Flying Stories
Almost made it…
February 7, 2014


Both pairs of eyes glanced at the master caution light and then to the lower ECAM screen.  Once my brain took a quarter second to process the malfunction, I knew what was about to happen.

We had departed Los Angeles ninety minutes earlier.  On a nice day, the flight from LAX to San Francisco runs about fifty five minutes in the air.  That morning, the weather on the west coast was beautiful… except for the few square miles encompassing SFO.  About forty five minutes after takeoff, the NORCAL controller starting issuing delay vectors.  The visibility on 28R had dropped to 500′ RVR.  To conduct a Cat IIIb approach and auto-land, we needed 600′ RVR.

Our Airbus A320 criss-crossed the airspace just south of Half Moon Bay while we waited for the visibility to improve.  It was only a matter of time before the small, fogged in area began to “burn off.”  In our airspace, the sun was shining bright without a cloud in the sky.

After about thirty minutes, we were notified that the visibility had come up to 600′ RVR.

With all approach briefings completed, we accepted vectors to the final approach course.

I’ve written other posts about Cat III auto-land approaches.  For that runway in San Francisco, the Cat I minimums are 1800′ RVR.  At that visibility, we can land the airplane manually.  The Cat II and Cat III approaches are 1200′ and 600′ respectively.  We are approved to conduct Cat II and Cat III approaches only via auto-land.  Pilots revert to system monitors while the jet lands itself.  I probably average one auto-land per year.

We turned final about twenty miles away from the runway.

Just before the final approach fix, the captain called for gear down, flaps 3, flaps full and the landing checklist.

The San Francisco tower controller cleared us to land on 28R.

At 500′ above the ground, we were still “in the clear.”  The fog was thick down below, but ahead and above was still clear blue sky.  A jet departed 1R and distracted me for a brief moment when it popped up above the fog layer.  It is unusual for a large jet to suddenly “appear” from the top of clouds that close in flight.

We continued to descend in smooth air.  At 400′, everything was working as planned.


Both pairs of eyes glanced at the master caution light and then to the lower ECAM screen.  Once my brain took a quarter second to process the malfunction, I knew what was about to happen.

Our #2 radar altimeter had just failed.  With only one operating, the aircraft’s approach capabilities downgraded to Cat II.  The RVR was still well below Cat II minimums. (The two radar altimeters on the A320 display actual height above the ground when below 2500′.  These are not the standard altimeters that use air pressure to measure altitude above a set pressure point.  All the traditional altimeters were working.)

The captain immediately pushed the thrust levers to the TOGA detent.  On an A320, that automatically engages the “go-around” mode.  The two CFMs spooled up instantly and started to generate maximum thrust.  With the engines at takeoff power, the autopilot pitched up to maintain its current speed and we started to climb away from the top of the fog layer at a very commendable vertical rate.

After reducing the flaps one setting and raising the landing gear, I informed the tower we were “going missed approach.”

As we climbed, the Airbus felt the need to continually remind us that the #2 RA had failed.  I’m sure the controllers and other pilots could hear the “Ding……. Ding…… Ding…..” every few seconds as I spoke on the radio.  Fortunately, there’s an “EMER CANCEL” button that suppressed the nuisance warning from regenerating.

The delay vectors had pretty much used up all our extra fuel.  We could not wait around any longer and hope the visibility improved.  I requested vectors for San Jose.  A few moments later, we were flying just above the terrain west of the airport on a downwind for 30L.  Since it was clear over at SJC, the captain flew a visual approach and landing.

When we arrived at the gate in SJC, the repetitive caution was still cancelled.

At the gate, mechanics deferred and #2 RA and the fueler brought the aircraft right up to max landing weight.  The strategy was to not be overweight if the flight was quick… but, have as much fuel on board as possible in the event of further delays.

We received paperwork for the eleven minute flight back to San Francisco.

It was my turn to fly.

By the time I rotated off 30R at SJC, SFO was VFR.  The fog had completely burned off.  On the upwind, we were instructed to join the 095 radial off SFO.  As I joined, the controller cleared us for the Quiet Bridge Visual to 28R.  At the bridge, we once again lowered the gear and flaps and completed the checklist.  This time, we could see the airport from miles away.

What a difference a few hours can make in San Francisco.

Thank you for reading.  As always, if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please use the social media buttons below to share with your friends.

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About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 13 comments

  • Brad says:

    Great story Brian. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a malfunction that late on an approach that required a go-around. Nice work.

    I too have made the flight from SJC to SFO. We were supposed to have a wonderfully long layover in downtown SFO, but were reassigned to “bus” over to SJC and ferry an empty MD80 to SFO. I’d have to consult my logbook to know for sure, but I think we were in the air for 9 minutes.

    • Thanks for the comment, Brad.

      As you know, short flights can be fun to break up the monotony of airline flying. Back when I flew for the fractional, it was very common for us to do short positioning legs. My record was a flight from Minneapolis/St. Paul to St. Paul. We were in the air for four minutes!

      Hope to see you back blogging soon.

  • Michael says:

    Just looked at the plate for the quiet bridge 28 Is this the app that Asiana would of been using?


    • Possibly… Or, just a regular old visual approach. I don’t remember reading which one they were cleared to fly. I do remember that the glideslopes to both 28s were inoperative.

  • No Fly Zone says:

    I’m late, but thanks for another great post. I guess I’m surprised that you do only one CAT-III procedure per year. Too bad that RA2 went TU at the last instant, but I guess that’s why they have you folk up front, as opposed to proceeding with “CAT-IV” flying. A great blog, sir.

  • Vinny says:

    I love the blog, but why so silent during the time
    We wanna hear you most?

    • Hi Vinny…

      Are you wanting to hear about my new job or comments about the missing airplane?

      I’ve been so incredibly busy with training that I haven’t had spare time to sit down and write.

      I do plan to share some insight on my career move with readers. As for the missing plane, I really don’t have much to say. Well, except that the media coverage has been atrocious. 🙂

      Thanks for the question. I’ll try and get something on here soon.

      • Vinny says:

        Hey, of course I wanna hear about the new job! And I want your take on this missing plane. I’m tired of these so called experts (Quest) on CNN who don’t know what they’re talking about. They need to call the renewed pilot!!

      • MrCourtney says:

        The missing airplane story is changing too fast to expect any comment from you – and that’s a responsible thing to do.

        But the new job!?! Inquiring minds have to know 🙂

  • Gene Spanos says:

    We, those of us impacted below would like to hear from any commercial pilot reference the ” No Flight Cap ” rule at ORD.
    Next comes the Great Lakes Air Space in general…..with four key area airports all responsible for this 50 mile flight box…Can you advise just how bad it really is with air traffic vs. potential issues such as 1. Peak hours and flights, 2. Potential Go-Arounds, 3. Potential for fights diverted and finally 4.Close calls on the ground and while on final [ collisions averted].
    Thank you to all who fly safely in and out of O’Hare. Aka the Jewel of Denial. We are working on a report to a key member of the US House Comte on Transportation and would like your feedback.

  • Eric Auxier says:

    Strangely, I’ve experienced two similar failures in the A320 during autolands. The first was in VFR conditions at about 200′ when the red A/land inop light flashed, so I just clicked off the A/pilot and landed. The second was CATII, right at touchdown–same thing! So, again, simply had to click off and roll out.

    No matter how sophisticated modern aircraft are, you still have to babysit them!

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