Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Plan, New Year

Pilots are known for having 'new plans', "just in case", in the interest of safety.  The FAA and the airlines require it, and the philosophy of safe flying dictates it.  For example, an alternate airport for landing is required in certain forecast weather conditions (if the actual weather at the destination goes below approach minimums you might proceed to your alternate), and a specified fuel reserve at the destination is always required (if airborne delays occur or if fuel burn is higher than planned).  In case of engine failure enroute, a diversion airport is a subject frequently on the mind of pilots, especially single engine airplane pilots.  When we fly an instrument approach there is always a missed approach procedure associated with it which we plan on flying, if we don't have the runway in sight at the end of that approach.  Backup plans, and backup plans to the backup plans, are important to aviation safety.  And 'new plans' aren't just part of what's required, it's one ever present part of a professional (or professionally minded) pilot's thought processes.  Airline pilots even have 'new plans' for engine failure on takeoff roll and right at takeoff. 

In the midst of the Christmas season, full of promise and surprise, we got a surprise of our own, which required a new plan.  On a visual approach into Washington National airport, we were given some indications this was about to happen, and we were prepared, somewhat.  But in what transpired after that, we (at least I did) experienced for a moment a feeling of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.  The phrase "airline flying is hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror" comes to mind.  Actually I don't think they were referring to short haul, east coast USA flying, but the quote still fits somewhat.  

It was a week before Christmas, and we were finishing our four day trip.  After landing in DC we were scheduled to fly to Norfolk, Virginia, and back, then go home.  On the way in from Detroit, the first flight of our day, I was flying a "Mount Vernon visual approach" up the Potomac river to runway 01. Washington National airport had a clear runway (no snow or ice on it) but braking action reports (good-fair for most of the runway but poor at the end).  This was odd, but there had been snow and ice recently on the airport.  Lately the asphalt runway there seemed to have a sheen on it, I guess leftover from deice applications to the runway.  More so, Washington Regan National is built on landfill right next tot the Potomac river, so it can be surmised that moisture from the ground near the river easily is drawn out to the runway surface.

A picture of Washington Reagan National airport from southwest of the airport looking to the northeast.  The green areas north of the Potomac river and bridges are the National mall, where the national monuments and prohibited airspace area P-56 are.
We turned final up the river to the north, and I commanded flaps and gear down, and
slowed our plane down to approach speed, about 140 knots.  Approach control had had us at 160 knots until five miles out, where my good First Officer contacted the control tower.  DCA tower said to slow immediately to final approach speed (which we were already at), and had an Embraer E-170 jet "line up and wait" (the new phraseology for "taxi into position and hold").  

We were waiting for clearance to land now on runway 01, the long runway at DC aligned towards the north, beyond which is the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Washington Memorials, the National Mall, the White House, and the airspace designated as P-56 which encompassed them all.  It is simply the most important prohibited airspace in the nation, and we are to avoid penetrating it at all costs.  For a map of it, click on the "Mount Vernon visual approach" link above.  Our jet was about two and a half miles and one minute away from the runway, and my good FO and I had the same thoughts: we might be going around soon. 

Shortly after the jet in front of the E-170 took off and made the left turn up the Potomac river to the northwest to avoid the previously mentioned P-56 airspace, the control tower cleared the E-170 for takeoff.  We waited, the control tower waited, and then we waited some more.  The jet was stalling on the runway, not moving, I said out loud they probably had gotten deiced and were doing an engine clearing procedure before they released their brakes and started accelerating down the runway for takeoff.  We have a procedure for this as well, for our jet it takes twenty seconds at 'N1 60% engine RPM' before we can release brakes.  It is to clear out any residual deice fluid that might have made its way into the engines during the deicing process. 

Finally the black (really a dark navy blue colored fuselage) jet started moving.  It was going to be close.  We couldn't go any slower and the tower had not asked us to do s-turns to increase the spacing between this departing jet and ours, landing behind them on the same runway.  The autopilot was off, had been off, and I was concentrating on maintaining alignment with the runway, the proper glidepath on the glideslope, and our target airspeed.  What concentration I had left I was using to scan up the runway at the now fast accelerating jet in front of us.  From the beginning of this episode, I thought they would have enough clearance from us, many times when its close the jet in front of you breaks ground when you're 100-300 feet above the ground and you continue to a landing, but this time we heard the "100" callout from the radio altimeter, and I focused completely on landing the plane.

But this time I wouldn't have a chance.  Just at that moment the control tower commanded "Express 3784, go around".  The new plan was given.  My FO replied to the tower, "go-around, Express 3784.  As I pushed the GA (go-around) button on the side of the engine throttle lever handles, pulled back on the control column to raise the nose to match the pitch attitude commanded by the flight director on the attitude display (the PFD), and pushed the thrust levers forward to the appropriate position for takeoff thrust, all simultaneously and by rote training and reflex built in, I wondered one thing: which way are we going to go? 

I let this thought distract me too much, I admit.  But I'd never been in this situation before, at Washington Reagan National Airport, with the infamous P-56 right in front of us two miles ahead, and another jet taking off right below us.  It was so close that just before I started the turn (which I'll get to in a moment) I could see its nose pitching skyward from the ground below us as our glareshield (dashboard) blocked our view of him.

(Another view of the the White House and the Washington and Jefferson Memorials, with Washington National airport on the other side of the river beyond.  This view is looking south.)

If we'd had a few more hundred feet of clearance, we would've landed, but it was a good decision by the control tower.  With the braking action as it was, if that jet in front of us had aborted takeoff while we were landing, it would've made a bad situation.

As I was pitching the plane up and looking for the one below us, "Go-around, flaps 8" was said, and my good FO retracted the flaps.  Actually, she is the one that said it, while I was engrossed with the traffic conflict blossoming right in front of us and wondering what would happen next.  You see, the published missed approach procedure at DCA from runway 1 is to basically turn left to the northwest while climbing out and avoiding P-56.  Logically, we couldn't turn to the northwest because that's where the other jet was going, and we couldn't go straight ahead because we'd penetrate P-56 and cause a bunch of bad paperwork, in the least.

I repeated the callout I was supposed to have made in the first place, "go-around, flaps 8", and heard the tower say, for the second time but for the first time for my brain, "start your right turn now to heading zero-nine-zero (090 degrees), climb and maintain two thousand".  A new plan for the new plan had been given.  I smoothly but quickly rolled in a turn towards the right, while answering my FO's callout "positive rate" with "gear up, speed mode".  She had already selected the heading bug to 090 heading and selected heading mode on the flight guidance panel.  I hoped that our turn radius would keep us out of P-56.  We had had a slight tailwind on final approach, but by the time I rolled us wings level headed towards the east (090 degrees), I could see the US Capitol building off my left shoulder, at least one mile away, indicating that we were clear of P-56.

But there wasn't time to revel in our safety or wag fingers (at myself) at missed callouts, we were now above 'acceleration altitude' and needed to 'clean up and speed up', perform checklists, talk to approach control on the radio, and brief the passengers on what just happened.  It all happens pretty fast when both engines are turning and we do it only a handful of times a year, but its what we are trained to do and expected to do well; usually its an intense but routine experience.  And actually, my job was just to fly the plane, the autopilot was on again soon, and my good FO was getting everything done in short order.  She was irritated because approach control kept asking the reason for the go around (as if it was our fault perhaps?), and they could tell she was irritated with her response.  We had a normal landing the second try, with the tower leaving plenty of room for the jet in front of us to break ground.

After the engines were shut down at our parking spot, I apologized to my FO for missing that callout, and thanked her for covering me.  I had let complacency sneak up on me; as I said had never been in this situation before, but its not the best excuse.  I had talked about what would happen in the situation with other FO's on previous occasions, I believe this situation is commonly talked about by flight crews who frequent DCA and ponder the 'what ifs'.  But for some reason I didn't think we would really, really go around, and consequently I wasn't as mentally prepared for it as I should've been.  If I had been completely prepared for it, I would have briefed that we should expect to have a right turn on the go-around due to P-56 being in our way straight ahead and the other aircraft being in our way on the standard missed approach procedure up the river to the left. 

"Complacency kills" is a much used phrase in military aviation, but its application in civilian use is very much warranted.  Many jet accidents have incurred loss of life with complacency being declared as contributing factors by accident investigators.  I know that I'll be making this possible go-around briefing when traffic is trying to takeoff in front of us when I land in DC on runway 1 from now on.  If you'd like to comment on this event, please feel free to do so.

Now, this being a New Year, many folks have New Year's resolutions, its a tradition the world over.  A new year affords a new plan, and time for making promises and goals that we will do this and won't do that, that we will love and serve others better than we have in the past, and will take better care of ourselves and our loved ones. 

But we fail.  We make resolutions, promises, and goals, then try to make new habits routine, and sometimes they do stick, but often they fail, eventually.  Where does that leave us when we fail?  In regards to our standing with God, where does that leave us when we fail?

I'd like to take this moment to encourage you (as well as myself when I read this later) that if you call Jesus Christ your Savior, you have an amazing fringe benefit.  When you fail, when you slip up, when you take your eyes off of the prize, when you let others or yourself down, basically, when you sin, take heart!  Because God promises this, from Second Corinthians 5:17-19 and 5:21: 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.  God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

"In Christ" (being spiritually connected to the body of believers in Jesus Christ), you are a new creation!  Like the old year has gone and the new year has come, the old person has gone and the new person has come.  Its a time to start over, a time to go-around and try again.  Believers aren't meant to continue in their old ways, they are meant to glorify God with their thoughts, actions, and their lives.  And the Holy Spirit, in concert with a believer's will submitted to its leading, gives the desire and power to live as a new creation of God.

Paraphrasing verse 21, Jesus, who never sinned, was made sin for us (by dying on the cross), so that through faith in Him we can be called righteous by God, (not by our own good deeds or works).  (See, turning to the right was and is a good thing!).  We are justified and saved by grace, through faith (Romans 3-4) as Abraham was.  Its a marvelous mystery, but true; read Romans 3-4 if you'd like to know more. 

If you believe in Jesus and can call him your personal Savior, but aren't happy with the way you've been living, God wants to meet you where you're at!  And that is one of the best things about Jesus, He IS a God who meets people where they're at - at their greatest point of need. 

With God's grace in our lives and a justification/salvation by faith, not by works, believers can do as many go-arounds and do-overs as needed to get through this life, with the assurance that we will spend eternity with God in heaven.  Knowledge of our true nature of salvation and the value of the work Jesus accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection results in believers becoming committed to the Lord, in just a fraction of the measure in return, that Jesus is committed to us.  My prayer for you is that you experience more of the Love and fellowship of our Lord, and that you have a better and blessed 2011.  Happy New Year!  God Bless you, and thanks again for reading my blog.


repIA05 said...

My sister, Ruth went to high school (go Thunderbirds) with Shannon and my other sister Rachel forwarded your blog to me.

I live what seems to be at the edge of runway 4 at DCA. So when i read your recent blog post I am very familiar with go arounds on the major runway 1 & 19 because the flights go right over our small row house in Potomac Yards, Alexandria.

Anyway... i will continue to follow your posts and if you need some NW Iowa company during layovers I live 1/2 mile south of DCA on rt. 1.

Paul Raak

Craig said...

It's a small world Paul, isn't it? Thanks for following, and I may take you up on your offer, "too yet"!