Friday, August 11, 2006

Well yesterday's flight from Memphis to Newark had a few twists to it, not the least of which is that we wound up in Teterboro. We were taxiing for departure in KMEM when they said there was a ground stop in Newark, so we switched our destination to Teterboro. No big deal there, it only took a minute and we figured we'd check in the air if we could change it back to Newark a little later on. We figured it was 'cause of the terror, or cause a few pop-up thunderstorms were in the area, and New York seems to come to a complete standstill where there are clouds in the sky.

The weather around Memphis was pretty spectacular when we departed - There were 2 huge lines of thunderstorms along our route, one just north of us and one just south of us. The main one we had to worry about was through Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, and it was heading eastward. Our course took us northeast so we figured with a bit of dodging and luck, we'd be okay.

We were really lucky in that the lines paralleled where we wanted to go anyway, otherwise we would have been stuck in Memphis overnight. There was no chance of flying over these bad boys. We can go to FL410 but these storms were real pilot-killers, with tops up to 70,000', hail and tornados.

Here's the US storm report summary for yesterday. Note the activity north east of Memphis and also right around Teterboro. More in that in a bit.

Anyhoo, we took off right in the middle of a bunch of FedEx departures, and they were all around us, trying to find holes through the thunderstorms to deliver their cargo, and not having much success. On our initial climbout, the controller cleared us to FL230 only, and told us the high-level controller was saturated and couldn't take any more planes, so we would be at 23,000' for a while.

Now the nature of turbojet engines is that they really, really suck gas down at low altitude. I had put in full fuel (5,000 lbs) 'cause I knew the weather would be iffy, but at FL230 we suck nearly 2,000 lbs per hour, a wee bit more than our normal 800 lbs/hr at FL360. If they kept us at 230, we would arrive in Teterboro with 800 lbs of fuel, which is our company cut-off; if circumstances are such that we calculate landing at our destination with less than 800 lbs of fuel, we go somewhere else and get gas, no matter what. (We had a low-fuel incident about 8 months ago coming back from Nassau that I'll relate in a future story, and we have initiated this rule so we never have another low-fuel incident again)

I moaned and bitched and whined until the controller eventually gave us FL310, which brought our fuel burn down to a still-insane 1,500lbs/hour, but which would give us a decent buffer on landing in Teterboro.

On board our airplane we have a tablet touch-screen PC that is hooked into our GPS and also the XM satellite network. We have WSI weather on the tablet PC, and I freakin' LOVE it. I load it up, and a map of North America appears. I can zoom in and out anywhere, and see the various airports. I can touch on an airport and it shows the METAR, TAF, and airport details. It also shows satellite radar, upper winds, SIGMETS, PIREPS, and a bunch of other useful stuff. You know when you go into a nice FBO and they have the weather briefing computer with all the goodies? Well, we have that on-board and a lot more.

That's a pic of what we have, it also has Jepp charts installed, and hooked up to the GPS, so we can overlay our aircraft position on the Jepp chart and watch as we shoot the approach. Yeah, the rest of the cockpit is all analogue gauges, but the tablet PC really brings us into the modern age and it's worth it's weight in beer (beer being more valuable to me than gold). Unfortunately I couldn't find a pic of one showing the actual weather. Trust me, it's extremely useful.

Anyhoo, we cruised along for 400 miles, watching our on-board radar and cross-referencing it with my beloved tablet PC, picking our way through the skeery, skeery thunderstorms until around North Carolina, where the weather totally cleared out. We were allowed to climb up to FL350 and happily cruised along, remarking on our good luck in the flight so far. I then zoomed over to the New York area on the tablet PC and noticed that Teterboro was reporting a heavy thunderstorm, wind gusts to 40 knots, with 1/2 mile vis, and an rvr reading of between 2000 to 4000. We are certified to RVR 1200, but that doesn't mean it's fun, especially if the visibility is lowered due to heavy rain rather than fog.

We asked if we could change our destination back to Newark, but we were flatly refused - due to the orange terror alert, ATC wasn't accepting any destination changes. I'm sure I now have a file on me just for asking, but whatever.

We briefed the approach and the possible missed approach. The bad stuff was in a line directly over Teterboro, extending east - west, so we asked for a turn to the north in the event we were unable to continue. The controller was very good, and said we could expect that.

We descended to 4,000', where we were vectored in toward Teterboro and handed off to the approach controller. He was truly fantastic, he kept us away from the areas of weather that our radar was painting as red and the tablet PC was showing were full of lightning, and vectored us west, then north of the system, then back east, finally putting us on the ILS for 19. The previous aircraft had missed, but the one before that had gotten in, so we weren't sure what to expect. We were below the cloud layer, but we could see lightning in all 4 quadrants on the approach, which was fairly dramatic. Our vis was decent on the ILS, we had maybe 3 miles in light rain. As we approached the airport, I could see a wall of water directly over the runway. The contrast was remarkable - just north of the wall, where we were, it was decent, but maybe a hundred yards before the threshold, everything kind of disappeared in the heavy rain. We could hear thunder as we went down below 1000' AGL and prepared for the landing. Decision height on the ILS is 300' for some reason, and at 300 I called visual landing, but it wasn't entirely certain cause we weren't into the wall of water yet. At 200' we went into the heavy rain, and vis went from 3 miles to a few hundred yards. I let the computer fly the ILS right down until our radar altimiter voice called "Fifty", and then retarded the throttles, flared a little, and waited to see what would happen. The air was smooth, but we could see flashes all over the place, and the sound of rain on the windshield was pretty damn loud. The plane touched down right at the thousand foot markers, and I popped the thrust reversers, stepped on the brakes and the boss extended the speedbrakes. We came to a gentle stop, and taxiied, in, letting the ground controller know where we were on the airport 'cause he couldn't see us due to the heavy rain. The aircraft behind us asked how the ride was and I told him it was smooth, but with a lot of lightning and reduced visibility in the flare.

We taxiied in, and as we were shutting down I watched the aircraft on approach behind us spool up the throttles and go missed, climbing back up into the rain and lightning - I guess we just got lucky. I felt bad for the crew 'cause I felt like I had given them a bad report and now they had their hands full, flying a missed approach under a thunderstorm.

Here's a link to yesterday's weather in Teterboro. We touched down at 7:06pm.


The ground crew came up in a van and escprted my boss into the terminal while I thoroughly soaked myself getting our bags out of the aircraft. He got a rental car and left, and I put our mighty jet to bed, then headed for the Marriott in Secaucus, where I am right now. Today we head back to Toronto, and the weather is clear and a million so life is good.

Now in case it appears I lack consistency - posting a story about flying through a thunderstorm a few days ago and now doing an approach into one yesterday night, I want to clarify - in my adventure a few years ago, I was right into it with no situational awareness. Yesterday I always had an out and was in visual conditions for the entire approach. I had briefed the entire procedure with my boss, and we were both cross-checking our radar and the sat rader the entire time, and we both agreed that if anything skeery happened, we would immediately bug out and head north where it was clear. It makes all the difference in the world whether or not you are prepared, and this time we were, and it was challenging, but at NO point were we in actual danger.

Safe flights, I have to go get the plane ready to head home.


Anonymous said...

> [...] Yesterday I always had an out and was in
> visual conditions for the entire approach.

... except for the last ten seconds?

Sulako said...

My eyes were closed anyway, it wouldn't have mattered :)

Aviatrix said...

"it's worth it's weight in beer"

"I'm sure I now have a file on me just for asking, but whatever"

I'm sure glad I found your blog. It's fun and interesting reading. We must have beers together sometime.