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.