Saturday, June 09, 2007

Adventures with Millie

Millie is my dog, and we've had some adventures together over the years. I picked her up as a 10-week old puppy from the shelter in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was a "flying puppy." That is, she was from a shelter in New Mexico, where they had more puppies than homes available, so she was put on a plane to Massachusetts where there are more homes than puppies. We had lots of adventures together when I was a bachelor, hiking and camping trips, long road trips, and so on. When Jodie came into the picture, it was love at first sight -- Millie just couldn't get enough of Jodie, and vice versa. So now we're a happy family, but I like to think that Millie and I still have a special connection from our long history. Last night we struck out for a little bonding through flying, and we had another adventure.....

It's been a goal of mine to fly with Millie. Rich got a puppy shortly before I finished my training, and it slept in the backseat while we did stalls and steep turns and short-field landings. I've been looking for the right time to take Millie in the plane, and last night was our chance. I reserved a plane for the whole weekend, thinking I might fly to Massachusetts and Maine to see family. The weather here was beautiful, but the weather in New England was not manageable for a pilot without an instrument rating, so I wasn't sure what to do with my reserved plane. Then I decided that I would use it last night to maintain my night currency. In order to remain "current" and be able to carry passengers at night, pilots have to do three takeoffs and landings at night at least every ninety days. It's a minimal requirement, but looking back, I'd only done one within the last ninety days, so I decided to take care of that. Also, when I go for my instrument rating, I'll need 40 or 50 hours of cross-country flying time, so I thought I'd fly to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then go do some landings in Westminster, Maryland, then return to Gaithersburg. It's more than 50 miles to Carlisle, so the flight would qualify as a cross-country, I'd get at least three landings at night, so I'd be current, and I'd take Millie with me to see how she does.

We took off about 9:00, just after sunset, in Three Zero Yankee Romeo, a newer Cessna Skyhawk owned by one of my clubs, and headed North. I was busy flying and talking on the radio with Air Traffic Control for the first 20 minutes or so, but once I had some breathing room, I looked in the backseat to check on Millie. She was sitting up straight, her eyes were wide, and she looked very nervous. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't seem to hear me over the airplane noise, so I turned my attention back to navigating -- this plane has an autopilot and I'm still playing with it to figure it out.

The sky to the west was beautiful. The sun had already set and most of the sky was dark with stars already showing, but the silhouette of the mountains forty miles away was in crisp contrast to the bright pinks and oranges of the Western edge of the sky. I went to take a picture, but the battery in my camera was dead. The visibility was excellent, with little to no haze, which is a rarity in this part of the country. As the light faded from the horizon, I checked on Millie again. She had relaxed, and was lying down. Good, I thought.

We crossed over a low ridge into the valley where the Carlisle airport is and I headed down to pattern altitude. It was very dark, there was no moon, and I clicked the microphone seven times to turn on the runway lights. Nothing happened. I tried again, but nothing happened. I tried a dozen more times, but still nothing. I flew over the runway, just 800 feet off the ground. I could make out airplanes tied down, and I saw the runway, but just barely. It was too dark to land without runway lights and they weren't working.... I chided myself for missing the notice that I knew must have been published, considered what to do, and decided to head to an airport in York, Pennsylvania.

York is just under 50 miles from Gaithersburg, so I wouldn't have a landing far enough away for the flight to qualify as a cross-country, but I could still regain my night currency. Millie and I climbed over the ridge from Carlisle and headed to York. As we were flying away, I heard a helicopter on the radio heading to Carlisle, and I wondered if a helicopter needs runway lights to land. When I was 4-5 miles from York, I tried to turn on the runway lights. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Then I heard another plane click the transmitter seven times, and the York lights came on. Since the lights were on, I didn't think anything more about it and just landed.

We'd been flying for over an hour, so I parked the plane and let Millie out. She sniffed around the dark and empty airport, then when I said, "Ready to go?" she headed for the plane. I opened the door and she jumped into the back seat. Millie's always liked to go places. I started the plane, waited for another plane to land, then took off.

I headed South toward Westminster, and triggered the runway lights when I was about 6 miles away. There are a lot of lights on the ground around Westminster, and I couldn't pick out the airport. I thought I just wasn't seeing it, so I decided to fly right over the airport. I've been to Westminster a dozen times at night and never had a problem, so..... I flew right over where the airport should have been -- there was just a black hole in the middle of the surrounding city and street lights. I circled back, triggering the lights again and again. Nothing. I checked the GPS -- yes, I should be flying right over the airport. I circled back again.... Nothing. Was the GPS working? Am I just in the wrong place? I could dimly make out large buildings that looked like hangars, but they could have been warehouses and there were NO lights.

Then it all made sense. I pulled my handheld aviation radio out of my bag and turned it on. I bought this radio for safety purposes. It has rechargeable batteries, and when it sits for long periods the battery will go dead. Other times I'll just not bother to bring it. But this night I had it charged for my flight to Massachusetts, and I had it with me. I clicked the transmit button seven times as I headed back to the airport and . . . the runway lit up like a Christmas tree.

I landed, and the landing was funny.... I had noticed that although the airport was reporting very light winds on the ground, there was a significant wind aloft. I didn't think about it too much and landed according to the wind on the ground. My glide was off and I landed a ways down the runway. I'm just out of practice, I thought.

I taxied back and took off to head home. The visibility was incredible. I could see the lights of Washington from 40 miles away. My indicated airspeed was about 118 knots, but my groundspeed was 135 knots according to the GPS. (That's about 155 miles per hour!) The automated weather reporting system at Gaithersburg was reporting calm winds, so I planned to land on Runway 14, the preferred runway in calm wind conditions.

As we approached the Gaithersburg airport, I tried to turn on the runway lights with the plane again. Nothing. From 8 miles out, I tried using my handheld radio. Nothing. When I got to about 4 miles, my handheld worked -- the signal it puts out is weaker than the airplane's signal -- and I could see "home."

I headed in for a landing, but the plane just wasn't going down like it usually does. Halfway down the runway, and still fifty feet in the air, I pushed in the power and climbed up to circle around and try again. Once again I was long! I wondered, how did I ever get my license when I can't even land?!?! Although I was long, I managed to get the plane on the runway with room remaining. As I taxied back to park the plane, I thought about it, and.... Wind shear! I had seen that there were strong winds aloft, about 20 knots, and I knew that the wind was calm on the ground, but I just hadn't put it together. That's why I landed long at Westminster and both times at Gaithersburg. I won't make that mistake again.

I shut down the engine and opened my door. I planned to get out, then slide my seat forward to let Millie out, but the second the door was open she squeezed past the seat and jumped out. She'd been asleep as we cruised back to Gatherisburg, so I think that aborting the first landing and going around made her nervous. Whatever the reason, she was READY to get out of the airplane. Anyway, it was almost midnight, so I secured the plane and jumped in the Jeep with Millie.

So that was our adventure. A malfunctioning "PTT" switch on the plane that wouldn't let me turn on runway lights, a steep wind gradient that made landing difficult, and Millie's first flight, all in one night. I've ordered her some "Mutt Muffs" for ear protection, now that I know she tolerates flying alright. I'm looking forward to going somewhere with her soon.....

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