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Pilotage: The milk runPilotage: The milk run

Mark R. Twombly flies a Piper Aztec for a Florida-based company.

Mark R. Twombly flies a Piper Aztec for a Florida-based company.

“Eight-Six-One, remain VFR and cross over the approach end of Runway Six at or above two thousand, five hundred.”

“Roger, VFR, cross approach end of Six at or above two thousand, five hundred.”

I was on the last leg of our milk run—Fort Myers-Tamiami-Fort Myers—and the direct route puts me on a bull’s-eye to Southwest Florida International (RSW), seven miles southeast of my destination airport, Page Field (FMY). That means the approach controller toiling in the radar room below the tower at RSW has to decide what to do with the prop plane bisecting his largely transport-jet-infused airspace. The choices are to vector me around and under the arrivals, or bring me directly overhead the airport. The routing I get on any day appears to be randomly decided, a function of the bias of the person working the sector. But then again, maybe there’s something I’m not aware of that’s driving the controller’s decision.

I, of course, prefer the overhead because it requires virtually no deviation from my GPS-configured direct-to-destination route, and therefore it adds no time to my flight. A milk run is a short, uneventful, or routine flight, and an off-course vector messes with two of those qualifiers.

One thing about milk runs: You don’t just get used to the routine, you strive for it. Everything must be the same as before. The same flight plan, the same clearance, the same power settings, the same time en route, the same total fuel consumption. No changes, no deviations; this means no problems. Consistency breeds comfort.

I’m still fine-tuning my milk-run routine. At first I filed and flew the round trip IFR, even though the weather is almost always VMC. My reasoning was sound. Immediately upon departing home base I encounter RSW’s Class Charlie airspace. I can avoid it by staying low and flying under and around it, but that takes time and on daytime flights subjects us to the worst of the bumpy thermals. I quickly realized that faster climbs, more direct routing and, of course, better traffic separation service is available when I am a full citizen in ATC’s eyes by being on an IFR flight plan. So IFR it was.

Then came Revision 1 to my routine. Tamiami Airport (TMB) lies beneath the southern shelf of Miami Class Bravo airspace, and the direct route on my return leg takes me right through Miami International Airport (MIA) arrivals when they are landing east, which is most of the time. As a result, invariably I’m cleared for the Miami Nine Standard Instrument Departure (SID) that takes me pretty far north-northwest to a fix before I can turn westerly toward the Fort Myers area.

The SID adds eight miles—8 percent—to the trip length compared to flying direct. Eight miles doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up: at 50 trips per year, which we might just do, that’s 400 extra miles, and that’s just on the return leg.

The other thing about flying the SID out of TMB is that I’m kept at 2,000 bumpy feet msl to stay underneath the Miami arrivals until I clear the barbed-wire fence ringing Miami Class Bravo airspace.

So I began flying home VFR, with traffic advisories from Miami ATC. Now I fly a more efficient direct route and, traffic permitting, get to climb above the thermals before hurtling the Class Bravo fence line. The only issue left before I can declare it a routine milk run is whether or not I’ll get that RSW overhead arrival, or an off-course vector.

Today is a good day. I get the overhead. But, even on a good day some of us can’t keep from complaining. Here’s mine: By the time the controller lets loose of me so I can begin my final descent, I’m practically inside FMY’s Class Delta airspace. That necessitates a steep final approach to the runway, which means using full flaps, which means that, upon making contact with terra firma, the emphasis will be on the “firm” part.

My preferred routine is to fly the final approach and land with partial flaps. It adds a few knots to the approach speed compared with full flaps, but runway length is not an issue. Landing as smoothly as possible is the issue.

When you deploy the large Fowler flaps on a Piper Aztec, you’re instantly handed a gob of additional lift and an equal dose of additional drag. The airplane balloons and begins to slow. Aztec drivers soon learn that flap deployment is a three-step process—push the flap lever down, push forward on the yoke, and crank in nose-down trim—all done simultaneously.

Landing with full flaps means landing at the slowest possible speed, but it also means a more difficult transition from a relatively steep and slow nose-down final approach attitude to the flare, and then adding back-pressure to achieve the correct nose-up touchdown attitude. It’s a lot more difficult to judge the timing, height, and aggressiveness of a full-flap flare compared to using partial flaps. Consequently, my full-flap landings are more memorable, but they aren’t memories I will cherish.

No doubt a few of those steep-approach, full-flap, terra-firma touchdowns would have rattled any bottles of milk aboard.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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