35 Miles from Shore

35 Miles from Shore by Emilio Corsetti III

Book: 35 Miles from Shore by Emilio Corsetti III Read Free Book Online
Authors: Emilio Corsetti III
enough fuel in Balsey’s mind to at least go down and take a look. If the weather turned sour on the approach, he would proceed to his alternate of St. Thomas.

Chapter 11
    A FTER CHECKING BACK ON THE FREQUENCY , ALM 980 was re-cleared direct to the St. Maarten radio beacon (identifier PJM) and given a clearance to descend to 10,000 feet. The weather north of San Juan was hazy but clear with just a few cumulus clouds. The weather toward St. Maarten, however, looked more ominous with towering cumulus visible in the distance. Balsey turned the radar on to get a better look. Precipitation returns filled the screen. He tilted the radar antenna down toward the water in hope of picking up St. Maarten. The Juliana airport didn’t have distance measuring equipment. One way to determine the distance from the airport was to point the radar antenna toward the water. Depending on the scale the radar was set to, it was easy to determine distance. If the radar was set to the eighty-mile scale and a shoreline was visible halfway down the scope, then the island was forty miles away. This time, however, they couldn’t pick out the shoreline. There was too much precipitation. *
    Shortly after reaching 10,000 feet, San Juan Center issued a vector of 090 degrees due to conflicting traffic with another inbound aircraft to St. Maarten. 1 The DC-9 was the faster of the two aircraft and would be cleared for the approach once the other aircraft was out of the way. The second aircraft was told to hold over the beacon at 5,000 feet. ALM 980 was then cleared to descend to 6,000 feet. The short vector would not normally have been a concern, but the turn took them away from the airport and cost them additional fuel.
    With the conflicting traffic out of the way, ALM 980 was re-cleared direct to the PJM radio beacon and cleared for the NDB approach to runway nine. Descending through 5,000 feet, they were told to contact the Juliana control tower. On their initial contact with the tower, they were given a visibility of 2 to 3 nautical miles. The tower operator also reported that it was raining at the airport.
    The runway at St. Maarten was 5,249 feet long. It was a short runway for a jet aircraft. When the runway is wet, landing distance is increased significantly. 2 While Balsey didn’t pull out any landing charts to check to see what effect the wet runway would have on their landing distance, he knew it was going to take every square-inch of runway to stop the plane.
    The NDB approach began at the PJM radio beacon, which was located on the airfield. As they neared the NDB, the tower operator reported the winds as 090 at 8 to 10 knots. 3 The ceiling was reported as 800 scattered, 1,000 broken, 5,000 overcast. Visibility was given as 2 to 3 nautical miles. What the crew was seeing outside their windows, however, did not correspond with the weather that was being reported. They were level at 2,500 feet and almost directly over the airport, but their forward visibility was practically zero due to heavy rain showers. Concerned about the poor visibility, Harry asked for another visibility report as they passed over the beacon and proceeded outbound on the approach. Once again the tower operator reported a visibility of 2 to 3 nautical miles.
    The weather reports given by the tower operator were estimates based on visual observations and pilot reports. Visibility was determined by reference points located on the mountains to the east. There were no visual references looking west toward the water where the approach was to be conducted. As the crew would soon discover, the visibility west and northwest of the airport was significantly less than 2 to 3 nautical miles.
    The first part of the NDB approach involves a maneuver known as the procedure turn. The purpose of the procedure is to turn the aircraft around so it is aligned with the inbound course. During this portion of the approach, the tower operator, apparently concerned about the weather,

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