Heading North

We’ve escaped the madhouse that is the late night departure push in Philadelphia and are heading northwestward, climbing into the dark, night sky. It’s my leg, and our 6th leg of the day, and despite the cold night air rushing by the glass of the windshield just inches from my face, I feel the warmth of fatigue on the back of my head. I blink my eyes several times and adjust my seat slightly, struggling to find a more comfortable position.

We should already be at the hotel by now. Despite struggling through five flights already, falling behind on the turns and then catching up enroute, we’ve been sidelined in Philly for the last 3 hours, waiting for the plane we were scheduled to take to Akron and the end of our day, to arrive. Meanwhile, the plane we brought in sat empty at the gate where we left it, patiently waiting (if a plane can do such a thing) for a crew; a crew that was miles away, strapped into the plane we spent three hours waiting for. Such is life at the airlines sometimes.

All of that is behind us now as we arc above the frigid Pennsylvanian country side. I set my multi function display, dimmed down almost as far as it will go, to display airports along with the normal navigation fixes. I match the virtual view I now see on the screen to the real world landscape visible below, lit in the oranges and yellows of urban sodium vapor lighting. The city of Harrisburg slides by the left wing, perched on a curve in the Susquehanna River, visible as a black gash across the brightly lit terrain below. Way out in the distance, visible in the cold clear air, Baltimore and the glow of Washington, sit on the horizon line.

To our north, visible through rips in the undercast starting to form ahead of us, the lights of Philipsburg, PA slide in and out of view. The clouds below thicken and blot out of the city lights beneath us. Now each hamlet and burg is defined by an orange hazy glow seeping through the cloud layer, identified only by its airport’s identifier scrolling across my map display in front of me.

High overhead, now visible due to the lack of ground light pollution, thousands of starts speckle the dark sky, like glitter on a black page. Our nose is buried in a 100 knot headwind slowing our passage westward to a crawl. Off to our left, along the major flight corridor into New York, New England and the North Atlantic tracks to Europe beyond, a steady stream of blinking strobe and beacon lights glide eastward, driven by the same wind that is slowing us.

To the northwest a shooting star streaks from high overhead. Unhindered by normal methods of propulsion and the headwind we are fighting, the bright white speck of light rapidly slides through the sky, leaving a barely visible trail of glittering light before fading and disappearing into the darkness. I stare into the void that’s left behind and contemplate faster than light travel and its long term effects on my chosen career. Heady thoughts to say the least, but my FO quickly brings me back to reality when I mention it to him by pointing out that we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. I smile to myself and go back to staring out the window at the skies overhead and think, maybe, but with all that visible out there, it’s hard to not dream.

Ferrying Home

By the time we get to the plane there are two maintenance trucks parked by the nose. I glance at the paperwork in my hand and don’t see anything listed as being broken so I am momentarily hopeful that their being there doesn’t have anything to do with us moving an empty airplane back to a maintenance base. My hopes are quickly dashed as I drag my bag up the aircraft stairs and find 3 mechanics sitting in the first two rows of the plane, their laptop computers open to schematic diagrams on their laps and open manuals sitting next to them.

A mechanic I know from previous broken airplane experiences looks up from the paperwork he is studying and seeing my look of terror laughs and tells me it’s not that bad. The flaps are just stuck at 8 degrees and we’ll be ferrying it back up to Dayton like that. Not that bad… sure.

A quick technical tangent: The CRJ’s flaps have stops at 8, 20, 30 and 45 degrees. Takeoffs are normally made at either 8 or 20 degrees, depending on the length of the runway and weight of the plane. Landings are always made with 45 degrees of flaps. There are two electric motors that sit in the belly of the plane that spin flexible plastic shafts that spin gearing on the flap panels that slides them up and down off the back of the wing. The system is overly complex, under designed and exceedingly prone to breaking.

Apparently, that’s exactly what had happened to this airplane. A crew earlier in the day had departed with the flaps set at 8 degrees and after takeoff when they went to retract the flaps, nothing happened. In an emergency, the plane can land with no flaps (or any amount up to the normal 45 degrees) but both the approach speed and runway required are both drastically increased. In this case the crew told Air Traffic Control that they needed to return to the field and that they were declaring an emergency. They apparently made a normal landing although during the rollout they overheated one of the brakes in an attempt to get the plane stopped. After deeming it safe, they taxied to the gate and handed the plane over to the mechanics, and by proxy, me and my FO.

Interestingly enough, this was the fourth time this issue had arisen on this specific airplane in the last week and as of yet, maintenance had been unable to figure out why it was happening. The mechanics working on the plane had their theories but a decision had been made to get the plane up to the Dayton Hangar where they could take the back of the wing apart to figure out what was going on. As I had just brought an airplane down to Charlotte and was only going to the hotel to start another trip in the morning, I drew the short straw and got the assignment.

There is a fair amount of specialized paperwork that is required for a flight like this, both explaining procedures and limitations as well as explaining why and how those procedures and limitations are authorized. Some of it makes sense but a lot of it, in my opinion anyway, is pure hogwash, but such is life at the airlines sometimes. With the mechanics still clustered in the galley I make eye contact with the FO and nod out the doorway. He walks down the steps and I follow him outside where we have a quick discussion about the legality and our comfort level with the upcoming flight.

The flight is deemed legal by both the FAA and the manufacturer due to the service letter and ferry permit the mechanics are currently poring over just up the steps from where we stand. In theory the takeoff should be completely normal and cruise will be fine minus the fact that the flaps will still be at 8 degrees, limiting us to 220 knots and less than 15,000 feet of altitude. There are several other notes about avoiding turbulence and icing conditions which are all pretty much common sense things anyway. The landing phase though is where stuff starts to get murky.

Normally, with a light airplane and the flaps at 45 degrees our landing speed is around 135 miles per hour and the nose sits right about at the horizon line during the approach. With only 8 degrees of flaps our landing speed goes up considerably, approaching our maximum tire speed at higher weights and the plane is pitched upwards of 5 to 9 degrees above the horizon during the approach. With a nice long runway and good weather conditions (both of which we should have tonight when we get to Dayton) this is a non event and one we train for. However, despite this, it is something we would probably declare an emergency for, as the crew who had the initial problem did earlier in the evening.

I explain all this to the FO who is relatively new and ask him what he thinks. He mentions that he is comfortable going along but would rather I actually do the landing. I tell him that is what I planned anyway and after a few more what ifs, we head back up the stairs and start setting up for the flight while behind us the mechanics finish up their paperwork and pack up their stuff. Ten minutes later we are closing the door, pushing back on the darkened ramp and starting our adventure.

Fall Rambling

We are flying directly up the center of the Chesapeake Bay at 8000 feet. Baltimore is sliding by the left wing, a mass of grey buildings clustered around the Inner Harbor. Off to the right, across the Maryland/Delaware Peninsula, the Delaware River lazily turns to the east and the aptly named Delaware Bay. In the clear light of early afternoon I can see large container ships at anchor just off Cape May, NJ, waiting their turn to head up the river to the ports of Philadelphia and Camden. It is so clear in fact that 10 minutes ago, climbing out of 5000 feet, just north of Washington, we could already see the Philly skyline, peaking up beyond Baltimore.

I like these quick flights, although doing several of them in a row tires me out. After several days of long legs, and a morning of maintenance and security issues, followed by a trip down the Atlantic Coast to Savannah and back, I am glad to be doing the short Washington to Philly shuttle. Although DCA is a major hub for my parent company they are limited in the number of long haul flights they can provide there due to the length of runways and legal rules meant to push more traffic out to the “new” Dulles Airport. As such there is a steady stream of flights running between Washington and Philly, just 90 miles to the north.

A major early season snow storm passed through two days ago, turning into a Nor’ Easter as it moved up the coast, dumping multiple feet of snow on towns throughout New England. Most of my home town is without power and the backup of canceled flights is only now beginning to be sorted out. The good news though is that the low pressure associated with storm has sucked all the moisture and dust out of the air and today is visibility is restricted only by the curve of the Earth.

Potomac Approach clears us direct to the Dupont VOR which sits on the west bank of the Delaware River, about 20 miles to the southwest of Philadelphia. The FO cues up the fix in the nav computer and I nod ok. The plane thinks about it for a few seconds and then drops the right wing and turns eastward. As we level out I press my face to the side window and watch the Aberdeen Proving Grounds pass by. A friend from college is assigned there, putting various Army vehicles through their paces at the test facility. I’m guessing the driving he does at his job, although limited to just two dimensions, is a bit more exciting than what I do here.

The Chesapeake Bay narrows and then ends. We go feet dry over the town of Chesapeake City and follow the aptly named Chesapeake & Delaware canal to the east to where it empties into the muddy waters of the Delaware River. Now, directed by Philly Approach, we descend to 6000 feet and turn to the North. Close in, off the nose, the River winds northward, passing under two bridges and by a number of water’s edge refineries, before sliding by the Airport and then the city. Past the city the waterway rapidly decreases in size and disappears into the landscape. Rising from the horizon beyond, the New York City skyline stands clearly against the blue sky.

The Big City dips out of sight as we are cleared down to 3000 feet and turned direct the airport. 6 miles from the end of the runway, we are cleared for the approach and advised that we will pass behind a Southwest Jet on the intersecting runway. They are clearly visible, their Canyon Blue paint gliding against the backdrop of downtown Philly. The spacing looks good to me so I focus on getting our plane slowed and configured for landing.

The final flaps drop into place just before we cross back over the Delaware River at 1000 feet. Southwest passes through the intersection in front of us with a mile to spare. There is a slight wind out of the west so I point the nose a few degrees to the left and we track straight towards the runway numbers which are rapidly growing bigger in the windshield. We settled on to the runway and then bounce across the rough pavement of the runway intersection. As we slow to exit the FO graciously points out that I was robbed of a nice landing. I take the complement with a grunt and start looking for where our gate is. I’ll have plenty of chances to make up for it in the future.

All of the lights

(Yes, the title is a Kanye West song… No this post has nothing to do with said song)

The wind out of the east is much stronger than I anticipated. We are being blown towards the airport at an alarming rate of speed and despite me telling the FO to tell the Tower Controller that we have the field in sight (which we do) I still have no idea where the runway is and as I gauge my descent and turn solely on the on screen display in front of me, I realize I had better pick the runway out of the mess of ground lighting below very soon or we are going to be going around and trying again.

Baton Rouge Airport sits in the middle of a jumble of highways and refineries, all of which are brightly lit at night. Farther to the west, the city itself sits on the bank of the Mississippi, a compact bundle of medium sized skyscrapers, low rise buildings and more refineries. After the decent over the darkened Alabama and Louisiana countryside, with the soft coastal lighting glow of Mobile, Gulfport and then New Orleans sliding by the left wing, the bright, harsh sodium vapor lights that blanket Baton Rouge make me squint and blink rapidly as I try to find the oddly dimly lit runway somewhere off to our right and rapidly approaching.

Other than my pride I actually have a reason to not want to have to go around this evening. 45 minutes ago I was staring out at the darkness of Lake Pontchartrain passing by, reflecting the lights of the Big Easy on its southern shore, my face warmed by the heated glass of the side window. My contemplation was broken by the interphone dinging. It was our Flight Attendant calling to report that a passenger somehow managed to cut his head while in the lav and that there was “a lot of blood” but the situation was under control. I gave the FA a moment of grief for calling up 10 minutes ago and complaining that he was bored and then start getting details. It immediately became apparent that although serious we are not going to have to divert. As I formulated the next move, I watched the causeway across the Lake, a straight line of gold cutting through the darkness towards the lights to the south, pass by.

Baton Rouge is now 40 minutes away and the FA reports that the situation is stable in the cabin. I tell him that I’m going to have medics meet the plane as a precaution. After disconnecting the interphone call I run through our options. The easiest way to get the medics to meet us is to advise ATC of the situation, declare an emergency and let the wheels spin into place. This isn’t a bad choice and despite some captain’s reluctance to declare an emergency (“too much paperwork”) I’ve personally never hesitated to when I felt a situation warranted it. However with the thin lighted band Gulf Coast stretching off into the darkness and the undulating curves of the lit banks of the Mississippi River already visible in the distance, nothing ATC could do would expedite our arrival so I decide against declaring an emergency.

The most basic way of ensuring we will have medics on arrival is to request them from Baton Rouge Operations when we call in range over the radio. This will ensure they know what’s going on and cut down on miscommunication. The downside of this is that often times it can be hit or miss reaching them, especially late at night. Also, even if we can reach Ops, we will only be 15 minutes away from landing and while Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting can normally get anywhere on an airfield in 3 or 4 minutes, I don’t want to drop a problem into there lap with less warning than I have to.

I decide to use calling ops as a backup and write a quick ACARS text message to dispatch asking them to call Ops on a land line to give them more of a heads up than waiting for us to get into radio range. We get an almost instantaneous response from our dispatcher advising us she’ll try to reach them via phone. By now we are 80 miles out and descending out of 20,000 feet and we set up for the approach. The FO is new to the seat but was an FA prior to being hired to fly so while he has been here before, it was only while working in the back. I try to explain how hard it can be to find the airport but am cut short by Houston Center handing us over to Baton Rouge Approach.

On check in the controller informs us the the medics have been notified and will meet us at the gate. Apparently our dispatcher, unable to reach Ops over the phone, called ATC and got the ball rolling from that end, which is a good thing as we have been unsuccessful in reaching ops over the radio as well. Approach clears us down 3000 feet and turns us slightly to the left towards the finals. At 4000 feet I start slowing and trying to find the runway. The airport is easy to find but the runway is hidden somewhere in the middle of the darkened patch of land, an island in the middle of a sea of lights.

We are cleared for the approach and I start descending and turning 90 degrees to the right towards where the runway should be. At 2000 feet we are fully configured with the gear out and the flaps at 45 degrees and I’m still rolling to the right trying to acquired the runway. At 1500 feet the runway lights start to appear from the darkness and I focus on them while trying to block out the mass of light surrounding us. The wind is still strongly from the east and is blowing us westward across the final approach course for the runway. I’ve got the nose of the plane pointed well to the right to hold the path towards the runway light ahead and there is a strange sensation of sliding sideways as we drop towards the pavement below. The winds die off as we pass through 500 feet and the landing is thankfully soft. As we touch down I see a huge number of airplanes crowding the FBO ramp I somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that there is a big football game tomorrow.

I quickly suppress the thought and concentrate on keep the plane tracking the center of the runway as we roll out. We slow quickly and exit downfield. As we turn towards the gate I can see an ambulance, its red flashing lights reflecting off the terminal windows, parked with several people standing in front of it’s open back doors. On the other side is a equally as lit up police car. A ramper is already in position to marshal us in and I follow the wands to a stop. As the engines spool down I hear the main cabin door open behind us and the jetway alarm bell sounding as it starts to move towards the now still plane. To my left, in the approach jetway cab two medics stand behind the gate agent, adjusting their blue rubber gloves in the harsh florescent light. With the shutdown checklist complete, I reach behind me to unlock the cockpit door and start thinking about all the paperwork I’m going to have to do before I see my hotel room’s bed.

Fourth time is the charm

It’s 11:30 at night and our passengers are probably about ready to kill us. Outside the plane, the tail end of the last departure bank is roaring off into the night sky as flashes of lightning illuminate the low laying clouds to the west. I’m trying to work two radio frequencies at once while still monitoring what the FO is saying to the ground controller. It’s turning into a big mess in my head and I take a deep breath while double checking the parking brake is set so we don’t roll anywhere.

My evening started 5 hours ago with a planned deadhead down to Charlotte. Several hours prior to that the captain who was scheduled to fly that flight called and asked if I would mind flying it as he wad supposed to deadhead up just to fly it back. That was fine with me so at 6pm, instead of taking my seat in the back I strapped in up front and we launched for Charlotte. An hour later we were taxiing in to the gate and the start of my planned 3 hour sit before going to Savannah for the night.

Walking through the terminal to the crewroom and eventually dinner I ran into the FO who I was supposed to be going to Savannah with in several hours. He, the Flight Attendant and the captain I would be covering for later had to do a turn to Tri Cities, TN (a quick 25 minute flight) before going to Savannah. The FO told me they had loaded up the plane to go and pushed back at 6:30 as scheduled but had to return to the gate and unload the passengers after they had problems starting one of the engines. They were now on their way to another plane. I immediately started wondering just how late I’d be leaving for Savannah. 

An hour later I was walking back from dinner and ran into the FO again. I commented that they had made a very quick trip to Tri Cities if they were already back but he just laughed and told me they still hadn’t left yet. Apparently plane number 2 also had engine problems which required them to return to the gate and unload the passengers for a second time. Maintenance was working the issue but didn’t have an update time for them. The captain had a sim ride in the morning (which is why I had gotten the trip in the first place) and was anxious to get the hotel. I offered to take the Tri Cities turn as I’d be sitting around waiting for them to get back anyway. And just like that it all became my problem.

Dispatch called and told me the plane would be good to go at 10pm. By 10:30 we had our passengers back on board and after a 20 minute wait for the fuel truck we were taxiing out into a giant traffic jam. After 11pm Charlotte closes their three north-south runways and utilize their single east-west runway to prevent aircraft from flying over noise sensitive areas. It cuts down on the complaints from nearby neighborhoods but it puts a large crimp in the operation. 

Sitting at number 10 in line to go, now 5 hours later than scheduled I had a thought, which is never a good thing for me. Tri Cities is a small airport and we get our fuel from the local Fixed Base Operator and since we were so late it was entirely possible that the guy driving the fuel truck there may had already gone home for the night. I assumed that this is something that dispatch would have checked up on but I decided to make sure. Charlotte has a radio frequency we can use to call dispatch and a minute later a dispatcher was assuring me that there would be fuel when we got there. Satisfied with the answer I went back to the monotony of releasing the parking brake, creeping forward one plane’s length and then setting the brake again.

30 seconds later we got a text message saying that there was in fact no fuel truck driver and that the flight was cancelled and to go back to the gate. I told the FO that we owe it to these passengers to get them to Tri Cities, that I was going to call dispatch on the second radio and to tell the ground controller that we would need a few minutes to work on an issue.

Somewhere behind us I hear a plane spool up, the sound a harsh whine that fades into the night. 5 minutes of negotiations with dispatch have gotten us approval to go back to the gate and load an additional 1000 pounds of gas on board so we can go and come back without refueling. I flip over to the local ops frequency and tell them we need a gate and a fuel truck and make it fast. They give us a gate (the one we left from 25 minutes ago) and promise a fuel truck. I let the Flight Attendant know what is going on and apparently some of the frustration I am feeling creeps into my voice because she reminds me to be nice when I tell the passengers. That taken care of we taxi back to the ramp where there is in fact a fuel truck waiting for us.

Ten minutes later we are pushing back again (my second time, the passenger’s fourth) and heading towards the runway. It’s midnight now and there are no other planes in sight. The ramp controller jokingly asks if we are really going to go this time. The FO looks at me a shrugs. That’s about how I feel. We make it to the runway without any issues and then after waiting a minute for a truck to finish an inspection downfield, blast off into the night. Lightning is still flickering in the clouds to the west as we turn north towards our destination. We will get our passengers there 5 hours later than scheduled and a full hour later than the last flight of the night got in, but we will get them there. And then we will turn back to Charlotte and then Savannah beyond. It’s going to be a long night. 

Circling

Wilmington Approach turns us on to the localizer 15 miles from the airport as we bounce along through the clouds at 2600 feet. Through ragged gaps below us I can see the Carolina Piedmont slipping by at 220 miles per hour in a confusion of green fields, treelines and little clusters of buildings, tinted gray in the overcast light filtering through the clouds. The radio chatter coming through my headset is as confused as the landscape below. On COM 1 approach is giving us instructions to join the instrument procedure as well as working three other airplanes in the immediate area. COM 2 is set to the local traffic frequency for the airport and I’m trying to keep track of a V22 Osprey and two light singles who are working the pattern. I take a deep breath and check that our airspeed is holding and realize I am rapidly becoming task saturated.

The airport at Jacksonville, NC, like thousands of other airports around the country, has no control tower. In fact, there are many fewer fields with towers than those without, but the majority of our operations are limited to controlled fields and due to the lack of frequency we do it, coupled with the speed we are traveling while attempting to interface with the often times slower pattern traffic, an arrival into an uncontrolled field can be a challenge. Additionally, stacked against us today is the fact that the clouds ceilings, while legal for visual flight rules operations, are too low for us to get below while still showing up on the ATC radar display.
Because of that we have to shoot an instrument approach to get below the clouds and then, once visual try to fit in with the other planes in the area. The other problem is that the one precision approach into the airport happens to be to the opposite direction runway that everybody else is using due to the wind. It’s my leg and as the approach course comes alive and the autopilot turns the plane to join it, I rebrief the FO on the plan.

I have three different scenarios I am ready to fly once we break out of the clouds and acquire the field visually. The first, and most simple, although also most unlikely, is that the three other airplanes that have been talking on the local frequency will all be gone when we get there and the winds, as reported by the automated system and broadcast on a second frequency we can monitor will be light enough or in a direction such that we can land straight in on the runway the instrument approach we are flying is aligned with. We can land with up to a 10 knot tailwind and when we last checked the winds were at 8 knots from directly behind us down the approach meaning it would be legal to land with the tailwind, but probably not advisable.

If we are unable to land straight in off the approach, either due to wind or traffic, options two and three come into play. They are both about the same, just differing in the directions of the turns. The plan will be to level off at 1600 feet (1500 feet above the ground), as long as we are out of the clouds, and turn either left or right and fly a visual downwind, base and final to the runway opposite the instrument approach. There is actually an instrument approved maneuver similar to this and our approach plate shows circle to land minimums of 600 feet but we aren’t certified for this maneuver and have to have at least 2000 foot ceilings and fly a “standard” pattern. Whether we go left or right for this pattern depends on what the traffic already there is doing. A standard pattern is left turns, but the V22 had been reporting a right pattern earlier on so I am leaning towards doing that as well.

With the flaps at 20 degrees and our primary radio now set to the local frequency we start down the glideslope. I realize somewhat belatedly that we could have requested a GPS approach to the other runway, negating having to have three potential plans in place but figure this will work out ok one way or another and if it doesn’t we can always come back up with approach controller and request the GPS. As advertised we drop out of the clouds at 2000 feet with the runway clearly in sight two miles ahead of us.

I turn off the autopilot and level the plane off at 1600 feet while scanning the area, matching the picture on our onboard traffic display with what I see outside. One of the Cessnas is off to our right at 1000 feet, heading away from the airport. The second Cessna is no longer visible on the traffic display, but I see him taxing towards the ramp. The other target on our display is directly in front of us climbing out of 500 feet heading towards us about 2 miles away. This is the Marine V22 which as I acquire it visually starts to turn out in a right hand pattern and announces over the radio that he will be departing the area to the north.

Despite the left hand pattern being open I decide to go with the right hand pattern and turn to the left to get on the downwind behind the Osprey, now just 500 feet below us and less than a mile away. I bring the power back slightly to slow down more just so we don’t overtake him in case he changes his mind and stays in the pattern or starts to climb more. By the time we get abeam the end of the runway it’s clear he is leaving the area and I switch my attention to the runway 2 miles to our right. As soon as we pass by the end of it I can no longer see it and I rely on the FO to tell me when we are at a 45 degree angle from the end. At that point I call for 30 degrees of flaps and the landing gear and turn base.

Descending out of 1200 feet on the base leg the end of the runway comes back into view out the right side window. I start drawing imaginary descent and turning vectors in my mind and then add in the speed vector. Everything seems to be working out. At 1000 feet I roll the airplane to the right and align it with the runway. The last of the flaps are now in place and we’ve slowed back to our approach speed. I take one last good look at the taxiways to make sure nobody is about to taxi onto the runway and see nothing. At 500 feet we are stable and I note that the windsock is stretched out towards us meaning it was probably a good idea we circled and didn’t land straight in off the approach.

200 and 100 feet come and go. At 50 feet I start bringing the power back and raising the nose. The plane dutifully calls out 40, 30, 20, 10 and then there is a slight pause before we smack into the pavement as I completely misjudge the flare. I shake it off quickly and get the reversers deployed as the nose wheel comes down to the ground. You can fly a textbook perfect arrival and approach, but the plane doesn’t care about any of that and will still humble you in a hurry if you let it.

We clear the runway downfield and start taxiing towards the gate. Overhead the gray sky swirls northward driven by the winds. In 30 minutes we will be launching back into it on the way back to Charlotte, but for now we are among the landwellers of the world.

Solstice

It’s the longest day of the year, but as we drag our bags across the ramp towards the darkened plane, there is no sign of the sun. Above, through a broken layer of clouds, the black night sky is awash with a million points of light. It is quiet still as all the planes scattered around the ramp are sitting silently waiting for their crews and passengers to arrive and start the day. I realize we are the first plane out and wonder for about the hundredth time why our mainline carrier who schedules the actual flights insists on such early starts. I push the thought out of my head and drag my bags up the aircraft stairs into the dark cabin.

The process of bringing a cold, dark airplane to life before 5am occurs mostly via autopilot. The switches get thrown, the built in tests run and the frequencies set. I cringe momentarily as the APU spins up, shattering the silence with its dull roar. Across the ramp I see a Colgan crew walking out to their SAAB and opening the door and I feel better that at least we aren’t the only ones out here at this ridiculous hour.

Charleston, West Virginia’s Yeager Field, named after the abrasive aviation hero, sits on top of two hilltops that were flatted and used to fill in the valley between them in a form of mountain top removal. Because it sits slightly lower than the surrounding hills and overlooks the Kanawha River Valley the airport is very prone to fogging in. Our books allow us to take off when the visibility is as low as 500 feet, but some mornings it is less than that and planes are stuck waiting for the visibility to come up.

Today the sky is clear below a high broken layer of clouds, but as look out across the taxiway and the runway I can see a swirl of fog breaking against the far edge of the field. Like a distant ocean wave on a rising tide, it approaches and then recedes; leaving more ground covered each time. I am scheduled for 6 legs of flying today with minimal turn times between each flight. The last thing I want is to have to sit on the ground for several hours waiting on the visibility to come up. I turn in my seat and tell the flight attendant to hurry up the boarding process.

Ten minutes later we are boarded, the jetway is pulled back and both engines are running. I glance over at the incoming fog bank as I release the parking brake. It has moved over the approach end of the runway, covering about 2/3rds of the first 2000 feet of pavement in a thick blanket of grey mist. The runway lighting is visible shining through it, but their glow is muted and dull. As we start to taxi, the ground controller tells us the runway visibility is down to 2200 feet and dropping. I push up the power and taxi faster.

The lone taxiway that goes to the runway runs parallel to it running along the edge of the ridgeline that drops into the valley below. In the winter when the surfaces are slick I tend to creep along here. Today I’m rolling along at the FAA sanctioned “brisk walk” pace. As the FO runs the taxi and before takeoff checklists, I glance out my left window at the solid wall of fog sitting fifty feet away. The taxiway is clear and overhead the night sky is turning a deep, dark shade of blue but to the left nothing is visible except a gray swirl, light by the haloed lights of the runway lighting system.

We roll on to the runway with the visibility sitting at 1800 feet. It’s my leg and as I push up the power and the plane starts accelerating forward I switch my focus to the runway centerline lighting as each one slides towards us and then disappears underneath the nose. At 100 knots of airspeed we break out of the fog bank into the clear air. The whole darkened panoramic of the airport ramp to the left, the dark hills beyond the runway and the clear night sky above the broken high clouds comes into view. Thirty knots later we hit Vr and I lift the nose skyward. There is a slight bump as the main wheels come off the ground, and we are flying.

The ground drops away quickly in the darkness and after checking in with departure we are cleared to a fix down the line and up to 22,000 feet. We blast through a thin layer of clouds and into clear air. Overhead the sky is a deep shade of blue while out on the eastern horizon the first hints of yellow and gold are starting to appear as the first sun of the summer heads towards the northern most point it will touch on its yearly trajectory. The cockpit warms slightly as the first rays of light hit the three layers of glass and another day starts.

Always The Last Leg

The rippling Pennsylvanian countryside is sliding by underneath us as we head westbound with the late morning sun shining brightly in my window. I can feel a spot on my arm where I missed putting sun block on earlier today starting to heat up despite the tinted shade I have cliped to the rail over the window. At this altitude there isn’t much in the air to dissipate the light energy being blasted out of the sun and staying out of its potentially deadly rays is a constant effort. I slide my seat back a few inches, out of the beam of light, and contemplate the blue sky ahead.

It’s the last leg of a three day trip and we are headed back to Dayton. The FO I was flying with got pulled off the trip in DC to go do something else and a new hire FO was deadheaded in to work the one leg back to base. He’s been on line for a little over three weeks and despite not being very talkative, he’s doing fine. It’s my leg and despite missing a few radio calls the first time around, and not being familiar with some of the navigation fix names he’s successfully gotten us (verbally anyway) out of the busy northeast corridor and heading west.

We pass over the Bellaire VOR, located just south of Pittsburg and the plane banks slightly to the right, move the bright patch of light slipping by the sun shade up my leg and back on to my arm. A quick adjustment to the sun shade fixes that problem and I go back to looking at the blue sky ahead. Except it’s not so blue any more as a line of dark gray clouds is now covering most of the western horizon. Punctuating the line are several thunderheads rearing upwards into the haze layer above us. I take a quick look at our fuel state, the forecasted weather on the release and again at the line of weather forming in front of us and don’t like what I see.

Dispatch has turned over a new leaf and has decided that as a cost saving measure they want us landing with the absolute minimum fuel needed. This means that when an alternate isn’t required because of weather, we land with about 45 minutes of gas. Of course, this is negotiable between the captain the dispatcher, but mostly, as long as the weather is nice I take what they give me and go from there. That of course was the case today. The forecasted weather was showing nothing but sun and light winds all day long so there was no reason for me to think we’d need more gas. The nasty squall line on the horizon is saying differently of course. I flip on my radar to verify that what I am seeing is going to in fact be a problem, and the string of red and purple blobs sitting on the airport says that it will be.

I ponder over the situation while the FO in the right seat plays with his radar. This is his first time using it and while I’d like to walk him through the basics, I’m occupied with trying to figure out what to do. We are still about 80 miles away from Dayton and from the radar it looks like the south end of the line is right at the field. I ask ATC for direct a fix to the south of the airport, hoping we can make an end run around the bottom of the weather and then come back up behind it. The request is denied due to military airspace in use. Scratch that plan.

We get slowed to follow an AirTran flight heading the same way as us. Once the speed is back, ATC has us descend to 12,000 feet. As we drop out of the high layer of clouds the plane we are following appears in front of us, a small black speck against a white and gray background. Several minutes later Indy Center hands us both off to Dayton approach and the AirTran flight checks in with a request for a right deviation to the North to try to get through a hole in the line. I wager that their radar is better than ours and they see something we don’t and tell the FO to request the same. We get the turn approved and I switch over to heading mode and put the line running out to the heading bug right over the traffic target representing the AirTran plane in front of us on the display.

As we get closer to the line it starts to firm up on the radar display and I see that there is indeed a hole to slip through. Were as our radar could only paint (what I hope is) an accurate picture 20 miles out, their radar was showing the same thing much farther away. For about the thousandth time I wish that our radar worked better. I make sure the FO understands what just happened and the limitations on the equipment he will be stuck with for the next few years. The pointy end of jet with 50 paying passengers behind you isn’t the time or place for flight instruction but I try never to waste a teaching moment. The line is just 10 miles away now and I can see a small swatch of blue sky peeking through the hole.

Our fuel is holding up and as long as there isn’t any weather on the field once we break through the line we should be ok. Several miles back I had the FO advice the Flight Attendant that it may get bumpy. She’s been here longer than I have so I’m not too worried about her ability to stand up during the bumps, but I tend to be conservative about turbulence. I shouldn’t have worried though as except for some quick light chop we get through the line with no problems.

It’s clear on the other side. The airport is visible 15 miles to the south. The FO lets the controller know we are clear of the weather. He tells us to proceed direct to the field and I spin the heading bug in that direction. I check the fuel numbers one more time and am happy with what I see. Off the left wing as we head towards the airport the back side of the weather slides slowly eastward leaving a blue sky day behind it.

Morning Musing

It’s still early but the radio frequency is starting to get busy. Approach is vectoring around about 10 inbounds plus at least 5 general aviation aircraft out enjoying a nice Sunday morning. Despite the clutter on the TCAS display and constant talking on the radio I’m actually pretty happy about the situation. The last few years have been rough on GA due to high fuel prices, a weak economy, and an uncertain regulatory future and many of the airports we fly into that once were busy hubs of GA activity have become ghost towns in the last few years.

Approach turns us 20 degrees to the left so that we pass behind a Piper Aztec maneuvering at 5500 feet over the Schuylkill River. As the light twin passes by 500 feet below the FO’s window, a Mainline Airbus crosses 1000 feet above us on its way to Runway 27R. Today, we’re set up for the “short” (5000 feet long) Runway 26, another sign of busier airspace. Generally Philly only puts the Regional Jets on 26 when things back up for the other two landing runways.

Clear of the Aztec we get a turn back to the east on to the downwind. Despite the morning haze, visibility is good and in the distance the low hanging sun can be seen reflecting on the Atlantic Ocean, silhouetting the high rises of Atlantic City, some 60 miles away. Farther to the north, the solid skyline of New York City looks like a stand of trees rearing up in the distance from the deceptively flat looking landscape. As we drop through 4000 feet over the Delaware River the City drops over the horizon and disappears.

Approach asks if we have the airport, which we do and clears us for the approach, advising us of traffic on the nearby parallel runway. The other plane is about a mile in front of us and the FO tucks in off their right wing following them towards the airport, crossing over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the old Navy Yard. The winds are out of the North so despite the plane now sitting a half mile in front of us, wake turbulence isn’t going to be a factor today.

The empty stadiums of the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers pass by the right wing, all empty. I follow football just enough to sound informed in crew room sports conversations and with the potential for a lost season due to the lock out in place I realize that the big stadium may stay empty for longer than normal. The sports complex fades behind the wing as the FO turns to align with the runway and pass around the giant shipyard crane that reaches up towards us. Clear of that obstacle it is a straight shot to the runway.

Despite the tricky approach and the relative short amount of pavement, the FO sets it down gently and applies the brakes smoothly. Too many guys get intimidated by the short runway and tend to slam the plane down and get on the brakes right away. There are certainly times that you have to do that, but this generally isn’t one of them. The plane slows and at 60 knots I take over driving duties and exit the runway. One leg down, five to go.

Racing The Rain

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.