Tag Archives: lightning

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.

Through The Line

The Philidelphia Tower controller is starting to get frustrated. You can hear it in his voice when he tells the 5th plane that asks for their sequence that he just doesn’t know. When a 6th request for sequence comes in he obviously has had enough and responds, “gentlemen… I don’t know. So just stop asking, I’ll tell you when I do know.” When a controller uses the term “gentlemen” you know it’s going to be a long night.

He has good reason to be frustrated. It’s the International departure push and a lot of widebody aircraft are mixed in with the normal procession of Regional Jets and narrow body Boeing and Airbuses, all trying to blast off of the same piece of pavement at roughly the same time. To add to the mess there is a large line of weather moving towards the airport. I know I’m not the only one glancing off into the darkness to the west every time there is a huge flash of lightening amongst the clouds. We are all on borrowed time before the weather hits and the airport gets shut down. Due to weather related traffic jams up the road we are all sitting and waiting for our routings and sequences to be worked out by whoever does that sort of thing. In the meantime the weather inches closer.

Finally a heavy Airbus is given the green light to go. They pull out on the runway and power up and moments later they are just a pair of blinking strobe lights against the night sky on their way to Europe. Two more RJs are cleared in quick succession and then we are next. Once on the runway and cleared to go I let the radar take a quick sweep 40 miles down range. The right hand side of the screen is filled with a solid wall of red and yellow running from somewhere off to our right to the outer limits of the display. This is expected as I’ve been watching this storm on the radar loop on my phone. My plan is to head southwest for 40 miles or so and then turn to the west around the southern edge of the line of weather. My FO agrees that that’s our best bet and we roar off into the night.

Once air born and climbing I expand the radar range to 80 miles and start getting a little bit worried. The line of red still extends to the top of my display meaning that since I last looked at the radar on my phone the weather has slid farther south. This means we will have to go at least 100 miles out of our way and then 100 miles back to get around the line. In theory this is fine but we don’t really have the fuel on board for that sort of maneuver. Before we even have a chance to discuss options, the departure controller turns us northwest, directly into the weather and tells us that he has a small hole he has been able to slip two airplanes through and he’s vectoring us for the same spot.

The weather is 10 miles away and we have about 1 minute to decide if this is a good idea or not. As I roll the plane level the radar takes a sweep and shows what we are facing. The line is narrow, maybe 3 miles deep but stretches from one side of the display to the other. It is a mixture of reds and yellows with some stronger magenta returns scattered throughout. The hole ATC is pointing us towards is no more than a mile wide and is still showing bright yellow returns on the screen. Midway through the line the hole takes a sharp jog to the right and then back to the left before exiting out the back side of the weather. I take a deep breath and glance over at my FO. His face is illuminated by the almost continuous flashes of blue light in front of us. I don’t really like the idea, but it’s the best option we have for now and I decide to commit to punching through.

Philly Departure clears us to deviate left and right as needed and then hands us off to New York Center. They give us a clearance up to 23,000 feet and as the FO spins in the new number into the altitude alerter I glance up from the instruments and look out the front window. It looks like the entire world is filled with flashing blue and yellow flashes of lightning streamers dancing amongst the clouds in front of us. I request the continuous ignition on, quickly wipe my hand on my pants and take a tighter grip on the yoke. There is no way I trust the autopilot to fly through this. Passing through 9000 feet we hit the outer edge of the line and are committed.

I ask the FO to shut off his radar so mine has a faster update and then switch from normal scan down to sector mode, limiting the sweep to 45 degrees each side of the nose. At this point I am willing to trade the big picture view for a faster update of what’s right in front of us. As the plane starts to buffet and shake the hole defines itself on the display in front of me. I turn 5 degrees to the right, pointing the nose at the lightest colors I can see on the radar return. A huge flash of lightning off to the left makes me blink and I reach up and turn on the overhead dome light in an attempt to even the level of brightness out and protect my eyesight. I also have the FO turn off the landing lights as we pass through 10,000 but leave the electronic device sign on. There is no way the Flight Attendant should be standing up now.

The ride has now deteriorated to the point where I’m having second thoughts about punching through this hole. I realize, somewhat belatedly, that even if we clear the line without actually running into anything of substance (which the radar is saying we should be able to do) we are still flying through a sky filled with several million volts of electricity and it’s entirely possible that one of those streamers of light I’m seeing dancing out my window will reach out and touch us. As the radios start to get fuzzy from all the energy in the air I realize it’s too late to worry about that now. A particularly bright flash of lightning reveals a large buildup right in front of us but before I can even say anything we plunge into it and the plane lurches to the left and then drops to the right. I focus on keeping the wings level and count the seconds until we are through it.

The ride suddenly smoothes and the constant blue strobing diminishes. I glance over from my primary flight display to look at the radar returns. The scope is showing nothing but blackness ahead. We are clear of the weather. As if on cue New York Center clears us direct to the Appleton VOR, located just to the south of Pittsburg. I reach up and engage the autopilot while the FO enters the routing data into the flight computer. As the plane banks to the left and turns west I hold up my hand and look at it. Despite the back lighting of a million flashes of light in the clouds out the side window, I can’t tell if it’s shaking or not.