Tag Archives: approach

Southern Storms

Off to the south, somewhere over Wilmington, NC , a late season thunderstorm is flickering in the darkness. Our radar, even turned up slightly to exaggerate any returns is showing nothing on the route in front of us, despite the heavy layers of clouds below obscuring the ground lighting except in ragged, torn holes where the scattering of lights peak through. It’s the 4th leg of the day and we we’ve still got two more to go. However, with the weather creeping in from the south, the low ceilings and rain covering our destination ahead and the uncontrolled field we are now going to have to probably have to shoot an approach to near minimums to, my mind is far, far away from how much farther we’ve still got after this leg is done.

Because there is no control tower at our destination airfield, we get our updates from an ASOS, an automated system that takes wind, visibility, cloud ceiling, temperature and altimeter readings every minute and broadcasts them over a radio frequency. There are pluses and minuses to this. Instead of the hourly updates put out by a control tower you get up to the minute readings. However these broadcasts are very limited in nature and don’t provide a lot of the more useful information that can be passed along from a human set of eyes.

80 miles out and the weather is being reported as strong winds from the north, rain, mist, 2 miles of visibility and a 700 foot overcast. This poses something of a problem as the approach to the north only gets us down to 600 feet, just 100 feet below the reported layer of clouds. There is a much better approach to the south, but because of the winds we are just barely legal to use it. Combine the tailwind with a short and wet runway and I am more inclined to try the other approach and hope we break out of the clouds in time. I talk it over with the FO as we start to bounce through a layer of clouds and he agrees. Metal doesn’t get bent during a go around, but it certainly does if you go off the end of the runway.

He calls ATC and requests clearance to the Kingston VOR, which is the initial fix for the approach. Washington Center clears us that way and then advises us that they are showing moderate rain between our present position and the VOR, some 50 miles away. Our radar isn’t showing too much so the FO thanks the controller and we press on. As we start a descent out of 22,000 feet and into the clouds below the radar finally starts showing green and brown swaths ahead. I call the flight attendant and tell her to hurry up and secure the cabin.

Moderate rain is now drumming on the cockpit glass and the plane is bucking in the turbulence. The autopilot seems to be holding its own so I take a minute to brief the upcoming approach. It’s a straight forward GPS except for the fact that there is a quick stepdown fix where we will have about .5 miles to get from 800 feet to 600 feet and try to find the runway before having to go missed, which at the airspeed we will be going gives us about 14 seconds. I tell the FO that if we can’t find the runway from this side we’ll fly the published missed approach procedure which conveniently sets us up for the approach from the other side. If we can’t get in this way we’ll just have to risk the tailwind approach and if the landing looks the least bit too far down the runway go around again and head to our alternate.

We cross the Kingston VOR still bumping through moderate turbulence and heavy rain. The radar still isn’t showing anything too bad and as I watch the raindrops blast by, briefly illuminated by the landing lights, I realize we are very fortunate that this is just rain and nothing convective. Past the VOR I set 2400 feet in the altitude hold window and then command the autopilot down. A quick check of our fuel situation shows we are in good shape so I call for 8 and 20 degrees of flaps. The plane noses over slightly as the flaps slide down the backside of the wing. The FO makes a quick call on the local traffic frequency to let anybody crazy enough to be out in this weather that we are coming in.

At six miles out we level at 1600 feet and just about to cross the final approach fix. The gear and 30 degrees of flaps are now hanging out into the rain filled sky. I call for 45 degrees and the landing checklist and double check the next altitude. 800 feet is showing in the altitude select window, which matches the number on the approach plate. As the plane passes the invisible point in space that denotes the final approach fix I command down 1000 feet per minute on the autopilot. The plane quickly heads down, still with nothing but raindrops visible out the front windshield.

We briefly level at 800 feet and then as we cross 2.2 miles from the end of the runway we continue down to 600 feet. Despite both the FO and I having are radar displays on instead of the terrain displays, I am acutely aware that the ground is now just 700 feet below us, rapidly approaching and we can’t see a thing. Seconds later, just as the plane starts nosing upwards to level at 600 feet, we drop out of the bases of the clouds and the ground is visible below, looking ghostly and hazy through the rain and fog filled skies.

I scan the area and immediately find the runway directly ahead. To the left the mass of lights on the regional hospital reflect damply on the grounds around it. A quick flash of white light cuts through the darkness ahead as the beacon on the hospital heliport rotates around. I force myself to focus on the rapidly approaching runway ahead, now just a mile away. The winds are steady off the nose, which makes me glad we chose this approach.

At 500 feet we are stable and the windshield wipers, on their highest setting, are barely keeping up with the water streaming up the windshield. At 200 feet I feel the plane start to settle in add power. I quickly pull some of it back out as I don’t want to accelerate too much and risk landing long on the wet runway below. The result is that we drop to the ground quickly and thump on to the pavement harder than I would have liked. I quickly shrug it off and deploy the thrust reverses, applying the wheel brakes as the FO calls out 90 and 60 knots while we decelerate.

The runway exit comes up to the right and as we turn off I slow the wipers. Through the intermittently clear windshield glass I can see a rain soaked taxiway and the bright lights of the terminal beyond. To the south, over the treeline we’ve just passed over, the lights of the hospital reflect off the low ceiling and scattered lower scud clouds. Beyond that is nothing but darkness. I turn my attention back to the terminal where two rampers in bright yellow rain gear are holding lighted wands to guide us in. I momentarily allow myself to relax. I know it’s going to be short term though because as soon as we unload here we’ve got another load of passengers to take back out into the clouds again.

Underneath

The workload is starting to increase and out of the corner of my eye, as I re enter landing data into the FMS for the third time, I can see the FO is starting to get behind. Approach has just changed our runway again and a new weather report has just popped up. The visibility is dropping rapidly and what was originally briefed as a visual approach is quickly turning into an instrument approach down to minimums with the very real chance of a go around at the end.

The data entered I flip through my binder of approach charts to the one we’ve just been assigned and check the visibility requirements. As I glance back at the newly arrived weather we enter the top of the cloud deck and start to bounce up and down. Across the darkened cockpit, the FO is madly leafing through pages of arrivals, airport diagrams and approaches, trying to find the right one while also keeping one eye on the instrumentation of the airplane he is supposed to be flying. Before I can tell him to slow down to avoid getting a paper cut we drop out of the bases of the cloud layer we’ve been in and the ride smooths. He finds the correct chart and starts setting up his side of the cockpit.

This is the tail end of the first leg of the day. After spending all of the morning and most of the afternoon sitting in the hotel in Jackson, Mississippi watching a line of weather blow through, we loaded up 11 passengers and headed out, following the storms east. We passed through the weather somewhere over Atlanta. At 33,000 feet we missed the worst of it and other than some bumps and a great display of St. Elmo’s fire it was a non event.

Now Charlotte lies 100 miles from the front edge of the storm and the rapidly moving cold front is dropping the altimeter and temperature causing fog and scattered rain showers. When we first picked up the weather 80 miles out it was calling for 10 miles of visibility and clear skies. Now, as we get vectored over the city, visible only as a bright splotch of white light through the clouds below us, they are calling for 400 foot ceilings and 1 mile of visibility. I take a quick look at our fuel and am happy to see 5,500 pounds remaining. More than enough to try to get in a few times and then head to our alternate, farther to the east, and clear of the weather.

The FO briefs the new approach as we turn base, 18 miles out. We join up on the localizer 15 miles from the runway and watch as the flashing strobe lights on the plane in front of us disappears into the low overcast. We too follow them downward and into the clouds and fog. Approach control hands us over to the tower controller as the gear comes out into the darkness and after I check in we are cleared to land. The last of the flaps slide into place as the Radar Altimeter shows 1,500 feet to the ground and I take one more quick glance across the cockpit. The FO is just back from 5 years of military leave and has very little time in the plane. So far he’s been doing fine and I’m sure as an Army helicopter pilot for 30 years he’s seen way worse than this. (A continuing joke throughout the trip was saying “at least nobody is shooting at us”!) Despite that I double check he’s caught up and ready to land.

At 1000 feet we are still in the fog and I review the minimums and missed approach procedure just in case we need it. The aircraft calls out 500 feet above the ground and I start to see lights on the ground below and in front of us. I remind myself there is no approach lighting for this runway which means the first airport lights we see will be the actual runway and nothing leading in. 100 feet above the approach minimums and 300 feet above the ground I can see lights ahead of us but nothing that looks like a runway. Just as the plane calls off “minimums” I see the green end lighting of the runway and call it in sight. My hand is resting on the bottom of the yoke and I feel it twitch in my fingers as the FO disengages the autopilot.

Visibility below the ceiling is at least a mile and as we settle towards the pavement the airport environment, ablaze in fog haloed lighting takes shape. At 50 feet I feel the power come back and the nose start to inch higher in the flare. I focused on the rapidly blurring white runway centerline strip, illuminated by our landing lights. It grows larger as we drop towards it. The plane calls out 30, 20 and 10 in quick succession and with a light thump the main wheels touch down, followed seconds later by the nose wheel.

I’m still focusing out the window, my feet hovering just above the rudder pedals. I sense more than see the FO move his hand to deploy the thrust reversers. 80 feet behind us I can hear them slide open and start to direct air forward. We quickly slow on the wet pavement. At 90 knots they start to stow and at 60 knots we are silently coasting forward down the runway. I slide my feet up on the pedals, tap the yoke twice and let the FO know I’ve got the plane. As we turn off the runway onto the taxiway the first drops of rain start to fall from the leaden sky just 400 feet above our heads.

Saved

In the end, it will be the wind that saves us. Right now I don’t know that of course. In fact, I don’t even know that my approach will need saving as I’m too busy staring out the window at the winter wonderland mountain tops that are passing by below us. A major winter storm blew through the previous day, and while it is now wrecking havoc on the Northeast, it’s left behind a frozen masterpiece of ice encrusted trees and glittering white ridgelines.

The Charlotte to Knoxville route is flown as a ballistic arc, launching upward from Charlotte and then heading west across the slowly rising Piedmont. The crinkled ridgelines of the Smoky Mountains rise from the plains, still pointing skyward despite being worn down by thousands of years of winter snows and summer rains. On the western edge of the Range the terrain slopes quickly down into the flatlands of eastern Tennessee which drain into the river of the same name. The flight path starts downward towards Knoxville, just after passing the highest peaks of the Smokys leading to what is often times a quick approach due the nearness of the airport to the high hills to the east.

Today there is a layer of clouds on the western side of the hills, just below the tops of the peaks. Knoxville is reporting good weather below the ceiling with winds out of the north east. Over the last few minutes, between long glances out the window at the scenery sliding by below, I’ve managed to set up and brief the visual approach to Runway 5 Right. The FO is based here and he’s eager to get home after being on the road for four days. Today is my last day too, but I will have deadhead on two more flights before I see my apartment tonight.

Approach clears us down to 8000 feet as we pass the last of the high terrain. They then turn us to the south west on a long downwind leg. As we descend into the tops of the clouds, parallel to the ridgeline, I take one more look out my window at the snow capped mountains fading into the grayness and then double check that the plane is in fact tracking the way it is supposed to be and not drifting towards the hard granite to our left. Despite a strong wind from the northwest, we seem to be holding a course that will keep us clear. Apparently the approach control monitoring us on her radar screen thinks so too and clears us down to 6000 feet.

The clouds fade at about 6500 feet and we emerge into a gray tinted world. Off our left wing the snow covered fields rise up into forests of white which climb up the mountainsides into the clouds. To our right the Tennessee River Valley spreads out to the horizon. Approach Control turns us west, across the Valley. The airport appears just off the right side of the nose, 7 miles away. I suddenly realize that we are way too high and way too close to make this work. The controller doesn’t seem to see this problem and asks if we have the field in sight.

I hesitate momentarily and then pull the thrust levers all the way back and fully deploy the spoilers. The FO takes this as confirmation that I see the airport and lets the controller know who immediately clears us for a visual approach. The math loop in my head is in high gear now and I’m trying to work out descent rates and airspeeds and flap and gear points along with bank angles and roll rates. After running the numbers again my internal magic eight ball spits back an “all signs point to no” response.

I’m hand flying now with the flaps all the way out and the gear hanging down. We turn final, still 2000 feet higher than we should be. I start dedicating brainpower to “what if” scenarios. How far do I push this approach? If I decide to bail out on it and try again, what’s my procedure going to be? What’s the FO expecting me to do? I shift my focus back to the runway and am puzzled to see that it is about as far away as it was last time I looked. The FO directs my attention to the wind vector which has shifted from off our right side to directly off the nose. 3000 feet above the ground and we have 50 knots of wind holding us away from the runway.

The approach falls into place quickly. Our ground speed drops of as the wind slows our forward progression which gives us more time to descend. With more time to get down I can use less of a descent rate which in turn reduces our airspeed which translates to a slower groundspeed which gives us even more time. By 1000 feet we are where we should be on descent path, on speed and correctly configured. The wind dies off to just 5 knots as we pass through 500 feet. I take a quick look off to the east as the mountains disappearing into the fog and the turn my focus back to the rapidly approaching runway.