Flying a Jet in the Los Angeles Storms, December 12, 2014.


“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.” –Captain Yossarian, Catch-22

Here’s the deal, captain: you’re flying a 65 ton jet into Orange County airport, the famously short 5,700 foot runway. The stopping distance required there is increased drastically if that runway is wet–and yesterday, “wet” was an understatement: Los Angeles was drenched in a ten-year storm dumping inches of rain in a matter of hours.

And here’s the catch: you want to have the least amount of fuel–which is weight–on board for landing to permit stopping on the short, rain-slicked runway, but at the same time, as much as possible for a divert if necessary to Los Angeles International Airport or to Ontario Airport, both of which have long runways.

But it gets worse. The best bet for a diversion is Ontario, because the inbound air traffic is light compared to always busy LAX. But you’ve been watching on radar two thunderstorms sitting exactly on the top of Ontario, hardly moving. LAX is reporting heavy rain which means inbound delays and you know from experience that the inbound LAX air traffic flow includes many long-haul flights from Asia, Europe and points beyond. You don’t want to elbow into their already depleted fuel reserves.

Here’s your set of decisions: who will fly the approach at SNA? It must be done perfectly, given the conditions, which are reported as 1 1/2 mile visibility in fog and heavy rain, with 200 foot ceiling. The touchdown must be exactly on the right spot–neither too early nor too late–and exactly on speed, if we’re to stop on the remaining runway.

What is your plan: SNA, and then what? No holding fuel–on a missed approach, you can either try again, or divert to Ontario (thunderstorm overhead) or LAX.

You already know landing in a thunderstorm at Ontario is a poor choice. And you know, realistically, you don’t have the fuel to handle the air miles entry into the LAX landing sequence will require. A second try? Not even.

Okay, captain–DECIDE.

Here’s what I chose on each question. First, I had the F/O fly the approach. Why, when it had to be done exactly perfectly under bad conditions? The answer is, because he damn well knows how to fly an ILS, in any circumstances. If he flies the approach, fully investing in the stick-and-rudder attention demands which are large, I can focus on the big picture: what’s the Ontario storm doing? Watching LAX too on radar. Updating SNA winds, our fuel, our position.

Above ten thousand feet, we talk. I tell him what I’m thinking, then ask: what am I missing? Tell me your ideas? And as importantly, are you okay flying the approach? Because a bad night of sleep, a sore shoulder, anything–if you’re not up to this, I’ll do it.


And we have one shot, I tell him, then I’m putting clearance on request (actually did that as soon as we were switched to tower frequency) to Ontario. If the storm looks impassable on radar, option 3 is declare an emergency for fuel and barge into the LAX landing sequence. Don’t like that idea, but if we’re down to option 3, there is no other choice.

I also plot the magic number for SNA winds: 110 degrees and 290 degrees. For the precision landing runway, any wind beyond those two cardinal points strays into the verboten tailwind area. Asked about landing the other direction and the answer was: long delay. Not possible, for us.

Already requested and had the data linked chart for our landing weight sent up to the aircraft: we require 5,671 feet on a wet runway, good braking, zero tailwind. Each knot of tailwind adds 150 to the distance required, so even one knot of tailwind exceeds the runway length.

I switch my nav display from a compass arc to a rose: the full 360 display. I’m getting wind checks all the way down final and watching my cardinal points, alert for an excedence.

There’s a wind display on my HUD, too, but I realize that’s a calculation that is at least 15 seconds old. Eyeballs and experience tell the tale: he’s glued mostly to his instruments to fly a flawless ILS, but I’m mostly eyeballs-outside, monitoring speed, azimuth and glide path through the HUD, but paying attention to the realtime wind cues. He knows if I don’t like what I see, I’ll say, “Go-around” and we will be on to option 2 immediately. I know that if he doesn’t like the way the approach is going, he’ll announce and fly the go-around without any questions from me.

I tell him that if everything is stable on approach, let’s make a final wind analysis at 200 feet. If we’re both satisfied, silence means we’re both committed to landing.


I review in my head the rejected landing procedure. That is, if we touch down but I judge we can’t stop, throttle max, speed brakes stowed, flaps fifteen, forward trim, back into the air.

Clear your mind, focus on the plan: hate math, but I can sure see the compass depiction that means a verboten tailwind. Poor viz in heavy rain, but once I spot the VASIs, I can tell what the wind is doing to us. He’s flying a hell of a good approach. One final wind check at 200 feet. “That’s within limits,” I say, just to let him know that component is fine. He’s flying–if it doesn’t feel right, I want him to feel free to go-around immediately.

I don’t want to see high or low on either glide path or speed. No worries–he’s nailed it, both are stable.

A firm touchdown, then my feelers are up for hydroplaning: none. Speedbrakes deploy, but we’re not committed until reverse thrust. The MAX brakes grab hold, good traction; we’re fine, reverse thrust, I take over at 100 knots.

Silence in the cockpit. “Excellent job,” I say as we clear the runway, glad we didn’t have to execute either backup plan. Relief, Boeing has built us a damn fine, stable jet for this weather, this day, this runway.

Now, put that all behind–we still have to fly out of here in less than an hour. And do it all again tomorrow.



51 Responses to “Flying a Jet in the Los Angeles Storms, December 12, 2014.”

  1. james aydelott Says:

    “What am I missing?” That is the $10,000 question. Bravo for asking.

    • Bingo. I know what I know–but what I DON’T know is the problem. I need to know what the other pilot is thinking: I’m not perfect, and surely not solo. I’m all ears because, as an venerable old ground school instructor used to tell us, “Your hearing will improve at the hearing.”

  2. Great writing to portray the event. As always, it’s as if we were on the flight deck with you. Thanks.

  3. Randy Sohn Says:

    >>A firm touchdown, then<<

    Ah-so! Excellent !!!!!! A man after my own heart! W-a-y too many times someone in back wants to judge the flight by the smoothness of the touchdown – wrong! I judge it by WHERE it was and giving us the max distance remaining to get it stopped! I want a workman like touchdown, day in and day out.

    In my quotations list I have one here that I got from a captain of long (and valuable) experience:

    "Passengers will probably tell the first person they see about the bumpy landing. But they'll tell their grandchildren FOREVER about that time their airplane ran off the end of the runway and they had to walk through the mud all the way to the terminal. PUT THE SOaB ON so you can get it stopped!"

    Again – well done!

    • Agreed, Randy. And I make every landing, even with 13,000′ at DFW the same way because it needs to be consistent for me for those times at LGA and SNA and DCA when stopping distance is critical.

  4. […] Airport, passenger, pilot, storm, travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  5. Amazing job and expertise by both you and your F/O!!! So well written !!!

    As a non-aviation professional, I had a question ( hope you don’t mind).

    Why was SNA not closed?? Sounds dicey for all flights knowing it’s a short runway, unprecedented storm, wind, poor visibility, backup airports in no better condition etc.

    • The landing decision rests with the pilot. There is a wide range of weights and speeds for various aircraft, so need to close the airport: pilots analyze the conditions and act within the limitations of their aircraft.

      • The distance you cite is the factored distance, as well, correct? Folks may not understand that the distance estimate is conservative, in that regard.

        PS: (I’m a new captain, after waiting 8 years over here at the regional for my spot to open up. I enjoy your writing.)

      • Factored? How about calculated? And of course it’s conservative–the alternative being what?

      • “Factored.” Part 25 Factored Landing Distance, as opposed to the alternative unfactored landing distance, which is not conservative.

      • I’m talking about “operating limits.” There are various design and data analysis charts, I’m sure. But what matters in the cockpit during an approach is operating limits. We don’t fly with anything else.

  6. Great post Captain, to heck with greasers, get it on in the first third and get with the stopping program. Congrats to your F.O. on nailing the landing. I’m a fan of the actor but not of the airport.

  7. peggywillenberg Says:


  8. One of your best Captaincy posts Chris and thanks for sharing the finer details.
    Fine details for primary target (SNA): Check.
    Diversion Options, including the fine details: Check.
    Fuel State, duration time (not reported here, but I’m sure that both of you knew the details): Check.
    Multiple Options, even if one might be a little rude: Check.
    CRM, above and below the magic 10K feet: Excellent to Perfect(*) and Check.
    Captaincy: As in allowing, teaching, granting and helping to build an even better pilot from the soul to your right, excellent: Check.(**).
    More Captaincy: Maintaining multiple options through some difficult situations and apparently communicating every your partner, the FO/PF: Check (***).
    Gosh! Properly executed processes Do Work. When that FO/PF becomes a Captain, I suspect that he will remember his approach to SNA on 12-12-14, waive a salute your way. (One of the tools in building confidence is to demonstrate confidence.)
    * I’ll never hear the CVR tapes of this approach, but why do I suspect that they include a complete briefing, some discussion and a clear verbalization of options? It just sounds like your flight deck.
    ** As chief, you always have the right (obligation) to claim the controls when necessary. Leaving control with your FO builds confidence and basic flying skills during a tense situation. Perhaps ‘tense’ is an over statement. There are captains who would never allow a FO to fly that approach. Darn good choice and a real confidence builder for your partner. You still had options!
    *** CRM is more than communication, but it is at least 90% of the program. The CVRs of that SNA approach and landing are gone and that’s a shame. The recording would likely be an excellent teaching tool for others. Just thoughts from a bit of SLC here and there. Happy Holidays Chris and thanks for another real-world post. -CG

    • If I can clarify, the FO in that right seat can have, at times, more experience than the Captain. Most commonly, its experience in the particular type of aircraft.

      • The only time an F/O will have “more experience” is if the captain is junior to him. And that happens–my F/O is very senior, and often flies with guys in the left seat who have less experience. But hours in the particular aircraft don’t count as “more experience,” because F/O experience is not captain experience. If you’ve been in both seats, you know what I mean. “Time in type” ain’t the same as PIC.

  9. Reblogged this on The Lexicans and commented:
    Jethead has some really good stuff about the life of an Airline Captain. Check it out.

  10. So Chris, 5700 feet of runway, 5671 needed to stop. How much did you use?

  11. roberthenryfischat Says:

    Reblogged this on robert's space and commented:
    no i’m not in the mood fornsa/

  12. Bill Brandt Says:

    Here’s where proper crew coordination pays off. You are the Captain with the final word, but you were telling your F/O that you value his contribution and to speak up if he detects things going sideways. I was thinking too that you were giving him valuable experience – and lessons – for that time when presumably he will be in the left seat.

    I could feel the tension as you are telling the story.

  13. Good job sir, appreciate competence.
    as you know, unpowered sailplanes never go around. Once I flew into a headwind front, 40 mph +, it was headed back to the landing strip, and had destroyed a considerable amount of my safety margin altitude, the tailwind took me home, but I would have had to land downwind at 100mph ground speed. Mid field bank right and settle into the headwind, less than 40′ roll out and keep the airbrakes open so the glider doesn’t flip. Stay calm , don’t meltdown, that works, just.

  14. Was that flight into LA similar to flying in/out of some of the spring/fall afternoon thunderstorms at DFW? Like, when you see southerly gulf air flowing in and a dryline around Abilene out to the west and it’s 78 outside at noon, do you go “this could be a long day”? Are the decisions more complex on a day like that? Keep up the great work. Amazing blog!

  15. Why would you have your First Officer fly the approach and landing, instead of a coupled autopilot ILS approach and autoland, given the circumstance?

    • Because SNA doesn’t have a Cat 3 approach, which is required for autoland, and AA 737s don’t autoland anyway. We fly all Cat 3 approaches–which SNA doesn’t have–by hand to a 50 Decision Height

      • And you hand fly Cat 2?
        In this day of hi-tech, I can’t believe you are using Jurassic procedures. I think when the weather is bad, I won’t fly with you.

      • I guess it won’t be just me you won’t fly with–none of our 250+ 737-800s autoland. And you’ll need to screen out the airports that don’t have a Cat 3 approach, which is over half the airports in the US: can’t autoland without a Cat3 approach.

        Also, often a particular jet is restricted to Cat 1 due to systems downgrades, so you’ll need to check on that before you take a seat, plus crew currency is not 100%: mine ran out earlier this month, so I renewed it last week by doing a successful hand-flown Cat 3 at DFW–which was good, because we needed it in SEA yesterday. But not all crews are current for various reasons.

        So ultimately, I think you’ll like Greyhound a lot.

      • I wasn’t talking about CAT III or autoland, just a normal coupled approach. You missed the point and are quibbling.

        BTW, your photos from the cockpit violate FAA regs., especially the ones taken below 10,000 ft…. but you know that already, don’t you?

      • Really? What “FAA reg” would that be?

      • The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a regulation that prohibits pilots from using mobile phones, tablets, or laptops for personal use while on duty.

      • Hmmmmm; they don’t seem to mention “camera” anywhere, do they?

      • Doesn’t have to mention “camera.”

        FAA reg. “§121.542 Flight crewmember duties” below 10,000 feet covers this, as you should well know.

        “b) No flight crewmember may engage in, nor may any pilot in command permit, any activity during a critical phase of flight which could distract any flight crewmember from the performance of his or her duties or which could interfere in any way with the proper conduct of those duties. Activities such as eating meals, engaging in nonessential conversations within the cockpit and nonessential communications between the cabin and cockpit crews, and reading publications not related to the proper conduct of the flight are not required for the safe operation of the aircraft.”

        Taking travelogue photos of rain-soaked LA below 10k is a violation.

      • You’re trying so hard to be right, but you’re still so wrong. Let me try to help, so you can get on with your life. Right click on the “travelogue” pictures of LA: then click on “view image info.” The picture is embedded from another site, Newman; er, Filterman. We weren’t anywhere near downtown LA or LAX. Right click that, too.

        Ditto the HSI pic: it’s a stock photo. Do you really think I stopped what I was doing to take a picture? And I wrote “rose” mode, the pic is a stock HSI in arc mode to help illustrate the story.

        I think you should volunteer for the FAA: comb through the entire web and see if you can determine who took what picture and when. It’s really not possible, but it will give you something to do.

    • J.Radcliff777 Says:

      There is no FAA reg about photography – Filter-person has been suckered by a poorly sourced internet article making the rounds.

      The article assumes every pilot posting a picture is using a PED which is wrong, says every Instagram photo is from a PED which is also wrong … I have photos on my Instagram that are before there was Instagram.

      Add to that the shared photos from Creative Commons and Google and other pilots and from the cabin or the cockpit jump seat and you have Barney Fife running around like an idiot over nothing.

      Filterman? Why would anyone nickname himself that? Are you a pool guy? A/C technician?

      • Well to Filterman’s credit, in his profile he does warn that he is, in his own words, a “dilettante,” meaning he’s interested in things but knows little about what he’s interested in.

        His main point has sort of evolved into a claim that we should have done a “normal coupled approach,” but here’s where he knows nothing about the subject. If I have a challenging landing ahead, I need to hand fly the approach as much as possible to have the feel of the jet (power setting, trim, crab) in the conditions in order to effectively land in those conditions.

        The approach is easy–fly the localizer, fly the glidepath. It’s the landing that’s the challenge and Filterperson’s hands-off approach till the last second is exactly the wrong thing to do, in my experience.

        You’re right about the internet article making the rounds, based on the incorrect assumptions you cited. It was aimed at the high-strung “dilettante,” and he bought it.

  16. […] Airport, passenger, pilot, storm, travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  17. Bill Wilson Says:

    Nice story, may I suggest the next time you are in that similar situation in SNA don’t forget LGB is right next store with a beautiful 10,000 ft runway and significantly less traffic in LAX. I also know that american has operations at LGB and it would be much easier to re-accommodate the passengers

    • Unfortunately AA doesn’t have ops at LGB any more (I can’t figure out why not–we were always full in and out) but of course that’s always a possibility–we have all airfields with runways > 5,000′ on our nav display. I’d even consider March AFB too, have landed there many times as a USAF pilot.

      And honestly, in the mix of fuel, time, distance and requirements, the post-flight passenger service is not a decision factor.

      • Bill Wilson Says:

        Just a little correction, since you have mergersd with USAirways, you do have operations at LGB, just watch for the curfew at LGB ( I think the it’s the same as Sna). Welcome to the New American. Besides I rather divert to a offline civilian airport than a military airport like March AFB

      • Still no. We won’t be a single carrier till sometime next year and we aren’t using USAir facilities at LGB or even places where our gates are next to each other like BDL. In fact, we couldn’t access our flight release system from their facilities.

        From an aviation standpoint, I’d use the 13,000′ at March without a second thought. And I wouldn’t worry about a noise curfew in the LGB case either, although the -800 is quiet enough to be exempt most of them, like DCA, under 160,000 pounds.

      • How do you get fuel at RIV to complete the flight? You can’t dispatch VFR with whats left and you can’t fly VFR anyway!

        I’m with you that I’d land anywhere that’s legal and safe in that decision tree. So ONT/RIV/SBD/etc. SBD is prob a better choice than RIV since you don’t need an emergency to get in there – and they’d sell American Airlines fuel in a heartbeat.

      • Really? You think that’s a consideration on whether to go to March–you can’t figure out how to get fuel? It’s really not in the decision mix, but we fly CRAF in and out of there periodically–no big deal.

        The 4 runways at LAX are the best choice, weather permitting; ONT next best due to traffic, but not weather at that time. That was the consensus among 3 of us who were in the decision mix: me, my F/O and our dispatcher via ARINC.

        And “not needing an emergency” is a bad priority. When you carry 170 souls on board, maybe you’ll see things differently.

  18. I live about 8nm NNW of ONT. Never saw rain rates much above 0.33″/hr. TSRA over ONT? No. Was there a steady rain? Absolutely. I went back and ran the NEXRAD – no TSRA. I think that seemed to me like a little extra added drama.

    That said – your post was an excellent description of the constant balancing act of a pilot in command on a long cross country . . .

    • I don’t know what you “ran back,” only no what we saw on our 3D radar.

      It’s ironic that you think sitting on the ground a few days later you would have the more accurate assessment, but at 200 knots on the spot I’ll have to go with what we actually experienced.

  19. Mike in YPPH Says:

    Great post Chris, I always enjoy reading about the challenges you face on a regular basis and how you deal with them.

    BTW, I always enjoy the ‘travelogue’ photos too 🙂

  20. Phil Avery Says:

    I retired from flying eight years ago, and haven’t been in a cockpit since, but you took me right back to the left seat in this article, Chris. Thanks for your great writing.

  21. Very good Captain Manno! I wish you could be my daughters pilot. She flies all the time,usually on Delta. She is in Hawaii right now. Her route was BNA to ATL to HNL. It was a very long flight. I have some dumb questions for you,sorry. 1) Why couldn’t you land at KBUR if John Wayne wasn’t an option? Is the runway too short?
    2) Have you ever flown a Boeing 717? This is the plane that my daughter will fly from ATL to BNA in, and my last question is have you ever flown to Hawaii. Thank you. I love your blog,even if I don’t understand everything.

  22. Reblogged this on Ad Inexplorata and commented:
    An excellent view into a professional aircrew at work.

  23. Came here from the Lifehacker interview. Love your blog. I live a couple of miles from SNA in Irvine and the rain was pretty intense in the last few weeks. This was a brilliant account of the approach! I regularly stand at the foot of 19R to watch landing jets, mostly SWA 737s. I’ll probably see you landing sometime 🙂

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