Tag Archives: winter

King Winter

The latest weather report pops up on the small screen of the FMS head and I grumble to myself. Across the cockpit my FO is starting out the window at the undercast layer, trying to match the cities on his map display with the splotches of light shining through the clouds 20,000 feet below us. I glance out to the north west and quickly pick out the lights of Newark, New Jersey, which are all but dwarfed by the massive glow generated by New York City, just across the invisible waters of the Hudson River. Off to the east is nothing but black sky and ocean, punctuated by points of light which, depending on the speed of their motion are either stars, airplanes or boats.
I force my attention back to the weather report. Hartford hadn’t been forecast to by anything worse than 4 miles and 1000 foot ceilings. As I copy down the latest report of 2 miles, a 400 foot overcast and freezing drizzle, I’m reminded of a joke about meteorologists I heard the day before. I briefly think of trying to explain it to the FO, who know has his nose pressed up against the glass watching the arrival stream into JFK pass by us, but decide to let him enjoy the moment. He’s new and everything, including the possibility of shooting an approach to minimums on a slick runway is exciting. I try to remember that feeling and as I discover I can’t, realize I’ve been doing this for a while now.
Boston Center descends us to 11,000 feet as we cross over the Long Island Sound and go feet dry somewhere just west of New Haven, Connecticut. The coastline is visible as a bright blur of lights below the cloud layer, formed by traffic and buildings on the Interstate 95 corridor, leading towards the bright glow of New York to our west. As the bright coastline passes back beneath our wings I brief the approach, highlighting the possibilities of slick runways and reduced visibilities as well as the probably somewhat convoluted taxi instructions we’ll get once clearing the runway. The FO’s face lights up in anticipation.
A new weather report pops up just as the Boston Center controller hands us over to Bradley Approach. The good news is the visibility has held at 2 miles. The bad news is that the ceiling has dropped and the light freezing rain is now freezing rain. I take one more look at our fuel and satisfied with the number move on to double checking the minimums and radio frequencies for the procedure. The Approach Controller gives us a heading to fly and clears us down to 2500 feet. I slow to 250 knots, turn on the wing and engine anti ice and start down into the clouds.
It’s a smooth ride for the most part. At 4000 feet the airplane says we are picking up ice. I show the FO the attachment bolt in the windshield wiper that general collects ice first and sure enough there is a thin crust of milky white rime ice coating it. He tries to take a picture of it with his phone but in the darkness is unable to. I flip on the wing inspection lights and crank around in my seat to check the winglets and wing. The wings, warmed by the engine bleed air piped to their leading edge are clear, however the winglets are pretty well coated. He manages a picture of that. We keep descending.
At 2500 feet we are 10 miles out and the controller clears us for the approach. Frozen raindrops are visible in the landing lights now and the sound of them pinging off the windshield and metal skin above it can be clearly heard over the engines. I slow to 200 knots and call for flaps. Approach hands us over to tower who clears us to land and informs us that the runway has been treated with liquid deicer. The FO is now all but bouncing in his seat in excitement.
I call for the rest of the flaps and gear as we pass the final approach fix. The ice buildup on the wipers has diminished a bit and while the frozen rain is still blasting the fuselage, it doesn’t seem to be sticking. At 500 feet there is nothing to see in front of us except the swirling mists and horizontal lines of rain but directly below, through the ragged bottom of the clouds, ground lighting is sliding by. I orient myself to the approach path and quickly place the interstate, a small shopping complex and a car dealership as they pass through the gaps in the gray fog. At 300 feet, 100 feet above the approach minimums, we pop out the bottom and the runway lights come into view.
Visibility is still at 2 miles when we touch down. After the main wheels spin up I very slowly lower the nose gear to the runway and then deploy the thrust reversers, staying off the brakes incase the runway is slick. At 80 knots I stow the reversers and gently step on the brakes. We quickly decelerate and tower tells us to exit to the right. The plane smoothly turns to the right and then, as we pass from the treated runway surface to the untreated taxiway we start to slide. The FO’s eyes get really big and he pauses the after landing checklist he has been running. I quickly come off the brakes and adjust the power until we track straight again. Crisis averted.
The taxi directions are more straightforward than I thought they’d be and as I momentarily stop the plane to give way to a procession of snowplows, sand trucks and deicers, I glance out the front windshield, skyward. Briefly illuminated by our red anticollision light and by the rotating airport beacon, thousands and thousands of drops of frozen water are cascading out of the sky. I mentally think through the upcoming deice process and special concerns and considerations about getting out of here. Winter is here. I think about mentioning to the FO that he’s going to have to go outside in this mess in a few minutes to do his walk around but realize that will probably just excite him more. Hmph. New guys.

Deice at the Speed of Light

The snow is now coming down in heavy curtains of white, just as it has been for the last few hours, and quite probably the last few days, weeks and months. This is Buffalo after all. I’ve spent the morning sitting in my hotel room catching up on some paperwork and watching the flakes drift by my window with the backdrop of parking lots and shopping malls behind them. I guess I should be happy that at least the heater in my room worked.

The van ride over slick, mostly plowed roads behind us, we’ve now readied the plane and loaded aboard 49 passengers for the long flight down to Charlotte. The paperwork is calling for 200 mile per hour of headwinds the whole way as well as moderate turbulence. The crew that brought the airplane in departed up the jetway with a sarcastic “have fun” as a goodbye. Lucky them. As the main cabin door closes and I settle into my seat I look out at the wintery landscape reflected in the terminal windows and realize it’s going to be a long afternoon.

The gate here is one where we start up and taxi out instead of the usual push back with a tug. It’s probably just as well as judging from the condition of the ramp I doubt a tug could get enough traction to move us. I get the ok signal from the ramper to spin the right engine and reach up to engage the starter. The FO dutifully hacks the clock to note the time. 80 feet behind us several bleed valves open and close to direct air from the APU into the air turbine starter. The core slowly starts to rotate, followed shortly thereafter by the outer fan.

With everything looking good I glance up at the overhead panel to double check the ignition is armed and then move the right thrust lever from shutoff to idle, introducing fuel into the spinning engine. In theory the fuel should be ignited by the starter, combust and exit out the back of the engine, spinning a turbine along the way which in turn powers the fan on the front of the engine which sucks in more air for a self sustaining process. Except there is no light off. Instead raw fuel is being vented out the back of our engine into the cold air behind the plane.

After several seconds of wondering what is going on I pull the thrust lever back to shutoff and turn off the ignition. I let the starter spin the engine for another 30 seconds to ensure all the fuel is vented out and then shut that off as well. I then look over at the FO and shrug. He shrugs back. Thankfully there is a checklist for this sort of thing because otherwise we probably would just sit here shrugging at each other for a while.

The checklist run, we try again using the other ignition system. This time the engine lights off with no problems. The second engine follows shortly thereafter and we are ready to taxi. Deice operations are done by a third party contract company so after getting a clearance from ground we taxi over to where the deice trucks are parked and give them a call. We are their only customer at the time so we are quickly swarmed by all three trucks.

As soon as we tell them we are configured they start spraying, one on each wing and one on the tail. Deice and anti ice normally takes between 15 and 25 minutes depending on the amount of contamination on the airframe and the skill of the deice crew. Today it take 4 minutes for them to spray Type 1 deice fluid and then coat the airplane in slimy Type 4 anti ice fluid. Neither the FO nor I can quite believe they are already done, but looking back I can clearly see a greenish tinge on the left wing. The FO reports the same on his side.

It takes use a few minutes to reconfigure the aircraft and then we start the long taxi to the end of the departure runway. The snow is still falling but visibility is good. The taxiways are not cleared and we rock back and forth through the ruts left by previous aircraft. It’s bumpy, but looking up at the leaden, snow filled sky I realize that it may be smoother bumping along down here than it’s going to be when we get up there in just a few minutes.

Winter Slush

The Washington National ramp is a mess. A midwinter storm dumped an inch or so of snow overnight and now it’s turned to slush and chunks of ice in the morning sun. Even with both engines running it takes a bit more thrust than normal to get the plane moving and once rolling it tends to slip back and forth as we plow through the mire. The marshaler gives us a sloppy salute and turns to splash away through the slop before I can even acknowledge it, something that has become all too typical as of late.

Ground control clears us to taxi out and I start navigating to the runway mostly by muscle memory and landmarks as the majority of the taxiway signs and pavement markings are covered with snow. Along the edge of the Mainline gates several salt trucks and giant vacuum style ice scrapers are driving around trying to clean up some of the mess. Unlike the gate area, the taxiways are the responsibility of the City and while they’ve done a nice job clearing and treating the runways, they haven’t gotten to the taxiways yet.

Another plane pulls out in front of us and I tap the brakes to give us a bit more space. The plane slides slightly to the left before the wheels catch on a bit of clear pavement and we slow. Continuing on I glance at the snowbanks built up at the edge of the taxiway from where the city plowed off the snow of previous storms. I don’t see any that are higher than a foot which means our wings will clear no problem, but I make a mental note to keep an eye out for them as they grow over the course of the rest of the winter.

Just short of the runway I have the FO put out the flaps. Normally we’d accomplish this earlier in the taxi, but with all the slush being kicked up by our wheels I’ve kept the flaps up to prevent damage or contamination. As the flaps are rolling off the back of the wing, Tower clears us for takeoff so we hurry through the rest of the taxi and before takeoff checklists. The FO finishes the last checklist as we roll onto the runway.

The wind is gusting out of the west and as we start to accelerate down the runway the plane starts to weathervane slightly into the wind. My feet are resting on the rudder pedals and I feel the left one drop slightly as the FO corrects. At 139 knots I call “rotate” and after a moment’s hesitation we head skyward. The snowy landscape recedes as we climb and turn to the northwest to follow the Potomac River.

As the left wing dips into the turn I have a good view of the Pentagon with Arlington National Cemetery stretching out behind it beneath its blanket of snow. On the Primary Flight Display the course line centers up and the wings roll level. As we accelerate I bring the flaps up and check in with the Departure Controller. Behind us, slowly melting in the sun, the slush covered taxiways and ramps fade into the distance.

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.

Florida Sun

To our east the greens and browns of the Florida landscape stretch off into the distance, terminating at the hazy blue horizon line. Or maybe it’s the sandy beaches of the Atlantic coast. From this distance it is hard to tell. More defined, the view to the west is of the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico laying beneath a scattered layer of puffy white clouds. 26,000 feet below us, an oil tanker works its way towards the entrance to Tampa Bay, kicking up a muddy wake that stretches back for miles across the blueish-green waters below.

Fifty miles back, the jetway we’ve just left in Sarasota is probably still basking in the pale Florida winter sun. The Charlotte we left to come down (and now are heading back to) was a frigid 30 degrees making the 55 degrees in Sarasota feel very pleasant. Despite our short turn time the Flight Attendants, my FO and I all managed to spend several minutes standing outside on the jetway steps enjoying the sunshine and relative warmth, laughing as we watched the rampers move around the airplane dressed in long pants and heavy winter coats.

And now the warmth is just a memory. As ATC clears us to a fix just to the east of Atlanta the latest Charlotte weather pops up on our flight computer. It’s warmed all the way up to 35 degrees now, which actually doesn’t sound bad when I compare it to the 20 degrees and snow we left behind in Dayton at 6am this morning. I let out a small sigh realizing that the “warmth” of Charlotte, like Sarasota, will be short lived as we will be heading back for Dayton almost as soon as we land and unload.

The plane wiggles its tail and turns inland on the new course. Out my window the waters of the Gulf fade into the distance and soon are just a memory to be rediscovered on my next trip down here. Until then I’ll just have to imagine that somewhere a warm jetway is sitting in the sun while nearby a tanker pushes its way through bright blue-green waters, its props kicking up a muddy path behind it.

Winter Comes To Virginia

We are headed north, climbing underneath a solid overcast. The southern Virginia landscape of hills and valleys is sliding smoothly by below us while the FO and I discuss the news of the day. Lately, the news has been the same. Service reductions, quality of life cuts, mergers and the threat of furlough and shut down, with the economy less than stellar, the industry is a mess. The trick of course is not getting distracted, as was highlighted by the unlucky Northwest crew who missed Minneapolis last week. Our focus shifts from the latest rumor to the task at hand as we climb into the cloud bases and the plane starts bouncing.

Somewhere ahead of us a King Air advices ATC that he is picking up moderate rime ice and needs another altitude right away. Center drops him down to 20,000 feet and asks the King Air driver to keep him advised. Ice can be serious business and there is no reason to mess around. We have a hot air heated wing and engine inlets as well as electrically heated windshield and probes and despite all that I still keep a close eye on ice buildup on the airframe. With that in mind I glance over at the total air temp gauge which displays the outside air temperature from a probe just below the FO’s side window: +4 degrees, prime icing conditions.

We climb another 1000 feet to 24,000 and the temperature drops to +1 degree. Within seconds a white crust of ice is starts to form on the nut that attaches the windshield wiper blade to the arm. It always starts there, just like static electricity, and then spreads to bigger surfaces as the icing increases. I look up at the overhead panel and see my FO is on the ball and has already turned on the wing and cowl anti ice switches. I go back to staring at the wipers as the ice buildup continues to grow and spread. The arm of the wiper blade now looks like somebody has spread a layer of frosting along it. Looking back I can see the last few feet of the wing and it looks silver and clear of ice. The winglets, which are unheated, are carry a thin load of ice now which means the tail which is also unheated probably has some ice buildup as well.

I’m still not overly concerned. If we need to we can easily descend back into clear, warmer air below us or climb a few thousand feet hirer. Although ice can form at any temperature between about +10 and -40 it normally is found only a small portion of that range, around zero degrees. Climbing will lower the temperature and hopefully get us out of the ice. I take a quick look at our flight computer and realize that we only have about 100 miles to go and climbing isn’t going to be too beneficial. Despite the almost inch of ice covering most of the wipers now the windshield is remaining clear and what I can see of the wings are clear as well. Our anti ice system is keeping up fine and as long as things don’t get worse we are ok to stay where we are.

Minutes later ATC descends us back down to 15,000 feet. Passing through 22,000 we exit the cloud bases and the temperature starts climbing again and the ice starts to shrink as it melts. As the integrity of the structure starts to break down, pieces fly off into the slip stream and zip by the window. By the time we get to 15,000 the ice is gone and the FO reaches up to turn off the anti ice switches. It’s good to know the system is working because it could be a long winter.

Rough Start

Location: 30 miles Northwest of Beckley, WV

Altitude: 31,000 feet and slowly climbing

Airspeed: 71% of the speed of sound

Temperature: -41 degrees Celsius

A 170 mile an hour west wind is blasting the left side of the airplane as we head north towards Detroit and our last stop of the day before we can head back to Charlotte and the end of the trip. To compensate for the wind the autopilot has pointed the nose of the airplane about 45 degrees to the left of our course, a number that has grown progressively larger over the last 5 minutes as the wind has increased. The good news for us is that we aren’t heading directly into it, and only about 30 miles an hour of that is pushing us backwards. The bad news is a combination of the wind and the high clouds are causing an incredibly rough ride.

15 minutes earlier and well south of the Beckley VOR we had leveled off at our planned final altitude of 30,000 feet but after getting slammed around for 10 minutes we had put our faith in a report of a mostly smooth ride from another airplane at 34,000 feet. We asked for 34,000 as well but the best ATC could do was give us 32,000. Now slowly clawing our way higher with a full load of passengers and both the wing and engine anti ice systems robbing the engines of thrust I was beginning to wonder if we’d make it to 32,000. The book said we could but a rapidly dropping airspeed indicator and a minuscule climb rate was making me wonder.

Finally, as we passed 31,400 feet the airplane decided it was ok with climbing and the airspeed started increasing again. Unfortunately the bumps did as well. After a particularly hard series of jolts I decided to make a quick PA, although verbally reassuring the passengers that we probably weren’t all about to die wasn’t help all that much with people who were suffering from motion sickness. Mission accomplished I went back to splitting my attention between the airspeed tape (which was now holding steady), the altimeter (which was creeping higher), the vertical speed indicator (which was bouncing all over the place in the bumps but holding a positive rate) and the weather radar which is all but useless at higher altitudes as it doesn’t paint frozen precipitation, which at -40 degrees is pretty much all there is.

The ride at 32,000 (once we finally got there) was a little bit better, but the next 30 minutes of flight time as we crossed over West Virginia and Ohio was mostly spent just holding on to something. ATC eventually started us back down again and as we passed between cloud layers the ride settled down. Once we descended below 26,000 the ride smoothed out completely, making me wonder if maybe we should have descended instead of climbed to find a better ride.

Now just 80 miles to the north Detroit was reporting light snow and 2 ½ miles of visibility with a 1000 foot ceiling. That wasn’t good news. The forecast had been for a mostly nice day and we hadn’t gotten an alternate were carrying just our minimum 45 minutes of emergency fuel. The situation got even worse when, as I was discussing options with the FO another weather report came out showing the visibility was now down to 1 ½ miles due to the snow which had picked up. A quick look at a map (I actually carry a Rand McNally road atlas to get a general sense of location) showed Cleveland or Akron were probably our best bets but with only 45 minutes of fuel, and even less if we actually shot the approach and had to go around, those would be long shots. If stuff got really bad I figured Flint or Grand Rapids would work, although we didn’t have approach plates for either place. I took a second to mentally kick myself for not requesting more fuel back in Charlotte but then moved on to dealing with what was rapidly turning into mess.

15 minutes out had us descending through 12,000 feet and breaking into clearer skies. A frozen over Lake Erie was visible below us, and in the snowy hazy to the north we could just make out the lake shore. Cleveland Center passed us off to Detroit approach who turned us towards the airport. Now down at 5000 feet the snow covered ground was clearly visible below us but there was a low layer of clouds to the northwest with snow squalls visible on the leading edge of them. Approach turned us on to the ILS and dropped us down to 3000 feet. As the needles centered up I could just make out the end of the runway 10 miles away, right at the edge of the cloud line.

Approach handed us off to tower who cleared us to land. At about 1500 feet the runway momentarily disappeared behind a cloud but seconds later we broke through and it came back into sight. I mentally thought through a landing on a partially snow covered runway (get it down, don’t worry about softness, get the reversers out and be gentle with the brakes) as the computer called out 500 feet. By 200 feet I could see enough detail to realize the runway was mostly clear although there was snow blowing over the surface. At 100 feet the power started coming out and by 40 feet it was gone. A last second correction for a gust of wind and we were down, on the centerline.

Rolling clear and on to the taxiway several thousand feet later I took a second to let out a long breath. We were down and the bumps and fuel worries were over. However, we were running over an hour late because of an earlier delay which meant we would be quick turning and heading right back into the bumps, the wind, and the ice and snow.

And the funny thing is I knew I was going to love every minute of it.

Winter’s Back

Yes, I’ve been remiss about updating this. I’ve been busy… doing nothing.

Yesterday I finished up a four day trip which served as an introduction back into winter operations. As was the trip turned out to be pretty easy, but with the weather system moving through it could have been a whole lot worse. All of our flying was confined to the southeast (with one quick trip up to DC and another to Lexington). While we did turns to mostly sunny North and South Carolina other crews fought through a early season Northeastern snow storm. At one point while sitting in the plane on the ramp in sunny Greenville, SC I got a phone call from a friend who was currently grounded in Scanton, PA due to 1/8th of an inch of slush on the runway and windblown snow.

Despite not having to deal with frozen precip (we didn’t even deice the whole trip) we did have pretty gusty winds near the surface and strong winds aloft for the majority of the trip. This manafest itself in bumpy rides down low and increased flight times as we fought against 150mph + headwinds. The worst was a flight from DCA down to Huntsville, AL that normally takes about 1:15 in the air. With the winds as they were it took us 1:54 from the time the wheels came up until my FO managed a nice landing on the 12,000 foot long alternate shuttle landing runway in Alabama.

This was also the first 4 day trip I’d flown in a while, and the shear length of it (I’m used to one and two day trips now) coupled with the early morning show times (6:15am, 4:50am, 6am and 6:15am) made for a long trip. Of course it didn’t help that I got home at 5pm on the last day and had to be back at the airport at 5am the next day to sit hot reserve.