Fly The Ragged Edge.


“If you are out of trouble, watch for danger.” –Sophocles

Which is why in flying, I like trouble in my face–because it means it’s not sneaking up to bite me in the ass.

Thought about that as wind noise coupled with the tautness of flight at the Mach limit made the whole westbound lunge seem like a strain. We’d didn’t really fly low and fast–low being mid-twenties and fast being .81 Mach–without a damn good reason. It’s expensive, and hard on the jet. But it’s the best way to cover ground fast.

I’d gotten my marching orders from Flight Dispatch and the Chief Pilot on Duty before take-off: the hurricane bearing down on Cabo was predicted to make landfall there in just over four hours. That gave me about three plus change to get in there, board a full load trying to escape the looming storm, and get out.

“If for any reason you judge that you won’t be able to get out before the storm hits–don’t land. Turn around and fly back home.” We had enough gas to get there, u-turn, then climb to a higher altitude for a slow cruise back without ever having landed. Was I game, they asked? Pilot-in-command has all of the authority, as well as the responsibility if anything goes wrong. But of course I’m game–I’m always ready to take it in the air.

What could go wrong? Maybe better, who?  The weather forecasters could be wrong about the speed of the storm, or the storm could speed up, change course–who knows?  Don’t care–I have radar. Within 300 miles I’ll get the picture, we’ll be able to calculate how fast it’s moving.

What if you get on the ground and something malfunctions, breaks or somehow prevents taking off again?

That would be like old times in the South China Sea: typhoons circling the little coral rock that is Okinawa, wind noise preventing sleep, humidity making everything clammy damp and little to do but read books and drink lukewarm refreshments by candlelight because the power goes out early on and stays out. Been there, done that. Guess we’d try to park the $25-million dollar jet with the nose into the wind and hope for the best.

What if what if what if?

Actually: who cares? You deal with it as it comes, because anything else is all fakery anyway: crossing bridges before you come to them, especially in flight, is a bad way to plan. Here’s why.

Flashback to my early years as captain . . . thirty miles south of the airport, marginal ceiling due to fog rolling up the valley. The best approach available due to winds has a 100 foot minimum. The fifty foot minimum–which we will need, my experience tells me, despite the reported airport weather–comes with a ten knot tailwind, something I’m unwilling to negotiate at fifty feet.

And the Flight Management Computer “magic box” suggests we’ll have enough fuel to shoot two approaches, then proceed a hundred miles north to our alternate, fly an approach and land. Flight Dispatch says “You should be fine–the fog’s rolling up the valley, you’ll outrun it.” So–remember, it’s my early days as captain–that’s the plan, based on “what you know.”

The first approach uses exactly as much fuel as we’d planned, but with predictable results: the ceiling is ragged; I catch glimpses of the approach lights but not sufficient to set up for a safe landing. And I won’t go below minimums, period.

Second approach, still no good; clearance to our alternate pre-coordinated on the missed approach. Then, the one-two punch I wasn’t expecting:

Now the magic box “Progress–Fuel Predict” readout is a thousand pounds lower than before we’d started the approaches, even though we’d used exactly the amount we’d expected. But somewhere between our primary and alternate, we’d lost about twenty minutes of loiter time. Not devastating–we’d land at our alternate–right?

Then the First Officer handed me the latest printout of weather at our alternate field, which did have a fifty-foot decision height–but it wouldn’t matter because our alternate had gone below minimums as well. The fog didn’t flow up the valley–it formed south to north as the temperature-dewpoint spread shrank with the setting sun. Suddenly, the snapping jaws of trouble are biting me in the ass: low fuel, and we need to overfly the alternate to the first suitable field another sixty miles north, and that one approach will be it–so it better be good.

What about the weather forecast, the last reported viz, Dispatch’s prediction and recommendation, plus the great “plan” that made sense ten minutes ago?

You can sum all that up in the great words of the modern day Sophocles: you fucked up–you trusted us. Never, never, never trust “what you know”–because that’s all a look backward. It may have been fine then, but we live and fly now, moving forward at hundreds of feet per second.

Los Cabos is currently reporting steady winds out of the south and a high ceiling. I can picture it, having raced out ahead of typhoons and hurricanes in the Pacific: a blank sky, curiously devoid of features, almost lulling you into going out to sea. It’s the high pressure dragging in the ultimate low pressure that is the hurricane. And when it nears, the high cirrus blowing off to the path of the storm–fair warning, if you pay attention, announces the march of the whirlwind heading your way.

HEFOE check: Hydraulics, Electrics, Fuel, Oxygen, Engines–the ship’s just fine, all consumables at good levels, no systems problems. The radar picture shows the contour of the first approaching bands of squall lines, still twenty to thirty miles off shore. Winds are shifting between twenty and thirty knots, so we have enough slack to sneak in and out.

This is a good steady-state “now,” in my mind: still a margin for the winds to pick up and since they’re down the runway, no problems getting airborne again. The Cabo station staff are good folks–they’d turn the aircraft around fast. I’m game. The F/O? I ask, “what am I not thinking of?”

To me that’s a better question than, “What do you think of this plan?” I want to know what he’s thinking, and what he might know that I don’t want to overlook. He shakes his head slowly–“I can’t think of anything else.”

Deep breath. Thoughts of “what if” yield to “what is.” Commit: we’re going. “Call for descent,” I say, going for the shoulder straps. Already seated the flight attendants and the handful of passengers, probably Cabo residents heading home to batten down the hatches.

The Cabo ramp is a ghost town. You can feel something electric in the air–the steady wind off the ocean, strong, relentless, the breath of a giant storming ashore, the promise of a powerful lashing to come. The sky is a jaundiced yellow now, the sun shrinking and closing it’s eye into the western Pacific, not wanting to witness what night would drag ashore.

Not the usual look on the passengers faces in the terminal. Round eyes and drawn faces, quiet, the exact opposite of the usual sunburned, wilted, worn, bored, tired, hungover, annoyed-the-vacation’s-over look. Now they look pointedly for escape. We’re the last rocket out of town.

An orderly line, clutching hats and leaning into the wind, straggles to the stairs of the jet. The wind has picked up just since we landed, more insistent now, like, “You were warned.” Something powerful, monstrous is headed this way, you can feel it. I walk around the jet one last time as passengers make their way aboard. I linger under the right wing, one wary eye toward the sea, taking in the feel of the storm. We’re good. Engine failure options on take-off now will be either a quick downwind tucked inside the mountains, or depending on when where and what (fire makes everything different), maybe further north or east.

I’m the last one up the stairs to the aircraft. The station folks have a wary, distant look–they know what they’re in for. “Take care, amigo,” I say, hating to leave the agent there. “Via con Dios,” he says back, then looks away.

We part ways, done with “what if,” both turning to face what our own trip to the edge means. It’s better that way, finding and facing it. At least that way you know where it is.

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4 Responses to “Fly The Ragged Edge.”

  1. Luc Coulombe Says:

    Oh you ol’ dog you. 🙂 Okay, how much do you want for the rest of the story?

    Very well written sir!

    Luc

  2. Excellent post. Great writing. Thanks for putting in the time to create such a consistently good blog.

  3. blackwatertown Says:

    Well-timed – just as I was getting complacently comfortable.
    You’ve reintroduced that edge to flying. (Just before I cross the Atlantic too, curse you.)

    • Sorry! Let me make it up to you. Here’s something much more peaceful but if you like a vivid read, this might do–it’s the non-aviation side of my writing. Might be something to take your mind off the crossing. Bon voyage!

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