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.