A Challenging & Rewarding Flight

Yesterday February 22nd 2017 I flew my most challenging yet rewarding flight to date; 3.4 hours of engine time including run-up, taxiing, etc: 2:15 flight time/245 nautical miles. I did one flight that was longer but without the more complicated airspace involved in yesterdays adventure.

I got into flying as the fulfillment of a lifelong inner desire and with the hope of helping our rescue group ABTCR and Pilot n Paws. So what better way to start the day than with a Black and Tan Hound Dog.

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Flying is expensive, no one is going to try and convince you otherwise; however it is incredibly rewarding and even when not flying you are always working on something like the next rating, for me my Instrument Rating, or you are planning your next flight. There are ways to lower the costs such as a partner owned aircraft or “Clubs” where 3 or more people buy an airplane and split all the costs. This can cut your per hour flight time with fuel down to as much at half. I joined the club through my flight school and it has been well worth it. Of course one day I hope to be a sole owner or at least a part share owner in a 3 or 4 person club.

Some good advice my DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) gave me was to enjoy flying and take some short trips in uncomplicated airspace to simply enjoy the ride while on other longer trips plan with an eye on challenging yourself and moving safely outside your comfort zone. Also know the regulations pertaining to logging time in your logbook especially if your going to seek advanced ratings. If your going to fly 3 hours and pay for it make it count in your logbook as time required for the next rating.

My love Laura was doing some work on the Eastern Shore of Maryland near Berlin so we decided that I would plan a flight and meet her for lunch at Sugar Buns Cafe on the Easton Airport.

For this flight I had several goals:
Meet Laura in Easton reasonably on time; time management.
File a SFRA Fight Plan using the tight southern VFR Corridor using ForeFlight.
Request Class B Clearance and fly over BWI Airport or the Baltimore Inner Harbor.
Use Flight Following where I’m always talking with a controller.
Use a course and airspace that would require carefully flying course and altitude.

Originally I planned on making my way through the DC SFRA (DC Special Flight Rules Area) the highly protected airspace encompassing BWI, DCA, and IAD airports and the Baltimore Md and District of Columbia metro areas. Then south down to Fisherman’s Island just north of Norfolk Va, then back north to Ocean City Md before meeting Laura for lunch and fuel at Easton. A buddy from work was going to go with me and if we got going early it would work perfectly. Unfortunately he hurt his back the day before and didn’t know if sitting in a small plane that long was going to be a good idea. Also with all the crud going around I wasn’t feeling 100% and as is often the case early morning haze and fog looked like it might be a problem at first light. Finally, I really hadn’t done any formal serious planning as far as putting together my preflight materials and all because I had been consumed with studying for my FAA Instrument Knowledge Exam I took the day before. I knew if I failed that test I probably wouldn’t be in a good frame of mind; see prior post!  As I gain experience my planning will go quicker and I won’t have to spend so much time analysing the charts and thinking over my plan, I will be able to an extent rely on experience in the airspace. Until then better safe than sorry.

The evening after my Instrument Exam I sat down and planned out a shorter flight that was still going to hit on my goals but allow me to delay takeoff until 9 am and get to Easton at 11:30. There is so much to consider when flying through this airspace and since this is a blog about my experiences and not a training blog I’ll try and give enough without going too far……

SFRA special rules airspace requires pilots to file specific paperwork and follow specific procedures in order to enter the charted boundaries both laterally and vertically within the airspace. If you are flying solely by instruments and filing an instrument flight plan, then for the most part you are already complying with the rules. They mostly have to do with VFR flight (Visual Flight Rules)  where no flight plans are required to be filed and you do not have to contact a controller; you are responsible for seeing and being seen. Of course as pictured, this area doesn’t have the most complicated airspace in the US; think maybe LAX, but its right up there.

So there are many times when a VFR flight would have to contact a controller and get clearance, or as I did it makes sense to voluntarily use Flight Following where you get a transponder code and are tracked and constantly in communication with a controller: a transponder sends out a code (called squawking) visible by ATC Radar and allows controllers to track your aircraft. As they say Squawking and Talking will keep the fighter gets and attack helicopters on the away!

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For a VFR flight there is no guarantee you will be granted clearance through Class B Airspace; the blue rings on the chart. Therefore you have to have a plan in the event that you take off and contact ATC and are denied. I completed the required online FAA Training for the DC SFRA in April when I started my flight training and again last month before I went to a seminar to get my FRZ PIN. Off topic but the inner ring around DC is called the FRZ or Flight Restricted Zone; basically a no fly zone accept for a list of exempted aircraft such as commercial passenger flights, military, and police aircraft. There are three small airports near it that you cannot use unless you have a PIN; you have to have a background check and be inssued a PIN in order to fly into or out of them. A special flight plan must be filed and you need the PIN to do it.

For this trip I filed a DC SFRA flight plan using what they call the VFR Corridor. This is a 16 mile by 2 mile slice of airspace that VFR flights can fly through, underneath Class B Airspace in order to get through the DC SFRA provided the flight has filed the proper flight plan and is in contact with ATC; if not see above pic! As you can see from the below pics this is a relatively narrow tunnel of airspace and no one I know is a fan of flying that low over populated areas; especially with fog and haze and now drones. But you have to have a plan if denied Class B and from my discussions with experienced pilots you can up your changes of getting Class B over the top if you file the VFR Corridor through the middle, call ATC airborne and activate it, then request Class B. They know if denied your going to thread the needle and they will have to keep track of you, and no one wants that.

Class B Airspce is like a upside down wedding cake. At the center it goes from the ground to 10,000 ft, then the outer rings only go from 3500 and 2500 feet above the ground to 10,000. So you can fly under them without Class B clearance or any other clearance unless they happen to be inside a SFRA in which you have to follow the rules of that particular SFRA. Also SFRA clearance does not get you clearance to fly through Class B. You need two separate clearances in this case: one for the SFRA and one for Class B unless your taking the VFR Corridor in which you only need the SFRA clearance. Got all that?

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So I filed the plan in the charts above but also planned the route I adventually received. From Carroll Co Airport KDMW to EMI then direct through Class B initially at 35oo then 5500 once traffic above was clear.

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Even though I planned carefully I always call a Flight Service Briefer for an expert briefing from a FAA contracted aviation specialist who is experienced in this area and has access to all the necessary data. They give you an expert interpretation of the weather, flight restrictions, and anything else that might affect you along your route of travel. He was also able to look up the flight plan I had filed and corrected a small mistake I had made.

I took off from Carroll Co Regional and since I couldn’t reach ATC Potomac Approach on the ground I called them once airborne. I’m only 8 minutes from the DC SFRA so you really have to be careful that you don’t inadvertently enter the SFRA or Class B prior to being granted access. I was only at 2000 ft because if I had to go the VFR Corridor I didn’t want to have to descend right after take off and clip the shelf of Class B above. So first off I have a lot going on, I haven’t flown much since getting my pilot certificate two months ago and I’m only at 2000 msl or since the airport is at 700 msl I’m only 1300 ft off the ground. I call ATC and they pass me off to another frequency. I call that frequency and this guy seems a bit irritated but controls himself and tells me to contact 132.775. Then it hits me that I’ve made a rookie mistake and I remember that in my reference materials there are different frequencies to call depending on where you are entering the protective ring of the SFRA.

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So on the fourth try I get the right person, meanwhile I’m attempting to keep the airplane flying as I do a steady loop around the VOR navigation beacon just outside of the airport. I use autopilot to hold my altitude and steady pressure on the yoke to keep me circling; you have to be very careful doing this, monitoring the auto pilot and looking for traffic so you don’t run into the ground, obstructions, or another airplane.

All this trouble with frequencies and managing everything rattles me a bit and I consider just scrapping the flight and going home, but I’m glad I brushed it off to inexperience and nerves and pushed through. Once I had my SFRA flight plan opened and ATC had given me a transponder code, I entered it, hit the IDENT button, and ATC gave me the magic words RADAR CONTACT cleared as filed, I set course for the SFRA VFR Corridor which is defined by two VFR Waypoints: VPONX on the NW end and VPOOP on the SE end. I know, they make you say VPOOP! Lol.

Now that I’m off I request Class B clearance direct to Ocean City, Md KOXB. The controller asks what altitude I would like and I state 5,500. A few moments later he comes back and states, “Cleared direct OXB climb and maintain 3500 expect 5500” “What is your heading to OXB?”. I tell him I’ll need a minute to set that up and he seems ok with that. As I put the airplane into a steep climb I rework my flight plan in the airplane’s GPS unit and determine my heading to OXB. I call ATC back and give him my direct heading. After a few minutes ATC tells me to climb to 5,500 for traffic. This means NO dawdling, CLIMB! Especially since they work mostly with the passenger jets going in/out of BWI and DCA and they expect when told to climb that you do just that. Now I’m only in a Cessna 172 so I do what I can and at full power pitch up to Vy 74 knots. Minutes later I’m at 5,500 and no one has yelled at me so I assume I’m ok.

I knew that the airspace especially around here is divided up into zones or areas and you have many controllers covering different zones and altitudes. What I didn’t understand is how that would affect me especially as a single pilot. I can’t remember how many different controllers I got handed off to during the trip over to Ocean City then up to Rehoboth Bay and back west to Easton but the paper on my kneeboard was filled with frequencies and altitudes and headings and I was exhausted from working the radios, talking to ATC, and flying the airplane while wanting to do a good job of staying steadily on heading and altitude. It was quite interesting listening to all the ATC traffic with aircraft doing instrument approaches into BWI, Martin State Airport, and Dover AFB. I was pleased to have reached Easton having flown well and accomplished all my goals for the flight.

It was good to see that not only my training had shown itself but also that all the little things I had picked up through reading blogs, aviation email newsletters and training stuff, had come in handy. You have to pick up the lingo controllers use; there is an entire book devoted to it! Pilot Contollers Glossary. Words aren’t just words; every term means something very specific and a certain responses are expected by the use of specific lingo. Surprisingly you get very little of this in training.

Once I got through the Class B I continued with Flight Following to get practice at using the services ATC provides. Even outside BWI/DCA Class B airspace it is pretty busy with Dover Air Force Base and all the busy smaller airports surrounding the metro area and eastern shore.

Thankfully I did get some moments to snap a few pics. I didn’t set up my video cameras this time because I was running late getting to the hangar and my computer is almost dead. Anytime I try to edit video it over heats and crashes making anything much more than email and surfing the web all but impossible. I need a new Mac soon. I would also like to get a decent entry level DSLR camera to use while flying. The iPhone or any other phone just doesn’t have the focal length and ability to reach out and grasp the photos as you can see them from the plane with the naked eye. I do have plans to up my game but one step at a time. I’m trying so hard to be a responsible adult with my tax returns but it ain’t easy with this aviation thing. I did treat myself to a new iPad Pro 9.7 inch which was sort of a “necessity” through training as I did all my ground school, both private pilot and instrument, while traveling for work and I trained on and now use my iPad with ForeFlight as my electronic flight bag for all my charts, gps backup, paperwork, etc. The iPad can do amazing things paired with ForeFlight and a gizmo I detailed in an earlier post; a Tratus 2. See how easily I get distracted! I used my original iPad until late summer but it got so slow and had display issues so I didn’t trust it flying and finally gave into buying a new one. When the tax refund arrived last week I treated myself to a premium aviation headset with Bluetooth so I can pair my phone and iPad to it while flying and be able to hear the alerts for traffic and altitude that the ipad supplies. It’s a great addition for further situational awareness. Of course the headset arrived a day after my flight so I had to give it a try while making some phone calls. I also bought a good set of aviation sunglasses so hopefully between the headset and sunglasses it will reduce the headaches I get on long flights.

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They aren’t the best shots and certainly nothing close to how amazing the view really is but here are a few pictures I snapped. Thanks for keeping up with me. Next up  a flight with the hound dogs and getting trained and checked out on the Diamond DA40 airplane and Garmin G1000 avionics package.

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