I've Been Here Before

Reflections on a flying career

September 1, 2005

I learned to fly on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, at a small airport called Bay Bridge, so named for the twin-spanned bridge that connects the farmlands with the rest of Maryland. The runway is 2,900 feet long, and it is permanently subject to 90-degree crosswinds. It's a beautiful place to fly, the kind of airport that draws kids to the fence, welcoming every type of small general aviation craft. Helicopters, ultralights, Aeronca Champs, Piper Arrows, Beechcraft Barons, big twin Cessnas, and a few Pitts have all called Bay Bridge their home port. Even a few Cessna Citations have passed through on short-field demo flights. And for as long as anyone can seem to remember, flight training has been an activity at the airport.

Hardly a flying day goes by when a Cessna 152 or a 172 doesn't lift off, crab into the wind, and begin another day of patiently teaching yet another student the art of aviating. On weekends, ground traffic to the Atlantic beach shores of Ocean City, normally two hours away, is often backed up to a dead stop. On some days, students can fly a round-robin cross-country to Ocean City, park, use the restroom, and leave before a family of four gets from one end of the Bay Bridge to another. Talk about an advertisement for GA.

In 1991, I was one of those eager students. I was working at the fixed-base operation, along with several other student pilots. We became friends, shared our dreams. We flew when we could afford it, daydreamed about it when we couldn't. I knew that my training period was coming to an end when my instructor told me to plan for my long cross-country trip. It was a term I had heard mentioned by some of the other students, but the real significance of what it meant did not sink in until my CFI told me to plan a trip to Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport in Charlottesville, Virginia, then to Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport in Williamsburg, Virginia, and then return. Charlottesville! That was three hours away by car! Williamsburg was three and a half!

You can hardly imagine the intensity with which I planned that flight. I was determined to know everything about my course: the landmarks, the airspace, the frequencies. I practiced making calls to the tower when I was alone in my car. I wanted to make this the best trip I'd ever had. I would be flying a 152, N6193L. It was an airplane that had been put through its paces as a trainer, but it was reliable, and for a day, it was mine.

Alas, things did not go as planned. On the appointed day in question, visibility was a typical East Coast hazy six or eight miles or so with no ceiling. I had to work a lot harder than I had anticipated to stay on course, which meant I had less time for sightseeing. It was hot, my chart was soaked from the sweat of my legs and hands, and to top it off, the Gordonsville VOR was out of service. I also had left behind the lunch I had packed at home.

As I neared the mountain range to the east of Charlottesville, there was a collection of lakes and rivers that did not look like the ones on my chart. At least to me they didn't. I circled them several times, trying to convince myself, because I wanted to make sure that when I started over the mountains, the airport would be where it was supposed to be. I was near the western edge of the chart, and I did not want to fly off it. I decided to call Leesburg Flight Service and ask them to verify my location. Unfortunately, the frequency was jammed with pilots trying to open and close flight plans, file flight plans, and so forth. The poor reception was aggravated by my relatively low altitude. As a result, the gentleman on the other end told me that, because I was a student, he was declaring an emergency on my behalf, and would I please squawk 7700?


Quickly, Leesburg Approach replied, "You are in radar contact."

I thought, I bet I am, imagining the sudden escalation to Defcon One. Images of the secretary of defense calling the president came to mind. "Sir, we've got a live one here...."

Instead, Leesburg lent me a hand: "Fly heading such and such, and Charlottesville will be at your 10 o'clock and eight miles."

I found the airport and was greeted by a friendly voice in the tower that vectored me to Runway 3, then asked if I was OK. I explained what happened, and he said not to worry about it. By the time I got to the FBO, Leesburg had called back to Bay Bridge, and people at the flight school had called Charlottesville and asked me to call home. When I explained what had happened, they offered to send some folks to pick me up, but I told them I was fine and would like to finish the trip. They agreed. I was determined that there would be no more problems.

Little did I know. When I got near the Williamsburg area, I had trouble finding the airport again, this time because of the trees. It's amazing how big the sectional makes all airports look, even the small ones. I finally touched down in Williamsburg, ate, bought some fuel, and began the trip home. Finally, it would be easy; all I had to do was follow the western shore of the Chesapeake until I saw the bridge, cross the bay, and land.

When I had tied down the airplane back at Bay Bridge and finished squaring the bill, I took some good-natured ribbing from the folks at the airport. I knew that under their jokes was a genuine concern and relief that all was well. Pilots, you know, do not like to see each other in trouble. Student pilots really do not like to see each other in trouble.

When I got home, I sat down with my chart and reviewed the trip. I studied the terrain on paper and compared it to what I had seen when airborne. I thought about the fact that making airports visible on aeronautical charts does not guarantee they will be easy to find in real life, especially when surrounded by trees. As accurate as maps are, things often just look different. Not wrong, just different. Overall, I decided that the trip had been a success. I had called flight service after landing, and discussed what had happened on the phone. I had been humbled, and that was good. I had not panicked. That was good. I had learned, and that was even better.

In the years that followed, I would return to Charlottesville. I flew down there right after I got my instrument rating, filing the same route. That time, the weather was severe clear. Go figure. The only radio calls I made that day were standard IFR transmissions. A few years later, I came back again as an airline pilot, flying a Canadair Regional Jet as a first officer for Comair.

But for me, one of my biggest thrills, the full circle, was returning as a captain on the RJ. From Cincinnati, our arrival had us entering the valley from the west, not the east, but it's still a gorgeous flight on a clear day. To this day, all these years later, I can't help but smile when I see the field. This airplane, the largest airliner serving an airport primarily served by turboprops, has no sectionals on board, no prop, no carb heat. It does have air conditioning, and an autopilot. Taxiing to the gate, I can see the FBO where I parked before. As our passengers deplane, I think about just how far I've come. My first time here could have been yesterday. Back in that summer of 1991, I was nearing a point that many people would consider the highlight of their flying careers — the private pilot checkride. Now I've had many more highlights. Coming back to this airport, it's so easy to see in retrospect that a journey was really just getting started. This is another highlight. It's a special one. Like a movie, I swear I can see myself walking across the ramp in sweat-drenched shorts, a soaked T-shirt sticking to my back, old Nike shoes with a million miles on the soles, my hair matted down by my new David Clark headsets. Fifty cents that day would get me a Coke. Now I wear four stripes, a white dress shirt, and long pants. I miss flying in shorts every day, I hate wearing a tie, and a Coke will set you back at least a buck. At least I still wear David Clarks.

Today, though, I can't stay as long as I might like. Fifty people are now loaded and ready to go. Just like my first time here, a schedule must be kept. And so we keep it. But I go with a smile. I may not be a student pilot anymore, but I am still a student of flying, just much more progressed. When I go home to visit my family, I always visit Bay Bridge. And when I am in Charlottesville now, and a student pilot wants to taxi out, I stop and let him go in front of me. I can still maintain the schedule. Besides, that student might be on his own long cross-country. Someday, that student's journey might have him sitting next to me. And we just might be flying into Charlottesville, sharing stories, and not getting lost.

Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet captain for Comair.