My favorite story about DCA came on a flight I wasn't even flying.
At the time, I was based in DFW as a F/O on the Maddog. Our contract at the time required that to be paid for the trip, a F/O had to actually fly along on the trip when he was paired with a Line Check Airman who was giving an Initial Operating Experience to a new guy fresh out of school.
So, I got one of these trips, which included an overnight in DCA, and had to tag along for the entire trip. I brought along a big book, and planned on doing little more than the walk arounds for the two captains.
I was spending all the time except my walk arounds in a seat in the back. However, on the leg into DCA, the LCA asked me to come up to the cockpit to be a third set of eyes. No problem.
The airplane we picked up in DFW had some sort of issue with air conditioning smoke. [This usually comes off as much more dramatic than it really is. On the Maddog, there is a bottle which captures hydraulic fluid overflows. If not emptied regularly, this bottle will overflow into the intake for the A/C packs, and this causes smoke in the cabin. Don't mistake me--Smoke in the cabin is a big deal and you and I shouldn't assume that it's just a little whiff. But the maddog had a known problem with this issue (since solved).]
Right before pushback, we got the inevitable cabin smoke after the APU was started and the packs put on, and there was some guy up in 2C who was making a huge deal about it. I had picked him out a mile away....a big shot in a power suit, power tie, and a big briefcase headed to Washington. Right away he got really loud about how the smoke was keeping him from all this important legal work he was doing, and asking if was it cancerous, and what not. Putz. The smoke cleared, as it generally does, and the Flight Attendants did a really good job of calming this guy down. Off we went.
I forget the details now, but as I recall, runway 19 (which was then runway 18, IIRC) was NOTAMed to be closed at 10pm or so...right about our arrival time.
Anyway, as we got 150 miles or so out, we picked up the ATIS which had them landing on 18. Once we got over to approach control, they asked if we could land on 15. Our procedures don't allow 15 landings, so we said "no" (buildings in Rosslyn or some such thing). They then started vectoring us towards runway 1. And once on final for runway 1 and we were handed off to Tower, they cleared us to land on 33.
So, to sum up, in the span of about 12 minutes, we had had to think about landings on 4 of their 6 runways (the other two being completely out of the question).
And, as you've suggested, DCA isn't like anywhere else in the country. There's a restricted area just north of the airport, and they're serious about it. Violations are handed out there, and there is always the threat of those Secret Service missiles. They have very unique procedures there...I call it my "trick flying".
And, yeah, let's not forget, we had a brand new Captain in the left seat. Literally, this was his first post-school flight in the left seat.
That said, the LCA decided early on that he'd be the one flying into DCA. Good decision.
Anyhoo, once we finally did get onto the final for 33, the LCA landed with a perfect runway 33 landing...meaning he had the autobrakes set on Max, and he landed firmly....really firmly. [Runway 19 is too short for my taste, but runway 33 is even shorter.] The second the nosewheel got on the ground, he got right into the reverse thrust. It wasn't the most comfortable landing from the passengers point of view, but knowing what I knew, it was perfect.
Soooo, time marched on.
Four months later, I got a letter from the Chief Pilot asking me to come in and tell my story of what happened that night in DCA...a flight I was only on the jumpseat for.
It seemed as though one of our huge, big-time customers--the kind that know our system in and out because they fly millions of miles every year with us--was with this flight from start to finish. He had been on the flight coming in to DFW, where we picked up the plane.
And he didn't like anything that he'd seen.
I assumed right away that he was Mr. 2C Putz. Not so. It turns out he was some completely anonymous guy sitting in coach who didn't say boo to us one way or the other (not that he should).
Do everything right, under challenging conditions, and people will still complain.
Parenthetically, (and finally, in conclusion) I think one of the biggest mistakes we made after 9/11 was in not closing DCA. If you ask me, it is far too short for major airline operations, and is way, waaaay too close to Washington, DC.
9/11 was a good opportunity to turn DCA into what it really ought to be....
A train station.