Tuesday, March 31, 2009


A 17-year-old Sully with his first flight instructor, L.T. Cook, Jr. , in Sherman, Texas, 1968.


"One of the big differences in flying heavy jets versus flying lighter, smaller aircraft is energy management—always knowing at any part of the flight what the most desirable flight path is, then trying to attain that in an elegant way with the minimum thrust, so that you never are too high or too low or too fast or too slow. I’ve always paid attention to that, and I think that more than anything else helped me." Capt. Sullenberger

I would say, this is excellent advice to those of us flying small airplanes too. As we can see from the picture above, we all start at the same place. What matters is where we end up.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

FRZ Thaw

I recently came across an article about one man's journey to obtain clearance to fly into the FRZ, the Flight Restricted Zone around our nation's capitol, AKA the "Freeze". It was inspirational and disheartening at the same time. Inspirational in that it was the impetus and information that myself and a friend of mine needed to push us over the edge to want to obtain the clearance. Disheartening in that our country has changed so much in such a short period of time. One can literally see our freedoms slipping away one by one at the hands of so many lawyers, hiding behind the guise of a politician. This aside, the fact that there remains an avenue to fly to a general aviation airport close to our nations capital is a small triumph of a few determined people navigating the political maze of irrationality.

The FRZ is roughly a 13-15 nm ring around the DCA vortac (look here on the bottom of page 2 for a detailed explaination of the ring boundaries) and is a highly restricted area of flight to purported by the TSA as necessary protect many of the strategic buildings. Needless to say the necessity of this "protective zone" has been debated, and outright ridiculed, by many in the aviation industry with some arguing that you can still rent a truck, pack it with -name-your-choice-of-explosive- and park it in front of any of these buildings. In spite of this, the truck rental business have seen no regulation or oversight at all. However this post is not put forth to continue that debate, rather it seeks to inform pilots who are willing to jump through the TSA's hoops and play their game in order to gain access to the three, still operational, airports inside the ring, AKA the DC-3.

The DC-3 are comprised of Potomac, Hyde Field, and College Park. All are with in an easy drive to downtown DC (notwithstanding the traffic) and the train into DC is within a 2 minute walk from College Park (the train ride taking another 10-15 minutes). College Park has the distinction of being the world's oldest continually operated airport. My understanding of the history of letting GA flyers gain access back to these venerable airports stems in large part to the efforts of Potomac's Dave Wartofsky. I do not know what strings were pulled or governmental bearucratic mazes he and others navigated, however, speaking for myself and possibly on behalf of all other GA pilots who enjoy flying to the DC area, a heartfelt thank you.

So I suppose the real question is, why. Why would anyone subject themselves to FAA and TSA scrutiny only for the privilege of being able to fly into the FRZ and land at one of the three airports? Well for one reason, they are all really, really close to DC. College Park in particular, you can literally, land, walk about 2 minutes across the road to the metro station, and take the train right into the heart of DC, about a 10 minute ride for about $7. Pretty convenient. Also, I suppose there is the opportunity to see some pretty cool sights from the air as long as you stay clear of the myriad of restricted and prohibited areas. My understanding is that fuel is very reasonably priced at these airports as well.

At any rate, with a good sense of the process, much of it gleaned from the article mentioned above and the College Park website, a good friend and fellow pilot, Greg, and I decided to take the FRZ challenge, drive to DC, and obtain our super secret decoder ring pin codes. The College Park website is a real treat and literally walks you through all of the steps to take including things like which hallway to walk down at National, when to turn left, what door to walk through, etc. Armed with the information, our pilot certificates, medicals, logbooks, passports, driver licenses, checkbooks, filled out PIN code request forms, and anything else we could think of that might be requested, we saddled up in my old pickup, and headed East.

First stop was the FAA's Baltimore Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). Greg has wisely called ahead an set up an appointment to meet with a gentleman who could take a look at our paper work. The office is located in a non-descript office park just off of route 97. We walked into the "lobby", a small 5'x10' room and rang the bell. After waiting a few minutes a our contact opened the side door and introduced himself. After a bit of small talk he disappeared with our driver licenses, logbooks and pilot certificates. He came back about 5 minutes later and said we were good to go and that he had entered our data in "the computer", and that his role was just to verify that we were in reality, pilots.

Next stop was the TSA where we were to be fingerprinted. What we ended up doing was driving from the FSDO office to College Park, talking to the guys at College Park a bit, and then taking the train to the station closest to Reagon National. This travel plan was Greg's idea and I have to say it worked out quite well. It is quite easy as there is only one transfer, and then train takes you right to the airport. Simply put you take the Green line from College Park-U of Maryland to L'Enfant Plaza and transfer the the Yellow line and go three stops to Reagan National.

Once at Reagan, we followed College Park's fantastic step-by-step directions to the TSA office for fingerprinting. It just so happened that at the TSA fingerprinting office their electronic fingerprinting machine was down. That literally could have ended our escapade however the lady running the office that day was a real champ and called the local police department to ask them if they could fingerprint us the old fashioned ink and paper way. They obliged and off we treked for about 15 minutes including a short bus ride to the other side of the airport to get fingerprinted. Once we located the office, the person who did the fingerprinting for the local police there got us in and out in about 1/2 hour or so. Back at the TSA office, the nice lady there took our fingerprint forms from the police station, put her magic mark on the pin issuance form told us where to pay our $27 and that was pretty much it.

We then had a quick lunch at the Reagan airport and hopped on the metro again to go back to College Park to give them our completed form and proof of payment. After that step, and poking around College Park airport a bit, we were done. We got back in the car and jammed on home back to Pittsburgh just beating the notorious DC beltway traffic. About a week or so later I got a phone call from College Park where they gave me my super secret password to file to fly into the FRZ. All in all a pretty quick and painless process. It's sad that we have to go through this at all, but a least the good folks at the DC-3 have figured out a way to visit their wonderful airports again.

Below are some helpful links for getting through the process:

College Park
Washington Executive - Hyde Field

If you will be flying into College Park, there is the direct link to their instructions:

Here's a link to Hyde Field's step-by-step instructions:

AOPA's official writeup:

Into the Deep FRZ article

Application for PIN issuance - Maryland Three Airports

FAA Issues DC Special Flight Rules Area Final Rule
On December 16, 2008, FAA issued a final rule converting the Washington,
DC, Metropolitan Area Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) into the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Area Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA). The rule became effective on February 17, 2009. The rule requires all pilots who operate within 60 nautical miles (nm) of the DC SFRA to receive special awareness training, which is available online at FAASafety.gov. If you have already taken the training you will not have to take it again. The rule states that it is a one-time requirement. However, FAA strongly recommends that pilots operating under VFR within 60 nm of the DCA VOR/DME review the online course from time to time. The course will be updated to be consistent with the Special Flight Rules Area final rule. The final rule may be viewed at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/pdf/E8-29711.pdf.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

IFR Long Cross Country

One of the things I've been looking forward to with flying is using the airplane for personal travel. So far, the longest trip I have taken was my dual-cross country to Gettysburg. Mike and I now had a chance to do something really fun, and useful, with IFR training while fulfilling the requirement of the 250nm distance with 3 different types of approaches. We would do the trip and incorporate it into a visit to my parents in South Carolina.

The trip down to SC was to be a total of 515nm with a fuel stop in Danville, VA (KDAN). Part of the fun was planning the trip and learning how to create and file an IFR flight plan. Mike showed me how to use the IFR Low Altitude Planning charts to come up with a viable plan to get us from PJC to DAN and then on the Beaufort, SC (KARW).

Once we had the trip planned it was time to start intensely watching the weather. Of course I was hoping for some actual along the way (I got most of my "wish" on the way back). I started looking at the forecast 10 days out, which I know is useless but what the heck, anticipation. The Thursday before we were to leave, conditions were looking pretty good, even for a VFR trip. Looking at the forecast conditions in the morning for the afternoon on Friday, the time of our planned departure, however, were looking not so good with high winds, and widespread moderate turbulence from 20,000 feet to the surface, all the way to Danville. Mike and I were not looking forward to a 2 1/2 hour flight of getting tossed around in a 172. Luckily, after a call to the briefer he gave us a pirep from a Piper Cherokee reporting smooth air at 8,000 feet along the route of our flight, and we decided to give it a go.

Mike, the intrepid and trusty CFII

After a thorough preflight of our venerable 172, we were off from Zelienople (KPJC) and were soon talking to Pittsburgh approach. We picked up our clearance and were cleared into class Bravo at PIT. I received my first taste of actual at about 6,000 feet and I'll remember it forever. There's nothing like flying into a cloud in a light aircraft with the cloud rushing toward you and then suddenly all around you. After exiting the brief layer, I then donned the foggles for the rest of the trip. We were on course and at altitude and lo-and-behold, the conditions were nothing like that forecast in the airmet Tango, but were exactly like that of the pirep, smooth. Right then I learned the true value of pireps and we were diligent about paying back the favor with our pireps, hoping it would help other pilots make that go decision if they could.

The flight to Danville was uneventful, Mike showed me how to talk with ATC, and what the proper phraseology should be. Flying IFR is very nice, I must say, very methodical. Coming into KDAN, ATC asked us if we would like to be vectored to final, but this was a training trip so we did the full approach, VOR RWY 20.

At this point it was pretty turbulent, and we were getting bumped around, which made tackling the approach a bit more interesting. I could see how single pilot IFR could be very difficult, particularly if the conditions were worse such as rain and/or at night. Once established at the MDA, Mike let me take the foggles off, and there was the runway a bit off to the left of the nose, in part due the crab to take care of the wind out of the west. After landing, the line crew was right there with the fuel truck and we were soon talking to the "good ole boys" in the FBO lounge (they had a remotely controlled fart noise making machine in the men's room...oh yeah). One was a spitting image of the assistant coach in the movie "Waterboy". Good people!

Altitude:check, heading:check, needle: centered, engine gauges:nominal - hey IFR is easy...!

There was not much time to waste as we really wanted to get going. Since we had departed about 4PM from Zelienople, we know we would be landing in the dark at Beaufort no matter what, but we still wanted to have as much daylight for the trip as possible. I called the briefer in the lounge to receive the weather for the next leg, and filed our next flight plan with him. I happened to get a very chatty briefer and received one of the most through briefings I ever had, at least 10 minutes long. Soon we were back in the airplane and we received our clearance from delivery and we were on our way again.

Foggles:Check, View out the window:Negative...Doh!

I wish I could say I really enjoyed the view, but we were pretty diligent about keeping the foggles on. This is training after all. I could definitely see how one could get very complacent flying IFR with ATC watching your back. As we neared our destination. ATC vectored us a bit off of our route and has us fly almost directly over the approach end of runway 15 at Charleston Intl. It was now dusk and the airport was all lit up.

We saw a commercial airliner on final go underneath us. The air was now much calmer with a 20 knot wind out of the west, but no turbulence at all. I looked up to see the sun setting in the west, very cool. We were vectored along the coast line of South Carolina and it was now getting very dark. ATC informed us that Beaufort would be directly to our 12 and we strained our eyes through the darkness looking for a beacon. We were also acutely aware that were were now about 1000' above mostly desolate marsh and swamp land, probably a place you would not want to lose your engine.

Finally we had the airport in sight, we canceled IFR and prepared for a straight in landing on runway 25. I was also now noticed that even though were on final approach speed, our ground speed was at a crawl. The winds had picked up a bit and we were creeping into the airport as we were now headed right into the westerly winds. Mike suggested adding power to get our asses to the airport as we did not want to hang out over these swamps for longer than we needed to... We landed about 9:30PM, taxied onto the ramp, and my dad came up to greet us. What a fun and fantastic way to get down to South Carolina!

Backyard view at Brays

The next day we gave Mike the Brays Island royal treatment taking him sporting clays shooting in the morning and a nice lunch at the golf club house. In the afternoon, Mike and I did a scouting trip to another potential good airport to land, Ridgeland, and it turned out to be a very good potential place to land next trip. Afterwards we went back and relaxed on the dock with a couple of beers and then put together an amazing steak dinner. A perfect saturday. After dinner I planned the route back home, with a plan to land at Roanoke, VA via the localizer approach for runway 33 for the fuel stop, and a touch-and-go at Butler airport using the ILS approach for runway 8.

Dad drove us back to the Beaufort airport Sunday morning. It was so great not to have to worry about getting to the airport on time to make a scheduled flight. There was no stress about parking, getting through security and getting to the gate and hour before the flight. I didn't even have to take off my shoes and my "carry on" had bottles of liquid over 8oz. It was a beautiful day in South Carolina with weather in Pittsburgh showing overcast skys at 3-4000 feet and rain at the time of our arrival. Perfect.

We climbed out of KARW, picked up our clearance, and were treated to amazing views of the coastline, with the ocean glimmering in the morning sunlight. Before we knew it we were in Roanoke and ATC let us down from 7,000 to 4,000 to get us ready for the LOC RWY33 approach circle to land runway 24.

At 4,000 we encountered what Mike called moderate turbulence. Roanoke is interesting in that it is literally in a bowl made of mountains, ok hills, on all sides. The air spilling over the mountains from the west was tumbling with eddys and currents, and made the approach, challenging to say the least. Mike helped me out with the let downs by calling out altitudes. Once at pattern altitude, the tower had us circle to land to land on the prevailing runway 24. After pulling up to the FBO, they fueled us up, gave us the keys to the crew car and in no time we were chowing down at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet close by.

Climbing out of Beaufort, SC - a rare moment without the foggles. South Carolina intercoastal waterway in the background

Soon we found ourselves back in the cockpit after the usual weather briefing and preflight, ready to go. We picked up our clearance on the ground this time, and taxied to the end of runway 24 for takeoff. We climbed out via the SID DIXXY 5 departure which helps deal with the quickly rising terrain to the west and north. We turned on course and leveled at 8,000 and were treated to some wild rides with turbulence again created from the westerly winds rushing over the terrain. It was bad enough that Mike asked for higher, which ATC kindly gave us and things smoothed out a bit. As Mike said though, this was flying in March.

Snowshoe ski resort in West Virginia

About midway through West Virginia, we finally got into some actual and I got my first real taste of keeping an airplane wings level, in turbulence, with zero visibility in a cloud. Flying in the cloud, particularly with turbulence, is a wholly different experience than flying with foggles on. I'm amazed it is even legal to get an instrument rating without any actual actual so-to-speak. It was definitely a challenge, and one I'm sure you could get comfortable with practice, but I was glad Mike was there. After almost an hour in the clouds, ATC let us down to about 4,000 nearing Allegheny County Airport. North of downtown Pittsburgh, the ceiling was beginning to drop and we realized that it may not be a touch and go at Butler, but a landing "to stay".

As we neared Butler, it was clear that this would be an ILS approach in actual, not simulated conditions. We executed the ILS RWY 8 approach and broke out about 400' above the ground with the runway magically appearing before us.

I have to say, that was an impressive display of technology to see how an ILS actually puts you where you should be when flying blind in the soup. We canceled IFR, landed, and called Mike's father to come pick us up in the car and shuttle us back to Zeli.

The whole trip was just a fantastic learning experience all the way from planning the route, to making go/no-go decisions, communicating with ATC and executing various approaches. I learned that the air traffic controllers are just amazing people who are really out there trying to help the pilots to the best of their abilities. Most importantly gaining the actual experience of flying in the clouds and doing an ILS approach to almost minimums was just invaluable. Mike is a great instructor and it was just a real pleasure to do that trip with him.

As a side note, I came back the next day and snagged one of our other instructors to fly over to retrieve the airplane. It was a short hop from Zeli to Butler and we did the ILS 8 approach again, this time in MUCH better conditions. I picked up the 172, and in less than 2/10s on the hobbs, was back on the ground again at PJC.