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Flight Report: What We Up Front Are Thinking And Doing While Our Passengers Are Thinking: "What Are THEY Thinking up front"?

Adventurer B

It is day two of a three-day trip. We are on our fourth and last flight of the day en route from Chicago Midway (MDW) to Long Island MacArthur (ISP). Weather observations for ISP are good, and the forecast is also fine. My partner, Bernie, and I are talking about what dinner options the hotel in Islip offers as he pulls up the ISP weather. Big surprise! The visibility has gone down as unforecast fog rolled in and the field is now below minimums. In other words, the visibility is below what we as Pilots need to legally start an instrument approach. I advise my passengers of the issue and tell them we have plenty of gas to go to our alternate of Providence, but we are in discussion with Mother (Southwest Dispatch) about whether that will be our actual course of action.

As the passengers look outside, the last faint red glow of the setting sun is lighting up clouds to the south of us over New Jersey. Our "good weather"? alternate is Providence (PVD), but the prospect of stranding 110 people in a city which has no direct service to ISP is not looking like the best option, so I call Mother. The discussion goes kind of like this: Pilot: "ISP is below minimums. Any forecasts for it to come up or is this a showstopper for the rest of the night?" Dispatch: "No new forecasts now." (Since ISP isn’t equipped with a CAT III–more on this later–approach, one option has been eliminated.) Dispatch: "I think we will change your alternate to Baltimore/Washington (BWI). Let me run your fuel usage real quick." (After two or three minutes) Dispatch: "Your new destination is now BWI with an alternate of Dulles (IAD). Proceed." Pilot: "Roger, talk to you in BWI."

While I am talking to Mother, I give control of the plane to Bernie. Bernie is trying to work out a deal with Air Traffic Control (ATC) because we are quickly moving into New York airspace, pushed by a 90-mph tailwind. He slows to a crawl (in the air), while I work with Dispatch to figure out where we are going. We want to stay as high as possible to use the least amount of fuel because we don’t want to waste any that we’ll need for our divert to BWI. Once cleared by Dispatch, I signal by pointing across the dash with a thumbs up and saying the single word "Baltimore"?, Bernie confirms with ATC that we are now going to BWI, and ATC reads Bernie the routing we will fly from just south of Albany to BWI.

Once confirmed, Bernie types this routing into the navigation computer and gets the plane pointed that direction. I do some quick doodling to ensure the gas numbers are correct for the divert, plus the alternate, and they seem adequate.

Once back, Bernie gives me back the plane and sets about verifying the fuel numbers I have "wagged" in my head by using the navigation computer data and the Onboard Performance Computer. We engage "Otto," the autopilot and are finally on our way via the assigned routing. New York City is sliding by my window, and all I can see is the lights of the city under the low clouds of the fog. It is now almost completely dark. Once again, we have to resume descent and approach planning for a new city. We have to get the weather for BWI and figure landing data for the runway in use. While Bernie is crunching numbers in the computer after getting the BWI weather, I notice a city floating by my window. "Hmmmm…"? I think. "That place looks familiar?"? I look at the navigation screen moving map and the city I cannot quite name turns out to be Philadelphia. Half of it is being gobbled up by the fog monster that earlier ate Islip.

About that time, Bernie tosses the newly scribbled weather for BWI on the console and the news is not good: The Fog Monster is about to devour BWI as well. In fact, it is now below landing minimums for all but the most precise of instrument approaches, the nifty CAT III we wished ISP had had available earlier. Bernie finishes his landing data, and we brief the CAT III approach to Runway 10 at BWI. This approach is hand flown by the Captain by looking through the Heads Up Display (HUD). Unlike a regular ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach that takes you down to 200 feet above the ground before you make a decision to land, this approach allows us to fly to only 50 feet before making the decision to land or go-around. Fifty feet is less than half the length of a 737. This land/go around decision is made based on whether we can see the runway environment or not. We hope we will land out of this approach to BWI because if we can’t, we will have just enough gas to divert to Dulles and land with our desired cushion of "extra gas"? required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Knowing gas is now a concern, I text message Dispatch that we are a one-trick pony. One shot at BWI, and we must head to Dulles.

About then, I get a call from the Flight Attendants and the senior advises me that the people want to go to Dulles so they can ride the train to NYC and then out to ISP. I tell her to thank the passengers for their thoughtful input but the plan is BWI. (Later, we learn several aircraft have diverted into Dulles, and with only two gates, we might have been presented with a wait of an hour or more just to get to the gate and deplane the passengers. BWI proves to have been the better choice.)

The weather broadcast by the automatic weather reporting machines at each airport presents just a snapshot of the weather, usually taken just before the top of the hour. Mother Nature can change things quickly so, if necessary, the broadcast is changed to better reflect the latest weather observed at the airport. The very latest visibility, the key to being able to start an instrument approach, is handed off from the Tower to the Approach Controllers who then pass that information on to the Pilots who make the ultimate decision on whether the landing is allowed based on a myriad of factors such as approach minimums for the aircraft type, crew certification, runway conditions and the like. Most runways at large airports have a device, which precisely measures the runway visual range (RVR) at the runway surface and that machine is called the RVR "transmissiometer."? It provides an RVR number which represents the distance a Pilot can expect to accurately see a runway light. (Notice I didn’t say the "runway"? but rather a runway "light."?) A Cat III certified runway requires three of these machines, spaced along the runway edge, accurately operating above minimum values before we can land. In the case of RWY 10, we need "7-7-reporting"? or better to land. Each reported value represents visibility in hundreds of feet and in the last number, the roll-out portion of the runway is merely an advisory number. When we check in on final approach frequency we are advised the RVR is now 7-8-6. The visibility is about as low as we can go and be legal to start the approach.

In only a couple of minutes, we are vectored onto the beam of energy that represents an extension of the runway centerline. Another beam representing the angle we need to fly to safely reach the end of the runway tells us when to start down. Once safely on these beams, Approach sends us to Tower, and we are on our own flying instruments in search of the runway that we know is somewhere out there, coming at us out of the fog at 130 mph. As the Captain, I hand fly the plane watching guidance cues displayed on my HUD and nothing else. I am focused on this piece of glass a foot in front of my nose and the instrument data it portrays. Once on both beams (localizer and glideslope), I have Bernie select AIII mode which takes the sensitivity of my guidance information to a new and higher level. This mode directs me to maneuver the plane with extreme precision both laterally in relation to the runway and up and down in relation to the three-degree glideslope. Get even a tiny bit out of tolerance with either position or speed and Bernie will see a bright red light illuminate telling him we have to execute a go-around. If I don’t immediately respond, Bernie will push my hands off the throttles and take the aircraft and execute a swift go-around. At 50 feet and 130 mph there is no time to chat. At 1,000 feet above the ground I make my last routine call: "1,000 feet, airspeed 130, sink rate 700."? The next comment Bernie will hear from me will be 950 feet lower, indicating we are "LANDING"? or he will hear me calling out my go-around decision with "GO AROUND THRUST."?

For the next minute, I fly and Bernie calls off the altitude, starting at 500 feet above the ground. "500…"? "400…"? "300…"? "200…"? "Approaching minimums…."? I see the burgeoning whiteness of the approach lights appear before me through the HUD, where before there was only darkness. The lights used on a CAT III runway are actually in the surface of the runway so at 50 feet, the lights I see are actually the runway before me. "LANDING."? I unmistakably declare my intentions to Bernie.

Still unable to see detail of the runway ahead, I continue my descent based on runway location and guidance cues in the HUD and the lights I see through the clear glass of the HUD. "MINIMUMS,"? Bernie announces. This whole approach, he has maintained a watch over the instruments before him and has served as "Quality Control Officer"? for my performance thus far. If anything looked suspect, Bernie was charged with taking the airplane and going around.

With my "LANDING"? call, he is now absolved of any possible flying duties because I have indicated my decision to land with the runway in sight. He remains on instruments never looking outside, just in case he has to take over, and continues with his call-outs… "30…"? "10…"? We touch down amid a dizzying array of runway lights. I can now see the actual runway itself and make out details like pavement lines and runway stripes. The visibility on the runway is as the RVR portrays, about 7-800 feet.

We exit the runway and the fun begins. As challenging as the approach is, at least you have guidance. On the taxiways, you have a map and a few signs but that is it. We slowly taxi to our gate checking and double-checking our location along the way and shutdown at Gate A-8. As the adrenaline in my body winds down along with our engines, I remember there are 100 people in back who are just starting their adventure. I call for Customer Service personnel and am advised that about eight planes preceded us in their diversions to Baltimore and Customer Service Employees will arrive and brief the passengers as soon as possible.

The faces of the passenger who look at me as I open the cockpit door are distant and forlorn. Some are grimly chatting on cell phones as they exit. The majority of the few who look at me tell me by facial expression that I have failed in getting them to their destination. A couple passengers thank me, knowing it was not my decision to fog-in the northeastern seaboard. I feel for them all. As mundane and routine as modern air travel has become, Mother Nature still rules the skies. They will all make it home the next day, safe and sound, after an unplanned overnight in Baltimore.