I've seen the Grand Canyon from the ground, but today's flight was the first time I've flown myself over the Canyon - and it was awe-inspiring.
The airspace over the Grand Canyon National Park is covered in a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), which is designed to keep General Aviation flights like mine away from the huge number of flight tours (400+ a day), and also to keep everybody away from noise-sensitive areas. So, there are no-fly zones with corridors between them. The tour operators fly set routes and stay between 7,500 and 9,500 feet, and GA pilots are at 10,500 or 12,500 southbound and 11,500 or 13,500 northbound.
The winds at KGCN Grand Canyon Airport when I was ready to leave were rather high - 050 at 19 gusting 32 - but at least they were only a twenty-degree crosswind for Runway 3, and by 9:00 I was in the air.
I was at 10,500 by the time I reached the edge of the SFRA south of the Zuni Corridor, and at 11,500 when I entered the corridor. KGCN is at 6,600 feet, and the plateau rises to about 7,500 where I crossed over into the SFRA. It's like flying over a flat forest and then...
The Colorado River stretches off to the horizon as you enter Zuni Corridor.
Side canyons split off from the main canyon, and flat-topped buttes are everywhere. Some of them are reporting points - all pilots in the corridors monitor the sector frequency (120.05, in this case) and announce their ID and altitude (and color/number route, for tour operators) when they hit a reporting point.
After passing through the Zuni Corridor, I followed the Colorado eastward to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
This is the confluence of the muddy Little Colorado and the clearer Colorado - the muddy water remains separate for quite a way downriver.
From the confluence, I followed the Colorado northward into the Marble Canyon Sector. This sector has an 8,000 foot ceiling for tour operators, so I was able to descend down to 8,500 to stay above the sector boundary.
The canyon is much narrower in the Marble Canyon Sector than in the main part of the National Park to the south.
Marble Canyon Airport L41 is a 3,700 foot runway, 35 feet wide, at 3,600 feet elevation. It's located at the northern end of the Marble Canyon Sector, which poses a bit of complication, since you are only allowed to descend to the airport when you're within three miles - which means losing 5,000 feet in altitude in three miles. I flew a sort of really high upwind, descending through crosswind (picture below) down to pattern altitude by midfield downwind. The winds at L41 weren't as bad as they were at KGCN, only about 10 knots straight down runway 3.
Everything went smoothly, and less than an hour after leaving KGCN I landed at L41 Marble Canyon Airport, across the street from the Marble Canyon Lodge.
Once I'd tied down and checked in at the Lodge, I walked over to Navajo Bridge and into Marble Canyon. I'll finish this post with a few pictures from the hike.
My last picture is another HDR-processed image, combined from five pictures taken at one-stop exposure intervals.
I'm in Grand Canyon National Park (or just outside it, actually, in Tusayan).
When I checked the weather this morning, KABQ was reporting 2,200 broken, and conditions were good VFR along my entire route. The only potential problem was that Grand Canyon Airport KGCN forecast showed MVFR - 1,500 foot ceilings and fairly high gusty winds - from about noon on. I decided to leave as early as possible for the three-hour flight, so as to avoid any potential problems.
When I got to KABQ, there was a 1,900 foot overcast, which meant that the mountain tops to the east were obscured - but to the north and west, the deck was higher and I could see blue skies in the distance.
The country between Albuquerque and Grand Canyon is desert, and until you get quite close to Grand Canyon, very dry and eroded desert indeed. Here are a few shots from along the route:
Rio Puerco, NM
Where there's water, like along this rambling stream, the desert is green. Elsewhere, not so much...
Mount Taylor, near McCartys, NM, rises over 11,000 feet - well above my 8,500 foot cruising altitude. However, by following the valley (with road and railroad) running through Gallup, NM, I had plenty of clearance from the ground all the way.
The ground is wrinkled near Gallup, NM - evidence of a fault line, perhaps?
Got to have a Rorschach Test pond...
Fern-like erosion patterns in the desert in Arizona.
As we neared the Grand Canyon, the high plateau shelved off to a lower level. I think these are wind erosion patterns leading back from the cliff edge.
On the other side of the valley, the land rises up again, with Grand Canyon Airport on the far edge of the plateau.
By leaving Albuquerque early, I made it to Grand Canyon Airport well before the time the MVFR conditions were predicted, and in fact, while there were some scattered clouds at Grand Canyon, they didn't get in the way at all, and the winds were only five knots. Here is my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, coming in over the pines to enter a left base for Runway 21. There's a continuous stream of helicopters flying in and out of the airport giving air tours of the Canyon, so you have to stay above 7,200 feet above sea level until you're on final.
After lunch I walked the Rim Trail for three or four miles, then rode the buses back to Tusayan as the sun set.
You're supposed to stay at least 100 feet from elk in the park, but what do you do when they walk up the trail behind you? I just stepped aside and let four elk walk by no more than two feet from me. They weren't bothered, and seemed perfectly happy to pose for a picture as they went by.
You can see the rain falling on the North Rim, but we didn't get any on the South Rim - at least, not where I was.
The dramatic lighting in the canyon and the clouds gathering over the North Rim seemed to call for HDR treatment - this is a combination of five pictures taken at differing exposures, and combined to exaggerate tonal differences. It's not photorealistic, but I like it.
All in all, a Good Day...
No flying for me today, but that doesn't mean I neglected aviation. The weather cooperated beautifully for today's Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta - in fact, the announcer said this was the best weather they've had all week. It was well worth getting up at four AM to catch the shuttle bus to the Fiesta site in time for the Dawn Patrol launch at six.
An hour later, the mass ascension saw dozens and dozens of balloons rise into the clear sky.
The balloons compete to make precision landings through a gate, and drop streamers on a target as they come in. The winds at Albuquerque are such that the balloons can rise up to catch a wind which blows them away from the field, then descend to catch a wind which blows them right back again.
After the mass ascension, there was a Special Shapes Rodeo, where balloons of all sorts were inflated and, in most cases, rose into the sky.
The Special Shapes Relationship - Uncle Sam and Chiquita Banana (I think), meet a Beefeater and a British Bulldog.
Vincent Van Gogh
Smokey the Bear and some bees...
Some more special shapes - a scarecrow, an alien, the Bimbo Donuts Bear... and Jesus?
"Luke... I... am... your... balloon..."
"Balloon I am, yes."
Note the very appropriate British registration on this Koala balloon - G-DAAY
"When pigs fly"? Well, now they can...
Finally, a couple of colorful balloons to finish off with.
I'm in Albuquerque, as planned - although how I got here is nothing like what I'd planned. When I got up this morning it was nice and sunny in Wichita, and Albuquerque was showing clear skies and forecast to remain VFR all day. Great! But, today was a good lesson in why you can't just rely on the end points of a trip being VFR - you need to look at the whole route.
I didn't want to give up entirely - it was nice in WIchita, after all, and if I could get out of there and fly somewhere in the right direction under decent flying conditions, it beat sitting around in Kansas in a motel room. There was an airmet, but it did end if you went far enough south. As I zoomed out and looked at more of the map on Garmin Pilot, it appeared that there would be at worst marginal VFR conditions heading southward into Texas, and most of New Mexico south of Albuquerque was showing clear skies or good VFR. So, I took off from WIchita and headed southward as high as I could go and still stay under the clouds.
One thing you notice as you fly is that all Midwestern towns, nearly without exception, have a railroad line and grain silos. Norwich, Kansas, follows the rule:
They're not just farming grain these days - they're farming wind, too...
I suppose we have to have a Rorschach Test Pond for the day, too...
I'm not at all sure what this shows - the white lines could be salt, leaching from the earth, maybe?
Circular irrigators are a fixture in the northern Midwest - I was actually surprised that I had not seen any yet in this trip. These are the first, as I flew into Oklahoma:
I usually make it a point to set a waypoint every 50-60 miles along my route, preferably an airport. That not only gives me something to look for every half an hour or so, but it also means that if I need one, I'm never more than 25-30 miles from the nearest airport. As I flew over Elk City, OK, Airport (KELK), I saw this Stearman taxiing out for takeoff.
An intersection in Texas:
The Red River, on the Oklahoma/Texas border, is very well named:
Roads snake around for purposes known only to the makers in this Texas oilfield:
When I flew by it, I couldn't figure out what this mysterious structure was. Looking at the picture more closely, I wonder if it's a collection of oil pipelines being excavated?
When I landed in Midland, Texas (KMAF), I wasn't sure if I'd be taking off again that day or spending the night. There was a solid overcast at 1900 feet, and there was a strong wind from the southeast. While 493 was being topped off, and I was enjoying a great Chile Relleno plate at the cafe in the FBO, I checked the weather further along. My original re-route from Midland had become IFR while I was flying, but not far south Pecos, TX, KPEQ was reporting 4,000 foot ceilings, and the route from there into New Mexico and up to Albuquerque from the south had ceilings of 7,000 feet or more. I rerouted the reroute to go even further south, hopped back into 493 and launched Pecos-ward.
As I went along the clouds lifted more and more, and I climbed to stay under them. By the time I reached the Texas/New Mexico border it was bright and sunny, and the clouds were well over 10,000 feet and scattered as we passed from dry flat country into the high desert.
The ramparts overlooking Capitan, NM, marked the point where the route turned almost due north - finally, I was flying toward ABQ...
Willard, Texas, supplied a view of all of the circular irrigators I'd missed earlier in the trip.
Who thought it was a good idea to put a housing development out in the middle of featureless desert? They have big lots, at least...
There was a little light rain just before I reached Albuquerque. Typical of desert conditions, the shafts of rain were widely scattered and easy to avoid - but created beautiful rainbows.
Finally, we were on final for Runway 21 at KABQ.
I left N46493 in the hands of Atlantic Aviation, picked up my rental car and drove downtown to my motel.
In the end, my four and a half hour direct flight became a 7.8 hour flying day, with two legs - Wichita to Midland,TX, and Midland to Albuquerque via Pecos, TX.
Still, I made it. Now, if the weather will hold off, tomorrow morning, early, I plan to be at the Balloon Festival for the 6:00AM Dawn Patrol launch.
Hello from Wichita, Kansas!
My strategy of getting as far west as I could yesterday worked. When I checked the weather early this morning, this is what I found, with my route indicated by the yellow arrow. As you can see, the main front had moved through with most of the rain now to the east of Clinton. There was a secondary cold front still in front of me, but the light rain associated with it was south of my route:
I only had to wait for a bit over an hour at the airport in Clinton before the ceilings lifted enough on my route to Wichita for me to get in the air. Here's Cessna N46493 at Clinton Airport, with the courtesy car they loaned me yesterday. I recommend Clinton for a stopover - the fuel is the cheapest I've bought this trip and the people were great.
Looking eastward as I left Clinton - nothing but low clouds and haze.
Two Rorschach Test ponds today. Is the first one a man wearing a funny striped hat, maybe? The second could be a whale...
An intersection in MIssouri.
The rain I hit in Clinton had been stalled over western Missouri and eastern Kansas for the better part of a week, dumping nearly a foot of rain in some spots. As I got into Kansas (that's state seven for this trip, if you're counting), I saw more and more flooding in low-lying fields.
The former Wichita Municipal Airport, bought by the Air Force in 1951. Today it's McConnell Air Force Base, home to a KC-135 tanker wing. The Kansas Aviation Museum in on the right center of this photo.
As I passed McConnell, Wichita Approach told me to expect a right base for Runway 1R. I'd listened to the ATIS, and the winds at KICT were 320 at 11 - a fifty-degree crosswind - but there is a Runway 32 at Wichita, which was perfectly aligned with the wind. For the student pilots in the group, if something like this happens, you are the pilot in command. If you don't like the runway you're given, ask for another. I just asked ATC if I could get Runway 32 instead, and the controller immediately said it was no problem, cleared to land Runway 32. So, I did...
I was in Wichita before 1:00PM. Another tip - check Foreflight or Garmin Pilot, if you have them, or the AOPA Airport Directory website if you don't, before you go to an airport. KICT, as it turns out, has two FBOs which sell 100LL fuel. Yingling was a dollar a gallon cheaper than Signature, so guess which one I picked? As soon as I'd taxied in and shut down, 493 was all set at Yingling Aviation for a top-off and overnight tie-down
The folks at Yingling gave me a lift to the terminal, and I picked up the sub-compact car I had reserved at National Car Rentals. It turned out to be a Chevy Silverado 4WD club cab pickup truck. I'm glad I hadn't asked for a full-size car. It probably would have been an eighteen-wheeler or a Greyhound bus. Here it is parked outside the Kansas Aviation Museum, which is housed in the old Wichita Municipal Airport terminal at what is now McConnell AFB.
The Kansas Aviation Museum has an interesting collection of aircraft which were made in the Wichita area, as well as artifacts relating to Cessna, Beech, Stearman, Mooney and other less-well-known aircraft manufacturers which were based in the area. Here are a few pictures from the museum:
A single-seat Mooney Mite:
A recently restored 1931 Stearman Model 4D:
No fancy glass cockpits in 1931...
B-47 Stratojet bomber - think Jimmy Stewart in Strategic Air Command:
B-52 Stratofortress - first flown in 1952, and still in service.
Wichita's Old Town District has lots of interesting restaurants and entertainment venues.
I had a great plate of ribs at Bite Me BBQ, chosen for the name, of course...
Now I am relaxing in my hotel room, ready for the trip to Albuquerque tomorrow.
Today's flight was from Marion, Ohio, to Clinton, Missouri. That's about 175 miles further than I'd planned to go today - my original overnight for today was going to be Alton, IL. When I got to Alton, though, it was only noon, and the weather wasn't half bad. The rain was over Wichita and moving east, with VFR conditions predicted for early afternoon tomorrow. The further east you go, the later the clearing was going to happen, so it seemed worthwhile to go as far west as I could today before the rain set in.
The weather was perfect when I left Marion, clear blue skies and calm winds.
Much of Ohio is very Midwestern - flat, with large, square farms. The drainage doesn't follow the squares, though...
This farmer is into angles, even for his drainage.
This far seems to be growing the biggest Band-Aid you ever saw.
Indian Lake, Ohio:
Even water-treatment plants can be interesting from the air - this is Fort Henry, Ohio.
A colorful intersection in Indiana, my second state for the day.
Muncie, Indiana, seems to have discovered a love affair with the Roundabout (a/k/a Traffic Circle) - they even put them out in the farm fields.
"If you build it, they will come..." to tell you how pretty your baseball field complex is from the air.
"Go Cardinals!" - today's sports team is from Ball State University in Muncie.
I like the pattern made by this development in Indianapolis.
An interstate interchange in Indianapolis:
Here's another one of those mysterious water features I first saw in last year's trip. This time, at least I know what it's used with, if not for - this is attached to a power plant in Coffeen, Illinois.
My first stop for the day - final approach to Runway 17, KALN St. Louis Regional Airport in Alton, Illinois. Top off the fuel, check the weather, and I'm off again as the clouds start to move in.
Here's our "what does this pond look like?" picture - "head of a tiger" is my thought.
I crossed two major rivers today - the Mississippi and the Missouri.
As it happened, "as far as I could go" was Clinton - I landed in light rain which became heavy as I tied down the Skyhawk.
So, here I am, typing in my motel room and listening to it pour. I'm only two hours from Wichita, so as long as it clears to marginal VFR conditions or better by tomorrow afternoon, I'll arrive in Wichita on schedule and on the back of the weather system.
Greetings from Marion, Ohio! When I got up this morning, it was sunny in Harford, but the Ithaca airport and all of the other airports west of Ithaca along my planned route were low IFR - ceilings of 300 feet or less.
Finally, around noon, Ithaca changed over to VFR, and by 1:00PM I was in the air.
The clouds overhead were broken, and I could see blue sky through the gaps, so around Hornell I climbed above the thin layer. I don't normally like to do that, but the METARs for all of the airports after Dansville were reporting unlimited ceilings, and I could see the ground through gaps in the clouds the whole way, so it seemed worthwhile for the cooler, clearer air just above the deck at 4,500 feet.
Chautauqua Lake near Jamestown, NY:
As I continued westward, the clouds thinned out, and by the time I reached Erie, PA, there were only a few widely scattered clouds.
Every pilot's dream is to live on a runway - I guess this development, Sunnyslope Lake in Medina, Ohio, is the equivalent for golfers and boaters.
Go Colts (whoever you may be)!
Farms and intersection near West Salem, Ohio:
Speaking of fly-in communities, I thought I'd caught the birth of one near West Salem - but when I checked it out on Google Earth tonight, it turns out to be a dragstrip, Dragway 42 to be exact. Shame, really - it would make a great runway.
The Rust Belt - a disused factory rusting away near Mansfield, Ohio.
KMFD - Mansfield Airport - with a nice collection of C-130 Hercules transports.
I suppose I'll have to start a collection of "what does this pond look like to you?" pictures for this trip...
By about 4:30 I was in the pattern at KMNN Marion Airport, Ohio. It started to rain as I was on downwind for Runway 25, but it was just a passing shower.
I can't say Marion was a particularly lively airport - '493 is the only airplane on the ramp, and there was no one at either FBO or the airport office - but I got an answer on the number posted on the door, and they're going to top off the Cessna when they open tomorrow morning.
With any luck I'll be able to make it to St. Louis Regional Airport in Alton, IL, tomorrow. This is the surface prognosis for 8:00AM tomorrow, with my proposed route indicated by the red arrow.
I'm hoping the front moves through and I might even be able to make it to Wichita on schedule on Wednesday. We'll see... The surface prognosis for Wednesday morning isn't wonderful.
I'll post tomorrow from Saint Louis (well, Alton, IL)... I hope.
Skyhawk 46493 and I will be heading westward again this Fall. I'm going to attend an EAA Chapter Leaders Academy session at Oshkosh, so of course I decided to stop by and see Jerry and Barbara Friedman in Fruita, Colorado on the way - and as long as I was doing that, why not stop off at the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque and fly over the Grand Canyon? No reason at all, so that's what I'm going to do. I'll be posting to this blog and to Facebook as I go, starting on October 8th or 9th (as always, weather permitting).
Here's my route as currently planned - the dark blue dots are overnight stops.
Last week, I made a fun trip to Tangier Island, in the middle of Chesapeake Bay. The trip also completed my experience requirements for my commercial pilot certificate, counting as my long solo cross-country. (I had flown plenty of much longer cross-countries but all with my non-pilot husband as a passenger, so they did not count).
Tangier Island is a remote and beautiful island in Chesapeake Bay, with a small airport. I originally found out about it a few years ago, from a helicopter pilot that I met by chance at Beaufort Airport in North Carolina. He mentioned that it was a worthwhile destination to visit, and it had been on my list ever since then.
Tangier was a good destination for my commercial solo cross-country because it was interesting and at the right distance to meet the requirements. From Binghamton - where my trip would be starting - to Tangier is 263nm, which meets the 250nm requirement. Since no fuel is sold on the island, a third stop at the nearby Accomack County Airport would provide me with the required third point of landing in a natural way.
I also wanted to fly to Tangier because it would challenge me with a shorter runway; the runway there is just under 2500 feet. This is obviously not extremely short, but in a Mooney it is more challenging than in a Skyhawk. Therefore, I saved this cross-country until relatively late in my commercial training, to give me time to practice short-field landings in the Mooney to a high standard.
Other than honing my short-field skills, planning the trip was relatively easy. The main concern would be the significant amount of restricted airspace over the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula. Tangier Island is itself under a restricted area, but the floor of that area starts at 3500 feet, giving me plenty of room to fly under it. Before the trip, I also reviewed the required course for flying VFR within 60nm of the DCA VOR.
On the day of the trip, the weather was good VFR if extremely hot and humid. I brought plenty of water to drink and wore light-colored clothing. I also brought a life jacket since a portion of my flight would be over water.
The flight down was uneventful, a standard VFR flight with some standard hiccups such as Harrisburg Approach dropping my flight following and forcing me to request it again from a relatively busy Philadelphia Approach. Also, for some reason my Stratus decided to display the entire 60nm ring around DC as a TFR, even though - according to a phone weather briefing I got - no such TFR was in place. To be safe though, I diverted around that 60nm circle anyway.
Although it was a hot and hazy day, the views of Chesapeake Bay were spectacular and it was easy to spot Tangier Island. Winds favored landing to the north, so I entered a right downwind for runway 2 - the right-hand pattern is to avoid another restricted area west of the island. The runway at Tangier used to be longer, so landing to the north I benefited from an "extra" strip of decaying concrete that gave me a long underrun area. I came in low over the underrun and landed on the numbers, with plenty of runway to stop safely.
After that, I went into town for some excellent soft shell crab sandwiches at Lorraine's restaurant. My husband is a huge fan of soft shell crabs and was disappointed that he couldn't come with me on the trip. So, I bought a second sandwich to go, and brought it back for him in an insulated lunch bag with ice packs.
Walking around Tangier, I could see that it is a very beautiful place with a small and close-knit community. I wished I could spend more time on the island, but I was concerned about thunderstorms building in the afternoon, so I paid the $10 landing fee at Tangier using the honesty box and was en route off the island to Melfa, VA (KMFV).
This was a short leg of just 16nm, so I made sure not to accelerate the Mooney to cruise speed. I could already see cumulonimbus clouds building up to the east on the coast proper.
Accomack County Airport turned out to be a very nice airport with an air-conditioned terminal building and a friendly attendant who helped me fuel the plane. I called a briefer for updates on weather and TFRs, and took off just as rain showers were beginning over the airport.
I diverted to the west over the Bay to stay well clear of the weather. The flight back was also relatively routine. The only annoyance was that a broken layer of cumulus-going-on-cumulonimbus had built up, forcing me to complete the whole flight at low altitudes of 3000 or 3500ft. This meant it was less comfortable due to heat and turbulence, but the alternatives were worse. Doing the flight above that altitude would have meant a zigzag course between the clouds, and picking up an IFR clearance - to avoid the zigzag - would have restricted my ability to deviate around potential-thunderstorm cloud buildups. So, I soldiered on down below, diverting around a few storm cells en route.
Thankfully the actual storms were few and far between and they were not moving, so they were easy to spot visually and divert around. The one in the photo below is near Hazleton airport, which you can see just behind my wing. Note the mini-rainbow.
Finally, I made it back to Binghamton and landed safely. The whole trip took 5.1 hours, and on the way home I passed the 500-hour total time mark.
The trip was a wonderful way to finish off my first 500 hours of flying. It was also a great bookend to my JFK flight, representing in many ways the other extreme of flying challenges. The two destinations, although both coastal airports, could not be further apart in terms of size, infrastructure or location. The runway I landed on at JFK was almost six times (!!!) as long as at TGI. Both landings required special techniques, with an accelerated approach at JFK and a short-field landing at TGI. Both flights were completely or mostly VMC, but the JFK trip was IFR with very positive ATC control. The Tangier trip was VFR with occasional pauses in flight following. I had to navigate restricted airspace and dodge weather and non-radio-talking VFR traffic on my own.
I would highly recommend Tangier Island as a destination for anybody; it is a great day trip from our area. By the way, the soft shell crab sandwich I brought back made it in great condition, and my husband was very happy. We'll be back, together this time!
A few additional photos from the trip are available on my Flickr site here.
On October 27th, 2017, I flew the club's Mooney (N747CF) to JFK and back. Accompanying me was club instructor Pete Daiuto. The trip was designed to satisfy the dual day/night cross-country requirements for my commercial pilot training, but also as a "bucket list" achievement.
The customary way to meet the commercial dual cross-country requirements is to do them both in one day. You fly to a desirable destination, have a meal while you wait for the terminator to pass overhead, and then return. That is exactly what we did, with two twists. The airport was extremely desirable, and the meal we had was breakfast. Yes, we did the night cross-country first, then waited for sunrise and flew back.
This post tells the story of how we planned the trip and how it all worked out.
TL;DR - the trip was a huge success. You can see our photos here and a video shot during our taxi before departure here. I would recommend for any pilot to attempt this trip with no fear, assuming certain minimum experience and qualifications. Specifically, this should not be your first trip into the NYC Bravo, you should be able and willing to file IFR in and out, fly something faster than a Cessna 172, and - preferably - bring along a second pilot.
This summer, I decided to begin training for my commercial pilot certificate. I fly only recreationally and have no practical need for this qualification, but I thought it would make a good project and a way to improve my piloting skills. Upon reviewing the experience requirements I realized I met a lot of them already. However, I did not have the dual day and night 2-hour 100-nautical mile cross country flights. Since I have substantial cross-country experience, I wondered how to make the most of the requirement/opportunity to do relatively long cross-country flights with an instructor. Rather than artificially introduce difficulties into a trip that I would be very comfortable doing single-pilot, it seemed better to pick an extra-challenging destination.
Living in the northeast, any pilot knows where to find challenging airspace and destinations. New York City airspace is second to none in the world for traffic volume and complexity. I had prior experience flying the Skyline Route in the NYC Bravo airspace (single-pilot) and an IFR cross-country into Teterboro (dual, while in IFR training). I had also flown single-pilot into Philadelphia International (KPHL) , so knew that flying into an actual Bravo airport presents unique challenges and thrills. In summary, the obvious destination was a NYC Bravo airport - either JFK, LaGuardia or Newark.
After some research, I settled on JFK as the most likely. Of the three, it seemed the most general-aviation-friendly, both in terms of people posting their experiences on Airnav, ForeFlight and Youtube and in terms of landing fees.
I want to highlight some of the resources that I used during trip planning in case they are helpful to anyone else. First, the Port Authority website with information about landing fees. Click on "Rules, Regulations and Charges" and look under "Schedule of Charges". This lists landing fees for each airport as well as periods where those fees are higher - e.g. JFK has a $100 surcharge if you land or take off between 3pm and 10pm. This information is useful not just for saving money, but also as an indication of the busiest times at each airport. Also, for anyone considering LaGuardia, be aware that IFR slots are required and must be reserved online before you fly. I also tried calling the Towers at all three airports, but had some trouble getting through and/or getting useful information. This was probably just bad luck, though, and I still recommend anyone considering a trip to a Bravo airport to try calling Tower on the phone beforehand.
Pete and I planned and replanned the trip several times. We considered a variant where we would arrive into the city late at night and ask for touch-and-goes at all three airports - anecdotal evidence suggests some people have been able to do this. However, we discovered that LaGuardia is closed between midnight and 6am due to construction, so decided to limit our destination to JFK.
Another concern was making sure we meet the commercial requirements. The distance from KITH to KJFK is 164nm, which satisfies the 100nm requirement. However, each flight had to last at least two hours. As the Mooney is a fast plane, we could not guarantee a two-hour-plus duration even with some delays due to IFR routing. To be safe, we built in a detour via Syracuse. On the way back to Ithaca, we would monitor time en route and could divert directly to Ithaca if the two-hour requirement could be met without stopping at KSYR.
We initially planned the two cross countries in the customary order - day first, then night. However, JFK is busy in the afternoon and evening, as evidenced by the steep landing surcharge between 3pm and 10pm. This would suggest arriving in the morning, spending a whole day in the city, and returning late at night. This could have been fun, but it was not the best option for a variety of scheduling reasons.
Since Pete and I are both morning people, he proposed that we order the flights the other way - night in, day out. This seemed like the best idea despite the discomfort of a back-side-of-the-clock night leg. We would not need to spend extra time on the ground at JFK, and the second flight - when we would both be tired - would be during the day, in easier conditions.
The only issue we had to be careful about is timing our arrival with respect to sunrise, so we could legally log the entire inbound flight as night time. Fortunately, in late October Daylight Saving Time is still in effect, so sunrise at JFK on the 27th was very late - at 7:20 am. We needed wheels-down one hour before, so by 6:20am. With some calculations allowing in extra time due to uncertainty about IFR routing, we figured three hours ought to be enough for the flight. So, we decided on a 3:20am departure out of Ithaca, and a 2:30 am arrival time at the Ithaca airport.
A few days before the planned flight, I made final preparations. We would be filing IFR, of course - I would not attempt to get into a Bravo airport VFR except in the very small hours of the morning, and we would be arriving around 6am, which is not so early. Therefore, I carefully reviewed all JFK IFR procedures - arrivals, approaches and departures. I also identified suitable alternates in case a last-minute divert was needed for any reason; Islip (KISP) seemed a good alternate as did Republic (KFRG).
I called the JFK FBO and confirmed landing fees. $25 landing unless you land between 3pm and 10pm, when the aforementioned $100 surcharge applies. $45 for each eight-hour increment of parking, and a $33.60 facility fee waived with 10 or more gallons of fuel purchased. All in all, very reasonable for any Bravo airport, let alone one in New York City.
Two days before the trip, I started getting up at 5am and starting my day with a cardio workout, to shift my sleep schedule earlier and ensure I would be wide awake by the time of our 6am JFK landing.
The evening before the trip, I double-checked the weather - everything looked great, with perfect VFR except a layer of clouds forecast over Syracuse. We would be IFR of course, but it was cold so icing could be a concern. However, the layer was forecast to be thin and limited to Syracuse and points north. I also filed my IFR plan from Syracuse to JFK, for a 4:15am departure. I had never filed a flight plan so far in advance of a trip, but it certainly can be done the night before. Then I focused on getting as much sleep as I could before the 1:30 am alarm went off.
The Night Flight
As planned, we met at the Ithaca airport around 2:30 am. After a quick but thorough preflight and an updated briefing, we were soon en route. That time of night, Ithaca Tower and Elmira Approach are both closed, so we self-announced on 119.6 (Ithaca Tower/CTAF) for taxi and departure. We took off from Ithaca around 3:30 am and flew to Syracuse VFR.
The Syracuse detour provided two additional benefits apart from guaranteeing we would fly for at least 2 hours. First, it took us to an airport which has ATC service 24 hours a day, and provided a way for us to pick up our clearance to JFK on the ground. That way we could study our route and enter it into the GPS without having to fly the plane at the same time. Second, the leg from Ithaca to Syracuse provided me a "warm-up", which was much appreciated as my flying was initially somewhat lacking in precision due to fatigue (flying at 4am is somehow much harder than at 4pm!). However, by the time we landed in Syracuse, I had my act together and was ready to proceed.
In Syracuse, we picked up our clearance without shutting down the engine. We received a full route - SYR V483 RKA V433 PETER V270 ATHOS V44 DPK KJFK. The routing did not surprise us as it basically corresponds to the Pawling Two arrival into JFK. We took off just before 4:30am, at 4:26am according to FlightAware.
We climbed out of Syracuse and brushed past the expected layer of clouds. The clouds were very thin, and we picked up minimal if any ice. Then we were in the clear. As we flew, Boston Center spontaneously cleared us direct to points that "cut a corner" and made our route shorter. We flew over the Catskills and it was very dark, but we had a strong tailwind and soon we saw a bright glow to the south - the lights of New York City!
We picked up the JFK ATIS. They have three ATIS frequencies, and we went with what appeared to be the "main" one. The other two are labeled as "ARR-NE" and "ARR-SW". Since we were arriving from the northWEST, I was not sure which one would apply. But the main ATIS worked fine.
On the radio, the New York approach sectors were not busy except the very last controller who set us up into JFK. The controllers were relaxed and greeted aircraft with a "good morning". It seemed that the airspace and the airport was just transitioning from slow/sleepy night mode into morning mode and things were starting to kick into high gear. A number of "heavies" were on the frequency with us, also landing at JFK.
Our route and vectoring took us south over Long Island. Pete spotted JFK airport to our right, and I was glad of his help. You might think an airport the size of JFK would be easy to see, but at night finding an airport in a huge city is actually a very hard task. You fly above an endless sea of lights, and the airport could really be anywhere unless you look hard.
At that point we were at 2000 feet and receiving frequent vectoring to set us up for the visual approach to runway 31L. Both runways 31L and 31R were in use. We were coming in from the east, and the vectoring would take us further south over the water, then UNDER the ILS arrivals on 31R, and on to final for 31L. I was focusing on flying the plane precisely to the vectoring instructions, and was glad of Pete's presence and help to keep general situational awareness of traffic and airport position. I'm not saying this can't be done solo, but having a second pilot on board reduces stress and workload greatly.
As I mentioned, the vectoring briefly took us south over the water, which at this point is the open Atlantic Ocean. The sea of lights suddenly turned into utter blackness, and I suddenly understood all the articles and warnings about the "black hole." Night aircraft arrivals/departures over water have resulted in numerous accidents due to pilot disorientation. I remained in control and flew the plane safely, but I experienced a very sudden and strong feeling of vertigo.
I now understand why "black hole" accidents happen. The key is that this was a visual operation - we were IFR, but VMC and on a visual approach - and I was not primed to be in the "instrument mindset". IFR pilots know that "flying on instruments" and "flying visually" are two very different mindsets that require a deliberate transition. During this night visual operation, I was not in the instrument mindset, so the disorientation was startling. I have much experience with spatial disorientation while in clouds or under the hood, but when I am in the instrument mindset I am expecting the disorientation, and my training allows me to ignore and dismiss it. Anyway, again, I remained in control and safety was never compromised, but I gained a new respect for "black holes".
We were now turning back towards the airport. A 767 flying the ILS for 31R passed 1000 ft above (and a little behind) us. I could see its landing gear and it seemed incredibly close. Then we were on final, with a request to "keep our speed up as long as possible". We were prepared for that, having even practiced accelerated approaches before the trip. And then we were down - I had landed at JFK! It was almost exactly 6am.
Of course, we were not done yet. We now had something fast and heavy behind us, and needed to get off the runway. The tower controller was patient and she did not rush us, but requested an expeditious exit to a taxiway. We did as requested and were soon taxiing on a sea of concrete the scale of which I had never seen before. Fortunately from 31L the taxi to the FBO was easy, with no runways to cross. There was also not a lot of conflicting traffic on the taxiways - indeed, it was so non-busy that the Tower controller did not hand us off to Ground but gave us taxi directions as well.
After we landed, we heard the Tower controller politely but firmly admonish the aircraft that landed behind us for taking too much time/space on the runway before getting off, or more precisely for not letting them know in advance he would need this extra time/space. We looked at each other and had a "whew, at least it's not us" moment. However, the contrast with how we were handled clearly shows that JFK controllers are GA-friendly and understand we do not have the same capacities as the "typical" JFK traffic.
Finally, we made it to the FBO. There is just one FBO at JFK, Sheltair, and we were soon parked and requested a fuel top-off. For this night cross-country, we had logged 2.8 hours of total time. We now filed an IFR flight plan for our departure, grabbed a crew car and went to the Cross Bay Diner for a well-deserved breakfast.
The Day Flight
After breakfast, we were ready for the trip back. The first order of business was to obtain our IFR clearance. We had filed to Ithaca rather than Syracuse, since with the headwind we were anticipating we thought it would be easy to meet the 2-hour requirement. It would also be easy to extend that trip if needed.
I was concerned about picking up the clearance based on past experiences at Teterboro. I was worried clearance frequency might be very congested and we might have to wait a long time with the engine running. However, there was almost no-one on the frequency but us and the controller. Pete suggested that the airlines probably do clearance delivery electronically now, bypassing the need for voice communication. This made perfect sense. We got our clearance - another full route, the "Idlewild Climb" from the Kennedy Three departure, then radar vectors to SAX V188 LVZ V29 CFB V423 KITH. With great VFR en route, our plan was to get airborne and out of the NYC airspace, then cancel IFR and continue direct VFR.
We did our runup on the ramp and requested a taxi clearance. This time we would have to go to 31R - a more substantial expedition over the sea of concrete. The Foreflight airport diagram with a display of our GPS position was very helpful, as was Pete's help. It's actually a lot harder to divide attention between the outside and a diagram while taxiing than it is while flying. So I focused on physically taxiing the aircraft and on acknowledging and writing down the progressive taxi instructions, while Pete kept a lookout inside and outside as to which taxiway we were currently on.
We taxied alongside 31L which was in use, as Pete's video shows. With what residual attention we had, we admired the airport operations and infrastructure around us, as they were much easier to see in daylight. It was clear that this was an airport geared towards commercial airline operations. General aviation, even the big and fast kind like corporate jets, was not in evidence, and it definitely felt like we were guests in someone else's world. It was clear we were welcome, but it just felt like a different kind of airport, different even from a busy Class C like Providence or a busy corporate GA place like Teterboro or White Plains.
We taxied past a Delta jet that was instructed to hold short and give way to us; I wonder what the pilots thought of us in our little Mooney. I waved at them but they probably couldn't see me doing that.
As we reached our assigned runway 31R, the ground controller instructed us to "monitor Tower". Pete had experience with such instructions at other airports and explained this meant we should NOT call up Tower, but stay quiet and wait for their instructions. Sure enough, after a few other planes were out of the way, Tower instructed us to "line up and wait" behind something departing. Then it was our turn and we were cleared for takeoff.
As you can see from our FlightAware track, we were directed by vectors well east of the airport. We were rapidly instructed to climb to 8000 feet. The ADS-B traffic display was showing an incredible amount of traffic, and we could hear some of it and see some of it as well. It was a clear and gorgeous morning; the vectored route allowed us great views of the airport and all of New York City. The Manhattan skyscrapers were easy to spot, and it was a wonderful comparison with the night-time view of the city we had seen just a few hours before.
Once we were out of the lateral limits of the Bravo airspace, I canceled IFR and we descended to 6500 ft. The rest was an uneventful direct VFR flight to Ithaca, over the meandering Delaware river and the last of the fall foliage. When we were handed off to Wilkes-Barre approach, we heard a Piper on the frequency talking about doing touch-and-goes at Cherry Ridge. This felt really unusual after the environment we had just come from; we were back in familiar small-plane GA territory. A good headwind ensured we didn't need to add detours to meet the two-hour requirement, and we landed in Ithaca with a 2.3 hour day cross-country accomplished.
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