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.