Sunday, December 20, 2009


Yesterday started out nice in Milwaukee, and finished nice in Philadelphia, but in between it was murky, foggy, and tenuous with the scene of the world outside the windows, and eventually the question of where I would lay my head for the night.

Our scheduled day was Milwaukee (MKE) - Charlotte (CLT) – Harrisburg, PA (MDT) – CLT – Washington, DC (DCA). Most of it went according to plan. The first flight to Charlotte went well, except for light turbulence the second half, in ‘IMC’ (the clouds) over the Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains portion of the Appalachians, pointed toward Charlotte. Once over the CLT terminal area, most of the white skies gave way to an undercast layer far below us, guarding the ground with a blanket of Sunday Football watching nap weather, which I wished I had the opportunity to do instead of shepherding planes full of trusting holiday travelers.

In very light winds, I flew the garden variety ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach, but in ‘solid’ conditions. We didn’t spend much time in the thin layer before we broke out at about 350 feet above the runway, which was covered in moisture from a light drizzle. A temperature inversion (which is a layer of air which is warmer at a higher altitude than it is below) hugged the ground. The cooler temperature on the ground promised that the conditions were all set to get worse, and we trusted that it would.

It was my First Officer’s legs to be the PF (pilot flying) from Charlotte to Harrisburg and back, more infamously known as ‘Three Mile Island’, which the airport is very close to. He’s an Asian-American, was born and raised in Hawaii, and is a long way from home. Very easy to work with, he’s a good, knowledgeable pilot, and quiet and good natured. Harrisburg had a thin overcast too, and the air was so smooth during his approach that you wouldn’t have known it otherwise. I called the ‘approach lights in sight’ at about 500 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) and he landed nicely on the long, misty runway.

After a visit to McDonald’s, and not a healthy salad but a greasy third pound burger and fries (comfort food when missing my three wife and two girls back home), I was ready to jump through the murk back to Charlotte. We had a guest up front, a jumpseating Piedmont First Officer who was in his fourth year there, flying the Dash-8 Turboprop and based at Harrisburg. Piedmont is a proud carrier, a rare regional airline which hasn’t ‘lowered the bar’ and taken paycuts and concessions in exchange for Regional Jets. Good for them, I say, but on the other hand, I’d bet that it can be a heartache seeing all those RJ’s taxi by while you’re making a career commanding an out of fashion and out of favor turboprop. I’m not demeaning T-prop’s, just commiserating with their pilots, that’s all. I think the Dash-8 Q400 (which Piedmont doesn’t fly BTW) is a great plane, but for that many seats (74) a pilot should be paid a great hourly rate.

“US Express thirty-seven-fourty-nine, right turn heading one-eight-zero” Harrisburg departure told us as my FO climbed our jetliner out of the clouds into the night sky. As we turned, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant loomed seemingly just right below us. The enveloping mist around the tall, hourglass shaped cooling towers and other structures tried to hide it all from view, but the power plant’s bright white lights and ‘aviation red’ obstruction lights would have no part of that. It was a surreal moment surrounding a still amazing and controversial energy technology.

From here onward to Charlotte and part way back to DC, we would observe the earth’s new portrayal of itself, as a gray, white and orange, marbled, spider webbed and interconnected surface. Lights of civilization from the cities, towns, and highways below were illuminating through the thin layer of clouds and fog. For me, it was yet another reminder of how Jesus Christ gives light, true light, his true light, to us, and how he penetrates our hearts, through whatever fog and clouds are in our lives.

We chased some more green light on the way to Charlotte, and had good conversation with our Jumpseater. I made a mental note to see whether the green light in a fading dusk horizon from 20,000 feet is observable on terra firma, and yesterday, when driving home, I verified that it is not. You now have another reason to book a flight, in order to cross the sky and appreciate an exquisitely beautiful sunset and dusky sky.

For our second approach into Charlotte, we still had a thin overcast layer and temperature inversion, but the conditions had gotten significantly worse on the ground. Charlotte was reporting almost calm winds, ½ mile visibility with mist, and a thin cloud layer starting at 300 feet above the ground. The businesslike tone of the controllers and the pilots on the frequency reflected the seriousness of the atmosphere.

Upon checking on with Charlotte Approach, they told us that the runway ‘three-six right’ (36R) RVR was 2000. RVR stands for ‘Runway Visual Range’, and is a measured horizontal visibility that governs instrument approaches in poor visibility. Our airline’s minimum legal visibility permitted for an approach is 1,800 feet, so it was approaching our legal minimums for an instrument approach.

He had already briefed the ILS approach to 36R, so all that was left to do was to cross our t’s and dot our i’s regarding our procedures and such on the approach. Since I take the plane off the runway, I briefed that we would take the first exit we saw at a slow enough speed, or as the tower cleared us. It was likely they would want us clear of the first available taxiway. We both knew that the likelihood of going around was good, so we were mentally prepared for that, as we always are, but more so this time.

One of the components of the ILS is the approach lighting system. It is a sequenced line of lights on the ground, extended from the beginning of the runway up to a half a mile, and on some runways the runway itself has touchdown zone lighting, symmetrically on both sides of the runway centerline. ATC can turn these lights up very brightly, to make it easier to see the approach lights and runway through the low fog and mist. Only I forgot to brief my FO on how bright these lights would be, so bright that they take away all of your depth perception in the landing flare. Even with all our jet’s landing lights on, you can’t see the runway surface.

He did a fine job though. By the time he was flaring the plane for landing it was readily apparent that there was no depth perception. I didn’t want to distract him at that point, so I didn’t say anything. You would think this is a no brainer for airline pilot pros, but we see these conditions only about three times a year – twice in real life and once in the simulator. My FO has been at our airline for over three years, and he told me after we taxied in that it was the lowest visibility he’s actually landed in as the pilot flying.

Those conditions aren’t anything to fool around in. Unfortunately, later that night, after we departed Charlotte for Washington DC, another airline’s MD-80 had a landing mishap after continuing an approach in those foggy conditions when they perhaps should have gone around. The crew landed with one main landing gear on the edge of the runway. Then, in trying to steer the jet back onto the runway, one of it’s wingtips struck the ground. It is reported that these pilots reported trouble with their autopilot and disconnected it during the approach, electing to hand fly it the rest of the way to touchdown.

After a landing accident from an unstabilized approach that my own airline had a couple of years ago, (with no lives lost or injuries, thank God), my airline now has a policy of requiring the autopilot to fly the approach to the missed approach point when the visibility below 3 miles. Some of our pilots opine that they’re restricting our ‘freedom’, but I believe this policy is a good thing.

Taxiing out of Charlotte later, I had to take it very slowly; it was so foggy that ground control was relying on position reports from the aircraft. Seeing other jets on the ground itself was difficult. They tended to show up like silvery lit sets of lights, sliding by like ghosts among the colored Christmas tree lights of the taxiways and runways (I like colored lights on Christmas trees). ‘What is that jumbo jet Airbus doing?’ He turned toward us on the runway we were crossing as he was taxiing to the gate after landing. Suddenly he looked a lot bigger and we wondered if he saw us like we saw him. He was a normal narrow body Airbus after all, 320 series. The fog made planes seem bigger, and they sneak up on you quicker.

In a long line for takeoff, we enjoyed watching the airliners (which had lower legal landing minimums than our airline does) break out of the low overcast and land virtually immediately. The clouds were now reported as 100 feet above the ground and the visibility was variable between 1200-1400 RVR. We had asked our dispatcher for a takeoff alternate at the gate, he knew we would call and was planning it for us. Since we were limited to RVR 1800 when landing at Charlotte, if we had an engine failure or another emergency we wouldn’t be able to return to Charlotte. On our release I ‘pen and inked’ the ‘TOA’ and we were on our way.

The trend seemed to be that a blanket of fog was being thrown all across the south. DC’s forecast wasn’t that bad, relatively speaking. It was supposed to be “31005KT 2SM BR OVC003” (light winds from the northwest, two miles visibility, mist, overcast clouds 300 feet above the ground) by the time we arrived after a 50 minute flight. I was the pilot flying this leg, and by the time I finished my salad in cruise flight, Washington center gave us the standard clearance to “Descend to cross OJAAY at one-zero thousand, two-five-zero knots”. OJAAY is an ‘intersection’ on our route of flight into DC from the south, and ATC wanted us to cross it at 10,000 feet at 250 MPH.

My good FO had just brought up the weather report from DC. It was “19003KT 1/2SM FG OVC001”, with the visibility of ½ mile at our approach minimums. The RVR reports would tell the tale on whether we would get in, or even fly the approach. Soon Washington center gave a clearance to turn back behind where we were and enter ‘the published holding pattern’ at JIMBE intersection. We never made it to OJAAY. After my good FO programmed the holding pattern at JIMBE in our FMS (Flight Management System-computer) I said “execute”, punched the right buttons and twisted the right knobs, and our jet magically entered the holding pattern, flying the oval racetrack pattern depicted on our moving map display.

Meanwhile, the RVR reports from DC weren’t good. It was 800-1200, and the absolute minimum RVR at DC for any aircraft (due to limited ground equipment and approach lights etc.) is 1600. Under these conditions, no aircraft were getting into DC tonight. The weather forecast for DC had been in the neighborhood, but the ‘weather guessers’ had still basically blown it. A revised forecast we received via our ACARS box predicted that the thick fog would stick around DC for the night.

We had about 30-40 minutes of fuel to hold with, with four or five other forlorn airliners waiting for DC above and below us. As usual, there is lots to do when holding, waiting, wondering if you’ll divert to your alternate airport or another airport: update the passengers, the Flight Attendant, communicate with Dispatch, check and re-check the weather reports and forecasts at your respective airports, and look for meteors falling through the sky.

Uh, that last part is rare but true. We were lucky enough to be flying in a clear sky on the night of maximum meteor activity of the annual Geminids meteor shower. My FO had spotted a few more than me, but after I learned where to look I started catching up. It was the only consolation I could offer our passengers as we waited for our bingo fuel to arrive or for the fog to lift at DC.

Our bingo fuel, calculated by our Dispatcher, and verified by us, is the minimum fuel we could leave the holding pattern with, fly the approach at DC, go missed approach, and continue to our alternate and land with IFR reserves (45 minutes worth of fuel) at our alternate, which in this case was Philadelphia. PHL seemed like a long way for an alternate, my FO stated, and I tended to agree with him. We checked the weather at nearby Washington DC Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore (BWI). It was fine at BWI and marginal at IAD, but we might be able to get in there. We ‘emailed’ over our ACARS box to Dispatch our suggestion to divert to IAD instead of PHL, but they didn’t take the bait. He kept responding that “PHL is ready for you”. PHL did have better facilities for receiving a stray US Air Express flight, as it’s a hub for them. But I was visualizing unhappy passengers getting off the plane in PHL asking ‘why didn’t we land at Dulles or Baltimore?’. We crept down closer and closer to our bingo fuel with every meteor sighted.

After holding for about 40 minutes we reached our bingo fuel of 3,800 lbs, and set things in motion with ATC to divert to PHL. Away from blanketed ground beneath us we went toward the bare, fog free Virginia and Maryland peninsulas, towards unclouded Philadelphia and a 20 mile line of aircraft on final approach. That’s a long final approach, it seemed Philly was running a reduced ATC operation, using only one runway for landing. A normal flight from Charlotte to DC usually takes 1:25 total, with this diversion to Philly it took 3:08.

Yes, the people were not happy, especially when the gate agent announced on board that the flight had been cancelled. It was a weather cancellation, which meant that the airline wasn’t liable for providing a hotel for inconvenienced passengers. I know, I know, but I just fly the plane, I don’t make up the rules. Comments like “I’ll miss an important meeting because of this”, “did the Airbus flying from Charlotte to DC make it in?” (no), and of course “three airports in DC, what about going to Baltimore?” were faced by me with the best apologetic, empathetic smile I could muster.

At the hotel a while later, at 1 AM I tried to settle into my comfortable room, but my head was still buzzing with the experiences and sights we had this day. My heart had a flurry of activity too, feeling for our passengers so close, but yet so far from where they thought they would be. I was looking forward to going home, on an unknown early flight from Philly to Minneapolis or Chicago, then on the final leg to Sioux Falls. I was missing my wife and two girls dearly. I hadn’t seen my wife but for a couple hours the last time I had been home. She had traveled to be with her father in Omaha, in the hospital.

The internet didn’t work for my laptop in my room, so I would have to guess on the time and airline to jumpseat on. Murphy, as in Murphy’s law, was running the show. After four hours sleep I clawed my way to the airport and picked Northwest, even against my instincts telling me to go to United. My flight had a maintenance delay. Once at MSP, I learned that the flight I could’ve taken to Sioux Falls, if I had been on time, had cancelled. Passengers and jumpseating pilots from the cancelled flight spilled over in the departure lounge. Soon I missed the next two flights on regional jets, and finally caught the third one home, it had taken 12+ hours.

I was home for 22 hours, as I had only two days off and had an early show for next trip I had to commute back to DC for. But I had a great 22 hour layover at home. Sometimes this job, and life, goes this way. Sometimes you get Scrooged, by the weather and your commute. But God doesn’t say in the Bible that you won’t get scrooged. He does say that He will be there for you when it happens.

Thanks for reading my blog. ‘Happy Holidays’, and have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I hope to post again for Christmas, before the year is out.


AlexRayner said...
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Flying Kites Mom said...

Craig- I have just finished reading your post- without even leaving my desk I was shattered! Whatever you guys get paid it just isn't enough!!!! Maybe you should invite one of your bean counters on a few trips with you such as the one you've just described- make sure he sleeps only 4 hours and has all of 22 hours at home- can't leave out all the good bits....

What can one say but thank you to all of you who work so well to keep us safe, almost always on time and actually at the destination we desired. We pax should be so lucky!!

Merry Christmas to you and your family.