Tag Archives: night

Southern Storms

Off to the south, somewhere over Wilmington, NC , a late season thunderstorm is flickering in the darkness. Our radar, even turned up slightly to exaggerate any returns is showing nothing on the route in front of us, despite the heavy layers of clouds below obscuring the ground lighting except in ragged, torn holes where the scattering of lights peak through. It’s the 4th leg of the day and we we’ve still got two more to go. However, with the weather creeping in from the south, the low ceilings and rain covering our destination ahead and the uncontrolled field we are now going to have to probably have to shoot an approach to near minimums to, my mind is far, far away from how much farther we’ve still got after this leg is done.

Because there is no control tower at our destination airfield, we get our updates from an ASOS, an automated system that takes wind, visibility, cloud ceiling, temperature and altimeter readings every minute and broadcasts them over a radio frequency. There are pluses and minuses to this. Instead of the hourly updates put out by a control tower you get up to the minute readings. However these broadcasts are very limited in nature and don’t provide a lot of the more useful information that can be passed along from a human set of eyes.

80 miles out and the weather is being reported as strong winds from the north, rain, mist, 2 miles of visibility and a 700 foot overcast. This poses something of a problem as the approach to the north only gets us down to 600 feet, just 100 feet below the reported layer of clouds. There is a much better approach to the south, but because of the winds we are just barely legal to use it. Combine the tailwind with a short and wet runway and I am more inclined to try the other approach and hope we break out of the clouds in time. I talk it over with the FO as we start to bounce through a layer of clouds and he agrees. Metal doesn’t get bent during a go around, but it certainly does if you go off the end of the runway.

He calls ATC and requests clearance to the Kingston VOR, which is the initial fix for the approach. Washington Center clears us that way and then advises us that they are showing moderate rain between our present position and the VOR, some 50 miles away. Our radar isn’t showing too much so the FO thanks the controller and we press on. As we start a descent out of 22,000 feet and into the clouds below the radar finally starts showing green and brown swaths ahead. I call the flight attendant and tell her to hurry up and secure the cabin.

Moderate rain is now drumming on the cockpit glass and the plane is bucking in the turbulence. The autopilot seems to be holding its own so I take a minute to brief the upcoming approach. It’s a straight forward GPS except for the fact that there is a quick stepdown fix where we will have about .5 miles to get from 800 feet to 600 feet and try to find the runway before having to go missed, which at the airspeed we will be going gives us about 14 seconds. I tell the FO that if we can’t find the runway from this side we’ll fly the published missed approach procedure which conveniently sets us up for the approach from the other side. If we can’t get in this way we’ll just have to risk the tailwind approach and if the landing looks the least bit too far down the runway go around again and head to our alternate.

We cross the Kingston VOR still bumping through moderate turbulence and heavy rain. The radar still isn’t showing anything too bad and as I watch the raindrops blast by, briefly illuminated by the landing lights, I realize we are very fortunate that this is just rain and nothing convective. Past the VOR I set 2400 feet in the altitude hold window and then command the autopilot down. A quick check of our fuel situation shows we are in good shape so I call for 8 and 20 degrees of flaps. The plane noses over slightly as the flaps slide down the backside of the wing. The FO makes a quick call on the local traffic frequency to let anybody crazy enough to be out in this weather that we are coming in.

At six miles out we level at 1600 feet and just about to cross the final approach fix. The gear and 30 degrees of flaps are now hanging out into the rain filled sky. I call for 45 degrees and the landing checklist and double check the next altitude. 800 feet is showing in the altitude select window, which matches the number on the approach plate. As the plane passes the invisible point in space that denotes the final approach fix I command down 1000 feet per minute on the autopilot. The plane quickly heads down, still with nothing but raindrops visible out the front windshield.

We briefly level at 800 feet and then as we cross 2.2 miles from the end of the runway we continue down to 600 feet. Despite both the FO and I having are radar displays on instead of the terrain displays, I am acutely aware that the ground is now just 700 feet below us, rapidly approaching and we can’t see a thing. Seconds later, just as the plane starts nosing upwards to level at 600 feet, we drop out of the bases of the clouds and the ground is visible below, looking ghostly and hazy through the rain and fog filled skies.

I scan the area and immediately find the runway directly ahead. To the left the mass of lights on the regional hospital reflect damply on the grounds around it. A quick flash of white light cuts through the darkness ahead as the beacon on the hospital heliport rotates around. I force myself to focus on the rapidly approaching runway ahead, now just a mile away. The winds are steady off the nose, which makes me glad we chose this approach.

At 500 feet we are stable and the windshield wipers, on their highest setting, are barely keeping up with the water streaming up the windshield. At 200 feet I feel the plane start to settle in add power. I quickly pull some of it back out as I don’t want to accelerate too much and risk landing long on the wet runway below. The result is that we drop to the ground quickly and thump on to the pavement harder than I would have liked. I quickly shrug it off and deploy the thrust reverses, applying the wheel brakes as the FO calls out 90 and 60 knots while we decelerate.

The runway exit comes up to the right and as we turn off I slow the wipers. Through the intermittently clear windshield glass I can see a rain soaked taxiway and the bright lights of the terminal beyond. To the south, over the treeline we’ve just passed over, the lights of the hospital reflect off the low ceiling and scattered lower scud clouds. Beyond that is nothing but darkness. I turn my attention back to the terminal where two rampers in bright yellow rain gear are holding lighted wands to guide us in. I momentarily allow myself to relax. I know it’s going to be short term though because as soon as we unload here we’ve got another load of passengers to take back out into the clouds again.

Summer Storms

The situation is rapidly falling apart. What, after three hours of sitting, was supposed to be a simple flight, sneaking in behind a large line of weather, has turned into an arrival and approach that may have us going around and bailing out to our alternate. Assuming of course we have enough fuel to get there. As I spin the heading bug five more degrees to the right to avoid a bright red splotch on the radar display, I stare into the rushing darkness punctuated by thousands of points of light; raindrops illuminated by our landing lights, and wonder if we should just throw in the towel now and head somewhere else.

My day started at noon with a deadhead down to Charlotte where I sat for 5 hours waiting to fly to Baltimore, on to Philly and then back to Baltimore for the night. Because of the lack of flights between my base and Charlotte I was stuck watching the world go by for most of the afternoon. That turned out to be not such a bad thing as our deadhead landed on the front side of a large line of weather, hustled in to the gate and unloaded into a rapidly gathering storm. I spent the next 4 hours wandering the airport observing a textbook example of how weather can make an operation fall apart.

By 6pm the weather had passed and the recovery was starting. The flight display boards which had shown lots of red cancellations all afternoon started to clear and show orange delay notes as well as more and more on time flights. The plane I was waiting on actually showed up on time and 30 minutes prior to departure we had a crew on board, ready to go. I asked the gate agent to hold off on boarding as I had a suspicion that we would be delayed as Baltimore was currently still in the weather. Sure enough, when I called for our clearance ATC advised us that our estimated release time was just about 3 hours from now, some 2 ½ hours later than our planned departure.

With nobody on board other than the crew we simply shut down the plane, shut the door and went back inside to sit out the penalty time. A quick check at of the radar showed most of the weather passing through the area right then, with one single line trailing behind it. Due to the delay, the Baltimore-Philly-Baltimore legs were canceled, leaving us with just one leg to do. This worked well for our passengers currently waiting downstairs, but would leave 50 people stranded in Baltimore and another 50 waiting in Philly. Reasons to not book on the last flight of the day I guess.

That trailing line of weather was still in play 2 hours later when I started up the plane again and the passengers began boarding. Because of that we were refilled by ATC to head 150 miles due west to Knoxville, TN before turning back to the north and then eventually Northeast over Beckley, WV and on to Baltimore. This reroute added almost 400 miles to the flight plan and stretched our fuel to pretty much the bare minimum we’d need to get to Baltimore and then on to an alternate if needed.

My hope was that once we got in the air, ATC would give us a shortcut to the northeast, saving time and more importantly fuel which is how it ended up playing out. As soon as we got handed over to Atlanta Center, he advised us that he’d have a turn for us soon. Climbing through 20,000 feet into a clear, star filled sky, we were turned northward to Beckley, cutting almost 300 miles out of the flight plan and putting our fuel back at a more acceptable number. The next 250 miles progressed quickly as I kept the speed up through the still dark air.

As another red splotch forms on the radar just of our nose and the sound of drumming on rain on the cockpit glass increases in intensity, Potomac Approach asks us when we can make a turn to the left back towards the field. The FO has his radar display scrolled out farther than mine, giving a slightly better big picture view. On his display going left doesn’t look any worse than going right, and much better than going straight ahead. I give a thumbs up and he tells ATC we can take the turn. The plane lurches left following the guidance cues generated by the flight director and we head towards the runway, invisible in the inky darkness ahead of us.

We’ve been following a Southwest jet for the last 10 minutes or so and now I hear them question approach if anybody has gone through the big cell right over the final approach course. I’m trying to get the plane slowed down and descending at the same time, which is nearly impossible, especially in the bumps but I vaguely hear the response from ATC; “No problems so far”. To me, there is no part of that that sounds encouraging. Southwest doesn’t seem to think so either as the sarcasm (or maybe it’s just stress) is clear in their voice when they reply with a quick “thanks” as they get handed off to tower.

Five minutes later we are handed over to tower as well as we join the ILS 10 miles out. As we switch over, the Approach controller, very offhandedly, advises us that the last two aircraft have gone around for windshear and to have a good night. Sure enough, on my multifunction display, the two blue diamonds ahead of us are showing rapid climb indications. We are descending. I start to realize that the situation is not very good but elect to press on. The cell the Southwest flight asked about, and the one I’m guessing caused the windshear is off the finals now. I’m hoping we will be the beneficiary of being 5 minutes later than the guys in front of us.

The ride down final is choppy as we pass through ragged dark clouds, each briefly visible in the cone of our landing lights. Rain is hitting the glass and metal skin of the cockpit so loudly that I reach down and turn up the volume on the radios so I can still hear them. On the display screens the cell that caused the go arounds for the two planes ahead of us is continuing to move off to the right with each sweep of the radar but the airport and surrounding area is still bathed in the dark greens and yellows of heavy rain.

With the gear out and the flaps locked at 45 degrees we pass through 1000 feet. The ground is visible below us as a confusion of reflecting lights penetrating the water filled darkness. The approach lights, on high intensity are clearly visible ahead and as our airspeed bounces all over the place due to the still gusty winds I take a firm grip on the yoke, disconnect the autopilot and focus on the rapidly approaching runway. At 500 feet we take a big gust and the plane skids to the right as the tail starts to come up. A small adjustment on the power and a quick blast of trim keeps us mostly steady.

The last few feet seem to take forever as we hover what appears to be, in the dim beam of the landing light, a raging river covering the runway. We settle to the ground and the spoilers quickly pop up, killing off the last of the lift over the wings. As the wheels start to spin up our movement feels sluggish and spongy. I realize the runway is in fact covered with water and our wheels are fighting not just the friction of the ground but also the weight of an inch of water as they move forward. I keep my feet off the brakes to avoid hydroplaning and let the thrust reversers slow us almost to a stop while imagining the huge cloud of spray we must be kicking up behind us.

Slowed to a safe speed I stow the reversers and gently apply the brakes. There is a slight sliding motion followed by the reassuring chatter of the antiskid kicking in. The runway exit comes up on our right and with our speed back to a slow crawl, I crank the tiller to the right and we clear on to the taxiway. As we turn towards the terminal and our gate, out on final a single light cuts through the clouds as the next arrival comes in. Hopefully it works out for them as well as it did for us, but frankly, I’m too tired to care right now.

Heading North

We’ve escaped the madhouse that is the late night departure push in Philadelphia and are heading northwestward, climbing into the dark, night sky. It’s my leg, and our 6th leg of the day, and despite the cold night air rushing by the glass of the windshield just inches from my face, I feel the warmth of fatigue on the back of my head. I blink my eyes several times and adjust my seat slightly, struggling to find a more comfortable position.

We should already be at the hotel by now. Despite struggling through five flights already, falling behind on the turns and then catching up enroute, we’ve been sidelined in Philly for the last 3 hours, waiting for the plane we were scheduled to take to Akron and the end of our day, to arrive. Meanwhile, the plane we brought in sat empty at the gate where we left it, patiently waiting (if a plane can do such a thing) for a crew; a crew that was miles away, strapped into the plane we spent three hours waiting for. Such is life at the airlines sometimes.

All of that is behind us now as we arc above the frigid Pennsylvanian country side. I set my multi function display, dimmed down almost as far as it will go, to display airports along with the normal navigation fixes. I match the virtual view I now see on the screen to the real world landscape visible below, lit in the oranges and yellows of urban sodium vapor lighting. The city of Harrisburg slides by the left wing, perched on a curve in the Susquehanna River, visible as a black gash across the brightly lit terrain below. Way out in the distance, visible in the cold clear air, Baltimore and the glow of Washington, sit on the horizon line.

To our north, visible through rips in the undercast starting to form ahead of us, the lights of Philipsburg, PA slide in and out of view. The clouds below thicken and blot out of the city lights beneath us. Now each hamlet and burg is defined by an orange hazy glow seeping through the cloud layer, identified only by its airport’s identifier scrolling across my map display in front of me.

High overhead, now visible due to the lack of ground light pollution, thousands of starts speckle the dark sky, like glitter on a black page. Our nose is buried in a 100 knot headwind slowing our passage westward to a crawl. Off to our left, along the major flight corridor into New York, New England and the North Atlantic tracks to Europe beyond, a steady stream of blinking strobe and beacon lights glide eastward, driven by the same wind that is slowing us.

To the northwest a shooting star streaks from high overhead. Unhindered by normal methods of propulsion and the headwind we are fighting, the bright white speck of light rapidly slides through the sky, leaving a barely visible trail of glittering light before fading and disappearing into the darkness. I stare into the void that’s left behind and contemplate faster than light travel and its long term effects on my chosen career. Heady thoughts to say the least, but my FO quickly brings me back to reality when I mention it to him by pointing out that we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. I smile to myself and go back to staring out the window at the skies overhead and think, maybe, but with all that visible out there, it’s hard to not dream.

Fourth time is the charm

It’s 11:30 at night and our passengers are probably about ready to kill us. Outside the plane, the tail end of the last departure bank is roaring off into the night sky as flashes of lightning illuminate the low laying clouds to the west. I’m trying to work two radio frequencies at once while still monitoring what the FO is saying to the ground controller. It’s turning into a big mess in my head and I take a deep breath while double checking the parking brake is set so we don’t roll anywhere.

My evening started 5 hours ago with a planned deadhead down to Charlotte. Several hours prior to that the captain who was scheduled to fly that flight called and asked if I would mind flying it as he wad supposed to deadhead up just to fly it back. That was fine with me so at 6pm, instead of taking my seat in the back I strapped in up front and we launched for Charlotte. An hour later we were taxiing in to the gate and the start of my planned 3 hour sit before going to Savannah for the night.

Walking through the terminal to the crewroom and eventually dinner I ran into the FO who I was supposed to be going to Savannah with in several hours. He, the Flight Attendant and the captain I would be covering for later had to do a turn to Tri Cities, TN (a quick 25 minute flight) before going to Savannah. The FO told me they had loaded up the plane to go and pushed back at 6:30 as scheduled but had to return to the gate and unload the passengers after they had problems starting one of the engines. They were now on their way to another plane. I immediately started wondering just how late I’d be leaving for Savannah. 

An hour later I was walking back from dinner and ran into the FO again. I commented that they had made a very quick trip to Tri Cities if they were already back but he just laughed and told me they still hadn’t left yet. Apparently plane number 2 also had engine problems which required them to return to the gate and unload the passengers for a second time. Maintenance was working the issue but didn’t have an update time for them. The captain had a sim ride in the morning (which is why I had gotten the trip in the first place) and was anxious to get the hotel. I offered to take the Tri Cities turn as I’d be sitting around waiting for them to get back anyway. And just like that it all became my problem.

Dispatch called and told me the plane would be good to go at 10pm. By 10:30 we had our passengers back on board and after a 20 minute wait for the fuel truck we were taxiing out into a giant traffic jam. After 11pm Charlotte closes their three north-south runways and utilize their single east-west runway to prevent aircraft from flying over noise sensitive areas. It cuts down on the complaints from nearby neighborhoods but it puts a large crimp in the operation. 

Sitting at number 10 in line to go, now 5 hours later than scheduled I had a thought, which is never a good thing for me. Tri Cities is a small airport and we get our fuel from the local Fixed Base Operator and since we were so late it was entirely possible that the guy driving the fuel truck there may had already gone home for the night. I assumed that this is something that dispatch would have checked up on but I decided to make sure. Charlotte has a radio frequency we can use to call dispatch and a minute later a dispatcher was assuring me that there would be fuel when we got there. Satisfied with the answer I went back to the monotony of releasing the parking brake, creeping forward one plane’s length and then setting the brake again.

30 seconds later we got a text message saying that there was in fact no fuel truck driver and that the flight was cancelled and to go back to the gate. I told the FO that we owe it to these passengers to get them to Tri Cities, that I was going to call dispatch on the second radio and to tell the ground controller that we would need a few minutes to work on an issue.

Somewhere behind us I hear a plane spool up, the sound a harsh whine that fades into the night. 5 minutes of negotiations with dispatch have gotten us approval to go back to the gate and load an additional 1000 pounds of gas on board so we can go and come back without refueling. I flip over to the local ops frequency and tell them we need a gate and a fuel truck and make it fast. They give us a gate (the one we left from 25 minutes ago) and promise a fuel truck. I let the Flight Attendant know what is going on and apparently some of the frustration I am feeling creeps into my voice because she reminds me to be nice when I tell the passengers. That taken care of we taxi back to the ramp where there is in fact a fuel truck waiting for us.

Ten minutes later we are pushing back again (my second time, the passenger’s fourth) and heading towards the runway. It’s midnight now and there are no other planes in sight. The ramp controller jokingly asks if we are really going to go this time. The FO looks at me a shrugs. That’s about how I feel. We make it to the runway without any issues and then after waiting a minute for a truck to finish an inspection downfield, blast off into the night. Lightning is still flickering in the clouds to the west as we turn north towards our destination. We will get our passengers there 5 hours later than scheduled and a full hour later than the last flight of the night got in, but we will get them there. And then we will turn back to Charlotte and then Savannah beyond. It’s going to be a long night. 

Rush Hour in the Middle of Nowhere

It’s 9pm and we are descending towards the darkened coastal Carolina terrain and for the third time this evening I remind the FO how much I hate doing this. We are heading towards an uncontrolled field where we will have to fend for ourselves without the help and guidance of Air Traffic Control. Once we have the airport in sight they will tell us we are on our own and to give them a call when we are on the ground. It something that happens thousands of times a day at hundreds of airports around the country, but doing it in a high speed jet, with 50 passengers in the back is something I really don’t like doing.

I can already hear my freight and charter pilot friends rolling their eyes at me when I say this as they do this sort of thing on a daily basis. And they are right, for the most part. There are procedures and policies in place so everybody gets along and the sequence works itself out. That said, it’s something we don’t do regularly in our operation and due to the faster speed we fly and the heavier load we carry, what may be a simple procedure in a light jet or prop traveling at slower speeds, can become a busy, high work load approach in a heavier, faster aircraft.

Pitt Greenville has 3 runways, but only one long enough for us to use. It stretches roughly north-south and has a precision instrument approach to the northern end. We won’t need it tonight as visibility is only restricted by the curve of the earth and the strength of the human eye. Climbing east out of Charlotte the Piedmont plain stretches out before us towards the Atlantic coast; darkened land with the million and one scattered lights of modern civilization. Overhead, faded slightly by the light pollution, thousands of stars swing around the black sky.

20 miles from the airport and dropping earthward, I start to put together a mental traffic picture. We’ve been monitoring the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) for the last 50 miles but this frequency is used by about 10 different airports scattered around the area so there is a huge amount of chatter on it. From the sound of things, there is a small single engine airplane arriving from the north, planning on flying past the airport and then landing on the southern runway, there is a MedFlight helicopter inbound from the east (as are we) heading to the Hospital two miles to the south of the airport, and there is a light twin waiting to the depart the northern runway to the south.

15 miles away, we have the airport beacon is sight and Washington Center clears us for an approach and reminds us to cancel our flight plan once we are on the ground. Both the FO and I switch our radio frequency selector switches to COM 2 where CTAF is set up. While I start slowing down the airplane he makes a position report and advises anybody listening that we’ll be there in 5 minutes. On the traffic display, we can clearly see 3 targets. One is sitting directly on the field at ground level one is a mile to the west of the field at 1000 feet above the ground and one is just to the south at 500 feet.

By 5 miles out the small single engine aircraft and the helicopter have both dropped off the traffic display and reported successful landings over CTAF. The twin engine plane starts its takeoff roll as I turn downwind, its blinking strobe light visible out my side window. I quickly realize we are going to have a problem. We are paralleling each other, heading south. At some point I need to make a left hand U turn back towards the airport to land while at the same time he will be climbing out directly off our wing and eventually turning west, directly towards us.

I continue on the downwind wondering if maybe we should break out to the right and come back to try again while the lights of the climbing twin off our left hold even with our wing. On the traffic display their altitude readout increases until they are level with us. I start descending calling for the flaps and gear as they continue climbing above us, their plane rolling into a shallow turn to the west as they pass over the top.

With the conflicting traffic out of the way I switch my focus to the rapidly approach runway. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that despite the issue with the other airplanes in the area we are about 3 miles from the end of the runway at 1000 feet above the ground, fully configured. Ahead and to the left, visible in the floodlighting of the Med Center Complex, I can see the rotors still spinning on the just landed MedFlight helicopter. Directly off our nose the runway lights slide rapidly towards us. We don’t belong here in this kind of aircraft, but it always seems to work out just fine so we keep coming back.

A Wind in the Darkness

We clear the runway at the end and as the First Officer flips off the landing lights and brings up the flaps I stow the reversers. Ground clears us to parking and guiding by our dim taxi light I follow the undulating taxiway centerline southbound. Off our left wing a departure roars off into the darkened sky at full power, its nose and wings rocking back and forth in the wind and as I press the brakes to slow us, I realize my legs are shaking.

15 minutes ago…

There is a scattered layer of clouds at 5000 feet which we drop through 15 miles out. Ahead of us the Potomac River stretches north backed by the lights of the Washington skyline. The Washington Monument, with its red blinking beacon anchors the center while the Capitol’s glowing white dome holds down the eastern end. Closer in the lights of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge span the dark river flowing beneath it.

Between the Bridge and the Monument the runway lighting of Washington National Airport shine brightly.
Approach asks if we have the River in sight and then clears us for the visual approach and tells us to contact Tower. The bumps start as soon as the First Officer switches frequencies. I move the heading bug a few degrees to the left and the autopilot dutifully follows it. As the wings roll level we lurch and drop quickly. As the airspeed jumps up I pull the power back but just as quickly we start to climb again and I have to add power. The surface of the river is visible now and despite being only dimly illuminated by the shore lighting I can see whitecaps being wiped across the water’s surface.

The FO finally is able to cut into the steady stream of instructions the Tower Controller is issuing and announce our presence. Tower responds that the winds are out of the Northwest 29 knots with gusts reaching 43 knots. He then clears to land on Runway 33, which requires a circling maneuver but is more closely aligned with the wind. I grunt an acknowledgment to the FO and then go back to trying to keep the airplane steady. By now I’ve given up on the autopilot and am hand flying trying to keep a slow descent rate while keeping the airspeed steady. The best I can manage is 30 knot range as we bounce up and down over the River.

At 1500 feet above the ground I call for the landing gear with the hope that it will steady the aircraft some. There isn’t much improvement with all three gears struts hanging out into the blustery sky and the flaps at thirty degrees. We go feet dry over Boiling Air Force Base on the east bank of the River. I’m trying to get the speed back some so we can put out the last of the flaps but the airplane (and wind) has other plans. We take a large hit and the airspeed quickly increases by 25 knots causing the overspeed clacker to go off. I ignore it and pull the power back some but I don’t want to completely unspool the engines uncase the speed drops off just as quickly. Before the thrust levers even move we get a hi-low tone and a verbal “Wind shear! Wind shear!” aural alert.

The wind shear labels that pop up on the main displays are yellow which means the shear is positive and it is an advisory message only so we can continue. Over the annoying chirp of the overpeed clacker I tell the FO to call my airspeed and that we are continuing. Seconds later the speed drops back down and the clacker shuts off followed immediately be the windshear message clearing from the primary flight display. I call for the last of the flaps and for the FO to bug the approach speed. I quickly glance to the right to make sure he’s still in the game and despite his eyes being the size of dinner plates, he seems ok.

Even with the flaps in place the ride is still very rough and as I roll out onto final the airspeed is still all over the place. Ahead of us, on the runway, an American MD80 powers up to take off. As we pass through 500 feet I can see their lights start to move forward and verbalize to the FO that the spacing should be ok. He agrees and goes back to calling out the airspeed variations.

At 200 feet off the ground I see the MD80 rotate skyward in front of us. At 150 feet I sense the airplane starting to sink. I start adding power but have a pretty good idea what is coming next. At 100 feet we are still dropping and the airspeed is falling rapidly despite the fact that I’m increasing the thrust. We get another hi-low tone followed by a red wind shear message on the PFDs. I push the thrust levers all the way forward, tap the go round button located on top of them and as I feel the engines surge behind us pitch the nose upward into the command bars. I vaguely hear the airplane call of 50 feet and then feel us slowly, very slowly, start to climb.

The FO calls the go around to tower who tells us to turn left immediately to a due west heading. Normally during a windshear event you want to keep the plane heading straight ahead, but the wingtip lights of the just departed MD80 are rapidly growing larger in the front windshield so I roll left as claw skyward. By 400 feet the windshear message goes away and our airspeed starts increasing. I call for the flaps to 8 and the gear up. As the drag decreases the airspeed and altitude increase. I call for the autopilot back on and then the rest of the flaps up. Tower hands us back to departure who turns us southbound to get back in the arrival stream. Out our right window, the American MD80’s lights disappear into the distance.

Level at 3000 feet the FO and I discuss the situation. We have enough fuel to try the approach again and still be able to head to our alternate where the winds are less intense. I tell him that I think we just had bad luck with the timing as everybody in front of us got in just fine and the plane following us made it as well. He agrees and as we head south parallel to the Potomac I make a quick cabin PA. The passengers (mostly) reassured, I rebrief the approach and call for the flaps back to 20 degrees as the controller slows us to 170 knots to fit into a gap in the traffic on final.

We join the final again just outside the bridge and again, tower clears us to land on Runway 33 where the winds are now only gusting to 39 knots. This time I configure earlier with the hope of getting stabilized farther out. Again, passing through 1500 feet we get a 20 knot increase in airspeed and a yellow windshear caution message. We continue onward. I roll final at 1000 feet this time and focus on the approaching runway lighting while the FO calls off my airspeed.

At 500 feet we are holding steady with 10 knot variations but still in moderate turbulence. 100 feet isn’t much better but by 50 feet it’s smoothed out a bit. The plane seems to hover as we cross the runway threshold and then settles lightly to the pavement. I pull the power quickly, push forward on the yoke to keep the nose wheel on the ground and wait for the aircraft to slow which it quickly does.

. . .

Parked at the gate, we wait for a bus to arrive to take out passengers to the terminal. Wind swirls through the open doorway and buffets the airplane. I take a deep breath and let it out. As another plane roars off into the night sky I realize I am very happy to be on the ground now. That’s not going to last for long though as we’ve got one more leg to do this evening and just as soon as these passengers are off the plane, another bus with new passengers will be pulling up. I smile to myself and think, they have no idea what they are in for.

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.

DC Nights

It’s the tail end of my fifth leg of the day and the same sun I watched rise over the Florida/Georgia border 10 hours ago is now setting somewhere behind us as we start to descend across the darkening Maryland landscape. The FO, my second of the day, is on the radio with Washington Operations to double check that they are aware that we don’t have an APU and will need ground power and an air start cart once we get there. I’m giving him 50-50 odds of getting the message through. The last rays of the sun drop off behind the wing and I dim out the cockpit lighting slightly. 15 more minutes (and a deadhead back to Dayton) and I am done for the day.

Air traffic control clears us to descend via the arrival and I quickly verify that the correct altitudes are loaded into the flight management computer. They appear to be and high tech meets low tech as I manually match the altitudes and the altitude bug on the autopilot to the next altitude on the computer display. Then I coax the autopilot to descend at the rate the flight computer suggests to meet the next altitude restriction (which I manually have set). New aircraft are able to do all of this automatically at the touch of a single button but we are stuck with what we’ve got. I remind myself I should be thankful that we have an autopilot and a working air conditioning system.

The fixes slide by as we descend over the top of Washington Dulles and past the solid stream of red and white lights traveling along the Beltway. Level at 8000 feet, approach vectors us off the arrival to join the final over the Potomac River. The Sun’s rays are now completely blocked by the darkened horizon behind us. Despite the lack of light the River is easy to pick out, a ribbon of darkness, sliding between brightly lit banks of humanity. I dump the autopilot as we switch over to the tower controller. Off the right wing the mostly empty parking lot of CIA Headquarters passes by.

20 degrees of flaps are hanging off the back of the wing as the Chain Bridge jumps out of the trees and across the Potomac at a narrow spot. We are down to 1800 feet now and getting to the start of the tricky part of the approach. I call for the landing gear and 30 degrees of flaps and as they click into place I slow to 160 knots. Off the left side, the Georgetown Reservoir reflects the building lighting surrounding its eastern edge. Just beyond it, Georgetown University is ablaze in light and as I dip the left wing down to start the turn at Rosslyn I got a momentary glimpse of green sports fields lit by bright stadium lighting.

The Washington Mall with the floodlit Monument anchoring its center comes into view as I roll back to the right, following the course of the river. Just off our right wing, and mere feet below us, the top stories of the Rosslyn apartments slide by, full of people just home from work, starting in on their evening routines of dinner, TV, internet or who knows what. The last of the flaps slide into the now dark sky and I slow back to our approach speed as the Lincoln Memorial disappears underneath the left wing.

The runway is in sight now, with a plane just starting to roll and another one ready to go as soon as we touch down and clear. At 500 feet I start rolling farther to the right to align with the runway. Unseen, directly below our outstretched landing gear, traffic rolls by on the 14th Street Bridge. The plane in front of us rotates skyward and the runway is ours. I pull the power back at 50 feet and we settle to the pavement below. I start braking almost as soon as the nose gear touches down and follow immediately after with full reverse thrust. DC likes you to get off the runway quickly, which we do. As we turn and start taxiing towards the gate the lights of inbound arrivals are visible as they stack up over the River.

Altitude

Both engines have been at flight idle for the last 50 miles as we gracefully swan dive down from 28,000 feet towards our destination for the evening. On my dimmed out multifunction display the runway is depicted by a thin line of white pixles on a black screen. Out the window the view is hardly that simple and as we drop out of the sky, the FO and I scan the confusing jumble of ground lighting for the runway or at least the airport beacon.

Passing through 11,000 feet the FO finds the beacon and vectors my gaze towards it. (“See the highway lights running away from us? Ok, now see the big mall parking lot looking thing midway down the highway? Yeah? Just past that there is a road to the left. Follow that to the east and then just south of the road at about ten thirty or eleven o’clock is the beacon.”) I somehow manage to follow his directions and realize I’ve been looking for the airport too far away from us when it is in fact much closer. In the darkness I’ve miss judged the mental picture I was transferring from the digital display to the real world out the window and now we are way too high and too fast to make a pretty approach.

My mind starts prioritizing altitude, airspace and position verses thrust and what drag I’ve got available to me for use, namely the flaps, landing gear and spoilers. Realizing that right now slow is probably better than fast I deploy the flight spoilers and am rewarded with both a reassuring rumbling noise and an even more reassuring decreasing airspeed trend. As soon as we are slow enough I call for flaps and gear and then pitch the nose downward towards the darkened Florida landscape below.

Things still aren’t looking good and the happy approach equation every pilot likes to see (where I am equals where I should be) isn’t balancing out right now. We are 6 miles from the runway. If I was where 2000 feet lower I would simply make a 90 degree turn to the left and join the final to the runway. Instead I’ve got about 40 knots of airspeed and 2000 feet of altitude to lose first, a nearly impossible feat in the amount of time and space I’ve got between me in the runway. I quickly come up with plan B and brief the FO that instead of making a 90 degree left hand turn I’m going to make a 270 degree right hand turn which should give me the time and space I need to get slowed and descend to the correct altitude. The FO passes this along to the tower controller who approves and then goes back to doing whatever he was doing before we interrupted him.

Passing through the final approach course with the runway lights clearly visible off our left wing I realize that I actually don’t need a 270 degree turn and the simple act of going through the final and then turning back towards it will give me the space needed to get down and slow down. I brief plan C as I make a lazy left turn back towards the runway and call for the last of the flaps. The tower controller again approves our plan. The runway lights center in the windshield and I roll the wings level.

At 1000 feet the speed is stable and we are on altitude. At 500 feet a puff of white blows by the left side of the airplane as a late flying bird of some sort passes by. I make a mental note to have the FO double check that side of the plane for bird strike damage during his walk around and then focus on the rapidly approaching runway. We pass over the perimeter road and the white strobe lights that make up the rabbit. At 50 feet I pull out the last of the power and the plane settles gently (well, that’s the story I’m telling anyway) to the ground.

Fifteen minutes later we are shut down at the gate with our passengers heading to the terminal. I’m outside on the ramp doing the walk around while the FO takes care of something else. With the plane shut down and drawing electrical power from the jetway the ramp is silent save for the quiet rumble of the engine on the belt loader parked next to the aft luggage bin. Coming around the back side of the left engine I shine my flashlight up on the vertical stabilizer towering 29 feet above my head. High above the tail, out of the reach of the flashlight’s weak beam, yet clearly visible against the night sky, flocks of white birds swirl and spin in the darkness.

Golfing

I’m in a somewhat familiar position, sitting in the left seat, with my FO to my right, my left hand lightly gripping the wheel while we navigate our way across the Charlotte Express ramp with our bags stowed somewhere behind us. However, the wind blasting my face and the fact that I am using my foot on a gas pedal to make us go faster is a pretty good indication things aren’t as they normally are. A stray pushback tug looms out of the darkness ahead, illuminated by our one weak headlight and the full moon that is filtering through the broken cloud layer above. I turn the wheel to the left and our speeding golf cart loops around the tug. That’s right. Golf cart. I glance over at my FO and shake my head and wonder briefly how we ended up driving around the deserted Charlotte ramp at 2 in the morning in a golf cart.


4 hours ago

The Charlotte Airport is a zoo. I try to find a quiet spot behind the gate podium and stay out of the way. The last bank of the night is getting ready to leave and people are everywhere. I’m starting a modified high speed which is basically a trip where you fly out the last flight of the night and then fly the first flight back in the morning, ended up with somewhere between 2 and 6 hours of time at a hotel in between. The downside is you get very little (if any) sleep during the trip. The upside is that you don’t start your day until after 9 at night are done with your day by 7 or so in the morning. Despite the beating your body takes while flying them, high speeds are popular among a lot of crews and tend to go pretty senior in a bid.

My high speed is actually made up of three legs instead of two. I start the trip with a deadhead up to Akron where there is a plane that needs to be shuttled back down to Charlotte. Once in Charlotte I will go into the “rest” period of my high speed before heading back to the airport at 6:30 in the morning to deadhead back to Dayton and be done for the day. Of course I don’t really plan on going back to Dayton but rather head home on the first flight west in the morning. That’s the plan anyway.

The crew for the flight to Akron finally shows up and after they get the plane ready we start to board. 20 minutes later we are taxiing out to join the line for takeoff. 10 minutes after that the wheels are up and my eyes close as the plane picks up speed heading northward.


2 hours ago

I’m sitting in the left seat of the plane that brought us up to Akron while my FO organizes our bags in the galley. Outside two mechanics have the plane hooked up to a tug and are pushing us back across a rain streaked ramp towards the hangar where our plane is waiting. I’m “brake riding” for the mechanics which sounds way more glamorous than it really is. We are secured to the tug which is more than capable of stopping the plane’s momentum when they get to the hangar, however, just to be safe and just in case the tow bar gets disconnected somebody has to keep their feet on the aircraft’s brake pedals. Through the rain I see the lead mechanic make a kill it gesture and after warning the FO it’s about to get dark I reach up and flip off the auxiliary power unit which is providing power to the aircraft. The lights fade and then turn to darkness as the generator spins down. I flip the last several switches by feel and as the plane goes cold the tug rolls us back into the hangar, joining the three other airplanes already in for the night.

Once secured there the FO pops the door and we drag our bags back out into the rain to the plane we will be taking back to Charlotte. The thoughtful mechanics have powered it up for us and the cabin lighting looks inviting through the midnight rain drops. Once on board I start checking the systems and setting up for the flight south while the FO plunges back into the rain to do a walk around. By the time he’s back on board after pulling the chalks I give the ok to shut the door and we settle down to setting up the flight. It ends up being my leg and after running a few checklists I brief the departure and spin up both engines. A remarkably upbeat for the hour ground controller clears us to taxi and I pop the brake and start towards the runway.

Halfway there we are cleared for takeoff and we run the final checklist just short of the runway. Everything completed, I roll onto the runway, push up the power and start splitting my attention between the increasing airspeed indications and the rapidly blurring runway which is passing by through the rain splattered windshield. The correct speed comes and goes and I rotate the nose skyward into heavily laden rain clouds. The tower controller clears us to 15000 feet and tells us to turn to the south towards Parkersburg, West Virginia and then hands us off to Cleveland Center.

In the clouds the ride gets bumpy but with no passengers in the back I’m not overly concerned and roll to the right to turn south. The radar isn’t painting anything so I let the speed build up in the climb. At 8000 feet we pop out of the top of the clouds into an arctic looking landscape. The moon is full and directly overhead, illuminating the cloud tops like an ice field. Out to the distance in the east a few thunderheads rear up over the landscape, sullenly flickering in the moonlight. Our route to the south looks clear and through 10,000 feet I pitch the nose over and let the speed build up to 310 knots. It’s 1 in the morning and there is another airplane within 100 miles of us.


30 Minutes ago

Charlotte is reporting a broken clouds layer at 5000 feet good visibility so we set up for a visual approach as we descend back towards the dark earth. Dropping through the clouds we find ourselves at 4000 feet with nothing visible below us. So much for the weather report I think. While my FO lets the approach controller know that we will need vectors to an instrument approach I pull the approach plate out of my book and start resetting data for an instrument arrival. Approach Control spins us around to the localizer and I dump the autopilot to increase the rate of the turn. Things work out just fine and we end up riding down a radio beam in the sky towards a runway somewhere in the darkness ahead of us. The clouds break up at 2000 feet and the runway appears where it is supposed to be.

With no passengers or bags on board we are very light and I misjudge my flare and end up thumping down on the runway. Only the FO and my pride are there to judge it so I don’t worry too much. We clear downfield and taxi in towards parking. Ramp Control has long since gone home for the night so I call up Company on the radio and ask where they want me to park the plane. After a bit of discussion they tell us to put it in remote parking which is fine with me as that way we don’t need somebody to wand us in like we would if we were parking at a gate. At this hour of the night finding somebody to do that could take a while as all of the rampers are long gone for the night.

I roll to a stop on the deserted ramp and shut down. While my FO starts to put stuff away I jump out and find some chalks lying nearby to secure the wheels. That accomplished I shut down the plane and start bring my bag down the stairs. While waiting on the FO to finish his walk around a pickup truck pulls up with an operations supervisor. She says she’d offer us a ride back to the terminal but only has one seat in her truck. While she’s explaining this another ops person pulls up in a golf cart and she immediately offers us the golf cart and says she’ll catch a ride in the truck after cleaning the plane. I look across the ramp to the terminal and then think about the long walk through the terminal and immediately take her up on the offer. My FO and I throw our bags in the back of the cart and after reminding myself how to drive a golf cart (I worked at a driving range years ago) we take off across the ramp.

Now

The ramp is silent other than the quiet rumble of our little golf cart motor. I drive around the end of the express terminal and turn towards gate E1, the closest gate to the main terminal and our eventual exit from the airport. We pass underneath tails of darkened airplanes and around rows of empty baggage carts. The lighted jetways pass by in the darkness, looming like something out of Star Wars. I pull in next to gate E1 and turn off the cart. Our single headlight fades away while somewhere above the clouds a full moon continues to shine down.