Just Another Day in Pilot Paradise: Battling Rain, Snow and Ice in the Northeast!
If it isn’t bad enough getting up at 2 am in the morning to go to work, we were looking at a 14 hour duty day, made even more exciting by lousy weather and a poor aircraft anti-ice design for the weather that we were heading into!
If you don’t know anything about corporate aviation it doesn’t run “on schedule!” It never has, never will! We go at the direction and sometimes the whim of our passengers, who own a share in the airplane or sometimes they own the entire bird.
This trip would change three times before we finally launched out of PDK (Peachtree DeKalb, Georgia) for FOK (West Hampton, Long Island).
We knew the weather was marginal but our passenger wanted to get to a business meeting at FOK so, as good soldiers, we would do what we could to get him there, safely first and conveniently second.
As we got closer to FOK, we got the latest weather report that showed the wind was still blowing opposite to the runway that had the best instrument approach for landing and the weather was steadily getting worse.
This meant that we would either have to land with a tailwind, which was illegal for our airplane or we would have to shoot an instrument approach to that runway, and circle to land on the opposite runway.
Or if when we got there, and we found that the weather wasn’t good enough to make a landing out of our circling approach, we’d have to make a missed approach and head to our alternate destination.
The original alternate that the company chose was JFK but that would be tough on our passengers business connection. So we chose Islip, Long Island for our alternate, a better choice for him.
The weather there was better than at FOK and they had a precision instrument approach which would allow us to make the approach down to lower weather minimums.
That increased our chances of landing there as well as provided us the mental security necessary to head there if we couldn’t land at FOK. So we were juggling all these possibilities, on a 2 am wake-up call on our West Coast bodies!
We found out at the last minute that FOK’s runway 24 precision instrument approach was listed as inoperative.
That meant that we would have to do a non-precision NDB (non-directional beacon) approach (not a lot of fun and much more challenging) to the same runway. Then we would have to circle to land on runway 6 in the opposite direction if the wind stayed as it was.
This was presuming that the weather that we found when we broke out on the runway 24 approach was adequate to land VFR (visually) and would allow us to circle to land runway 6, all the while being able to keep our landing runway in sight. (If you’re confused, just imagine how we felt!)
As we descended out of twenty four thousand feet, the temperature was warm enough to not have to use the anti-ice system to keep the aircraft from icing up. As we continued to descend though, there was a temperature inversion and it became much colder. That necessitated turning the anti-ice systems on in the descent.
The Cessna Citation VII that we were flying has a design flaw in the anti-ice system. The anti-ice systems operate with hot bleed air pressure from the engines that keeps the control surfaces hot and free of ice.
The flaw in the system is when the throttles are retarded, as in descent, the bleed air pressure from the engines isn’t enough to keep the temperature hot enough to keep ice from forming.
This means that in order to keep the bleed air pressure and temperature from the engines hot enough to provide anti-icing it makes it necessary to increase the engine thrust.
But when we do that the speed increases and the FAA speed limit below 10000 feet is 250 knots and our aircraft would easily exceed that with the amount of thrust that we needed to keep the anti-ice system working.
So that meant we had to deploy the speed brakes (spoilers on the wings) to increase the drag on the wings to 1. Keep the speed down and 2. Keep the pressure and temperature up to keep the anti-ice system working!
With all this happening, I had to jockey the speed brake handle (spoilers) with my left hand and move the throttles with my right so as not to exceed the 250 knot speed limit with the throttle setting so high, all this time flying the airplane!
All this monkey motion on my part was because Joel, my copilot was loaded up, talking on the radio, getting weather updates, talking to the company and maintaining a watch out the window.
Meanwhile our passenger was resting comfortably in the cabin.
As if this weren’t enough to keep us busy, the tower at FOK closed at 11p.m. (2300) and it was 10:58 (22:58) as we received radar vectors for the approach.
The closing of the tower would mean I would have to click our microphone button 5 to 7 times (modern technology!) which triggered the runway lights on since the tower operator turned them off when he went home for the night.
As we slowed the aircraft up to the required speed in order to extend the landing gear and flaps, the temperature continued to drop; it was now bouncing back and forth between freezing and plus one degree centigrade.
I reached up and switched on the exterior wing lights to check if there was any ice build-up on the wings. Doing this also showed the weather conditions outside the aircraft; moderate to heavy rain, with intermittent light snow, barely above freezing, no ice build-up.
It also did another thing; it very quickly woke our passenger up! When I turned the wing lights on he looked out the window and was now fully “in the loop” as to our flight conditions!
This was a good way to convince him that we might have to divert to another destination. (This is not a recommended technique for passenger serenity or repeat business but necessary for safety’s sake!)
He was now fully awake and aware that things were not going as planned. We were busy talking to ATC, completing checklists, jockeying the throttles and speed brakes to keep the engine pressure sufficient to keep the anti-ice systems working all while tuning the navigation radios that we would need for the upcoming approach.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the “Lifestyles of the Pilots Who Fly the Rich and Famous!”