Why you should NEVER fly into Washington National Airport
There are many, many good reasons why you should NEVER fly into Reagan National Airport in Washington DC. And I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t, and I mean fly–not sit on your butt in the back of the plane. Of course, it goes without saying that if pilots shouldn’t fly there, neither should passengers. And here’s why.
1. The Postage Stamp Effect: like LaGuardia in NYC, the airport was built in the early days of commercial aviation, when the defining factors in aircraft design were slow air speeds, light weights, agile propeller aircraft. Fine.
Maneuvering this thick-winged, lumbering prop job on final was routine at a relative crawl compared to today’s heavier swept wing jets, which need lots of room in the air and on the ground to operate safely. But Washington National is a postage-stamp sized airport from a bygone era, and the serpentine “approach” hasn’t changed:
Look closely at the approach and notice the approach course–145 degrees, right? The runway heading is 194, so do the math: there’s an almost 50 degree heading change on final–and look at where that occurs. It’s at 424 feet above the ground. Which brings up my next point:
2. Extraordinary low-altitude maneuvering: The wingspan of the 737-800 is over 130 feet long, and the jet is normally sinking at a rate of 700 feet per minute on short final. Thirty degrees of bank at 400 feet with seconds to touchdown, with each wingtip dipping up to 50′ in a turn less than 200′ above the ground? And while a 20 degree offset is considered a challenge, the final alignment on such a typical offset approach happens early–but this turn is after the minimum descent altitude, and you get to finalize the crosswind correction at the last second landing on a marginally adequate runway length:
Look at the runway length of the “long” runway: that’s right, 6,800 feet–200′ shorter than LaGuardia’s aircraft carrier deck, and often on final approach, the tower will ask you to sidestep to the 5,200 foot runway instead. So before you even start the approach, you’d better figure and memorize your gross weight and stopping distance corrected for wind and in most cases, you’ll note that the total is within a couple hundred feet of the shorter runway’s length.
Then figure in the winds and the runway condition (wet? look at the numbers: fuggeddabout it) So the answer is usually “unable”–but at least half of the time I hear even full-sized (not just commuter sized) jets accepting the clearance. I accepted the clearance (had a small stopping distance margin and the long runway was closed for repairs) to transition visually to the short runway one night and at 500 feet, that seat-of-the-pants feel that says get the hell out of town took over and I diverted to Dulles instead.
If that wasn’t hairy enough (get the pun? “hairy,” “Harry?”) from the north, approaching from the south, you’ll also get the hairpin turns induced because they need more spacing to allow a take-off. Either way you get last second close-in maneuvering that would at any other airport induce you to abandon the approach–but that’s just standard at Washington Reagan. And once you’re on the ground, stopping is key because there’s no overrun: you’re in the drink on both ends. Is the runway ever wet when they say it’s dry? Icy when they say “braking action good?”
And with the inherent challenges at the capitol’s flagship airport, you’d expect topnotch navaids, wouldn’t you? Well not only do they not have runway centerline lights or visual approach slope indicators (VASI) from the south, plenty of the equipment that is installed doesn’t work on any given day. Here’s the airport’s automated arrival information for Thursday night:
Just a couple things to add to the experience, right?
So let’s review. If you’re flying into Reagan–and I’ve been doing it all month–to stay out of the headlines and the lagoon, calculate those landing distances conservatively. The airport tries to sell the added advantage of a “porous friction overlay” on the short runway that multiplies the normal coefficient of friction, but accept zero tailwind (and “light and variable” is a tailwind) and if there’s not at least 700 feet to spare–I’m going to Dulles (several deplaning passengers actually cursed at me for diverting) without even considering reentering the Potomac Approach traffic mix for a second try at National.
Think through the last minute alignment maneuver and never mind what the tower says the winds are, go to school on the drift that’s skewing your track over the river and compensate early: better to roll out on final inside the intercept angle (right of course) because from outside (left of course) there’s no safe way to realign because of the excessive offset and low altitude. A rudder kick will drag the nose back to the left inside the offset, but from too far left, you’re screwed.
Once you’ve landed, now you face reason number 3:
3: The northbound departure procedure. Noise abatement in places like Orange County-John Wayne are insanity off of a short runway with steep climb angles and drastic power cuts for noise sensitive areas. But DCA has an even better driving forces: the runway is aimed at the national mall which is strictly prohibited airspace.
Again, no problem in a lumbering prop job–but serious maneuvering is required in a 160,000 pound jet crossing the departure end at nearly 200 mph: the prohibited airspace starts 1.9 miles from the end of the runway. We’re usually configured at a high degree of flaps (5-15 versus the normal 1) so you’re climbing steeply as it is–in order to prevent violating the prohibited airspace, you must maintain the minimum maneuvering speed which means the nose is pitched abnormally high–then you must use maximum bank to turn left 45 degrees at only 400 feet above the ground.
What do you think will happen with the nose high and the left wing low if you take a bird or two in that engine? Are there any waterfowl in the bird sanctuary surrounding the airport? Would the situation be any different with a normal climb angle with wings straight and level?
So what’s the payoff for this complicated, difficult operation?
It’s a nice terminal. Congressmen like their free parking at National. And they’re way too busy to ride the Metro to Dulles, despite the bazillion dollars appropriated to extend the metro line from the Capitol to Dulles, adding another twenty minutes to the airport travel time is too much for our very sensitive congressmen to endure.
I think that’s about it as far as pluses and minuses. Fair trade, considering all the factors?
That’s for you to decide for yourself, but hang on–we’re going anyway. Just don’t chew my ass when I land the jet at Dulles instead of Washington Reagan National. Because for all of the above reasons, you probably shouldn’t have been going there anyway.
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