Tag Archives: mountains

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.


In the end, it will be the wind that saves us. Right now I don’t know that of course. In fact, I don’t even know that my approach will need saving as I’m too busy staring out the window at the winter wonderland mountain tops that are passing by below us. A major winter storm blew through the previous day, and while it is now wrecking havoc on the Northeast, it’s left behind a frozen masterpiece of ice encrusted trees and glittering white ridgelines.

The Charlotte to Knoxville route is flown as a ballistic arc, launching upward from Charlotte and then heading west across the slowly rising Piedmont. The crinkled ridgelines of the Smoky Mountains rise from the plains, still pointing skyward despite being worn down by thousands of years of winter snows and summer rains. On the western edge of the Range the terrain slopes quickly down into the flatlands of eastern Tennessee which drain into the river of the same name. The flight path starts downward towards Knoxville, just after passing the highest peaks of the Smokys leading to what is often times a quick approach due the nearness of the airport to the high hills to the east.

Today there is a layer of clouds on the western side of the hills, just below the tops of the peaks. Knoxville is reporting good weather below the ceiling with winds out of the north east. Over the last few minutes, between long glances out the window at the scenery sliding by below, I’ve managed to set up and brief the visual approach to Runway 5 Right. The FO is based here and he’s eager to get home after being on the road for four days. Today is my last day too, but I will have deadhead on two more flights before I see my apartment tonight.

Approach clears us down to 8000 feet as we pass the last of the high terrain. They then turn us to the south west on a long downwind leg. As we descend into the tops of the clouds, parallel to the ridgeline, I take one more look out my window at the snow capped mountains fading into the grayness and then double check that the plane is in fact tracking the way it is supposed to be and not drifting towards the hard granite to our left. Despite a strong wind from the northwest, we seem to be holding a course that will keep us clear. Apparently the approach control monitoring us on her radar screen thinks so too and clears us down to 6000 feet.

The clouds fade at about 6500 feet and we emerge into a gray tinted world. Off our left wing the snow covered fields rise up into forests of white which climb up the mountainsides into the clouds. To our right the Tennessee River Valley spreads out to the horizon. Approach Control turns us west, across the Valley. The airport appears just off the right side of the nose, 7 miles away. I suddenly realize that we are way too high and way too close to make this work. The controller doesn’t seem to see this problem and asks if we have the field in sight.

I hesitate momentarily and then pull the thrust levers all the way back and fully deploy the spoilers. The FO takes this as confirmation that I see the airport and lets the controller know who immediately clears us for a visual approach. The math loop in my head is in high gear now and I’m trying to work out descent rates and airspeeds and flap and gear points along with bank angles and roll rates. After running the numbers again my internal magic eight ball spits back an “all signs point to no” response.

I’m hand flying now with the flaps all the way out and the gear hanging down. We turn final, still 2000 feet higher than we should be. I start dedicating brainpower to “what if” scenarios. How far do I push this approach? If I decide to bail out on it and try again, what’s my procedure going to be? What’s the FO expecting me to do? I shift my focus back to the runway and am puzzled to see that it is about as far away as it was last time I looked. The FO directs my attention to the wind vector which has shifted from off our right side to directly off the nose. 3000 feet above the ground and we have 50 knots of wind holding us away from the runway.

The approach falls into place quickly. Our ground speed drops of as the wind slows our forward progression which gives us more time to descend. With more time to get down I can use less of a descent rate which in turn reduces our airspeed which translates to a slower groundspeed which gives us even more time. By 1000 feet we are where we should be on descent path, on speed and correctly configured. The wind dies off to just 5 knots as we pass through 500 feet. I take a quick look off to the east as the mountains disappearing into the fog and the turn my focus back to the rapidly approaching runway.

Hilly Night

Dark hills are moving by outside the window, just visible in the evening haze. A patchwork of orange, white and red lights, the signs of modern civilization fill the valley below. I’m hand flying into the darkness and for about the 10th time in the last minute glance back over my shoulder out the side window to require the runway. We are heading into Ashville, North Caroline, one of the few airports we operate at that actually has real terrain around it. To the west the mountains top out at 4000 feet while to the north of the field, where we are currently heading the ridges reach past 5000 feet. I smile slightly in the darkness as I remember a student in Phoenix who grew up playing in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies trying to explain to me the difference between hills and mountains. To her these would be nothing more than rolling hills. To an east coast operator like me, these are for real mountains.

I call for the flaps to 20 degrees and trim back slightly to account for the change in pitch caused by the wing changing its shape. The airspeed starts to roll back and I add a bit of power to hold it. Somewhere in a subconscious portion of my mind I am compute turn and pitch rates, airspeed and thrust vectors and what other numbers are going to have to come together to get the airplane turned 180 degrees around and descending to the end of the runway somewhere out there in the darkness. The loop closes and a little voice tells me to turn now which I do.

We are now heading west across the valley. Below us, somewhere in the scattering of ground lights the grounds of the Biltmore are passing by. Ahead, the western edge of the valley flares upwards, visible as a black wall against an almost black sky. The runway is clearly in sight now, several miles to the south out my window. I call for the landing gear and 30 degrees of flaps, which quickly drop out into the night sky. I push the nose over slightly and roll the plane to the left towards the approach lighting system just forming out of the hazy darkness.

On final now with the last of the flaps sliding in to place I make a few adjustments to our track and trajectory downward. Everything seems to be coming together nicely. With the sun long since set the ground has cooled to an almost uniform temperature and the bouncy thermals that plague daytime operations in the summer are thankfully absent. At 1000 feet I look to the left at the terrain rising to the right of the plane. Off the left, at the eastern edge of the valley the hills slope up quickly towards some the highest peaks in the Southeast.

The runway stretches out in front of us and I remind myself that there is an almost 150 foot difference in elevation between the arrival and departure ends meaning we will be landing downhill. Despite that, Ashville has a relatively long runway for an airport up in the mountains and the downslope shouldn’t be much of a problem assuming my landing is halfway decent. At 500 feet the plane is all but flying itself towards a nice landing. At 100 feet I have to counter a slight rolling motion, probably generated by airflow over the terrain. 50 feet passes by and I bring the nose up slightly while slowly reducing the power. At 20 feet the last of the power comes out and the plane hovers over the runway. The radar altimeter calls off 10 feet and then there is a slight bump and we are here.

Clearing down field I switch over to the tiller and taxi back towards the gate. Above us the airport beacon cuts a path of alternating white and green light through the hazy night.

Fire On The Mountain

It’s 11:30 at night and we are 8000 feet over the dark West Virginia landscape when I am starting to wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me. Ahead in the darkness, just on the horizon line an orange light is flickering. I blink several times and after the light seems to increase in intensity I ask me FO if he sees it as well. He turns his attention from copying down the latest weather report for our destination (now just 60 miles away) and stares out the window into the night.

Spread out below us are the rippling peaks of the West Virginia Hills. I spent an enjoyable 4 years of my life going to College just north of here and roamed the hillsides of the Monongahela National Forest we are currently flying over. My FO tilts his head slightly, looking forward at the light which is now starting to move towards us, or us towards it as at night sometimes it is hard to tell relative motion. “I think it’s a fire” he says and after a moments contemplation I agree with him.

At night there are fewer light sources, namely the sun, to reflect off the particles in the air and hence visibility goes up. On a clear night, it’s not unusual to be able to see splotches of ground lighting hundreds of miles away, just dropping over the edge of the curvature of the Earth. However, just because you can see forever doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know what you are looking at.

While teaching in Phoenix I would take students on night flights out of the Valley of the Sun to Yuma, 150 miles away, where what is left of the Colorado River, most of its water long since shuttled off into various irrigation canals, passes into Mexico. We’d leave just after dark and slip out underneath the Phoenix Class Bravo airspace towards the West and the darkness of the Sierra Estrella Mountains and then pick up the line of car taillights creeping westward along Interstate 8. Besides the lights on the highway and the periodic scattered ground lighting as the small towns of Gila Bend, Welton and Fortuna passed by, the trip was made in darkness.

I normally instructed from the right seat, with my student in the left seat. Often times on the return trip eastward, I’d press my face against the glass of the side window and stare off into the blackness to the south. Passing by, just a few miles off our right wing was Restricted Area 2301, one of the few military training areas in the contiguous United States that still allows life fire training missions. Defined on one side by Interstate 8 and on the other by the Mexican border, several of my students who flew F16s out of Luke AFB or Davis Monthan down in Tucson had told me stories about flying out there. Most of them involved the wording, almost part of the pilot credo, “so there I was…”

Winging eastbound towards the bright lights of the Phoenix Valley, I’d normally see nothing to the south, but every once in a while I’d be rewarded with a some strange light show that I could only assume was flares or tracer fire or missile trails or who know what. Phoenix has a almost yearly tradition of UFO reporting (just google “phoenix lights” if you don’t believe me) and while I certainly wouldn’t ever classify anything I saw as a UFO in the little green man sense, I certainly can say there were unidentified flying objects out to the south.

All of this is in the back of my mind as we cruise across the dark West Virginia hills. As Washington hands us over to Cleveland Center the fire on the mountain gets closer and closer until the whole sky is filled with a flickering orange light. We drop down to 5000 feet as the flaming pyre passes along the left side of the aircraft, just out my window. At almost 300 miles per hour, the specter quickly slides back into the darkness but as we pass abeam it I see what I think is a clearing on a hill top, lit by what looks like bright white stadium lighting. In the center of the clearing huge orange flames or rising skyward, clearly visible even from almost a mile up. I see no flashing red lights of emergency vehicles and before I have a chance to classify what I am seeing it slides back underneath the wing. I look over at my FO and shrug. He shrugs back and we start looking forward trying to find out destination, hidden among the hills ahead.

An hour later we are airborn again, this time heading south back towards to Charlotte. It’s after midnight and somewhere to the east, hundreds of miles out over the Atlantic Ocean, the rising sun is rushing towards us. Much closer, low on the eastern horizon a flickering blob of orange light is still dancing in the darkness.