Sunday, August 12, 2012

Chaos in Paradise

Trouble is often an ephemeral presence that visits you, wreaks some measure of havoc, then pretends to go away. You attribute its apparent demise to your skill and cunning in dealing with it, but it only hides nearby and snickers at your naivete.

And that's precisely what it did when we successfully avoided the embedded thunderstorms north of Aruba. And did so, as you recall, with all our radios succumbed to a bout of mysterious, chaotic static during which we could hear nothing. After dodging the storms we needed to re-establish our course to Aruba. The 180 vacationers on board were eager to get to the beach.

Beatrix Control, on Aruba, had finally broken through the static and saluted our deviation around the storm (it was to be done with or without their approval), but their answer to our next question gave us a hint of what lay ahead. Chris asked for clearance direct to AUA, the Aruba VOR station which is located on the airport. The thickly accented Hispanic voice said, “Roger.

“Roger” is not a clearance to do anything. It only means “I understand you.”

Chris asked again, but the man was busy with planes arriving at Aruba ahead of us. We were headed southwest toward nothing but blue water. After repeated tries to get a clearance resulted only in a string of “Rogers,” I turned south to AUA.

The thunderstorms receded behind us but multiple broken cloud layers partially veiled the island. Then welcome but puzzling news: Beatrix asked if we had the island in sight. We had only a piece of it in sight. The weather, though not below VFR, was unusually bad for Aruba, consequentially you would expect an instrument approach would be in order.

Chis reported that the island was in sight. The only response was—you guessed it—“Roger.” So we continued inbound to AUA.

Aruba usually lands east into the prevailing Trade Winds, but that day the winds were westerly, and the only approach to that runway was a VOR approach. We don't do those often, but we're trained for it. A VOR approach would be okay. As we tracked inbound to AUA we set up for it.

Through thin, misty clouds, I saw the north coast with its string of resort hotels—most of our passengers' destinations—slide underneath our nose. Our course ended only a few miles ahead and we were hanging at 6,000 feet with no further clearance. Chris appealed for a clearance but none came. Logic and experience suggested we would be issued radar vectors to the final approach course at the VOR. But logic does not always prevail in some parts of the planet.

The VOR and the airport upon which it sat slid underneath us. Chris and I looked at each other. He shrugged. I decided to hold the inbound heading. It seemed logical that we would pass overhead the airport and turn east for a left downwind to runway 29. But, there was that silly logic thing again. Shouldn't be thinking that way.

As we headed out south over the water Chris finally got Beatrix's attention. “How far south are you going to take us?” he asked.

Their response was, “Say your radial and DME from Aruba.” He told them. Their answer? You know.  

Not good. Obviously they didn't have us on radar and, worse, they weren't admitting it. They resumed talking to other aircraft, while we cruised southward toward the Venezuelan coast. I got jumpy. This couldn't go on. That was dictator Hugo Chavez's territory ahead and it was getting bigger by the minute. Chris called them again, and again they asked our position.

I knew we could get intercepted if we violated Chavez's airspace. His fighters would force us to follow them to Venezuela, he would make a big media deal of it and Chris and I would spend time as guests in his jail. I weighed the options: Clearance deviation (with small possibility of mid-air collision), or Venezuelan jail (with large probability of abundant misery).

The decision took about a nanosecond. I turned east.

We carefully watched the TCAS scope and kept our eyes searching for conflicting traffic. I saw the island off the left side. Beatrix asked us again for our position. When Chris gave them the information and told them we were eastbound, they told us to report on a 10 mile final for runway 29. FINALLY, A PLAN!

We looped around to the west and tracked inbound on the VOR approach. Just as the airport swam out of the gloom two miles ahead, the tower cleared another aircraft for takeoff. The guy was slow to take the runway. The last thing I wanted was a go-around under the conditions of marginal weather, bad radios, no radar coverage and people controlling us who were only pretending to control us. The guy lifted off just as we touched down. I've never seen it that close even at Chicago.

We turned off, found our gate and shut down. I slumped back. Chris said, “Can you believe those guys? They had a radar outage and didn't even tell anybody!”

Yep. I could believe it. 

Ever heard the old expression, Never stop flying a tail-dragger until you tie it down?

Same goes for a 757—especially in Latin America.

Answer to last post's puzzle: Anonymous nailed it.

How about this for an office window view?