A tale of two flights

December 1, 2001

Thomas B. Haines has served as editor in chief of AOPA Pilot since 1994.

A quick perusal of AOPA Online will show how different general aviation flying is post-September 11. What seems like a notam a minute and a new temporary flight restriction (TFR) an hour complicate the once relatively simple process of flight planning. It used to be the flight service specialist would do a quick scan of notams, reporting the occasional VOR outage or parachute drop. Nowadays, you must probe more deeply, specifically asking about TFRs and other notams affecting your flight. And even then you can't be certain. Pilots in recent weeks have been cited or intercepted for trespassing TFRs that weren't announced until after the pilots had departed. Perhaps the FAA will provide us all with a display and datalink system so we can receive up-to-the-minute notams in flight.

I ventured skyward for the first time in the new era a few weeks after the attacks. The destination: Mobile, Alabama's downtown airport for the American Bonanza Society convention. The trip from Frederick, Maryland — 745 nm as the Bonanza flies — turned out to be fairly routine but not without a few twists along the way. With marginal VFR weather conditions along the route and all of the new restrictions I had little trouble making the decision to fly this one IFR.

The flight service briefer reminded me to review the military intercept procedures and to monitor the emergency frequency of 121.5 MHz. I needn't imagine what it looks like to see a fighter pull alongside. I've seen it. Nearly a decade ago, I was flying in a Beech King Air between Switzerland and Finland when we passed near the border of Sweden. We were on an IFR flight plan, so I suspect the Swedish Air Force Saab Viggen fighter pilot that formed up with us was just having some fun. For a few minutes he struggled to fly slow enough to stay with the King Air, but then he broke off hard to the left and headed for home.

As I launched for Mobile, I wondered how much trouble a fighter might have intercepting a Bonanza. It certainly can be done. A student flying a Cessna 172 in early November was intercepted by a U.S. Air Force fighter in the prohibited area over Camp David in Maryland. The student, on a long cross-country flight, was lost and stumbled into the hornet's nest. The fighter escorted him to a nearby airport, which happened to be his planned stop. After 3.5 hours of questioning by local law enforcement he was released, apparently not a serious threat to national security. I'll bet he won't soon forget his long cross-country.

During my flight to Mobile, controllers were precise and professional. Although the Garmin 530 GPS in my panel is IFR certified, I filed airways to the fuel stop, Cartersville, Georgia, just northwest of Atlanta. I knew the jittery controllers would be more receptive to a flight plan that kept a "target" on known airways.

I chose Cartersville because it was just outside the Atlanta enhanced Class B airspace. (I do wonder in whose opinion the airspace is "enhanced.") Although IFR flights were permitted in the Class B by that time, I figured it would be better to avoid the airspace. Once I was out of the Washington, D.C. Metro area, a controller granted me a more direct flight. I accepted it, but somehow felt more secure when flying the airways.

After landing at Cartersville, I called flight service for an update of weather and to check again on notams. The specialist alerted me to a TFR located near Cartersville — 10 nm from the Rome, Georgia, VOR on the 100-degree radial, three miles in diameter and 3,000 feet high. "Three thousand and three," he said, providing a helpful way to remember. Shouldn't be a problem, I thought. I can be to 3,000 feet before I get out of the traffic pattern.

Before taking off, I did approximate the location of the TFR on the chart and could see it was west of the airport. This was weeks before the recent TFRs around nuclear power plants, so it didn't dawn on me to look for a power plant. I took off VFR, ready to pick up my IFR clearance from Atlanta Approach once airborne.

After takeoff from Runway 19, I made a left downwind turn because, as the Garmin clearly showed, an extended straight-out departure would quickly mean an encounter with the Atlanta Class B — that's how close it is. I climbed through 3,000 feet and headed southwest, steering clear of the Class B while I called ATC. The controller gave me a squawk code and asked me to ident. I did, and he immediately told me to climb to 4,000 feet because I was in a TFR over a power plant. I looked out the window and sure enough there was a power plant off to the right. At that instant I passed through 4,000 feet. I looked at the notes on my kneeboard — 3,000 and three — clear as can be.

I was a bit rattled because I thought I had been careful in avoiding the TFR. I asked the controller if he had the top of the TFR as 4,000 feet. Yes, he replied. I told him that he should coordinate with flight service because they were reporting it as 3,000 feet. "Oh," the controller replied. "If they say it's 3,000 feet, that's probably right. They're usually more up to date than we are." Well, it's good we're all playing by the same rulebook. Hope those guys in the fighters get it right. The rest of the flight to and from Mobile went without incident. I did Aonitor 121.5 MHz and occasionally heard a controller or military pilot advise someone to clear a specific area.

A week later I felt braver. This time the destination was First Flight Airport next to the Wright brother's monument at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. I had never flown to the aviation Mecca and had always wanted to land my airplane on the 3,000-foot runway on the park property. The kids had a couple of days off from school, so we loaded up and headed south. It was a spectacularly warm autumn day with severe clear reigning all over the East. I thought about filing IFR, but it somehow seemed inappropriate to be landing at the birthplace of powered flight while on an IFR flight plan — like driving a Model T Ford down an interstate highway.

Stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Dulles International Airport, the Baltimore-Washington Class B area creates an enormous roadblock for those of us just north of it who want to go south. There are two low-altitude VFR corridors through it, but they are shut down as part of the enhanced Class B restrictions. Even IFR, general aviation pilots rarely get cleared on a direct southerly route. You get routed west of Dulles or east of Baltimore. Occasionally a sympathetic controller lets you cut the corner.

Feeling lucky, I took off VFR and headed south. The Dulles Approach controller gave me a squawk code and told me to turn west and remain clear of the Class B. Watching the airspace depiction on the Garmin, I flew an arc to the west and then southwest. A few minutes later, after my route south would clear the TFR around Washington, the controller allowed me to turn southeastward and cut the corner through the Class B. I steered west of restricted airspace south of Washington and continued southward, with the helpful controllers providing traffic advisories along the entire route. We soon passed over the Norfolk, Virginia, area with its half-dozen military airports and shipyards. An E-2 Hawkeye zipped by just east of us. I wondered if the mini-AWACS was tracking us. A KC-135 tanker lumbered off a runway below.

A few minutes later as we motored down the coast, a large sand dune came into view. Atop a hill at the southern end of it stood the Wright monument, its top looking like both an airport beacon and one of the lighthouses so common along the nautically dangerous Outer Banks. The runway is tucked in among the trees along the west side of the dune. An open-cockpit biplane ambled along the coast as we turned final. There are no services available at First Flight and no parking for more than 24 hours. A Piper Saratoga was the only other airplane around on this Thursday afternoon.

We hustled up the meandering paths leading to the monument. The granite wing-shaped obelisk soars skyward, seeming to urge others to follow the Wrights' giant footsteps. As I looked down toward the ramp at my own airplane, I couldn't help wondering what the brothers might think of aviation today. Technologically and aerodynamically we've learned so much. And yet in other ways their Flyer is so similar to what we have today — the wings, rudders, and elevator. They used wing-warping to turn — a method NASA is attempting to mimic for a new generation of airplanes because it's so much more efficient for turning than are ailerons.

As I drank in the sea air and gazed at the markers noting the distances the brothers flew that fateful day 98 years ago this month, I couldn't help but appreciate today's airplanes. Their flights were measured in feet and seconds. I had just piloted an airplane 200 miles through three states in 90 minutes and thought nothing of it. Such moments diminish the hassles of TFRs and changing notams, and they make the efforts to fly general aviation seem very worthwhile indeed.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.