Tag Archives: wind

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.

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.

All of the lights

(Yes, the title is a Kanye West song… No this post has nothing to do with said song)

The wind out of the east is much stronger than I anticipated. We are being blown towards the airport at an alarming rate of speed and despite me telling the FO to tell the Tower Controller that we have the field in sight (which we do) I still have no idea where the runway is and as I gauge my descent and turn solely on the on screen display in front of me, I realize I had better pick the runway out of the mess of ground lighting below very soon or we are going to be going around and trying again.

Baton Rouge Airport sits in the middle of a jumble of highways and refineries, all of which are brightly lit at night. Farther to the west, the city itself sits on the bank of the Mississippi, a compact bundle of medium sized skyscrapers, low rise buildings and more refineries. After the decent over the darkened Alabama and Louisiana countryside, with the soft coastal lighting glow of Mobile, Gulfport and then New Orleans sliding by the left wing, the bright, harsh sodium vapor lights that blanket Baton Rouge make me squint and blink rapidly as I try to find the oddly dimly lit runway somewhere off to our right and rapidly approaching.

Other than my pride I actually have a reason to not want to have to go around this evening. 45 minutes ago I was staring out at the darkness of Lake Pontchartrain passing by, reflecting the lights of the Big Easy on its southern shore, my face warmed by the heated glass of the side window. My contemplation was broken by the interphone dinging. It was our Flight Attendant calling to report that a passenger somehow managed to cut his head while in the lav and that there was “a lot of blood” but the situation was under control. I gave the FA a moment of grief for calling up 10 minutes ago and complaining that he was bored and then start getting details. It immediately became apparent that although serious we are not going to have to divert. As I formulated the next move, I watched the causeway across the Lake, a straight line of gold cutting through the darkness towards the lights to the south, pass by.

Baton Rouge is now 40 minutes away and the FA reports that the situation is stable in the cabin. I tell him that I’m going to have medics meet the plane as a precaution. After disconnecting the interphone call I run through our options. The easiest way to get the medics to meet us is to advise ATC of the situation, declare an emergency and let the wheels spin into place. This isn’t a bad choice and despite some captain’s reluctance to declare an emergency (“too much paperwork”) I’ve personally never hesitated to when I felt a situation warranted it. However with the thin lighted band Gulf Coast stretching off into the darkness and the undulating curves of the lit banks of the Mississippi River already visible in the distance, nothing ATC could do would expedite our arrival so I decide against declaring an emergency.

The most basic way of ensuring we will have medics on arrival is to request them from Baton Rouge Operations when we call in range over the radio. This will ensure they know what’s going on and cut down on miscommunication. The downside of this is that often times it can be hit or miss reaching them, especially late at night. Also, even if we can reach Ops, we will only be 15 minutes away from landing and while Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting can normally get anywhere on an airfield in 3 or 4 minutes, I don’t want to drop a problem into there lap with less warning than I have to.

I decide to use calling ops as a backup and write a quick ACARS text message to dispatch asking them to call Ops on a land line to give them more of a heads up than waiting for us to get into radio range. We get an almost instantaneous response from our dispatcher advising us she’ll try to reach them via phone. By now we are 80 miles out and descending out of 20,000 feet and we set up for the approach. The FO is new to the seat but was an FA prior to being hired to fly so while he has been here before, it was only while working in the back. I try to explain how hard it can be to find the airport but am cut short by Houston Center handing us over to Baton Rouge Approach.

On check in the controller informs us the the medics have been notified and will meet us at the gate. Apparently our dispatcher, unable to reach Ops over the phone, called ATC and got the ball rolling from that end, which is a good thing as we have been unsuccessful in reaching ops over the radio as well. Approach clears us down 3000 feet and turns us slightly to the left towards the finals. At 4000 feet I start slowing and trying to find the runway. The airport is easy to find but the runway is hidden somewhere in the middle of the darkened patch of land, an island in the middle of a sea of lights.

We are cleared for the approach and I start descending and turning 90 degrees to the right towards where the runway should be. At 2000 feet we are fully configured with the gear out and the flaps at 45 degrees and I’m still rolling to the right trying to acquired the runway. At 1500 feet the runway lights start to appear from the darkness and I focus on them while trying to block out the mass of light surrounding us. The wind is still strongly from the east and is blowing us westward across the final approach course for the runway. I’ve got the nose of the plane pointed well to the right to hold the path towards the runway light ahead and there is a strange sensation of sliding sideways as we drop towards the pavement below. The winds die off as we pass through 500 feet and the landing is thankfully soft. As we touch down I see a huge number of airplanes crowding the FBO ramp I somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that there is a big football game tomorrow.

I quickly suppress the thought and concentrate on keep the plane tracking the center of the runway as we roll out. We slow quickly and exit downfield. As we turn towards the gate I can see an ambulance, its red flashing lights reflecting off the terminal windows, parked with several people standing in front of it’s open back doors. On the other side is a equally as lit up police car. A ramper is already in position to marshal us in and I follow the wands to a stop. As the engines spool down I hear the main cabin door open behind us and the jetway alarm bell sounding as it starts to move towards the now still plane. To my left, in the approach jetway cab two medics stand behind the gate agent, adjusting their blue rubber gloves in the harsh florescent light. With the shutdown checklist complete, I reach behind me to unlock the cockpit door and start thinking about all the paperwork I’m going to have to do before I see my hotel room’s bed.

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.

A Wind in the Darkness

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

15 minutes ago…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

Saved

In the end, it will be the wind that saves us. Right now I don’t know that of course. In fact, I don’t even know that my approach will need saving as I’m too busy staring out the window at the winter wonderland mountain tops that are passing by below us. A major winter storm blew through the previous day, and while it is now wrecking havoc on the Northeast, it’s left behind a frozen masterpiece of ice encrusted trees and glittering white ridgelines.

The Charlotte to Knoxville route is flown as a ballistic arc, launching upward from Charlotte and then heading west across the slowly rising Piedmont. The crinkled ridgelines of the Smoky Mountains rise from the plains, still pointing skyward despite being worn down by thousands of years of winter snows and summer rains. On the western edge of the Range the terrain slopes quickly down into the flatlands of eastern Tennessee which drain into the river of the same name. The flight path starts downward towards Knoxville, just after passing the highest peaks of the Smokys leading to what is often times a quick approach due the nearness of the airport to the high hills to the east.

Today there is a layer of clouds on the western side of the hills, just below the tops of the peaks. Knoxville is reporting good weather below the ceiling with winds out of the north east. Over the last few minutes, between long glances out the window at the scenery sliding by below, I’ve managed to set up and brief the visual approach to Runway 5 Right. The FO is based here and he’s eager to get home after being on the road for four days. Today is my last day too, but I will have deadhead on two more flights before I see my apartment tonight.

Approach clears us down to 8000 feet as we pass the last of the high terrain. They then turn us to the south west on a long downwind leg. As we descend into the tops of the clouds, parallel to the ridgeline, I take one more look out my window at the snow capped mountains fading into the grayness and then double check that the plane is in fact tracking the way it is supposed to be and not drifting towards the hard granite to our left. Despite a strong wind from the northwest, we seem to be holding a course that will keep us clear. Apparently the approach control monitoring us on her radar screen thinks so too and clears us down to 6000 feet.

The clouds fade at about 6500 feet and we emerge into a gray tinted world. Off our left wing the snow covered fields rise up into forests of white which climb up the mountainsides into the clouds. To our right the Tennessee River Valley spreads out to the horizon. Approach Control turns us west, across the Valley. The airport appears just off the right side of the nose, 7 miles away. I suddenly realize that we are way too high and way too close to make this work. The controller doesn’t seem to see this problem and asks if we have the field in sight.

I hesitate momentarily and then pull the thrust levers all the way back and fully deploy the spoilers. The FO takes this as confirmation that I see the airport and lets the controller know who immediately clears us for a visual approach. The math loop in my head is in high gear now and I’m trying to work out descent rates and airspeeds and flap and gear points along with bank angles and roll rates. After running the numbers again my internal magic eight ball spits back an “all signs point to no” response.

I’m hand flying now with the flaps all the way out and the gear hanging down. We turn final, still 2000 feet higher than we should be. I start dedicating brainpower to “what if” scenarios. How far do I push this approach? If I decide to bail out on it and try again, what’s my procedure going to be? What’s the FO expecting me to do? I shift my focus back to the runway and am puzzled to see that it is about as far away as it was last time I looked. The FO directs my attention to the wind vector which has shifted from off our right side to directly off the nose. 3000 feet above the ground and we have 50 knots of wind holding us away from the runway.

The approach falls into place quickly. Our ground speed drops of as the wind slows our forward progression which gives us more time to descend. With more time to get down I can use less of a descent rate which in turn reduces our airspeed which translates to a slower groundspeed which gives us even more time. By 1000 feet we are where we should be on descent path, on speed and correctly configured. The wind dies off to just 5 knots as we pass through 500 feet. I take a quick look off to the east as the mountains disappearing into the fog and the turn my focus back to the rapidly approaching runway.

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.

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.

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.

Circling

The remnants of a New Year’s Eve full moon still hang brightly in the eastern sky, faded only slightly over the last two nights. Below, through a tattered layer of clouds the lights of Washington, DC stretch to the north. We are dropping though 6000 feet on the way down to 3000 and the air is smooth. Overhead the millions of stars I’ve been gazing at on our ride north from Charlotte start to fade as the ground lighting washes them out. Ahead, the Potomac River cuts a path of darkness across the face of the City. Nestled on the western edge of the river, 15 miles away and rapidly approaching are the runways of Washington National Airport and the end of our day.

We pass through the scattered layer of clouds at 5000 feet and within seconds the ride goes from smooth as glass to uncomfortably rough. As the plane rocks hard to the left and then drops to the right, I can hear our Flight Attendant slamming drawers shut in the galley behind us. My FO reaches up and arms the continuous ignition as we take a particularly large lurch to the left. The surface winds are reportedly gusting to 45 miles per hour and here at 4000 feet they are steady at 60mph. For the next 2 minutes I focus on sawing back and forth on the thrust levers to keep the airspeed somewhat stable. As we pass through 2000 feet and fly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, National Tower clears us to circle to and land on Runway 33. I let out a theatric sigh and mumble “why me?” My FO manages to laugh between the bumps as he goes to work on the Flight Management Computer to load in the new approach.

When the winds are out of the north the normal arrival to DC is to fly up the Potomac River and straight on to Runway 1. Sometimes if they are trying to pump out a lot of departures they will have smaller aircraft circle to Runway 33, which is much shorter and involves a low level turn to align with the runway. Landing 33 can be a fun challenge but if you aren’t ready for it, or don’t make the turn at the right time, it can get a little ugly and it’s not unusual, especially on a windy day, to see airplanes powering up midway through the turn and breaking off to try again.

There is no traffic departing Runway 1 but because of the very strong winds out of the West, tower has given us Runway 33 to be more aligned with the wind. It’s a considerate gesture and in the end will probably make for a better approach. Despite that, it’s causing me to rethink the whole approach and instead of flying a simple straight in final with the autopilot following the ILS to the runway, I’m going to have to hand fly a visual pattern across the Naval Base and then back across the Potomac to the runway, all while getting buffeted by 35 knots of wind.

I dump the autopilot while the FO finishes entering the approach into the FMC. After a few seconds the computer decides it likes things and generates a small white snowflake on my display to give me some vertical guidance. Because the approach won’t be flown in a straight line the FMC can’t help out and the lateral path is all on me. I decide I’ll take what help I can get and call for the last of the flaps as we pass through 1600 feet.

The runway is easy to see despite the darkness and I try to picture a curving path that begins from where we are and arcs downward towards the end of the runway. It’s easy to see in my mind, but with the gusting wind it’s going to be a whole different matter to fly it. My FO calls off 1000 feet and I start the final turn to align us with the runway. I briefly mention that if I don’t have the plane on the ground in the first 1500 feet of pavement we are going around and trying again. He agrees and then calls off 500 feet above the river. By now we are aligned with both the runway and the wind which means at least the plane is now going where the nose is pointed. At 200 feet I make a small pitch adjustment I decide I like how things are going. At 100 feet the power starts to come out.

The white aiming point blocks, painted 1000 feet down the runway appear frozen in the windshield meaning we are tracking straight towards them. The plane calls out 50 feet and I pull the thrust levers back to the stops. In the sudden quiet I can hear the wind buffeting by the windshield as the nose comes up in the flare. We float for a few seconds and then settle to the pavement. I’m on the brakes before I can get the thrust reversers deployed, but then realize our ground speed was very slow on landing because of the strong headwind and we’ll have no problem getting stopped. At 80 knots I stow the reversers and increase the brake pressure. The plane slows to a normal taxi speed just as the runway exit comes up on the left.

As we taxi towards our parking spot my FO turns off the landing lights, turning the pavement in front of us a deep black. Despite the decrease in lighting I can still see debris and trash flying through the air, clearly illuminated by the taxiway lighting. It’s a nasty night out there and I’m glad to be done.