Tag Archives: rain

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.

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.

Pawns

I’m beginning to feel like a pawn on a chessboard. We are being moved around the rainy darkness of the White Plaines airport by the invisible hand of fate, and I don’t like it at all. I set the parking brake, take a breath and check our fuel again. We have 300 pounds more than our min take off fuel, and as we currently are facing backwards down the taxiway, our tail pointed towards the runway, I seriously doubt we will be taking off before that 300 pounds burns away.

The rain beats down on the cockpit glass, running in rivulets down the side and then being blow backwards by the wind which is now gusting to 30 miles per hour. Off to our left a Net Jets Gulfstream blasts off from the runway amidst a cloud of water kicked up by it’s engines. As it disappears into the low clouds I watch the wing tip nav lights dance in the turbulence and think that maybe we should just go back to the gate and forget about trying to get to Washington. It’s been one of those days.

. . .

I picked up the trip in Charlotte several hours ago and got to the plane as a very light rain fell. Charlotte was just ahead of a large line of weather that was stretching from Alabama up to the east coast to about Vermont. It was moving east a good rate, driven along by almost 150 miles per hour of wind aloft. On the surface the gusts were hitting 40 miles per hour. Our planned route to White Plaines would take us right along (and at some points into) the leading edge of the front. Obviously this wouldn’t work, but as dispatch didn’t seem to inclined to work with us on a new routing, and plenty of extra fuel in the tanks, I figured we could just pick our way farther east if needed to stay out of the weather.

With that plan in mind we took off into a windy sky, bumping our way up to 31,000 feet. We were able to work our way to the east a bit and stay out of the worst of the weather, although we were in moderate turbulence for a good part of the trip. Fortunately, because of the hefty tailwinds the normal almost 2 hour flight took less than 90 minutes. Despite that, it was a physically exhausting flight due to the constant bumps, trying to avoid the cells, dealing with a way overworked ATC who was trying to vector too many airplanes in not enough airspace and an approach to minimums in the fog and rain when we finally got there. Thankfully we were 30 minutes early arriving so we had a little bit of time to catch our breath before the next load of passengers arrived for our flight to DC.

While waiting I called Dispatch to discuss the weather on route again. Having just fought our way through it heading north, I really had no desire to do so again heading south, and this time down low. Our dispatcher told us that most of the weather was well east of Washington now and the only stuff we would face was on the climb out from White Plaines, heading west until we got behind the front and turned south. The radar map on my phone showed about the same thing and when the FO picked up the clearance from ATC there were no delays anticipated so I gave the go ahead for the gate agent to start boarding.

It started pouring as soon as the first person got on board, leaving our other 41 passengers standing in the rain outside, trying to cover their heads with a mixture of bags, coats and newspapers. Some gentle prodding from our flight attendant got the line moving along and soon everybody was out of the rain and on board. ATC told us to expect no delays so we started up and taxied out, only to be told that we had a 30 minute wait. And thus our game of chess moves began.

We first were moved up to and short of the runway, then crossed over to the other side and told to taxi straight ahead and then take a right. Then we were told to instead, keep going straight ahead and then take a right on another runway, then a right turn off that runway and then turn into a holding pad in the middle of nowhere, which is what we did. After 30 minutes of sitting and waiting and watching the rain come down we were moved up to and short of the runway and told to expect to go shortly. They then change their mind and told us that all the west bound departures have been stopped due to turbulence.
The tower controller asked if we could turn around and go back to the holding pad to wait so we weren’t blocking access to the runway. I grabbed the radio call before the FO could and told them that we could turn around and then asked him how long the hold on west departures would be, which of course, he didn’t know. Once turned around I asked him if we could just stop where we were for a minute and figure out our plan. He said he had nobody else coming along so that would be fine.

. . .

The rain is beating against the glass now that we are facing directly into the wind, and I idly flip the wipers on, even though we are stopped with the brake set. The glass momentarily clears and then fills again with the splatter of water droplets. We have two realistic options, and neither one is too appealing and both require returning to the gate for more fuel. We can go back load up a small amount of fuel and then sit out the hold on the departures, which could be 15 minutes or could be several hours. Or we could also go back, add a bunch of fuel and try to get what’s called a tower enroute clearance which would keep us down low at 8000 feet, out of the busy Center Controlled airspace, and hopefully out of the bumps. I tell the FO to stay on the radios incase the ground controller calls us, and pull off my headset to make a PA to the cabin.

I quickly lay out the facts (departures stopped, not enough gas to just sit and wait, even if we shut down both engines) and the options (go to the gate, load gas and sit it out or attempt getting a lower altitude), apologize for the inconvenience and remind them that the Flight Attendant doesn’t know anything about their connections and to not bother her by asking over and over again. The PA complete I pull out my phone to call dispatch and inquire about fuel loads for a lower altitude and what weather we may end up facing down low.

I’m still trying to explain the situation to the dispatcher when my FO starts talking on the radio and gives me a thumbs up sign while mouthing the words “good to go”. I tell our dispatcher never mind, hang up and put my headset back on in time to hear the controller ask how quickly we can get to the runway. We still have both engines running and the FO tells her that we can be there just as soon as she can get us there. That unleashes a torrent of taxi instructions which we quickly follow.

I make one more PA to the cabin informing them that the hold has been lifted and we’ll be in the air in a few minutes. After click off the PA I comment to the FO that moments ago I told the passengers that we couldn’t go because it was too bumpy and we didn’t have enough fuel. Now I’m telling them that it’s not bumpy, we have enough fuel and we are going. I’m sure I’ve just instilled a boatload of confidence into all of them. I quickly put it out of my mind, listen while the FO briefs his departure and with a takeoff clearance in hand, center the plane up on the runway.

The climb out it turbulent to say the least. We are in and out of the clouds and through heavy rain and moderate icing most of the way up. All of the New York Area departures are complaining and ATC is ignoring it, not that there is much they can do anyway. Finally at 24,000 feet we break out of the backside of the weather. The ride smoothes out and in the clear air above the overcast we can see the fading light of the sunset on the western horizon. To the east a mass of dark gray and black clouds are illuminated by intermittent flickers of lightning. To the south the route looks clear. I ease by seat back and rub my temples. It’s been a hell of a day so far.

Back in the saddle again…

(What’s this? An update? No way!!! Really… I’ll try to be better about it for the next few months anyway)

It’s my first day back in the plane in almost a month, and things aren’t going well. After two weeks of Union work and two weeks of vacation, I’m working my first early morning in several months and as if that isn’t enough, I’m dealing with a broken airplane and nasty line of weather. Somewhere below us the rugged ridgelines of the Smokey Mountains are lurking in the cloud bases. Both the FO and I have our radars turned on trying to avoid the worst of the weather, which means we’ve lost our real time visual depiction of where the peaks are. ATC is keeping us clear of them, but I hate relying on them to do that and would much rather be able to verify their vectors.

About 20 miles away Knoxville is reporting low overcast skies, rain and gusty winds. Between our present position and the runway is a mass of orange and yellow radar returns and, if the current conditions continue, a whole lot of turbulence. On top of that it is below freezing up here and we are picking up light ice on the airframe. It’s nothing that the anti ice system can’t keep up with, but it is rapidly turning what was a quick 35 minute flight in a much more involved ordeal.

Our real issues, and the ones we left the gate in Charlotte with, are that the charger for one of our two onboard batteries is acting up and the valve that directs air from the auxiliary power unit to the aircraft’s pneumatic system is jammed closed. Maintenance “fixed” the charger problem while we were on the gate, although apparently the part they replaced is either broken as well, or not the culprit to begin with. Every large bump we hit knocks it off line for a few seconds, flashing a caution message onto our displays.

Although this is annoying, and probably has long term ramifications, I am less concerned about this issue than the lack of APU bleed air. Because the engines can’t supply all of the pneumatic systems’ needs (engine thrust, cabin pressure and wing and cowl anti ice) something has to get dropped during high demand periods like takeoff and landing. Obviously we can’t do without engine thrust, and because of the icing conditions, we can’t turn the anti ice system off. That means the only thing we can turn off is our pressurization which leads to some mild ear discomfort. We don’t have to turn off the system until we are about to put the flaps out, so as we bump along through the clouds I carefully visualize our descent path and associated speeds so I can have some sense as to when we will have to slow and put out flaps, necessitating turning of the air conditioning packs, and causing the cabin altitude (currently at a comfortable 1000 feet) to start to raise to our actual altitude.

ATC turns us towards the finals, now 10 miles away and on the other side of a nasty looking radar return. I have the FO request 10 degrees to the right from Knoxville Approach so we can slip around the weather, which they quickly grant us. The ride is still pretty rough and heavy rain lashes the three layers of glass making up the windshield. It’s warm enough now that the ice has stopped forming and is melting off in the deluge we are flying through, but the anti ice system still has to be on because the temperature and moisture outside could produce airframe ice. Realizing we are going to have to slow down sooner rather than later I give the go ahead for the FO to shut off the pressurization system.

As the engine bleed air valves close I can feel the cabin pressure rising in my ears and in my nose. I try to yawn to equalize the pressure but only one ear clears. By now the cabin has climbed from 1000 feet to about 2000 feet. Clear of the patch of weather, although still flying through heavy rain, we turn back towards the finals and are cleared down to 2700 feet. We get there about the same time the cabin pressure does. From here on in the cabin pressure will change at about the same rate our altitude does, which means I need to be very gradual in any climbs or descents.

ATC turns us toward the field and clears us for the approach. I remind myself I haven’t actually landed the plane in about a month and with the gusty winds and low visibility on the surface, I need to just settle for getting it down and worry about nice landings another time. We join up on the ILS and start down into the murk below. The rain lightens in intensity, just about the time my other ear clears. They are reporting 500 foot ceilings and as advertised, the ground comes into view just at the plane calls off 500 feet.

The plane buffets in the wind and I flip the windshield wipers on to clear the rain streaking up the glass. The runway is clearly in sight now, stretching out over the grey, rain filled landscape ahead of us. I take one more glance across the overhead panel, noting the multiple push button switches normal dark, now illuminated because of the odd configuration we’ve put the plane in due to the maintenance issues. The left wing drops slightly and the autopilot violently corrects in the other direction. I tighten my left hand on the yoke and my right hand on the thrust levers and then disconnect the autopilot. I may not be as precise as the autopilot, but I can be much smoother in this sort of weather. The plane slews slightly until I adjust the pressure on the yoke so that it flies straight towards the rapidly approaching runway.

I take a quick breath; remind myself how to land, and then grin. This one might be kind of sporting…

Racing The Rain

The plane is gliding along at 11,000 feet and the radar picture isn’t looking good. We are still 50 miles east of the airport but the blotches of reds and yellows just to the south and west of the field displayed on the screen are well enough defined to get a sense that the next few minutes probably aren’t going to be fun. Between clouds layers the ride is smooth but as soon as we start to descend into the murk below us it is probably going to be somewhere between bumpy and exceedingly unpleasant.

The ATIS is advertising an approach from the west, but the giant red splotches covering the final from that way make me doubt the possibility of that. The FO, just back from an almost 3 year furlough, is flying. It’s day 4 and he’s more than held his own over the last three days. Even so, battling through what the radar is showing on final may be more than he can keep up with. After flipping the gain down slightly to declutter the radar picture and seeing no change in intensities of the returns I realize that it may be more than I can keep up with.

I check in with the Approach controller who tells us to fly our present heading and join the localizer for the western runway, completely the opposite direction from the advertised approach. I like this idea immediately as the scope shows nothing worse than rain between us and the airport and I waste no time in getting the new approach set up in the FMS. Meanwhile the FO does a nice job with a quick brief of the new procedure.

I’ve already advised the Flight Attendant that it was probably going to be nasty on the way in and to get the cabin secured early. Now that it it’s not looking so bad I briefly consider calling back again to update her but decide against it. Despite getting an approach from this side, we aren’t completely out of the woods yet. The visibility is reported very low at the field because of the rain and if we go missed we are going to have to make a pretty quick turn to the north to avoid the weather that is barreling down on the field from the west.

At 5000 feet we are back in the clouds and flying through steady rain. Some miles back I’d advised the FO to keep the speed up for as long as possible to get us the airport as far ahead of the weather as we could and he’s doing the best he can. At 10 miles I check in with Tower while the FO starts slowing and requests the first notch of flaps. As they click into place the Tower controller clears us to land and advises us the winds are light and variable; the preverbal calm before the storm.

5 miles and 1500 feet above the ground has us fully configured. The weather radar is displaying patches of green ahead of us and solid splotches of red and purple about 5 miles on the other side of the airport. Fortunately we are moving much faster than the weather and I let out a slight sigh of relief knowing we’ll beat the weather in. We break out of the clouds at 500 feet with the runway clearly visible despite the driving rain running up the windshield. I flip the wipers on to high and the view momentarily clears every half second as the blades slide past.

We touch down just us a huge lightning bolt rips across the western horizon. The rumble of thunder is audible even over the thrust reversers spooling up and the drum of rain on the cockpit glass. Tower tells us to taxi to the ramp with him as we slow and exit the runway. I briefly wonder if we’ll have to wait for the lightning to stop before the rampers will come out to park us, but they are there waiting, looking skyward with every large flash of lightning as we pull up to the gate. Four days after pushing back from this gate in the early morning darkness I set the brake and shut down the engines in the afternoon gloom, glad to be done.

Rain Storm

It’s almost Spring on the eastern edge of the Empire. The grass surrounding the cracked pavement of the taxiway is greening and the tree line that runs along the airport access road is showing some signs of life as well. Despite the strong winds out of the west that whistled around the aircraft and jetway when we were parked at the gate 20 minutes ago, the air felt warm. I flip through to the Environmental Control System status page on the display in front of me and notice that we are actually blowing cold air into the cabin to cool it down instead of hot air to warm it up.

The airport has no control tower which means we need to coordinate our release for takeoff with an off field controller. Due to the geographic position of the airport, Washington Center, who controls the airspace here, doesn’t have radio coverage down to the ground. 30 minutes ago, on the way in to land, we actually lost radio contact with them just as we passed over the top of the airport at 2300 feet. Now, parked by the side of the runway waiting to go, we are working through a Flight Watch briefer sitting in a room somewhere in Raleigh, talking on the phone to Washington to get our release. Apparently there is a breakdown in communications somewhere and the Briefer calls us back to let us know he is working on it but Center can’t clear the airspace right now and that he’ll wait about 10 minutes and try again.

There’s not much we can do about the wait and as I go back to watching the trees bend in the wind I notice the western sky, obscured since our arrived by low laying scud being driven eastward, is rapidly darkening. The FO flips on his radar display and a line of weather materializes on the screen. We are parked facing north so we can only see the northwestern edge of it, but it appears as a very well defined red and yellow line running from the top of the display down and off the left hand side. I dig my phone out and power it back up. A moment later I have the Weather Channel app running and it is showing a very narrow band of yellow and red, matching the display on the aircraft radar, rapidly approaching.

Our routing lies initially to the south west and then due west towards Charlotte. If we launch now we will be forced to climb out, running parallel to this line of weather. Also, depending on when we actually get released by ATC we may be taking off right as it hits the field which, looking at the strength of the line on radar, is not something I want to do. I call the flight briefer back and let him know we are going to sit this one out until the weather passes over. Meanwhile the FO shuts down the engines. I make a PA to the cabin letting them know the situation and then call Dispatch who, somewhat surprisingly, agrees with my assessment. The busy work complete, I push my seat all the way back and wait for the show to begin.

Winter Arrives

The wind is kicking up huge whitecaps on the Delaware River, visible just for a moment as we rotate skyward off the end of the runway. Within seconds we enter the clouds and the ground disappears in a fadeout of milky whitet. Heavy rain drums on the cockpit glass and on the roof overhead. When the tower controller tells us to contact Departure the radios buzz from the static that has built up on the airframe. The radar is showing splotches of green and yellow all around us, but thankfully very little red. And despite all of that, the ride is smooth. I relax my left hand on the yoke slightly and let out a small sigh.

Winter has come on December 1st in the form of a massive storm system that is moving up the east coast. Departing Nashville, just before sunrise, the air was mostly still but the clouds overhead were slipping quickly by. Heading east towards Washington, DC we were pushed along by almost 150 miles per hour of wind. With the ground hidden beneath a solid layer of clouds we watched our progress as it was depicted on the moving map display. Passing over Beckley, West Virginia a wall of clouds began to form on the eastern Horizon, blotting out the now risen Sun. Even with power pulled back and the engines just barely pushing us along, the clouds still moved closer at a rapid rate so that by the time that we’d begun our decent towards Washington, we’d run into the back side of the weather.

DC was reporting rain winds out of the south, gusting to 20 miles per hour when we started the approach. To land to the south at Washington National, when the weather is down, is one of the busier instrument approaches we fly, involving a number of quick (just 2 miles apart) step down fixes that come up very fast. Throw in the bumpy ride and the heavy rain and the fact that when you do get the bottom of the approach you still have to maneuver visually to find the runway (about a mile away and off to the left somewhere), it can be a somewhat stressful time. As advertised at 600 feet above the ground the clouds parted slightly and there ahead of us, around a curve in the Potomac River, was the runway.

I touched down on the wet pavement and using max reverse thrust and heavy braking got the airplane stopped in a hurry. Normally I don’t like throwing the passengers forward in their seats, but DC was trying to pump out a departure before the next arrival chasing us down the river landed. Once clear of the runway and parked at the gate our passengers got off and boarded a bus to the terminal. While we waited for out outbound passengers to arrive we watched aircraft break out of the clouds, come down the river and touchdown. To the northwest, where the planes were breaking out, the clouds started to get darker and darker while the wind and rain started to increase. Within about a minute the winds went from being out of the south to out of the north, causing a plane to go around due to the sudden tailwind.

With no passengers in sight, I had the flight attendant shut the main cabin door as the rain started to come down in sheets. Our door was facing north and if we didn’t get it shut, the plane would soon become a swimming pool. With the door shut, sealed off from the outside world, we watched the rain come down, blown almost horizontally by the wind. In the middle of this our bus of passengers showed up, but we elected to let the rain ease up a bit before boarding. After 10 minutes it let up slightly and a ramper arrived to load bags. We then popped the door and one at a time our passengers (all 15 of them) ran from the cover of the bus, up the aircraft stairs and into the plane.

15 minutes later we were taxiing out in the driving rain. After waiting for several arrivals we blasted off into the clouds for a very bumpy trip up to Philly. It was the FO’s leg and coming down the approach we got bounced around pretty good but broke out with plenty of time to find the runway and land were we swapped out 15 passengers for 20 new passengers waiting to head out to Dayton. With the wind reported to be topping 40 miles per hour out of the south, on taxi out we requested the north-south runway, which is not the normal departure runway. After warning us that it “may be a while” before we’d be able to take off from that runway they cleared us to taxi to it. A while turned into 30 minutes of watching airplanes break out of the clouds, lurch and bounce over the fence and slam into the runway amidst a driving rain. At one point a Southwest flight behind us asked tower how much longer until they’d be able to take off. Before tower could respond a voice from another plane (I’m assuming it was another Southwest flight that had just landed) said “I wouldn’t be in any rush to get back up there”.

Tower finally told us to get our engines started up again as we’d be released in a few minutes. While we spun them up and ran the appropriate checklists the wind started to shift from the south to the west and increase in speed. Two planes coming down final went around. By the time we were ready to go the wind was now straight out of the west at 45 miles per hour, well exceeding our crosswind limitation for the north south runway we were set to launch off of. Laughing at the irony of it all my FO told tower we’d be unable to depart and would have to taxi over to the other runway; the one we’d refused to use 30 minutes ago. Tower wasted no time in clearing us to taxi over there and somehow, when we got there we were number one to go.

The ride is still mostly smooth as we climb out. At 10,000 feet the grayness of the clouds begins to lighten and by 12,000 we are on top. There is nothing but blue sky ahead. I gently push the nose over and pick up airspeed. We’ve got almost 100 miles per hour of wind in our face and I’m going to use every bit of speed I can coax out of the plane to get us home. Several minutes later I rethink that slightly as the latest weather report from Dayton comes across the ACARS: 2 miles and blowing snow. I lean back in my seat letting the warmth of the sun wash across my face. We might as well get it over with I think and push the thrust levers forward some more.

Down On The Bayou

The rain is coming down in sheets now. I flick the windshield wiper switch on for one pass of the wipers and the outside world momentarily swims into view. The terminal building with water cascading off the roof to the ramp below, looms in front of us with the jetway, our umbilical cord to the rest of the world, stretching out from its side. My side window, covered and protected by the jetway’s loading bridge is relatively dry and clear and as the front windows blur again from the rain I glance sideways and watch the passengers pass by as the board the aircraft.

We are parked in the Cajun Country. The sign on the terminal even says so. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On the radar map I glanced at before leaving Charlotte two hours ago, the entire state was covered in the browns and yellows of heavy weather returns. We loaded up 30 passengers and enough fuel to get over here, take a look and then bail out to dryer climates if needed and blasted off to the southwest, fighting a 75 mile per hour headwind most of the way. The ride for the first hour was relatively smooth but as we started descending across Mississippi and into the out edges of the weather the chop started up.

Thirty minutes later we were dropping through 10,000 feet trying to avoid the red spots on the radar. By 4000 feet the ground was in sight through a transparent layer of low lying scud. Turning final in a heavy rain squall we passed over the top of a refinery which was belching a cloud of nasty looking gas into the air. With the runway in sight 5 miles away through the swirling clouds and mist I intentionally stayed high and skim the top of the gas venting from the smoke stacks. There was no reason to inhale that stuff if we didn’t have.
Clear of the smoke we dropped down towards the runway, passing over more petroleum storage tanks while the Mississippi River disappeared into the fog to our right. The runway was wet from the rain and as we touched down I could feel the wheels skid slightly. Max braking and thrust reverse quickly slowed us to a taxi speed in time to exit the runway midfield. Turning towards the gate on one of the narrowest taxiways I’ve ever seen in the jet the rain started to increase.

The rain is still coming down hard, driven diagonally by the wind. In the sky over the terminal building roof is a brief streak of light followed seconds later by a rumbling of thunder, audible even over the rain beating down on the cockpit roof. The passengers in the jetway don’t appear to have noticed, which is probably better anyway. People are already out of their element when being herded down the narrow confines of a jetway and into the even narrow confines of an airplane, especially a little one like ours. Add in bad weather and poor visibility and it can lead to overly nervous fliers.

While I make my generic welcome aboard announcement (which in my head sounds pretty much like “blah blah blah”) the FO brings up the latest radar snapshot on his phone. It takes forever to load but when it does, it shows most of the weather still to the south, well off shore. The streak of light in the sky we just saw appears to belong to a single thunder cell that is sitting to the north of the field, well out of our upcoming flight path home. I smile as the jetway starts to lurch backwards away from the plane and the rain starts blowing in the doorway. It’s going to be a bumpy ride out but there is sunny weather waiting for us somewhere downrange.

Dance Dance Revolution

We’re rolling back from the gate in Huntsville, Alabama. In the back, all 14 of our passengers are pretending to listen to the Flight Attendant’s safety demo. Overhead the first raindrops are starting to fall from a leaden sky. We are two thirds of the way done with a six leg day and as the daylight begins to fades I can feel the tiredness start to creep in. For the last hour the FO and I have been telling each other that once we get to Huntsville it’s just a short hop back to Charlotte and then a quick jump to Newport News and the end of the day.

Outside in the humid Alabama air our ramp crew looks like they are having a blast. I can see the tug driver shaking his head and smiling as he watches one of the other rampers do a theatrical jog to keep up with the airplane as we push back. Not satisfied with the jog he begins skipping next to the nose of the plane, his head bouncing up and down outside my window. The tug driver now starts laughing out loud and I get slightly concerned if he’ll be able to stop us smoothly or not. I have no need to worry though as he brings the airplane to a halt and between laughs tells me to set the parking break.

I give the ok to start the engines and while the crew outside disconnects the tow bar the FO spins up both engines and we run the associated checklists. As the tug pulls backwards from the plane towards the gates I check the travel on the rudder and flip on the hydraulics for the nose wheel steering. With everything working as it should I release the parking brake but before I can add power and turn out towards the runway I notice that two of the rampers are having a dance off as they head to the gate with the tug. Realizing we still have 15 minutes until our Air Traffic Control release time I reset the parking brake and we watch.

The skipping ramper starts things off with the classic Running Man. The other ramper quickly responds with a weak Lawn Mower. Even from 100 feet away, through the increasing rain I can see the first ramper shaking his head in mock disgust. Apparently he thinks the Lawn Mower is part of amateur hour. He then ups the ante by busting out the Sprinkler. The dance move challenged ramper gives it another try with the Mail Man straight into a duck walk but the other ramp just turns his back still shaking his head in disgust, although as he turns around I can see he’s actually laughing. My FO and I are also laughing hysterically at the show going on and I wonder for a second if our passengers in the back can hear us and are wondering what is going on.

They finish up the dance off with a combination of moves that carry names I have no idea what are. I think I spot some moon walking and a bit of the cabbage patch but I’m not really sure. My FO, who actually grew up during the disco days of the 1970s can’t place them either. As they finish up the contest, they solemnly bow to each other and I wish I had a horn on the plane. Instead I release the parking brake and rev the engines in appreciation while turning the aircraft tiller to the left. We start a slow taxi out towards the runway as the rain starts to come down in earnest.