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Pesky notams

When in doubt, ask

An otherwise routine flight from Houston, Texas, to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida (FLL) turned into a stress-filled final 30 minutes thanks to some perfectly timed weather and a notice to air missions (notam) for construction cranes that raised the ILS minimums to nearly 500 feet agl.
Illustration by Marcin Wolski
Illustration by Marcin Wolski

While still in cruise flight about an hour prior to our scheduled arrival, we saw that heavy rain was moving toward the airport. These tropical rainshowers are not unusual in Florida and often don’t last too long. This time, however, the showers were large and slow moving. Once we saw that an actual IFR approach could be warranted, we briefed the ILS to Runway 28R. I have to give props to my sharp first officer who caught the notam buried in our paperwork for a nearby crane raising the minimums from 257 feet to 471 feet agl.

Airplanes were getting in while we were vectored to the final approach path. Radar was showing heavy rain over the field, but the rides were reported smooth. With no mention of airplanes going around, my confirmation bias led me to believe we’d be breaking out well before landing. It was not to be. At the revised minimum of 471 feet, we saw nothing while still being pelted with heavy rain. At least the ride was smooth.

“Going around,” I announced as I punched the autothrottles’ go-around button on our Boeing 737-900. We climbed away, making our required configuration changes and callouts while getting instructions from ATC.

“Say your intentions,” stated the controller. It’s always a little intimidating to hear this. In other words, it’s decision time. My first officer and I had already discussed our bingo fuel before heading to our alternate of Palm Beach International (PBI). Bingo fuel is the agreed-upon minimum fuel we would have in the tanks before committing to Palm Beach. We had enough fuel to try at least one more approach, so we elected to try again for Fort Lauderdale only if we could get the normal minimums. My first officer conveyed this information to Miami Approach.

“What notam?” was the response. My first officer notified him about the crane notam.

“Let me look into it,” he said. After conferring with what I presume was the Fort Lauderdale Tower, only then did we find out that we could disregard the raised minimums in the notam. That irked me a bit since I got the impression our 2,000-pound, 300-gallon go-around was all for nothing. That was until I heard the next two airplanes also call a missed approach. Were they also using the higher minimums? It wasn’t the time to find out as we were busy getting ready for the next approach with the lower minimums. The heavy rain was still there, but we picked up the approach lights at 300 feet and the runway before minimums. Touchdown, finally.

So, what happened? Why was the notam published if it was not in use? Why didn’t anyone tell us the notam didn’t apply prior to our first approach? Why didn’t we ask if the notam was in play on our initial check-in with the tower?

I think complacency on our part and on ATC was at play here. Airplanes before us were getting in, so ATC didn’t seem to have much concern. Were those crews using the higher minimums? Not sure. We were the first of three airplanes to go missed, so even if we had used the normal minimums, we may have seen nothing anyway.

A postflight discussion with a Fort Lauderdale tower representative revealed that the notam was active only when the crane was up. Presumably, because of the weather, the crane was not up during our arrival time. Upon initial check-in with the tower, we should have inquired if the crane was down. To which the tower was supposed to confirm, “cranes are down” when challenged.

It’s well known that the notam system is broken. Vague language, important notices buried among rampant minutia, and a dull presentation don’t make it easy for us pilots to catch everything, especially when we may have only a few minutes to digest the paperwork before a flight, as was the case this day. As usual, better communication with ATC could have cleared this up before we started that first approach.

Peter A. Bedell

Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.

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