed starts increasing. I call for the flaps to 8 and the gear up. As the drag decreases the airspeed and altitude increase. I call for the autopilot back on and then the rest of the flaps up. Tower hands us back to departure who turns us southbound to get back in the arrival stream. Out our right window, the American MD80’s lights disappear into the distance.

Level at 3000 feet the FO and I discuss the situation. We have enough fuel to try the approach again and still be able to head to our alternate where the winds are less intense. I tell him that I think we just had bad luck with the timing as everybody in front of us got in just fine and the plane following us made it as well. He agrees and as we head south parallel to the Potomac I make a quick cabin PA. The passengers (mostly) reassured, I rebrief the approach and call for the flaps back to 20 degrees as the controller slows us to 170 knots to fit into a gap in the traffic on final.

We join the final again just outside the bridge and again, tower clears us to land on Runway 33 where the winds are now only gusting to 39 knots. This time I configure earlier with the hope of getting stabilized farther out. Again, passing through 1500 feet we get a 20 knot increase in airspeed and a yellow windshear caution message. We continue onward. I roll final at 1000 feet this time and focus on the approaching runway lighting while the FO calls off my airspeed.

At 500 feet we are holding steady with 10 knot variations but still in moderate turbulence. 100 feet isn’t much better but by 50 feet it’s smoothed out a bit. The plane seems to hover as we cross the runway threshold and then settles lightly to the pavement. I pull the power quickly, push forward on the yoke to keep the nose wheel on the ground and wait for the aircraft to slow which it quickly does.

. . .

Parked at the gate, we wait for a bus to arrive to take out passengers to the terminal. Wind swirls through the open doorway and buffets the airplane. I take a deep breath and let it out. As another plane roars off into the night sky I realize I am very happy to be on the ground now. That’s not going to last for long though as we’ve got one more leg to do this evening and just as soon as these passengers are off the plane, another bus with new passengers will be pulling up. I smile to myself and think, they have no idea what they are in for.

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