Saturday, May 28, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 4)

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Sunset on the Siskiyou Mountains durning an Angel Flight from Redding to Bellingham.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 3)

The weekend had been a busy one. Mowing the lawn (our yard is over and acre, so this can be a major undertaking), visiting mom, biking with the kids, fixing things that had been in disrepair. On Sunday evening I was ready for some downtime – or in my case, uptime.

I drove to the six minutes to the airport, and used my proximity card to drive onto the ramp. I parked next to Regal, got the plane dispatched to me, and climbed in. I had no place I really wanted or needed to go. I took off and climbed to the southwest towards the Bangor Naval Submarine Base.

Around the base is a Permanent Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) and I’m not making that phrase up. After 9/11 there were four of these Permanent TFRs created in the Puget Sound area. I’m getting off topic here, but these were primarily feel-good measures. Light aircraft are just that – light, too small to cause significant damage on their own, and too small of capacity to carry the kinds of loads necessary to be a threat. Additionally, the radius of the restricted area does not create enough response time to react to a real threat. To pilots they create a maneuvering nuisance. The politicians feel better, and to the two percent of the population that participates in General Aviation is too small of a voting block to be audible voice.

But apparently we are getting through and heard. The Permanent TFRs at Everett, Bremerton, and Indian Island have been change to National Security Areas. Further off topic here, but these are areas that you are allowed to fly in, but they ask you to avoid them, as they can be turned back into TFRs with out warning.

Back to my story. There were some clouds out that day creating a broken ceiling, meaning that between 5/8ths and 7/8ths of the sky was covered by clouds, and the Seattle class Bravo (controlled area around a major airport) airspace extended out where I was headed. Because I was flying Visual Flight Rules (VFR) I could not fly into the clouds, and did not have permission to fly into Seattle’s airspace, I now had three things to weave the plane between.

It only took a few minutes to thread the plane through the corridor that was left open for me, and I maneuvered towards Heron Island where some friends of ours have a house. Herron is a small community that consists of quiet gravel roads, about 100 homes and numerous deer that will eat from your hand. The only way on and off the island is by boat (NO RUNWAY!!!), and the island has a private ferry.

I circled the island a couple of times and then raced the ferry back and forth (surprise, the plane won) several times. When I saw all I wanted to see, I headed a little further southwest to Shelton. Shelton is an excellent airport with a long runway and an active skydiving community. Other than that, there is not a whole lot there.

I landed at Shelton and walked around the vast emptiness on my own, there was not another person to be found. What I did find was expansive sheets of concrete in every direction, and a couple of aircraft tied down near weather faded pastel buildings. All ringed by tall fir trees in the distance. If the X-files were still being made, this would be a great setting. If I had to guess, I’d say that is was once and active Army Air Corps base where pilots were trained. While I walked around I imagined the days when this was a busy training field teaming with fighter and bomber trainers preparing those that would be sent into the Second World War (a bit of google searching reveals that it was a Naval Air Station).

The sun was starting to get low in the sky and the air was turning cold, so I decided it was time to head back. I determined that if I filed an instrument flight plan for the trip back, I could avoid the hassles of dodging clouds and airspace. With the sun setting it would be harder to locate ground reference points that I could use to thread through the “bad” airspace, as well as the clouds become harder to see and avoid in the dark.

I called the Flight Service Station from my cell phone, and filed a route that would take me on an “S” shaped pattern from Shelton to the west side of the Puget Sound, up to the Hood Canal bridge, and then across to Paine. I knew when I filed it that my actual routing would be nothing near that. Around the busy airports, the controllers like to vector traffic. The controllers will give each airplane a heading and altitude that will keep airplanes away from one another. But if the radio goes amuck leaving me unable to hear those vectors, having an exact flight plan routing on file creates expectations for the controller to know where I am headed. And as a result, the controllers will clear the area of traffic to keep it away from the out-of-communication airplane.

I took off and contacted the controllers, who immediately set me on a vector straight at Paine, no “S” path for this trip. The course put me into the clouds at 4,000 feet. On this course, I passed through the class Bravo airspace, through the clouds and clear of the TFR at Bangor.

A couple miles off the coast of Mukilteo, I was vectored north over the south ends of Whidbey and Camano Islands where I was then vectored east and then south to join up with the Instrument Landing System (ILS) at Paine field. As I descended out of the clouds at 2,000 feet, the airport became visible ahead of me.

Why does this trip qualify as a “Why I Fly” story? Two reasons.

First is the opportunity for me to have alone time. Time where it is just me. I think many hobbies afford this. Time to have personal freedom from external demands. Even in the midst of “avoid this cloud, stay away from this navy base, don’t go near this airport,” the decision is still mine to make, and it is my path to pick to over come the obstacles and how the trip is completed us up to my judgment.

Second is the magic of the instrument flight system. Here we combine big jets at hundreds of miles per hour, with guys that out for a weekend adventure, all operating in the same sight-limiting clouds, separated by rules, procedures, and a voice on the radio watching over us all. When it all works as designed, even adding in human and mechanical failures, we arrive safely at our destination, with runways magically materializing as clouds part revealing the destination. I love the magic of the instrument approach as the clouds clear away, and right there where it is supposed to be is the runway. Pretty cool stuff.