Thursday, June 19, 2008

Such a Pleasant Day

The Misanthrope was in DC for the last three days doing work-related things.    Normally, I would take the train or the shuttle, but this time I decided to fly myself.  In the post-9/11 world, flying to Washington, DC is not a simple task.  

Reagan National (KDCA) was out of the question.  Aside from security issues, big airports like that are not very accommodating to small aircraft like the FantaPlane (yes, it's orange; see picture above, taken in Canada last year) as we make our approach to the runways so slowly that it screws up sequencing for the passenger jets.  Last year I flew into Philadelphia International a couple of times and the poor approach controller had a hell of a time getting me in between jets doing 170 knots on approach.  I do about 120 knots on approach at a huge airport.  You do the math.

With DCA out, that left three smaller airports that are within 15 miles of downtown Washington: College Park Airport (KCGS), Potomac Airfield (KVKX) and Washington Executive/Hyde Field (W32).  Because of 9/11, those airports are now in what is called the Washington Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), which is a circle centered on Reagan National with a 15 nautical mile (1 nautical mile = 1.15 statute miles) radius.

To be able to fly into the FRZ, you have to get a special security clearance that allows you to fly into those three airports (also known as the "DC 3").  Details can be found here.  Luckily, I started the process about a month ago by (a) going to get fingerprinted by the TSA at Reagan National and (b) going to the Dulles Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to be vetted by an FAA official.  You'd think they could have the fingerprinting and the vetting at the same airport, but you'd be wrong.  Anyway, I made the trip and completed the tasks.  The final step was a briefing on FRZ procedures and moving around the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone or ADIZ, which I would get at Washington Executive/Hyde Field when I landed.  Pilots sure seem to love acronyms (e.g., VOR, PIREP, TAF, METAR, ADF, HIWAS, EFAS and on and on), but it does make things go faster.

I decided to fly into Washington Executive/Hyde Field because Ray Isherwood, their security coordinator, had been very helpful in guiding me through the process for getting a clearance.  It turned out to be a great decision. 

First of all, don't let the name fool you.  It's 10 miles from the Capitol, but I could have been in Iowa at a small rural field.  The place was empty.  Fetter Aviation, which runs the airport, was housed in a small building near pavement with grass growing through the cracks.  I admit to being a bit concerned with my choice when I touched down.

But the service I got there was fantastic.  A gentleman named Lloyd met me at my plane, gave me a ride with my bags to the office and then completed all of the paperwork for my final security clearance.  Lloyd also made sure I saw the required video lecture on flight operations in the FRZ and ADIZ.  There's some very interesting procedures in such a tight security zone and there was certainly talk of some unpleasant scenarios.  I am not kidding when I say it is a serious matter and I am not supposed to discuss some of them.

Lloyd, along with the owner, Stan Fetter, also helped set me up with a rental car and gave me a ton of good tips on how to operate in the FRZ.  After I had left, there were powerful thunderstorms approaching, so Stan went out personally and made sure my plane was secure.

My pleasant day started yesterday when I returned to the airport on Wednesday afternoon.  Another Fetter Aviation fellow, George, helped me out with dropping off the rental car and loading the plane.  He was very friendly and he and I got to talking about his background (ex-Navy), where he was from (Texas) and how he ended up at Hyde Field (long story).  George, along with Lloyd and Stan made me feel right at home.  Super service all around.  I will definitely go back there when I visit DC again.

My return flight was just under 2 hours from liftoff to touchdown.  I had a strong tailwind, so I averaged 150 kts of ground speed (about 170 mph).  Air Traffic Control gave me my preferred route, which you can see here.  (For some reason, they had me taking off from Potomac Airfield, which is only about three miles away and is often confused with Hyde Field.)  Cruising at 7000 feet, I was poking through the bases of some cumulus mediocris clouds, keeping an eye on their vertical development for signs of building thunderstorms.  I got a fantastic view of nearly the whole Chesapeake Bay as I passed over Maryland and into Delaware.

When I got to the New York area, my route took me directly over JFK at 5000 feet.  Passing over Sandy Hook, NJ, I was startled to see a Qantas 747 flying below me at 3000 feet on approach to JFK.  I'm used to seeing big traffic when I fly in and out of my home airport, Linden, which is about 10 miles south of Newark, but I had been cruising placidly for so long that the sight of that huge white mass shooting out from beneath the left side of the FantaPlane was a shock.

The approach controllers at JFK gave me vectors off my assigned route that took me along the south shore of Long Island so that I would steer clear of some thunderstorms that were developing by LaGuardia.  It was nice to know they were watching me.  Finally, I had East Hampton airport in sight, cancelled my IFR clearance, did a normal visual approach and greased the landing at a quiet field.  Fantastic.

At the airport, I didn't have my car as the Scottish Lass had taken it to New York, so I was dreading the long wait for the utterly undependable, insanely expensive taxi service out here.  But my pleasant day had a great ending as Mike, the manager of Sound Aircraft, my local FBO, took pity on me and gave me a ride right to my front door.  Mike is a supremely nice guy.  He even bought me dinner after I passed my FAA checkride for my license years ago.  It was a great way to end the trip.

From the time I got into my car in DC to the time I walked through my front door in Sagaponack: about 3 1/2 hours.  No check-in or baggage screening.  No waiting at the gate.  And an experience made all the better by such fantastic service at both ends. 

A pleasant day indeed.


Tony Alva said...

Well, that beats sitting on the runway on ground stop at LGA for 4 1/2 hours with a ton of kids on board.

Fly that damn thing down here, we'll find a better show than Rick Springfield to go to. Throw Jackson in the tail and pack the Band Master too.

Peachtree City has it's own small craft airport (the end of the runway meets a long par 5 on one of our five golf courses and there's a sign at the tee box asking that you not tee off until planes have cleared). There also a number small semi-private air fields due to all the Delta pilots living in our town.

Anonymous said...


Dfactor said...

Best Misanthrope blog post for me in a while. Supremely informative. Thanks!