Tag Archives: weather

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.

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…

Always The Last Leg

The rippling Pennsylvanian countryside is sliding by underneath us as we head westbound with the late morning sun shining brightly in my window. I can feel a spot on my arm where I missed putting sun block on earlier today starting to heat up despite the tinted shade I have cliped to the rail over the window. At this altitude there isn’t much in the air to dissipate the light energy being blasted out of the sun and staying out of its potentially deadly rays is a constant effort. I slide my seat back a few inches, out of the beam of light, and contemplate the blue sky ahead.

It’s the last leg of a three day trip and we are headed back to Dayton. The FO I was flying with got pulled off the trip in DC to go do something else and a new hire FO was deadheaded in to work the one leg back to base. He’s been on line for a little over three weeks and despite not being very talkative, he’s doing fine. It’s my leg and despite missing a few radio calls the first time around, and not being familiar with some of the navigation fix names he’s successfully gotten us (verbally anyway) out of the busy northeast corridor and heading west.

We pass over the Bellaire VOR, located just south of Pittsburg and the plane banks slightly to the right, move the bright patch of light slipping by the sun shade up my leg and back on to my arm. A quick adjustment to the sun shade fixes that problem and I go back to looking at the blue sky ahead. Except it’s not so blue any more as a line of dark gray clouds is now covering most of the western horizon. Punctuating the line are several thunderheads rearing upwards into the haze layer above us. I take a quick look at our fuel state, the forecasted weather on the release and again at the line of weather forming in front of us and don’t like what I see.

Dispatch has turned over a new leaf and has decided that as a cost saving measure they want us landing with the absolute minimum fuel needed. This means that when an alternate isn’t required because of weather, we land with about 45 minutes of gas. Of course, this is negotiable between the captain the dispatcher, but mostly, as long as the weather is nice I take what they give me and go from there. That of course was the case today. The forecasted weather was showing nothing but sun and light winds all day long so there was no reason for me to think we’d need more gas. The nasty squall line on the horizon is saying differently of course. I flip on my radar to verify that what I am seeing is going to in fact be a problem, and the string of red and purple blobs sitting on the airport says that it will be.

I ponder over the situation while the FO in the right seat plays with his radar. This is his first time using it and while I’d like to walk him through the basics, I’m occupied with trying to figure out what to do. We are still about 80 miles away from Dayton and from the radar it looks like the south end of the line is right at the field. I ask ATC for direct a fix to the south of the airport, hoping we can make an end run around the bottom of the weather and then come back up behind it. The request is denied due to military airspace in use. Scratch that plan.

We get slowed to follow an AirTran flight heading the same way as us. Once the speed is back, ATC has us descend to 12,000 feet. As we drop out of the high layer of clouds the plane we are following appears in front of us, a small black speck against a white and gray background. Several minutes later Indy Center hands us both off to Dayton approach and the AirTran flight checks in with a request for a right deviation to the North to try to get through a hole in the line. I wager that their radar is better than ours and they see something we don’t and tell the FO to request the same. We get the turn approved and I switch over to heading mode and put the line running out to the heading bug right over the traffic target representing the AirTran plane in front of us on the display.

As we get closer to the line it starts to firm up on the radar display and I see that there is indeed a hole to slip through. Were as our radar could only paint (what I hope is) an accurate picture 20 miles out, their radar was showing the same thing much farther away. For about the thousandth time I wish that our radar worked better. I make sure the FO understands what just happened and the limitations on the equipment he will be stuck with for the next few years. The pointy end of jet with 50 paying passengers behind you isn’t the time or place for flight instruction but I try never to waste a teaching moment. The line is just 10 miles away now and I can see a small swatch of blue sky peeking through the hole.

Our fuel is holding up and as long as there isn’t any weather on the field once we break through the line we should be ok. Several miles back I had the FO advice the Flight Attendant that it may get bumpy. She’s been here longer than I have so I’m not too worried about her ability to stand up during the bumps, but I tend to be conservative about turbulence. I shouldn’t have worried though as except for some quick light chop we get through the line with no problems.

It’s clear on the other side. The airport is visible 15 miles to the south. The FO lets the controller know we are clear of the weather. He tells us to proceed direct to the field and I spin the heading bug in that direction. I check the fuel numbers one more time and am happy with what I see. Off the left wing as we head towards the airport the back side of the weather slides slowly eastward leaving a blue sky day behind it.

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.

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.

Seasons Turn

It’s the first day of Fall, and for a change Mother Nature seems to have gotten the memo. The first leg culminated with an approach shot to just above minimums in the fog at New York and now we are dropping through sun drenched puffy white clouds over Ohio and into the wind blown landscape below. The weather report is advertising wind gusts approaching 50 miles per hour and scattered rain showers. As we pass through 5000 feet I can see dust blowing off the freshly plowed farmland below and as I somewhat belatedly reach up and arm the continuous ignition I realize it about to get really nasty.

A company aircraft five miles in front of us reports moderate turbulence starting at 3000 feet. Tower advises them that an earlier arrival, a large twin engine turbo prop, reported “severe” turbulence during the approach. In general severe is something that most people will thankfully never experience. Severe turbulence does damage to the airframe and often times results in injuries in the cabin. The worst an average passenger will ever deal with is moderate turbulence. Despite that, many pilots still report severe turbulence when they’ve gone through nothing worse than moderate. With that in mind I tell the FO we will continue on the approach and to keep an eye on my airspeed.

At 3000 feet the ride does in fact deteriorate. The plane in front of us, just visible as a white cross against the black runway ahead reports nothing worse than moderate bumps as they clear the runway to head to the gate. I call for the gear and last of the flaps and then kick off the autopilot. By 2500 feet the airspeed is fluctuating up and down by about 15 knots and I have to roll the wings back to level every few seconds. At 2000 feet things smooth out for a bit but as the plane calls out “1000” we take several hard jolts.

I notice my left hand is tightly gripping the yoke and I realize that it’s been a while since I’ve flown an approach in nasty winds. As much as thunderstorms can be a hassle during the summer months, we generally don’t shoot approaches when they are sitting right on the field so it’s rare we deal with the gusty winds they can kick up. Other than the summer boomers there isn’t a whole lot of wind during the warmer months so a pilot’s gusty approach skills can grow rusty over the summer. I force myself to relax my left hand and then flex the fingers on my right hand, poised just above the thrust levers.

At 500 feet the wind seems to finally pick a direction and I decrease my crab angle slightly, keeping the runway centerline on a fixed point of the windshield. The windsock to the left of the runway is fully extended but it is pointed almost directly at us meaning the wind is mostly down the runway. At 50 feet the airspeed is holding steady in the middle of the speedbug and I pull out the last of the power. We gently settle to the ground and the main wheels spin up 40 feet behind me. As the plane starts to decelerate I realize despite how challenging and fun a windy approach can be, I’m glad to be on the ground and done for the day.

Of course I don’t yet know that there is a voicemail waiting on my phone informing me I’ve got to head right back out and do a Philly turn. Sometimes, ignorance is temporary bliss.

Watersheds/Tiptoeing Past The Giants

Visibility is all but unlimited as we arc southward out of New York. In an unusual turn of events we are number one to go as we taxi out and after waiting momentarily for traffic landing on a crossing runway my FO manages a nice takeoff into the gusty winds kicking up off of Flushing Bay. Approach wastes no time in turning us west and we cross the top end of Manhattan at the confluence of the East and Hudson Rivers. After leveling off for a few seconds while traffic passes by we are quickly climbed up to 23,000 feet and turned south towards Charlotte and the end of my flying day.

The air temperature is warmer than normal and with a full load of 50 passengers in the back the plane is sluggish to climb. We finally reach 28,000 feet and settle in for the flight south. Below us, off to the left of the aircraft the Delaware River springs from almost nothing to a full blown river as it passes by Philadelphia, forming the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and later on as it empties into Delaware Bay the line between New Jersey and Delaware. As the plane rolls a few points to the right the setting sun reflects on the car ferry working its way across the Bay towards Cape May, New Jersey.

Ahead of us now, a line of bright gold across the darkening landscape the Susquehanna River runs from the Pennsylvanian hills and across the flatlands of Maryland before dumping into the top of the Chesapeake Bay. Much farther upstream we sometimes get a close of view of the river as it passes by the airport at Harrisburg, PA before curving around Three Mile Island on its eventual way to the Bay and then the Sea.
The Chesapeake spreads out below us catching the last of the sun’s setting rays as we follow the western shoreline passing over Baltimore and Annapolis before turning inland away from the Bay and towards the ridgelines just visible in the now hazy distance. Below us, Washington, DC clings to the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers surrounded by the solid ring of traffic fighting rush hour on the Beltway.

The millage continues to roll down and the haze in the distance turns into a solid line of weather which forms a series of red and brown splotches on the radar display. The last rays of the sun slip over the horizon as full moon appears on the opposite side. It slowly rises into the sky as we continue southward listening to the growing number of planes on the radio requesting deviations for the weather ahead. Within minutes we are in the line as well and get approval deviate as well. We slip around the edge of one cell that hasn’t quiet made up its mind if it’s going to go big or go home and then turn south again to avoid another one that is throwing off lightning in all directions.

Bouncing through a overcast layer as we descend towards the dark ground below an apologetic controller lets us know we will be holding ahead and that we are free to slow down if we want to. As the FO starts to slow the plane I immediately begin worrying about fuel and options. We have enough gas to wait out a bit of a delay but not as much as I’d like. So it goes these days. We enter the hold at 22,000 feet and are immediately cleared down to 18,000 feet. I hold off on telling the passengers anything yet as it seems we may get out sooner than expected anyway. Surrounding us in all quadrants are sleeping giants filling the sky with a blue glow of almost constant cloud to cloud lightning.

The route south to Charlotte, now just 70 miles away looks mostly clear on radar and indeed several airplanes stacked up below us in the hold are getting cleared to continue south to the airport. Before I even have time to get too worried about the fuel situation it is our turn to go and we reenter the waypoints towards the field as the autopilot dutifully follows the pretty pink line on the screen. Atlanta Center passes off to Charlotte Approach who clears us to join the localizer and head towards the runway. As we drop through 10,000 feet the City comes into view on the left, ablaze in light, backlit by a huge storm to the south which is raining down huge orange bolts of electricity. Just to the north of the final approach course which we are following is one more undecided cell. Every minute or so it flickers a light yellow color as it tries to generate some electricity. It is showing bright red on the radar display but as we slide by it at 2000 feet and descending it passes without a whisper of turbulence or lightning.

The runway comes up quickly from the sea of airport lights and we thump down on centerline. Clearing down field I flip off the radar as I happily note the lightning detection system is showing yellow lights meaning the ramp is still open. We just need a bit more luck and we’ll get our passengers off and on the way to where ever they are going from here.

Engines shut down, passenger door open, jetway attached, we are once more moored at the gate, unloading our cargo. Overhead the first drops of rain start falling from the sky, pinging off the fuselage and running to the ground. I place my headset and rubber duck (long story) in my bag, grab my rolling bag from the closet I the back and follow the last of the passengers up the jetway as the ramp lights start to form halos in the now steady rain.

Going Home (or not)

It’s 1:30am on day 6 and I’m still about 2000 miles from where I want to be. Below us, visible through a broken layer of clouds the dark, hilly countryside of rural Kentucky slides by, scattered splotches of light the only signs of civilization. Above us the night sky looks like somebody thrown handfuls of white glitter against it resulting in thousands and thousands of points of light. My FO dims his screen lighting so it’s just barely visible and presses his face to the side window, lost in thought. I match the brightness on my screens to his and then move my seat all the way back and stare at the lightshow out the window.

To the west, just visible on the distant horizon a lone thunder head works its way across the countryside spitting out bolts of lightning at the sleeping population below. I turn my focus back inside and adjust the radar to its maximum useful range of 160 miles. 130 miles out and well to the left of our route a red splotch appears on the screen as the radar dish in the nose sweeps back and forth across the cold, empty night sky. To be showing up that clearly this far away it’s got to be a big cell, which judging from the amount of electricity it’s throwing out it appears to be.

The rest of the scope is clear and I go back to watching the stars outside and the distance to go number on my multi function display slowly roll back towards zero. I’d expected to maybe still be in a plane at this time of night (or morning) but I’d been hoping I’d be in a seat in the back or maybe the jumpseat upfront heading west and home. Instead, due to a plane breaking down in Daytona Beach I got tapped for an extra round trip and then flying the last flight of the night back to Dayton. Within seconds I went from walking towards freedom to the reality that I wouldn’t get home until at least the next morning. Such is life on reserve at the bottom of the pile.

The “quick” turn I’d been assigned to Knoxville turned into a nightmare in its own right as the next 5 hours entailed waiting for a Flight Attendant, trying to cool a way to hot airplane, weaving our way through scattered storms, sitting out a 2 hour ground stop to get back to Charlotte, weaving through more scattered storms and then trying to find a gate in the pouring rain in Charlotte. It only got worse from there as I waited another 45 minutes for the inbound plane I was taking back to Dayton to arrive and then for another FO as the one assigned timed out while waiting. Finally, at 12:15am we had a plane, a full crew and 70 passengers.

Airborne finally, ATC wastes no time in turning us north. There is almost no traffic at this hour and before we even pass through 10,000 feet we are cleared direct to our destination. Despite a full load of passengers the engines have the cooler night time air on their side and get us up to our cruise altitude quickly. Once level with the power pulled back the engine noise is barely audible from the cockpit and the only sound is the slipstream washing by in the darkness. Above us millions of stars cover the night sky…

I pull my seat forward again and tune in the weather for Dayton. The next 5 hours or so have become a series of checkboxes in my mind. Get the weather. Land the plane. Walk to my car. Sleep in my car for 2 hours. Wake up (if I ever fall asleep). Go back inside the airport. Get on a plane to finally travel that 2000 miles to home. It’s not glamorous but at the end of the day it’s all worth it to get home.

Wheels Up

Driven by 16,000 pounds of thrust, the nose wheel comes off the ground quickly. I reach across with my right hand and shut off the windshield wipers which had been doing their best to keep the glass clear of the heavy rain that is falling in sheets all around us. Once airborn there isn’t all the much to see forward anyway so there is no reason to keep them on. In the right seat my FO swaps frequencies to departure control and checks in while adjusting the range on his radar display to get a sense of the ride ahead. Departure gives us a quick turn to the east and then direct to a fix down the road. As the course stabilized the radar display shows two large splotches of red and brown on either side of our route, but nothing where we are going.

Climbing through 12,000 feet we momentarily break into the clear. Sliding Between two layers of clouds I can just make out the cells we are passing between. I have my FO ask ATC for a few degrees left which they approve and I give the monster to our right a little more space just as we slip into the clouds again and visibility drops back to nothing. The radar still shows a clear path ahead so we are surprised to suddenly enter heavy rain and nasty turbulence that shakes the plane hard enough to spill the coffee my FO has been sipping. The rain increases in intensity, getting to the point where it is nearly impossible to hear the radios over the noise of it striking the airframe. Before I can even make a PA back to the cabin to get the flight attendant seated we are out of it and break into clear skies to the east of the weather.

Our arcing flight path heads up the eastern seaboard, crossing the North Carolina/Virginia border 30,000 feet over the town of Skippers, VA. We level off at 32,000 feet somewhere to the northeast of Richmond, VA before passing east of Washington, DC. A solid overcast has covered the countryside below since we left Charlotte but the clouds tapper off as we start a slow descent over the New Jersey landscape. Philadelphia appears out of the haze to the west just as the Washington Center Controller passes us off to a New York Center Controller who is located in a rather unremarkable building in Ronkonkoma on Long Island. I laugh to myself as I think for about the 100th time that it is a good thing they call it New York Center because there is no way I could ever pronounce Ronkonkoma correctly, especially at the end of a 12 hour day.

At Cliffwood, NJ we head out over the Lower Bay where New York Approach clears us down to 4000 feet and direct to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and up the Hudson River. Free to maneuver as needed now I switch from NAV to Heading mode and point the nose of the plane at the bridge. Once there I spin the heading bug to the north and we turn up the River. Below, the water is filled with inbound and outbound boat traffic that I can only assume is organized and controlled by somebody somewhere.

The Statue of Liberty passes by out my window and I turn a few points to the left to keep the nose of the plane centered between Manhattan and Hoboken on the left bank of the river. My FO is splitting his time between working the radio, watching out for traffic and admiring the view out his window as the City rolls by below. North of Central Park we are cleared down to 3000 feet and I have to adjust the heading again on account of the wind. We pass over the George Washington Bridge with it’s Little Red Lighthouse warning off ships below just as we are turned to the east to follow the American Eagle regional jet ahead of us.

Both my FO and I quickly pick him up visually, a white smudge against a blue sky, and are cleared for the approach behind the traffic. I dump the autopilot as we pass over the top of the Bronx Zoo. I vaguely remember visiting there when I was 5 or 6. I think they had big elephants. I quickly put that thought out of my mind as I call for flaps and gear and turn in towards LaGuardia’s Runway 22. As the plane rolls out on final I quickly point out the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges off to our left as they cross the top end of the Long Island Sound to my FO. It’s rare to have Air Traffic Control use either of the bridges as a navigation point, but it has happened and he had asked which one was which earlier in the flight.

The final flaps come out as we pass through 1000 feet. For a second there are three airplanes on the runway in front of us as the Eagle Jet we are following rolls out, departing traffic rotates off a crossing runway and a third plane crosses on it’s way to taking off. Then the runway is clear and for our use alone. At 500 feet we float by Rikers Island which according a US Today article I’d just read is once again suffering from overcrowding. By 200 feet I have a feeling it is a going to be a good landing. At 50 feet I slide the last of the power out and hold the nose where I want it. The left main wheels barely kiss the pavement and as I wait for the right side to settle the plane decides we are on the ground and throws up the spoilers on the wing. What lift we had left is immediately chocked off and we drop the last 6 inches out of the sky with a gently thunk.

As the reversers deploy and we begin to decelerate all I can do is shrug. I did my part today. The FO did his. The weather cooperated. ATC didn’t hold things up too much. The plane just decided it was done flying a half second before it should have. All in all I’ll consider it a good day.

The Lion And The Lamb

Life gets busy as we descend through 12,000 feet. I scramble to finish loading our landing speeds into the computer, check with the flight attendant to see if she needs anything, call operations to let them know we will be there soon, and keep an eye on my FO who is trying is best to get us down and keep the airspeed somewhat stable. We hit the top layer of clouds at 11,000 and I take a quick break from punching in data to turn on the wing and cowl anti ice switches. It’s early May, but Mother Nature never got the word about the whole April Lion/Lamb thing.

We’ve spend the afternoon bumping along over a solid overcast and taking off and landing in winds approach 40 miles per hour. This is our final leg of the night and in typical fashion it’s probably going to be the worst. Akron is reporting winds out of the west at 25 miles per hour with periodic gusts approach 35 miles per hour. That’s not a huge issue on its own, but their western runway is closed for construction meaning we will have to land to the north or south with a huge crosswind. I run some quick trig in my head (with the help of a cheat sheet published in our speed book) and realize with the current winds being reported, we will be legal by about 3 miles per hour of wind.

The plane issues a single chime as we drop through the clouds to advise us that it senses ice accumulating on the airframe. A quick look at the windshield wipers confirm this as the quickly crust over with milky white rime ice. I double check that the anti ice switches are on and hot engine bleed air is heading out to the wings, which it is. However, in order to descend and keep the speed back my FO has the thrust levers back at almost idle and we are in danger of not producing enough air to keep the wings hot so I tell him to put out the spoilers. The plane slows quickly, which allows him to increase the power, which in turn increases the hot airflow to the wing to keep the ice off. It’s an awkward process that one would think wouldn’t be necessary in a jet made in Canada.

We pop out of the clouds over a green rolling Ohio country side. The ride gets bumpy as we descend through 4000 feet. I’d already warned our Flight Attendant to get seated early and as the plane starts to pitch and roll I can hear her slamming her jumpseat into place behind us. The FO already has the continuous ignition armed for both engines so all we can do now is press onward. The approach control asks if we have the airport at about our 10 oclock and 10 miles away. I see it, double check the FO has it as well (which he does) and report that in fact we do see it. We are cleared for a visual approach and handed over to the tower controller.

My FO dumps the autopilot and turns towards the field. I’ve got the radar on but it’s not painting anything. About 5 miles on the other side of the airport it looks like somebody has dumped a piece of dry ice into a swimming pool and it takes me a few seconds to realize what I am looking at. Despite the radar’s negative returns there is evidently a heavy squall line to the west of the field that is dumping rain on the ground. The surface winds are blowing the rain along the front, creating the billowing steam like quality I’d first seen. I do some quick math and realize we should get to the field before it does.

As we drop through 1500 feet the gear comes out and the last of the flaps lock into place. Tower reports the winds at 20 knots with gusts approaching 30. We are still just within our legal limit. At 1000 feet he again calls the winds, this time at 15 knots. Hoping we are going to get lucky and land during a lull we continue onward. I consider asking for another wind check at 500 feet but decide ignorance is bliss and instead keep an eye on our airspeed which is holding steady. At 300 feet we take a couple of hard hits, probably from the surface wind rolling over a small hill next to the airport, but my FO managed to keep the wings level and we keep heading towards the wet runway ahead of us.

At 100 feet everything is looking good. 50 feet and we are flaring. The plane seems to almost hover and tries to slide sideway, pushed by the crosswind, but the FO kicks the rudder in a bit more and we keep moving straight and lightly settle onto the pavement. The reversers pop out as designed and we quickly slow to a safe speed. I take the controls back and clear the runway just as the first drops of rain from the rapidly advancing squall line start to fall.