The dense, gray fog is passing by the window, briefly illuminated by the blue tinted landing lights, before it passes back over the wing and disappears into the darkness. This is a slightly different than normal view for me as due to a scheduling mess up I’m tucked back in the window seat at row 6 instead of up front. In the last few minutes the chatter coming from the half filled passenger cabin has tapered off to almost silence as we’ve descend into the fog and those who for the whole flight had ignored the outside world now have their noses pressed up against the glass watching the swirling nothingness roll by.
I realize I shouldn’t even be here right now and if the day had gone as planned I’d be blasting through the same fog but 100 miles to the east and doing it sitting in my normal seat up front. Scheduling called me out earlier in the day to deadhead down to Charlotte to pick up an airplane to fly to Clarksburg, WV where we have heavy maintenance done. Once in Clarksburg we were to pick up another plane that had just come out maintenance and bring it back to Dayton. Sometime after my FO and I got on our deadhead to Charlotte somebody actually thought to call Clarksburg to check if the plane there was ready to go and discovered (regrettably to nobody’s surprise) it wasn’t.
Hence the reason for my phone ringing in the middle of a quick dinner in Charlotte to inform me that instead of heading to Clarksburg we would be getting back on a plane to Dayton. My FO joked that it was awfully nice of the company to fly us to Charlotte for dinner but he’d just as soon stayed at home on his couch. Unfortunately, those of us on reserve don’t really get that option. When the company says go, we go and often times have to pick up the pieces later on.
I manage to snag an empty row on the flight home and spend the time dozing until I heard the engines spooling down and feel the nose pitch over at the beginning of our descent into Dayton. I’ve flown this route more than a few times and as I look out the window, the patches of ground lighting that should be there aren’t. The sweep of the Ohio River isn’t off the right. The bright lights of Cincinnati aren’t ahead. Instead, a solid blanket of fog covers the ground. Barely visible through the fog are patches of white and gold light, shining through from the obscured surface.
The Captain makes a quick PA informing us that we are starting our descent into Dayton and that for now anyway, we have the visibility to land. If the visibility drops much more we will be forced to hold for a bit and then probably head down to Cincinnati, which, while fogged in as well, has better visibility. In the darkness I roll my eyes. The same thing happened to me the night before as I was commuting in to start my work week. We needed 1800 feet of visibility to land and Dayton was bouncing back and forth between 800 and 1200. After holding for 30 minutes we headed south and landed in Cincy, where they promptly canceled the flight and sent the crew to a hotel, leaving 50 passengers and one unhappy jumpseater (me) to try to get up to Dayton some other way. I ended up renting a car and driving home, arriving at 1 in the morning. Tonight I’m in better shape as I am actually on Company time meaning they’ll have to give me a room or figure out how to get me home if we do divert and cancel.
We continue our descent towards the ground as the lighted tops of radio antennas pass by, sticking up out of the fog like buoys in the sea. There is a gentle whirring noise and I watch as the slats roll off the front edge of the wing. Seconds later there is a slight pitch change as the flaps slide out the back of the wing. And then we drop into the clouds and the cabin goes quiet.
In the silence I glance around at the people sitting near me. The tension of putting their lives into the hands of two unknown people and a complex airframe is clearly visible on many faces. I remind myself that flying is not a normal thing for the vast majority of people. Even the million milers are out of their element and have to trust that everything will go alright. I have no safety concerns. I know both the Captain who I flew with as a First Officer and the First Officer whom I’ve flown with as a Captain. Both are skilled and smart pilots. They are Professionals. I know our maintenance is top notch and that the aircraft is designed for tough conditions. I know that the probability of anything going wrong is so small that it’s not even worth worry about, and further more I know that if something does go wrong there is nothing I can do about it so worrying is a waste of time. I smile to myself as I realize my biggest concern is that if we divert somewhere else I won’t get home tonight to eat the cookies I baked earlier in the day.
A glow starts to materialize out of the gloom around us. Because I can’t look forward from my passenger seat, I can’t see anything but I know that the guys up front are seeing the wonderful, welcoming sight of the runway approach lights forming out of the fog ahead and solidifying into the line of lead in lights and the runway end lighting. There is a pulsing quality to the light as we pass over the “rabbit”, the string of strobe lights that start at the end of the runway and stretch back into the darkness, bringing ships like ours in from the land of the lost. Suddenly the engine noise decreases and the nose comes up into the final flare attitude as the runway edge lighting coming into view out the side window.
The plane settles to the runway with a whisper and we begin to decelerate. Slowed to a safe taxi speed I watch as a runway exit emerges out of the fog and the plane turns to the right and into a world light by the blue glow of taxiway lighting.