April 30, 2010

Tampa Thunderstorms

I just finished a long four day trip, emphasis on long. Four days, in my opinion, is just one day too many. We laid over in Seattle, Tampa and Puerta Vallarta, which made the trip a little more bearable, but it was still too long. Tampa was a mess…

When we departed Dallas, Tampa was being impacted by the leading edge of a severe line of thunderstorms that were forecast to be long gone by the time we arrived near midnight, but our first contact with Jacksonville Center yielded a holding clearance. The storms were moving much slower than predicted and filling in behind the leading edge. We had about 30 minutes of holding fuel and JAX as an alternate when we entered a holding pattern about 80 miles north of Tampa. However, as we neared our bingo fuel* we were informed that all personnel had gone home for the night at JAX. MCO was suggested, but was quickly ruled out since there were storms nearing the airport. FLL, MIA and RSW were all unacceptable for the same reasons. We didn’t have enough fuel to go any farther, so we had to stick with JAX as our alternate. Hopefully dispatch could get someone out of bed to service us once we landed. Just as we were about to make the decision to divert, we were given the option to be the first aircraft to attempt landing at TPA.

Tough decision. When fog or low ceilings result in a divert, you can fly directly to your alternate and land, often with little or no delay and the computed fuel needed to divert is typically accurate. When thunderstorms are involved everything is different and far more complicated. We turned toward Tampa with a lot on our minds.

Our first thought was that we needed to get down. We had been holding at 35,000 ft. to conserve fuel, and we were only 80 miles from the airport with a clearance to proceed directly to the field when able. There was conflicting traffic that made getting down difficult, but since the airport was landing to the north, we would have some extra time. Second thought was the line of thunderstorms sitting about 10 miles north of the airport. There was a small break in the line just northwest of the field through which a departure had just flown with little complaint, so we headed for the hole. Our ride through this area was unusually smooth, all things considered, but the lighting was intense. I have flown around many thunderstorms in my career, but have never experienced lightning like this. Most aircraft are equipped with a thunderstorm light in the cockpit that lights up the instrument panel with bright light at night to protect the pilots from being temporarily blinded by lightning. I had never used this light until tonight.

We continued our descent and picked our way around the storms until eventually turning final for runway 36L at Tampa. We were instructed to intercept the localizer for 36L, but were not given an approach clearance. There was another airline taking off opposite direction on our runway, so our descent would be delayed. As we continued on the localizer, the glide slope began to move and continued almost full deflection before we received an approach clearance. You must be careful in this situation, since you will have to descend at a greater rate than normal in order to intercept the glide path. My airline requires me to be fully configured for the landing, on speed and on glide path with engines spooled up by 1000 ft. above touchdown. Beginning the descent late makes this difficult. We started down at about 1500 ft/min to intercept the glide slope, began configuring early and met the 1000ft restriction just in time. The missed approach corridor looked pretty scary, but there was a small area of escape if we needed to use it. Hopefully we would not.

From about 800 ft. down, the ride was pretty rough, with gains and losses of about 10 knots all the way down. The runway came into view at about 500 ft. though light rain and the wipers noisily bouncing back and forth. I touched down deliberately as the Captain announced ”deployed,” referring to the speed brakes. As I put the nose on the ground my windshield wiper quit working…nice timing. The auto brakes worked their magic and the anti-skid cycled as we slowed. We cleared the runway and began our after landing checklist as another airline broke out of the clouds on final. We were one of only three landings during that little break in the weather. The others would have a much longer night. Shortly after we arrived at the gate, the storms again began to impact the airport. We earned our pay that night. I remember feeling rather accomplished and proud of our performance.

*Bing Fuel - As you enter holding, you must figure the amount of fuel needed to leave the pattern and safely arrive at your destination, execute a missed approach and proceed to your alternate. Decide on a “bingo” fuel early and stick to your numbers. Stretching your fuel supply is never a good idea. Remember…it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.


  1. I just found your blog a few days ago and I'm enjoying it tremendously! Keep up the good work. I work at SAT as a shuttle bus driver and drive by your company's Mad Dogs about 50 times a day and I love to hear those engines. I make sure to roll down my window every time an MD-80 is being pushed away from the gate to hear the engine start-up and get a little Jet-A buzz going. Keep the posts coming, I'm reading.

  2. Jet-A-Buzz...oh I can relate. There is nothing quite like that smell. I layover in SAT all the time. We've probably crossed paths. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I drive a long white bus with a big yellow stripe down the side (and black lettering) on Saturday and Sunday nights. I pull up to the same curb where you wait for the crew van. You come in on the long silver plane with the red, white and blue stripe down the side right? I'll keep an eye out for you next time I see an MD-80 pull in. :P

    Happy Flying!

  4. Red, white and blue stripes...that's the one. I'll look for you next time I'm there.

  5. Luis, I was in San Antonio on the 11th. Parked at gate 36 within view of the area you describe. Don't know if it was you, but there was van in line that matched your description. Hope all is well. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comments.