The number one reason why I will never get tired of this job, is the simple fact that you never know what will come your way on any flight. I recently had a once in a career experience that I would like to share with you.
I was descending into JFK on a clear summer night, the first officer was the pilot flying. We were vectored for a visual approach to runway 22 left. Runway 22 left at JFK is in a dark area of the airfield. The approach and touchdown was uneventful. Once we were on the ground, the speed brakes deployed and the first officer extended the thrust reversers. As I verified these configuration changes, I focused my attention on runway alignment and our deceleration. I looked down the runway and noticed a dark area in the dark background of the runway.
Something was not right about that. I said to the first officer, "I think there is something on the runway, right side". He said, "Yeah that looks weird". "How about you move to the left side of center line", I said. He moved the aircraft laterally and about 3 seconds later, at about 120 mph, we zipped past a large engine cowling sitting in the middle of the right side of the runway. I later figured out that our right engine missed that huge piece of metal by about 20 feet.
"Tower XXXXXX 1420", I said. "Go ahead" was the reply from tower. " At about the 4000 foot remaining marker, in the middle of the right side of the runway, there is a large engine cowling that poses a great danger". "United XXXX go around", was the immediate response from the tower controller. The ground and tower controllers at JFK are some of the best, anywhere. I have a high degree of respect for the job they do everyday, without fail. That tower controller coordinated the closure of runway 22 left, the canceling of all departures on runway 22 right and the sequencing of all airborne aircraft to the remaining available runway to land.
My words to the controller started a sequence of events that would take the better part of an hour to finally settle down to normal operations. Where I was able to get a word in, I gave the controller as much information as I could. The engine cowling was big, about 10 feet across. The aircraft that landed in front of us asked me what color the cowling was. I told them that at 120 mph I was just trying to void it, it was dark out there and I could not help him. The tower controller told me that their ground radar was picking up an object about that size, in the area that I told him I saw the cowling. The newer ground radar systems must be pretty good to pick up something that size.
There was about 10 seconds of silence, when that aircraft transmitted to the tower that they thought they might be missing an engine cowling. Hitting that cowling at a high rate of speed could be catastrophic for any aircraft. That night it was no harm, no foul. A serious disruption in the normal operations of JFK, as the international departures were at their peak.
I doubt that this will ever happen to me again, but that is the same thing I said to my daughter when she backed into the neighbor's car the first time.