What’s it gonna be, wing nut?


Step inside my head for a moment.

Both jet engines are cooking slowly, efficiently, and you’re riding a cool blue flame in the thinnest reaches of the atmosphere, surfing the jet stream flinging you across the night sky with an extra hundred knots across the ground.

Love speed, love tailwinds and smooth night skies and clear radars and huge-mongous ground speed and parsimonious fuel flow of high by-pass fanjets breathing easy in the stratosphere. Can’t get enough of that, or keep it long enough.

Which is part of the deal. The weather three hundred miles ahead and eight miles below is crap, and that’s right where you’re headed. Not a surprise, so you started the balance sheet a thousand miles ago, before lighting the fires and launching off: destination forecast = extra fuel and an alternate airfield. But there’s a catch: extra fuel means extra weight. Your late arrival will put you beyond the landing cutoff time for the “long runway,” which itself is only 6,900 feet–short by any jet transport standard.

So you’ll need to plan to stop the jet on the short runway, the only one open. It’s less than a mile long, which ain’t much to stop 70 tons of pig iron literally flying at 234 feet per second on touchdown. Unchecked, that speed would eat up the 5,204 foot slab and put you into the lagoon in 21.367 seconds.

Hobson’s Choice: more fuel makes for more weight makes for a tough stop, but allows more flight time for contingencies. Thinking of the lagoon, stopping wins over loitering.

Bring in just enough fuel to set up a rational, stable approach, missed approach if need be, then rational, stable goat-rope divert to Dulles with the big-ass runways only 20 miles away. No more, no less fuel than that.

More accounting: landing distance chart shows at our weight, we need 5,000 feet of runway in order to stay off of CNN Breaking News. That leaves 200 feet to spare. At our touchdown speed, that’s about 1.5 seconds, but don’t exaggerate: by the time we’ve slowed some, you’ll have at least 3, maybe 5 seconds to contemplate your Facebook profile picture splashed all over the news.

Secret knowledge; runway 33 at Washington Reagan has a special high-friction coating to aid in stopping. Do you care? Hell no. That’s just one of those bad temptations whispering in your ear to “try it, it’ll be fine” when what really catches your attention after 17,000 flight hours is a different voice:

Don’t be an idiot! Trust no one, rely on no forecast or report or tech study; be conservative, be safe, realize there’s something out there you don’t know know that you’ll damn well wish you had later.

That’s my silent partner, that’s air sense, that’s “salt,” as my compadre Randy Sohn, legendary pilot who is one of only a handful of pilots in the nation who holds an open ATP from the FAA: he’s certified to fly any and every aircraft in the world. Hallelujah and amen–I believe!

First Officer has salt too. On descent, he asks, “You don’t mind if I’m on a hair-trigger to say ‘go-around’  if anything doesn’t look good on the approach, do you?”

“Heck no–more than happy to have you do that and if you do, put clearance on request to Dulles right then.”

Strapping in, starting descent, seat the cabin crew because the radar looks problematic and–they’re a Dallas-based crew, they’ll get it–you tell them “hang on, she’s gonna buck.” Which means grab a buttload of jumpseat and stay there.

Excellent First Officer has the data link printout of the DCA weather. Which you don’t trust and besides, it’s twenty minutes old already.

Cheat: I tell the First Officer as we turn downwind at 8,000 feet, “I’ll be off the primary radio for a minute.” On one of the others, I call the tower. “What are your winds currently?” I need to know, because we can tolerate ZERO tailwind on the short runway. I have the direct crosswind heading in mind; anything greater means we go off to Dulles. Of course, tower says direct cross.

Store that away. Trust no one.

Back with the F/O. We pre-briefed both approaches to both runways, in the slight chance we could beg our way onto the long one. If not, we’re also set up for the non-precision which is the only option (how dumb is that for a major airport?) on the short runway. F/O suggests we could burn off some fuel and have an easier stop.

I think about that for a moment. No, that would commit us to that runway without a rational divert option, which I believe we need to hold in reserve as I don’t have a warm fuzzy about the short runway: is it dry? Really dry? If we were to blow a tire and lose 25-30% of our braking effectiveness, could we stop anyway, “super friction” or no?

“Can you guys turn in from there?” asks Approach Control, “Or do you want a turn south to descend?”

Hah. “We want a turn south.” Remember, a stable, rational approach, not a screaming descent to the black hole visual.

Turn back inbound low and slow, just the way we need to be. Intermittent clouds–they’re pushing the visual limits, but it’s marginally acceptable. I see the river.

“Want me to call it?” asks the F/O. That means I’m responsible from that point on to descend and land visually. “Yes, call it.”

We’re cleared visual. I aim for the George Washington Bridge, crossing at the specified altitude, then it’s a free for all: plan a wide swing out then line up on the runway.

Goddam black hole. I’ve got the runway–it’s that big black spot. I don’t like aiming at a “big black spot,” especially a short one.

Speed’s right on, sink rate good. Switch to tower frequency, cleared to land. Tower wind report goes bad; doing the math, angle of deviation and rate: that’s a possible 2 to 5 knot tailwind.

Gray area: might it die down? Might it be different at the approach end? Might I be able to sneak under the normal approach path and claim a few hundred extra feet of runway? Might the friction additive make the difference? Black hole growing closer at 221 feet per second. Can you do it? You know you can, you can fly anything.

The question hangs in the air for a heartbeat: what’s it gonna be, wing nut?

Eff the ifs and mights. My air sense says this is not necessarily wrong–but absolutely not right enough for me to do it.

F/O correctly says, “That’s a no go.”

“Tell him we want clearance to Dulles.” Done.

Huge hassle to reconfigure, new altitude, new clearance, coordinate divert, avoid the Washington restricted airspace; reprogram the flight management system, brief the Dulles approach after securing the weather and a clearance and Job One: stay in control.

Twenty two minutes later, we’re on the ground safely at Dulles.

About 20 or thirty of the 160 warm pink bodies deplaning in one piece glare at me, mad about being 20 miles west of the lagoon I wouldn’t risk plunging into. The next day, after landing at Washington Reagan, an airport supervisor is in the cockpit before the engines have stopped spinning to read me the riot act: the divert cost $50,000; 45 kids misconnected to Honolulu; and then the prize, “did you think about asking to land south?”

Right, night VFR, a constant stream of jets inbound, just enough fuel for an approach and a divert if needed and we’ll ask to land against traffic.

The easy part of the job is the flying, Randy would always say. It’s the thinking you’d better get right. We did, enough said.

Nice job keeping everyone dry and the $50 million dollar jet out of the lagoon . . . good headwork on the critical decisions . . . nicely done divert. That’s what I hear in my head; it’s what I’d already told my First Officer.

Because no matter what an angry supervisor or glaring passengers might be “thinking”–I’d do it again, will do it again, exactly the same way: smart, conservative, safe. Yeah, that’s how it’s gonna be–every last time.


Waiting to pull out of the alley in LAX.

San Clemente Island off the southern Cal coast.

Pebble Beach

Edwards Air Force Base and the Space Shuttle runway.

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23 Responses to “What’s it gonna be, wing nut?”

  1. Perhaps that Chief Pilot should have said, “Good Call” and left it at that. -C.

  2. I’d rather be one whole, warm pink body than cold, fragmented bits and pieces. Great read as usual!

  3. Never heard of an open license before, what exactly is that?

    • Randy is one of a handful with an open rating. He does the checkrides for pilots in exotic aircraft, many warbirds. There are only a few pilots who hold the open rating. Randy finished his airline career on the 747 at NWA in the 90’s, but still flies and certifies warbirds. Here’s more info on an aviation legend who’s also a downright nice guy too.

      • Chris, I too had never heard of an Open Ticket or Open Type Rating and had to follow through with the move info button above. Wow!!! One impressive career. As he notes at some point, the most important part of check rides on unusual equipment is knowing when to say, “No.” Thanks for the addendum. -C.

      • Yes, Randy is one-of-kind, super generous with his time and advice. He always calls me “Junior,” my nickname as a new captain in the early 90s. I constantly asked for and he was free with his advice on CRM and how to be a good captain.

        Quite a career he’s had, too, as you can see from that link. Yet humble as they come–and funny as hell too.

         Chris

        Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  4. Once again, a brilliant post. If only all pax could read this before boarding. Education is a wonderful thing.
    The chief pilot will obviously be aware that for decision making only God outranks the captain, who collects all the kicks if it goes wrong.
    Commercial pressures. The biggest cause of AAIB reports in the UK after pilot error.
    Still. Chief Pilot has to tick the boxes and cover his butt.
    An airline captain will feel a kinship with any sea captain in Nelson’s navy. It’s a lonely place to be.

    • Agreed. I did a little “pushback” regarding his opinion with a few items of my own. That business is not covered here in the interest of discretion.

  5. blackwatertown Says:

    Phew! It’s exciting enough reading about it. Can hardly imagine living through it. And that wasn’t a particularly weird or challenging flight – no more than normal. Am I right?

  6. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing your decision making process in this account. I’m inclined to put this quote at the bottom of my preflight checklist to serve as a final sanity check:

    “Don’t be an idiot! Trust no one, rely on no forecast or report or tech study; be conservative, be safe, realize there’s something out there you don’t know that you’ll damn well wish you had later.”

  7. A320F/O Says:

    Just curious–did your airline’s Chief Pilot back you up? And BTW, love that picture of the CFM-56 (I assume?) engine from the rear near the top of your blog. How did you get that image in that effect?

    • The Big Kahuna–our Chief Pilot/Vice President of Flight–backed me up 110% as I knew he would, which made it easier to do what I knew was the right thing at the time. He has stressed his policy will all 8,500 pilots on our property: “fly aggressively safe,” which is exactly what we did–we don’t wait for problems to develop; we seek them out aggressively and form a plan to circumvent a problem before it becomes dangerous. He flies regularly and is a pilot’s pilot–he knows what he’s talking about.

      The picture is a CFM-56, as you said. Took it on the ground in Dulles with my iPhone 4, which is where the majority of my pictures that you see here come from. The effect is from Microsoft Digital Imagery which reversed light and dark–I just thought that looked cool especially with the dark background of the blog. Usually, though, I use the PS free app on the iPhone to process pictures and actually, the panoramic shot in the cockpit is from the Panorama free app.

  8. Thanks Captain! As one who sits behind you holding on to those jump seats while the plane bucks and lives are in your hands, I’m happy to hear the term aggressively safe!

  9. Chris, great recount of your tight situation, but what is with our nation’s capital airports? Here in Canada, Ottawa has an archaic backwards backcourse approach to runway 25 orientated to the prevailing westerlies. For us Airbus guys, it’s a near “pan, pan, pan.” LOL
    CYOW also has a VOR only approach to runway 14 and there are some “gotchas” they like throwing at us in the simulator with that one. But yes, there are two ILS approaches too. Not sure if AA gets that far north?

    I hear ya about tight runways. Yesterday we had to land on 13 in Fort Lauderdale. Excavators and dump trucks are attacking their main runway…27 Right. The “awareness factor” was up a notch with us in a fully loaded A321 and my F/O flying… only having been released to the line a month ago. He did an amazing job, but we did clear at the end.

    The take off consisted of juggling the numbers to technically and legally get airborne. Again fully loaded, with an ambient temperature of 31c we had to implement a rare flap setting with the packs off and “balls to the wall” power.

    The life of an airline pilot……

    Captain D

    • I hear you, Doug. Good job on the FLL antler dance and thanks for the heads up on the runway closure–I have to go there a couple times next month.

      Gets to be quite a puzzle doing mix and match flaps and performance data when the temp pokes into the 30s. I’m glad the 737 can do bleeds off but still have packs on. The MD-80 required a noisy, rattly unpressurized take-off roll with pack reinstatement in the second segment climb.

      I hate non-precision approaches (thankfully, there’s no ADF in the -800) and here in the states, it’s usually noise complaints and politics driving the restrictions: higher MDAs limit the traffic and noise, I guess. In the case of DCA, which like La Garbage was designed for DC-3s with smaller wingspans and slower groundspeeds, they want to drive traffic to Dulles.

      Also like LaGuardia, I think they should shut the place down. Jets shouldn’t be doing the air show required to get in there, even though it’s fun for you and me (love the Expressway Visual in LGA, and the River Visual in DCA) because the fields are too short and the approaches too obstructed to be done sensibly.

      Have you done SNA? Ought to be a ride at Disney, thanks to noise abatement procedures and the postage stamp of a runway.

      Ah well, living the dream. Thankfully, the public doesn’t have a clue.

  10. Chris

    Yes, USS LaGuardia (water sits at the end of three runways) can be fun doing the Expressway visual to 31. But throw in a snowflake or even mention the word “thunderstorm” and it’s off the rails.

    SNA (John Wayne, Orange County airport)?

    We were running flights into there on the A319 but we have since dropped the route. When reading the briefing notes, it sounded like one would be taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. I gave it a miss.

    • Chris and Doug, Oh how I hear you guys about SNA-John Wayne! I few into that postage stamp a few years ago on a long 737. Well before landing, the Capt. made his announcement and included some comments about extra tight seatbelts, extreme braking and unrestrained stuff flying around the cabin. He went so far as to explain a Firm Planting on the runway and that while perfectly safe, it might not be the most gentle landing that you have experienced. In fact, the PF *did* grease it, but it was the most extreme braking event that I’ve ever experienced. While routine operations at SNA are within specs – or they would not happen – I would not want to land there with anything less than a 100% airplane and darn good tires. While SNA may not be the worst runway to returning a Big Thing to tera firma, it is probably one of the busiest and not a great place for a new, perhaps timid FO with less than perfect command of the machine strapped to his/her butt. As much as I might like a ‘thrilling ride,’ Big Things is not the place for cheap thrills. With so many other options in the LA Metro area, once was enough and I don’t do SNA. Perhaps strange, but I’ve never ridden into LGA. I’ll keep it that way, no matter who is driving. A few in the public mass *do* have a clue! I like that VP’s line that Chris quoted, “…fly aggressively safe.” Thanks guys. Please know efforts and Safety First choices are appreciated. A temporary diversion is better then a permenant one. -C.

      • I agree with you, it’s not an optimum place to operate. I think the public assumes that since you “can,” according to the FAA, you “should,” but I don’t agree.

        Have to say “timid F/O” is never in command–as Doug will surely vouch for, we sign for the plane and the people, we’re always in command. If I don’t like what I see happening, I simply take over.

        I’ve made that P.A. you mentioned, with very careful wording: “more aggressive braking than usual, nothing to be worried about.” That’s for Burbank, SNA, DCA and LaGarbage, where yes, jets “can” operate–but it’s not a very good situation. I’m glad my boss is a stickler for safety–he’ll say if it don’t look right, get out of town. I do.

  11. Chris, I don’t want to beat this to death, but I agree with every word. Someplace, someone mentioned that several (most?) of the mentioned airports were built with smaller, lighter piston-powered aircraft in mind. When you bid away from the mini-strips, I hear you, loud and clear, sir. I had forgotten about Burbank. That is another SoCal option that I just won’t do, on any aircraft. On perfect days, those places work just fine. WTF happens if a tire blows and when the surface is wet? The physics of mass and motion forgive nothing. Ever. A very good discussion, sir and thank you. I look forward to your next post. -C.

    • Good points, Craig. And it is ironic–from a pilot standpoint, Burbank is a challenge and kind of fun (for lack of a better word) like LGA or DCA. But I’m looking beyond “fun” at work. BUR presents performance problems for the MD-80 on many days when the wind is out of the north. 737, not a problem, but back when I was flying the Maddog, many a time we either waited for favorable winds or had to take off light and make a planned fuel stop in Ontario. But no matter what aircraft you’re flying, landing north at night was a problem: no VASI, no approach aids, and high terrain intersecting the 3 degree glide slope only a couple miles from the runway (ABQ runway 26 is like that). Throw in some rain to make it a marginal VFR and what you have is the approach to 8, then circle to 33. All it has is runway end identifier lights. You could build a final radial, but you really couldn’t intercept it at a decent distance out because of the high terrain (come to think of it, PSP is the same way, and in the evening, you’re looking right into the sun to avoid the rocks). All these airports might have worked well for a DC-whatever-with-props, but they’re problematic for jets.

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