Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Screaming flight to Key West

Captain corrects rude landing at the airport

By John Guerra

The pilot walked down the steps of the A700 jet aircraft to the Key West tarmac and walked under the wing to inspect the rear tires.
She was my captain on Delta Flight 2015 from Atlanta and this engaging pilot had just dropped the rear wheels of this packed aircraft onto the landing strip with an explosive WHAM! that had passengers yelping and begging God for their lives. That may have just been me making those noises, but when the nose of the plane rose to the left after the rear tires hit, I call that a bad landing.
To correct the tick-tock swing of the still airborne nose, the captain reversed the engines and brought the nose down. The plane corrected and everyone was forced forward in their seats as the aircraft came to a manageable crawl.
The flight didn't start out that way.
Standing in the smoking cage in the Atlanta airport, I stared up at the sky of solid gray October clouds. The cloud cover was smooth like a blanket, indicating to me, an expert on winds aloft and aviation weather patterns (not) that all of us were likely to die. This is how I think. Earlier that day I had gone to the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website to see what turbulence I could expect as I flew later in the day. A message on the site said that the site was down because of the federal government shutdown, but that because people's lives depended on such information, essential staff had prepared a "possibility of fiery crash" report, which is actually called a turbulence map.
And there it was: A map of the United States, all clear, except for a band of mustard yellow from the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains of the Eastern United States. The key below said the ugly color indicated "medium to greater wind turbulence." I froze. I hate turbulence. I don't like not being able to pull over and get a cup of coffee and choose whether I want to continue the travel or not. Once you're belted into one of these planes, you have no choice but to bounce, sway, and drop with the aircraft until the flight ends.

So, I get a bumpy flight to Atlanta but survive. Then we got on the plane in Atlanta just after sunset, punched through the grey clouds and whoaaa! saw a beautiful indigo sky above, a brilliant salmon sunset to the west, and a glowing moon above. It was beautiful, this gloaming high above the weather. The flight was so smooth, so ethereal, that I thought about life, how beautiful it is, how calm and great life has been of late.
My row partner, Jodi, who delivers the mail in Old Town Key West, was heading home to Key West after visiting her daughter at Wake Forest. Her daughter, who graduated from Key West High School, is studying forensic science (a more specialized version of it) and wants to work law enforcement.
Jodi is very proud of her daughter; she rightfully bragged that her daughter had been accepted by several universities.
As we talked, the sky transformed into a perfect black, with a silvery moon illuminating the smooth cloud deck below. It was as if we were floating between a carpet of spider silk just below the wings and the edge of space just above the fuselage. And to the west, the thin line of salmon darkened to the color of watermelon.

Then WHAM! The plane's rear tires (our seats were right above them) collided with the runway, sending the nose off compass, and we were saved only by the pilot's quick reflexes as she reversed the engines and came to a stop. You always want to say something to the pilot as they say goodnight at their cockpit doors. As I looked up at the pilot, I said something like, "The runway surprise you, too?" and quickly walked down the short flight of stairs.
She was right behind me. I thought she was going to beat the hell out of me but she just wanted to check the rear of the plane.
At this point, it's important to explain why the landing was so abrupt. Key West International Airport was not built to accommodate large commercial aircraft; regional airlines love the strip's length because there's plenty of room for their smaller, 32-seat passenger aircraft.
In the past couple of years, air carriers decided to fly larger jets into the airport to accommodate the increase in tourists visiting the island. Pilots of 737s have to account for weight and runway distance when coming in to Key West and often tell passengers to brace because they have to come in at a steep angle and hit the runway just right.
Check out this video of a landing. It's not spectacular, but boy, you can see the bounce:
Boeing 737 Drop Kicks Key West ... - YouTube
After the pilot and passengers got off the aircraft, it was a short walk to the terminal across the tarmac and the luggage belt.
With luggage in hand, we exited the airport doors to the street and directly into a work zone, complete with a pounding air hammer chipping away at the concrete sidewalk. The sound was ears-splitting and visitors had to walk through air thick with concrete dust to the taxi stand. The work was being done just five feet outside, between the doors and where the cabs pull up.
Visitors greeted by this?
I may not always like flying, but on this day the landing and the construction people on the ground were much worse than being in the air.

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