I was operating a flight from IAD to SAT, my first day off of high minimums, as a captain. (I would be able to be dispatched and fly down to CAT 1 minimums as opposed to adding 100’ and ½-mile vis.) I received the dispatch release and to my enjoyment found that indeed today would be the day that those new reduced minimums would be put to the test. Weather in SAT was poor, a nice cool fall morning had developed substantial fog over much of Texas and while AUS was given as a legal alternate, it was as close to a marginal alternate as could be legally allowed. The IAD-SAT flight truly does push the performance of the CRJ700 to the limit, when fully loaded with passengers, bags, and fuel for an alternate as we were on this day; we would be departing at maximum takeoff weight and would be unable to carry any additional captain’s fuel.
After making a safe departure and putting much of the eastern part of the country behind us, we began to turn to the job of arriving into SAT. Over Houston, we began checking the weather in SAT, AUS, and other airports in the area. The fog had not lifted at its forecast time and the latest METAR reported ¼ mile visibility and vertical visibility was zero (VV000), below our category one approach minimums. I queried the controller, “Are other aircraft getting into SAT?” Their reassuring response was yes, indeed RVR (runway visual range) values were still good and traffic was landing into SAT. The weather at our AUS alternate (very close geographically) was no different. We elected to continue and dispatch agreed, with the idea that IAH was a possible second alternate.
We were sequenced number one for arrival followed by another RJ and a 737 operated by Southwest. RVR values were reported at 2400, 2800, 3200 with a light wind and vertical visibility still at zero. We joined the localizer as we neared final approach. RVR values at the touchdown dropped to 1600 and we informed the controller that we would be unable to continue the approach. After executing what some are beginning to call a “high energy” go-around (not fully configured), the controller asked us what our intentions were. The first officer and I elected to enter holding while we waited to see what the RVR would do and contemplate our other options.
We reviewed the charts for crossing runways (normally easier to get when requested then turning the airport arrival sequence around and asking for opposite direction), however these runways required significantly higher RVR values because of obstacles or lack of precision guidance. We then requested opposite direction due to the higher RVR values at the opposite end of the runway, but were dismayed to learn from the controller that the approach light system was out of service, but, “Someone was working on it.” With time becoming our enemy as fuel continued to burn, the controller’s voice suddenly changed, possibly because the supervisor may have stepped in to see what they could do. We informed them of our 1800RVR requirement and we were met with, “RVR is now 1800.” The controller then informed us that we would be number five for arrival, which was unacceptable due to our low fuel state, which would be critical in the event of another go-around or diversion. I stated that we were at minimum fuel, and would become an emergency in the event of a go-around. I was assertive, keeping in mind that I didn’t want to declare an emergency and face the paperwork that would follow. We were vectored number one followed by our other company RJ and executed a textbook approach down to minimums where we picked up the approach lights at 200 feet, continued down to 100 feet where we were able to get the runway in sight and completed the flight safely.
Remember, forecasts are forecasts, and having backups to your backup plans are required in this industry. Stay employed, stay legal, stay alive.
See you around the airport. ACN