The situation is rapidly falling apart. What, after three hours of sitting, was supposed to be a simple flight, sneaking in behind a large line of weather, has turned into an arrival and approach that may have us going around and bailing out to our alternate. Assuming of course we have enough fuel to get there. As I spin the heading bug five more degrees to the right to avoid a bright red splotch on the radar display, I stare into the rushing darkness punctuated by thousands of points of light; raindrops illuminated by our landing lights, and wonder if we should just throw in the towel now and head somewhere else.
My day started at noon with a deadhead down to Charlotte where I sat for 5 hours waiting to fly to Baltimore, on to Philly and then back to Baltimore for the night. Because of the lack of flights between my base and Charlotte I was stuck watching the world go by for most of the afternoon. That turned out to be not such a bad thing as our deadhead landed on the front side of a large line of weather, hustled in to the gate and unloaded into a rapidly gathering storm. I spent the next 4 hours wandering the airport observing a textbook example of how weather can make an operation fall apart.
By 6pm the weather had passed and the recovery was starting. The flight display boards which had shown lots of red cancellations all afternoon started to clear and show orange delay notes as well as more and more on time flights. The plane I was waiting on actually showed up on time and 30 minutes prior to departure we had a crew on board, ready to go. I asked the gate agent to hold off on boarding as I had a suspicion that we would be delayed as Baltimore was currently still in the weather. Sure enough, when I called for our clearance ATC advised us that our estimated release time was just about 3 hours from now, some 2 ½ hours later than our planned departure.
With nobody on board other than the crew we simply shut down the plane, shut the door and went back inside to sit out the penalty time. A quick check at of the radar showed most of the weather passing through the area right then, with one single line trailing behind it. Due to the delay, the Baltimore-Philly-Baltimore legs were canceled, leaving us with just one leg to do. This worked well for our passengers currently waiting downstairs, but would leave 50 people stranded in Baltimore and another 50 waiting in Philly. Reasons to not book on the last flight of the day I guess.
That trailing line of weather was still in play 2 hours later when I started up the plane again and the passengers began boarding. Because of that we were refilled by ATC to head 150 miles due west to Knoxville, TN before turning back to the north and then eventually Northeast over Beckley, WV and on to Baltimore. This reroute added almost 400 miles to the flight plan and stretched our fuel to pretty much the bare minimum we’d need to get to Baltimore and then on to an alternate if needed.
My hope was that once we got in the air, ATC would give us a shortcut to the northeast, saving time and more importantly fuel which is how it ended up playing out. As soon as we got handed over to Atlanta Center, he advised us that he’d have a turn for us soon. Climbing through 20,000 feet into a clear, star filled sky, we were turned northward to Beckley, cutting almost 300 miles out of the flight plan and putting our fuel back at a more acceptable number. The next 250 miles progressed quickly as I kept the speed up through the still dark air.
As another red splotch forms on the radar just of our nose and the sound of drumming on rain on the cockpit glass increases in intensity, Potomac Approach asks us when we can make a turn to the left back towards the field. The FO has his radar display scrolled out farther than mine, giving a slightly better big picture view. On his display going left doesn’t look any worse than going right, and much better than going straight ahead. I give a thumbs up and he tells ATC we can take the turn. The plane lurches left following the guidance cues generated by the flight director and we head towards the runway, invisible in the inky darkness ahead of us.
We’ve been following a Southwest jet for the last 10 minutes or so and now I hear them question approach if anybody has gone through the big cell right over the final approach course. I’m trying to get the plane slowed down and descending at the same time, which is nearly impossible, especially in the bumps but I vaguely hear the response from ATC; “No problems so far”. To me, there is no part of that that sounds encouraging. Southwest doesn’t seem to think so either as the sarcasm (or maybe it’s just stress) is clear in their voice when they reply with a quick “thanks” as they get handed off to tower.
Five minutes later we are handed over to tower as well as we join the ILS 10 miles out. As we switch over, the Approach controller, very offhandedly, advises us that the last two aircraft have gone around for windshear and to have a good night. Sure enough, on my multifunction display, the two blue diamonds ahead of us are showing rapid climb indications. We are descending. I start to realize that the situation is not very good but elect to press on. The cell the Southwest flight asked about, and the one I’m guessing caused the windshear is off the finals now. I’m hoping we will be the beneficiary of being 5 minutes later than the guys in front of us.
The ride down final is choppy as we pass through ragged dark clouds, each briefly visible in the cone of our landing lights. Rain is hitting the glass and metal skin of the cockpit so loudly that I reach down and turn up the volume on the radios so I can still hear them. On the display screens the cell that caused the go arounds for the two planes ahead of us is continuing to move off to the right with each sweep of the radar but the airport and surrounding area is still bathed in the dark greens and yellows of heavy rain.
With the gear out and the flaps locked at 45 degrees we pass through 1000 feet. The ground is visible below us as a confusion of reflecting lights penetrating the water filled darkness. The approach lights, on high intensity are clearly visible ahead and as our airspeed bounces all over the place due to the still gusty winds I take a firm grip on the yoke, disconnect the autopilot and focus on the rapidly approaching runway. At 500 feet we take a big gust and the plane skids to the right as the tail starts to come up. A small adjustment on the power and a quick blast of trim keeps us mostly steady.
The last few feet seem to take forever as we hover what appears to be, in the dim beam of the landing light, a raging river covering the runway. We settle to the ground and the spoilers quickly pop up, killing off the last of the lift over the wings. As the wheels start to spin up our movement feels sluggish and spongy. I realize the runway is in fact covered with water and our wheels are fighting not just the friction of the ground but also the weight of an inch of water as they move forward. I keep my feet off the brakes to avoid hydroplaning and let the thrust reversers slow us almost to a stop while imagining the huge cloud of spray we must be kicking up behind us.
Slowed to a safe speed I stow the reversers and gently apply the brakes. There is a slight sliding motion followed by the reassuring chatter of the antiskid kicking in. The runway exit comes up on our right and with our speed back to a slow crawl, I crank the tiller to the right and we clear on to the taxiway. As we turn towards the terminal and our gate, out on final a single light cuts through the clouds as the next arrival comes in. Hopefully it works out for them as well as it did for us, but frankly, I’m too tired to care right now.