As many if you may or may not know, ExpressJet has a fairly lucrative Charter Dept., and although I’m not senior enough to hold Charter full time, I am in the “Charter pool”, which means I get called from time to time for Charter trips (quite frequently lately as they’re busy). Now as I’ve stated in the past, I really enjoy being an airline pilot (and all that goes with it, good and bad), but there are some very cool things about doing Charter. The pay’s better and we usually get fed really well, but that’s not the main draw. It’s different. Different locations and often there are different challenges. At the airlines “most” things are taken care of and we simple “fly the tube”. Charter sometimes we have do things that we might normally take for granted. Occasionally we have to file a flight plan (note, FSS doesn’t like the color “teal”, it’s green?!), sometimes we have to load bags, help with deice, lav service, whatever needs to get done. There’s also flying into smaller and often less controlled airspace (brush the dust off the FAR/AIM). In short, there may be less support sometimes, not necessarily a bad thing, just different. Yesterday we were in ORD, the plane had sat overnight and it was really cold and windy (cold and windy in Chicago, really?, shocking I know). We went to open the main cabin door and it wouldn’t open (frozen handle?, very unusual). So we’re tugging and leaning and lifting but no joy, won’t budge (we’re not getting too agressive with it, airplane parts can be fragile and generally have prices with lots of zeros). So me and the CA are staring at the door thinking WTF? We start pondering our options, call mx?, can we get in through the cargo? Then, in what I can only describe as a moment of Enlightened Stupidity, a light goes off in my head, “hey, why don’t we try the Galley Service door?” (the very large, fully functional door on the OTHER side of the plane). Now before you start thinking maybe you should avoid flying my airline, in our defense, the mental process only took seconds, AND, when you’ve been entering an airplane everyday through the same door on the LEFT side, you don’t really think about the big door on the RIGHT side. This all may sound like a big pain in the butt, but I really do enjoy the challenges and the sometimes higher workload.
Anyway, I’m on my latest Charter trip and much to my surprise, we’re going to TTN, Trenton/Mercer County Airport (where I instructed for ATP!). TTN is a very nice smaller airport, not tiny, but smaller. It is tower controlled and ther are 2 rwys, 4000’ and 6000’ (6000’s plenty for an RJ under normal conditions). It’s under PHL’s Class B, has 1 ILS (precision approach) and ALWAYS has a crosswind, great place to train. I believe some years back TTN was an up and coming field (in the FBO there are many pics of a very busy TTN), but PHL and PNE are just south and EWR and TEB are just north and it became more of a GA airport (my assessment). So when I said my goodbye’s after getting hired at Xjt, I had no visions of a triumphant return to TTN in my jet, CA stripes, mustache and RayBans, none of it. BUT, apparently I was mistaken and very happy about that.
However, when I checked the weather yesterday morning it did not look good. Gusty winds, poor vis, snow and all rwy’s were closed, damn! (alas, I would have to console myself with some Chicago deep dish). But the forecast looked good. We went out to ORD, got everything ready and dispatch called and said they had finally got the rwy’s open, cool, we’re going!
As I said, 6000’ is plenty rwy for an RJ under normal conditions (but shorter than the avg rwy we use), BUT, would we have normal conditions? They had bad weather all day and had just opened the rwys. We called the FBO and asked, they said they “looked” good but the airport had been closed all day? The weather was still overcast and the winds were favoring 24, but the ILS was for 6 (and Precision Approach Path Indicators, PAPI, lights that give you vertical guidance, for 24 were under 2’ of snow as well). That might mean landing with a tailwind, with possible diminished braking action on a contaminated rwy, not normal, OR, circling to the other with no vertical reference . Now, people often ask me as a pilot do you ever get scared? The answer is no (not trying to sound macho or cocky, but I don’t, I’m a professional and I’m confident in my skills, knowledge and ability). I do however have “concerns”, and one of my biggies is going off the end of a rwy. Obviously no one ever wants to crash an airplane or cause any harm to any pax or fellow crew member. When you go off the end of a rwy, most times there are no injuries and the generally the damage is minimal (most times). BUT, in virtually every case it is without question PILOT ERROR (and I can only imagine you must really feel like crap). The FAA has stated if you overrun a rwy, it will because of one, or more of the following factors (if not a all): failure to access the rwy length based on the existing “conditions”, having excess speed on approach, having excess altitude on approach, landing beyond the intended touchdown point. All of which are entirely controllable by the pilot (ie. ME). Being the dutiful pilots we are, we get out our charts and plan for the worse. Take all our penalties for rwy contamination, tailwind and possible diminished braking. We’re good, cool. We discuss all the contigencies, make sure we’re on speed, in the touchdown zone, not looking for “pretty”. Somewhat anticlimatically, as we get closer to TTN, we get the latest weather, the skies have cleared, still a little gusty but we can do a visual now to 24 (remember, no vertical guidance, generally not an issue, BUT, we do not want to be high on the approach, particularly if the rwy’s contaminated). We finally can see the airport and much to my delight, the rwys are all nice and black, not a hint of snow or ice, we talk to tower, they say no braking issues at all and in an instant I’m back in the traffic pattern for rwy 24 at TTN (like the good ole days). I execute one of my signature “greasy” landings (ok, maybe not every one’s a greaser, but this one was nice), and we taxi up to good old Ronson.
Just on the other side of a huge plowed snow pile I could see the t-tails of a few ATP Seminoles and a couple of 172’s (we didn’t have them when I was there). I know this may sound corny, but as I exited the Jet, and I stood on the same ramp I had spent so much time, on I realized how far I had come. I knew I had wanted to be an airline pilot, but to be honest, back when I was flying the Seminole I really never believed it would actually happen. As I was doing my walk around I recognized a ramper I had known, I said “you’ve been here a while no?”, he said “20 yrs, you look familiar?”. I told him I was here back in '04-'05 instructing for ATP. He said “that’s right, I remember you,… man, the troopers (NJS Troopers keep their heli’s there) were just checking out your ride, this is a REALLY nice plane”. I said “thank you”…but so were the Seminoles.
Adam (reprint from 2-27-10)