Friday, July 26, 2019

Oh The Places I Will Fly

Ever since I started flying, it has been mostly domestic...and easy. There were a few cities in Colorado and Mexico that had terrain, but none were really difficult.

With my new status as an "international" Airbus pilot at my current airline, I am trained to fly into very difficult airports with high terrain, multiple escape procedures and very special qualifications. Pilots in the "domestic" status only fly to the contiguous United States, Mexico and Canada. Booooring.

My first trip into a high terrain in an Airbus was into Bogota, Colombia. The airport elevation is over 8000 feet. High altitude means less power made by the engines and thus worse performance. If the terrain around the airport was flat....that would be no big deal. Bogota is surrounded by rising terrain in all directions.

The high terrain and altitude make for spectacular thunderstorms...even late at night.

I'm from Texas. I'm used to thunderstorms, but generally when the sun goes down and heating is lost...the storms die down. Around Bogota that is not the case. Gigantic storms are very common this time of year. The model of Airbus 319 my airline flies into Bogota is very new (most are under 4 years old) with multi-scan RADAR. The multi-scan gives a fantastic view of the weather compared to conventional single scan and tilt. 

The Bogota airport has multiple RNAV arrival routes that keep aircraft safely away from terrain. When there's weather over the arrival then it's all up to the pilot to navigate safely. For whatever reason controllers outside the United States don't intervene as much for weather. They assume the pilot knows best. Take that how you will.

Of the 4 times I've been to Bogota, only one has been smooth and deviation free. The other three have involved navigating storms and terrain. The airport has always been clear but the arrival and departure routes were not. I am very comfortable with Bogota now.

Until this week the rest of my "international" status included flights to the Caribbean, Bermuda and Mexico. Beautiful but nothing exciting. I wanted something different.

I volunteered to be trained to fly into Toncontín International of the most challenging commercial airports in the world.

The airport is in the middle of city 0f Tegucigalpa. The city is surrounded by close in terrain. Prevailing winds require landing with a tailwind or making a very tight turn to avoid terrain. The runway is 6000 feet long.

In order to get qualified I had to ride in the jump seat on a flight in and out of the airport while a check airman sat in my seat. I get paid the same as if I was flying...easy money. I would love to have taken a video, but it's not allowed. There are plenty on youtube. Many are "exciting". There's been more than one accident recreation by the National Geographic channel.

The day before the trip I read all my airline and aircraft documentation on the airport. There is a lot.

My airport restricts only Captains for arrivals into the airport due to the tight left turn required. Not much of the airport can be seen by First Officers in the right seat. Captains have fly in twice with a Check Airman. First Officers can only takeoff.

On the flight down the three of us spent over 2 hours briefing the approach, landing and contingencies. My airline made its' own RNAV visual approach to runway 2. Normally aircraft make a localizer approach to runway 20, then circle to land runway 2.  This is what the 757 used to do at my airline. Due to terrain descending away from the aircraft while turning final it made for an optical illusion that the aircraft was high...causing very unstable approaches. The RNAV visual approach built into the FMS fixes this.

The Airbus can be coupled to the autopilot and fly the descending final approach until very short final. This helps avoid the tendency to raise the nose...especially when the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System) is screaming "sink rate, sink rate" and "whoop, whoop pull up" as it thinks we are going to hit the ground.

All the reading and discussion still didn't prepare me for what I saw. It was intense.

We were assigned the localizer 20 circle to land runway 2 as expected and briefed. The Captain flew the approach to a fix just north east of the airport then turned right to go downwind for the runway 2 approach. The Check Airman quickly reloaded the FMS for the RNAV visual to runway 2. Everything was great until turning base when winds and possibly a FMS issue caused the plane to be far inside of the desired turning radius.

Flying 180 MPH the Check Airman told the Captain to turn right and fly to be outside the home improvement center (a local Home Depot if you will that was part of the briefing and very easy to spot). I had a great view of the runway but more impressively the close and rapidly rising terrain.

The Captain flew right then banked hard left while descending to line up with the runway. Landing on runway 2 only allows for 5100 feet of pavement due to a displaced threshold.

My airline has a policy that if the main gear isn't on the ground by the first 90 degree taxiway...a go around must be commenced.

This was the second trip to the airport for the Captain. Even with the issue of being close in and needing to turn out he made an awesome landing.

Here's a shot of the Airbus at the gate. You can see the runway in the background. Not too long ago local automobile traffic was allowed to cross the runway when not in use. After a horrible accident...the road was closed.

There's been several accidents and incidents here including an Airbus going off the end of runway 2 and down into the city.

Fairly quick turn and we were headed for Miami. Only 40 passengers so takeoff performance wasn't a factor. It's common to need extra flaps and full takeoff power to be able to take a full load of people, cargo and fuel. The Check Airman stated Dallas bound flights often have to stop for fuel as they can't carry enough with the cargo and passenger load to safely takeoff.

The departure was uneventful.

Nice overnight and the next day was just the Captain and I flying from Miami to San Pedro Sula then to Dallas.

I took the first leg. I've never been to San Pedro Sula but wanted something new. We were delayed 2 1/2 hours due to maintenance...which was annoying as the flight didn't get delayed until AFTER we arrived to the gate even though the plane had been on the gate for three hours.

Normal flight over Cuba then down to Honduras. This airport has rising terrain but only on 3 sides. I flew the RNAV visual to runway 4. I left the autopilot on for most of the approach and enjoyed the view. The approach goes right over a mountain ridge and kept the aircraft 1000 feet above it while descending. Easy landing.

Quick turn and we were Dallas bound. Long flight and home late.

Being signed off for Tegucigalpa means I will likely fly there often. I plan on bidding so I will get paid extra for flying there. It's complicated...but it should work out. At worst I will get a line with just Tegucigalpa flights...which won't be horrible as they are just 2 day trips or turns.