Mountain Mornings

It’s just barely daylight by the time we get the plane. The rain is still coming down at a good rate, as it has been all night. The concrete of the ramp is glistening in the floodlights that still illuminate it, despite the gray light sweeping in from the mountain tops to the east. The plane is buttoned up with the door still closed, and the jet way pulled back. I glance at the rest of the crew, who I just met up with for one leg yesterday and after seeing no movement towards the door leading out to the ramp, tighten my grip on my rolling bag, push the door open and step outside deluge. Sometimes you just have to lead by example.

The rain is cold but not unpleasant. Despite the altitude (we are up in the hills of western North Carolina) and the early hour, it’s not too cold out. Spring has arrived, but I am glad to have my blazer (required for another three weeks) on to ward off the chill. I splash through the puddles and push my bag and flight case underneath the body of the airplane to keep it out of the worst of the rain. With no weight onboard the landing gear struts are full extended and the plane sits much higher than normal. I have to reach up well above my head to grab the door handle and as I do rain runs down my wrist and arm. I rethink the whole not cold thing and shiver as I finally manage to pop the door handle and step back as it opens outwards, slowed by its assist cable and motor.

With the door sitting on the ground, leading steeply upwards to the empty plane I take a step back and check for the rest of the crew. They are still inside, looking at me through the glass door I recently exited. I grumble to myself as I lug my bag up the steps and out of the rain. It takes two trips and by the time I walk up the steps for the second time, a ramper has appeared in the jetway cab to move it against the plane. I now understand why the rest of my crew has remained inside. Sure enough, a minute later they join me in the forward galley, dry and warm, while I still shake rain off from my coat. My only consolation is that the FO still has to go out and do a walk around and endure the same conditions I just did. Of course he wastes no time in pulling an umbrella out of his bag and heading out while I think how nice it would have been to have that a few minutes ago.

By the time the FO is back inside I’ve got the plane running and am finishing up the early morning checklist items. The rain is still coming down and I flip the windshield wipers on and off a few times to clear this glass. There’s nothing to see outside except the gray wall of the terminal building and the short, stubby ATC tower that sits on top of it, but I do it anyway. Our passengers begin arriving shortly thereafter and the normal drama of our two Flight Attendants dealing with them begins.

Eventually we are loaded up and ready to go. It’s daylight now but the light is flat and gray, filtering through the low clouds overhead and the still steady rain. The rampers, covered in bright yellow raingear push us back, disconnect the tug, wave, salute and fade back into the terminal building. ATC tells us to expect no delays (which I find hard to believe with the amount of weather between us and Charlotte) so we spin both engines and taxi to the runway. I rebrief the departure one more time, taking time to highlight the fact that we are surrounded by 6000 foot tall mountains on all sides and what special procedures will be needed if we have problems on takeoff. That completed we taxi out onto the runway, I push the power levers all the way up and off we go.

The clouds obscure the view by the time we pass through 500 feet. Solid streams of water cascade across the windshield but as my focus is inside on the instruments, I don’t really care. I have the terrain display up on my side and it’s depicting brown and red swaths of obstructions everywhere. As we climb out the browns will fade to yellows and then greens as the terrain falls away below us. The FO has his weather radar on and it’s showing browns and greens as well. Unfortunately these won’t necessarily disappear out as we climb.

ATC clears us direct a fix down the road and after quickly checking that we will be above any terrain between our present position and there (something an ATC clearance technically does, but I don’t ever fully trust) we make the turn. As we roll out on the new heading, still bouncing through a gray, wet cloud filled world, I flip off my terrain display and switch on the radar. The image stabilizes and shows a mass of cells between us and the airport, now just 85 miles away with the white course line on the MFD heading directly into the middle of the mess. It’s not even 7:30 in the morning and I realize it’s just going to be one of those days.

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