We stand, shivering, 4,415 feet above the ocean between rocky peaks hidden by the swirling charcoal overcast just above us.
Cold, black, white, and shades of grey. That's what a winter night on the ramp consists of; it is dimensionless, infinite, and temporary. We won't be here long and we don't know when we might find ourselves here again. In one sense, this is not a real place; it exists only as a construct of time and circumstance. I may never return, but I'm sure I'll know this place again, even if it may be thousands of miles away.
Somewhere out there is the warm glow of the hotel rooms we left behind in downtown Reno. I can imagine the soft bed I crept out of just one hour ago. I stirred at six o'clock PM local; the behindhand waking hour was not a matter of sloth, but respect for tonight's late and lengthy voyage. The grey dusk could just as easily have been dawn rather than the precursor to a colorless evening. It does not matter. I am awake.
What little light I have is of my own making. I shine my tactical flashlight across the main gear and walk forward to the nose. The steel gear pins dangle by their "Remove before flight" flags from my copilot's left hand as he waits by the main entry door. I nod, point at his cargo, then make a circle with my thumb and index finger, splaying the three remaining fingers out and away from the relative warmth of my hand.
"I see three."
This is the preflight ritual; one pilot pulls the pins, the other verifies. He pulls the handle out and down, then gives the heavy door a tug. It glides down and becomes stairs. He disappears inside.
The 900XP is cold and inert, reflecting my light but lifeless in all other respects. It appears perfectly preserved by its day of hangar rest; the fuse, wings and tail are devoid of any ice or frost contamination. I silently thank the aviation gods that we won't have to deice tonight. The expensive hangar stay, which I'll review shortly when I receive my receipt from the folks in the warmth not far away, was worth every penny.
I know the Hawker is about to stir from its slumber. The nav lights come on; I see various internal lights slowly flickering as my copilot begins working the overhead panel. He's just a vague blur, but I know he's about to reach back to the APU panel, test the warning lights and fire bell, and then...
I hear the whine of the APU, starting as a low growl and growing in intensity and pitch. The familiar sound, the gut-punch of light-off as the turbine spools up and brings its mated companion, the compressor to speed with it. Although I can't see or hear it, I know the "Ready to Load" APU Gen annunciator is turning green with the requisite clunk of the solenoid slamming closed; and the various screens of our avionics are also blinking and yawning to the dim light of a new day.
It's time for me to go inside and take another close look at the weather. We'll be wearing a formidable suit of aluminum armor against this foe, but we are not invulnerable. I'm not truly expecting anything to go wrong; after all, if I did, I'd simply cancel and go back to my hotel. But it pays to be ready in my line of work.
A hot cup of coffee in hand, I sit down in front of an FBO screen. Someone label-gunned "USE PASSWORD: PILOT" across its bottom edge, but I'm granted access without needing any such crude credentials. I log in to ARINC and have another look. Yes, I find all my favorite things: ice, fog, snow, low RVRs and ceilings just above ILS minimums. And omnipresent in Reno are the windshear alerts. I picked up +/-20 knots on the approach in last night. But on the plus side, the MUs are 40 or greater. Translation: good braking on 16L, which is 9,000 feet long. That's good to know in case I need to abort; I can feel the invisible weight of the Mount Rose and the Sierra Nevadas, and I'd rather not steer around them in the fog and dark while dealing with an emergency on the flight deck.
My optimized flight plan routing courtesy of the ARINC supercomputer tells me we'll be airborne for 5+05, which means we'll be taking every last drop of precious fuel we can squeeze aboard. In simple terms, this is 10,000 pounds of fuel. ARINC is more precise, however; "MAX" equates to 9,966 pounds, but 34 pounds means nothing when you burn 2,000 in the first hour of flight. I already know we'll be under our max taxi weight of 28,150 pounds, but I let ARINC calculate our passenger, cargo, and fuel weight. We're within CG limits as well; not that I've ever figured out a way to get a Hawker out of CG, but in theory, it's possible.
We're flying the Reno 4 departure. I review the procedure. It's interesting and unique compared to most: fly the I-RNO south course to 15,000 feet. Expect requested altitude five minutes after departure. Expect radar vectors to assigned route/fix. There are lost comms provisions in place to keep dullards from plowing inexorably southward into the waiting granite outcroppings. But what catches my eye is the required climb gradient for the 16L departure:
RWY 16L: STANDARD WITH MINIMUM CLIMB OF 730' PER NM TO 9900, OR 600-1 1/4 WITH MINIMUM CLIMB OF 370' PER NM TO 9900.
Of course, it bears mentioning: this is no problem at all for two engines making close to 10,000 combined lbs. of thrust. The only concern here relates to making that gradient with one rather than two.
We're part 91, so the visibility and ceiling requirements do not apply. I do some math. I'll need some pretty good performance out of my TFE731-50s to make this work. I'm quite certain I won't make the 730' minimum climb if the engine plays dead some after V1. We're high and heavy, but cold, so the 370'/nm requirement is right on the edge. The margin is slim... and the night sky is unforgiving.
They're damn good engines. Reliable and predictable. They've never failed me. I imagine them out there in the dark even now, with their icy cold engine inlets, ready to be warmed when I call for the engine anti-ice switches to be flipped to the 'on' position. But they are made by the hands of men.
I decide I need backup. I cue up ARINC's Runway Analysis and commit one small tree branch to its doom as page after page begins spilling out of the printer. The RA is an emergency escape route for us mere mortals -- a way to be sure we can clear the cumulogranite and climb out even if the unthinkable happens and we have to do it on a single turbofan engine. A company called AGP reviews many factors related to the departure, then tailors the procedure to a particular aircraft. This service is not inexpensive, but I'm glad we have it right now.
* Rwy TAKEOFF WEIGHTS FOR RWY 16LDP REQUIRE USE OF ** 16LDP THIS TAILORED DEPARTURE PROCEDURE: ** ** NOTE: THIS PROCEDURE IS APPLICABLE ONLY ** FOR AIRCRAFT OPERATING AT V2 LESS THAN ** 135 KIAS. ** ** NOTE: DO NOT UTILIZE THE ACCELERATION ** HEIGHT PUBLISHED ON THE RUNWAY ANALYSIS. ** ** NOTE: POWER MUST BE REDUCED FROM TAKEOFF ** THRUST TO MCT AT THE AFM TIME LIMIT ** FOR TAKEOFF THRUST. ** ** FLY RUNWAY HEADING. (DIRECT IRNO/164/4.0) ** ** AT IRNO 4.0 DME, AT V2 SPEED (135 KIAS ** MAXIMUM), MAKE A 15 DEGREE BANKED CLIMBING ** -LEFT- TURN TO A HEADING OF 325 DEGREES ** (DIRECT FMG/246/5.3). NOTE: DO NOT ** LEVEL-OFF, RETRACT FLAPS, OR ACCELERATE ** UNTIL ESTABLISHED ON THE 325 DEGREE ** HEADING. ** ** WHEN ON THE 325 DEGREE HEADING, LEVEL-OFF, ** ESTABLISH FINAL CLIMB CONFIGURATION ** AND SPEED, AND RESUME CLIMB. ** ** UPON CROSSING THE FMG VOR R-246, MAKE ** A 15 DEGREE BANKED CLIMBING -RIGHT- ** TURN TO HEADING 008 DEGREES. (DIRECT ** FMG/337/10.0) ** ** INTERCEPT THE FMG VOR R-337 OUTBOUND. ** ** CONTINUE ON THE FMG VOR R-337 OUTBOUND. ** ** AT FMG VOR R-337/D15.0, ENTER HOLD. ** (NORTHWEST, LEFT TURNS, 157 INBOUND). *
I visualize it actually happening: the sudden shock of thrust reduction as one engine flames out; the rudder bias shifting the pedals automatically under my feet to compensate for the asymmetric thrust; a small twist of the aileron trim wheel, and a razor sharp focus on airspeed, bank angle, and configuration. There will be no checklists called for as we climb for 1,500 AGL: it will be pure stick and rudder, total concentration on flying the crippled jet. I imagine the turn southeast and back towards the Mustang VOR, then northwest towards the west shore of Pyramid Lake. I won't be able to see the mountains which form the bowl of our small maneuvering area but I'll feel them, certainly -- especially during that first 15 degree banked turn, taking me towards the mountains. The temptation to increase bank angle will be strong. But I trust the procedure.
On the face of it, it's straightforward enough, but not without some degree of complexity. It must be briefed. I trudge back into the darkness and find my way to my ship. As I climb aboard, I feel warmth; the APU is doing a good job heating the cabin and flight deck. For now, the Hawker is a hospitable place, a beacon in the abject misery of high-altitude winter weather.
A conversation ensues, muted tones between professionals. We've seen this before. The Reno 4, the procedure we hope to actually fly, is quite a different animal, and there is some care taken to separate the two briefings. With due consideration given to our worst-case scenario we settle in for the most important part of the pre-flight preparation: the brewing of the coffee.
I carefully fill the filter with one full scoop of my favorite brand: Dunkin Donuts Original Blend. Now the reservoir is filled by holding opening the water release valve and waiting until the float indicator rests at '8'. The Galley Master switch comes on, followed by the coffee master switch, and finally the switch on the coffee maker itself is flipped. The sounds of percolation soon follow. The placard on the coffeemaker warns to leave the door open while brewing; this we do, and the soothing and enticing aroma of fresh coffee soon fills the cabin.
We make out headlights at the FBO fence; there's our charge for the evening. The car glides to a stop at our wingtip; our passenger tumbles out and hurries aboard. I situate him and brief him on the flight before us: a bumpy ride through the lower altitudes, please leave your seatbelt on until we tell you it's okay to get up, might be some light chop at altitude but we'll shop on the way up and work with ATC to get the best ride possible. He nods and cracks open his newspaper. It's time to go to work.
The Hawker fits me like a glove. I glide into the captain's seat with a rapid series of twists, turns, and gyrations of the hips; I do this with the grace borne of a thousand such maneuvers. This is my office, and this is where I am the most comfortable.
When we're cleared for takeoff, I slowly advance the power levers and release the brakes. It's a familiar and comforting feeling to be pressed back into the sheepskin as the Hawker streaks down the centerline of 16L. Satisfied I'm making minimum N1 or better, I wait for the V1 call, nestle the plane into to the command bars at 12.5 degrees nose up, and smile as I feel the mains lift off the runway.
My tiny Hawkerjet disappears into the night sky, with me in it. But here on the flight deck, I'm back in the real world. And I'm glad to be here.