My First Bravo: Philadelphia Trip

This is the story of my recent trip to Philadelphia, landing at the Philadelphia International Airport (KPHL). It was my first trip to a Class B airport, although I had been in Bravo airspace before in New York City. I was concerned about the feasibility of flying a small Cessna into a Bravo airport, but this turned out to be very easy to do, at least at KPHL. So, I thought a writeup would be useful and interesting to anyone who might be curious about Bravo operations. As usual, there are more photos from the trip on my Flickr site.

Preparations (“To B or not to B”)

The goal for this trip was to fly from Ithaca to Philadelphia, spend one or two nights there and then return. I used to live in Philadelphia from 2001-2003 and hadn’t been back for a while, so it was an obvious fun destination for a flight. I was initially planning to fly into Northeast Philadelphia (KPNE), but then while looking at the sectional my eyes were drawn to the big airport south of the city.

I asked myself whether I was crazy to even think about this, but it didn’t seem that insane. I had flown in the NYC Bravo before, VFR and IFR, and I had been very near the Boston Bravo as well with no trouble. So, could it be feasible to actually land at a Bravo airport, at least at the right time of day? Upon asking a few more experienced friends, I learned that KPHL is a fairly welcoming airport for general aviation aircraft. In particular, they are set up with separate runways for big commercial planes and for general aviation aircraft, which simplifies operations a lot. From Airnav.com, I found out that fuel prices and landing fees were very reasonable, certainly cheaper than some airports I had already been to (e.g. Hanscom). My idea was starting to sound a lot less crazy.

A few days before my planned departure, I called the Philadelphia ATC facility  on the phone, at the business phone number listed in the Airport/Facilities Directory Supplemental. I asked them if it was ok to fly a 172 into KPHL, as well as the best time of day to do it. The person I spoke to was very nice and told me that their “slow time” was 10:45 am to noon, if I wanted to aim for that. Things were starting to look better and better. I still made sure I was very familiar with both KPHL and KPNE in case a divert to the latter became necessary, but I was pretty confident I would make it to KPHL.

The trip down (“The ceiling is broken what?”)

For the trip down to KPHL, I filed IFR with one of the suggested routes in Foreflight: CFB LVZ ETX PTW, which takes you over Binghamton, Wilkes-Barre, just outside of Allentown, Pottstown and into Philly. I flew that exact route, at 7000 feet and with no in-flight rerouting (for an explanation of IFR flying and routing, see my earlier blog post). The weather was pretty good VFR and forecast to stay that way, but I wanted to file IFR  as I thought it would make it easier getting into Philly. At big/busy airports, it can be easier to get in IFR because they are “expecting” you, whereas a random VFR arrival may be annoying and require them to change things around. Conversely, it is often easier to get out of a busy airport VFR, as IFR clearances can be hard/slow to obtain at busy times.

Near Pottstown Airport, about to enter the clouds
Near Pottstown Airport, about to enter the clouds

So anyway, here I was, happily flying in good weather, with no clouds to be seen anywhere. Somewhere around Allentown, I tuned in to the KPHL ATIS – they have a separate ATIS for arrivals and departures there, which I had never seen before but it works as expected. I had been monitoring Philly weather on the Stratus while in-flight, so I was pretty surprised when the ATIS announced the ceiling as 1800 broken. The weather had been much better than that previously, although there had been marginal VFR conditions at nearby airports so I was not totally taken aback. Still, it was clear that I would not get a nice view of the city on the way in, and that I would have to shoot an instrument approach. Allentown Approach descended me to 4000 feet, and shortly after Pottstown we entered clouds.

ILS For Dummies (“A reference for the rest of us…”)

After my Providence trip blog post, I received a lot of positive feedback about my explanations of IFR procedures. I thought I would continue here and give a more detailed description of the approach I flew into Philadelphia. For the knowledgeable readers, it was a very routine Converging ILS 17, and you can skip to the next section :-).

An instrument approach procedure is a step-by-step recipe for descending and landing at an airport when you are in the clouds. There are different kinds of approaches based on different navigational technologies. One common technology is the ILS, or instrument landing system. You fly an ILS approach by tracking two radio signals. One is called the localizer and provides you left/right guidance; the other is called the glideslope and provides vertical guidance (telling you to descend faster or slower). If you have ever driven past the Ithaca airport on Warren Rd and seen the orange installation at the 14 end of the runway, that’s the localizer antenna for our ILS. If you fly and follow both the localizer and glideslope signals accurately, they will take you down to the runway.

However, you cannot actually fly on instruments all the way to the ground: approaches have “minimums”, i.e. an altitude beyond which you can only descend if you can see the runway visually. If you get to the minimums and do not see the runway, you must “go missed” – go around and follow the “missed approach procedure”, which is a sequence of steps designed to take you up safely to a place where you can attempt the approach again or go somewhere else.

Every approach is described in a diagram called an “approach plate”; here is one for the Ithaca ILS to runway 32. An approach plate has useful information like relevant frequencies (at the top), a big stylized map of the procedure (the triangle/arrow symbol in the middle represents the localizer, and you can see the Ithaca airport at the tip of the arrow), a “side view” of your descent (bottom right) showing altitudes, a small diagram of the airport, and the approach minimums (in this case, 1349 feet). When you fly an approach, you have this plate in front of you on your iPad or on paper, and refer back to it to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

Converging ILS 17
Flying the Converging ILS 17 into Philly

When I arrived in Philadelphia, I flew an ILS approach to runway 17. There was also another approach in use – ILS to 9R, which is what the commercial planes were landing. Therefore, I had to use a special approach plate for the Converging ILS 17. You can see the plate in the accompanying image, and Foreflight has a handy feature where it shows you the position of your plane on the approach. You can see me on the localizer and descending.

We broke out of the clouds a bit lower than 1800, maybe more like 1600. At this point I still couldn’t see the runway, because the visibility was not good due to haze. However, I was well above minimums, so it was safe to continue on the approach. A few hundred feet lower, I caught sight of the runway and continued the approach visually. During this whole time, there were aircraft departing across my runway, on 9L (9R was being used for arrivals). The tower controller cleared me to land but let me know there would be “numerous departures ahead of me”. There was one aircraft on the ILS 17 before me, but no-one else behind me – it was now about 11am and definitely the slow time on the airport.

On the ground (“Follow the Gulfstream to parking”)

Landing on Runway 17
Landing on Runway 17

Once I landed, Tower instructed me to taxi to Atlantic Aviation via Golf, Delta and Alpha (and to stay on Tower frequency – it really wasn’t busy!). I had been warned that taxiing is often the most confusing part of navigating a big airport, so I had studied the airport diagram extensively before. I knew that the two runways used by general aviation planes were 17-35 and 8-26, and that I would be aiming for the northeast corner of the airport. I also left the Stratus device on so that it would provide me GPS information on where my plane was on the runway.

Taxiing
Taxiing past F terminal

However, my worries turned out to be unnecessary as the next thing I heard from Tower was “actually, just follow the Gulfstream to Atlantic”. A Gulfstream had emerged from somewhere – possibly that was the plane on the ILS 17 before me, or possibly not – and was taxiing north on Delta, turning towards the FBO. It was easy enough to follow him, so that’s what I did, and soon I was parked and chocked at the FBO. While taxiing, off to my right, I saw the passenger terminals, including the F terminal where the commercial flights from Ithaca arrive.

Arrival
Arriving at the FBO

At the FBO, the staff was extremely friendly and helpful and gave us a van ride to the Eastwick train station, where we caught a train into the city. That is definitely a nice thing about Class B airports – they are often served by public transit and you can get around easily and cheaply once you land. We spent a day in Philadelphia, and then we were ready for the trip back.

Heading back (“Ice? In August?”)

For the trip back home, we were planning to leave around 11am, again shooting for the slow time. The weather was looking very good in Philadelphia, as a cold front had passed the night before. Ithaca, though, was reporting broken 1200 or so, with forecast improvement. I thought it would be prudent to file IFR.

When I called the briefer, he informed me that a number of runways at KPHL were going to close later that morning, including 17-35. I decided to depart earlier than 11 to get out before the closure; the wind was moderately strong out of the north and I figured a takeoff on 35 would be easier than on 26, but mostly I was thinking that with all the runway closures I would end up with a more confusing taxi and a longer wait on the ground. Therefore, I filed for a 10:30 departure.

Philly6
Holding short of 35 at Kilo, note the aircraft lining up for departure on 27L

Getting out proved relatively easy. All the controllers I talked to – Clearance, Ground and Tower – were very helpful and in fact spoke significantly slower to me than they did to the other aircraft. I had heard about this from other people who had flown into Philly – the controllers there really do take “extra care” with small planes. Of course I could have handled their instructions even spoken at a normal pace, but I wasn’t insulted because receiving “extra care” is honestly not a bad thing, and definitely preferable to getting yelled at. Interestingly, clearance assigned me an altitude of 7000 feet, which is the wrong altitude for a westbound flight, but I just told myself “well, IFR routing in the Northeast is mysterious, if that’s where they want me that’s where I’ll fly”.

Taxiing out was a bit more complex than taxiing in, but still not too hard. I made sure to turn my transponder to “ALT” on the ground, as mentioned on the airport diagram, so that Ground could keep track of where I was on the airport. (I learned to do that in Providence, which has the same requirement; there I didn’t do it the first time but PVD Ground politely explained I needed to do it.) Philly Ground had me taxi on Alpha, then via Delta to runway 35 at Kilo for an intersection departure. All runways were in use, with departures on runways 26 and 27L, and landings on 27R. My intersection departure would mean that I would not interfere with the landings on 27R, though I still had to hold short for other traffic on 35. It was an impressive sight to see – all four runways in use at the same time, and everything was going smoothly and in an orderly fashion.

Center City
Great view of downtown Philadelphia on departure

We took off at about 10:30 and had a great view of downtown Philadelphia to our right. I had to stay relatively low (3000 ft, then 4000) for a long time; it wasn’t until Allentown that I was allowed to climb to 7000. This was much the same as my arrival, in reverse – back then Allentown had dropped me to 4000 feet relatively early. I assume the airspace above me was needed for something else, which was fine by me.

Somewhere around Allentown, the clouds appeared, and we flew just above an overcast for a long time. After the passage of the cold front the previous night, it was quite cold at that altitude, maybe 5 degrees Celsius to be generous, and I was mindful that I should be watching for ice when we re-entered cloud. Somewhere between Allentown and Wilkes-Barre, we saw a Dash-8 heading in the opposite direction at 8000 feet – why he was so low and why he was also on a “wrong-way” altitude I do not know, but hey, that’s IFR in the Northeast for you.

Just after the handoff from Wilkes-Barre to Binghamton I was descended to 6000ft, where it was much warmer but we were now in the clouds. We remained in the clouds almost until the end, a good 45 minutes or more, with only very occasional moments in the clear. I heard a number of aircraft picking up pop-up IFR clearances from Binghamton Approach (that’s when you take off VFR but decide it’s unsafe to continue – sometimes you can convert to IFR en route if ATC is not too busy). A helicopter was getting a Special VFR into Binghamton as well; clearly the weather was worse than what some people had anticipated. As for me, I was safely IFR already, and I shot the ILS 32 approach into Ithaca, where the ceiling was 2100 broken, although I broke out higher than 2100 AGL so it really wasn’t that bad. The winds were pretty gusty all the way down final to provide a bit of “excitement” for the last part of the trip, and then we were back home.

Conclusion

This was a great trip and I would definitely recommend PHL airport to anyone. It is a great place to fly into and a great first Bravo airport. It also provides advantages that some smaller airports don’t, such as accessibility to public transit. I used to think of Bravo airports as no-go zones, but after this trip my outlook has changed. I realize that many Bravo airports are not as friendly to small planes as Philly, but now when planning trips to any destination and choosing where to land I will definitely not dismiss Bravo airports out of hand.

The other thing I would highly recommend is an instrument rating. As should be obvious from all my posts this summer, it greatly broadens your horizons and gives you the ability to fly trips much more reliably and safely, thereby greatly increasing the amount of fun you can have!

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Coastal North Carolina Trip

As many of you know, I just completed a trip to coastal North Carolina with my husband. This trip had been a long-standing goal of mine, and this blog post tells the story of how it all happened. Also, you can see all my photos from the trip here .

The plan

My main goal in learning to fly was always to fly long cross-country trips to interesting destinations and see the country from the air. I flew a number of trips last summer, but I soon realized that without an instrument rating it would be hard to get very far, at least on any kind of schedule. So, I started instrument training, and I passed my checkride in late May of this year.

My big 2013 trip destination was North Carolina, since my in-laws live in Wilmington. Plus with Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks so close as well, it was clearly a desirable place to go. The original plan for the trip was to include both a coastal and a mountain portion – fly down the coast to Wilmington and perhaps even further to Savannah, then turn back west through Asheville, Knoxville and return on the west side of the mountains. I booked a plane for two weeks, and prepared the plan in some detail.

It was interesting to discover what extra planning is required for a longer cross-country trip over what is needed for a simple overnight such as a weekend in Boston. I purchased paper VFR sectionals for the whole route and researched area airports. I took the online course on flying in the DC SFRA – my planned route would not take me within the 60nm radius where the course is required, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to know the procedures just in case.

I also realized I needed to take more equipment with me than normal – tiedowns, a towbar, extra oil, some windshield cleaner, an iPad recharger, and of course the Stratus, not to mention backup paper approach plates and sectionals. Moreover, I needed to make sure the plane would have plenty of time left on it before it needed an inspection.

I decided we would not make any hotel or rental car reservations ahead of time, since it was highly uncertain where and when we might be spending the night. Rather, I decided to plan stops at airports in relatively larger towns where we might reasonably expect to get a hotel room and rental car at the last minute. This turned out to be a very good decision with all the unexpected issues we faced on the trip.

Heading south

The original plan was to leave on July 1st. However, that day and the two that followed we had exceptionally bad weather – a high far over the Atlantic Ocean was affecting the whole East Coast with a lot of moisture and thunderstorms. The weather got progressively better each day, but even on Wednesday it was somewhat outside of my comfort zone. So, we delayed three whole days and finally left on the morning of Thursday, July 4th.

The first leg was from Ithaca to Atlantic City – I chose that destination as it seemed a good place to reach the coast. For a coastal route to North Carolina, I needed to cross the New York-DC line at some point, with its associated busy airspace. Crossing it between NYC and Philly seemed as good a place as any. Plus Atlantic City seemed like a fun place to stop for lunch.

I filed IFR to Atlantic City due to moderate cloud coverage. I got rerouted around Philadelphia airspace a couple of times, but nothing too drastic. I will say being rerouted in flight gets less stressful after the first few times you experience it. The first time you panic, the second time you find the presence of mind to ask for a vector to the first fix, and the third time you just roll your eyes, exclaim “ah, IFR in the Northeast”, and start inputting the waypoints into the 430, all while flying the plane safely in IMC :). Also, the Philadelphia Approach controllers were pretty relaxed – similar to my experiences with Boston. I think it’s really just NYC airspace that is so “unique” and provides “extreme fun” for VFR or IFR operations.

Flying over the Delmarva Peninsula with a view of Chesapeake Bay

In Atlantic City, we had a nice 4th of July lunch on the Boardwalk and then continued on to North Carolina. We flew down the coast all the way to Elizabeth City, NC, where the plan was to spend the night. Again I filed IFR; I have a strong preference for doing that for longer legs, particularly when the main purpose of the leg is to cover distance rather than to sightsee. I really appreciate not having to worry about dodging enroute clouds, plus being IFR provides much more peace of mind when flying near unfamiliar restricted airspace (of which there is a lot on the Delmarva peninsula!) . The flight was uneventful and we had very nice weather – this was probably the one IFR leg on the whole trip that could comfortably have been accomplished VFR.

On the ground in Elizabeth City; can you tell this is not the principal runway at the airport?

In Elizabeth City, the FBO was supposed to close at 5pm due to the July 4th holiday. Since we would arrive after that time, we were planning to tie down ourselves (I had called ahead and they told us to do that). However, it turned out one of the employees had to stay late and was able to help us. Elizabeth City has an interesting airport – it is a big Coastguard base with some unusual aircraft.

Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks

On the morning of July 5th, we departed Elizabeth City for a short VFR hop to our next destination – KFFA, or First Flight Airport at Kitty Hawk. It was a fun place to land, with a water tower on final requiring me to stay high and then slip the plane in to land. There was relatively little traffic and no wind, making landing pretty easy overall.

Landing at First Flight Airport at Kitty Hawk

We walked around and saw the monument and museum; it really was amazing to be able to land there. In fact, by coincidence, the plane I was flying (N66230) was the plane I did my Discovery Flight in, back in May 2010. It seemed fitting to be able to take it “back to the beginning”.

After we saw the monument, I sat down in the nice air conditioned planning room and thought about what to do next. The ideal plan was to try flying down the Outer Banks, all the way to Wilmington. The main potential challenge was the large amount of restricted airspace in the area which you will see if you look at a VFR chart. However, I knew that if the restricted areas were cold (i.e. not in use), I could get permission to enter them from Cherry Point Approach. Plus, I knew I could make it at least to Beaufort (KMRH) without entering any restricted airspace if I stayed at the right altitude. So I decided to take off and aim for Beaufort. This was of course a VFR leg, and the weather was very good, with just a few small fair weather cumulus here and there.

The Outer Banks

The restricted airspace turned out to be a total non-issue and Cherry Point Approach was very helpful. There was surprisingly little traffic – one other plane on the frequency (a Mooney) and one or two I saw taking off from the airports on the Outer Banks, but that was about it. All the restricted airspace was cold. We had a very scenic flight all the way down the Outer Banks, past Hatteras, Ocracoke and many other interesting locations, and landed at Beaufort.

After a late lunch, we proceeded to Wilmington through more cold restricted airspace. It was now later in the afternoon and the clouds were building, so I filed IFR for peace of mind and did not regret it. Doing this leg VFR would have required flying above a broken layer with very small holes for most of the trip, which is never a fun experience at least for me. We saw some thunderstorms far out to the west, but along our path there was no trouble.

And then we were in Wilmington! It was great to hear the Approach and Tower controllers talking with North Carolina accents and know we were nearing familiar territory. We landed, rented a car and went to see our family!

An unexpected “reversal”

We spent three days in Wilmington on the ground, relaxing with family and friends and having a good time. The plan was to continue to Asheville on Tuesday July 9th, visit Biltmore and continue across the mountains to Knoxville on Wednesday morning. However, as they say, “no plan survives initial contact”.

On Tuesday morning, we took off from Wilmington  – again on an IFR flight plan, as the weather in the western half of North Carolina was IFR and slowly improving to MVFR. Everything was going well, with a scenic view on the climbout. Then, about 10 minutes after departure, an Interesting Thing (TM) happened. Looking at my instrument panel, I suddenly saw my heading indicator spin around 180 degrees by itself. This happened quite fast, as though the gyro had come “unstuck” from some attachment and swung around freely until it reached a blockage.

It took me a few seconds to process what had happened; this was not something I had ever seen before. However, it was obvious to me that if your gyro is doing something you have never seen before, this is no time to continue into IMC. It didn’t look like a vacuum failure (the vacuum gauge and attitude indicator were fine), but I tried the Standby Vacuum anyway since it is a standard troubleshooting procedure. Nothing further happened to the heading indicator with the standby vacuum, but at that point it was clear to me I had a significant malfunction and needed to turn back. Obviously I knew to be very suspicious of both gyros since who knew what was going on.

I called up Wilmington Approach, mentioned my problem, and told them I was turning back to Wilmington. They were extremely helpful, calm and professional – they verified that I did not need to declare an emergency (I said no, I didn’t), and provided vectors for a visual approach back into Wilmington. Throughout the episode, I was not frightened and we fortunately remained in VMC; it was more weird than scary, to be honest.

Old heading indicator

On the ground, we determined the gyro needed to be replaced; they didn’t have any available, so a replacement had to be sent overnight from Ithaca. It arrived on Wednesday and it was installed on that day; I also test-flew the plane in the pattern with the new gyro. Wilmington Tower was very helpful. From what I was told by the locals, Wilmington ATC normally prefers not to have Skyhawks in the pattern due to significant airline and business jet traffic. However, when I told them I needed to do a test flight for a new instrument, they let me into the pattern no questions asked and generally seemed to give me priority over the arriving/departing traffic as I was going around.

Getting out of Wilmington

The faulty gyro delayed us for a couple of days. I didn’t want to try getting out of Wilmington and to Asheville on Wednesday afternoon; the plane was fixed but there were thunderstorms building along our route. We decided to depart on Thursday morning.

However, we were now out of luck with the weather. A big cold front was coming eastward through the mountains on Thursday, and was scheduled to stall over coastal North Carolina and Virginia for days afterwards. This made getting into Asheville a risky proposition as we would have been flying directly towards the front, hoping to beat it to Asheville. Also, ahead of the front in Charlotte, there was already a big storm cell early in the morning. This was likely to complicate things in their busy Bravo (along my route of flight). So west didn’t look like the way to go.

We could have continued south for further sightseeing in Georgia, which was very tempting. However, it seemed unlikely we would be able to get back north within any reasonable time frame after that. By the same argument, staying in Wilmington for a few more days was not a good idea either, as we would be just as stuck there.

Shadow of our plane with glory, somewhere over northern NC on the way to Norfolk

The only remaining thing to do was to turn back north now. The best place to go given the approaching front seemed to be Norfolk, Virginia. Again, I filed IFR though the forecasts seemed to suggest VFR conditions; I did not regret filing IFR, as most of the second half of the flight had to be accomplished above a solid overcast. This was also my first time receiving a long IFR clearance on the ground (rather than “as filed”), but with the help of the iPad I had no trouble figuring out where they wanted me to go.

We were in Norfolk by lunchtime and then the thunderstorms set in. The following day was very rainy and stormy, as the front stalled and sat over us. This was one of these days where I felt that an experienced IFR pilot would probably have been able to get out, and I felt a bit frustrated at myself because I didn’t dare to go. However, I told myself that weather flying is one of these things where confidence comes only gradually through experience, just like flying in busy airspace. When I first got my licence, I wouldn’t have dared to go near a Bravo airspace by myself; by analogy, it was probably normal to be uncomfortable flying into truly bad weather just a month after receiving my instrument rating.

A gap in the weather allows us to get to the Shenandoah Valley

Anyhow, we delayed and spent a day in Norfolk. The following day the weather was still not great, but at about 10am a gap opened allowing us to proceed northwest. I was a bit nervous, but decided to try getting to Shenandoah Valley Airport (KSHD). The distance was not too far and there was a number of good alternate airports right under my route, so a divert should be easy. I had the Stratus with me for on-board radar, and figured we had a shot at this.

Long story short, we did make it to Shenandoah without running into any storm cells; the gap turned out to be rather large and allowed us to get through. There were still significant clouds along my route and KSHD was reporting around 2200 broken when I arrived. The Potomac Approach controller asked me what approach I wanted to use; I requested the ILS 5, since it seemed the safest bet.

Breaking out on the ILS into KSHD

I flew the ILS approach, going through about 2000ft worth of clouds (vertically) on the descent. This was definitely a “real” instrument approach where I had to fly the plane in turbulent IMC while setting up the approach, identifying and intercepting the localizer, and handling ATC instructions all at the same time. While I was still IMC, the controller informed me he had lost me on the radar and requested that I report when I reached the outer marker. A couple of miles before I reached it, I broke out of the clouds around 2000 feet AGL, with the runway right ahead of me. Upon discussion with the controller I was comfortable canceling IFR in the air (KSHD is nontowered) and I landed safely.

We spent the afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley; we rented a car and drove to see the amazing Luray Caverns.

Back home!

The next day, we were ready to head back to Ithaca. This would be the longest leg I had ever flown in my life (277 nautical miles straight line), but I knew I could do it. Again, I filed IFR due to the length of the leg and the proximity of DC airspace. I had a bit of “fun” picking up my IFR clearance. KSHD does not list a dedicated clearance frequency, so I asked the attendant at the FBO what the preferred local procedure was. He said I should be able to get Potomac Approach on the ground, if I was on the right spot on the airport. This worked, though I had to switch to the COM2 radio (sometimes these work better than the COM1s for some reason).

I was cleared to Ithaca via the Shenandoah Two departure procedure, then direct. The procedure was interesting – who knew, you will have to intercept VOR radials even after you’re done with your IFR training! :-). But I had no trouble flying it and was soon en route. The remainder of the flight was easy, with only minor rerouting to keep me further from DC. And then we were back home! It was great to tune in to the Ithaca ATIS while still 50 miles out and hear a familiar voice.

Conclusions

Back home after many adventures

All in all, this was a great trip. My only regret is that we were not able to complete the mountain portion; due to the mechanical problem, we missed the weather window that would have allowed us to go west to Asheville. However, I am already planning a mountain trip for next summer to make up for that. The trip down the coast was still wonderful though.

I gained a lot of experience flying IFR – not necessarily with very bad weather since I’m not willing to fly in that yet, but with clearances and routing and en-route confusion due to bad handoffs between controllers, etc. I also experienced and handled my first mechanical problem. I will say this trip could not have happened without an instrument rating, given the wet summer we are having. I logged 1.5 actual IMC on that trip, but that 1.5 made all the difference. Each of the legs of this trip was made much safer by the fact that I was on an IFR flight plan. As I said, the only IFR leg that could have been accomplished truly comfortably VFR was the leg from Atlantic City to Elizabeth City.

To close, I would highly recommend that anyone who is tempted by a long cross-country trip should attempt one. It is really not as hard as you think, and while there are adventures it is also an incredible experience.

Finally, here are a few numbers to summarize my trip from a different perspective:

Days gone from Ithaca: 10
Total time on the plane: 16.0 hours
IMC: 1.5 hours
Airports visited (not including Ithaca): 7
Distance flown: at least 1200 nautical miles (not accounting for IFR routing)
Furthest point from home reached: Wilmington, 498 nm straight line
Longest leg: KSHD -> KITH, 277 nm straight line
Fuel purchased en route: 84.2 gal (so probably burned a bit over 100 in total including the last leg)

Both Sides Now: IFR and VFR to Providence and Cape Cod

I recently took a cross-country trip to Providence and Cape Cod with my husband. The idea was to go someplace fun and also test out my brand new instrument rating. The original plan was to fly to Providence (KPVD) and be based out of there for a couple of days, doing day trips to destinations like Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and/or Cape Cod. Of course, things didn’t quite go as planned (when do they ever in aviation?) but it still turned out to be a great trip and my instrument rating came in very handy. The trip involved both VFR and IFR segments, and served as a good illustration of the advantages of both styles of flying – hence, of course, the title of this post.

By the way, if you would like to see more photos from the trip, you can find them here.

IFR flying

Before I start on the story, I would like to highlight some of the differences between VFR and IFR flying, since I know some of this blog’s readers are not IFR pilots. Indeed, I have often thought that private pilot training should include some basic explanations of IFR procedures because we all share airspace and frequencies with IFR traffic. I remember being mystified by a lot of the IFR terminology on the frequency when I was still a VFR-only pilot and wishing I understood where all that traffic might be.

Anyway, the basics of IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) are as follows. Under IFR, you can fly in the clouds, but you lose the flexibility to go anywhere you want. You need an ATC clearance (permission) to fly in controlled airspace, and you do not get to choose the route you follow. Sometimes they will not allow you to go directly to your destination, but will route you through out-of-the-way waypoints for traffic separation. This is particularly likely in congested airspace, e.g. around NYC. Sometimes they will even change your route mid-flight. You cannot deviate from your assigned route without permission, you can’t even change altitude without asking first. Even if you are not currently in the clouds, you must usually stay on your assigned route and altitude at all times. (Note for the knowledgeable and picky: yes, there are various exceptions and corner cases such as cruise clearances which give you more freedom, I’m just trying to convey the general idea here.)

The trickiest part of IFR flight is often descent and landing; to do this safely in the clouds without hitting any terrain or other traffic, you may have to follow a particular approach procedure (“shoot an approach”). An approach is just an official step-by-step descent procedure, specifically tailored to a given airport and a given runway. To shoot an approach, you might fly to one waypoint at a particular altitude, then descend to a lower altitude and turn towards a next waypoint, etc. The approach typically positions you on a long straight-in final to the runway, which explains why the commercial flights are always on “a seven-mile final” or so when they come in to Ithaca and the rest of us are in the pattern.

However, if the weather conditions are pretty good and you are out of the clouds early enough, you may not have to shoot a formal approach; instead you do something called a “visual approach” where you make it to the runway on your own. ATC may sequence you a bit, or tell you to enter the pattern, or just tell you “cleared for the visual” and leave you free to choose how you approach the runway.

Sunday: Fun IFR and VFR

So, back to my trip. As the date approached, I realized that it would be difficult to stick to the original plan due to weather. The forecast was calling for reasonable weather on Sunday and Wednesday, when we were planning to travel between Ithaca and Providence, but questionable weather for Monday and Tuesday, which did not bode well for the VFR day trips. Unfortunately I had limited flexibility in scheduling the trip, and couldn’t move it; so, I decided we would go and make the best of whatever weather we encountered. In the worst case, we would rent a car instead and explore the area by road.

Sunday was a great day with wonderful weather. We took off for Providence in the morning and were there by lunchtime. I filed IFR for the practice, but the weather was beautiful VFR throughout, with just a brief overcast layer below us over the Catskills. I filed and received a direct clearance to Providence; however, somewhere in the middle, I got rerouted by Boston Center to put me on the WIPOR2 arrival. This was a good exercise in entering new waypoints into the GPS and maintaining situational awareness. However, once I was handed off to Bradley approach, they routed me direct Providence again. Arriving at Providence, they had me fly the ILS 34 approach — I assume for spacing, since the weather was completely clear. It was a gorgeous approach, with vectors for a very extended downwind over Narragansett Bay and then a turn inbound.

N66230 on the ramp in Providence

I found Providence to be a great airport, very friendly to small planes despite being quite busy with commercial traffic. I never felt like the controllers were annoyed at me for breaking their flow — if you’ve ever visited a busy NYC airport, you know what I mean. There was a good number of other small planes on the airport as well, all sharing the runways, the airspace and the ramp with the big guys (see photo!). The FBO was very nice and the staff was extremely helpful throughout our stay. All the Providence controllers were also very helpful and willing to provide clarifications whenever I asked. The staff at the FBO was extremely helpful as well and really did not seem to treat us any differently because we had arrived in an older Cessna 172 and not in a fancy business jet.

Flying over Cape Cod

We had lunch at a nearby restaurant and discussed what to do next. Because the weather was gorgeous and forecast to worsen, we decided to move one of our planned day trips to that afternoon. We decided we would fly to Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod, and then back. This we proceeded to do – VFR this time. Flying VFR felt great and very liberating after months of mostly IFR during my instrument training. It was great to have the flexibility to change altitude at will and to pick the most scenic route. We were under flight following with Cape Approach, but there was very little traffic in the area anyway. This surprised me a bit, but I found later that early June is not yet considered summer/high season in the area, so there are fewer tourists than there will be in a month or so.

At Provincetown Airport

We made it to Provincetown and landed there. It’s a very nice little airport – though watch out, Runway 25 is “right pattern”! Once you land, you have to go into the passenger terminal and pay a $10 landing fee at the Cape Air desk. Once you pay they give you the code to get back on the ramp to your plane. We took a taxi into Provincetown proper and walked around for a while. The town is quite unique with its own style and atmosphere, which I really liked. We then took a bus back to the airport and flew to Providence. The total time I flew that day was 4.7 hours, which was a new record for me.

Monday and Tuesday: Road trip time

The following day, the plan was to try for Nantucket. The weather was great VFR in the morning, but forecast to worsen in the afternoon. The forecasts for the afternoon were for ceilings to remain very high (9000ft+) and some rain. However, there were significant thunderstorms moving over NYC and heading our way, which seemed to conflict with the forecasts a bit. My assessment of the situation was that while we could make it VFR to Nantucket no problem, I had to be prepared to fly back to Providence IFR and shoot an approach in the clouds. I was really exhausted after all the flying on Sunday, though, so I didn’t feel ready to do that. I’m sure I could have managed it, but it wouldn’t have been enjoyable. So we decided to postpone that trip; instead, we rented a car and drove to Newport, where we had a great time seeing the town and the Breakers mansion. It turned out in the end that the weather did hold and we could have made it back from Nantucket VFR, but given how tired I was I still think canceling was the right call.

On Tuesday, the weather was very bad with low IFR in the morning and then a warm front passing through in the afternoon. This was expected and we were not planning to fly anywhere anyway. We drove to Mystic, CT, where we enjoyed visiting Mystic Seaport and had a good time.

Wednesday: Heading back

Finally, on Wednesday, the weather improved. Our new plan was to fly to Nantucket in the morning and then head back home after lunch, potentially spending the night at an intermediate point like Albany to give us more time on Nantucket.

The weather looked good in the forecasts and even in the phone briefing – it was meant to be good VFR, if rather windy and gusty. However, as we were getting ready to depart, I checked the weather again and Nantucket had dropped to MVFR. All the local airports – Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, etc – were rapidly varying between VFR and MVFR, and I decided I didn’t like the look of this for a VFR trip. We could have tried filing and flying IFR, but I didn’t think this would be as much fun and I also realized I was starting to come down with a cold. All around, it seemed like the most prudent option to head back home, particularly since the weather on Thursday was forecast to worsen again.

So, we headed back to Ithaca, stopping in Albany for lunch. Incidentally, if you look at a chart it would appear that going through Albany should add considerable distance to this trip, but in reality the increase is only 11 miles. I guess these distances are long enough that great circles and map projections do come into play.

I filed IFR out of Providence, as there were considerable clouds around — a cold front had just passed and had left a lot of “stuff” behind. We had a very bad headwind on the way out so the trip to Albany took almost 2 hours. I was in and out of the clouds a little on the climb, but at my cruising altitude of 8000 feet we were actually mostly in the clear, above a solid overcast. I did get rerouted on the way out of Providence as well, but this time I was not so surprised by it – in fact, I decided to just ask the controller for a vector to the first new waypoint while I sorted out the rest of the route. He provided the vector and all was well.

Walker (my husband) acting as chauffeur in the Million Air crew car in Albany

In Albany, there was nothing much interesting going on at the airport. We landed with a visual approach and taxied to the FBO. They lent us a great crew car (see photo) so that we could grab some lunch, and then we were off to Ithaca. Again, I filed IFR for simplicity and peace of mind; there were still significant clouds around and I did not want to have to do the “VFR cloud slalom”, particularly since I was getting tired and somewhat uncomfortable from sinus congestion with my incipient cold. The flight was uneventful, although we did encounter a bit more IMC (i.e. flying in the clouds) than on the previous leg. Generally, I was very happy to discover how simple IFR flying can be — particularly on a day when VFR would be a little unpleasant. I was checking the Ithaca weather while having lunch in Albany, and Ithaca was showing ceilings in the 2000’s; it was great to know I was IFR and so didn’t have to worry about a divert in case they dropped a little further. Anyway, we arrived into Ithaca and did a visual approach to 32, bringing us home. The total time heading back from Providence was 3.7 hours, with about 0.6 IMC.

Conclusion

All in all, I’m happy with how things went. It is a bit disappointing that we didn’t get to visit as many destinations as I would have liked, but that’s the luck of the draw. Personally, I like to think of recreational flying as similar to mountain hiking/backpacking — there will be times where you cannot make the summit or your ideal destination for various reasons, and you have to be prepared to deal with that. There is always a next time.

Still, there were many positives to this trip. The sightseeing flight up Cape Cod to Provincetown was wonderful, and I also got some very valuable practice in IFR cross-country flying. Although I didn’t encounter any really bad weather enroute and all my approaches were visual or in VMC, it was good to gain experience working “in the system” by myself with clearances, routes, re-routes and approaches at new airports. I am looking forward to expanding my horizons further with more trips this summer, including the big North Carolina trip which is hopefully taking place next month. Watch this space!

Stranded at Teterboro: Part II…”The Rescue Misson!”

On Saturday the 24th, while Thomas was traveling back to Ithaca on the bus, I was eating Thanksgiving leftovers and thinking about my upcoming Sunday IFR lesson. I was scheduled to fly with David (St George) on a cross-country to Syracuse and Oswego. From the East Hill Facebook page, I learned of Thomas’ adventure and of a planned Sunday “rescue mission” to Teterboro. From the weather forecasts, I learned that lake effect snow was expected in Syracuse on Sunday, making a northbound cross-country somewhat unlikely. Upon discussion with David, we decided to combine my cross-country lesson and the rescue mission and fly to Teterboro instead of Syracuse. I was thrilled, since I really wanted to get some experience in the busy NYC IFR environment. I had been in NYC airspace once before, on a solo VFR Hudson Corridor trip, so I already knew there is no substitute for that airspace if you want to challenge yourself as a pilot and take your skills to the next level.

On Sunday morning, Thomas, David and I met at the club and decided on the plan. The weather was not ideal, but acceptable. There was an overcast over Ithaca that extended somewhat futher southeast, but the NYC area was clear. Icing would be a possibility and definitely something to watch for on climbout, but we made the collective judgment call to give it a try, while being very vigilant and ready to divert to Binghamton at any sign of trouble. We took with us the tire and tube for the Mooney, Thomas came along to fly the Mooney back, and David Wanagel came along to help as well. The plane we would be taking was 97266, as it was still in engine break-in and needed to go on more trips. This would pose a challenge for me as I had hardly flown that plane at all; as most of you know, unlike our other two 172’s, it is equipped with an Aspen “glass” display which looks quite different from the traditional instruments that I am accustomed to. Still, I was up for the challenge and we set off for Teterboro. We filed KITH-HNK-V167-WEARD-V489-COATE-KTEB and received an “as filed” clearance. So far so good.

After takeoff, icing was not as big an issue as we had feared, so we continued on past Binghamton. I was having to work very hard to understand the display on the Aspen, and many of the fancy features were confusing me greatly; however, I gradually got used to it. The flight was uneventful until we got close to the city and switched to New York Approach. As you know if you’ve flown that airspace, there’s always a moment where things go from “sleepy and quiet” to “OMGWTFBBQ there are HOW many planes around me and on the frequency?”. That definitely happened, and I had a hard time maintaining situational awareness given that I was also dealing with an unfamiliar plane.

Landing on Runway 19 at Teterboro with crazy right crosswind

With David there to help, however, things went reasonably smoothly and soon we were descending — through a thin layer of clouds, picking up just a trace of ice — and tracking the localizer and glideslope inbound for the ILS 19 approach into Teterboro. The wind situation was less than ideal, with winds reported at 330-ish at 10+ knots with gusts, setting us up for an unpleasant downwind landing. We were considering asking for a different runway, but as we were coming in to land, the wind had shifted to a right crosswind, which we could work with. The photo you see was taken on short final; I have only the faintest recollection of David taking it, I was so overloaded.

The team at KTEB
On the ground at Teterboro

Once safely on the ground, we had a minor misunderstanding with the Tower controller as to the taxiway we should pull off on, but this was quickly resolved (with traffic behind us, there was no time to resolve it slowly!). At Meridian, we delivered the tire and met with Eric, the mechanic who would install it on the Mooney. In the meantime, we borrowed one of the crew cars and went to have lunch at Panera Bread.

Once back from lunch, with the Mooney fixed and ready to go, we needed to get back to Ithaca. Thomas and David Wanagel would return in the Mooney, whereas David St George and I would take 266. With 30+ knot headwinds along our route and the challenges of IFR routing out of Teterboro, we readied ourselves for a long trip.

Our clearance
ATC making us take the long way home!

I forget which route we filed out of Teterboro, but that turned out to be highly irrelevant as ATC had other plans for us. The clearance I received is shown on the photo you see, and it is KTEB RUUDY4 SBJ V6 FJC V149 CFB KITH. Less than ideal, but hey, at least it included a “real” departure procedure (you don’t get exposed to those much flying around Elmira and Syracuse :-)). Plus I got good practice copying down and reading back a “real” clearance. Then we had to get permission to taxi, which proved harder than anticipated. It was now about 3pm on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the concentration of assorted Citations, Gulfstreams and Learjets on the airport was very high. We waited a good 20 minutes before we got cleared to taxi, and then spent some more time waiting in the runup area between runways 19 and 24. The airport was insanely busy, with traffic constantly landing on 19 and taking off on 24.

We took off and followed the RUUDY FOUR departure procedure to the letter, with various Newark-bound jets zipping around surprisingly close to us. Then things became logistically simple if rather slow; our routing took us very far west before we could turn back north. We requested shortcuts several times (another thing you don’t get to practice with Elmira Approach!), but the airspace was busy and the controllers could not do much for us. We did eventually get “direct Ithaca”, but were pretty much over Wilkes-Barre by then already.

At about 16:30, the Sun set over the clouds, and then it was night. After Wilkes-Barre, we were in and out of IMC, it was snowing lightly, and the plane slowly began to pick up rime ice. There was now virtually no-one else on the frequency, it was very dark and somewhat uncomfortably cold, even with the cabin heat on. I took the hood off since there was nothing to see outside anyway. Occasionally we would see a few lights on the ground, then it would be completely dark again.  After the intensity of the New York City airspace and all the excitement of the day, the silence and darkness felt pretty strange. As has been pointed out by better writers than me (notably Saint-Exupéry in “Night Flight” and William Langewiesche in “Aloft”, both books you should read if you haven’t already), there is something singularly isolating about flying on a dark night. I forced myself to focus on the mission of getting home.

Fortunately, reality intervened before I could get too meditative. The microphone on my headset, which had been giving me minor trouble for a while, decided to malfunction seriously (of *course* it had to happen at night, in IMC, with ice on the plane…). I wasn’t scared, but I was certainly glad that David was there and that his headset was working fine. Finally — we still had a bad headwind, so it was slow going — we landed in Ithaca around 6pm. We flew the familiar ILS 32 approach and made it home. The total time on 266, including ground delay time in Teterboro, was 5 hours. Meanwhile, Thomas and David Wanagel made it back in the Mooney safely and much earlier than us, after — to my understanding — an uneventful flight with little or no icing trouble.

All in all, it was an amazing trip and a great learning opportunity. I certainly plan to fly frequently in busy airspace once I have my instrument rating, so this was invaluable training for me. At this point, I am confident that when I go into New York City airspace IFR on my own, I will be able to handle it. It will still be a challenge, to be sure, but now I know I can do it. And hey, as a bonus, we got the Mooney back, so all’s well that ends well. Thanks to everyone involved in this great adventure!

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.

Lucja’s Pinal Airpark Trip

I just returned to Ithaca after a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona. I was attending an academic conference, but Walker (my husband) and I took a few days beforehand to do some sightseeing. Apart from the obligatory road trip to the Grand Canyon and an ATV tour of the desert – both highly recommended – we also went flying. At the suggestion of an East Hill member (thanks Justin!) I decided to rent a 172 and go on a sightseeing trip with an instructor.

I decided the destination would be Pinal Airpark (MZJ), one of the famous airplane graveyards where airliners are stored in the desert to keep them in good condition. Pinal is not easily accessible to the public by road; apparently the owners of the storage facility are not keen on turning it into a tourist attraction, and I can understand their choice. However, MZJ is a public airport, so it is possible to fly in. There is even supposedly – per Airnav – an FBO on the airport, but when I talked to the people I was renting from it appeared the best idea was just to land, do a taxi back and take off again. Pinal also has the advantage of being 73nm from Scottsdale – an easy trip, not too long and not too short, with no high terrain to worry about but allowing for a nice view of the entire valley.

Planning the trip before I left for Arizona was pretty simple; I just had to identify a place to rent a plane. There was no shortage of options, since aviation and flight training are huge industries in the area. After a bit of online research, I settled on Southwest Flight Center, on the SDL airport. Their website gave me the impression that they were focused on serving pilots who fly for fun rather than a career-oriented school, so I figured they would be a good fit for me. My impression turned out to be 100% correct, and I had a very positive experience working with them. Everyone I interacted with was helpful, courteous and accommodating, and everything was well-organized so I always knew what to expect. They have a range of planes available for rent; I decided to go with the most basic of their 172’s, since I didn’t want to spend time being confused by a G1000 when I should be looking outside!

On the day of the trip, Walker and I arrived at the SDL airport a little before 8am. It was already getting warm, although it was the proverbial dry heat. The typical daytime METARs I saw there had temperatures in the 30s and negative dewpoints! In the lobby of the building, we found a vending machine selling sectional charts, which I thought was both funny and a great idea. We met my instructor Tonie, got a weather briefing just in case (more to keep track of NOTAMS and wind rather than, you know, clouds…) preflighted the plane and off we went.

Vending machine selling VFR sectionals and other useful publications at the SDL airport

The plane we flew – N3514U – was a 172S, similar to the ones we fly at East Hill but with a few differences. The biggest one was that it has a fuel injected engine. So, no carb heat to pull (or forget!) at strategic moments, and a slightly different starting procedure. Honestly, the biggest differences in aircraft handling came from the weather conditions – the heat meant a noticeably longer takeoff roll and a less-than-impressive climb performance. I asked Tonie to help with the radio communication to reduce my workload and allow me a fun sightseeing experience rather than a full-on intensive lesson. She was super-helpful and it was obvious that she is a great CFI.

The trip started off with a southbound transition through the PHX Bravo (i.e. Class B) airspace. I had never been in a Bravo before, so I was a little anxious, but Tonie helped me and it turned out to be a painless process. The Phoenix Approach controller was polite and helpful, and the airspace was actually not that busy; we must have been flying at a slow time of day. We transitioned just to the east of the PHX airport at 4500 feet and got a great view of the airport itself. After that, we continued with flight following to Pinal – first we were talking to Phoenix Approach and then to Albuquerque Center. There is a tremendous number of airports in the area (take a look at a sectional on your iPad or in SkyVector!), so it is essential to watch out for traffic of all kinds. However, again, it was not too bad.

View of PHX airport
Transitioning over Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, southbound.

At Pinal, we landed and did a taxi back as planned. It was surreal to see all these huge airliners parked in the desert, in various states of disassembly. Some looked completely airworthy and seemed to be in temporary storage only, while others were in various states of disassembly. We saw a few that were propped up on stacks of pallets, reminding us all of the classic image of cars on cinderblocks.

Plane at Pinal Airpark
Plane being disassembled (?) at Pinal Airpark

After that, it was back to SDL via the same route. It was fun to talk with Tonie and compare flying experiences. She told me about the challenges of flying in the desert heat (apparently simulator training is big in the summer!) and about flying over the PHX airport at night when you can see all the big planes come in. I told her about engines that won’t start in the winter, about landing on grass runways and on runways that are covered with snow, and about flying around in a very empty sky in Upstate NY.

Flying over the Arizona desert, with mountains in the distance

Coming back to Phoenix, the PHX Approach controller had trouble seeing the altitude data from our transponder. So, we had to stay outside the Bravo and navigate our way back to SDL via a maze of airspace, avoiding both the Class B and the Deltas of other nearby airports. It worked, and I was actually glad I got the chance to do the trip both ways – once through the Bravo and once around it. We got to the airport, Tonie warned me to watch out for the sink/downdraft from the golf course on short final (!), and soon we were on the ground. After that it was a simple matter of taxiing around to our parking space (while admiring the gorgeous red Pitts special that was taking off), and we were done. On the entire trip, we logged 2.1 hours; the weather was warm, but not too bad at altitude, and not too windy or bumpy either. You can see more of my photos from the trip on my Flickr site.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to anyone. I plan to try to do similar trips whenever I travel to some other part of the US. It was a great addition to my experience as a pilot and it made me feel a lot more confident about my flying. The fact that I went up in an unfamiliar plane, in an unfamiliar airspace, and yet things worked pretty much as I expected definitely makes me feel I can take on longer trips from Ithaca and survive :). The Bravo was nowhere near as scary as I had anticipated, and apparently a 172 handles like a 172 no matter where you are (who knew?).