Flying instrument approaches into even marginal weather is something that I really love to do. The challenge of guiding 20,000 pounds of aircraft filled with soft squishy bits (people) onto the centerline of a runway hidden by clouds/rain/fog/snow/night/crap is just simply a blast. Sometimes the entire flight is in the weather and there’s no sense looking out the windows until the last few seconds when you either break out and see the runway or you don’t. That’s often the case in piston aircraft. You just can’t climb high enough to get on top of the weather so you’re forced to spend hours grinding away in the clouds, getting bounced around, flying through rain, snow and ice, dodging thunderstorms and generally earning every dime you make. (Lot’s of times the pay rate for flying piston powered aircraft can be measured in dimes)
In a jet, on the other hand, It’s rare that you can’t get on top. Tooling along at 43,000 feet ,or higher if need be, (the Citation 650 tops out at 51,000 feet!) with the clouds and all the nastiness therein is simply bliss. I’m always struck by the stark contrast of flying along in the bright sunshine (Hey, it’s always a sunny day if you climb high enough) then descending below the clouds only to find out that it’s really a crummy day down there.
Okay, I’ll have to admit that the preference of flying jets above the weather vs. smaller planes down in the crap applies to most pilots but not to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love flying jets. And doing 500 knots at 43,000, sipping coffee and chatting with your copilot about where we’re going to have lunch when we land is kind of nice. But what really gets me going is the fight. Sweating it out down low in the weeds. Dodging the weather dragons that threaten to end the flight anyone foolish to challenge them. That’s what I love. Breaking out of the clouds at 200 feet with visibility so bad you can only see the runway end identifier lights after a few hours of flying where the outcome was always in doubt is LIVING BABY! Yeah, I didn’t get the nickname “Scary Kerry” for nothing.
The clip above is an approach I flew into Appleton Wisconsin last week. It isn’t particularly low or difficult but it’s all I have for now.
A few years ago Son number one (SNO) decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become one of the elite, the best of the best, the tip of the spear, the kind of man that other men want to be like and women want to be with. That’s right, I’m talking about a US Army helicopter Crew Chief! Yeah baby. As I mentioned before SNO is currently Deployed someplace warm and semi dangerous. We miss him greatly but this is the mission that he’s been training for and he’s loving the adventure. I’m jealous as hell but I guess I can still live vicariously through him.
So there I was, or should I say there they were, thought they were gonna die.
Late last week I was hanging out at our home base airport, drinking a cup of coffee and waiting for the last of our passengers and the morning sun to arrive. That morning our company was sending two jets to Texas. My copilot and I were taking 6 guys who worked in the oil fields and the other plane was taking two guys to do a little hunting. We’d arrived an hour early and The Great White Hope (Cessna Citation 650) was preflighted and ready to go. Central Wisconsin had received a good six inches of wet snow that night and the ramp was an ice skating rink. Our plan was to load the passengers while the plane was still in the hanger and then have the tug pull us out. Then we’d just fire up and take off. That way the plane would stay warm and we wouldn’t have to worry about the wings getting iced up. Taking off with contaminated wings is a huge no no. It doesn’t take much snow or ice to greatly reduce the amount of lift the wings can produce.
The four of us were just waiting for show time when the lights of a jet went whizzing past the the front windows of the lobby. Kind of strange, our windows looked out over the midpoint of a 8000 foot runway, and normally a landing plane was just about if not completely stopped by that point and a plane taking off was already in the air. The mystery was solved a few seconds later when over the radio behind the desk we heard the tower report that someone had just gone off the end of the runway. I’m pretty sure we all had the same thoughts as rushed to the windows because when a jet goes off roading it’s a bad thing. We couldn’t see anything ( no fire at least) so we clustered around the radio trying to hear what the tower was saying to the airport trucks racing down to the scene of the…crash? We were also trying to play it cool because we had a lobby full of passengers who were about to try their luck aboard our jets. “Nothing to see hear folks, never to worry. aviation is one of the top ten safest ways to travel. Why the odds of two jets skidding off the runway in one morning are……Never mind, there’s free booze! It wasn’t long before the tower declared that the airport was closed.
Of course being pilots we immediately began speculating. Too fast of an approach speed? Touchdown too far down the runway? (good possibilities from what we saw) Break problems? Thrust reversers? We soon heard that the crew was OK and the plane was still on it’s wheels. An airport maintenance worker came in looking for a tow bar that might work to pull the jet back to the ramp. Suddenly the tower came up on the radio and said that the airport was now open! My copilot and I wasted no time in getting the hell out of there before someone with more sense closed the airport again. Because even though the jet was not actually on the runway maybe jets shouldn’t be taking off over smoking wreckage filled with charred bodies. Or a plane in the weeds. And getting while the getting was good turned out to be a good plan because about 5 minutes after we were wheels up dad said close r down. We know this because while we were beating feet the two pilots of our other jet that was supposed to two hunters to Texas that morning decided to wait for a new report on how slippery the runway was. A prudent precaution for the conditions and mornings events but they ended up being stuck at the airport for 4 hours while we were in the air.
When we got back that evening we heard that the jet had been able to taxi out of weeds and back to the ramp under its own power. A good thing too because there wasn’t a suitable tow bar on the airport. We also got the the scoop on the incident from the line guys. The jet in question was an old Falcon jet that’s being used to haul cargo. The pilot claimed to have lost his right break on landing but when the company’s mechanics inspected the aircraft they not only didn’t find any damage from exiting the runway at high speed they didn’t find anything wrong with the breaks. We experts, (pilots, same thing) surmised that they landed long and fast and probably hydroplaned on the wet slush covered runway. And on one final note the 20 year old copilot initially refused to get back into the plane and fly with the 60 year old captain. He had to be threatened with being fired before he’d get back in. Not sure I blame him. (that spin was hell Maverick, it would’ve shook me up) It had to be terrifying to go for that ride. One of our line guys saw the whole thing and said that they were really moving and he could see the red light on the tail bouncing all over the place as they slid sideways off the runway. Good fun.
My visit the the John Wayne airport in Santa Ana California last week reminded me that as far as jet flying goes I still have a lot to learn. To say that the airspace just south of the city of angels is busy would be an understatement of the highest order. Helicopters taking tourists for holiday rides, flight students learning working on their license, private pilots out for a spin, and business jets all buzzing around the airport like a hive of bees. Oh, and there might be one or two airliners heading to and from LAX thrown into the mix just for fun. So when you fly in or out of an airport that gets very busy you usually are required to fly one of their predetermined arrival or departure procedures. Each procedure has a mix of mandatory altitude and speed restrictions that must be followed to ensure safe separation from other aircraft. I’m sorry, maybe I’m doing a good enough job explaining the seriousness of following the procedure. I should spend more time emphasizing the words MANDATORY and MUST! Lonely? Feeling neglected and unloved because you never get any personal mail? Just bust one of the altitude or speed restrictions in the airspace next to Las Angeles and the FAA will waste no time sending you a letter. and don’t worry it will be VERY personal.
Flying in from Scottsdale AZ we were assigned the Rooby Three arrival which, as you can see in depiction above, is complicated but relatively straight forward. There are a lot of altitude changes but only one speed restriction and only one heading change. We were empty on this leg (no one to scare but my copilot) so I got to fly. Things happened fast but it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and I managed to not only find the airport but I didn’t put any large dents in the runway when I landed.
The Hobow Two Departure on the other hand is an entirely different kettle of fish. After departure your first turn comes when you climb out of 560 feet. In a jet that takes about 10 seconds and you’re just getting your gear and flaps up at this point. After that the hits just keep coming. There are 2 mandatory speed targets, 3 altitude targets, and 11! heading changes! Let me tell you, it was a busy couple of minutes because not only did we have to make sure that we were flying the departure correctly but the radio was going nuts! Just a little different than flying skydivers out of a grass field in Wisconsin I guess.