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Christa, my flight instructor at Atlantic Airways in Leesburg, Virginia, didn’t just teach me how to fly—she taught me how to be a pilot, and for that, I will always be grateful. She was always giving me these little tips and bits of advice that have, over the years since, turned out to be absolute gems.
Today, thanks to an ice storm, I had to scrub plans to sneak out of work early and fly the wife up to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort for an early dinner, so instead I made do with making sure my log book was up to date. As I browsed over past entries, one of Christa’s little gems made me smile. “When you log your time, don’t just jot down the bare statistics—aircraft, route, hours, landings—make sure to include something personal about the flight. Flying is awesome, and you’ll want to remember each flight you ever took.”
There, scrawled between a couple of entries for proficiency flights, was the entry: “8/16/2015, C172, N6017N, JYO-FFA-PVG, LDGs 3, 5.2,” followed by “Took Anna and niece to OBX, picked up Kendall.” I had forgotten about that. What a day.
At the time, I was still a newly minted private pilot with less than 100 hours total time. I was just learning the pilot’s lament—as soon as your friends and family learn that you are working on your pilot’s license, they all tell you how much they can’t wait to fly with you, and they start suggesting trips. “Let’s fly down to the old alma matter for a football game.” “Oh, we should all go to the beach!” “We have got to fly up to New England this autumn!” Then, after you actually pass your test and earn your wings, no one has the time or inclination to go flying. All of those cool ideas turn into a lot of “we can’t this weekend.”
I found myself making up excuses to go fly, and a lot of the time, I was up there by myself. But one day, I got the message I had been waiting for. A friend of mine and her young niece were supposed to be joining family in the Outer Banks for the week, but she was dreading the eight-plus hour drive from the Washington, D.C., area, thanks to the circuitous route required and typical weekend beach traffic. Could I please fly them down there instead? You betcha! This was exactly the sort of thing I pictured myself doing with my license. Plus, I’d finally have the chance to land at First Flight air field—the very spot where aviation all began. I immediately began flight planning.
The flight from Leesburg Executive Airport (KJYO) to First Flight (KFFA) could take about an hour and a half, even puttering along in a Cessna 172, if you could fly direct. Of course, you can’t. The route requires taking off to the West to depart the D.C. Special Flight Rules Area, crawling southward along the Blue Ridge to remain below Dulles International’s Class B airspace, before finally making the turn to the Southeast at Casanova VOR. That stretches the trip to closer to two and a half hours but still well short of the driving time.
The day of the flight was a hot and humid Sunday in August with bright blue skies and a few cotton ball clouds hanging here and there. Naturally, it was one of those days when everyone in the commonwealth who had access to a plane was going to be up there in the skies with me. My passengers arrived, and both wore big, ear-to-ear grins. This was going to be a fun, exciting adventure for Anna’s niece, and she was practically brimming with excitement. The plan was to drop them off at First Flight, and then I would swing back to Hampton Roads Executive to pick up my daughter and refuel. It was a gorgeous summer day with calm winds, and this was going to be great. I found that I, too, was brimming with excitement. My very first ferry flight!
Getting out of the Leesburg Maneuvering Area to depart the SFRA will keep you on your toes even on a calm day, as all general aviation coming and going is squeezed into a small box a few miles wide with a ceiling of 1,500 feet. On a busy weekend morning, it feels like other aircraft are coming at you from every direction. That day, the TCAS on the Garmin G1000 was polka-dotted with returns from other aircraft. Once clear of the SFRA, we still had to remain below Dulles Airspace for another 20 minutes. On a hot day with high humidity, that meant a bumpy, lurching ride as there was no escape from the ground-generated thermals. Nevertheless, my passengers seemed to be enjoying the ride, oblivious that their newly minted pilot was holding the yoke in a vice grip with eyes as wide as dinner plates.
Thanks to its location at the Southwest edge of both the Class B airspace and the SFRA, the Casanova VOR can be a very busy intersection, as aircraft entering, departing and traversing the area all use it as a convenient waypoint. As I approached from the North, I also had to contend with the Flying Circus air show that takes place every Sunday out of the Bealeton air field, as well as Skydivers operating near Manassas and an ultralight flying club, on top of the usual convergence of general aviation aircraft. I was on flight following and got vectored around various activities for a while before finally clearing the area. More white-knuckle flying, as my friend casually asked, “Is it always this busy up here? I had no idea.” Me either, Anna, me either.
We had just cleared the Casanova VOR vicinity and were still below 3,500 feet when I felt a long slow lurch upward as we entered a particularly strong thermal. In my brain, I had just formed the words “uh-oh” when we got to the back end of the thermal and dropped like a stone. We only fell about 3 feet, but it felt like falling off of a 10-story building, especially to my youngest passenger, who had never flown in a small airplane before. She let out a blood-curdling scream. Anna, sitting next to me, grabbed my arm, and I heard a sharp intake of breath.
“Enough of this!” I said, sliding the throttle full-forward and pointing the nose up 5 degrees. Within a few minutes, we had climbed to 7,500 feet and were clear of the jarring thermals. Cool air began flowing out of the vents, and we all breathed easy. Anna’s niece was delighted to watch little puffy clouds pass below us and, up out of the low summer haze, our visibility seemed endless.
We stayed there until we passed the Norfolk-Hampton Roads area and began to descend into the Outer Banks area. We were treated to one of the best views I had ever seen: sun sparkling off of the calm waters of the Currituck Sound; the white tracks of motorboats unzipping the water below us; and the long stretch of the island spread out before us with the deep blue ocean beyond it. It was at that moment that I realized that there is nothing in the world that compares to island flying.
I couldn’t be distracted for long, however, because I was going to be landing at an unfamiliar airport with a short field. I was prepared for that. I had studied the sectional and read all of the comments on AOPA’s airport directory relating to landing at First Flight. Even without a GPS, a total novice with no sense of direction could find the air field. The island is less than a mile wide and flat as a pancake, with the First Flight memorial rising up above it so that it can be seen for miles around. Finding the location of the air field was one thing, but actually seeing it was another. The field itself is surrounded by trees, which means that you can’t see it until you are in the pattern. You know it’s down there and you just hope it’s where you thought it was.
Once lined up on downwind, I cruised out over the sound, banked into base and then final for Runway 3. That was when I first saw the power lines. There are two sets of power lines, one about half a mile from the end of each runway. They are well clear of the glide path and are no factor on a well-executed approach or take off, but to a new pilot, they looked like they were 1,000 feet high and strung across the touch-down point of the runway. Beyond the power lines was a small road and a chain link fence that, again, was well clear of the glide path but which loomed extra-large in my mind.
Fixated on the imaginary obstacles, I came in too high and too steep with too much speed. In the back of my head, I was suddenly worried that I was blowing it in front of my very first passengers. I was going to mess it up and look like a fool. I forced myself to fix the landing, trying to level it out, when I discovered the last and most sinister tricks that FFA had up its sleeve: Below the tree line, the gentle breeze off the ocean hits the tree line on the west side of the runway and bounces back across the field, giving you a nice little gust of crosswind just before you touch down. I was already struggling when the runway started to sway to the left and right below me. I was looking like an idiot. I had to fix this and get it right on the first pass…
Suddenly, Christa’s voice boomed in my head. “Go around.” It was a bad set up, I wasn’t prepared and I was about to botch it badly, perhaps in a very damaging and potentially life-threatening way. With the sudden realization that I was panicking, I slid the throttle full forward, leveled the wings and watched my airspeed climb as we buzzed over the field. Finally, I lifted the flaps and climbed back up into the pattern.
On the next pass, I was prepared for the power lines and the fence and ignored them. I focused on my airspeed and lined up the numbers. As we dipped below the tree line, I put in a slight correction for the ground-level crosswind and greased the landing like a pro. As we taxied back to the parking area, I realized that my hand was cramped and sore from gripping the yoke, and my palms were sweating. Christa’s words of wisdom were running through my head again. “If you’re coming into an unfamiliar airport for the first time, you should consider doing a flyover first, just to check things out before setting up in the pattern.” Thanks, Christa’s voice in my head. I could’ve used that advice about 20 minutes ago.
A few minutes later, I was helping Anna and her niece unload their bags from the plane when Anna’s father came over to help. He had arrived just in time to see my second (successful) landing attempt. “Nice landing,” he said. “How long have you been flying?”
For the first time that day, I felt like a pro. Actually, that’s not quite it. I felt like a pilot. Thanks, Christa!