It’s 5:45 in the morning and we are hurtling through the clouds, pushed eastward by 80 knots of wind and the thrust of our engines. The FO is flying and I’m trying to remember if I’ve done everything to get us set for landing, while still blinking the sleep out of my eyes. Ahead of us, illuminated by the beam of the landing light, gray clouds whip into view and disappear seconds later as we rock back and forth in light turbulence. I start to feel slightly dizzy and not sure if it’s the early hour, the lack of breakfast or the view out the window I hedge my bets and flip off the exterior lighting. The outside world goes dark and I immediately begin to feel better.
Charlotte Approach turns us on to the downwind for the ILS and I clean up the FMS so it displays the approach. Across the cockpit the FO switches from GSP navigation to short range, ground based navigation to get ready for the approach. The cloud ceiling is at 5000 feet, but we may need the ILS to get below the clouds, and it is nice to have for the autopilot to follow down to the runway. I follow suit on my side and after several seconds the navigation computer correctly identifies the radio beacon by the morse code transmission that piggy backs on the navigation frequency.
In the darkness my mind begins to wander and I realize that my last four Facebook updates have contained the word “early” in them. In my present state I can’t decide if that’s funny or sad. Approach descends us to 3000 feet and turns us on a base leg. On the multi function display a single TCAS target slides along the white line depicting the approach.
We break out of the clouds and the darkened ground comes into view, lit by the millions of scattered lights of Urban America. Out the left window, 6 miles away is the runway and airport, a splotch of darkness across the landscape. Closer in the flashing strobes of the traffic we are follow slides across the ground below. Approach asks if we see the airport and out of the corner of my eye I see the FO nod his head. We get a clearance for the visual approach and are told to switch over to tower.
This is the second morning in a row that we’ve flown this flight. Yesterday it looked liked we’d land before 6am but due to a strong headwind on final touched down at 6:02am. As we turn in towards the runway, still 5 miles away the GPS synced clock is showing 5:51am. The FO points this out as he calls for the landing gear and flaps and points the nose over towards the runway. I have no idea if he is happy or sad about this fact but decide that 1500 feet above the ground and 3 minutes from touchdown is not the time or place to find out. Below us the splatter of ground lighting sliding by slows to a crawl as our airspeed rolls back and the wind swings around from the right side to the nose. Ahead the airplane we are following passes over the runway approach lighting system, momentarily blotting it out.
We are passing through 500 feet when the plane clears the runway. Runway 5 slopes uphill for the first 2/3rds and then drops back down. Beyond the runway, against the dark horizon, the lights of downtown Charlotte burn brightly. As we descend towards the ground the far end of the runway disappears from view behind its crest, making the lighted pavement look like some sort of yellow brick road, leading towards the Emerald City. I shake my head and blink my eyes rapidly, dispelling any such random thoughts and focus on the quickly approaching asphalt.
The GPS clock says 5:58 as our main wheels touchdown and spin up. The wing spoilers pop up automatically and the FO cracks open the thrust reversers. Due to our light load and the up sloping runway, we quickly slow to a taxi speed. I take control from the FO and with the tiller turn off to the right and towards the still mostly empty gates. The fleet is scattered all across the east coast, most planes already airborn and heading this way, while some still sit at gates waiting to get going while several hundred miles to the east the Sun is coming over a slowly lightening horizon, flecking the windswept waters of the Atlantic with gold.