Not every airline adventure–or misadventure–made it into An Airline Pilot’s Life, if only for the sake of controlling the page count. You can read an excerpt from the book that puts you in the DC-10 cockpit for my first copilot landing at LaGuardia in this month’s Airways Magazine.
Meanwhile, here’s an incident where we tangled with windshear on approach to Raleigh-Durham Airport and to be honest, I wasn’t sure we’d successfully escape. Read on:
The weather at Raleigh was iffy, with thunderstorms moving from east to west, towering cumulus that ranged in height between twenty-five and thirty thousand feet. That, in the context of airline operations, was simply North Carolina in the summertime.
The MD-80 cockpit felt crowded with three of us crammed into the small compartment in the pointy end. It wasn’t unusual to have a jumpseater but for some reason, the space that day seemed too small. But, the back of the jet was equally crammed with all 142 passenger seats full, so the extra pilot on the jumpseat, who was actually an FO I’d enjoyed flying with in the past, was a reality so he could join some buddies in Raleigh for a golf outing.
Enroute, my excellent, experienced, retired Air Force FO requested the Raleigh-Durham Airport weather. That flight segment always seemed quick to me, maybe because I was more accustomed to the longer Seattle or Boston legs out of DFW, so I was glad he’d gotten an early start on the weather.
“The airfield is clear,” he said, and handed me the weather that our onboard printer had spit out. I glanced at it with my non-engineer’s pilot eyes: Instinct mattered as much as data, to me. I looked for the big picture, the hidden details, like what signs are there foretelling what’s to come. Pressure falling rapidly, towering cumulus northeast. Yeah, the airfield’s clear—but. Something felt wrong.
“Let’s plan flaps 28,” I said, which doesn’t sound extraordinary: the MD-80 standard approach configuration was 28 degrees of flaps because it saved fuel. I didn’t hold with that, personally, having flown the MD-80 for twenty-plus years myself. There were less times when 28 was actually required than not, and I liked having the power up on approach because of the added drag of 40 flaps because it made for better go-around response under normal circumstances.
But “what wasn’t there,” what the weather report didn’t explicitly state, gave me pause: flaps 40 meant flaps 15 for go-around, which was extra drag we wouldn’t need if there was a hint of wind shear. Flaps 28 was less drag on the approach and since it would be paired with flaps 11 on the go-around, if we were to fly a go-around, which was also an extra margin of performance we might be glad we had. Layers of thinking and prevention, that’s all part of the captain’s job.
We started a long enroute descent straight into runway 05L. We’d briefed the approach as an ILS, my preference, even though the weather was currently VFR. I always prefer the precision approach and the missed approach, myself. That way, if we request the ILS, there’s no ambiguity about what we’ll do on the missed approach. So many pilots brief “Missed approach will be with the tower” which is really no brief at all. More importantly—and I often have to correct this—if you’re cleared to fly the ILS, you’re expected to fly the published missed approach, not “go with the tower.”
Ahead to the east of the field, the sky darkened to a bruised blue and clouds stacked well into the stratosphere. We had a good radar paint ahead which showed just enough mileage between us and the storms to execute the missed approach if needed. The winds seemed steady off the nose, maybe even increasing slightly, which foretold the approaching gust front from the storms east of the field.
We never saw it coming: below a thousand feet, in clear air, with the runway in sight, we lost over twenty knots of airspeed instantly and began to sink. In a heartbeat, the WAGS (Windshear Alert And Guidance System) sprang to life, commanding a pitch-up and calling out “Windshear! Windshear!”
I kicked off the autothrottles and I was already hand-flying, so I aimed the nose towards fifteen degrees of pitch and firewalled the throttles. Still, we continued to sink, even at maximum thrust from both engines.
“Fifteen degrees,” my FO called out to cue me, “We’re still sinking, airspeed minus ten.”
I caught the five-hundred foot marker on the radio altimeter tape out of the corner of my eye. Shit. And we were still sinking.
We’d been ambushed: an outflow boundary from a thunderhead behind us had tossed us a huge tidal wave of tailwind. Slowly, gradually, we regained flying speed and crept skyward at barely two-hundred feet per minute. We cleaned up, executed the missed approach and as we did, we requested clearance direct to Norfolk. We cruised the twenty minutes to Norfolk in relative quiet.
“You just never know,” I told my FO as we taxied in to a gate at Norfolk. He just nodded. We’d done everything correctly, but: you just never know. You’re vulnerable on approach, dirty, slow and low and I was just glad for my instinctive bias towards flaps 28, just based on a hunch.
The jumpseater actually deplaned in Norfolk—said he’d rent a car and drive back to Raleigh, even though we’d be returning there ourselves after refueling. About half of the passengers deplaned too, because I guess they’d all had enough flying for the day, especially with the closeup look at the dirt a few miles from the Raleigh runway.
Procedures, instinct and luck—a little bad luck and a lot of good—and we made it to Raleigh a few hours after the storm had passed. Sometimes, it’s just that way.
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