Big Apple Arrival
Instead, the great majority of my trips these days send me east from Minneapolis. Flow control, holding, last-minute reroutes, ATC inflexibility, clogged frequencies, postage-stamp sized sectors, gridlocked taxiways and ramps - these are a few of my least favorite things, and they are all permanent features of east coast flying. In fact, the severity of these problems seems to vary in direct relationship with one's proximity to New York City. Flying to any of the NYC airports - JFK, LGA, and EWR, "The Trifecta of Suck" - is just asking for a screaming migraine. I can't imagine being based there, which probably guarantees I will be at some point.
Although I've long been well acquainted with Newark's wonders, thus far I've managed to mostly avoid JFK and stay completely away from LaGuardia. This has been through a combination of lucky and purposeful bidding, as well as the occasional strategic trip trade. A lot of other guys see a New York airport and dollar signs flash before their eyes: there's an excellent chance of picking up over-block on these flights. I'm more than willing to help them out, as the hassle and stress isn't worth the extra money to me. With NewCo's increasing presence in New York over the last few months, it's getting tougher to stay out. The last few months, I've flown into JFK several times. And then last week, I could avoid LaGuardia no longer.
I actually had two LaGuardia turns, one at dusk on Wednesday night and the other at dawn on Friday morning. Keith, the FO I was flying with, had been into LGA a number of times so I had him fly the first turn, while I took the second. We got some holding on the arrival on Friday night due to gusty winds forcing a runway configuration change; after landing, taxiway gridlock and a last-minute gate change (to a remote pad, utilizing air stairs and a bus) upped the stress level for a few minutes. On departure a few hours later, it took 20 minutes to push back and over an hour to taxi out thanks to extreme congestion and some VIP activity on the airport (we departed #2 behind Air Force Two). The turn on Friday morning involved quite a bit less hassle, but the lineup for departure was still fairly long. Congestion is an unavoidable fact of life at an extremely popular airport that is inherently limited by its configuration and is hemmed in between Queens and Flushing Bay with no room for expansion.
Despite the hassle factor, I rather enjoyed the visits to LGA thanks to being able to fly the famous Expressway Visual approach to 31. LaGuardia actually uses another neat approach, the River Visual, whereby one steams up the Hudson at low altitude for the full length of Manhattan before cutting straight across the Bronx on final to Runway 13. The Expressway Visual offers a little less in the way of skyline appreciation but makes up for it with nice seat-of-the-pants flying that's a rare treat in a transport category aircraft.
You can find the approach plate here. Approaching from the southwest on the Milton Three arrival, we were cleared to DIALS early on and spotted the twin white tanks before we reached the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Cleared for the visual approach, we descended to 2500 feet until reaching the tanks, then turned right to intercept and follow the Long Island Expressway through Queens. Approach handed us off to tower, who told us we were #2 to land after traffic on left base and cleared us to land. I clicked off the autopilot, cleared the flight director, and called for "Flaps 3, Speed 160" as I began a 3-degree descent. There is no vertical guidance on this approach until you pick up Runway 31's VASI at relatively low altitude, so you take a guesstimate of flying miles remaining and maintain a descent that puts you at 300 feet for every mile to the runway.
Passing through 1500 feet, I called "Gear Down, V-Approach, Landing Check" and Keith read the landing checklist as we slowed to our approach speed of 131 knots. Coming abeam Meadow Lake, I rolled into a 20-degree left bank to follow the Flushing River out of Flushing Meadows Park, pirouetting nicely around
I'm sure a lot of my GA pilot readers are looking over my description and thinking "What's the big deal?" Visual approaches by reference to surface features are the rule rather than the exception in light planes. The context that you're missing is the stultifying routine of the great majority of airliner arrivals. For us, the rule is being vectored onto a 20-mile final for an ILS-served runway 10,000 feet long, 3 miles in trail, 160 knots to the marker - over and over again. Turning off the autopilot, flight director, or even autothrottles (gasp!) are about all you can do to provide some variety, and even this is barely enough to keep the rust off. Good stick and rudder skills are seldom needed in the airline world; here, being a good pilot is primarily about effective crew coordination and decision-making skills. Chances to go beyond being a cockpit manager, to go back to being a pilot, are relatively rare and genuinely cherished. The Expressway Visual 31, or the River Visual 13, or the Carnesie Visual 13L/R at JFK, or the River Visual 19 at DCA are what passes for fun flying in the airline world. Well, that and flying to Montana!
If you'd like to see what the Expressway Visual looks like the cockpit, here's an excellent video on youtube. This crew is approaching from the northeast, so they overfly LaGuardia and Manhattan before turning in at Prospect Park, but the approach is otherwise the same from about the 5:40 mark.