20 March, 2009

What RVR do you need?

When you hear that from Approach or the Tower, you know you're in for a tight approach. Three days ago we heard that...three times.

When we first launched (under exemption 3585, for those who know what that means), the weather was at 1/4 mile visibility in Norfolk, but the TAF showed some chance of improvement right around our ETA. With two alternates, we were able to go...so we went.

It was a great flight down. It was my leg. The weather in New York was perfect, we had a full load of people and bags, N90 gave us a quick climb and we had a quartering tailwind all the way home. ZDC gave us direct the field from about 130nm out. It was a great flight, and we thought we would be in early. Until CA John listened to the ATIS.

Wind 030@14G26, visibility 1/4mi, FG, +RA, VV100ft, 14/13, 30.20

So much for a quick shot in. The best approach we have is the ILS 5, but it requires 1/2mi visibility or 1800RVR. CA John tells the approach controller that we can't accept the approach, and he issues us holding instructions at Salisbury (SBY). We're only about five miles from SBY at the time, so I pull the power to idle and select VOR mode for my HSI. I plug in the frequency in the #2 NAV radio while CA John reads back the holding instructions and sets up the FMS to fly the hold.

We never get that far, though. Just as we pass over SBY, Approach calls and says "I don't know if this helps you guys, but Norfolk reports the RVR is 2200. What RVR do you need?"

The Captain and I look at each other, then down at our approach plates, and then smile. He keys up his mic "1800, we'll take the approach!"

"Roger, flying heading 230, vectors final approach course, contact the final on 118.9. Good landing."

I put the power back in; off we go.

Abeam the airport I slow to 200kts. Then the approach controller calls. "RVR is now 1800. What RVR do you need?"

Here we go.

"1800," CA John replies, "we can still take it!"

I pull the power back again and call for flaps 5, gear down. They give us a turn to 200 and a decent. I ask the captain if we can take one turn to final, and he says sure, then tells approach the same thing. Just past the marker they give us a turn to join the localizer. As the loc comes alive, I ask for flaps 15 and the before landing checklist.

With all our checklists complete, we pick up the glidslope at the marker and start down. Normally we'd use the autopilot for a tight approach like this, but because of ships in the harbor on the approach end of the runway, there is a note that "Autopilot coupled approach NA below 744." By 744 feet, the autopilot has to be off. Because this is going to be a tight approach, I decide (and the Captain agrees) that it's best to hand fly it from this point. I click off the autopilot as approach hands us to the tower.

"Good afternoon," the tower controller says, "winds 360@16, runway 5 RVR is...what RVR do you need?"

"Does matter," the Captain says quickly. "We're inside the marker, we can complete the approach!"

"Roger. Runway 5, you're cleared to land. Runway not in sight from the tower, report on the ground or missed approach."

I pull the power back just a bit more to stabilize at 134kts. "1000 above, on profile" CA John says. A few seconds later "ref and 10, pitch 3, looking good." I see him look up. My fact is planted on the screen in front of me; he focuses almost entirely outside. My world is that localizer and glideslope; I don't even let my eyes drift outside. "100 above." Then silence. I put my thumb on the TOGA button on the power levers and shift my hand a little bit behind them.

"Lights in sight, 12:30" CA John says. I glance outside and see the "Rabbit" lead-in lights shining through the cotton like whiteness. I put my eyes back on the instruments.

"Continue" I say. With the approach lights visible we can continue down to 100 feet above the touchdown zone elevation; that's 126 feet MSL here. I take my eyes off the glide slope for a half second to see the altimeter roll through 150 feet. CA John is silent. I'm ready for the go-around.

"Runway in sight, 12:00!" John says. I flick my eyes outside as the centerline of the runway is just visible through the thick penumbra of fog and rain.

"Landing" is all I have to say in return. I put my eyes back on the instruments.

Something I learned early on in the Beech: there is a transition period when you move from the gauges to the outside world; a half a second where your eyes won't see things correctly, and your brain will be tricked. Fog plays havoc with depth perception. The change in light from inside to out doesn't help either. When you glance outside and see the runway, don't keep looking at it. You will stop descending...guaranteed. Through the haze you will appear much closer to the concrete than you actually are. Go back to the instruments - they won't lie to you. From 100 feet you still have plenty of time. The other pilot has the runway in sight and will alert you if it falls out of view.

One, maybe two seconds later, I look outside again. All the lights of the MALSR system are visible, so is the paint on the center line. I pick up a hint of the PAPI on the left side of the runway - looks like two white two red. Most importantly, I can see the runway edge lights. Only two per side, but that's all I need. I know my speed was pegged, so I don't look inside any more. I focus on the fast approaching runway. I bump the power out, only 1% per side, though; I should land with about 11-13% torque on each engine.

"Ref and 5, pitch 4. Ref and 12, pitch 5" Captain John chants. "Ref and 7, pitch 3. Ref and 3 pitch 6; pitch 5." I push the rudder hard, and shove the aileron in the opposite direction. "Ref and 4, pitch 4." I give the rudder one last push and the yoke one last pull and...

I hear the tire roll onto the runway. Then the spoilers come up. I hate those damn spoilers. They're aptly named. I shove the ailerons hard over, but it doesn't matter, the other main gear comes down of its own accord. Damn spoilers.

Working the rudder to hold the centerline I put the yoke over to its stop and hold the nose off the ground. I pull up on the triggers under the power levers and pull them slowly back into the reverse range. The main struts settle; the wings are no longer flying. We're a ground based vehicle now. I lower the nose wheels until I hear a thud and then stand up on the brakes. The massive carbon composite brakes take forever to warm up, but after about three seconds of standing on them they become effective. Very effective. I put my left foot to the floor and start leading the plane off the highspeed Golf taxiway.

CA John says "my aircraft," and I parrot "your aircraft" as I put my feet on the floor and take my hands away from the yoke and power levers.

With the parking checklist complete, we're done with another day at the office. Back at it tomorrow at 0450, for what will surely be a low RVR takeoff.

Until next time, good night and good luck.

Devil's in the Details!

Every morning before going to work, I check the METAR and TAFs for every airport I'm supposed to go to that day. If nothing else, it tells me how much I'll have to tighten my seat belt during the day. Day before yesterday, things actually didn't look that bad. Sewark was calling for mostly calm winds, good visibility, and high ceilings all day. Providence was about the same. The one problem, was going to be our first flight, and usually the bastion of good weather on the east coast - Norfolk.

Fog. For the last five days it had been continuous rain, 24 hours a day. Day before yesterday was the first time it had stopped raining, and the fog rolled in thick. We had faced it on the way in the night before with a low RVR landing (more on that another time), but then over night things had really dropped.

When I finished my preflight, I went to the cockpit to start getting ready. We knew the fog was going to be an issue, so before doing anything else I listened to the ATIS.

Wind light and variable, visibility 1/4 mile, fog, indefinite ceilings 100 feet, temp 4, dew point 4, altimeter 30.30. ILS runway 5 in use, landing and departing runway 5.

Alright, that's doable. Call clearance. "Cleared to Newark via the Kiser 1 departure, as filed. Maintain 4,000, expect 1-5 thousand in ten. Departure frequency 125.2, Squawk ####. Runway 5 RVR 1000."

Crap. That's not doable.

"Have you seen any kind of positive trend in the RVR recently?" I ask.

"Negative," the clearance lady says. "The trend I saw was around midnight when this stuff really rolled in."

Well hell. I pull out my 10-9 (airport diagram), knowing full well what it says.

Sure enough, all runways 1600 RVR or 1/4 mile. The Captain turns around to tell the flight attendants and gate agent that we're now delayed. There are about half a dozen other pilots now having the exact same conversation I had with Clearance, and I find out there are two planes already holding at the departure end of the runway with their engines shut down just waiting for mother nature to play nice.

We finish our preflight, dispatch puts a delay on the flight, and we settle in for a long wait.

Clearance says there are 9 airplanes holding on various parts of the airport. At least another half dozen (including us and a couple Southwest planes) are waiting at their gates. The flight attendants have shut off all the lights in the cabin and made a couple rows of seats into beds. The Captain gets up and says he's going to go inside and wait in ops where it's warm. I decide to stay in the plane.

As he walks down the jetbridge I reach behind me to close the cockpit door, hoping to keep some of the cold morning air out. I turn all of the screens down to their dimmest settings and put both sun shades in the CA side window to block the lights from the terminal. I push my seat back and put my feet up on the panel. Everything is still on the airfield, at least as far as I can see. Normally the VOR is right out my window, but I can't even see the near side of the runway.

Sitting back I listen to the controller in the tower I can't see talking to other pilots in planes I can't see trying to figure out how much longer the weather is going to stay down. In the first half hour the visibility comes up to 1200RVR; people start talking about starting their engines. Then it drops to 1000 again. And Navy Chambers is reporting 800. Everybody settles back in.

But then, an Air Wisconsin jet pulls up to the ramp hold like and asks "has anyone requested 23 for departure?"



Why would anyone request 23?

"What's the visibility?" Air Wisconsin asks again.

"Visibility 1/4 mile, RVR 1000" the controller replies.

It's obvious the wheels are turning in every one's head. I have my airport diagram out, and have turned to the takeoff minimums chapter in our Flight Ops manual.

RVR is controlling. We can use lower than standard takeoff minimums. 600, 600, 600 (arrival, midpoint, rollout) RVR, with one transmissometer inop is ok. 1000, 1000 is allowed with one lower, so long as it's arrival and midpoint at 1000; rollout isn't controlling. ORF only has one transmissometer, though, so we're only allowed 1600 RVR minimum or 1/4 mile. We have 1/4 mile, but Tower reports RVR is 1000 and RVR is controlling. What the hell is Wisconsin working on?

"Say visibility again, please?"

They can't get over the hump either.

"Visibility 1/4 mile, runway five RVR 1000" the tower repeats.

Runway 5 RVR 1000. We need 1600. It clicks.

"Clearance, where is the transmissometer located?" I ask.

"Umm. Arrival end runway 5."

Wisconsin gets it, too. "Clearance Wisconsin ####, request 23 for departure; we'll be ready to go in 10 minutes."

"Clearance Brickyard ####, do you mind if we ask Wisconsin a question?"

"Go ahead," clearance offers.

"Wisconsin ####, this is Brickyard ####, do you have lower minimums for 23 than 5?"

"No, we have 1/4 mile or 1600 RVR."

"There is no RVR value for runway 23," I chime in. "The RVR is on the rollout for 23, so it's not controlling; there is no RVR for runway 23, so the 1/4 mile is all we need."

"Clearance, Republic #### requests 23 for departure!"

Now the tower gets it. "Wisconsin ####, when able taxi to 23, you're number one for departure."

I hear an RJ spool up as I get to the bottom of the jetbridge.

I burst into ops with the airport diagram in hand. At first the Captain is stuck in the same place all the rest of the delayed pilots were, but then I tell him there's only one transmissometer and it's on the rollout of 23. With his FOM in hand, he calls dispatch. Within ten minutes we have a plane full of people and are pushing off the gate. While we board, I keep listening to Clearance explain to plane after plane that runway 5 RVR is 1000, but runway 23 visibility is 1/4 mile. And plane after plane asks for runway 23 for departure.

Almost every first flight out of Norfolk that morning was about a half hour late, but this one detail - where the transmissometer is on the field - saved everyone a multiple hour long delay.

I think the biggest problem most of us had was 1) 5 has lower approach minimums (1/2 mile, vs 3/4 mile for 23) so everyone was thinking of 5 as the better option, and 2) it's instilled in us that RVR is controlling, so when we heard an RVR report that was below minimums, most of us accepted that as game over. What we all failed to realize was that RVR wasn't even available for the runway in question. With only one transmissometer, only one runway has RVR. The other side of the same slab of concrete was visibility only. Minimums say 1/4 mile OR 1600 RVR for a reason. Damn details.

15 March, 2009

And I was lost again.

I wrote a week or so ago about the Virginia Military Aviation Museum. CA John and I were there last month to listen to a WWII P-51 pilot talk about flying in the war, then watch the museum's P-51 fly. He told a story that had both of us (and everyone else) laughing.

Obviously in the mid '40s there were very few radio nav-aids, and absolutely no type of RNAV. For American fighter and bomber pilots flying in combat, the aids to navigation were simply nonexistent. Nevertheless, planes had to get from A to B, and often times B was well over the horizon. Pilotage works well for most applications (such as private pilot training today), but there aren't many railroad tracks or water towers in the middle of the south Pacific Ocean. Instead, they relied on a combination of dead reckoning and what we nowadays jokingly call PTN navigation.

Point-the-Nose ("ehh...that'a'way") isn't an official method of navigation, but when it comes to finding something like a city along the shoreline, it works well.

For example, you know the city you're looking for is due east of you. Problem is, you don't know for certain what the winds aloft are doing, or how much they're going to blow you off course. If you point straight at your target, you'll probably end up miles and miles either left or right of it when you make landfall. Seems like a complex problem right? The solution is actually quite simple. After take off, just fly a few degrees left or right of course (your pick). When you do make landfall, no matter what the winds were enroute, you'll be off your target in which ever direction you picked. All you have to do then is follow the shoreline home (or to your bombing run).

Well the story goes like this. Our relatively newly minted fighter pilot is island hopping his way home with his squadron after an escort mission. Still in unfriendly airspace, the flight of P-51s enters a cloud deck just before their turn "off course." A matter of minutes pass, and so do the clouds. Unfortunately for our hapless pilot, he is now a flight of one. Come to find out later, he zigged when he was supposed to zag; everyone else turned right as he turned left.

"I was lost. I mean really lost. I just kept flying, hoping to find something. Instead the Jap Zeros found me."

All alone, with little ammunition left, and starting to worry about his gas situation, our pilot caught sight of a Japanese Zero diving at him from behind the sun. He knew the last thing he wanted was a turning fight against the Zero, so he decided to use his speed advantage. Turning toward the attacker, he put the coals to it and dove away. The Zero turned in behind the Mustang, but was out of range by the time he took a shot. His friend wasn't, though. With one Zero on his tail, our hero noticed another directly in front but well below his current position. Using what's called the "boom and zoom" tactic, he steepened his dive and squeezed off a few rounds from the Mustang's half dozen menacing .5in Browning machine guns. As he pulled out of the dive, he could see the Zero pilot's parachute hit the water. The other Zero was nowhere to be seen - he was in clear.

"But then I realized, I'm still lost! And now I've been flying really fast in no particular direction."

Just then, there was another glint from above him, in front of the sun. ANOTHER plane was diving on our unlucky man! Again he spooled his V-12 Merlin up, but this new combatant had the advantage. As this very fast mystery plane rolled onto his tail, he realized there were two of them! And they are twin engines? Twin booms?

These new combatants were actually American P-38s on patrol. Our pilot, now very relieved, established radio contact with his fellow aviators, and explained his predicament.

"I told them 'I'm low on fuel, out of ammo, and I have no idea where I am.' They said they'd lead me home, so I fell in behind them as we climbed back up to cruise. As we got to talking, I told them that I had just been jumped by two Zeros. Next thing I know, I look outside and they've both turned away and are bugging out of the area at full speed. Before I could say anything, they were over the horizon!

And I was lost again."

Everyone in the room cracked up. Obviously he ended up getting home safely, but it sounds as if there were moments of doubt (and rightly so). After an hour long speech, everyone piled out of the hanger to watch the museum's own P-51 fly. There was a small group of a dozen or so who stayed back, though, to try to hear more from this man who has done what most of us can only read about in books.

13 March, 2009

This is the Newark Tower

About a month ago I had the opportunity to take an absolutely fantastic tour of the Newark Tower. The controllers could not have been more welcoming, or seem more eager to talk to us! The facility is beautiful, and the view was even better than I expected. Unfortunately, the Sup on duty asked that I not take pictures, so all I got was the shot of the outside of the tower.
After a quick elevator ride to the 23rd story, we walked the last two flights of stairs up to the cab of the 328ft tall tower. Just like walking up the steps into a baseball stadium on game day, the last few steps into the cab were astonishing. The stairs face straight out over the 22s, and thus out toward downtown Manhattan...no better way to be welcomed to work every morning, I'd say.

The tower supervisor and Traffic Management Coordinator sit in the middle of the cab, in the middle of a U shaped desk facing the runways. These are the guys that oversee the safe operation of every position up there, and make sure that traffic is flowing smoothly and safely. These are also the guys that can order a ground stop or gate holds if things get too crazy.

Turning right at the top of the stairs it's a good 20 feet or more to the windows facing the departure end of 22, in front of which stands Clearance Delivery controller. He stands over the ubiquitous metal frame that I've seen in every control tower I've toured, used to hold the ever growing pile of paper strips that come off the printer ever 30 seconds, or so. This is where most of the similarities to other towers I've seen end. He also oversees the computer running the AWOS/ATIS, D-ATIS, and PDC services, as well as a second computer called the IDS-5 that allows them to look up...well...anything. Want to know the weather at Lyndon? It's on there. Want to know how much runway you have remaining on 22R at M? It's on there. I'm pretty sure the only bit of information not on there is the baseball scores...and maybe they just didn't have time to show us that. Actually, I've been told that at the PHL TRACON they can order fried chicken from a local restaurant on this system.

Five feet to the left of the clearance guy is the Flow Control position. This is the guy that figures out who needs to be at the runway when and in what order so that everyone can make their assigned departure time with the necessary spacing over each of the departure fixes. The position was closed this morning, as they were actually pretty slow, but the woman showing us around said this is every one's least favorite place to work, "it's absolute chaos." I can imagine why, he's the guy that has to coordinate with the ground controller and figure out that plane X has a wheels-up time of XX:XX, so he needs to be at the runway ahead of so many other airplanes, but he also needs 3 other planes between plane X and plane Y ahead of him, because they're both going out over WHITE. Now how do we get them both there on time? Part of that also involves working out gatehold procedures...but that's a whole different mess.

Making a 90 degree turn next to flow is Ground Control. He, too, has his own metal frame for the strips, with one that really stands out labeled in bright red "TAXI." Not surprisingly, they call this the taxi line. All the strips below the taxi line are actually on a taxi way in his control; above it, he's just waiting to hear from them. The paper strips are only half his effort, though. He also has a digital strip system next to him. When someone calls for taxi, he scans their strip on what looks like a grocery store scanner, and all their data pops up on the touch screen system. From here he can digitally amend their flight data, and hand them off (both physically with the paper, and digitally) to Local Control. Thanks to a friend of mine from Pilots of America, Jason, who is far more knowledgeable about the inner working of ATC, I learned this about the digital strip system:

DSP (departure spacing program), which is the system you saw the ground controller use with bar coded flight progress strips is really pretty neat. The ZNY "pit" (responsible for releases, flow control, etc within the lateral boundaries of ZNY) connects in with the DSP systems used in their airspace so everyone is usually in the loop. This is how coordination is accomplished without the laborious use of land lines in many facilities.

Above the ground controller's head are two flat screen monitors on a roller track and fully adjustable arm. One has the local airborne radar feed (complete with extended final approach courses for all the EWR runways, and depictions of all the airports and waterways in the area) and the other presents an electronic depiction of the airport diagram in green monotone. There are a dozen or so little green blobs moving around the airport, thanks to the airport's surface surveillance radar (not the official name). Strangely, the system only displays data tags for arriving aircraft - departures are nothing but a blob moving around the green sticks of taxiways It astounds me how they get anything done when the ceilings are down! The computer picks up targets on about 1 mile final, and from then on predicts where they're going to be in 20 seconds, and alerts the controller if there is a potential conflict. They're currently testing the next gen system, ASDE-X, that will give data tags for everybody and is supposed to give them a much better "look" at what's happening on the airport.

Standing five feet to the left of ground is Local Control (tower). Much like the previous positions, he has his strips in front of him and radar display above him. The one thing at this position that really caught my eye was a 6inch by 4inch metal box with two large red buttons on it, one labeled TEST and the other CRASH. They didn't demo that system for us. This guy owns everything from a five mile final to the edge of the runway where ground takes over. While the radar display is important, especially on crap weather days, the tower controller spends most of his time looking outside. A little known fact to most pilots (or at least to me until this day): if the tower controller can maintain visual contact on two aircraft, even if the pilots can't, he can be responsible for visual separation and is allowed a lower separation minimum.

Making another 90 degree turn there's room for another local controller, but again this position was closed today. 180 degrees and about 20-30 feet behind the tower controller (facing away from the airport) was yet another controller, sitting over a solitary radar screen. Unfortunately I forget what his position is called, but this is the guy that handles all VFR traffic in EWR's airspace (which, coincidentally is only 8 miles in diameter, and if you're outside that, they really don't want to talk to you).

Next to this last guy are the stairs from whence we came. And thus ended our tour, almost two hours after we first arrived.

Other notes:
1. There is no love lost between the folks in the tower and the folks in NY TRACON! (Sorry Matt, but they say TRACON doesn't seem to care about spacing/speed control when they hand planes off to the tower, which is why we'll be told "best forward speed" with N90, then "reduce to final, all the way back!" as soon as we check on with tower).
2. There is no love lost between the folks in the tower and the folks in FAA management (but that's no surprise).
3. They don't want to bust pilots, but the FAA is cracking down...if you make a mistake ADMIT IT and they'll fix it, that way no one gets in trouble.
4. If you're unfamiliar or uncertain about anything ASK. They will never get mad if you ask for clarification (though one guy did admit they sometimes get grumpy if they have to repeat themselves, he emphasized that they'd still rather repeat themselves as a result of a question than a mistake).
5. If you're not sure if you've been cleared to land ask somewhere BEFORE short final, as they tend to have a mild heart attack when someone asks in the flare (they start wondering if they missed something/the runway is fowled).
6. Telling them you've got traffic on TCAS does NOTHING for them.
7. Calling the airport in sight does NOTHING for them (approach wants to know so they can clear you for the visual. Tower doesn't care).
8. Calling preceding traffic in sight does EVERYTHING for them.
9. Maintain your speed to the marker/5 mile final, after that they don't care as long as they can maintain 2.5miles of separation on final.
10. If they give you a DP or heading departure, for God sake, fly the right departure!
11. At their peak, Newark was handling 60+ operations per hour.
Now, due to airspace constraints, runway utilization problems, and the FAA's crackdown on separation minima, their max is around 35 per hour. Unfortunately they're still scheduled for 50-60 at many times during the day, which is why a delay program is almost guaranteed pretty much every day around noon and lasting well into the night.

Also, the controllers dislike RJs almost as much as we do!

Those were the salient details, as best I can remember. It really was a wonderful morning in the tower (followed by a great flight and darn good landing back home, if I do say so myself ), and I really appreciate the hospitality of all the fine folks in Newark Tower - and all of ATC, for that matter. The things these people do in the busiest airspace in the world...it's nothing short of incredible!