Tag Archives: morning

Mountain Mornings

It’s just barely daylight by the time we get the plane. The rain is still coming down at a good rate, as it has been all night. The concrete of the ramp is glistening in the floodlights that still illuminate it, despite the gray light sweeping in from the mountain tops to the east. The plane is buttoned up with the door still closed, and the jet way pulled back. I glance at the rest of the crew, who I just met up with for one leg yesterday and after seeing no movement towards the door leading out to the ramp, tighten my grip on my rolling bag, push the door open and step outside deluge. Sometimes you just have to lead by example.

The rain is cold but not unpleasant. Despite the altitude (we are up in the hills of western North Carolina) and the early hour, it’s not too cold out. Spring has arrived, but I am glad to have my blazer (required for another three weeks) on to ward off the chill. I splash through the puddles and push my bag and flight case underneath the body of the airplane to keep it out of the worst of the rain. With no weight onboard the landing gear struts are full extended and the plane sits much higher than normal. I have to reach up well above my head to grab the door handle and as I do rain runs down my wrist and arm. I rethink the whole not cold thing and shiver as I finally manage to pop the door handle and step back as it opens outwards, slowed by its assist cable and motor.

With the door sitting on the ground, leading steeply upwards to the empty plane I take a step back and check for the rest of the crew. They are still inside, looking at me through the glass door I recently exited. I grumble to myself as I lug my bag up the steps and out of the rain. It takes two trips and by the time I walk up the steps for the second time, a ramper has appeared in the jetway cab to move it against the plane. I now understand why the rest of my crew has remained inside. Sure enough, a minute later they join me in the forward galley, dry and warm, while I still shake rain off from my coat. My only consolation is that the FO still has to go out and do a walk around and endure the same conditions I just did. Of course he wastes no time in pulling an umbrella out of his bag and heading out while I think how nice it would have been to have that a few minutes ago.

By the time the FO is back inside I’ve got the plane running and am finishing up the early morning checklist items. The rain is still coming down and I flip the windshield wipers on and off a few times to clear this glass. There’s nothing to see outside except the gray wall of the terminal building and the short, stubby ATC tower that sits on top of it, but I do it anyway. Our passengers begin arriving shortly thereafter and the normal drama of our two Flight Attendants dealing with them begins.

Eventually we are loaded up and ready to go. It’s daylight now but the light is flat and gray, filtering through the low clouds overhead and the still steady rain. The rampers, covered in bright yellow raingear push us back, disconnect the tug, wave, salute and fade back into the terminal building. ATC tells us to expect no delays (which I find hard to believe with the amount of weather between us and Charlotte) so we spin both engines and taxi to the runway. I rebrief the departure one more time, taking time to highlight the fact that we are surrounded by 6000 foot tall mountains on all sides and what special procedures will be needed if we have problems on takeoff. That completed we taxi out onto the runway, I push the power levers all the way up and off we go.

The clouds obscure the view by the time we pass through 500 feet. Solid streams of water cascade across the windshield but as my focus is inside on the instruments, I don’t really care. I have the terrain display up on my side and it’s depicting brown and red swaths of obstructions everywhere. As we climb out the browns will fade to yellows and then greens as the terrain falls away below us. The FO has his weather radar on and it’s showing browns and greens as well. Unfortunately these won’t necessarily disappear out as we climb.

ATC clears us direct a fix down the road and after quickly checking that we will be above any terrain between our present position and there (something an ATC clearance technically does, but I don’t ever fully trust) we make the turn. As we roll out on the new heading, still bouncing through a gray, wet cloud filled world, I flip off my terrain display and switch on the radar. The image stabilizes and shows a mass of cells between us and the airport, now just 85 miles away with the white course line on the MFD heading directly into the middle of the mess. It’s not even 7:30 in the morning and I realize it’s just going to be one of those days.

Morning Musing

It’s still early but the radio frequency is starting to get busy. Approach is vectoring around about 10 inbounds plus at least 5 general aviation aircraft out enjoying a nice Sunday morning. Despite the clutter on the TCAS display and constant talking on the radio I’m actually pretty happy about the situation. The last few years have been rough on GA due to high fuel prices, a weak economy, and an uncertain regulatory future and many of the airports we fly into that once were busy hubs of GA activity have become ghost towns in the last few years.

Approach turns us 20 degrees to the left so that we pass behind a Piper Aztec maneuvering at 5500 feet over the Schuylkill River. As the light twin passes by 500 feet below the FO’s window, a Mainline Airbus crosses 1000 feet above us on its way to Runway 27R. Today, we’re set up for the “short” (5000 feet long) Runway 26, another sign of busier airspace. Generally Philly only puts the Regional Jets on 26 when things back up for the other two landing runways.

Clear of the Aztec we get a turn back to the east on to the downwind. Despite the morning haze, visibility is good and in the distance the low hanging sun can be seen reflecting on the Atlantic Ocean, silhouetting the high rises of Atlantic City, some 60 miles away. Farther to the north, the solid skyline of New York City looks like a stand of trees rearing up in the distance from the deceptively flat looking landscape. As we drop through 4000 feet over the Delaware River the City drops over the horizon and disappears.

Approach asks if we have the airport, which we do and clears us for the approach, advising us of traffic on the nearby parallel runway. The other plane is about a mile in front of us and the FO tucks in off their right wing following them towards the airport, crossing over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the old Navy Yard. The winds are out of the North so despite the plane now sitting a half mile in front of us, wake turbulence isn’t going to be a factor today.

The empty stadiums of the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers pass by the right wing, all empty. I follow football just enough to sound informed in crew room sports conversations and with the potential for a lost season due to the lock out in place I realize that the big stadium may stay empty for longer than normal. The sports complex fades behind the wing as the FO turns to align with the runway and pass around the giant shipyard crane that reaches up towards us. Clear of that obstacle it is a straight shot to the runway.

Despite the tricky approach and the relative short amount of pavement, the FO sets it down gently and applies the brakes smoothly. Too many guys get intimidated by the short runway and tend to slam the plane down and get on the brakes right away. There are certainly times that you have to do that, but this generally isn’t one of them. The plane slows and at 60 knots I take over driving duties and exit the runway. One leg down, five to go.

Sun Across the Land

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Airborn again, we are heading east into the brightening dawn. Sunrise is still 25 minutes away on the ground below us, but as we climb and close the distance to the pale horizon we’ll meet the sun 15 minutes from now just east of Columbus. The air is so still that there is no sense of motion other than the slight vibration from the plane’s engines. As we pass through 10,000 feet the FO lowers the nose slightly to pick up airspeed and for the first time since we rotated off the ground it feels like we are actually moving.

High overhead contrails stretch from the darkness above us off into the rapidly brightening sky ahead. Despite the traffic out there the radio is quiet. It’s before 7am on a Saturday morning and everybody, both pilots and ATC, are enjoying the last few hours of calm before the weekend traffic picks up and the frequency gets busy. Indy Center hands off to a high sector controller who clears us up to 32,000 feet.

The top edge of the rising sun, molten gold in color breaks through the horizon as we climb through 25,000 feet. The rolling Ohio landscape below us begins to take on definition as the sunlight hits it. In the distance the wandering curves of the Ohio River, reflect the golden yellow sky. As we pass 30,000 feet the outside air temperature drops to -51 degrees Celsius. Five miles in front of us an AirTran 737 passes across the face of the fully risen sun, heading south for lower latitudes and higher temperatures.

The sun is fully up and starting its trek towards the southwest by the time we start our decent into Washington. Below us the Maryland hills are a dark bluish green in the early light. The ski areas still with snow clinging to slopes, stand out like hardened hot chocolate on an ice cream sundae. Pleased with my analogy I take a minute from setting up out arrival to enjoy the warmth of the sun shining into the cockpit.
Washington National is landing to the North and as we fly by the airport on the downwind, I watch the early morning Alaska Airlines 737, literally a flying gas can, heave itself into the air for the long flight to Seattle.

It’s still quiet and the Approach Controller wastes no time in descending us to 2500 feet and turning us out of the Potomac River towards the airport. My FO calls for the gear and final flaps as we pass over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the north span finally completed after what seems like years of construction, and the plane settles into its landing attitude.

The sun is well on its way southward as we taxi clear of the runway towards parking. The shadows of the other planes on the ground are beginning to stretch northward and our day is already ¼ of the way done.

Into The Sunlight

We are blasting our way eastward through the still morning air with the FO driving. I am splitting my attention between watching the slowly shrinking pattern of ground lighting below us and the healthy climb rate the instrumentation is showing. I’m also working the radios but at this early hour there isn’t much happening on that front. Razorback Departure hands us over to Memphis Center and after a brief conversation with the controller sitting in a room a hundred miles away, a room about as dark as the cockpit I’m currently in, I go back to looking out the window.

Our 5:35am departure out of Fayetteville, Arkansas made us the first flight to call the tower ready to go. FedEx and UPS had long since headed off to Memphis and Louisville and at the gates other Express aircraft for United, Delta and American were starting to load up to go but we had the taxiway and runway to ourselves. The plane, lightly loaded, was straining skyward by 130 knots and at 145 knots the FO pulled her off the ground and into the dark sky.

The lights of Fayetteville have disappeared behind the wing. To the north Memphis is clearly illuminated despite the early hour. 200 miles off our nose, just over the horizon Nashville is waking up to another day. 25 minutes from now, when we pass over at 33,000 feet the roads will be filled with the start of the morning commute and the first bank of departures will have already taken off from the airport. As we level off, almost 5 miles above the earth, the eastern skyline starts to turn from deep black to dark blue.

The ride is smooth and I turn off the seatbelt sign. I’m guessing most of our 20 odd passengers are sleeping but this way they can get up and move about it they want. With my seat pushed all the way back I stretch my legs out but my toes bump the rudder pedals. The CRJ cockpit was not designed for comfort or calisthenics, although apparently it is much better than some other airplanes flying around out there.

My abbreviated stretching session completed I go back to watching the horizon which is now a light blue with a line of pale yellow starting to show at the bottom. I take a second to dig around in my flight case to find my sunglasses. When the sun comes up, it tends to come up quickly and it helps to have things in place ready to go. The horizon is still uniform in color so it’s hard to tell where exactly the sun will pop up but I take an educated case and place the tinted sun visor on the overhead rail and slide it to where I think the curving disk of the sun will rise in a few minutes.

The horizon is now a pale gold color which stretches upwards 15 or 20 degrees. There is a perceptible switch in the intensity of the light and within the space of a minute the bottom edge of the horizon line goes from gold to orange to red and then the top of the sun, glowing brightly, clears the curve of the earth and daybreak comes as we cross over the top of Nashville. 400 miles away the sun is high in the sky over Charlotte where another day has already started.

Burning Gas

The departure end of 6L in Dayton is rapidly dropping behind us. The jet loaded up with just two pilots, a mechanic and 6500 pounds of fuel is rocketing skyward in the cold predawn air. At 400 feet I roll the wings left and then, a few seconds later roll them level on a northern heading. Tower hands us off to departure who rapidly clears us up to 10,000 feet before handing us off to Indy Center.

With a clearance to 23,000 and the Findley VOR in hand I decide I’ve had enough fun for the morning, turn on the autopilot and get down to the business at hand… sitting and watching the clock tick by. This morning we are on an OCF or “Operational Check Flight”. Basically, Maintenance has some problem which they can’t replicate on the ground and require a test flight to verify they actually fixed the issue. In this case a gauge that shows the core speed of the engine on the left side was randomly dropping about 5% during high altitude descents.

Maintenance was pretty sure they had fixed the problem by cleaning a cannon plug (basically a thing that attaches one thing to another thing) but the only way to know for sure was to run the plane up to 31,000 feet and see if the problem still happened.

So here we were climbing northward into the rapidly lighting sky. With our light load we reached 31,000 quickly and then settled down to sit out 25 minutes of “cold soaking” the airplane. At altitude the outside air temperature was -43 degrees C. At that low temp parts tend to function differently or not at all. In order to fully duplicate the situation that had been written up we had to let the airframe cool off from the relatively balmy 35 degrees it had been sitting in on the ground. After 25 minutes of making a large clockwise circle across Lake Erie (and watching the sun come up over the eastern edge of the lake we deemed the plane cold enough and let ATC know we were ready to start down.

After a slight wait while some westbound traffic crossed underneath us heading up to Chicago we were cleared down to 24,000 feet. I set up a 1000 foot per minute descent and all three of us watched the N1 gauges for any fluctuations as the power slowly came back. There were none and several minutes later we had leveled off at 24,000. To be doubly sure we climbed back up to 31,000 and repeated the experiment again. Once again the gauges for both engines held steady and with the concurrence of the mechanic sitting quietly in our jump seat we turned south towards Dayton.

15 minutes later the airport was in sight and ATC cleared us for a visual approach to 6L. Out of 6000 feet I turned off the autopilot and rolled the airplane towards the runway. Because we were so light our approach speed was very slow (slow being a relative term as we were still bombing down final at close to 130mph) and in the still air it felt like we were barely moving. Even at the slow airspeed we eventually made it to the runway were I managed a rather nice landing. 5 minutes later we were parked and shut down at the hangar.

Time spent: 1 hour and 18 minutes
Fuel burned: 2600 pounds (about 385 gallons)

Watching the sun come up over an iced over Lake Erie: Priceless

Some days it’s worth it to get up at 4am.