Saturday, December 22, 2012


One of the hardest things about being a pilot is the simple fact that most of the passengers you fly around have no idea about everything aviation.  Most of the time it's easy to just brush off and ignore, but other times I try to help people understand what's going on.  The comments are endless...

"I just hope we don't lose an engine.  Then we're toast."

"I didn't even know they still made these prop airplanes."

"United really needs to put a jet on this route."  [Yes, and put all 16 of you on it.]  ?!

As winter nears, the confusion simply multiplies.  We have some pretty wicked weather, de-icing, long delays in the sky and on the ground, cancellations, diversions, oversold situations, and on and on.  But at the heart of it all is

We've been quite fortunate so far this winter.  Here we are in the middle of December, and I have yet to see any appreciable amount of snow!  I first saw snow in Syracuse, but it's been so mild so far.  And today was no different with the snow anyway.  But for the past couple of days, we've been dealing with another sometimes more problematic issue:  FOG!

The fog in D.C. was so thick yesterday that the flight I was piloting was eight hours delayed!  We simply had to wait for the fog to rise, and although the forecasters swore that would come during the middle of the morning, it never burnt off until after noon.  The 6:00 A.M. flight finally departed five minutes before 2:00 P.M.  Talk about a long day.

Well, today was no different outside of the fact that the fog finally did burn off...eventually.  To keep it simple, fog is simply a low cloud.  This cloud hovers right on top of the earth.  It needs calm winds and temperature and dewpoint to be equal, and today those factors lined up perfectly.  The problem is that fog can be very, very much so that we pilots can't see.  That's all fine and dandy when you are flying at 15,000 feet through the problem.  But when you are trying to find a runway at 130 MPH and don't have it in sight at 200 feet above the ground...all while descending at 700 feet/minute, well, you are a few seconds away from hitting asphalt...that you cannot see!!!

So we have parameters in place to prevent that.  One being visibility requirements.  The best approach we can do requires visibility of at least 1/2 mile and a cloud deck of 200 feet.  That's still very low.  But we are trained to land in these conditions.  The problem becomes when that visibility is 1/4 mile...or an 1/8 mile.  Plain and simple, we cannot take off to go to that airport with that type of fog.  That's what happened to me yesterday.  The visibility was so poor that I could not fly to D.C. and rightly so...we would get there, shoot the approach, only to find that we can't find the runway, then head back for the skies and head to another airport.  Oddly enough, my alternate airport (where we go if we have a problem like weather at the destination) yesterday was where I was taking off from.  So had we taken off, we would have done a big 140-mile circle only to end up where we just were.  Passengers don't really like that.

The fog turning to patchy, burning off before departure

The good news about today is that the airport I was flying to was calling for 10 miles visibility...perfect!  My departure airport (Washington, D.C.) was the one under fog.  But we don't worry too much about that...taking off in poor visibility is much easier than landing in it.  Just follow the lights down the center of the runway...always hoping that the next one appears!  What we do in this situation is take off, and if we have an engine problem, we'll just fly to our takeoff-alternate (a back-up plan) knowing that we can't land back at the departure airport.  It's pretty simple.

So there we were, in Washington, with heavy fog.  The traffic was backed up, and we were number 13 in line for departure, but we knew we were going to get out.  Our destination was perfect, and the only things to watch were fuel (we burn a lot just sitting there on the taxi-ways) and the return trip back to this socked-in city.

A jet appearing out of the fog.  One of the reasons we have such high parameters...we can't see far!

The flight was uneventful.  We took off, immediately hit the fog deck, then broke out just above it, very typical with fog.  It's just a low, low deck with clear skies on top.  You could actually see the clear skies from the ground as we were waiting to take off...the dense fog turned to patchy fog as it burned off and beckoned us to the skies.

So as you sit back there and wonder why we are not moving and getting you to your city, just know that we are doing everything we can to get you off the ground.  But when you have 12 planes ahead of you or a city where you know you can't find the runway, it's best just to trust us.  :)  We do know what we're doing.

Oh what a beautiful morning for flying!

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