Friday night, on our way home from Pennsylvania we had to stop in Birmingham, Alabama to drop off one passenger. We found ourselves in a bit of a race. Us and the thunderstorms: Who would get to Birmingham first? This King Air has two sources of weather: Onboard weather-radar that looks forward but only at short ranges; and for strategic planning a satellite-based Nexrad weather that shows a bigger picture.
The Nexrad was showing a solid line of east-west thunderstorms south of Birmingham. In the official jargon of aviation, it was what we pilots call a “line of shit.” Like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, the storms were marching inexorably northbound, kicking everything in their path. From our vantage point, it appeared that we and the thunderstorms would arrive at the Birmingham Airport at roughly the same time. We watched them with concern, and formulated a plan to reverse course and high-tail it outta there to Huntsville (which was still in the clear) if we lost the race.
Approach Control kept us high…too high, really. We found ourselves inside of ten miles from the airport, still up at 5,000 feet, still hauling ass. Not a terrible situation, but at night you should take your time and fly more conservatively. Normally, Approach would have had us lower by then. No pilot likes being rushed. Ben was torn between slowing down and keeping the speed up. We couldn’t see the airport visually, because the clouds below us offered only temporary glimpses of the ground. But we certainly had it on the moving map display and could see how close we were getting.
A Southwest Airlines plane checked in on the frequency behind us. The pilot said, “…we have the King Air in sight.” So we knew that they were #2 behind us on the approach. And we knew that they were probably looking at the same weather we were. They knew that the airport was fixing to get pounded, and that our “window” was closing…fast.
Just as the Southwest pilot said she had us in sight we entered a cloud deck with rain. So she could not have kept us in sight very well. I wondered about that. We popped out the bottom of the cloud just as we intercepted the final approach course for runway 24, landing to the southwest. Ben had his competent hands full slowing down and staying on the glideslope. The King Air really puts on the brakes when you pull the power back and throw the flaps and the landing gear out. Maaaaaaarvelous plane! Things were working out nicely…for us.
Now, air traffic controllers do keep airplanes apart, you know that, but when you get close to landing things change a bit. If you say that you have the airplane in front of you in sight, then it becomes up to you to maintain a speed and separation and spacing that will allow you both to land. If you get too slow and too far behind the traffic, ATC might ask you to speed up. If you get too close, ATC might tell you that you are closing-in on your traffic and might suggest you slow to your minimum approach speed, but they will not command you to slow down. There’s a reason and I’ll get to it in a second.
Birmingham Airport sits in a big valley. As we eased down the final approach we could see the storms crossing the ridgeline just south of the airport. It was close, but we were winning. The Tower controller was squawking about windshear and stuff at the far end of the runway. It was raining pretty good ahead of the storms themselves and the runway was already wet. Final checklists complete, everything was looking good. Ben slid it on smoothly and we had good traction as we slowed.
The Runway 24 at KBHM is 12,000 feet long. Plenty of room. But the turnoffs for the FBO (fixed-base operator, or "terminal for small planes") we were parking at were using are more than halfway down. In good weather (e.g. daytime, not raining) we might have "landed long" to minimize our time on the runway. On a dark and rainy night however, you shoot a standard approach, which puts your wheels on the pavement about 1,000 feet down from the near end. This means that small, relatively slow airplanes like the King Air (compared to a 737) have a long roll-out. Tower asked us to exit the runway at taxiway H-2, which was still a ways up ahead. He matter-of-factly mentioned that there was a Southwest Airlines 737 on “short-final.” We knew the big Boeing had to be close.
Off to my right I saw the sign for taxiway H-3 and asked if we could take that? Tower said okay. But in the darkness and rain, I noticed too late that the turn onto H3 would be more than ninety degrees, and the taxiway led back to who-knows-where. On a wet runway in gusty winds and rain, the last thing you want to be doing is horsing an airplane around trying to make sharp turns while still slowing down from landing. Ben, who could see less from his side, decided to just continue down to H2, which was only slightly further ahead. I told the Tower we’d take H2 instead.
From the Southwest plane we now heard an urgent male voice. “Now!” he said. We angled over and got off the runway as expeditiously as we could. The next voice we heard was the Tower controller.
“Southwest 480, go around. Traffic on the runway.”
As we turned to get off the runway I looked back. The Southwest plane was literally over the threshold of the runway, in the flare (round-out), about to touch down. They had cut it too close on us. The Tower guy let it go as far as he could, but rulez is rulez. You can’t land if there’s already a plane on the runway.
The captain of the airliner acknowledged the go-around, and he clearly was not happy. They were probably cursing us mightily as they went by. The Tower asked them if they could just “make closed-traffic,” which is to say just swing around and come in for another landing? But the female pilot, back on the radios now, sighed and said no, they would not be able to keep the airport in sight and would need to go out and get sequenced-in again for another ILS approach. Which is what they did.
When we switched to Ground Control, I told the controller, “Well, we tried.” And he said, “Not your fault, guys,” which we knew to be true. In their haste to get on the ground, Southwest had simply followed too closely behind us. (They landed about ten minutes later – how, I do not know as it was raining and lightninging and thundering the whole time.) We got soaked just running the short distance from the plane into the FBO.
What we didn’t know at the time but found out later was that Southwest was ahead of us and originally going to approach and land on Runway 6. But storms in that direction forced them to circle and backtrack, looping around to set up to land on Runway 24, which put them behind us in the sequence. So they must have been anxious, figuring that they only had a short time to get on the ground. Any delay would cause them to have to go somewhere and “hold” (fly in a circle) while the storms passed. And then they would be faced with having to penetrate and pass through that very same line to get to the airport. Sometimes we get pinned between rocks and hard places in the air. Lines of thunderstorms can sometimes extend for 100 miles or more.
The Southwest pilot tried, but he just misjudged the spacing. We normally come “over the fence” at around 120 knots. When we were two miles from the end of the runway, we had slowed to 147 knots, still faster than normal and slowing further. The Southwest plane was now only four miles behind us and closing fast. They were doing 200 knots – more than fifty knots faster than us. And they wouldn’t be able to go much slower than that.
Ben and I talked about it in the FBO during the half-hour we waited for the storms to pass. Had we been able to fly a more normal approach profile (i.e. slower), it would have been obvious sooner that Southwest was too close. The controller would have said something, and perhaps Southwest would have increased their spacing. But they were burning toward the runway just like we were, fully aware that things were about to get ugly.
It would be great if we all flew on nice, clear days, with blue skies and birds chirping and flute music playing, when everything is easy and no tough decisions need to be made. But that’s not how it is in real life. Sometimes you do what you’ve got to do to make things work. And sometimes you mess up. We did the best we could. We did not rush or take unnecessary risks in conditions that were less than ideal. We felt badly that Southwest had to go around, but that little “deal” was on them, not us.
The rest of the flight back home was under beautifully clear, starry skies.