Monday, September 13, 2010

Big Apple Arrival

If I had my way, I'd never fly anywhere but Montana. The scenery is beautiful, the people friendly; the flying is just challenging enough to be interesting, but ATC is relaxed and delays are few, making for a pretty stress-free experience. All this is true of most of the west coast, actually, but Montana has all these qualities in spades. Alas, I don't get to fly west all that often anymore.

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
Shea StadiumCiti Field. Passing 500 feet, I shallowed my bank to make a sort of slightly curving final approach all the way to the runway; tall cranes by the mouth of the Flushing River prevent us from making a straight-in final the last 500 feet, as is usual practice. The VASI came into view; we were right on glidepath. On about a half-mile final, I finally leveled the wings completely. The winds were gusting out of the north, and as I came over the threshold I kicked in left rudder to align the nose on runway heading while using right aileron to keep the upwind wing slightly down. Squeak-squeak-squeak went the right main, left main, and nosewheel, just the way I like it; our light weight allowed me to use minimum reverse and medium braking to slow in time to make the taxiway Tango turnoff, just the way tower likes it.

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.


Fred said...

Hey Sam, just how do you fly without the autothrottles? Are there specific indents for specific airspeeds or specific N1/N2 speeds? In Flight Simulator, I find I don't do a good job with the ultra-realistic 767/747 add-ons I've bought.

Anonymous said...

Have I not asked you for s-turns on a 2&1/2 mile finial at msp, for a departure gap yet? I'll work on that.


Anonymous said...

My dad is currently a 747 captain for a domestic legacy carrier (that only leaves a couple of options ... i'll give you a hint, its the one that WASN'T renamed a year ago).

Anyway, he says more and more especially with the 747 he is doing less and less actual flying!

Previously a 767 captain, 737 captain, DC10 FO, and 727 FO, he says he has never been on a plane where he has done so little actual flying! He tries to do as much as he can, but it can be difficult, especially with a maximum of 5 legs a month.

He has a buddy at Emirates who says their company policy says to switch on the Auto Pilot as soon as the aircraft is wheels up (aka 400 feet!) and to leave the auto pilot on until after landing! Emirates pilots will never do a landing in their actual aircraft other then in a systems failure or in the simulator! Now that is scary ...

Great Post, Sam, keep up the good work!

Jeremy said...

Hey anonymous, I can assure you that Emirates flies to lots of places without Category III ILS, without which auto-lands aren't really advisable (though I realize it's technically possible). The entire country of Australia, despite being a relatively modern rich Western country, is pretty backward in aviation infrastructure-there's nothing better than Cat I ILS. (Mainly there's just no justification since the weather's so good all the time!) Emirates flies to many places in Australia, so I'm pretty sure they know how to land manually.

Plus I would think that airports would be reluctant to switch their ILS to CAT III ops in good weather, since the related low visibility procedures require increased spacing and drastically reduces throughput...maybe others can comment on that. It seems like a busy airport like JFK or Heathrow couldn't afford that, even though they do have Cat III capability. Emirates flies to both of those destinations.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeremy,

I understand what you are saying. However, my dad flies to Sydney on a fairly regular basis, last month it was so foggy that he was required to do a CAT III ILS auto land. So, in some places in Australia, i.e. Sydney CAT III ILS is available.

In regards to airports switching their ILS to CAT III, that is a good question and I never really thought about that. I am going to look into it!

Sam said...

LT - IIRC you work tower so it wasn't you, but somebody working approach this morning took us off the EAU8 onto the right downwind for 12R and then slammed us in seriously hot and high. I put the gear & flaps down almost immediately and *still* had to do a pretty aggressive S-turn to get stabilized by 500'. They apparently did the same thing to a company JungleBus on 12L shortly after us, because he went around at 500' while we were taxiing over to C2! Guess somebody was paying attention to my whining about the boredom of airline flying .

Sam said...

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the 25 kt quartering tailwind down the final :-).

Anonymous-- It's especially bad for junior FOs on reserve on widebodies. They seldom fly, and when they do they generally get used as cruise pilots...almost always have to go to the sim to get 3 bounces every 90 days!

As far as the Emirates FOM, I'd be *very* surprised to see it mandating AP at 400' and keeping it engaged to minimum allowable altitude (ie touchdown for CatIIIC). Most airlines these days suggest that pilots use automation to the fullest extent possible but also leave the exact level of automation used up to the PIC, and also suggest occasionally turning the automation off to maintain handflying currency. That said, actual practices do vary by airline and fleet. I know at Horizon, on the CRJ it was pretty SOP to turn on AP at 400' and turn it back off at 200', while we Dash Trash types did a lot of handflying. On the JungleBus at NewCo it's somewhat in between.

junior freight dog said...


very nice post and intersting discussion going on here!
As a still very junior FO I can say I´m actually glad my company is very open minded concerning the use of automation and actually leaves it up to us to use it as we wish. This means we could as well fly an entire flight be hand if we agree as a crew. But of course this is talking of ATR with limited automation and on top we mainly fly cargo so we don`t have to consider pax comfort on those flights...

Anonymous said...


I've been in the tower when approach has done that to pilots. It's not fun to watch, your 230 across the ground over the marker, trying to get down and slow down while I'm trying to get a departure out in front of you. It works, but it's one of those things where we are counting on EVERYONE to be firing on every cylinder and engaged in the flick. See you at work.


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