Kennedy flight

By Michael Ball | Mar 05, 2010
Michael Ball

I have recorded more than 12,000 hours of flight time in my pilot's log book. I have had the opportunity to fly everything from the sleekest of German designed and crafted sailplanes to the most powerful and elegant corporate jet. It has been my good fortune to witness from a unique perspective blazing sunrises over the horizon of Penobscot Bay and fiery sunsets illuminating the desert around the city of Santa Fe. I've drifted for hours above the emerald blue of the Caribbean and meandered wistfully among the cathedral like red rock splendor of Monument Valley. Mystery, magic and miracles have been constant companions in this ever changing ethereal sea I call home. With all the wonders I've experienced nothing still compares to the excitement and feeling of gratification I experience at the conclusion of a well executed instrument approach. A joy of intense bonding fills every pore of my body as I experience the noble courage of a plane descending into the murky world of obscured visibilities and indefinite ceilings. These are the gremlins that when present require the need for flight solely dependent on mechanical gauges. These instruments of reference and the plane that accommodates them become my world when my eyes are denied access to the earth.

It was early in November 2006. I had been poring over weather charts all morning and knew without a doubt that the intense low pressure forming off the New Jersey Coast along with rapidly falling temperatures was setting the stage for the ultimate test of airmanship. Those quiet skies that were gently enfolding the Maine Coast would soon be hosting a vast array of meteorological challenges in the area around New York‘s John F. Kennedy Airport on Long Island. JFK would not only be my destination but the stage onto which the international community would be dispatching many of their flag carriers for the day. My partner for this flight was the superbly constructed Beechcraft Super King Air 200. An aircraft so respected for its rugged durability and passenger comfort that it had become the industry standard of engineering excellence. The Beechcraft engineers had so successfully mated two Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engines to a pair of wings of such sensuous flight characteristics that the very sensation of movement through the sky became an act of aerial love making.

With flight plans filed and takeoff checklist accomplished, I took off alone from Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head at 3:30 in the afternoon. The ocean was quiet, the air was soft, life was simple. Once airborne and at a cruising altitude of 15,000 feet, I turned my attention to the satellite weather now beginning to show on the small square screen of the Garmin GPS guidance system. Over-laying the route of flight, abstract shapes made of reds, greens and yellows began forming in this digital world. When viewed in another context, such as a work of art, these colors can be a pleasing sensation. When being featured as the main event on the face of a weather screen, a very different reaction floods the senses. Essentially it was saying to me, buckle up baby it's going to be a rough ride.

The hands on my watch read 4:15. I was entering the air space where the New York controllers accept the hand off from the folks sitting in front of their radar screens in Nashua, N.H. The weather at Kennedy was as advertised. Ceilings indefinite, runway visual range less than half a mile, rain, fog and winds gusting up to 30 knots. All the hardy water birds that make JFK their home and delight in harassing arriving and departing aircraft had called it quits for the day. Announcing my arrival to New York approach control, I was greeted by a female voice of such soothing quality the turmoil into which I had now flown dissolved into a quiet melodic symphony. I was still aware of the hazards that existed but their threatening quality had been for the moment subdued. With every transmission I was falling deeper and deeper in love with the voice that would be my friend for the next several minutes. After a series of course changes and altitude descents my comforting partner gave me my final vectors for the approach. N899AM she softly said, turn right to a heading of 190 degrees, maintain 3,000 feet until established on the final approach course cleared for the ILS 22 left, contact Kennedy tower 119.10. I read back the clearance, which is standard procedure, and bid farewell to the voice that had captured my heart.

Closing on the final approach fix, a radio beacon 5 miles from the end of the runway, I switched to the tower controller, gave my position and completed the final approach check. Approach flaps set, propellers placed in a high pitch position in case the storm won and a go-around was necessary, fuel pumps on, lights on, landing gear down and locked, verified by the presence of three glowing green lights on the instrument panel, mechanically all the ducks were lined up.

Emotionally life was not so settled. I was having to deal with a new set of lines being written into the ever changing weather script. Rapidly falling temperatures featured as part of the forecast in the weather reports hours earlier were beginning to make their appearance. Rain itself posed no great threat. Rain yielding to the demands of falling temperatures became a villain whose sole mission was to make the life of a pilot miserable. Ice, the result of these falling temperatures, can in certain situations provide great pleasure. In an aerial scenario it presents a multitude of problems affecting aircraft performance and safety. Even though the King Air has wing boots, heated props and windshield, equipment adequate for handling the buildup of ice, I knew as this phase of the flight unfolded a decision had to be made and made quickly.

Should I continue or abandon the approach? Should I climb above the icing conditions and seek an airport where the weather was less threatening? Rapidly moving fingers found the knobs of the number 2 radio and dialed in the ATIS, the Automatic Terminal Information Service for Kennedy. I heard with great relief among all the various weather information being given that the surface temperature was a comfortable 5 degrees Celsius. That was all I needed to know. I would be descending into warmer conditions and any unshed ice would soon be history. Crossing the final fix, with the twin needles of localizer (left/right) guidance and glide slope (vertical guidance) centered, I started the lonely ride down the electronic chute toward the runway threshold.

The tower controller had warned of wind shear, that place in space where wind currents make a sudden shift of direction. Like ice, wind shear creates its own set of problems. I knew I might be facing fluctuating air speeds of 15 to 20 knots not uncommon when encountering these conditions. I also knew the King Air, noble and sturdy, was up for the challenge. I fought the temptation to lean forward against the shoulder straps and searched for that first clue that said indeed the earth still existed. The altimeter was counting down, and verbally I repeated out loud what it was visually telling me: 1,000 feet above decision height; 500, 400, 300, the world was growing evermore dark and threatening. The last remaining buildup of ice was being flung off the props and banging against the forward fuselage, 200 feet, 100 feet, my right hand gripped the power levers, full power if necessary for a go around was at my fingertips. The windshield was still a mass of swirling gray, life in all its various presentations simply did not exist.

Then in the blink of an eye there it was the first twinkling of light through the gloomy overcast. At exactly 200 feet above the ground, 15 individual angels of light, pulsating in rapid succession, forming what is affectionately know as the rabbit, sang out a welcome to 10,500 pounds of descending aluminum. Only a portion of the two and a half miles of runway 22L was visible through the fog, but just enough to cause a slight smile and gentle sigh as the squeaking sound of rubber joined the concrete surface. There was no time to sing a song or dance a jig. I was directed to turn off at the first available taxiway to make room for the next arrival. Taxiway alpha was the first of many taxiways forming the complex maze of routes I would take to the general aviation terminal. When I cleared the runway I looked out my right side cockpit window. I saw the lights of a Swissair 747 breaking out of the clouds where just moments before I had been. I could feel in my whole body the same pleasure and relief I knew the crew was feeling. I could visualize their lips curling into a slight smile and sense the gentle sigh as the twinkling rabbit welcomed them to New York.

Michael Ball is a commercial pilot. He flies for Penobscot Island Air and lives in South Thomaston.

 

 

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