Monday, 5 November 2012

Sunrise over a sea of Fog

We are coming down at 280 knots indicated airspeed.
Ahead, less than 100 miles, is our destination still fast asleep, laying between two mountains picking at 4000 feet and partially covered in snow.

The ride across Europe was smooth and beautiful. We flew into the night since we took off and the day has only recently starting to get up.

I am pretty sure we can spot the runway in our 12 O'clock, ahead of a low level cloud layer.
We're flying a long straight-in approach and our engines have been at idle thrust since we left our cruise level, we hope to keep it this way up to about 5 miles on final.

We picked up the ATIS a few minutes ago and it was reporting CAVOK with very good weather conditions for the season.
As we get closer, we can clearly see the fog layer slowly but surely moving towards the runway. Over my left shoulder, I can hear the Captain say something like "this could get interesting". He might well be right.

Passing through 15,000 feet, seatbelts ON. My colleague switches from VOR to the ILS in the navaid panels and we check the frequency ident against the airport chart.

Looking straight ahead, it's still hard to tell whether fog will be an issue.
However, this amazing reddish light filling the entire landscape is simply superb. Quite a great remainder of how lucky we are to be seating in the front seats of this Boeing 737.
God, the view from the flightdeck never fails to be awesome! What a sight, once again!

20 miles from touchdown, it's time to earn my money. Click click, clack clack and an oral warning confirms that the autopilot has been disengaged.

Quick glance at the engine gauges, N1 still showing idle thrust. Looking good.
Speed is getting back and the Captain extends the flaps to slow us further down. I'm following the Flight Directors, two cross beams that show the correct pitch and bank angle to stay perfectly centered on the ILS.

As we're getting closer, our shadow takes shape on the flat fog layer.
It is nothing short of breathtaking. Very rare sight as we have the sun in our back, one which I will remember for a while.

Nose up a few degrees to get rid of some excess speed before we pop the gear down.
The Tower controler confirms a half-mile visibility on the runway threshold with an estimated cloudbase of 200ft. Right on the limit.

"Gear down, Flaps 15" and landing checklist. Here we go.

We're only at 600 feet above the ground when we enter the clouds.
I am focused on my instruments while the Captain is looking outside, trying to spot the approach lights that will allow us to continue below the minimums (200 ft).
Small correction to the right, speed is glued to 147 knots, the glide slope is steady.
Quick glance at the engine display, N1 at 48%, marginally below the usual 51-53% for a flaps 30 landing. I can anticipate a slight loss of speed in the next few seconds and decide to add 2% thrust already.

"Plus Hundred" callout from the radio-altimeter and still nothing outside.
I run the go-around procedure in my head. If we are not visual by 200ft, I will hit "TOGA" (go-around thrust) and call "Go Around, Flaps 15" to carry out the missed approach as we briefed during the cruise. Straight ahead initially, climbing to 3000ft, Flaps 5 selected by 400ft with HDG Select engaged. Everything is clear in my mind.
On the PFD, the radalt counts down the remaining height: 260 feet, 250, 240, 230, ... 220 and finally here they are, approach lights in sight! "Minimums!"

We slip beneath the thin fog layer with no runway sight due to the reduced visibility.
I must now resist the temptation to push on the yoke but still get the feeling that we are high. My glide slope indicator is showing "half a dot" low with 3 or 4 knots excess speed. Gentle pull back and I almost immediatly set 700 ft/min on the VSI to keep it going down. At such low altitudes, it is no longer a catch up game with the ILS.

The runway lights finally appear. We're on profile and two Airbus A320 are watching us from the holding point.
145 knots over the threshold and by 20 feet the thrust is brought back to idle.
Firm touchdown just before the 1,000 foot marker. The runway is fairly short so no messing around.
The two reversers are unlocked and the engines spooled up to about 80% N1, delivering the full reverse thrust which slows us down very effectively along with the autobrake system.
"100 knots", "80 knots" and we vacate first right.

As a First Officer, it is my role to complete the taxi-in flow (checklist done by memory).
I mechanically turn the autobrake knob onto the OFF position, check the secondary engine gauges and hydraulic system, disconnect the FD's, reset the speed bug, ...

But to be honest with you, my head is still up there, just above the magnificent fog layer.