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By: Wayne Brown
“I just got off the horn with company, boss” copilot Tim Rogers says from the right seat in the cockpit of the Boeing 737-300 passenger jet. “The weather in Denver is really heading south now, just like you guessed when we were briefing the flight before takeoff. The ceiling is dropping and there’s blowing snow to go with it. The airport is still open but running slow with all the instrument approach spacing. They say we can expect to go into a couple of turns in holding before we get an approach clearance."
Command pilot, Seth Paxton, frowned as he listened to the copilot running down the weather woes at their destination. Seth thought to himself that he had better head back to the restroom one more time and drop this last cup of coffee. He was in for a long ride in the left seat and would not need any distractions when approach time came. He gave Tim the thumbs up and motioned back toward the passenger compartment. “Gotta hit the head one more time, Tim. Keep an eye on things.”
Seth released the locks on the secure cockpit door and slipped through to the passenger area. There was a lavatory adjacent to the front galley by the exit door of the aircraft. Sandy Cole, the head flight attendant, was standing in the galley area looking at a passenger list. She looked up at Seth as he exited the cockpit. Seth pointed his finger at the restroom and she nodded. He’d flown with a lot of different crews over the years. Sandy was among the best. She seemed to be able to handle just about any situation and stay calm and cool. He was really glad to have her on board tonight. This punch into Denver would not be a fun one so he was glad to have a trusted set of eyes back here with the passengers. Seth stepped into the small lavatory and latched the door behind him.
Sandy Cole scanned the passenger list using her finger to hold her visual reference. There, seat 22A. Carol Finley. That would be her. Ms. Finley was enormously pregnant and looked to be a bit uncomfortable earlier in the flight. Sandy checked the other seat, 22B, the center seat of the left side row of three. The passenger was a male named Tom Jenkins. Guess he’s not the husband but he might be the boyfriend. At any rate, Sandy would be checking her again to see what was going on. So far she had only observed and not inquired. If the woman was still acting uncomfortable, it might be time to offer assistance. Sandy tried to be helpful but give her passengers space.
The lavatory door opened again and Seth stepped out wiping his hands dry with a paper towel. He walked into the galley where Sandy stood and asked, “Everything okay back here, Sandy?”
Sandy nodded indicating that she had things under control. “I do have a pregnant woman in 22A that I am watching closely. She looks a bit uncomfortable but I could be over-analyzing the situation. I will let you know. I am going to check on her again” Sandy added.
“Okay, keep me posted. The weather for the approach in Denver is looking marginal and the traffic is stacking a bit. I am sure air traffic control will probably put a gate hold on soon for inbounds. We should be okay since we are well past the halfway point on the route. I imagine we will take a turn in holding before the approach. Of course, I don’t need to mention the turbulence. That’s a given for Denver but it could be worse tonight with the winds and weather. Just make sure that once we put them down and into the belts that they stay there, Sandy”. Seth said as he patted Sandy’s shoulder and tapped the secret knock on the cockpit door.
Tim Rogers pushed the door open for him to re-enter the cockpit. Seth climbed back into the left seat and adjusted his radio headpiece.
Looking across the console toward Tim he said, “Okay Tim, I will take control and plan on flying the approach. Get me up to date on where we are and what is going on, will ya?”
“Sure, Captain” replied Tim quickly. We are approaching 100 miles to the northeast of Denver on track toward the initial entry point for the approach pattern. Based on the winds that company quoted, I would say they are probably landing in the westbound direction so they will probably put us on an inbound for runway 27 Right. With the ceiling and the snow, we can count on the ILS approach. We should get a handoff call from center pretty quick and the letdown will probably follow” Tim added.
Seth nodded his understanding, picked up the approach plate graphic and fitted it to the clip plate mounted in the center of his control yoke. The new cockpit instrumentation compensated for this old paper reference but old habits were hard to break and one never knew when a backup might come in handy. He checked the initial published altitudes, glide slope angle, minimum descent altitudes, and the missed approach published instructions. He and Tim would talk about this on the descent once they receive more information from approach control. Seth thought to himself that tonight he would be earning his money as they say in the business.
“Trackbird Four-Two-Zero, Denver Center, descend and maintain flight level two-zero-zero and keep your speed up for me. Expect a hand off to approach at level off. Give me a good rate of descent fellas, it’s crowded up here tonight” said the flight control voice on the radio.
Copilot Rogers quickly keyed his mike and replied, “Roger, Denver Center, understand descend and maintain flight level 200 and expect hand off for approach at level off. We’ll give a good rate and get her down, Center. By the way, how’s the ride been for the boys ahead of us tonight?”
“420, it’s a bit rougher than normal. There's some higher level shear and the normal front range winds. We are still getting everyone down okay but you can expect moderate and possibly some severe pockets of turbulence as you approach FL 200.” Center replied.
“Roger, thanks Denver, 420 is out of flight level 360 for FL 200. We’ll call level” Tim added.
Seth rolled the autopilot axis downward and picked up a 2500 foot per minute descent. He pulled back the throttles to compensate for the added speed of the descent. He looked over at Tim and said, “We'll try to hang on to this rate as long as the turbulence is light, same for the speed. Let’s talk about the approach."
Tim nodded agreement and Seth began to outline how he would handle the aircraft in the descent and on the approach. Tim would get the current weight for landing and calculate the approach and landing speeds, handle the radios and the general copilot duties of backing up the pilot on the approach and in any yet unforeseen emergencies. They both settled into the descent watching outside for any unannounced air traffic.
The galley phone flashed red and buzzed. Sandy Cole picked up the receiver and answered.
“Okay, Sandy, we are in the initial descent. I will be turning on the seatbelt lights now because it will be getting rough soon. Start getting them in their seats and put things away. We are going to get bumpy and I don’t want anyone hurt” Seth advised from the flight deck.
“Yessir, Captain. I will get things moving." Sandy hung up and placed a call to the rear galley handing out instructions to the other two attendants on the crew. She then hung up the receiver and headed down the aisle to begin her checks.
“Trackbird 420 is level FL 200, Denver Center” Tim spoke into the radio as Seth leveled the aircraft at the assigned altitude. The turbulence was there just as expected and the Boeing bucked about in the shearing winds. The autopilot worked steadily with the gyros to hold the craft in plane. Because of the elevation in Denver, things happened at considerably higher altitudes than at most airports that were at elevations a mile or more lower than Denver.
“Trackbird 420, Denver Center, contact Denver Approach on frequency 131.95 and squawk 1765.”
Tim reset the aircraft’s identification transponder to the 1765 code. “Okay, Denver Center, Approach on 131.95 squawking 1765. Good night DC and thanks for the help."
"Denver Approach, Trackbird 420 is with you at FL 200 inbound to the initial point from the northeast.” Tim transmitted after quickly changing radio frequencies.
“Trackbird 420, Denver Approach, ident please” Tim reached the transponder panel and hit the “ID” button to flash the aircraft on the controller’s screen.
“Trackbird 420, Denver Approach, radar contact, 30 miles northeast of the initial point. Expect vectors for an ILS approach to runway 27 Right. Descend and maintain 12,000 feet, proceed to the initial point, then expect right turn instructions for holding. Current altimeter 29.81” instructed the voice on the radio.
Tim keyed his mike, “Denver Approach, Trackbird 420 is out of flight level 200 for 12,000 feet on a heading of 220 proceeding to the initial point. We will call level and expect a right turn for holding. Trackbird 420”.
Seth once again shifted the autopilot to assume a descent posture and began to slow the aircraft. Just at that moment, the aircraft hit the another turbulence pocket and lurched downward then yawed to the right. The autopilot disengaged and the aircraft momentarily gave in to the forces of the wind. Seth quickly spotted the failure and took manual control of the aircraft.
“Tim, recycle that autopilot and see if it will hold”.
Tim Rogers nodded and flipped the necessary switches on the autopilot panel. Each time he engaged the autopilot, the system rejected. Seth continued to hand fly the plane as it tossed about in the turbulence. Seth, speaking to no one in particular, said, “Looks like the gods aren’t with us tonight. Guess I’ll hand fly this approach. Let’s hope that I am up to the task.”
Tim Rogers smiled and said, “Amen, brother” making the sign of the cross over his chest.
“Denver Approach, Trackbird 420 is level at 12,000 and we are crossing over the initial point at this time” Rogers announced into the mike.
“Trackbird 420, Denver Approach, turn right heading 090 for your downwind leg entry into holding, descend to 10,000 feet. Altimeter is now 29.80. Expect one turn in holding and then approach clearance.”
“Trackbird 420, out of 12,000 for 10,000 and turning right to heading 090” replied Rogers.
Seth worked the controls to enter the descent and pulled back the throttle levers to adjust to pattern entry speed.
“Tim, I want you on top of the game on final. I am going to have my hands full keeping this bird in the box and on the numbers. I need you watching the engine instruments and backing me up on speed control. I don’t want to take this rig around the pattern again because we were too hot for the landing.”
“Yessir” Tim replied, “I got your back”.
Sandy Cole glanced at Carol Finley sitting in 22A and saw the pained expression showing on her face. She leaned into the row and asked, “Ms. Finley, is everything okay for you. You appear to be uncomfortable. Can I get you something?”
Carol Finley sobbed as the pained expression on her face turned to tears, “My water just broke. The seat is soaked. I don’t know what to do! This baby is coming now and I don’t know what to do! The contractions are really getting intense. I don’t know what to do!”
Sandy reached out and placed her hand on Carol Finley’s arm. “That’s okay, sweetie. We know what to do. You just hang in there and we will get you some help. Now you just lean on Mr. Jenkins here for a bit and I am going to go to the back and make some preparations. I will be right back” said Sandy and she headed down the aisle.
Seth squared the Boeing up on the 090 heading and worked to hold the 10,000 ft. altitude and 180 knots of airspeed. The turbulence had other ideas and worked incessant trickery in an attempt to overwhelm his piloting skills.
“Damn, this is not the night to lose an autopilot” Seth said out loud. The aircraft suddenly rocked violently and attempted a hard roll to the left, Seth recovered thinking the turbulence was getting a bit too rough for his taste.
Tim looked out the right cockpit window as the warning horn sounded and announced, “We’ve got a fire in #2 engine!”
“Okay, Tim” Seth ordered, “Shut her down and dump a bottle of retardant into it. Let’s see if we can douse that flame."
Tim quickly executed the instructions and consulted the checklist emergency procedures for engine fire and shutdown. He double checked to be sure each step was complete.
“Okay, Captain” Tim said, “I think we may have #2 secure.”
Seth bit his lower lip and looked at the gauges for the #2 engine as they signaled its death.
“Well Tim, I reckon we got our hands full tonight. Call Approach and declare an emergency. We need to get this pig on the ground before we hurt someone.”
“Denver Approach, Trackbird 420 is declaring an emergency. We require an immediate approach to the airport” Tim spoke into his headset mike.
“Trackbird 420, Denver Approach, turn right to a heading of 220 to fly an intercept for the ILS final for runway 27 Right. You are cleared for the approach from your present position. Please advise when established on approach path at the outer marker. Trackbird 420, say the nature of your emergency” the radio voice replied.
“Trackbird 420 is a Boeing 737-300 with 142 passengers and five crew members. We have 18,000 lbs of fuel on board at present time. We have experienced a fire in the #2 engine and have completed a shutdown. We need fire equipment and emergency services standing by, Approach” Tim advised.
“Understand, Trackbird 420, emergency equipment has been alerted and is proceeding to the designated runway. The pattern will be cleared of other aircraft. Proceed on your approach course” Control replied.
Seth instructed Rogers to execute the “Before Landing Checklist” and get the aircraft configured for the approach.
“Tim, I am going to need you on these rudders with me. This bird will be a fight in these winds all the way down final. I also need you looking for that runway as we near minimum altitude” Seth stated.
Tim nodded his understanding. The cockpit intercom buzzed and Tim opened the mike. Sandy related the situation in the back with the child birth. She had checked for a doctor on board but there was none. She and the other flight attendants had rearranged the passengers and moved Ms. Finley to allow her to lay on a row of the rear seats. It looked like there was a baby on the way. Seth frowned. He really did not need this added element. There was no room to worry about child-birthing up here, he needed all his skills to keep this Boeing flying and get it on the ground safely tonight.
“Denver Approach, Trackbird 420 is crossing the outer marker inbound on the ILS 27 Right”
“Roger, Trackbird 420, continue your approach”.
Seth studied the flight instruments watching the glideslope and glidepath crosshairs slowly come into alignment as he intercepted the approach for Runway 27 Right. The turbulence had lessened a bit but control was still a challenge as the thrust loss on the right side had him countering the imbalance with the rudder controls. A normal approach in these weather conditions was hard enough, the equivalent of rubbing the top of your head while patting your tummy without getting confused. Add in an engine loss and now you were also trying to spin plates on a stick at the same time. This was a real circus act. This was how people got themselves killed in this business. Seth knew that. He was keenly aware that stacking emergencies usually resulted in a situation that overwhelmed crew awareness and led to a pilot errors; errors that resulted in death. No, Seth had no desire to go there. This Boeing was going to fly another day if he had anything to do with it.
The blowing snow and ice began to accumulate at the outer edges of the cockpit windows. The winds rushed and subsided with one direction then the other. Each burst of wind with its updrafts and downdrafts pushed at the Boeing trying to take it off the intended path. The craft was at odds with the laws of nature tonight and fought gallantly to continue down the approach path toward the Denver airport.
Seth kept this head in the cockpit and glued to the instrument cluster, trying to anticipate the winds next move, using his skills to caress the controls rather than manhandle them. Even in these violent conditions flying skill was more attuned to a gentle act of love-making than a barroom brawl. Those who attempted to use those methods did not last long in this arena. Getting what you want from an airplane in flight becomes more a matter of will and touch. One had to be in harmony with the beast or risk losing the contest. Seth had been there many times in his career and many times in the flight simulator. Tonight he was there for real once again. Every person in the back of this plane was counting on him and Tim to get them home. He was counting on it too.
The altimeter continued it slow twist registering the loss of altitude as the aircraft continued to work its way down the approach. Clouds and blowing snow totally engulfed the craft now as the altimeter worked toward the minimum altitude for the approach. If they arrived at that point and could not see the runway, the "Go-Around Procedures" would be implemented. Then, Seth would need to make a decision as to whether he wanted to try it again or head for an alternate airport. Either way seemed a dicey choice tonight. Seth needed to see that runway on the first approach and put the tires on the asphalt. He stayed on the instruments hoping that Tim would confirm a runway sighting soon. They were running out of altitude and time.
DenverTower confirmed clearance to land and Seth called for landing gear extension. Rogers acuated the Landing Gear Lever to the "Down" position and the familiar sounds of the landing gear locking into place was pleasant to their ears.
"Gear Down, three in the green," Tim confirmed from the right seat.
Just as the altimeter crossed the minimum altitude for the approach, Tim called "Minimums" as he scanned the windscreen. Seth squeezed the throttle lever of the number one engine, pausing just briefly before taking a breath to execute the go-around.
“Runway in sight” Tim shouted. I’ve got it, go visual!”
Seth looked up to see the approach lights. He was in pretty good shape considering the battle he endured getting down final.
“Help me on the rudders, Tim. Let’s line her up and put it on the threshold. We’ve got no thrust reversers now so it’s all brakes and prayer. As soon as we are on and the nose wheel touches, get on the brakes with me. We’ve got to get stopped before we run out of runway or brake linings."
Tim nodded and continued to help apply pressure to the rudders following the movements of Seth’s inputs. Seth checked his speed and lifted the nose a bit to bleed some energy out of the craft.
The winds were quartering off the nose and pushing to the right. Back on the power just a touch, pose the nose, kill the drift with the rudder, wait, and the Boeing settled on to the runway. Seth waited for the nose gear to make contact and then nodded at Tim to get on the rudder pedals with him and push on the brakes.
The runway markers flew past and the marker lights of the opposite end of the runway began to grow. Fire trucks and emergency equipment was rolling at high speed down the parallel taxiways of the airport trying to be there when the aircraft came to rest. The last 1,000 feet of runway was in front of them and finally it seemed the aircraft was slowing. The brakes were beginning to fade from the heat but still working.
"Come on’ baby, hang with us," Seth begged as he gripped the nose wheel steering device and prayed.
The big Boeing came to rest in the over-run apron at the end of Runway 27 Right. Seth locked the brakes as flight attendants began the process of opening exit doors for emergency personnel. Seth leaned back against his headrest and pulled off his headset. He looked over at Tim Rogers who was sitting motionless staring at the windscreen.
“Come on Tim, let’s get #1 shutdown, run the checklist and let's get out of here” Seth said, “We still have work in the back.”
The two pilots finished up and made their way out of the cockpit seats and through the door into the passenger compartment. Sandy Cole was standing in the front galley area with a big smile on her face.
“Congratulations, gentlemen, you just saved the life of a newborn baby girl!” Sandy said.
Seth looked at Tim and they both laughed. It was a nervous laugh, but they laughed.