If you remember from a previous post, airline pilots don’t fly a standard route. The computer scheduling software assigns us trips in seniority order based on our personal preferences. It is a little rare to fly the same trip twice in a row. But, I just finished the same flight pairing I wrote about in my last blog post. If you remember, the flight from LAX to JFK was an adventure. This week, the same flight number presented some more memorable challenges.
The weather was forecast to be much better than last week. When we arrived, we should have found some lower clouds with three miles visibility underneath.
About two hours from landing, we checked on the weather. JFK was reporting a two hundred foot ceiling with 1/4 mile visibility. The systems were measuring an 1,800 foot Runway Visual Range (RVR). (Looking straight down the runway, the pilot would see 1,800 feet in front of the jet.) Those are the minimum weather requirements for a Category I instrument approach. Since all aircraft are capable of Category I approaches, if the weather had remained that high, we probably would have been delayed in a long line of traffic waiting to land on runway 04R.
About an hour before landing, it dropped lower. They started reporting an indefinite ceiling with 1/8 mile visibility and RVR ranging from 1,000-1,200 feet. The 1,200 would satisfy Category II approach requirements but 1,000 brought us down to Category III. (The lowest I’ve personally landed was 600 RVR years ago in LAX.)
Most regional airlines either don’t have the aircraft capability or chose not to train pilots to Category II/III standards. So, as the weather dropped, many of the airplanes in front of us began to hold. Unlike last week, we were given the green light to fly into New York and join the pattern for runway 04R.
In our operation, Category II/III operations require an auto-land. Under those weather conditions, we shelve our stick and rudder skills and become system monitors. If everything functions normally, the A320 lands itself with minimum input from either pilot.
We train for Category III auto-lands every time we go to simulator training. Unless specifically required for aircraft currency, we never perform them in normal operations. So, the approach briefing was a little longer than normal. We reviewed the Category III approach briefing guide in our manual. After brushing up on all the call-outs and terminology, we were ready to fly the approach.
When we joined the final approach course at 2,000 feet, we were still in clear skies. Looking ahead, it looked like we would still be in the clear until about 500 feet. Once cleared for the approach, the captain turned on the second autopilot. For an operation this precise, both are required to be operating.
At about 500 feet, we dipped into the fog bank. At 400 feet, the A320 displayed that it had transitioned to its landing mode. At 200 feet, the normal Category I minimums, I saw nothing. That validated that this was at least a Category II approach.
At 100 feet, I started to see the flicker of the approach lights. The captain made the required call-out informing me we were continuing the auto-land.
Moments later, a glimpse of the runway became visible out the window. The airplane entered its “flare” mode and instructed the captain to pull the thrust levers to idle. (In addition to manually lowering gear and flaps, the thrust levers need to be manually pulled back to idle. However, the thrust was automatically controlled by the auto-thrust system throughout the approach.)
Sometimes the auto-land system will humble a human with a flawless landing. This was not one of those times… it was by far the worst landing of the three day trip. Although we were perfectly lined up on the center-line and within the touchdown zone, the aircraft hit firm. We actually bounced and then settled back onto the runway. Once on the ground, the autopilot continued to steer us down the middle of the runway. At a safe taxi speed, the captain clicked off the auto-pilot and took over manually. Although firm, it was a successful auto-land.
In low weather, the more challenging part of the flight is taxiing to the gate. Taxiing slow and following the controller’s instructions, we made it safely to the gate a few minutes later. Some of our more curious passengers stopped and asked questions about the visibility. People are always surprised to learn the aircraft landed itself.
“Does it do that on every flight?” they always ask.
“No. Only when we cannot see.”
Gotta love technology.
If you’re curious, here’s a video I found on YouTube of an A320 auto-land. This video appears to be of a foreign carrier operating in Russia. (To be clear… it is NOT the landing I talk about in this post… nor was it taken by anyone at my current or former employer. In short, I know nothing more about this video other than I found it on YouTube and the weather conditions look similar to the ones I describe in the post.)