Monday morning: We started our day in Helena, Montana. The first leg was a short 50-nm hop to Great Falls, with a subsequent flight to Seattle. The weather in Helena was overcast, with patches of fog seen around the valley. The weather in Great Falls was still good, but the temperature and dewpoint were very close, with a forecast for dense fog within the next two hours. Complicating the matter was the ongoing construction at Great Falls' airport. The main runway, 3/21, is closed, and the ILS out of service. Now, the primary runway is the 6300' long Runway 34/16, which is served by a GPS approach with a minimum visiblity of 1 1/4 miles. The forecast was calling for 3/4 mile visibility in fog.
As the captain and I were looking at this, a Helena gate agent boarded the airplane and told us that an FAA inspector was going to ride along today. I looked at the captain in disbelief. Two line checks in two days? Unheard of! The captain reluctantly told the gate agent to bring the inspector out, and we turned our attention back to how we would get into Great Falls.
Under FAR 121, it is illegal to take off for an airport that is below landing minimums or forecast to go below minimums. My airline, like most, has a way of getting around this provision. We used a "pre-planned amendment" to the flight release. We would be dispatched to Seattle rather than Great Falls, but via a circuitous route that would take us over Great Falls. If Great Falls turned out to be above minimums after all, we would contact dispatch to amend our flight release for a destination of Great Falls. Of course, that's one extra duty in what is already an extremely short flight, particularly with an approach to prepare for. It would be stressful enough without a Fed looking over our shoulders.
Thankfully, the inspector said he'd sit in back for the first leg and line-check the flight attendants. That was a good sign. A real jerk would've seized on the opportunity to sit up front on a tough leg, looking for the smallest screwup to ding us on. He took his seat in row 19, and we continued preparing for the first leg. Knowing how short on time we would be, the captain briefed the GPS 34 approach before we left the ground.
Upon completion of the After Takeoff checklist, I tuned up Great Falls' ATIS. It reported visibility 3 miles, but the remarks included a fog bank just north of the airport. Ok, great. I told the captain I'd call dispatch to amend the release, and punched the appropriate code into our SELCAL keypad. Hmm, no answer. I tried it again. Nothing. Great, we were rapidly approaching the initial approach fix and I needed to talk to dispatch. I called Great Falls operations and asked them to quickly call dispatch and tell Desk 27 to call us ASAP. Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher called us on company frequency with the amendment.
I got back from talking to the dispatcher in time to hear Great Falls Approach tell the captain that the visibility was at 1 mile, below minimums for the GPS 34 approach. The captain told them we needed 1 1/4 miles; after a short pause, they replied "Ya know what, that is 1 1/4 mile visibility." Heh, I was soooo glad the FAA inspector was in back! I banged out the descent and approach checklists just in time.
The approach turned out to be a non-event. The fog bank covered the north and east sides of the airport, where the control tower was located; our own runway was quite visibile shortly after we began the approach. After we shut down, the Fed came up to the cockpit and took the jumpseat as we ran the Before Start checklist for the next leg.
The Great Falls - Seattle leg had no surprises. The FAA guy didn't say much, although the captain tried to engage him in small conversation by showing him our logbook and MEL procedures (!?). In my experience, the less a FAA guy says, the better. They'll speak up if they see something askew. After we got to Seattle, he simply said "Great job, guys, I'll see you around" and left.