(The above image is a vast exaggeration of the aircraft and events contained in this short narrative)
It was a close one. Uncomfortably close. I’m not sure just how close it was, but it must have been, because aside from the feeling in the pit of my stomach, everyone who saw it from the ground thought we were done for.
That’s pretty fucking close.
It started like any other flight, in the briefing room. I met my First Officer, and we discussed the particulars: full flight, airplane is in good shape, the weather, not so much. “It’s windy as hell up there with low ceilings,” I tell him, “and the alternate doesn’t look much better. But, it’s right down the runway, so it should be fine.” I didn’t love the situation we were about to fly into. “You’re just worrying too much,” I told myself. I signed the paperwork, and headed for the gate.
The preflight, boarding and departure were unremarkable, as were the next two and a half hours heading northeast into the night, towards our destination of Halifax. As we closed in on the destination, I pulled up the weather to start the descent and approach planning. The ceiling was about 1200 feet and the wind was still blowing hard down the runway at over 40 knots. Peak gusts were recorded at 45. Ok, this is gonna suck a little.
It was my leg to fly, so I briefed my partner on the approach and we talk about the missed approach if we can’t get in. Fuel is tight, so we’re gonna have one shot, maybe two before we head to the alternate. The alternate, who’s weather was now a little worse than where we’re going. Something to keep in mind.
The initial descent was smooth, just picking up the occasional bump. The fun began as we descended below 2000 feet. The occasional bumps became continuous. The light chop started to feel more moderate. As advertised, the wind was right down the runway. “It’s not so bad,” I thought as we came up on 1200 feet and broke out of the clouds. Then the shear started. Airspeed fluctuations of 10 to 15 knots above and below our target speed added to the unsettled approach as we descended below 500 feet.
I notice that I’m off the glideslope… Half a dot high and climbing. Ok, just take a smidge of power out to correct. Just. A. Smidge.
At the same moment of my power correction, the wind sheared. The abrupt change in direction and velocity caused a dramatic loss of lift that I can only describe as a feeling of “the bottom falling out.” Simply put, the airplane stopped flying. I’m not sure what the altitude was. We hadn’t crossed the threshold of the runway yet so we were higher than 100ft, but not by much.
In a brief second of panic, I thought to myself, “I am NOT crashing this airplane tonight.” While that might seem a bit dramatic all these years later, at that moment time, I assure you, it felt appropriate.
Without the time to verbalize it, I slammed the thrust levers forward and pitched up slightly. I called for the gear and flap retraction on schedule while the airplane clawed it’s way back into the sky.
Once stabilized in the climb out, we call the tower and explain what just happened. They issued us vectors for the downwind to try the approach again. I looked at the fuel and called up the weather for the alternate. It had gotten even worse, and we only had enough gas to get there and maybe make one approach. Not the best option.
I briefed the Flight Attendant and the passengers, then I looked to my partner, who was all business.
“Alright dude, heres the deal. We dont have the gas for another missed. No matter what happens, we’re landing this airplane.””Roger that.” Is the reply. ” Let’s do it.”
The second attempt is a near carbon copy of the first. The chop turned into moderate turbulance below 2000 feet, getting progressively worse as we closed the distance to the runway. Below 1000 feet, again, the shear worsened. I’m a little high again. Instead of taking power out, I pushed the nose down and get back on the glideslope. The runway is getting bigger in the windscreen and I fight the airplane closer to the ground. The threshold lights pass beneath us and I pulled the thrust back to idle. The airplane solidly thumped to the pavement, I deployed the thrust reversers and applied full braking.
The airplane came to a stop on the runway and I caught my breath. My FO slapped me on the shoulder and as I remove my hands from the yoke. I noticed they were shaking.
“Dude, that was messed up.” I heard from the right seat.
“I’m pretty sure I don’t want to talk about it.” I said as I taxied us off the runway.
The tower called to get a pilot report, and informed us that a 767 blew a nose wheel tire on the same approach two hours before we got there. It occurred to me that I could have used that information just a little bit earlier.
The gate sent greeted us with a look of shock on her face. “You guys almost crashed!” she said as she opened the door.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I stood in the doorway to see off our 50 customers and I noticed something I hadn’t before. Every one of them looked me in the eye, and thanked me. Each and every one of them. It caught me off guard. We didn’t do anything special. We just made the best of a challenging situation.
We gathered our things, and headed for the cab to take us to the hotel. “Holy cow, you guys almost went in! What happened?” the cab driver exclaims. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Is the reply, still not quite ready to deal with what just happened.
We got to the hotel and I said to my FO, “Meet me in the bar in twenty.”
It was well after midnight when I got up to my room and sat on the bed. I pulled out my phone, and called my fiancé.
I made it to the bar just before they closed, and a minute or two before my FO. I ordered four shots of scotch, the good stuff, gave two to him and we talked over the whole thing. We got pretty lucky that night. We had never worked together before, but he was an outstanding pilot and crew member, and we both defaulted to our training to get the airplane on the ground without any injuries or bent metal.
That makes all the difference when it counts. And that night in Halifax, it counted.