Airline pilots are overpaid–or maybe not.
None of my passengers yesterday had any idea that on landing, they were speeding down the flooded runway with no brakes, which is fine with me.
I mean the part about “nobody had any idea.” I’m a big fan of braking, especially when it comes to a sixty-ton jet on a rain-slicked runway.
They all deplaned a few moments later, none the wiser, which is also fine with me. I wanted to make a phone call and grab a bite between flights and I only had a few minutes to do it.
If you prefer to have “no idea” what goes on in the cockpit, click here. If you you want to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, here we go.
Twenty-some miles out of Raleigh-Durham Airport at 5,000 feet and about 200mph. The wind is a direct tailwind at 69 knots. The ceiling at the airport is between 300 and 500 feet. That means we won’t break out of the clouds until we get below 300 feet. But the minimum we can descend to without a determination that the landing is safe is 200 feet. That means we’ll have about 5 seconds from when we see the runway to decide if we can land–and make the necessary control inputs to position the jet for a safe landing and oh by the way, the approach lights aren’t working today. With me so far?
The tower reports the surface wind to be a direct crosswind. So we know the wind will shift 90 degrees somewhere between 5,000 and touchdown, plus decrease in velocity by nearly half. Also, the temperature at our altitude is about 50 degrees, but it’s 33 on the ground with freezing drizzle. Besides the fact that the jet, like a galloping horse, wants to point it’s own head and go where it’s pointed–into the crosswind, which isn’t unfortunately the way the runway’s pointed–the shifting airmass we’re riding in is bumpy as a logging trail. I call back and warn the cabin crew,
“Hang on–she’s gonna buck.” They’re Dallas-based as well. They get it. Lightens the mood–okay my mood–a little to joke around.
My F/O is one of the best. She’s an Air Force Academy grad, and like me, a former Air Force pilot. “Takes 4,000 pounds of fuel to get to Norfolk,” she offers, thinking of our alternate. We have 12,000 pounds at the moment.”If we don’t land, you put clearance on request to Norfolk and we’ll be there in twenty minutes. The winds are lighter there.”
This ain’t my first rodeo, I know how this goes: I’ll have a couple seconds tops between when we break out of the clouds and she calls “minimums,” which means if we’re not in the slot–on airspeed, fully configured, power stable–we’re going to Norfolk. Also, I know that when the jet’s done bucking around, her nose better be pointing down the runway (that’s what rudder’s for, but there’s not always enough throw) and I’ll need to delicately put the upwind wingtip lower, touching down right main gear first, then left, then the nose. Then stop the beast on what I know is a slick runway.
We break out of the clouds but into heavy rain at 300 feet. I take a “one-Mississippi” breath to size up the picture, kick in the correct rudder, lower the wing, and see if my correction will hold. It does–we can land, if nothing else changes.
“Minimums,” Nora calls. “Landing,” I announce. I keep a hair-trigger on the go-around throttle toggles, ready till the last few feet to rocket us back into the air if the bronco starts to get the better of me in this wild ride. One deliberate bump from the heel of my throttle hand and the fuel controls 140 feet behind me will dump a torrent of jet fuel into both burner cans, then we’ll stand it on it’s tail riding 50,000 pounds of thrust, getting the hell out of Dodge.
I wrestle the controls; I win. We touch down softer than I meant to, but with the blustery winds, my main goal is to make it a controlled gear-by-gear touchdown without dragging a wingtip.It’s a smart jet. On touchdown, when a computer senses that the main wheels are turning, the spoilers on top of the wing automatically pop up to kill the wing’s lift and thereby put more weight on the wheels and make our braking more effective.
The spoilers didn’t deploy. That’s because the wheels weren’t spinning: we were hydroplaning at about 145 miles per hour.
As I said, this ain’t my first rodeo. I know that hydroplaning occurs most readily at nine times the square root of the tire pressure. Our main tires are at over 200 psi, so the square root is around 15; multiplied by 9 equals 135 or so. After which, we’ll get traction and braking. Lesson of the day: if your car’s tires are at 36 psi, your hydroplane vulnerability is around 50 mph. Don’t panic! Stay with it, decelerate carefully and you WILL regain traction.
My excellent First Officer called out, “No spoilers” and manually deployed them. I kept the nose straight with aerodynamic controls until the brakes became effective, slowing our sixty-ton sled to taxi speed, skidding nonetheless four or five times more over pooled water from the heavy rain.
We warned the Southwest jet on final ten miles behind us. Then taxiied to the gate.
The jet emptied, the passengers went safely on their way, and I stopped at my favorite barbeque place before turning the jet around and launching back into the rainy gloom.
Just another day at the office. I couldn’t do anything without the teamwork of the fantastic first officers we have. And you couldn’t get where you’re going in one piece without all of us on both sides of the cockpit door.
Nonetheless, we still hear all too often that airline pilots are overpaid. Click on the video below, and think that over.
Meet your congress!
Well, at least one famous member. Here’s the “Larry Craig Toilet” in the Minneapolis Airport: