The plane is gliding along at 11,000 feet and the radar picture isn’t looking good. We are still 50 miles east of the airport but the blotches of reds and yellows just to the south and west of the field displayed on the screen are well enough defined to get a sense that the next few minutes probably aren’t going to be fun. Between clouds layers the ride is smooth but as soon as we start to descend into the murk below us it is probably going to be somewhere between bumpy and exceedingly unpleasant.
The ATIS is advertising an approach from the west, but the giant red splotches covering the final from that way make me doubt the possibility of that. The FO, just back from an almost 3 year furlough, is flying. It’s day 4 and he’s more than held his own over the last three days. Even so, battling through what the radar is showing on final may be more than he can keep up with. After flipping the gain down slightly to declutter the radar picture and seeing no change in intensities of the returns I realize that it may be more than I can keep up with.
I check in with the Approach controller who tells us to fly our present heading and join the localizer for the western runway, completely the opposite direction from the advertised approach. I like this idea immediately as the scope shows nothing worse than rain between us and the airport and I waste no time in getting the new approach set up in the FMS. Meanwhile the FO does a nice job with a quick brief of the new procedure.
I’ve already advised the Flight Attendant that it was probably going to be nasty on the way in and to get the cabin secured early. Now that it it’s not looking so bad I briefly consider calling back again to update her but decide against it. Despite getting an approach from this side, we aren’t completely out of the woods yet. The visibility is reported very low at the field because of the rain and if we go missed we are going to have to make a pretty quick turn to the north to avoid the weather that is barreling down on the field from the west.
At 5000 feet we are back in the clouds and flying through steady rain. Some miles back I’d advised the FO to keep the speed up for as long as possible to get us the airport as far ahead of the weather as we could and he’s doing the best he can. At 10 miles I check in with Tower while the FO starts slowing and requests the first notch of flaps. As they click into place the Tower controller clears us to land and advises us the winds are light and variable; the preverbal calm before the storm.
5 miles and 1500 feet above the ground has us fully configured. The weather radar is displaying patches of green ahead of us and solid splotches of red and purple about 5 miles on the other side of the airport. Fortunately we are moving much faster than the weather and I let out a slight sigh of relief knowing we’ll beat the weather in. We break out of the clouds at 500 feet with the runway clearly visible despite the driving rain running up the windshield. I flip the wipers on to high and the view momentarily clears every half second as the blades slide past.
We touch down just us a huge lightning bolt rips across the western horizon. The rumble of thunder is audible even over the thrust reversers spooling up and the drum of rain on the cockpit glass. Tower tells us to taxi to the ramp with him as we slow and exit the runway. I briefly wonder if we’ll have to wait for the lightning to stop before the rampers will come out to park us, but they are there waiting, looking skyward with every large flash of lightning as we pull up to the gate. Four days after pushing back from this gate in the early morning darkness I set the brake and shut down the engines in the afternoon gloom, glad to be done.