Thursday, January 19, 2012

Down to Minimums

I love flying.  I'm one of the few pilots it seems at our company that still gets a joy out of taking to the skies.  I'm just hopelessly in love.

Most days are enjoyable, but some days just kind of satisfy even the hardest-to-reach places.  Like today.  For me, the best part of a pilot's job is when all elements line up to make the pilot rely on every aspect of his or her training.  The best situation?  Not getting to see the runway until you are basically on top of it.  For me, NOTHING ELSE compares.

It was my leg again, this time to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The Captain shared our destination weather with me:  1 ½ miles visibility forecast all day.  Rain.  Mist.  Ceiling 400 overcast.  Not exactly a pretty day!  But more than enough to land.  Shoot, that’s like VFR in the wintertime!  400 overcast?!  Cakewalk.

We loaded up the new passengers, then headed east for KMDT.  The winds hadn’t changed from this morning.  We had just a couple of bumps in the climb, but it wasn’t anything major at all.  And we still had that 87-knot tailwind to push us along.  Fine by me!  We started out late again due to the late arrival of the previous aircraft, but we would certainly make it up with these tailwinds.
We climbed to FL230.  The winds were strong but were more-so at an angle, so we didn’t get the full effect.  We had 87 knots up there, but only 27 were given as free tailwind.  The rest simply made us aim southeast to fly east.  At one point, we had a 27-degree crab, the most I have ever seen in this airplane.  I was flying a heading of 168 to track a heading of 141.  That’s crazy.

But we were cruising right along.  The Captain and I talked about Kodak declaring bankruptcy and the downfalls that led up to it as well as the whole idea of American bankruptcy.  The company employed 64,000 people in his county at one point.  It’s now down to 7,000 and obviously decreasing even more.  Their bread-and-butter was the hard film.  They made profits hand-over-fist.  Quite simply, they just didn’t make the necessary transition fast enough or fully enough.  And now they are bankrupt.
I commented how weird it would be for my niece to never know the name Kodak.  It has been around for 131 years, including all 29 of mine.  He laughed and said, “Not unless she likes history!”  I was more interested in the idea of it all, though, more than just the personal company.  I went on about how only in America can you declare bankruptcy, screw your creditors, and come out as the same stronger company.  (I would later learn at lunch that this REALLY is an Americanism!  In the USA TODAY paper today, they talked about declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  American Airlines, Kodak, and Hostess were all highlighted.  They can cancel pensions and ignore union contract agreements, all while paying their top brass bonuses.  The very people that make the company are left with nothing…or much less than expected.  In Europe, on the other hand, the entire staff is fired.  In America, you get bonuses.  If you are a corporation, you just cancel your debts.  If you are an individual, you have to make the payments or go to jail.  If you are a corporation, you come out stronger after bankruptcy.  If you are an individual, you are viewed as financially risky for at least seven years.  As the writer put it, “The people who own the gold make the rules.”  An excellent article.  (

The flight passed rather quickly due to the excellent conversation.
Well, sort of.  The Captain grabbed the current weather as we neared the airport.  “ILS critical areas in effect.”  Uh oh!  That means it’s low clouds!

“Visibility ¼ mile.”  Uh oh!  We can’t even shoot the approach!!!  “Freezing fog, freezing mist.”  Yuck!
“Indefinite ceiling.”  The clouds were basically on the field.  What a gross day!

“Winds calm.”
My oh my.  Well, I pulled out the chart for the ILS Runway 13.  I went ahead and fully-briefed the approach to the Captain.  We would continue to monitor the weather to see if we could even start the approach (we needed at least ½ mile visibility to even be legal to start the approach just like any other aircraft).

But we were nearing the airport fast with that tailwind.  I increased our rate of descent to get us to our assigned altitude with plenty of time to slow down and make the approach easily.  The Flight Attendant was given the chime to complete the cabin for landing.  Agh, I couldn’t stop being excited!!!  I could hear the excitement in my voice as I talked.  It’s a nervous excitement.  An excitement that can only be found when navigating an 18-ton vessel at 130 MPH down to 200 feet of the ground and possibly never seeing the ground!!!  Were my palms sweating?!  Agh!!!  I LOVE this type of flying!
I went over the Missed Approach procedure, something that VERY much may come into effect today.  It’s very rare to do due to weather (I’ve had three go-arounds in a year of flying for this company with zero due to weather.  One was due to Tower putting us too close behind another aircraft, one was due to me not getting the airplane slow enough for landing, and one was due to the approach controller giving us bad vectors).

But today was a very legitimate day for a go-around.  Why?  Basically, the visibility is so bad that when you get 200 feet above the ground, you might not see the runway.  I was coming in at 112 knots or nearly 130 MPH.  And when I am flying at 130 MPH, I am moving at 190.67 feet per second.  If I am descending at 500 feet/minute, then at 200 feet, I have just 20 seconds before I am on the ground.  Things happen fast.  You do NOT want to be at 200 feet above the ground without seeing the earth.
The Captain called “in range,” telling the ground crew that we were near.  He asked if anyone had been able to land, and the woman responded that she hadn’t seen anybody…and that it was terribly yucky down there.  All right, well, there we go.  Just like we figured, it’s a crummy day!

Well, we were told to intercept the localizer and descend from 4000 feet down to 3000 feet.  Approach told us that the RVR(Runway Visual Range…how far I can see down the runway) was now 1400.  NOT good.  We needed either 1800 RVR or ½ mile to continue the approach past the FAF (Final Approach Fix).  But we were still four miles from the FAF and only doing 170 knots, so I slowed it up a bit more to buy some precious time, hoping the visibility would increase.  We basically had a minute to get better visibility, or we had to go hold somewhere and hope the visibility increased.  We had 500 pounds of fuel onboard before we had to divert to another airport, so we had some time before that would take place (20 minutes).  Approach then told us the RVR was 1200 feet at Touchdown.  It was a no-go.  If it didn’t change in the next few seconds, we couldn’t do the approach.  NO airplane could do the approach.  C’mon, Approach, tell me something I want to hear!  1800!  1800!  1800!
We asked one more time before the FAF.  “RVR 1200.”  That’s it, it’s off!  We could not land.  The glide-slope had just started to capture, and the airplane began to descend down towards the runway.  I kicked the auto-pilot off and immediately leveled off at 3000.  We couldn’t shoot the approach.  Approach seemed confused asking us what we needed, and we told him at least 1800 RVR.  He spouted off a couple of new numbers as the visibility changed on the ground, but that was foolish.  We were already PAST the FAF.  To even try to pull this off now would put us behind the airplane.  Sigh.  It terrifies me that Approach doesn’t know what we need!  We refused.  I hand-flew to 3100 feet (assigned to us) and the heading given to us.  We would circle back and try again.  But we NEEDED 1800 or better.

As we made our circle, this time the RVR was reported as 2000 feet.  We came back around, intercepted the localizer, and continued the approach.  We were cleared for the approach and had 2000 feet at the FAF.  We could now continue.  Good!  Agh, how exciting!!!  I can now try to find the runway, but I have NO idea if that runway is going to appear or not!!!  I was admittedly excited.  These days are few and far between, and it takes extreme concentration.  You only get one shot, and you better do it right.  Or you best climb climb climb!
We started to descend out of 3000 feet on the glide-slope.

I slowed to 158 knots.
“Gear down.”  The Captain put the gear down at my command.

“Three green, no red.”
“Three green, no red.”  I reiterated that the gear was indeed down and locked with no malfunctions.

I then had the Captain set the props for landing.
“Flaps 15, finals.”  I called for the remaining procedures.

He set my flaps to 15 degrees as we descended.  All right, let's slow this baby up.  140 knots.  130 knots.  120 knots.  115 knots.  Ok, that is good.  I was aiming for 112, but I like a buffer.
“1000 feet.”  The Captain let me know we were just 1000 feet from our 200-foot above the runway mark.  We were in solid IMC with rain.

115 knots.  “Auto-pilot off.”  I disengaged the auto-pilot and let the Captain know.  I was going to hand-fly this one in, and I wanted to feel the winds or lack thereof up to the touchdown.  How heavy was this airplane?  How light?  Any buffets?  I needed to feel the airplane to make a good approach and landing.
“500 feet.”  The Captain let me know we were 500 feet from making our decision.  Either we get the lights in sight, or we go-around.  No other option.

Getting a little to the left.  Ever so gentle, ever so gentle, bring it back.  Fly with your feet, easy on the hands.
“400 feet.”  Solid IMC.  No inkling of anything anywhere.  Solid white.

“300 feet.”  Nothing.  My eyes are 100% inside.  Airspeed.  Localizer.  Glide-slope.
“200 feet.”  I steal a glance outside.  Solid clouds.

“100 feet.”  We might not get this runway at all!  A little to the left still, back over.  Get ready to shove those power levers forward and get out of there!!!
At this point, we are just 100 feet away from our “decision altitude.”  Three things can happen.  1.  We get the runway in sight.  The Captain calls it in sight, then I gradually bring my eyes from inside to outside and verify that I have it, as well.  We land.  2.  The Captain gets the approach lights in sight.  These are very high intensity lights that basically “take us home.”  They lead up to the runway and provide a final tracking to the runway.  If we get these, we can actually then descend down to 100 feet above the runway.  If at 100 feet, we still don’t have the runway, we go-around immediately.  3.  We don’t ever see the lights OR the runway.  We get out of Dodge as fast as we can.

Back again to his last call-out.
“100 feet.”  Still nothing.  In just another 100 feet, if we don’t…

“Approach lights in sight!!!  Continue!”  He was obviously excited, something that looking back on makes me appreciate.  The Captain is literally staring out the windshield the entire time at this point, having no concern (if he trusts the F.O.) for what is taking place inside.  He is searching for lights or runway.  If he doesn’t get them, we can’t land, and he has to let me know immediately at our decision altitude!  Of course, I am watching my altitude, too, and I’ll certainly go around without him saying it, but that’s not the proper procedure.  He’s a pretty laid-back guy, so his perkiness in voice made me think that he was actually surprised to get the lights!  He, too, wasn’t sure if we would ever see the runway with this thick fog.  We just didn’t know!!!
“Runway in sight!”  He let me know he had it.  I glanced up and saw the approach lights.  Nothing with the runway, though.  I looked down to check everything, then back up.  The green bar! Aha!  “Runway in sight.”  I could then land.  At this point, we are just 100 feet above the ground.

I moved over a bit to the centerline (a hair off) and had one of the best landings ever.  The wet runway helped, I’m sure, but it was PERFECT.  Quite simply put, there is NO greater satisfaction than that flight right there.  It never gets old for me.  The Captain said good job, probably relieved that we had made it in!  I was beaming.  A job well done.
My mind is usually on the passengers and what they think, and today was no different.  Whenever we hit turbulence.  Whenever we fly through heavy snow or rain.  What do they see?  What do they hear?  What do they feel?  And a flight like this?  The thoughts they must have had!  They hear the gear go down.  They see NOTHING but white outside their windows.  They know we are close.  They have to know.  But they see nothing…no houses, no trees, no earth, nothing!

If they are staring out their windows, they will get a nasty surprise.  They will basically see a treetop appear out of what they think is a cloud.  At 100 feet, they may not even get that!  The first sight they see may very well be the ground next to the runway as we touch down!  I LOVE THAT.  By the time they realize what just took place, we are already on the ground and taxiing off the runway.  THAT is satisfaction.
And this flight?  Perfect.  An absolute greaser.  Just perfect.  I guarantee that 90% of the people had NO clue we cut off the first approach.  Probably 100%.  No one knew what decisions were made, what was going through the minds of two pilots up front.  No one knew that we were a second or two away from flying out of there and possibly going to a different airport.  They just put their trust in two men they had never met.  And I get such a thrill out of that!

The Captain taxied in, and he (oddly) kept the door closed that separates us from the passengers.  I was so eager to hear the praise of the passengers, and I was more than sure I would get it (you know when you will).  But he sat there and left the door closed.  Oh no!!!  I knew exactly what was going to happen!!!  I was going to have to sit there and bask in my own glory!  Noooo!!!  Whether it was intentional or not, I may never know, but I really took the impression that he left the door closed on purpose.  It was probably for my own good!  Here was a guy that has probably had several of these in his 12-year career.  He knows the difficulty of them, and he also knows of our ability to do them.  He could have also been jealous, I don’t know!  That happens, too!  You never want to have too many good landings with a Captain that can’t!  But I saw the passengers get off the airplane out his side window, and not a one, NOT A ONE was able to say anything to me!!!  Talk about being humbled!!!  I wanted so badly to stand there in the walkway and greet them as they walked off, and I was certainly eager to hear their compliments, too!!!  Agh!!!  Haha.
But there I was, left sitting upfront with the Captain, as they all deplaned.  After they were all off, the Captain said, “After you.”  I opened the door to an empty airplane outside of the Flight Attendant.  All of my smiling passengers were all gone.  Sigh.  Not a one to say thanks or great job or well done.  I went from confident pilot to menial worker again and helped her put the seatbelts all straight on the seats.  I then grabbed my stuff and headed for the hotel shuttle.  Our day was over.

An approach called off due to terrible visibility.  A second shot at it.  A perfect execution from both sides, finally getting the runway in sight at 100 feet.  One of the smoothest landings.  33 people delivered safely.  The largest dose of humility.
And a smile that I just can’t get off my face!  There really is nothing more rewarding than flying down to minimums, wondering if you are ever going to see the earth.  Are we going to land or throw the power levers forward and get out of there?!  I don’t know…and I love it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sometimes It's the Little Things in Life

Just two years ago, I was tickled pink to be taking the upgrade from a Cessna 172 to a Piper Aztec.  Instead of flying 110 knots around the country, I was going to be flying 145 knots.

And I was the happiest kid alive.

Well, I can now say that I have flown the fastest I've ever experienced as a pilot.
402 KNOTS!!!  In a prop plane!  Thank you, winter jetstream, for the help today!

Sometimes it's the small things.  :)