Saturday, September 22, 2007

Overnight to Chapel Hill

I achieved another milestone in my Flying Life -- an overnight cross-country trip. My brother is somewhere around year nine of the longest-ever medical school career. He lives in Massachusetts, but one of his rotations recently had him in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chapel Hill is far from Massachusetts, but it's only about 225 nautical miles by plane from my home airport in the Washington, DC, area. I found 36 hours with no work commitments and beautiful weather, so I took 35R and headed down to see him.

I was a bit nervous setting out on this trip. Earlier in the day, I'd been paying attention to the winds both at my departure airport and in Chapel Hill. It was a beautiful day, but the winds were strong and gusting at right angles to the runway in Chapel Hill. Not only would the ride down have been bumpy, but I might not have been able to safely land the airplane upon arrival. So I waited. And waited. The winds were forecast to die down around dinnertime, and they did. Jodie drove me to the airport and I launched around 6:30 p.m. It was one of the most beautiful flights I've had. There were a few bumps during the first half hour, but as I got further south the bumps faded completely and there was just a beautiful sky.

Because of my late start, night fell during my flight. I enjoy flying at night, so I wasn't worried at all. The Chapel Hill airport had runway lights, and the large Raleigh-Durham airport was nearby with multiple large runways if I ever had any trouble.

The sunset over the Smoky Mountains was gorgeous off my right wing.

I was so in awe of how beautiful and peaceful it was, I made a little video clip. If you're looking for excitement, don't bother watching this -- it's just a post-sunset glow from a little airplane. If you like boring but beautiful, then go ahead....

I arrived in Chapel Hill a bit after 8:00, having seen the airport beacon from 15 miles away, flashing green and white. The cities of Raleigh and Durham were off to my left as I approached the airport. I clicked the microphone to turn on the runway lights, then announced my intentions over the radio. As I like to do when arriving at a "new" airport, I was going to fly right over the airport to get a look at things, then maneuver to enter the traffic pattern.

I flew right over the green-white flashing beacon. But I didn't see any runway lights. I thought I could make out the shape of an airplane on the ground near the beacon, but where was the runway? I circled back and around.... No runway. I triggered the lights and circled again. I checked both GPS maps in the plane -- yes, I was right over the airport, as also confirmed by the flashing beacon on the ground, so where..... Then I saw the runway over my right shoulder. I circled around, but it wasn't there! Then I caught another glimpse of it as I circled. I turned so that I would be parallel to what I had seen, and now I could just barely make it out, but at least I now knew where it was and was roughly in the traffic pattern.

I was a little high, so I veered slightly away from the runway to give me a little space on my base leg. When I turned onto base, though, the runway was completely invisible again. Only when I was on final and perfectly lined up with the runway could I see the runway lights again.

In my experience, most airports have the runways in relatively wide-open areas, and the lights are visible from a long way away. I think that my problem with Chapel Hill was due to three factors. First, there were tall trees parallel to the runway, which screened the runway lights unless you were looking directly down the runway. Second, the runway lights appeared to be almost bi-directional, so you could see them clearly if you were approaching the runway from one end or the other, but not if you were directly overhead or approaching from the sides. Third, I think the lights were just plain dim, not very bright, and in the midst of a lot of lights on the ground from the nearby Tri-Cities area. Of course, I was also new to the airport, so I didn't have a pattern to look for (other than the shape of a runway near a beacon) and didn't know what to expect. The experience was a bit unnerving, and this might be the last time I fly to an airport for the first time at night.

As I taxied back on the runway to the tie-down area, my brother came walking out. He helped me secure the airplane, then we piled in his car and headed to downtown Chapel Hill for dinner.

After a good dinner and a night's sorta-sleep (a sleeping pad on a hard floor), my brother and I decided to fly somewhere.... We looked at the charts I had with me and just picked a place: Burlington, North Carolina, about 20 nautical miles West-Northwest of Chapel Hill.

My brother David and his wife, Jessica, were my first family passengers, as I wrote before, so Dave had been in a plane with me and knew what to expect. I remembered that he had been a little nervous during the first takeoff roll, so I gave him the headset with my iPod attached. I lined the plane up with the centerline of the runway and asked him if he was ready. He said he was, so I pushed "play" on my iPod and the song "Danger Zone" from the Top Gun soundtrack blasted into my brother's headset as we accelerated down the runway and took off. That was worth a few giggles.

The bottom track in the GPS trail above is our flight out to Burlington. We could see the airport from a ways away, and I joined a left cross-wind leg for a landing. We parked the plane and strolled into the FBO. The guy behind the counter greeted us with a smile, and I asked him if there was someplace nearby where we could get a bite to eat. He pretty much tossed me the keys to a crew car -- a car that the FBO keeps handy for airplane crews that need to get somewhere -- and gave us directions to the center of Burlington.

It was a Sunday morning, though, and the entire four square blocks of Burlington was closed. We couldn't find a single place to eat that was open, and headed back out of town. Then we lucked out: we saw a very pretty city park with some carnival rides. We parked and got out to explore. There was a town festival going on, and vendors were serving up all sorts of food. We settled for hot dogs and lemonade that we enjoyed while listening to a local country band, then we headed back to the airport, stopping to put some gas in the crew car as a way of showing some appreciation.

I had used the GPS to get us to Burlington. David was talking about how cool it would be to get his pilot's license, so I pulled out the chart and showed him how we would use landmarks to navigate back to Chapel Hill by pilotage. It was easy -- we just had to follow I-40, then follow the turn South at a fork as we approached the Raleigh-Durham area. I also offered to show him a short/soft field takeoff. That's a technique where you hold the nose wheel off the ground and get the plane to lift off as soon as possible, even before it reaches flying speed. Then you continue to accelerate close to the ground, then pull up to climb at a relatively steep angle. It's fun to do, and he enjoyed it. The flight back was uneventful, except for a bit of convective turbulence that had us bouncing around a little. There was one jolt in particular where the plane went down and we would have hit our heads on the ceiling but for our seatbelts.

We landed back at Chapel Hill and I saw someone hand-propping an old Piper Cub. I taxied the plane around to the ramp and saw a few more Piper Cubs sitting out. There were a few people sitting on lawn chairs in open hangars, a few other planes out and around, and while I re-packed the plane for my departure, we watched someone take off for a trip around the pattern in yet another Cub. It was the largest concentration of flying Cubs that I've seen anywhere except Oshkosh.

David drove me the 5 minutes back to his place to do my flight planning on his computer, as the computer in the FBO was broken. I filed both VFR and DC-ADIZ flight plans, and checked the weather, which appeared perfect. I started the plane as David walked back toward his car. There's a speaker by the FBO that broadcasts calls over the local radio frequency, so as I took off and climbed out, I called over the radio. "Boy, this l'il Cessna really climbs without my lug of a brother in it." A voice came back to tell me that my brother had left and didn't hear the call. I mentally shrugged and turned the plane North. I flew relatively slow for a while due to the turbulence. As it became late afternoon, the air smoothed out and I sped up a bit. I stopped briefly for fuel in Culpepper, Virginia, then took off for the last leg home.

Culpepper is Southwest of Dulles International Airport and the Class B airspace that surrounds Dulles. Gaithersburg is on the other, Northeast side of Dulles. I typically cannot fly in Class B airspace without special permission, because of the airliners that are departing and arriving, so I planned to circle all the way around to the Northwest of Dulles, then East by Southeast to get back to Gaithersburg. Leaving Culpepper, I contacted air traffic control to activate my DC-ADIZ flight plan. The controller said, "You're going to Gaithersburg?" I confirmed that this was the case. He said, "Let's see if we can get you up the East side. Stand by."

Before long, I was following ATC instructions and flying directly through the Class B airspace over Dulles International Airport. Unfortunately, I had left my camera in David's car, so all I had was my cell phone.

As I approached the airport, air traffic control told me to look for traffic at my 3 o'clock, an Airbus at my altitude. I looked to my right and yes, there was an airbus at my altitude, descending for a landing at Dulles. That was very cool, looking at the business end of an airliner! I flew right over the arrival end of Runways 1L and 1R just as the sun was setting over the mountains to the west.

An airliner lined up on Runway 1R and started its takeoff roll as I passed overhead. When I was past the airport, ATC cleared me to fly direct to Gaithersburg. I did, overflying the airport, then joining the pattern for a landing in calm winds on Runway 14. Jodie was waiting to welcome me home.

All in all it was a very successful flight and a ton of fun. I finally began to understand the allure of a faster airplane, as 110 mph suddenly seemed very slow. "They" say that you learn something on every flight, and I certainly learned a few things on this flight. First, I learned that I don't like arriving at small airports for the first time after dark. I also learned that maybe I can ask air traffic control for clearance through the Class B airspace around Dulles. I also learned that flying is a great way to cover longer distances for short visits -- it opens up an entire extended range of day trips, with the added bonus of beautiful scenery along the way.
I'm not sure where I'll go next, maybe Massachusetts or Knoxville.... We'll see.

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