Sunday, March 15, 2009

High & Hot

We're high. Really high. I'm not sure just how far above a 3 degree glidepath we are, because Runway 35 at Philadelphia is not served by an ILS or a VASI, and the GPS approach we loaded in the FMS is not displaying a glidepath because we intercepted the approach inside the final approach fix. If any of the above were available, though, I'm pretty sure they would be pegged. This runway is somewhat short and wide, so if we look high, we're really high.

"Flaps 5, speed 140,"

"Flaps 5, speed 140."

We are cooking along over the ground with a 20 knot tailwind. The Delaware River is quickly approaching, and Runway 35's 6500 feet of pavement loom beyond it. My FO, who is flying the airplane, pitches up slightly to get below the maximum speed for Flaps Full. I glance over at him; his facial expression mirrors my own thoughts: this sucks!

"Flaps Full, V-approach, landing check."

"Flaps Full, V-approach, landing check. Gear?"

"Down for 35"

"Down for 35. Flaps Full set, flight attendants notified, cleared to land 35, landing check complete. 1000 feet, instruments, uh...normal?"

We're fully configured now and the airplane is coming down good. I have serious doubts about whether it'll be enough to salvage this screwed up approach. There's plenty of temptation to do so. Philly is busy today, really busy. There's a reason they asked us whether we could accept a visual approach to 35. There was about an 8 knot tailwind component so I had looked up the performance; we were well under the maximum weight for landing on 35 with a 10 knot tailwind. Of course, when we told approach we could do it we had no idea they'd be clearing us for the visual from a 4 mile base at 1500 feet with a speed restriction of 190 knots until turning final and a 20 knot tailwind aloft. Mind you, Piedmont Dash 8's have been making successful visual approaches in those conditions all afternoon. But this is not a turboprop, its a slippery jet whose very low-drag efficiency is proving its Achilles' heel in this moment. It should have been apparent to me from the moment they cleared us for the approach that this was unworkable, and I should have requested a vector back around. But I didn't realize it then, and once committed to a certain course of action, there's a strong mission-completion bias in the heart of most pilots, a natural tendency to play the cards one's been dealt and make it work. There is, however, a point at which the laws of physics win out over the steeliest determination.

We're approaching 500 feet above the ground, the point at which our company requires that we have a visual approach stabilized - that is, configured, on glideslope, and on speed. Time to evaluate how things are going. We're configured, and coming down quickly. That's good. However, we're nearly 30 knots above Vref, and the sight picture is showing that we're still pretty high. Suddenly I'm not flying a NewCo JungleBus into Philly, I'm on a Southwest 737 approaching Runway 8 at Burbank. There are only two ways this can end: in a go-around, or in a gas station across Hollywood Way. The choice is clear.

"Screw this, man, go around."

"Go around, Flaps 4."

"Flaps 4. Philly tower, NewCo 1808 going around.

"Roger, NewCo 1808, fly runway heading, maintain 2000, contact approach 124.5"

"Runway heading two thousand twenty four point five NewCo eighteen oh eight."


"Heading. Here's 2000 set for the missed."

"One thousand for two thousand. Flight level change, speed 210."

"Flight level change...uh, speed 180 for Flaps 4."

"Ah, right, 180. Flaps 3."

"Flaps 3."

"Flaps 2, speed 210."

"Flaps 2, speed 210. Philly approach, NewCo 1808 on the missed from Philly 350 heading and two thousand."

"NewCo 1808 roger."

"Flaps 1."

"Flaps 1."

"Flaps zero...speed FMS."

"Flaps zero, speed FMS."

Well, that wasn't so bad. A whole lot happened in those two or three minutes, and although a go-around is theoretically a routine maneuver, this is only the second one I've done in the JungleBus. You do them often in the sim, however, and that training comes back to you quickly. The passengers, on the other hand, probably aren't quite so familiar with what just happened. Once Philly Approach turns us onto the downwind for an ILS to 27R, I make a PA to the main cabin.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, what you just experienced is known as a go-around. Long story short, air traffic control brought us a little too close in to the airport while we were high and fast, and we weren't able to descend steeply enough. I decided the safest course of action was to climb away for another approach. We're being brought around for another runway now, and I expect that we'll be landing in the next five to ten minutes. Thank you."

When things don't go as planned, it's easy to get thrown off your game. A big part of having a professional pilot mentality is being able to put setbacks behind you and concentrating on the task at hand. I assure myself that the go-around was the right decision, check our fuel state, and set the FMS up for the next approach. There's still a little voice nagging me in the back of my head: you accepted the approach clearance when you shouldn't have. I silence the voice as best as I can for the landing, but it's apparent that I'm still a little distracted: I forget the "Flaps Up, After Landing Check" call upon clearing the runway until my First Officer reminds me.

As the passengers deplane, many of them thank us for getting them there safely, something I've noticed more of in the weeks after Cactus 1549 and Colgan 3407. Our lead flight attendant notes that many of them seemed anxious during the maneuver but relaxed once I made the PA. I realize that while accepting what turned out to be an unflyable approach clearance was a mistake, it wasn't an egregious one like a decision to continue the approach would've been. Risking a monumental blunder in hopes of covering up a minor misjudgement would have been unforgivable. Now that I've made the mistake of accepting a visual approach from 4 miles out at 1500 feet and 190 knots with a tailwind, I won't do it again. Because many others have made the mistake of continuing grossly unstabilized approaches, that's thankfully a lesson I won't have to learn through my own errors.


Patrick Flannigan said...

I flew one of these into Moline yesterday. Had to pull out the bag of tricks, but we had [just] enough space to get stabilized on glideslope and configured at 500. I hate cutting it close like that.

I love that PA announcement. Simple, concise, and calming. Thanks for publishing that!

Brent F. said...

Was this a little over a week ago? If I'm looking at the right date on Flight Aware, you can see an interesting little double box pattern, haha. :-)

Smart decision though, even against that strong urge to continue. 2009 has had enough aviation incidents already... :-/

As always, keep up the greats posts!

Aviatrix said...

You didn't say "there was a chicken on the runway"? That is going to be in my head FOREVER, after a boss told me to always tell the passengers that.

Very well written post with a lot more beneath the surface.

Will said...

Nice job. Sounds like you made the decision this guy should have.

I had to do a go-around (two, actually) as part of my six-month PC on Friday. Hadn't done one since my last check so it was interesting to say the least.

Funny how stuff you used to do all the time as a student/instructor gets so rusty because it almost never happens in real world operations.

Good learning experience for all, thanks for posting it!

John said...

Good for you. Way to make the right decision. Hey Sam, your from the Portland Area. You should check out my blog. A little career journal I started to log my journey to becoming a Professional Pilot. Would love your comments as I go through this roller coaster as well as your readers.


John said...

Hey Will,

I think that video of that approach is just the way that approach is done. Seems like there are a few videos of planes approaching that airport that I have seen. Idk, maybe I'm wrong.

Will said...

Yeah, I think the approach itself was "normal." (Well, as normal as the approach into that airport can ever be.)

I was thinking more about landing waaay long and nearly an overrun.

It did look like they lost energy in the turn to final, added a gob of power then wound up with too much energy at the end and instead of going around stayed with it, landed out of the touchdown zone and left brown spots in their trousers. :-)

Anonymous said...

As always, a great post and another reason I'd be glad to have you as my pilot any day. Your decision making is outstanding.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that being on a crossing runway with crossing traffic, ATC is judging your separation with 27R traffic and being high and fast messes with that.

As goofed up as it (wasnt, really) you could have been made really busy by being cleared for an immediate right traffic 26. Thats always a lot of fun to pull off.

zb said...

Will and John, judging by the rubber on the pavement, there has hardly been anyone to touch down as late as these guys have. Will, you are right, there may also have been marks of some other kind on a cotton runway...

Sam, thanks for the great post, as always!

jinksto said...

As a pilot I appreciate your candor and your expertise at both flying the airplane and telling your stories.

As a passenger I appreciate your expertise and decision making... ok decision correction(?) :) skills.

As a pilot I'm reminded of my flight instructor who was fond of saying, "The FAA will never ask you why you did a go around... they'll pretty much always ask why you didn't."

As a passenger I think it's fantastic that you unscrewed the situation and every one of your pax had a great day afterwards. Every life counts... especially mine. :)

Tom B. said...

Good job Sam.

Ryan said...

Yes, it is a slippery plane.. Great post and good decision making on your part!

Anonymous said...


You fly a regional jet, right? I was on a flight today (not your airline, bet ya' can't guess which one - see the link :)) Can you tell me if this is really duct tape in the area where the wing meets the winglet? If not, any idea of what it might be?


Anonymous said...

jbinaz: yeah, it's basically duct tape, but it's a special kind designed for putting on the sides of airplanes to temporarily plug holes and the like.

Kyle A. Bilby said...


It's very, very interesting to read your electronic diary of your flying career. I just recently found your blog through a friend, and I must say, this is what I've been looking for for some time.

If you read my blog, you'll see that I'm a freshman at Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach and that my major is Aeronautical Science, of course. I'm sure I'm where you were some years ago and I plan on following in your shoes. It's undeniably valuable for me to get some real insight on the industry through your posts, and I really appreciate it!

Keep up the updates and I'll keep on faithfully reading!

Kyle Bilby

Hans said...

The silver tape on the CRJ is something we call speed tape. Imagine its a rather thick piece of aluminum foil (and very sharp, indeed) with industrial strength adhesive on the back of it.

It is never used to "hold something together" like you would use tape to hold a box together and I assure you that the winglet is not being "held on by duct tape".

This special tape is used to cover any damage and/or missing items (that are allowed to be missing per the minimum equipment list, a FAA approved document specific to the aircraft which documents allowable discrepancies and appropriate corrective action to facilitate safe flight) and to preserve the aerodynamic characteristics of the part of the aircraft that it is applied to.

Im speculating, but in this case, probably there is some damage to the fiberglass of the winglet, or possibly a relatively deep scratch. The damage gets measured by maintenance, faxed with multiple photographs to the Bombardier engineers in Montreal who built the plane (a CRJ in this case) and they run it through some analysis to determine if the aircraft is still capable of safe flight despite the damage.

The tape is likely applied just to ensure that airflow over the damaged area is nice and smooth.

The engineering authorization is affectionately referred to as a "fly-by" which always a set limit of how many cycles, flight hours, or time is allowed until the damage must be reinspected and/or repaired.

zylhuette said...

this is very informative... LOL hear from you again
Aviation Suppliers Directory

Eugene said...

That's an honorable and heroic thing you did, Sam. I said it your last post and I'll say it again; it takes a lot of guts (maturity, discipline, and honor) to make a decision like that. You restore honor to the pilot community that often others chip away. Unlike the media and public, I don't believe in waiting until an accident (like Cactus 1549) occurs to recognize excellent airmanship. Good job.

Anonymous said...

someone else in Neco. had an ugly go-around the other day at msp. an s-turn on finial (12l) turned ugly and someone made the good call to knock off the approach. worked out in the end, just another lap. safety first please.


John said...

Welcome to 35 visuals at PHL...may as well have given you a "190 to 5 mile final, traffic you're *following* is a heavy airbus over the bridge"...there's a lot to be said for those enormous 13 foot speed brakes on the Dash though, don't you miss "Condition Levers...MAX" sometimes? ;)

Like you said, 35 in the Dash is all day every day for us, but now that it's been extended PHL is becoming even more of a cluster with the mixed bag going there. Thanks Southwest!

Nice job, and don't berate yourself too much. You're not at a certain airline where "go around is NOT an option!"

Anonymous said...

I presume that doing a forward slip wasn't an option? That is probably at the top of the no-no list.

Drop the landing gear wayyyyy out there?

Anonymous said...

Jet engines dont like sideways air so much. But the gear is rather effective at 250 KIAS (upper limit)

Fred said...

Sam, as usual, nicely written.
I understand you're quite the busy guy, but damnit, write some more! :-)

I find it interesting that the previous post's title was with respect to this one.

Sam said...

Will, I've seen other approaches to Tegucigalpa on youtube, but nothing that crazy! Looked like he was still fairly fast when he lurched over the tiller to make the last exit.

Anon- "Not to mention that being on a crossing runway with crossing traffic, ATC is judging your separation with 27R traffic and being high and fast messes with that."

Actually separation with 27R was the reason they gave us 190 kts till final in the first place. They were trying to make us beat out a USAir who was fairly close in.

jbinaz - nothing to add to what the others said about the speed tape, except that its use is kinda an ongoing joke at the airlines. Whenever an airplane gets bent up pretty good - say, a catering truck punches a whole in a fuselage - someone inevitably chimes in with "Eh, throw some speedtape on 'er and she'll be fine!"

Anonymous 2:13-- funny, that's how I made my first go-around in the JB, on 12L at MSP sometime last year. Approach gave us a really ugly vector that put us like 1.5 miles behind an Airbus, S-turn didn't help enough, he wasn't gonna clear the runway - so around we went!

Anonymous 10:18 - hah yeah a slip prolly isn't a good idea in a jet. We threw down the landing gear right after we were cleared for the approach...I do think if we had already been at Gear Down & Flaps 5 when cleared, it mighta been doable, but that woulda required cheating on the speed restriction to get below 180 knots.

Fred- Thanks, I needed someone to motivate me to post! Done :-).