Recently, after hurrying through preparing and getting our forty some odd, mostly business travelers on board for an eight AM weekday flight from our nation’s capital to Philadelphia, my First Officer called ground “ready to taxi”. Only DCA ground control didn’t want to play, instead telling us to stay put due to a ‘ground stop’ in Philadelphia.
Knowing that DCA ops (our airline ramp and gate operations) probably needed out gate for another flight, and in addition to the fact that both engines were ‘turning and burning’, we negotiated a taxi with ground control to proceed to the holding pad next to the nearby runway.
Once there, after getting confirmation of the ground stop and ‘expect further update’ time with our Dispatcher and DCA ‘Clearance Release’, we ‘shut ‘em down’ to save fuel, and I briefed the pax (passengers) and our Flight Attendant on our situation.
A ground stop is when ATC, due to weather (usually) at the destination, stops all departure flights headed toward that destination. The philosophy is that it’s better to wait on the ground than to waste fuel in a holding pattern burning fuel or divert to an airport other that your intended destination. The ‘expect update’ time meant that ATC didn’t have a takeoff time planned for us. They were basically winging it, and Mother Nature was in charge for now. Actually, an update time gives ATC time to deal with the situation and the traffic they already have, and means that ‘we will get back to you when we can’.
We had taxied out of the gate at 08:10 AM and the update time they gave us was 9:00 AM. A little after nine they gave us a takeoff time (EDCT) of 9:45 AM, then moved it up a few minutes later to 9:32. Things were looking better, but we still had to contend with a promised to be adventurous short flight from Washington, DC to the City of Brotherly ‘Love’.
Philly’s weather was horrible, due to an inflow of moisture from the Atlantic coast, drawn up into a low pressure are spinning near the Great Lakes, like a wagon wheel on a frontier trail slinging mud up and around itself. Strong, and very strong winds from the south meant that taking off and landing toward the east on the long, east-west runways might not be feasible.
As we were waiting for an update we checked the winds in Philadelphia: 19029G42, or something like that. Translated, that’s an almost direct crosswind from 190 degrees (south) at 29 knots, gusting to 42. In miles per hour, that’s 34 and 49 mph. Regardless, it’s more than our jet’s maximum crosswind component (27 knots) and close to or more than most airliners max crosswind components.
Continuing landings and takeoffs in these type of extreme winds depends on the pilots resolve, and judgment to accept it. Stopping operations requires one or more pilots to request a runway into the wind, to say ‘enough’ to ATC and refuse the approach or takeoff clearance with the crosswind. ATC might want to keep operating the same way because that’s what gives them the most operations per hour, and it’s likely they won’t change it until a pilot complains. At Philadelphia they have three runways aligned on an east-west direction, and only one runway aligned north-south, so you can imagine how the number of takeoffs and landing is reduced when ATC restricts operations to the single runway only.
My 56 year old, retired Marine Aviator veteran First Officer and I agreed that the cause of the ground stop was that Philly had indeed switched to a single runway operation on runway 17, and were trying to deal with the traffic that was already on the ground and in the air. We settled in for while, hoping the wind there wouldn’t get worse.
True to ATC’s word, we started our engines at 9:25 and blasted off the short runway in DC at 9:32 AM. Once airborne, we received a new weather report from Philly which showed a wind of ‘19037G54’, a gust equivalent to 62 mph! They were landing and taking off only on runway 17 (oriented at 170 degrees magnetic) as we had suspected.
An uncommon but discernable feeling came over me as we still flew in relatively smooth air to the northeast toward Philadelphia in and out of smooth gray clouds. I’m hesitant to use the ‘F’ word, but concern and some form of anxiety was settling in my pilot psyche. I was concerned about the unknown, of what we might encounter on approach and landing, and concerned that ATC might change their plans and force us to divert to our alternate airport. I was a little anxious about landing in a 43 mph wind, gusting to 62, and about the possibility of wind shear.
But a good pilot is able to manage their fears, along with managing the risk and making good aeronautical decisions. ‘Know yours and your airplanes capabilities and limitations, and don’t exceed them’ is a good one sentence capsule of advice. The airlines and the FAA will let you can get right up to the limits, with a hair trigger set and trained to ‘retreat’ if the conditions become unacceptable. Safety and efficiency are intended to both be maximized; and this is the way it’s done in the airline world. My office is not a boring one, especially on days like these.
We started preparing for the ‘Converging’ ILS approach to runway 17, with me as the flying pilot. ‘Converging’ meaning that your final approach path converges with the final approach path of another runway and airplane, usually with runway 17 our approach would converge with aircraft on approach for runway ‘Nine Right’ (9R). But since only ‘one-seven’ (17) was being used it wouldn’t be the case. There are higher minimum descent altitudes and an alternate missed approach procedure with the ‘converging ILS 17’ approach, however, which gets us out of the way of an airplane going missed from an approach to 9R. Clear as mud? It’s hard to explain in one paragraph, this map of PHL airport and of the converging ILS 17 approach might help.
Just as I finished briefing the approach, the constant moderate chop turbulence in the clouds started, and would seemingly not let up. Upon checking on with PHL approach control, they vectored us south, then east, then northwest again, all to get in a long line for the instrument approach to ‘one-seven’. Along the way we picked up the latest update on the wind conditions: 19028G42. It was still a very strong wind, but more doable than previously known. The visibility was still fairly good at 2 ½ miles, and the cloud ceiling was at 1,400 feet above the ground, above our minimums of about 700.
I called for the approach checklist and we were cleared for it by PHL approach. There was a lot of chatter on the frequency as we rapidly bounced down the final approach course and I made the callouts to my FO to configure our plane with flaps and landing gear down. It was like riding a giant gray washboard in the sky, with time seemingly slowed down; due to the high winds at altitude (60 knots) our groundspeed was only 100 instead of the usual 140.
PHL approach then changed our approach clearance for a normal ILS 17, not a converging ILS 17. At first we surmised that it was because the runway 9R wasn’t being used, then approach said the visibility had decreased on 17, which made sense. We quickly reviewed the differences in the approach and made the changes on our FMS and minimums we had set.
We started hearing other flights going around and saying they couldn’t continue the approach. ATC came out with a new ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) with a wind of 19027G34 KT, a visibility of ¾ sm with +RA and OVC14. Translated, this was wind 190 degrees at 27, gusts to 34 knots, visibility of ¾ statute mile in heavy rain, cloud base overcast at 1,400 feet above the ground. This wasn’t good, because our new clearance to fly a 'normal' ILS approach required a minimum visibility of 1 mile or ‘RVR 5000’. I had been feeling my heart pound with some adrenaline on this approach, these new developments made me feel it more.
We were still cleared for the approach, but with the new visibility (3/4 mile) it had gone below what our legal minimums to fly it were: 1 mile or ‘RVR 5000’. RVR (Runway Visual Range) is a horizontal visibility distance measured down the runway, and when it’s available it ‘controls’ whether we can ‘shoot’ and instrument approach or not. We had been switched by PHL approach to PHL tower, and they quickly reported the RVR to us as ‘4,500 touchdown, 4,400 rollout’. We continued the approach, my FO and I talked the minutia of the regulations over, and hoped things would improve. Why didn’t we tell ATC we couldn’t continue then and ‘go missed’ right then? One good regulation the FAA has which we observe and operate under is that we can fly an ILS approach up to the ‘final approach point’ (usually about 1,500 above ground and 5 miles from the runway) with the visibility below minimums. If the visibility hasn’t improved to the minimum required by that point, then we can’t continue the approach and have to go missed.
The tenths of miles and mere seconds to arrive at ‘HYILL’, the name of this final approach point, were rapidly counting down. My FO had been steadfastly trying to get a new, improved RVR report from the tower. Just as we were right on top of HYILL it came: ‘RVR 6,500, cleared to land’. We both breathed easier and prepared to land, at least with more certainty than before. The heavy rain and low visibility had been a temporary condition, to be expected with a wind of 27, gusts to 34. I had my FO configure our jet with the last two settings of flaps for landing and we spied the airport at about 3 miles out. The winds were very gusty and to control our airspeed I had to perform some ‘throttle jockeying’ that experience is the best teacher of. In spite of the gusts, we had a fairly nice landing right on the 1,000 foot markers of runway 17.
Taxiing in and parking at our gate we saw many airplanes of all sizes waiting for takeoff, lined up on both sides of 17, a 6,500 foot long runway. For Airbuses and Boeings this would normally be a ‘short’ runway, especially when there is normally a 9,500 foot runway to be used, but not today. Once shut down at the gate, we thanked each other each other for a job well done and considered our suspenseful ‘point of convergence’ on over HYILL.
Life isn’t always this exciting, but life also brings it’s own points of convergence, sometimes by our own actions, but many times by events and circumstances, or others involved in our lives: Marry this person or not? Change careers or not? Take that big step or not? Go out on a limb or not? Go and fight for your country or what you believe in or not? Believe and receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior or not? Make a deeper level of commitment to God or not?
Gleaned from this experience, I don’t have much scripture to quote or biblical advice this time, except a common one we’ve all heard from our parents: $h!7 or get off the pot. Do it or don’t do it, but if you don’t do it, do something else regardless, and move on. Life is better lived by not getting permanently stuck in an undesirable situation.
(BTW in regard to Jesus, if you’ve read my blog you know that I firmly believe he is worth taking a step of faith for. Making a commitment to Jesus can be daunting. Just remember he committed himself to us first: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8)
I was generally miserable in my former career life at a Mechanical Engineer/Designer, not because I didn’t like it, but because (1) I wasn’t very good at it (I give myself a C) and (2) I really wanted to fly for a living. With my wife’s blessing (what was she thinking? ;) I made a career change at about age 30 to full time Flight Instructor, then arrived up at my first regional airline about nine months later. I’ve looked back, but never gone back. The time spent away from my wife and family has made it a struggle to have an acceptable quality of life at times, but overall, I don’t regret it. My office is in the sky! I only imagine how I would regret not giving flying the full time shot that I have.
Thanks for reading my blog.