Tag Archives: landing

Again…

I’ve been on the bench for the last two weeks and I’m feeling pretty rusty. The fact the surface winds are gusting to 30 miles per hour isn’t helping and despite my best efforts we are bouncing all over the place as I join the final approach course. It’s a clear blue sky day, which only means I can more clearly see the airport rising and falling through glass of the windshield in front of me. I realize we are still high and fast and tell the FO to drop the gear.

There is a momentary pause and then a solid clunking noise as the landing drops out of the belly of the plane. I can feel a slightly slewing motion as the gear doors momentarily deflect the airflow as they transition outwards and then upwards up against the bottom of the wing. It always amazes me that such a small surface can move such a large mass, but one only has to look at the small movements of an aileron on a wing to see this happen.

With the gear hanging out below the aircraft we quickly slow and the runway ahead of us slows it’s up and down pitching motion. Tower advises us that a flight of three military helicopters will be landing on a taxiway to the south of the runway and that they have us in sight. A quick scan spots three black dots, rapidly approaching from the south. I visualize our flight path (a straight line) and theirs (a leftward down sloping curve) and realize we will be ahead of their arrival so even if they overshoot where they are going and encroach on the runway, we will be well out of the way.

At 1000 feet we are still rocking side to side and the controls feel sluggish. I remind myself that this is how the plane feels and go back to my scan that is so ingrained into my mind that a simple two week break hasn’t put a dent in it. The airspeed is staying stable despite the gusty wind. I break sterile cockpit rules to comment to the FO that it is always windy and bumpy on this approach. He simply nods and calls of 500 feet to go. Obviously, I’m not the professional here.

At 200 feet I start to visualize my flare. The 70 seater (well, actually 67 seater now that there is a first class on board) requires a slightly earlier flare than the 50 seater due to its longer fuselage and longer landing gear. It also runs out of power much quicker so you have to leave the power in longer or you will find yourself falling the last 15 feet out of the sky. At 100 feet I start to increase the pitch and use the rudder to center up the nose on the runway centerline. At 50 feet I bring about half the power out and keep pulling back on the yoke to keep the nose up. The plane settles quickly in the swirling air currents and I realize I pulled too much power but there is nothing I can do about it now.

The plane quickly counts off 40, 30 20 and 10 feet. I pull the last of the power out and there is a gentle (ok, slightly more than gentle) bump and we are on the ground. The reversers quickly deploy and then stow as we slow through 90 knots. A gently brake application slows us to taxi speed and we turn off the runway towards the gate just as the first of the three Army Apaches touches down behind us.

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.

Early

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.

Over the hills and far away

The turbulence starts as we descend between cloud layers. At first it’s a constant light chop but within minutes we are taking pretty good hits every few seconds and my FO’s cup of Sprite Zero is in serious danger of spilling all over the place. With that and passenger comfort in mind I pull the power back and set the speed bug to 280 knots which is our best turbulence speed. 25 miles ahead and rapidly approaching is an arbitrary point in space which the powers that be have given the name SHINE. We have instructions from ATC to cross that point at 11,000 feet and then slow to 250 knots which is now looking like it may not happen due to me having to decrease the rate of descent to maintain a slower airspeed. Through the basic concept of kinetic and potential energy speed is altitude and altitude is speed and some days they both seem to work against you.

I give up on making SHINE at 11,000 feet using the current configuration deploy the flight spoilers. There is a slight rumbling noise and although I can’t see them, I know that 30 feet behind me, the 4 spoiler panels have extended from the top of the wing and are sticking up into the cloudy slipstream which is blasting by the airplane at several hundred miles per hour. The airspeed quickly bleeds off and I trade more potential energy for kinetic and use the autopilot control panel to lower our nose and increase our rate of descent. The vertical speed indicator now matches our required descent rate and I between bumps I let a small celebratory sigh.

We pass over SHINE at 11,000 feet still in moderate turbulence. The latest weather report for Charlotte pops up on our FMS and after looking at it I start setting up for a landing to the south. The weather report, just 5 minutes old is calling for calm winds and a broken layer of clouds at 5000 feet which is good enough for an easy visual approach. I have the FO load in the ILS just in case but I don’t brief it. Instead, between bumps and while trying to keep the airspeed somewhat constant, I brief the visual approach. By the time I finish ATC has descended us out of 11,000 feet and turned us towards the final approach course, still about 15 miles away. As we get away from the ridgelines to the west of Charlotte the turbulence diminishes and my FO is able to drink the rest of his soda without the risk of wearing it.

5 minutes later we are turning to join the radio beam that will eventually get us to the approach end of the runway. As we pass through 4000 feet I start realizing there is something wrong. We should be underneath the clouds now and be able to see the ground. Instead, although the ride has smoothed out we are still blasting through clouds and in the moments of clear air we get, I can see a solid layer well below us. Obviously the weather has changed from the report we got, and changed quickly. As the autopilot grabs the glideslope and drops the nose to follow it down I quickly rebrief the approach for a full on instrument procedure. Fortunately everything is set up already and all I have to do is set the minimum altitude of 950 feet above the ground and go over the missed approach procedure in the event we don’t find the runway by the time we get there.

At 3000 feet we are in the overcast layer and heavy rain is streaming up the windshield. The mileage is spinning down at an alarming rate due to 30 knots of wind on our tail pushing us towards the airport. By 2000 feet I call for the last of the flaps and slow to our approach speed of 135 knots. Despite slowing, the GPS still is showing our groundspeed at well over 150 knots. Legally, we can take no more than a 10 knot tailwind, and unless the winds decrease somewhere in the next 2000 feet of air we are going to be going around.
At 1000 feet above the ground the clouds part. Rain is still running up the windshield but with the wipers on their highest setting I can see the runway ahead. I dump the autopilot and note that our groundspeed now matches our airspeed of 135 knots. The wind has died off. 500 feet to go and I take one last quick look at the display screens. We are showing the flaps at 45 degrees and three green boxes for the landing gear. The “cleared to land” light (really just our taxi light switch) is on meaning that somewhere back in the gray darkness behind us the tower controller had issued our landing clearance. Everything is looking good.

200 feet above the pavement and I flex my hand on the thrust levers in anticipation of brining that back. The rain has let up some and I can see all the way down the runway, through the clouds of water vapor left by the airplane that has blasted off in front of us. As the radio altimeter calls out 20 feet I start pulling out the power and as the plane slows I increase back pressure on the control yoke to keep the nose up. There’s always a moment in landing the 70 seater when you wonder where exactly the air ends and the ground starts and just how sudden that transition is going to be. Today I get lucky the left main gear settles onto the rain slicked pavement with barely a whisper, followed by the right main and several seconds later the nose gear.

A combination of thrust reversers and breaks get us slowed and at 40 knots I move my hand from the yoke to the tiller and exit the runway. As soon as we clear a Mainline Airbus 321 starts rolling from the end of the runway, their engines kicking up a spray of water as the plane starts to accelerate. Beyond them, the lights of the next arrival emerge from the clouds and rain.

Racing

Through the rain splattered glass of the windshield the runway is growing larger at an alarming rate. I glance over at the FO who is concentrating on the rapidly approach pavement, the fingers of his left hand flexing on the thrust levers. He’s got a good reason to keep the speed up. We are racing a heavy rainstorm to the field and despite being delayed out of Greensboro 30 minutes earlier it looks like we might actually win the race. This is only the second leg I’ve flown with him and the first he’s actually been the pilot flying, but from what I’ve seen so far I trust him to get the plane slowed in time to land.

The radar is showing a swath of red and yellow returns just a few miles to the south. The good news is we are landing to the West which gives us a good escape path to the North if stuff starts to deteriorate and we need an out. At 5 miles out the plane in front of us, still visible despite the increasing amount of rain streaking up the windshield, touches down on the wet pavement. I glance down at the Traffic Display and see there is another aircraft just 2 ½ miles behind us. ATC has told everybody to go as fast as possible for as long as possible.

The FO takes a quick look at the speed number which is holding steady at 230 knots and the distance to the runway number which is rolling quickly backwards and decides it’s time to start slowing. He pulls the thrust levers back to idle, pulls the flight spoilers all the way out and as the speed starts to bleed off calls for 8 degrees of flaps. Before I can even move the lever two clicks down he’s calling for the flaps to 20 degrees. With the flaps and slats moving back off the wing the speed quickly evaporates but as we pass through 1000 feet and he’s forced to stow the spoilers we are still moving faster than we should be. I rest my hand on the landing gear handle and he takes the hint. Seconds later the 3000 PSI of hydraulic pressure holding the gear up is released and the wheels drop into the rain filled skies below us.

With the gear out the plane quickly decelerates and the FO calls for 30 degrees of flaps as the speed decreases to 170 knots. The last of the flaps follows as we descend through 500 feet. The southern horizon blurs and then turns a dull gray, flecked with yellow streaks of lightening as the storm approaches the southern edge of the field. The windsock, just to the left of the runway, motionless until now, slowly starts to rotate around to the north and extend. We’re at 200 feet now and slowed back to our approach speed. There’s a slight burble of air as we pass through 50 feet and then, as I flip on the windshield wipers the main wheels settled on to the pavement.

The FO deploys the reversers as soon as the nose wheel hits the ground and the wheel brakes come on soon after. We’ve got a plane right behind us and despite the fact that I hate when pilots slam on the brakes after a nice landing, in this case it is 100% justified. We slow through 80 knots and the FO stows the reversers. Through the rain that is now streaming down the windshield despite the wipers on high I can see the runway exit approaching on the right. I match the brake pressure the FOs has on the foot pedals and then let him know I’ve got the controls.

We clear the runway and turn towards the ramp. Back on final, visible through the heavy rain now falling, are the landing lights of the 737 that was behind us. They touchdown and then disappear in a cloud of water vapor as their thrust reversers deploy. I turn my attention back to the ramp where the Lightening Detection System lights are still showing yellow. We just might get our passengers off the plane before the heavy weather hits.

Faith

There’s a moment on every instrument approach, just as you are coming down to minimums where you start wondering just how accurate the equipment is and if you set everything up correctly. You normally don’t have much time to dwell on the possibilities of something not being right before you either break out and the wonderful, beckoning runway lights come into sight or you hit the bottom of the approach, don’t see anything and are frantically bringing up the power, cleaning up the airplane and pitching the nose up in an effort to get as far away from the rapidly approach ground, just as fast as you can. But in the seconds before you make the decision to land or go around, where you can’t see anything but swirling gray of clouds and mist in front of you, even in the warmest cockpits, you’ll feel a slight chill at the possibilities.

Yesterday started at 4am for me, with my alarm waking me from what felt like not enough sleep. This was day two of three and my 4th day in a row of waking up before 5am. After turning off both the hotel alarm clock (set to go off in 5 minutes in case my cell phone alarm failed) and then the still beeping cell phone, I started my early morning ritual of sneaking a quick look out the hotel window to see what the day was going to be like. In this case it involved moving the blinds back and looking out of the 11th story window, over a dark, wet and misty Kanawha river in Charleston, WV. From the reflections on the road in front of the hotel it looked like it was still raining and the flags across the street were stretched out due to the wind. Having wished I hadn’t looked outside I spent the next 35 minutes getting ready for work and absolutely not looking forward to the day.

The day actually didn’t start too badly. We managed to get right out of Charleston because of the early hour and despite a low layer of clouds and some heavy rain were descending through the mist and rain in Charlotte 30 minutes later. They vectored us around for the approach and even with the weather I had the runway in sight by about 500 feet off the ground. A quick turn (although I had enough time to run in through the raindrops and grab a bagel) and the FO was heading us east towards Wilmington. The ride out was exceedingly choppy but fortunately it smoothed out as we started our descent. He managed a nice landing on runway 17 despite the wind and we delivered our 24 passengers safely.

I took over flying duties and we taxied out with 40 people in the back. Of course, with the weather being down in Charlotte, and the later hour we were stuck waiting for 45 minutes so I shut down both engines and we admired the view from the side of the ramp. Wilmington is quite the happening place. Our penalty time served we started up again and taxied out to the runway. With the gusty wind I used full power for the take off (we can “flex” our take offs meaning we use the minimum amount we actually need to get off the runway and climb out safely as this saves wear and tear on the engines, but with the winds I wanted all the power I could get) and that combined with the light load had us rocketing up to 10,000 feet and turning south west towards Charlotte.

Because of the weather I had the radar on and it was painting a scattered mess across our route. We were able to work with Jacksonville Center and get a route that kept us out of the worst of it and mostly in the clear. We eventually were handed off to Charlotte Approach who vectored us towards runway 18C. As we entered the downwind for the instrument approach the radar started picking out large red splotches of heavy precipitation in front of us. The good news was the winds at 5000 feet were blowing at about 60 miles an hour and moving most of the weather off our route. The problem was there was a fair amount of stuff upwind that was now coming our way. A tight turn from Charlotte kept us out of the worst of it and we joined up on the ILS.

An ILS (or Instrument Landing System) is basically a radio beam projected from the runway up into the sky. It consists of two parts. A lateral “localizer” which provides horizontal guidance which allows you to stay centered on the runway from miles out even if you can see it, and a vertical “glideslope” which gives a constant rate descent right down to the runway. The ILS is ridiculously accurate and under normal conditions allows you to get to just 200 feet off the ground while only being able to see 1800 feet ahead of you and still land. Once you get 200 feet above the ground (which is listed as a set altitude on the approach plate) you either have to be able to find the runway (or the approach lights) or execute a go around. From the 200 foot point, if you continue the decent, you are normally on the ground in about 20 seconds so the decision has to come pretty quickly.

Now, heading inbound in moderate chop and heavy rain, the only thing visible in front of us was a mass of clouds, barely visible through the water running up the windshield as we barreled through the weather at 180 miles an hour. With the aircraft fully configured with the gear down and the flaps out I was able to slow to 150 miles an hour but we were still descending towards a runway we couldn’t see at 700 feet per minute. At 1000 feet above the ground the FO called out “1000”. I had the autopilot flying still as it does a better job (under normal conditions) of tracking the ILS in and was splitting my attention between making sure it was staying on target, monitoring the airspeed and power settings as well as sneaking glances out the front to see if I could see anything.

3 feet below us, embedded in the underside of the nose of the aircraft two radar altimeters were pinging away at the ground below us. Once the beam send and return time was computed at 500 feet the plane dutifully called it off for us however there was nothing visible outside to back up this assertion. I took a quick look at the approach plate and double checked (for about the 10th time) the minimum altitude for the approach and then glanced at the primary flight display to make sure it was set there as well. I then looked back at the plate to mentally rebrief what I’d be doing if we hit minimums and didn’t see anything. By the time I looked back at the displays we were just 200 feet above minimums and 400 feet off the ground, still with nothing but blurry gray mist and rain.

At 100 feet above minimums the FO called off “100 above” and I started to feel the chill that I always get, no matter how many times I do this when I am just 300 feet and less than 20 seconds from the ground and still don’t see anything. A second later the FO called the approach lights in sight and I took a quick glance forward and saw a hazy set of red and green lights with a the rabbit (a line of lead in strobe lights) running between them. Despite all the amazing things I see while flying, the runway lights emerging through a low ceiling and reduced visibility is one of the most beautiful. A quick flick of my wrist turned on the wipers and the lights got a little clearer. As the airplane called out “minimums” the runway lights appeared through the murk. I called out “runway in sight… landing” and turned off the autopilot. A quick bank to the left to account for the wind had me lined up with the center line and I kept the nose over to keep us descending towards the wet surface below.

At 100 feet above the runway I started pulling out the power. At 50 feet the airplane started calling off our altitude in increments of 10 feet and by 30 feet the power was all the way out. There is a moment where, especially when the runway is wet, the airplane can’t decide if it wants to keep flying or not. Gravity always wins in the end and we settled onto the runway just passed the 1000 foot markers. The thrust reversers unlocked as the main gear compressed and with air now being directed forward from both engines the plane started slowing. Some gently brake application further slowed us to the point I was able to stow the reversers and taxi clear of the runway.

Hours later as we headed into Charlotte for the third time that day after fighting our way through the weather all the way up to Detroit, we broke into a clear patch about 30 miles from the airport. A rainbow formed next to us as the sun started dropping to the horizon to the west.