Wanna Get Away? How About Martha’s Vineyard?

It hadn’t been two weeks since I received my Private Pilot certificate and had the bug to go somewhere.  I had done the normal central New York stops of KFZY and KDSV with friends but I was ready spread my wings and escape the friendly skies of upstate.  I just had to decide where to go.

Ultimately the decision of where to go was an easy one.  A fellow Horticulture graduate student recently began a summer internship at the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard.  She posted some beautiful pictures of the island on Facebook and encouraged our friends to make the trip.  It certainly was not difficult to find three mutual friends to make the 275NM trip for a weekend getaway.  Talk about an adventure. Image

My friends and I decided to not schedule the trip long in advance.  Instead we were going to watch the weather forecast and wait for a weekend with a favorable stretch of weather.  To our surprise that happened to be the following weekend (the weather gods really looked down on us the whole weekend).  It was really going to happen!  The week preceding the trip I continued to monitor the weather, took my friends on the Discovery Flight route to get them comfortable flying in a Cessna, and began to plan my first “real” cross country trip to KMVY.

Planning the route was an enjoyable challenge.  With four people and baggage there was not much useful load left for fuel.  I figured we could carry a maximum of 22 gallons and were going to need a pit-stop along the way.  So our planned route was to fly to Hartford, CT at 7500′ MSL to fuel up N66230, fly east to New Bedford, RI, and then hang a right to KMVY.  I also downloaded the airport diagrams and noise abatement procedures for Martha’s Vineyard onto the iPad for reference.

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Finally the day had arrived.  We originally planned to leave around 1600 but there was a chance of a afternoon shower over the Hudson River Valley due to an upper level low spinning over Maine and a weak wave of energy sliding south from the Adirondacks.  To avoid any late afternoon air mass storms we left at 1300 with the Stratus on-board to monitor skies.  It really was great to have the weather in the cockpit for that extra peace of mind.

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We took off and had the luxury of a 25 knot tail wind (the same wind that slowed Lujca’s Trip to Niagara Falls) and made it to Hartford in no time at all.  The rain behaved and stayed north with only a scattered cloud deck at 6500′ to stay below en-route.  Landing at KHFD was pretty cool.  We entered on a right base for runway 20.  This takes you very close to the skyscrapers of downtown Hartford just to the north.  KHFD was a nice little Delta airport with a fair amount of GA traffic and helicopters cruising around the pattern.  After a quick fuel stop we were back on our way for the one hour leg over Providence, New Bedford, and finally Martha’s Vineyard at 5500′.  Bradley, Providence, and Cape Approach Control were great to deal with and it was obvious we were out of NY state when we heard the thick Massachusetts accent of the KMVY tower controller.  We entered the traffic pattern on a right base for runway 24.  There are two perpendicular runways at MVY which is important because it can be windy.  The MVY airport is really set up well for GA traffic.  There have different parking areas depending upon the length of your stay.  Fuel prices were incredibly reasonable despite the $4.50 gallon MoGas on the island.  The ramp fee was $10 per night and the first night is waived.  The line staff was incredible helpful and would shuttle pilots and passengers to the FBO with stretched out golf carts.  It really was a pleasure to work with the staff of MVY.

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Only three hours after departing Ithaca and we were sitting on the western shore of Martha’s Vineyard eating fantastic steamed lobster.  The weather was absolutely prefect all weekend.  Temperatures were comfortable and the skies were clear.  On Saturday we planted a spot on the beach and enjoyed an ice cold beverage before going out to dinner and the bars during the evening.  The official drink of the trip had to be the delicious Dirty Banana from Donovan’s in Oak Bluff.  On Sunday we visited the Polly Hill Arboretum, toured the cute neighborhoods of the island, and packed our bags to head home.

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Instead of heading straight home we thought it would be fun to fly along the southern coast of Connecticut and see NYC from the Hudson River Skyline Route.  So before we departed I watched the the FAA Safety Course for the Hudson River Corridor, studied the NYC TAC, and planned a route to Westchester County for a fuel stop.  Visibility began to drop as we approached NYC which made finding the airport a chore.  Flying into Westchester was quite an experience in itself.  I should have realized an airport with five FBOs would be busy.  Two crossing runways were active, landing and departing IFR traffic were using runway 16 and VFR traffic were using 11.  After a pitstop at Millionair (which my friends thought was amazing, oh our rich fantasy lives) we departed westbound to fly down the Hudson and circle the Statue of Liberty.

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I decided to use the Skyline Route through the Bravo instead of the shallow VFR corridor.  I prefer to hear the traffic advisories from ATC instead of other pilots self announcing their position, and how often am I going to fly into Class Bravo airspace?  I only had one small problem when attaining my ATC clearance.  I had asked for the Skyline Route and then to fly direct to ITH.  The controller was slightly confused.  “Why do you want the Skyline if you are heading north” he asked after he thought about it for a second.  It became clear when I said I’d like to circle the lady and then head back north.  Aside from that, the tour was extremely easy. It really is impressive to see the city from the sky.

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After an amazing weekend it was finally time to head home.  We flew direct from the Tappan Zee bridge to Ithaca at 6500′.  Everyone was exhausted and fell asleep on me over PA.  Air traffic was minimal around AVP and BGM and the radio was eerily silent especially after experiencing the constant chatter around NYC.  I have to admit, it was nice to hear Doug Lewis working the tower at ITH and was cleared for a straight in to familiar runway 32 at the end of the day Sunday.  It was a such great trip and a real confidence builder.  I would highly recommend it to anyone in the club, if even just for a day.  It is quick and easy with helpful ATC along the way.  Attaining my Private Pilot certificate has been such a life changing event. Even nine months ago I could not have imagined doing something like this.  Can’t wait to take my next trip!

Safe Flying Everyone!!

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Niagara Falls

This past Friday, I flew N53045 to Niagara Falls. It was a fun and easy trip, and the views were amazing (more photos on my Flickr page). I know that many EHFC members have already made that trip, but I thought I would post a detailed description of my experience for the benefit of those who haven’t and are thinking about going there sometime. So, what follows is the “For Dummies” description of how to do the trip, or at least of how I did it.

When I was planning the trip, I was a little concerned that it might involve complications due to the unique procedure for flying the Falls and the proximity of the Canadian border. However, as I said, it turned out to be very easy.

Basically, there is a special procedure in place for touring Niagara Falls from the air. You can find the details in the Airport/Facility Directory, currently pages 370/371. Reading these pages reveals that you are allowed to overfly the falls at or above 3500ft, in a clockwise pattern that technically takes you into Canada for a little while. There is a CTAF for the pattern so you can announce your position. The other important thing to note on the diagram is the restricted area on the US side where you may not descend below 3500 ft; more on that later.

I read the A/FD instructions in depth and I also looked at a satellite view of the area on Google Maps. This was very helpful in giving me an idea of the landmarks to watch for; in fact, the pattern drawn in the A/FD is not quite proportioned right. What you fly is much closer to a circle than the elongated racetrack shape they give. There is also a river/canal on the Canadian side to the south and west of the pattern, providing a natural boundary. Yes, all of this turned out to be overplanning as the pattern is very easy to fly, but I still wanted to highlight Google Maps as a valuable resource for planning VFR trips with unique navigational procedures.

Otherwise, I planned the flight as I would any other cross-country, with IAG as the destination. I decided to go on a weekday figuring there would be less traffic over the falls. On the day of the flight itself, I got a weather briefing and everything looked good. So, we got in the plane and off we went. In Ithaca, I requested flight following “to Niagara Falls”, figuring I would save the description of my full intentions for Buffalo Approach.

The flight was fun and uneventful. We climbed to 6500 feet, for a better view and to stay out of the way of any local traffic. The views were pretty; we saw a good number of the Finger Lakes, Geneseo and their grass runway, and eventually (despite our 20+ knot headwind!) arrived in the vicinity of Buffalo. On the radio, I was first talking to Elmira, then Rochester, and finally Buffalo Approach.

When I got handed off to Buffalo Approach, I descended to 4500 feet and described my intentions (tour the falls, then land at IAG). The controller was helpful; also, there was hardly anyone else on the frequency so he had lots of time to talk with me. He double-checked that I was familiar with the procedure for touring the “Scenic Falls” – that seems to be the term the locals use, which makes sense since too many things are called “Niagara Falls” in the area. I got vectored around a little bit to keep me out of the way of BUF arrivals, but soon I was allowed to descend to 3500ft and proceed direct to the Scenic Falls.

I flew west along the river at that point; the falls were soon in sight – there is a very obvious point on the horizon where the river “ends” and there is a white plume rising into the air :). The Buffalo Approach controller instructed me to switch to the CTAF (122.05) but keep my squawk code, and to contact Niagara Tower when done with the falls tour. (More radio terminology: IAG is referred to as just “Niagara”, as in “Niagara Tower”, “Niagara Ground”, etc.).

And then we were over the falls! On the CTAF, I announced my position and altitude before entering the pattern. I heard two other voices on the frequency, these were the pilots of helicopters doing the “official” tours below 3500ft. I saw one of these helicopters, well below me and “hanging out” near the Horseshoe Falls. I wasn’t too sure what CTAF calls to make so I just called twice per “orbit” – once at the railroad yard turning north, and once at the Rainbow Bridge turning south. There was no-one else in the pattern at my altitude.

I flew the pattern three times, once to get oriented and twice more to admire the falls. What can I say; as you see from the photos, the sights are incredible. Walker got a much better view than I did, of course, sitting on the right side. It was amazing to be able to fly almost directly over the falls and see the rainbow effects from the sunlight on the mist.

When we had had enough, I switched to the Niagara Tower frequency and called inbound. They advised me to enter a right downwind for 24, but reminded me to remain above 3500 ft until clear of the restricted area. This was the part which I had not properly anticipated; basically, to land at IAG coming from the falls, you need to lose 3000 feet of altitude very quickly — and in my case, even quicker due to a strong west wind. I realized it would be tricky and requested “a left 360 or similar maneuver to lose altitude”. Niagara Tower advised me to extend my downwind as necessary instead. I did that and landed successfully on 24.

At IAG, I was a bit concerned about the taxiing; if you look at the diagram, they have multiple taxiways permanently closed, as well as some additional runway and taxiway closures and name changes announced by NOTAM. Fortunately it wasn’t hard, since landing on 24 I was able to turn off directly to the FBO on taxiway H.

At that point, it was just about noon so we went for lunch at a diner in the vicinity — Salisa’s All American Diner, maybe 10 minutes’ walking distance. The food was good, and I would definitely eat there again. We came back to the FBO, where they had fueled our plane in the meantime at my request, and we were ready to go back to Ithaca. Niagara Ground assigned me a somewhat unexpected runway for departure given the wind conditions (possibly to save taxi-related time and confusion?) but it wasn’t unsafe and I had no trouble dealing with the takeoff. The trip back was also simple; this time, we had to do it at 3500 feet due to increasing cumulus clouds with bases somewhere in the 4000’s. We had a tailwind now, so before we knew it we were back in Ithaca.

On the trip, I logged 2.1 hours going there (headwind + falls tour) and 1.2 hours coming back. Again, it was easy, completely trouble-free and a very worthwhile experience. It made me realize how lucky we are to have such a scenic attraction within easy day-trip distance from Ithaca. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a fun cross-country trip, whether with family/friends or even alone.