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Location: Massachusetts, United States

Monday, December 24, 2007

Into the abyss

We crossed Providence at 11,000 feet and braced as we entered the clouds.
"Here we go," I muttered, exhausted and apprehensive of the next few minutes. My Captain, the non-flying pilot on this leg to Boston, remained silent.
All around us, in the murky night sky, moderate to severe turbulence awaited, mixed in with rain and ice.
Our day had started a little over 14 hours earlier. On the airport van, the Captain and I discussed the weather. All our destinations that day were looking bleak.
Of course, this was also the last day of our four-day sequence and getting home for Christmas was not a certainty.
The first leg went well. We encountered a little weather but nothing too significant. I preflighted and set up for our next leg to LaGuardia and surveyed the weather along the East Coast. The first wave of the bad stuff was now developing, spelling certain delays and more than likely cancellations.
As we neared New York, the Captain clicked the autopilot off and fought angry turbulence valiantly.
"You're cleared to land runway 22, wind 180 at 26 gusting 30. Previous aircraft reported a gain of airspeed of 20 knots at 800 feet," the controller advised us.
Sure enough, the aircraft jolted violently and rolled at that altitude.
Defiant and determined, The Boss landed beautifully.
As usual, we sat for a few hours at LaGuardia. The terminal was packed with holiday travelers, many of them stranded for now. Every seat in the house was taken and weary passengers filled every inch of available real estate. Against the backdrop of Christmas songs, exasperated children cried and moaned, the desperate argued hopelessly with overwhelmed gate agents while seasoned travelers sat in silence, resigned to the mess that are New York airports.
In fitting style, we learned our flight to Washington was canceled the same way our passengers did: through the gate agent's PA. Not completely surprised, the Captain and I began studying our options for the rest of the day, hoping to talk ourselves into flying an earlier flight home, perhaps even early enough for us to beat the thick of the weather.
But it was all to no avail and we were destined to sit.
Fast-forward five long, excruciating hours. We are 10 minutes from departure. The cockpit is all set up for our flight to Boston, our fuel looks good, passengers and bags are on board. All we are missing are our weight and balance numbers. Once they come in we'll punch our passenger load and cargo into the FMS, make sure the passenger distribution matches what our flight attendant has relayed to us. We'll then hand our paperwork to the gate agent, shut the door and get on our way home.
But it's almost Christmas and it's been a long four-day trip filled with weather encounters and nothing, absolutely nothing, can be easy this close from being home.
"Bad news," the frazzled gate agent tells me. "You're switching airplanes."
No way. Not with everything ready to go and now only a few minutes to an on-time departure. Not on our last leg of the trip. Not when this delay could cause us to time out and be stuck in LaGuardia, away from home for a fifth day. Not as weather in Boston is building, making our chances of making it in slimmer and slimmer with every wasted minute.
We fought it and won. Paperwork's gone, door's closed. Off we go.
It's my leg and I'm tired. Long day, long trip and only one day of rest since my previous trip. But I can do it. With the winds tonight it'll be a half-an-hour flight.
I lift off easily and made the turn to south on the Maspeth Climb. A few miles from the airport I roll the airplane the the left, a long sweeping turn that will point us Northwest, towards home. The heavy winds have cleared the air and the bright orange lights below us extend to infinity. We cut briskly through broken cumuli on our way to FL230. The grey clouds contrast sharply with the lights below and are bathed from above in the moon's cold silver light, a truly beautiful sight.
Ahead of me, build-ups rise menacingly in the dark sky. Inside these towering clouds, awaits mayhem, so I divert around them to avoid the bumps and keep this ride as smooth as possible. Nonetheless, we are pulled and shoved by the angry sky.
At 23,000 feet, I click the autopilot on to set up my instruments for our approach into Boston. With strong tailwinds, we are only in cruise for a few minutes before beginning our descent.
"Here we go."
As we enter the clouds over Providence, the aircraft becomes a bucking bronco. The autopilot is struggling as am I, pulling and pushing the throttles, trying desperately to maintain our assigned airspeed. The PLI -- an stall indicator of sorts -- pops up on my primary flight display then disappears. We call it the rake of death, because of its shape and the typically ominous conditions that cause it to rear its ugly head.
I'm tired. Very tired and this flight is draining every ounce of my mental energy.
As we begin the approach turbulence intensifies. I turn the autopilot off and intercept the localizer. Because of the bumps, the trend vector on my airspeed indicator is all over the place, up and down, up and down. But with all those throttle movements I'm still within a handful of knots of my assigned speed.
It's getting harder and harder though. My exhausted mind is about ready to check out. My eyelids feel heavy and the instruments seem to want to meld together in a confused maelstrom of lights.
"Flaps 9," I call.
Less than 10 miles to go. But every foot of this approach seems interminable.
"Glideslope's alive," says the Captain.
"Gear down, flaps 22, I'll configure later than usual."
The Boss nods, approvingly.
Five miles to go.
We're still stuck in this dark and unwelcoming abyss. I'm having to work harder and harder to focus, to keep it all together, to prepare for the heavy crosswinds on the surface. My eyes are racing between instruments, my hands fighting the bumps.
At 700 hundred feet, we break out of the clouds and the brightly lit runway appears before us.
"Visual," we both call out at the same time.
The wind continues to thrash the airplane around.
"Wind's 190 at 33, you're cleared to land."
Almost there, but not quite done yet. I have to keep fighting the bumps with significant thrust changes all the way to a few feet over the runway.
Throttles to idle, slip the aircraft to track the centerline. The mains are down. Immediately, I pull the throttles into reverse and the nose comes down. We've made it.
As the captain taxies us back to the gate I exhale. We're home.
Through the beam of the taxi light I notice that it's raining sideways.


Blogger Matt said...

Sounds like you definitely earned your pay. Glad you made it home safe.
Merry Christmas,

10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice writing. as a passenger, that sounds a bit scary ...

merry christmas!

6:50 PM  

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