Tag Archives: fog

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.

A Distant Sea

I haven’t been this tired in a while. The frozen water blasting by us at 210 knots is hypnotizing in the glint of the landing light and I have to force myself to look away as I feel my eyes sliding from open to shut. It hasn’t been an exceedingly long day but a combination of switching from early mornings to late nights and not having time to eat lunch earlier has knocked me back a bit. I glance over at the FO who is happily munching on an apple and rechecking his approach plate. This is the benefit of a two pilot crew. If one guy isn’t at 100%, hopefully the other one can step it up and cover the deficit.

I briefly consider taking a hit from the oxygen mask clipped into the sidewall next to me but decide against it when I realize that I haven’t cleaned out the mask yet and have no idea what nasty germs are lurking it its dark recesses. The pure O2 might wake me up a bit, but the risk of getting sick from who knows what doesn’t make it worth it. I remind myself for about the 100th time that I need to make cleaning the mask part of my nest building routine.

The new weather report for Charlotte pops up on the screen and as I scan through it I feel myself shedding a few layers of drowsiness. They are reporting a low overcast, hanging just 300 feet above the ground with about 2 miles of visibility due to mist and fog. I make a final check of the approach setup and the minimums for the approach, verifying that the FO has everything set the same way. Happy with that I go back to watching the instrumentation as we bore a path through the darkness.

By 3000 feet we have dropped out of the bases of the higher cloud layer and into a confused world of arching clouds, rain, fog, darkness and light. A solid overcast covers the ground below us, light from within by patches of scattered ground lighting. 5 miles off the right wing a trio of radio towers stick through the ground cover, their bright strobe lights flashing in a synchronized pattern. As my eyes adjust to the change in light I notice several other red lit towers peaking through the clouds below.

Ahead and to our left the tall buildings of Charlotte stick up through the blanket of fog, ablaze in light, looking like rocky islands in the sea . The wind is from the south and the fog is breaking against the south faces of the buildings like a crashing ocean wave. It is truly amazing to see. I call for the landing gear and another notch of flaps as the nose drops down to follow the invisible thread of a radio beam we are tracking to where it terminates 4 miles ahead of us at the end of the runway. The final notch of flaps follows in short order.

I’m completely awake now as I watch the plane in front of us, visible just when its twin strobe lights flash, disappear into the fog bank. A minute later we follow it in and the world suddenly goes bright white from the reflection of our landing lights on the millions of water droplets surrounding us. At 500 feet I glance out the side window and I can make out the indistinct pattern of lights on the ground below us as the fog thins. Forward visibility is still zero and I take one more look at the missed approach procedure just in case we need it. At 300 feet, as advertised, a curtain seems to rise and the runway comes into view. I dump the autopilot, adjust the aircraft pitch slightly and take a deep breath.

My drowsiness is distant memory now as I try to visualize the landing gear reaching towards the wet runway below us. Apparently my visualization is slightly off as we thunk onto the pavement a half second before I’d planned. I mutter a quick “oops” and my FO is polite enough to laugh as we roll down the runway into the fog.

Long Island Sound Loop

We are tracking eastbound, 18,000 feet over the Long Island Sound, being monitored towards our destination of White Plaines by a very busy New York Center controller. It’s the International Departure push at JFK and Newark and a constant stream of heavy metal, piloted by guys with marginal at best English skills, is transitioning through his airspace on the way to the North Atlantic Tracks and Europe beyond. After repeating a clearance to a Lufthansa pilot he tells us to switch to Boston Center and have a good night. It’s my FO’s leg so I’m on radio watch. I get the new frequency set and check in.

Boston welcomes us aboard and all in one breath lets us know we should have been descending to a lower altitude a long time ago, tells us to hurry down to 11,000 feet and to contact New York Approach control. While I get the radio set up my FO spins in the new altitude, which I confirm with him. With the autopilot dropping the airplane’s nose to start on down the airspeed starts to build, even with the engines spooled all the way back. My FO pulls the spoiler handle all the way back, causing the four wing top panels to pop up into the slip stream. A familiar rumble and vibration accompanies the rapid decrease in speed.

The latest digital weather report from White Plaines appears on the FMS, showing the visibility has improved to just over 1 mile. This is much better than the ¼ mile that was being reported when we left Washington 30 minutes ago. With the weather good enough to now shoot the approach (we need at least ½ a mile) I get busy figuring out our landing speed and weight while the FO gets his charts set up. I do the same a minute later and as the plane levels at 11,000 feet he briefs the approach. That accomplished I hand over the radio duties to the FO and give the Flight Attendant a call. That is followed by a call to Operations at White Plaines to let them know we’ll be there in 15 minutes or so. The computer system normally does this automatically, but we are still required to make the call.

New York turns us back to the west now that we are under the Kennedy Departure corridor and descends us to 5000 feet. From previous experience I know that Interstate 95 which runs along the Connecticut shoreline is passing by our right wing, but tonight it’s hidden by the fog. On my display screen I watch the airports of New Haven and Bridgeport slide by. I smile in the darkness as I remember passing by these same cities in the back seat (and later the front seat and even later the driver’s seat) of a car as I went from my home growing up to visit my grandmother. Although I’m going to a different place and using a different form of transportation this time, sometimes the sequence of things doesn’t change.

The Approach Controller turns us to the north to join the instrument downwind for the airport and clears us to descend to 2500 feet. By 3000 feet we can clearly see the ground. Forward visibility, although restricted is now up to 5 or 6 miles. The controller turns us back to the west and then the south and gives us a clearance to join the instrument approach. My FO starts slowing and calls for flaps. Just as we turn inbound towards the airport I see off to the west the stretch of sodium lighting that spans the Hudson River across the Tappen Zee Bridge. Another set of car rides from the distant past float through my mind, quickly displaced by my FO requesting the landing gear and 30 degrees of flaps. As the gear drops into the foggy air we are handed over to the tower controller who tells us the wind is calm and we are cleared to land.

Despite the calm winds it is a bumpy approach. Due to a combination of geographic position and unique landform, it is always bumpy on the way into White Plaines. My very first landing in the CRJ was to this runway, although in the opposite direction that we are currently landing. It was incredibly challenging (mostly because I’d never actually landed the plane before other than in the simulator) and I was seriously worried I’d have trouble being able to ever land the plane. Now, almost 5 years later, some days I still wonder the same thing. My FO leaves no doubt that he knows what he’s doing however and manages a smooth touchdown. As the plane decelerates I look up to the south and over the Long Island Sound. The fog has cleared, and in the dark sky which is now visible I can see a line of blinking lights heading east. The International Push at JFK is still in full swing and somewhere in a dark room a New York Controller is trying to convey something to a crew whose first language is not English.

As I take the plane back from the FO and start the taxi towards the gate I realize for about the 5th time today that I really do like my job.

Down Into The Fog

The dense, gray fog is passing by the window, briefly illuminated by the blue tinted landing lights, before it passes back over the wing and disappears into the darkness. This is a slightly different than normal view for me as due to a scheduling mess up I’m tucked back in the window seat at row 6 instead of up front. In the last few minutes the chatter coming from the half filled passenger cabin has tapered off to almost silence as we’ve descend into the fog and those who for the whole flight had ignored the outside world now have their noses pressed up against the glass watching the swirling nothingness roll by.

I realize I shouldn’t even be here right now and if the day had gone as planned I’d be blasting through the same fog but 100 miles to the east and doing it sitting in my normal seat up front. Scheduling called me out earlier in the day to deadhead down to Charlotte to pick up an airplane to fly to Clarksburg, WV where we have heavy maintenance done. Once in Clarksburg we were to pick up another plane that had just come out maintenance and bring it back to Dayton. Sometime after my FO and I got on our deadhead to Charlotte somebody actually thought to call Clarksburg to check if the plane there was ready to go and discovered (regrettably to nobody’s surprise) it wasn’t.

Hence the reason for my phone ringing in the middle of a quick dinner in Charlotte to inform me that instead of heading to Clarksburg we would be getting back on a plane to Dayton. My FO joked that it was awfully nice of the company to fly us to Charlotte for dinner but he’d just as soon stayed at home on his couch. Unfortunately, those of us on reserve don’t really get that option. When the company says go, we go and often times have to pick up the pieces later on.

I manage to snag an empty row on the flight home and spend the time dozing until I heard the engines spooling down and feel the nose pitch over at the beginning of our descent into Dayton. I’ve flown this route more than a few times and as I look out the window, the patches of ground lighting that should be there aren’t. The sweep of the Ohio River isn’t off the right. The bright lights of Cincinnati aren’t ahead. Instead, a solid blanket of fog covers the ground. Barely visible through the fog are patches of white and gold light, shining through from the obscured surface.

The Captain makes a quick PA informing us that we are starting our descent into Dayton and that for now anyway, we have the visibility to land. If the visibility drops much more we will be forced to hold for a bit and then probably head down to Cincinnati, which, while fogged in as well, has better visibility. In the darkness I roll my eyes. The same thing happened to me the night before as I was commuting in to start my work week. We needed 1800 feet of visibility to land and Dayton was bouncing back and forth between 800 and 1200. After holding for 30 minutes we headed south and landed in Cincy, where they promptly canceled the flight and sent the crew to a hotel, leaving 50 passengers and one unhappy jumpseater (me) to try to get up to Dayton some other way. I ended up renting a car and driving home, arriving at 1 in the morning. Tonight I’m in better shape as I am actually on Company time meaning they’ll have to give me a room or figure out how to get me home if we do divert and cancel.

We continue our descent towards the ground as the lighted tops of radio antennas pass by, sticking up out of the fog like buoys in the sea. There is a gentle whirring noise and I watch as the slats roll off the front edge of the wing. Seconds later there is a slight pitch change as the flaps slide out the back of the wing. And then we drop into the clouds and the cabin goes quiet.

In the silence I glance around at the people sitting near me. The tension of putting their lives into the hands of two unknown people and a complex airframe is clearly visible on many faces. I remind myself that flying is not a normal thing for the vast majority of people. Even the million milers are out of their element and have to trust that everything will go alright. I have no safety concerns. I know both the Captain who I flew with as a First Officer and the First Officer whom I’ve flown with as a Captain. Both are skilled and smart pilots. They are Professionals. I know our maintenance is top notch and that the aircraft is designed for tough conditions. I know that the probability of anything going wrong is so small that it’s not even worth worry about, and further more I know that if something does go wrong there is nothing I can do about it so worrying is a waste of time. I smile to myself as I realize my biggest concern is that if we divert somewhere else I won’t get home tonight to eat the cookies I baked earlier in the day.

A glow starts to materialize out of the gloom around us. Because I can’t look forward from my passenger seat, I can’t see anything but I know that the guys up front are seeing the wonderful, welcoming sight of the runway approach lights forming out of the fog ahead and solidifying into the line of lead in lights and the runway end lighting. There is a pulsing quality to the light as we pass over the “rabbit”, the string of strobe lights that start at the end of the runway and stretch back into the darkness, bringing ships like ours in from the land of the lost. Suddenly the engine noise decreases and the nose comes up into the final flare attitude as the runway edge lighting coming into view out the side window.

The plane settles to the runway with a whisper and we begin to decelerate. Slowed to a safe taxi speed I watch as a runway exit emerges out of the fog and the plane turns to the right and into a world light by the blue glow of taxiway lighting.

Silence

I’m sitting in the exit row of one of our CRJ 200s heading South with the volume switch on my laptop almost all the way up and the Rolling Stones She’s A Rainbow cranking in my earphones. I’m desperately trying to drown out the screaming baby sitting behind me and so far I’m not having a lot of success. Some of may have to do with the fact that he’s also kicking the back of my seat every few seconds. Just one more reason I hate deadheading.

I flew this same route early yesterday morning except instead of sitting in the back I was up front, attempting to wake up as the eastern sky changed from black to dark blue to lighter blue and then finally yellow and orange as the sun came up over the horizon. It was much quieter then than it is now with the only sounds being the wind rushing by the fuselage at over 400 miles per hour and the periodic chatter on the radio as, one by one, aircraft woke from their night of sleep and checked in with ATC as they took to the early morning sky.

As the sun finally rose above the cloud layer on the horizon, illuminating the ground fog covering the West Virginia mountains below, I took a minute to update our fuel numbers and check the most recent weather in Charlotte. I was happy with the fuel but less than thrilled with the weather. Visibility was holding at less than a mile with low clouds and mist. With the current weather we were good to land and the rapidly rising sun would eventually burn off the fog, but it was possible the soup hanging over the runways could thicken in the meantime and make us go somewhere else. Like so many times before it would end up being a race between us and the weather. One that we probably would win, but just the possibility that we might not was enough to put me on edge and start the hunt for other places we could go.

100 miles out from Charlotte had us descending through 20,000 feet, crossing over Bristol, TN. The rolling peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains below stuck up out of the fog but the valleys were completely filled in with a white blanket of clouds and mist. I had the flight computer set to keep checking for the latest weather report from Charlotte and every few minutes a new one would pop up on screen. As we passed through 15,000 feet the most recent report showed ¼ mile visibility and ceilings of 100 feet, well below our minimums. However, in our favor were the actual Runway Visual Range readouts, basically a distance in feet that a special machine next to the runway can see downfield. While we need ½ mile (roughly 2800 feet) of visibility, if there is an RVR readout and the runway supports it we can go all the way down to 1800 RVR.

With the radio tuned in to Charlotte Approach Control and the plane dropping through 10,000 feet we passed abeam the airport heading south to join the ILS beam and land back towards the north. Visibility was still at ¼ mile but ATC was reporting the RVR at 2400 feet on the approach end and better than 6000 feet at midfield and at the departure end of the runway. The 2400 reading concerned me, but as of now were legal to continue and I called for 8 degrees of flaps as we slowed to 200 knots and descended to 5000 feet. As ATC turned us back towards the airport and gave us a clearance to join the ILS we watched the plane in front of us drop into the clouds and disappear.

A few minutes later we sank into the clouds as well and our whole world went gray. I took a quick look at the minimums for the approach again (just 210 feet above the ground) and the procedures for what to do if we didn’t see anything by then (a climbing turn up to 5000 feet and an eventual hold to figure out our options). By the time we passed through 1500 feet the plane was configured and we had been cleared to land on a runway that was somewhere in the fog in front of us. 1000 feet came and went with nothing to see. 500 feet passed by and I rotated my hand slightly on the thrust lever so my thumb rested on the Go Around button which in the event of a missed approach would turn off the autopilot, pitch my flight director up to 12 degrees above the horizon and generate a max thrust number “carrot” on the display to which I could push the thrust levers up to.

100 feet above our minimums (and 310 feet above the ground) my FO called off 100 above. I snuck a quick look forward into the mist but seeing nothing quickly went back to watching the flight instruments to make sure the autopilot was keeping up. At 210 feet above the ground the aircraft called out “MINUMUMS” just as my FO announced the approach lights in sight. Glancing forward I saw a single splotch of light off the nose which rapidly resolved itself into a straight line of lights leading forward into the fog. Another second passed by, seeming like an eternity, and the lights started to widen into beginning of the runway lighting.

The thumb on my left hand rotated slighting and put in one quick burst of elevator trim. Although there is a big red button on the yoke to disconnect the autopilot I find it much easier to use the trim button, which will do the same thing, to disconnect. The plane made its typing double chirping noise to alert us to the fact that the autopilot was no longer flying and I steadied my feet on the rudders as the plane called off 100 feet above the ground. By the time the plane called 50 feet I could see 3 or 4 white runway centerline lights stretching into the grayness ahead.

30 feet above the ground and I had the two degree nose up pitch I wanted to land with. Our world had become defined by the gray bubble on all sides of us and the rapidly approaching blur of pavement underneath the nose. The runway lights had little halos around them as they rushed by at 140 miles per hour. The plane called off 20 and 10 in rapid succession as I took out the last of the power on the engines. There was as slight pause and then a slight bump as the main landing gear settled to the ground some 60 feet behind us. Seconds later, as we began to decelerate I lowered the nose gear to the ground and popped the thrust reversers.

The blur of lights began to turn into individual lights evenly spaced down the runway as we slowed down to a more manageable speed. I stowed the thrust reverers as I gently applied the brakes. The runway exit materialized out of the mist ahead of us and as the plane slowed more I moved my hand from the yoke to the steering tiller which would get us the rest of the way to the gate, waiting for us somewhere across the fog shrouded ramp.

30 hours later I am once again heading for the same ramp, except now there is no fog in sight. The early afternoon sun is bright through the cabin windows as we descend over the North Carolina countryside. The baby behind me has calmed down some but I’m guesses as soon as he’s forced to put his seatbelt back on during landing the screams are going to start up again. As if on cue the seatbelt and Electronic Device signs illuminate above me. Here we go again…