Sunday, December 14, 2008

Overnight Adventure

A few weeks ago Sunday, tiny tigger, my friend Laura and I headed to Williamsburg, Virginia with a couple of other friends from my flying club. The flight had some early excitement. Not the good "Oh, look at that whale by that ship!" kind of excitement, but the "How the hell am I supposed to aviate, navigate AND communicate??" kind of excitement.

As it was my first time heading through the narrow four mile corridor on the Northeast side of the Flight Restricted Zone (referred to affectionately by pilots as THE FREEZE) without Rich to help me navigate, I had spent a good deal of time programming the Tiger's GPS before we took off. I had also borrowed Greg's high tech 496 garmin, which I'd programmed the night before.

Neither GPS unit appeared to "kick in" while we were on the ground, but I figured that they would once we took off and the satellites were able to "see" me. As it turned out, I figured wrong.

As we left the pattern and turned to a Northeast heading (more North than East, as I wanted to fly North to the lakes to make sure I had my bearings before turning towards the first waypoint in the corridor) and I was in the processing of entering the Direct To VPOOPS (my first waypoint) in the GPS, Potomac Approach told me that I was to squawk FIVE blah blah blah. From the tone of the controller's voice, I knew he thought I was squawking the wrong code.

I read out what the transponder was saying "5535." He told me I was squawking 7535. I told him I was recycling. He told me that I was still squawking 7 and to Ident. I did. He told me I was still squawking 7. At that point I flipped the first digit up to 7 and back to 5. A disinterested voice said, "Grumman 244, proceed on course." Right. Proceed on course. Easier said than done!

Fortunately, I had given Laura the terminal chart and shown her where we were going and the lakes I wanted to use to get my initial bearings. When I finally stopped talking to the controller, Laura pointed at a body of water and identified what she thought to be the same on the map. VPOOPS was showing ahead and to our right on the GPS unit. But the screen was so small, and the yellow lines didn't instill the confidence of the pinks, greens and purples of the 496 Garmin (which was still not working).

For a moment, I debated returning to Gaithersburg and bagging the flight. I felt behind the airplane and was having a hard time convincing myself that with the transponder now on the correct code and the plane's GPS unit showing my first way point, I was caught up. After giving myself a virtual kick in the pants (the powerlines directly beneath us, my guides through the corridor while practising my pilotage, helped) we continued on course.

The rest of the trip was blessedly uneventful. I had landed at Williamsburg with Rich only a few months earlier to recruit at the law school, so was prepared for the lack of elevation and the airport's tendency to disappear as you circle low over the water to line up on the 45 degree for right downwind.

Once on the ground, Joe (who had flown Bravo Alpha down with Magdy and his wife) came out to help tie the Tiger down and good naturedly ribbed me about being so slow to arrive (they'd been there for a whole twenty minutes, which we all know is an eternity in bragging rights time!). We still beat Charlie and Ruth, though. (Of course, they had to come from Frederick, but let's not quibble over the details).

Once we'd finally gotten ourselves sorted and were heading into town I was dismayed to realize it was already afternoon. With the sun setting at 4:45, it left us little time to "play." It wasn't long before Laura and I started investigating the possibility of turning our day trip into an overnight trip. Greg graciously agreed that I could fly the Tiger back on Sunday and checked the TAFs for me (oh, the advantages of an iPhone!), while Laura's husband found us a hotel.

Suddenly, free as birds, we ate a leisurely lunch (hurried only by the cold and that we were eating at a picnic table), wandered Colonial Williamsburg and marvelled at the colonial figures and intricate door decorations, before ultimately hitting the outlet malls and having dinner with my former Law Professor and her two girls.

Similar in our insomnia-like tendencies, Laura and I were up early and headed to the airport. The temperature had risen significantly above freezing, and pre-flighting was not the painful ordeal of only twenty-four hours earlier. The visibility was not as good on the way home, but the flight over the water was still pretty.

We stayed low under the 2500 Bravo shelf of Andrew's Airforce Base. Descending down to enter the corridor at 1500 feet, we hit light to moderate turbulence. Programming the GPS unit in the plane to VPOOPS suddenly became challenging. Then ATC called and requested I change frequencies. I was starting to feel like I was being Punked in the air. I pushed the plane into a steeper descent and turned into the corridor. The 496 Garmin was already programmed, so I abandoned my attempt for redundancy, and called ATC on the new frequency.

We continued our bumpy ride through the corridor and came in for a crosswind landing at Gaithersburg. The winds were 10 knots, gusting to 18 and variable between 170 and 210. I was glad I had recently gone out on a blustery day and done some crosswind practice. The Tiger landed like a charm.

During the holiday season, people always say it's wonderful to have guests come, and it's wonderful to see them go. I felt something akin to that as I walked away from the Tiger that day. Glad to take off, happy to land.


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