The Island

The visual approach, contrary to what you might imagine, is one of the more difficult maneuvers that a pilot is asked to accomplish. Using an instrument approach, even with low clouds, places the aircraft in a very stable and consistent position during the landing and is mostly a “straight-in” affair. It is the “visual”, where the aircraft is approaching the field from many possible directions and the pilot is judging his or her descent rate by eye instead of by instruments, which tests one’s art and skill.

At airports I fly into frequently I like to stake out landmarks which help me to judge the “letdown” and plan the diameter of my turn from downwind to final. In Cincinnati landing south I plan my base to final turn to fall just a little north of the Ohio river. In Roanoke, Virginia landing northwest I judge my turn based on a small mountain just left of the final which has a big illuminated star on its peak, a sort of advertisement for the city.

Lately I have been flying into Harrisburg, PA on a regular basis. Except in unusual wind conditions, we land to the northwest on runway 31. With good visibility we approach the field on what is called the “downwind” which is an imaginary track about 1,500 feet AGL (above ground level) paralleling the runway opposite the direction of landing. We usually begin our descent from the downwind “abeam the numbers” (which refers to the big white numbers painted on the threshold of the runway). Smaller aircraft make nearly square turns to the base leg (90 degrees from the runway heading) and then another square turn to the final. In our faster jet we tend to plan a smooth descending 180 degree turn to the final hopefully rolling out in line with the runway and at the appropriate altitude to be on the proper stabilized glide path for landing.

My reference landmark for runway 31 at Harrisburg is an island in the Susquehanna River. On the Island is a nuclear power plant with four 30 story cooling towers two of which are generally belching clouds of steam into the air. These towers make an excellent center point for my imaginary arc from the downwind to the final and my visual approaches here are better than they otherwise would be thanks to this reference.

The Susquehanna, and indeed the entire valley surrounding the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, is beautiful. The low forested mountains to the south run right along the river bank and upstream from Harrisburg the river seems to cut straight through the mountain range at a 90 degree angle in a phenomenon called a “water-gap” which you really should read about. The river itself, at least in low water, seems lazy and inviting as it winds past little islands and rock bars. It looks like it would be great fun to float down it in a canoe or even an inner tube. The airport lies along the river and the runway parallels it behind a small levee so that coming in to land from either direction one gets a stunning view up the valley and, coming from the southeast, a glance at dozens of small pastoral farms with crops planted in contour around the numberless hills. Just downstream from Harrisburg is Lancaster County, famous as the home of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” Amish community, where the tiny picturesque farms are tiny because they are still worked by horses. To know quickly how beautiful the Susquehanna is just look at its Wikipedia page. The photo below the header tells you exactly what I’m talking about.

Some of you, particularly those older than 40, might have had a dim memory awakened by my description of the scene above, particularly of my landmark for landing and the cryptic remark about “two of the four cooling towers belching steam.” Only two of the many FO’s who have accompanied me into Harrisburg had a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned the name of the place to them. None of them had a sense of the momentous events that happened there.

To look at Three-Mile Island now and the Susquehanna flowing past it is difficult to summon up the fear and apprehension that most American’s shared for several weeks in 1979. It is so pretty here. Even the power plant perversely seems to fit its surroundings. It seems benign. Within about 5 miles downstream, in fact, is a coal burning power plant which always has a dirty, yellowish plume of smoke trailing downwind. The cooling towers at Three-Mile Island just seem to have a happy white cloud over them much as Bob Ross might have added if he had ever painted a nuclear plant.

And the people I meet in Harrisburg, or Middletown where our hotel is, don’t seem to think about 1979 either. I have asked numerous residents about it and the result is the same; the young one’s have never heard of it and the old ones don’t really want to talk about it. I guess I don’t blame them. We are all whistling past the graveyard in one way or another whether we be Angelinos living atop the San Andreas Fault, Oklahomans watching the skies in May, or you and I knowing we shouldn’t have that Five Guys Cheeseburger, but having it anyway.

It is probably a good idea to remember, once in awhile, that things are not as bad as they could be. The mistakes of 1979 were big mistakes. They encompassed all manner of human failing and frailty from inattention to denial to tunnel vision to misleading optimism to outright deceit. They commanded the nation’s attention for good reason. They made us step back and take stock of our unquestioning embrace of nuclear power. The lessons learned were ultimately applied to making power plants safer and machines more dependable. And the worst did not happen here. This lovely valley was not laid waste to like the dead zone surrounding the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine. Thousands of people were not killed in a devastating explosion or in the hopeless effort to stop the radiation from spreading. Southeast Pennsylvania and Harrisburg and the Amish country and the Chesapeake Bay were not poisoned and rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And, though there is still some argument about the long term effects of the radiation that was released, there were not thousands of cancer deaths and birth defects in the major cities of the east coast.

But it could have been that way. Some things went right here that did not go right at Chernobyl or Fukushima. Were our people smarter than theirs? Probably not. Was Three-Mile Island better designed than these? Probably better, for that time, than Chernobyl for its time, but probably not better than Fukushima. So could the disaster have happened in this lovely valley? It seems likely that it could have if a few things that went right had gone wrong instead. 50% of Three Mile Island’s uranium fuel melted down. That is 20 tons. Chemical reactions generated a huge hydrogen gas bubble in the reactor containment building which could have exploded releasing radiation and radioactive elements into the air over the east coast much as happened at Chernobyl. It might have been worse, much worse.

There were not exactly villains in the drama at Three Mile Island, just flawed humans who made mistakes, some poor designs, and, as we always see in such circumstances, a tendency to “cover your own ass.” The utility running the plant and its contractors paid over $100 million in compensation to various plaintiffs and spent about $1 billion dollars cleaning up the site. Hundreds of tons of radioactive fuel and wreckage from the site were shipped to a Department of Energy facility in Idaho. Radioactive coolant which had seeped into the concrete of the containment building could not easily be recovered and its removal has been deferred likely until the other reactor at Three-Mile Island is decommissioned.

The fact that the infamous Three-Mile Island nuclear plant continues to generate power and a white cloud of steam above two of its four cooling towers is what surprises me most. Despite heavy local opposition reactor #1 was allowed to resume operation in 1985 and, in 2009 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Three-Mile Island’s license to allow reactor #1 to continue operations until 2034. Money is money, after all. When I do my circle to land around the ominously quiet cooling towers of reactor #2 I think about what still lies inside that building and reflect on the huge concrete sarcophagus the Russians had to build over the wreckage of Chernobyl at great personal cost to those who did it.

What happened at Three-Mile Island in 1979 has largely been forgotten and perhaps that is as it should be. Our “collective memories” are already filled up with worries and, in some cases, manias. Kids today don’t think about the possibility of the Russians blowing us up like I did when I was a kid. Parents today don’t obsess about their kids getting Polio, as our grandparents did. And apparently people in Harrisburg today don’t fret about nuclear meltdowns like they did in 1979. Today kids worry about terrorism (which they statistically shouldn’t have to) and parents worry about vaccines (when they should be worrying about the renewed specter of Polio and the diseases that these vaccines nearly eradicated) and the loonies give us a thousand other things to worry about if we listen to them.

Worry is something we all live with and it is hard not to. It harms us in many ways and it seems, often enough, that the things we worry about, terrorism, illegal immigration, other people’s morality, are not the things which we really should statistically worry about. If you look at the data we should be concerned with heart disease, auto accidents, suicide, and the overuse of antibiotics. From Three-Mile Island to 9/11 to saturated fat the challenge has always been to worry about the things that matter, to learn from our mistakes, and, finally, to ignore those boogeymen who pose us no real threat. Only by doing this do we make progress without hurting ourselves in the process.

When I look at the steam plume at Three-Mile Island I still can’t decide if it represents a victory or a defeat. Did we learn from our mistakes and advance our search for clean energy or did a bunch of people with money find a way to overcome a PR nightmare to keep on making more money? I’m still not sure. But I do still feel lucky when I look around this pretty valley and reflect on what might have been.

by: Dustin Joy