Instrument Cross-Country

by Berck

On Wednesday, I flew from Norman, to Chikasha to Tulsa to Ponca City and back. 5.1 hours of flight.

After much ado and discussion about the weather (rain likely, no thunderstorms for the area,) we set off around 10:30am. One of the legs of the flight had to be between two airports more than 100NM from each other. Norman and Tulsa is something like 96NM. So we flew west to Chickasha first. Originally, I was going to fly an NDB (non-directional bearing) approach into Chickasha, but the ADF (Automatic Direction Finder, it’s what receives the signal broadcast by an NDB) in the aircraft we were flying wasn’t working, and the only other approach available was a VOR/DME approach. And the plane didn’t have DME (Distance Measuring Equipment) either.

So we flew VFR to Chickasha, and since I’d never done it, I asked Zach if I could land on one of the grass strips there, as opposed to the perfectly good concrete runway. I’d never landed on grass before, and wanted to try it. It’s a weird sensation, and while my landing wasn’t perfect, it was perfectly acceptable.

After landing, we taxied to the paved runway. A pipeline patrol aircraft called that he was 4 miles out, inbound for Chickasha on the radio. We replied that we were taking runway 17 and departing to the north east. Right after takeoff, we called that we were upwind runway 17. Maybe 20 seconds after takeoff, I spotted a Cessna, close at about one o’clock. At first I thought he was going the same direction we were, but then I realized he was heading right at us. I banked right while pointing him out to Zach.

Spotting other airplanes in the day is a pretty tricky endeavor. If they’re moving across your field of view, they’re fairly easy to spot. But if they’re moving across your field of view, you’re not on a collision course. If they ARE on a collision course, the other plane appears stationary and is very hard to spot. I think that the biggest reason there aren’t more aircraft collisions when flying in uncontrolled airspace under visual conditions is that there is a lot of space and planes are relatively small. I was still in a right bank when I realized how close we were going to come. At that point, it looked like we’d clear each other by about 10 feet. I increased my bank, and the other pilot was talking on the radio… “Chickasha traffic, pipeline patrol 1234 is about– OH SHIT!” NOW he sees us. He simultaneously banked off at about 75 degrees and dove, so we ended up clearing each other by about 25 feet.

25 feet is closer than you ever, ever want to get to another airplane. Even though we were both slow-moving, the time between my spotting him and passing him was about 10 seconds. And I spent the first several of those convinced he was going the same direction we were.

Zach was busy looking at something in the cockpit and didn’t see him until right about as we passed. Had I not been paying attention, we would have been toast.

The near-miss was the other pilot’s fault. We announced our position, and were flying runway heading less than 500 feet above the ground. The other pilot never should have been that low flying the wrong way over the departure end of a runway. I have no idea why he was. We talked briefly on the radio, and he claims his radio cut out and he never heard us…

But… we weren’t about to make a fuss about it. No one wants to get involved in an FAA investigation if it’s avoidable.

I’m not entirely upset that it happened, because now I know what traffic that close and closing looks like. While I can certainly hope that I don’t wine up that close again, near-misses happen every day.

As I opened our flight plan, I felt some sense of relief that we were going to be watched by radar for most of the rest of the flight. Under an IFR flight plan, ATC is responsible for keeping me away from other planes. It’s a nice feeling.

We ran into a little rain, but the clouds were pretty high, so we didn’t get much actual instrument flying in. It was miserably hot and turbulent the whole way.

Foggles, by the way, are a view-limiting device. There are lots of different kinds, the sort I use clip onto my glasses and only let me see out of the bottom. The idea is to make it so that I cannot see outside the airplane, in order to simulate flying in a cloud.

Flying 5 hours without really being able to see out can drive anyone crazy. The turbulence just makes it worse, because the plane is bouncing every which way and I have to make constant corrections in order to maintain an altitude and heading. Staring at the needles for 5 hours in 100 degree heat is enough to make me fairly exhausted.

We did a touch and go at Tulsa after shooting the ILS. It was the first ILS approach I’ve flown in an airplane, and with all the turbulence, I managed to lose the glideslope completely and barely held onto to the localizer course. The approach ended with Zach saying, “Well, you’ve got full scale deflection of the glideslope needle, and in actual instrument conditions you’d go around. Instead, take your foggles off and land.” Landing a 172 on a huge runway is almost funny. So small a plane, such a huge runway. I use what seems like a few inches of it to land and take off again. Then it’s on to Ponca City.

Ponca City has a huge runway and used to be a fairly active Mesa Airlines base. These days it’s pretty much deserted and uncontrolled. Mesa makes a couple of flights in an out of there. We were going to fly the ILS into Ponca City, but unfortunately, it was inoperative. So, we flew the VOR approach in, and it was the first time I’d actually flown a full approach, since ATC almost always just vectors you to the final approach course. But since it was an uncontrolled airport, Kansas City Center just cleared me for the approach and left me to my own devices.

We landed at Ponca City and went in for lunch. It turns out that there’s a really good Mexican restaurant in the airport. My first $100 hamburger, even if it was a chimichanga. It wasn’t Mexican-Mexican but more Tex-Mex. Or maybe Okie-Mex. The chips were these really good puffed up things which were crunchy on the outside and chewy inside. Never had anything quite like them. The chimichanga was quite good too. And it was all $4. Why was there never an airport restaurant like that anywhere I wound up as a flight attendant?

We had to pump our own gas. 23 gallons at $2.69/gal. Av-gas isn’t cheap. Apparently refineries only produce it a couple of days out of the year, and that has to last us until the next time they do it. It’s a big deal for them, because aviation gasoline needs lead in it, but they have to flush the refineries after making it to be sure that they remove all the the lead when they go back to making unleaded gasoline. Apparently aviation gasoline these days is the source of endless battles between the EPA who wants lead-free gasoline, the FAA who wants endless certification tests performed on any new gasoline formula, and pilots who just want cheap gas. The trouble is, no one’s managed to come up with a good enough lead substitute for use in high-performance high-compression aircraft engines. (The airplanes I fly, however, have engines quite similar to a 1960’s VW bug, and can be modified to run on automobile gasoline just fine.)

After pumping gas, filing our flight plan, and doing a walk-around, we set off for Norman. It’s not quite 100NM from Ponca City. It should take about an hour. Unfortunately, we had a direct headwind of about 40 knots which substantially cuts into our cruise speed. Most 172’s can cruise at a little over 100 knots. The one we were in wouldn’t do much over 90 knots. So we were flying with a ground speed of.. oh.. maybe 55 miles per hour. It would have been quicker to drive. As it was, it took us roughly two hours. It was so hot, and ATC wouldn’t give us an altitude higher than 6,000 feet. Since the standard atmospheric lapse rate is 2 degrees Celsius per 1,000 feet, the higher you get, the more pleasant it is. We wanted at least 8,000 feet, but OKC approach control really doesn’t like to deal with us, because we’re so slow. A ground track of 50 knots makes them even less happy than it does us. So they keep us low and out of the way of the real airplanes.

As we were nearing Tinker AFB, we heard, “Sentry four one heavy, we have an emergency,” in a surprisingly calm voice. In fact, the air traffic controller sounded more upset than the pilot. After being asked the nature of the emergency, the pilot, sounding noticeably more worried this time, announced that he had smoke and fumes in the cockpit. We saw them land okay, and apparently they evacuated the plane at the end of the runway, since it was still on the runway when we flew over Tinker.

“Sentry” is apparently the Air Force call sign for the E-3 AWACS planes, which are Boeing 707’s with an enormous radar dome on top. I’d never seen one in person until I moved here, and now I see them all the time. A little internet research turned up why. The Air Force has 33 of them, and 28 of those are based at Tinker. They fly endless practice approaches both at Will Rogers and Tinker. They’re fun to watch, because they’re huge and make a lot of noise.

5.1 hours of flying, and I was exhausted. It turned out to be a fairly eventful day. When I got home, Joanna called to tell me she had a flat tire.

I didn’t fly yesterday because Zach was busy with other students, and I haven’t flown yet today because it’s really too windy. I could fly, but shooting practice approaches with all this wind will prove to be nearly impossible.

One Response to “Instrument Cross-Country”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I do believe in guardian angels and you have one-thankfully.

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