It was a busy end of month weekend; the airport was crowded of travelers and I had an especial anxiety because I was commuting to go to work and this time with a different airline. The flight was not only full, was also overbooked. Added to this the destination airport was on the minimums with fog. Planning ahead I called the flight scheduler and told him to have a plan B for my case because I may not be in time for my flight due to weather.
Hopefully the Captain made a place available for me on the jumpseat of the veteran MD-88. Departure was normal and once at cruising altitude, halfway to our destination dispatch told us that this one was below minimums. Serious faces now, chit chat ended this is the time when professionals follow a previously designed plan. After reviewing alternates weather on the Company frequency and consult the First Officer, the Captain decided to give a try.
On the approach, we received radar vectors direct to the IAF (Initial Approach Fix). Established on the ILS and passing 1000 AGL, I could see the tension on the Captain’s face, he was the pilot flying, his left finger was on the red button of the autopilot disconnect. We passed the minimums at 200 ft and continued down without visual clues from the runway environment, at 150 ft a glimpse of the runway approach lights appeared in the murk and we finally saw the runway at 100 ft. Landing was uneventful and vacating the runway it came the voice of the controller asking at what height we made visual contact with the runway. The pilots looked to each other and the first officer replied: “on the minimums”…
Is a non-written agreement between pilots on the approach that, if asked on the frequency, none is going to mention an altitude below the published minimums, thereby depriving others of the opportunity to try an approach.
As we taxied down the taxiway, the lights of a 737 appeared like a ghost from the low clouds, it was low, really low.
I thanked the captain for bringing me to work and as I walked into the terminal I was thinking on the situation experienced a while ago.
Nobody pushed to the Captain to land below minimums and he walked away from his airplane to go home and no aviation authority asked him why he did what he just did and he was not the only one, many airplanes landed that day on the same condition. Then, why the control tower, the civil aviation authority, kept his mouth shut in front of a flagrant violation to the rules?
The answer can be found in two words: “mutual convenience”, the airport remains open and continues the operation that means more taxes paid by contributors. The airlines continue the operation avoiding costly delays. The passengers reach their destinations.
And the whole aviation wheel keeps moving. But …
There is one person that is completely alone: The Captain.
According to the law on his shoulders is the last decision and responsibility of the operation of the aircraft, then if something goes wrong he will be the first one to be called to give answers, if he survives. If his answers are not satisfactory he can face loss of his license and even jail. He will be alone there, none can help him.
At the end between lawyers they will say, is Captain’s decision.
By Ivan Paredes
This article is not intended to criticize the actions of any company, organization or individual, solely provide a point of view of daily airline operations on some parts of the world.