A career of a professional pilot goes something like this. First years are full of giving up everything that is not about flying and studying. In addition to the obligatory practical training, a compulsory diploma from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering is required. Oh boy, how we student pilots hated it. Yet, without it in those days one had no other options if the wish was to fly a passenger plane in our country. When I finished that last exam and got the last license, it was only the beginning. Some years had passed before the first call for applications for co-pilot on Adria Airways arrived. It would be all too nice if I succeeded to get in in the first take. It wasn’t until the third call that I was accepted and had that feeling of having a whole world under my feet. Yet, there was no time for real euphoria. Very soon they overwhelmed us with more books and further studies. One has to invest all the atoms of his strength to not “fuck up” and successfully finish training. In aviation, years fly by really fast. Before you know it, it is your turn to start studying for a Capitan. They say you’re ripe for the job when to you as a co-pilot, the guy in the left seat slowly starts to get on your nerves. And finally, there came a time for me to be that “nuisance” on the left seat to somebody else. There is almost a rule (that we probably attract ourselves), that in the first few months as a young captain most things characterized as incidents, failures, and the like, happen. I was just waiting for when It would be “my first”. And things do come to those who wait. Flights to Moscow were, at least for most of us the least desired ones. They were long, and mostly boring except in winter. Winter in Russia always makes sure that at least some adrenaline will run through your veins in the last phase of a flight. It was the month of December and the plane was packed. The weather forecast was nothing shocking. A very experienced co-pilot was flying with me and we both agreed to take a little more fuel, given the weather forecast which otherwise mentioned light snowfall but other than that, nothing dramatic. With such an image in our heads, we took off. Somewhere over Belarus, we began to listen about the current weather in Moscow.“Have I heard correctly,” I asked my colleague. We both listened to it and looked at each other. Sheremetyevo (our destination) was under heavy snowfall, strong crosswinds, and a very poor braking rate. I looked at the table on which there is recorded the maximum lateral component of the wind on a snowy runway and realized that under such conditions we are not allowed to land. “How is this possible, they forecasted only a light snowfall, where did this snowstorm come from all of a sudden?,” I was thinking to myself. “Let’s listen to the weather at Vnukovo and Domodedovo alternative airports,” I said while realizing that the weather will be the same anyway.
And it really was. Fast, too fast we were approaching our destination while hoping that something would change. “It’s the same,” said my colleague and looked at me with that “what are we going to do” look. I quickly started to calculate how much fuel we had left while he listened to the weather forecast at all three airports once again as if somehow hoping the weather would miraculously change. We only had fuel for about 15 minutes left, then we had to turn to an alternative airport. “Listen to the weather for Nizhny Novgorod,” I asked him while replaying the scripts in my head and looking at the tables once again. “Novgorod is fine, it doesn’t snow and the weather looks ok,” he told me. I looked at the fuel and the navigation calculations and found that we did have enough fuel to get there, but if we did decide to go for it, we would be an hour away from all the other airports without any fuel reserves. “What if for some reason we fail to land the first time,” I told him. I was becoming less and less enthusiastic about the option, but there were almost no others left and there was less and less time for cancellation. “Please give me the weather for all three Moscow airports again”, I asked. Sheremetyevo dropped out. Domodedovo too. “Vnukovo already has 30 cm of snow,” the co-pilot told me, “but there is a headwind.” I took the book again and calculated. “We can do Vnukovo, but it is a close call. Please check yourself,” I told him.“Yes, it works out. But it truly is a close call,” he said. Namely, if the runway is wet or snowy, the braking length is specifically extended. We both calculated that in the given conditions we would only have 200 meters of runway left in the end. “There is no more time, “ I said. We did a FORDEC, which is a mental procedure that you go through before you make a decision, and it either confirms or refutes what you planned.
There were only two options. Novgorod or Vnukovo. Neither was ideal and each bore its own risk. I didn’t want to head to Novgorod as upon getting there, we would have no other option left. “We both calculated that we can land at Vnukovo,” I said to him and asked for his opinion. “I agree, calculations show it will work out,” he said. “I have never in my life landed on such a snowy runway and just now, when I am still a young captain, I have to go through this baptism of fire,” was going across my mind. The decision was made. We were going to Vnukovo. We informed the control that due to the weather conditions we could not land at Sheremetyevo and that we ask to land at the alternative airport Vnukovo. As if the air traffic controller felt our distress, he permitted us everything we needed without any of the complications, which is supposed to be typical for Russian air traffic control. We headed for the axis of the runway and configured the plane for landing a bit earlier so that we could focus as much as possible on the landing itself, which had to be done without any mistakes. The radio altimeter was calling out numbers 50,40,30,20,10 (how many feet above the track we were). I was completely focused on the landing. I kept repeating in my head “I have to go a little lower, land hard, and open the engine brakes as soon as possible.” As a mantra, I spun the whole landing in my head and before I knew it, we touched the runway with the main wheels. In the corner of my eye, I saw snow flying in all directions. I started to brake and was most afraid of how the plane would behave and whether would it get carried away from the center of the runway or not. I was breaking and gently making corrections. Plane stopped. We looked ahead and there wasn´t much of the runway left. “Give me five,” I said, both of us very proud that we succeeded together. Since then, I always refueled for Moscow as much as possible and made sure that a plan B that was bulletproof.
Never before, nor ever since, have I experienced such a difference between the forecast and the actual weather as on that December day when, as a young captain I learned that having a hint of doubt is always a smart thing to do.