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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Being an Airline Pilot, Week 10: We're all counting on you

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In back, no one knows you're a rookie. After all, the months and months of training and evaluation you undergo to get signed off to sit up front is designed precisely to ensure that by the time you're in that seat, you have what it takes to take dozens and dozens of people and millions of dollars of airliner to where they're supposed to be.

But no one said it was going to be easy.

Human resources interviews almost always have the infamous TMAAT questions: Tell me about a time... Pilots have the same thing, except ours are STIW stories: So there I was...

So there I was, waiting for our plane to get fixed so we could finish up the last leg of the day, get to the hotel, and call it a day. It had been a rather routine day so far. We were swapping into a different aircraft for this last brief leg to State College, PA, where we would spend the night.

Unfortunately this one had a problem with one of instruments. The Captain's side attitude indicator (the instrument that shows us whether we're level, pitched up or down, or banked) was fine, but my side showed a climbing right turn even while we were on the ground. The mechanics were called out, and they figured it would be a relatively fast fix. Just swap out the computer that feeds the instruments on my side and we'd be on our way. That quick fix would end up being the first thing that wouldn't go right that night.

Two hours later, with our 11:00 p.m. departure already 90 minutes late and counting, the mechanics gave up. The fight was going to be cancelled. However, by sheer luck one of our other planes taxied to the gate next to us. It was scheduled to be done for the night. We called dispatch and asked if we could take that one instead so the mechanics could work on ours overnight. They agreed, and the flight was back on.

A little over two hours late, we pushed back from the gate. Everything was going normally once again. Although usually the Captain flies the legs out of Dulles, a quirk in the day's schedule meant that it was my leg to fly instead. I was happy, since it meant I'd be landing at an airport that wasn't either Dulles or Newark.

I've discussed TAFs, or Terminal Area Forecasts, several times. The best post I have on them so far is An Incredible Forecast from an Incredible Storm, which is about Hurricane Sandy's effects reaching into the Cleveland area. You'll enjoy reading it, and that link will open in a new tab so you won't lose your place in this post.

The TAF for this night contained nothing to worry about. Four miles visibility and a high overcast layer. Easy peasy, even if it was night time.

One of the things about TAFs is that they're forecasts, not observations. In other words, like all forecasts, they're educated guesses. And tonight the forecaster guessed wrong.

The weather was fine until we got within 50 miles of the airport. The weather observation said the weather there was 1/4 mile visibility, which unfortunately was only half as much as we needed to shoot an approach. How could it be that wrong?

Since our only option was to turn around and head back to Dulles, we decided to slow down to conserve fuel and give the weather time to change. I wasn't optimistic about that happening, though, since 1/4 mile probably means night fog sitting over the airport. Since the winds were very light, there wouldn't be anything to push that fog away. Nevertheless, these people have waited for hours to get home, so we might as well give it the old college try. (Since we were going to State College after all.)

The weather hadn't improved by the time we arrived at the final approach fix. That meant we couldn't even legally try an approach. However, we could fly holding patterns over the final approach fix until either the weather improved to 1/2 mile or more (which, again, I considered extremely unlikely) or we reached our divert fuel level and had to go back to Dulles, whichever came first.

We had enough fuel to hold for approximately 50 minutes. After that, we would have no choice but to try again tomorrow. In the hold, the clouds were broken, meaning there were holes, so we could get occasional glimpses of the ground. This means, naturally, that all those passengers in back could see the ground, too, and probably wondered why we were flying around in circles.

Unfortunately, what they couldn't see from their sideways-facing windows that we could see out the front was a fog bank that started a few miles from the airport and extended as far as we could see. It was less than 1000 feet thick, but it covered everything ahead. And with no wind to move it, it almost certainly wasn't going anywhere. In the battle between fog with nowhere to go and no hurry to get there versus our fuel tanks with nowhere to go but down, I was 99.9% sure the fog was going to win.

We were preparing to divert back to Dulles. We had been holding for 45 minutes and calculated that we would be able to go around the holding pattern only two more times before having no choice but to go back to where we started. We had gotten our passengers six miles from home, but couldn't take them the rest of the way.

The entire time, we had been monitoring the AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System: a robot weather station) over the radio. It droned on, "visibility one-quarter; fog". (If you want to know what it sounds like, you can hear it via phone at (814) 865-8799. You can find one for your local airport by searching As we were turning outbound again, we heard, "visibility one-half, fog."

Wait! Did that just say 1/2? Let it loop again just to make sure we heard it correctly.

We did, and it did. And all we needed was a half-mile to start the approach! We immediately asked ATC for permission to commence an approach, and since it was 2 in the morning, with no one else in the sky at that late hour, we immediately received it.

As we turned inbound, we could see a long notch where the fog was still present but less dense, almost perpendicular to the airport. It was only about a mile wide, and happened to be passing over the airport at that exact moment. How quickly it was moving would determine if we would be able to make it in before it closed up again. It was going to be extremely close, and there would be no second chance. If the notch was gone by the time we got there, we had no choice but to head straight back to Dulles.

I turned inbound, intercepted the course, and started down. We were still in a bit of a cloud layer, so I was concentrating only on the instruments now and would be for the rest of the flight, no matter what happened from here on out.

"One thousand to minimums," the Captain said, starting the standard approach call-outs and counting down how much further we had to go before the missed approach point.

"Five hundred to go."

"Two hundred."

"One hundred."

"Approach lights in sight!"

I looked up. "I have the runway. Landing."

It ended up being one of my better landings. Good enough, in fact, that the planeload of passengers in back broke out into a hearty round of applause! (And crew scheduling probably clapped, too, because we ended the day only two minutes from exceeding our maximum FAA-allowable duty limits.)

It was close indeed. By the time we had reached the gate and opened the cabin door to let our weary-but-relieved passengers out, the notch in the fog had passed on. I don't know what the AWOS was saying, but I could barely see the terminal now, and it was less than 100 feet in front of us. But we were safe on the ground now where visibility was no longer an issue, except for making for a longer, slower cab ride to the hotel.

Since I was still a certified newbie, I had never been on an overnight at State College. I couldn't see anything out the window of the cab except fog, so I had no idea what the 2:30 a.m. scenery looked like. Once the sun rose, the fog began to burn off. It cleared up by the early afternoon, and as we were driving to the airport to fly the afternoon flight back, I had quite a shock.

State College has that name because it is the home of Penn State University. The road that goes from the hotel to the airport goes directly through the campus. As a matter of fact, it goes right next to Beaver Stadium: the fourth-largest stadium in the entire world, with a seating capacity of almost 107,000 people.

And I couldn't even see it on the drive in!

You see that road running directly in front of the stadium? I couldn't see the world's 4th-largest stadium from the road that night!
As if getting a round of applause on landing wasn't enough, many of the passengers stopped to say thanks as they were passing the cockpit door. One of the nicer things about being an airline pilot is that it is a meaningful job. We connect friends, loved ones, soldiers, and businesspeople. One of them said he was extremely relieved to make it because he had a big job interview in the morning.

By sheer coincidence, I happened to be having lunch in the hotel restaurant late the next morning. There was someone at the table next to mine, facing away from me. As I waited for my order to arrive, I heard the chatter typical of an interview. They were wrapping up the formalities and moving into casual conversation while they finished their meals. From behind, I heard, "I almost didn't make it here today. Last night the weather was terrible and my flight almost had to go back. I don't know how those pilots managed it, but we got in. They did a great job!"

No compliment means more than one you hear when the one giving it doesn't know you're around. Not bad for a rookie.

See the series index here.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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