At first, I thought a vent above the terminal was releasing steam. It was flowing at such an alarming rate that it caught my attention from the corner of my eye. After a few seconds of staring, I realized it wasn’t steam.
We were sitting in the flight deck all ready to depart for Houston. The clock read almost midnight and the skies had been severe clear when I completed my walk-around about thirty minutes earlier. It had been a good twenty four hour layover in Quito, but I was ready to fly back to IAH.
What started out looking like a single plume of steam started to surround us. In addition to the high altitude and language barrier with the controllers, we were suddenly facing a departure on a foggy night.
“Let’s hope we get out of here before it gets too thick.” the captain said. “Once it rolls in, it usually stays. I’ve been stuck here before… if it drops below takeoff minimums, we’ll probably be spending another night.”
A few months earlier, a friend of mine asked if I’d ever been to Ecuador. When I told him I hadn’t, he said, “You’ve got to do a Quito trip… You’ll love it down there.”
So, for the next bid month, I asked the PBS to give more weight to one trip to UIO. I was awarded one four day pairing with layovers in Cancun and Quito. It ended with the red-eye to Houston for an early morning commute home.
At the beginning of the four day trip, that captain divvied up the legs so I would be the flying pilot into Quito. He’d been there plenty of times and I appreciated his effort to make sure I got the most out of the experience. I’d rather “do” than “watch” anytime.
After a relaxing Cancun layover, we flew to Houston, sat around for a bit and then departed for the five and a half hour flight down to South America. Along the way, we talked a good bit about the approach and landing in Quito. By the time we reached the QIT VOR, I felt fully briefed to fly a stable, safe approach into the airport surrounded by mountainous terrain.
Taking full advantage of the autopilot, I watched the 737-800’s LNAV and VNAV work its magic. I configured to slow below 180 knots before beginning the turn back towards the airport. Once established inbound at SUR, I clicked off the autopilot and auto-thrust and took over manually. I floated a little bit in the flare, but I’ll promptly blame that on the 7,900 foot elevation of the airport.
After parking and securing the aircraft for the next crew, the two of us headed out to clear customs. The flight attendants stayed to work that night’s red-eye back to Houston. We rode the forty five minute van ride up the hill into town.
Aside from not sleeping soundly due to the 9,350 foot elevation, it was a great layover. We walked all over town, ate lunch and perused through one of the local video and computer software “stores.”
I didn’t purchase anything.
We headed back down to the airport that night after a somewhat restless nap. When I lived at 6,000 feet, the higher altitudes didn’t bother me. Over the past two years, I’ve become less acclimated to thin air.
I was beyond ready to go home.
Everything was going as planned until that darn fog started to encapsulate the aircraft. I could almost hear my late college professor lecturing on the perils of “get-home-itis.”
After push-back and engine start, we crawled towards the runway in the fog. We exited the ramp and joined the parallel taxiway heading south for a slow taxi to 36.
A bit down the taxiway, someone toggled the weather switch. The visibility instantly improved from severely hampered to crystal clear. We could see all the way down to the terrain south of the airport.
The captain picked up the pace.
At the end of the taxiway, we turned left to hold short of the active runway. We both looked left and saw the impressive, distinct divide between clear and foggy looming about halfway down the 13,445 foot runway.
The controller issued our takeoff clearance and we lined up under clear skies. The captain stabilized the engines at 40% N1, pushed the throttles forward to command take-off thrust and slowly began accelerating towards the lower visibility end of the pavement.
Approaching the vertical wall of fog, the sensation of speed was impressive. We slammed into it just after the airspeed indicator exceeded a hundred knots. The switch was flipped once again as it rapidly went from clear to low visibility. When we accelerated to Vr, the captain pitched up to leave the ground behind us. As soon as we started the climb, the fog switch was turned off for the final time… as anticipated, it was clear above the layer as we commenced the instrument departure.
Later, we both agreed it was one of the “coolest” takeoffs of our careers.
This many years into it, I’m thankful there are still some things to break up the monotony to keep things interesting.
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