It’s 9pm and we are descending towards the darkened coastal Carolina terrain and for the third time this evening I remind the FO how much I hate doing this. We are heading towards an uncontrolled field where we will have to fend for ourselves without the help and guidance of Air Traffic Control. Once we have the airport in sight they will tell us we are on our own and to give them a call when we are on the ground. It something that happens thousands of times a day at hundreds of airports around the country, but doing it in a high speed jet, with 50 passengers in the back is something I really don’t like doing.
I can already hear my freight and charter pilot friends rolling their eyes at me when I say this as they do this sort of thing on a daily basis. And they are right, for the most part. There are procedures and policies in place so everybody gets along and the sequence works itself out. That said, it’s something we don’t do regularly in our operation and due to the faster speed we fly and the heavier load we carry, what may be a simple procedure in a light jet or prop traveling at slower speeds, can become a busy, high work load approach in a heavier, faster aircraft.
Pitt Greenville has 3 runways, but only one long enough for us to use. It stretches roughly north-south and has a precision instrument approach to the northern end. We won’t need it tonight as visibility is only restricted by the curve of the earth and the strength of the human eye. Climbing east out of Charlotte the Piedmont plain stretches out before us towards the Atlantic coast; darkened land with the million and one scattered lights of modern civilization. Overhead, faded slightly by the light pollution, thousands of stars swing around the black sky.
20 miles from the airport and dropping earthward, I start to put together a mental traffic picture. We’ve been monitoring the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) for the last 50 miles but this frequency is used by about 10 different airports scattered around the area so there is a huge amount of chatter on it. From the sound of things, there is a small single engine airplane arriving from the north, planning on flying past the airport and then landing on the southern runway, there is a MedFlight helicopter inbound from the east (as are we) heading to the Hospital two miles to the south of the airport, and there is a light twin waiting to the depart the northern runway to the south.
15 miles away, we have the airport beacon is sight and Washington Center clears us for an approach and reminds us to cancel our flight plan once we are on the ground. Both the FO and I switch our radio frequency selector switches to COM 2 where CTAF is set up. While I start slowing down the airplane he makes a position report and advises anybody listening that we’ll be there in 5 minutes. On the traffic display, we can clearly see 3 targets. One is sitting directly on the field at ground level one is a mile to the west of the field at 1000 feet above the ground and one is just to the south at 500 feet.
By 5 miles out the small single engine aircraft and the helicopter have both dropped off the traffic display and reported successful landings over CTAF. The twin engine plane starts its takeoff roll as I turn downwind, its blinking strobe light visible out my side window. I quickly realize we are going to have a problem. We are paralleling each other, heading south. At some point I need to make a left hand U turn back towards the airport to land while at the same time he will be climbing out directly off our wing and eventually turning west, directly towards us.
I continue on the downwind wondering if maybe we should break out to the right and come back to try again while the lights of the climbing twin off our left hold even with our wing. On the traffic display their altitude readout increases until they are level with us. I start descending calling for the flaps and gear as they continue climbing above us, their plane rolling into a shallow turn to the west as they pass over the top.
With the conflicting traffic out of the way I switch my focus to the rapidly approach runway. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that despite the issue with the other airplanes in the area we are about 3 miles from the end of the runway at 1000 feet above the ground, fully configured. Ahead and to the left, visible in the floodlighting of the Med Center Complex, I can see the rotors still spinning on the just landed MedFlight helicopter. Directly off our nose the runway lights slide rapidly towards us. We don’t belong here in this kind of aircraft, but it always seems to work out just fine so we keep coming back.