Landing Insights: From the Trenches

First-hand lessons from some challenging landings

February 1, 2011

There's so much to be said for having a good co-pilot when the weather is crummy.

Illustration by Stephen Schilbach

According to my logbook, I’ve just completed my 4,600th landing. Looking back on them, only a few fall into the “difficult” column and that’s the way it should be. Those first several crosswind landings as a student pilot certainly rang the difficulty bell until that “switch” in my head finally got flipped and it all came together. In my professional flying career, thankfully, most of the more harrowing landings involved a trusted co-pilot or captain to help make a decision to not even attempt a landing—or add critical information to help the landing terminate successfully, rather than simply terminate.

Most recently, I had to land a Boeing 737-800 in a torrential Texas downpour that illustrated the convenience of high-end equipment and low-end materials. I knew there was a movement under way among the pilots at my airline to have rain repellent applied to the windscreens, since the 737’s onboard rain-repellent system was deactivated some time ago. (Apparently the fluid used is not environmentally correct and my company’s Next Generation 737s don’t even have the system installed.) This mixture is similar to the Rain-X used on cars to allow the water to bead up and roll off the window, in the same way it does on the polished acrylic windshields of general aviation airplanes.

We took all the necessary precautions for landing the 737 on a rain-soaked runway by using full flaps, max autobrakes, and full reverse. What I never considered was the fact that my windscreen may not have been treated with the rain repellent—or it had simply worn away, as it tends to do over time.

We broke out a half-mile from the runway and I clicked off the autopilot and autothrottles. Given the heavy rain, everything was murky. I asked the captain for my wiper on high. It didn’t help much, if at all. The rain was deafening and the runway, coming up at 150 knots, was a blur of bright lights that were distinguishable enough to aim for, but that was it.

Luckily, the 737 verbally counts down your radar altimeter height in 10-foot increments below 30 feet, so I could judge our height and when to begin the flare. There were no other clues to judge height through the blurry window. While high-intensity runway lights are needed to find runways in crummy weather, they make it nearly impossible to distinguish height for a proper flare to land, especially in heavy rain or fog.

We touched down slightly long and off center to the left—very unprofessional for a pro pilot—and cleared the runway at the planned turnoff. A little rattled, I glanced over at the captain’s windshield to see the water rolling off in nice little beads while mine was completely obscured by a sheet of water. Now I knew why other pilots were making such a big deal about the rain repellent. It obviously was a serious safety issue in this circumstance, and I, too, will join the chorus in favor of rain repellent applications.

Lessons learned? First, given the weather, I should have simply selected an autoland approach. After all, the autopilot couldn’t care less about the windshield’s condition. Once on the runway, all we’d have to do is click off the autopilot and autothrottles and keep the centerline lights under the nose. Airline pilots typically like to handle the landing personally, since they are the highlight of the flight. Long-haul pilots, especially, don’t get to land the airplane often and are required to log three per quarter to maintain proficiency. But, this would be one of those cases where it’s best to park your ego and let George do it, if available. In the future, once in the rain, I will take a gander at both windshields to determine if they have been treated rather than finding out in the heat of battle.

Foggy bottom

Fog can produce similar results on landing. Years ago, I was flying a charter flight in a Beech Baron 58 when fog began forming at our destination, Baltimore-Washington International Airport. I had a more-experienced guy in the right seat, which is always a great asset. The weather was advertised as indefinite ceiling with one-half mile visibility and airliners were starting to miss approaches. The RVR on Runway 10 was better than the parallel runways 15L and 15R, and our arrival from the west made us the first in line to give it a try on the new runway setup.

We broke out at minimums to the initially welcoming high-intensity lights, but as in the 737 case before, we couldn’t judge our height in the murk illuminated by bright lights. I left some power in as we felt our way to the ground like a seaplane pilot would approach glassy water at night. My co-pilot—having been there, done that—was right on the ball, calling out height above the ground by looking out the side window, just like the radar altimeter in the 737. That human radar altimeter helped immensely, and we touched down smoothly with power. We actually had more trouble finding the appropriate taxiway to clear the runway than we did with the landing. There’s so much to be said for having a good co-pilot when the weather is crummy. Whenever faced with adverse conditions, consider collaring another pilot to fly with you—even if you have to buy him a ticket home.

Plan B

On a personal skiing trip to Mount Snow, Vermont, in my family’s Baron, I learned a great lesson about when to throw in the towel and pull that Plan B from your back pocket. The airport lies in a valley and generally, if the winter weather isn’t awful, the wind is directly across the runway and turbulence is plentiful. The weather was good this day; therefore, the wind was blowing. A call to unicom to check on the runway conditions came up empty. We overflew the airport and saw the lone attendant on a plow just finishing the removal of the last evening’s snow. That explained the unanswered call to unicom. The fresh powder was enticing to us skiers in the airplane, but the snowbanks on either side of the runway were ominous, and the runway was all white in appearance.

After a low pass to get a closer look at the runway, my more-experienced co-pilot and brother, Bill, determined that since none of the runway markings (numbers or centerline) was visible, the runway was likely quite slick. After a short discussion of the gusty crosswind, presumably slick surface, snowbanks, and 2,600-foot runway, the safest call was to hop over the ridge to Bennington’s Morse State Airport where the longer runway was aligned with the wind. It didn’t take long for me to agree with him on this plan. Two $75 cab rides beat wrecking your pride and joy—and seeing your decision-making skills called to light in front of the feds.

Blizzard blitz

Sometimes you get lucky, as in my flight in a Jetstream 41 turboprop to Philadelphia International Airport one nasty day. My first officer and I were groaning at the ATIS reports of weather at minimums in heavy blowing snow—a blizzard, basically. Braking action was poor, but the winds were right down Runway 9R. We discussed the legalities and options and couldn’t come up with a reason that we shouldn’t continue. Others ahead were getting in and breaking out “right at minimums”—always a suspect term. Given the long runway, and steady wind right down the runway, we forged on. The snow in the landing lights made that powerful image like the scene in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon accelerates to light speed. Mesmerizing, yes, but during the approach was not the time to soak it in.

We did break out at minimums as advertised and this time, the bright runway lights didn’t ruin our height judgment, since the wind-blown snow on the runway provided more than adequate reflection from the J41’s landing lights. And the best part of landing on a snow-covered runway is that the landings can be so smooth that you may not even notice you’ve touched down—like a fluffy pillow.

I gently pulled the Garrett engines into beta (zero thrust), which pops the ground spoilers to plant the airplane on the pavement. I was careful not to use any reverse, which would blow the snow forward and obscure visibility. The poor braking action didn’t matter given the 30-knot headwind, and we slowed quickly without any brakes. A round of applause erupted from the 20-plus anxious passengers in the back and, flattered as we were, we couldn’t take all the credit for the result. Were the conditions any different (winds, especially) we may not have landed in Philly at all.

Sunglasses and seatbelts

A howling wind right down the runway at both my departure and destination airports made me feel confident in my decision to take my Cessna 172 to the Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville, Maryland, for something not terribly important, if I recall. As a friend likes to recant a poignant weather briefing he once had, it was a “sunglasses and seatbelts” kind of day.

Nobody who wasn’t getting paid to do so was flying that day, and the 50-knot tailwinds from my departure airport to Bay Bridge pushed the Skyhawk there in record time. The winds were blowing about 30 knots gusting to 40 right down Runway 29 and made for one of those elevator arrivals where the groundspeed at touchdown was basically zero.

As I turned 90 degrees to the wind to clear the runway, I held the yoke to correctly position the control surfaces to minimize the potential of getting flipped on my back. Then it happened. A gust lifted the right wing up and the airplane balanced on its nose and left main tires for what seemed like an eternity but wasn’t more than a few seconds. I sat frozen on the controls, the airplane at a standstill, as the right wing cycled up and down a few times until the wind gust relented and plopped me back on the ground with a thud.

Knowing I was in a precarious position, I gingerly maneuvered the airplane tail to the wind and taxied to the ramp. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the safety of flight planning that we neglect to consider the safety of ground operations. I didn’t think much beyond the fact that the wind was right down the runway at my departure and destination airport, making for a safe flight to and from—but what about taxiing to the ramp?

Thankfully that peanut of a brain in my head has become wiser to the widely varied conditions in which we fly. I’ve learned so much from the many fine pilots I’ve flown with over the years, and much of the experience I’ve gained in 9,000 hours has come from them. If nothing else, these experiences prove the old adage that a good pilot is always learning.

Peter A. Bedell of Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a first officer for a major airline who holds type ratings in the Boeing 737, Canadair Regional Jet, and BAe Jetstream 41.