Thursday, August 24, 2006

First Point-to-Point Solo!

While it may not technically qualify as a "cross-country" flight because it was less than 50 miles, tonight WAS my first flight alone from one airport to another. It went fine, but I could have done better. I talked to a weather briefer minutes before I took off, and the conditions in Frederick were reported as sky clear, wind 3 knots, visibility 10 miles. The only clouds in the area were at 12,000 feet in Baltimore, though there was also a high ceiling in Gaithersburg where I took off.

But as soon as I took off I could see that at just 2,000 feet above the ground it was VERY hazy. I think, in retrospect, I should have turned around and landed. I kept going, and I navigated to Frederick without any problem. When I got there, though, I had trouble picking out the airport in the haze. Visibility was very poor up in the air and it seemed to be getting dark. My instructor always said that if I got into trouble I could just land anywhere and call him or anyone else in my club-- they'd come get me without any hesitation. I thought about it, but the air was smooth and I didn't think the conditions were that bad. So I just landed, immediately took off again, and started to head back to Gaithersburg. It was getting darker, it seemed hazier, and the clouds seemed to be pretty low. I couldn't even see the (small) mountain that was only a few miles away.

In order to get back to Gaithersburg, I have to fly into the Washington, DC, Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. To do that, I have to file a flight plan, then talk to the air traffic controllers. They give me a four-digit code to punch into my transponder, and I have to wait for them to see my code on their radar. Once they see me, they will give me clearance to fly back into the ADIZ and toward Gaithersburg. If I skip any step, I can expect (at a minimum) to be intercepted by a military plane or helicopter and interrogated while face down on the tarmac of a runway. The procedure is cumbersome, and the consequences of messing it up are dire, but for pilots who fly planes based inside the DC ADIZ, it is routine, albeit annoying.

I had filed my flight plan by phone before I took off, so once I was up in the air at Frederick, I called the air traffic controllers on the radio and asked them to give me a transponder code. A few minutes went by while I flew around. I called again, and they said they couldn't find my flight plan! So I flew around for a few more minutes. Finally, they called and gave me a code. I punched in the code and continued flying around while waiting for them to give me permission to enter the ADIZ. Meanwhile, it's getting darker and hazier. After a few minutes, I called and asked them if they had my code. "Oh, yes, we do have you, cleared to enter the ADIZ, remain clear of Bravo airspace." I headed south, but then they called again and gave me a different code. I punched in the new code and asked if I was cleared to enter the ADIZ. They told me I was cleared to enter the ADIZ and reminded me to stay below the class B airspace over my head.

I pointed the plane straight for Gaithersburg and opened the throttle. I was at 2,100 feet, the minimum safe altitude as marked on the chart-- the haze was so thick it was all I could do to make out the ground, but I couldn't safely descend any further without better visibility. And it was definitely getting dark.

When I got to where my VOR needles said the Gaithersburg airport should be, I couldn't see it anywhere. I tried triggering the runway lights, but still couldn't see it. I finally picked it out in the darkening haze, did a circling descent a couple miles out, and entered the traffic pattern. My landing was great. It was 7:40. By the time I tied down the plane and was walking back to my car, it was 8:10 and it was DARK.

Two lessons here. First, I should have had a clearer sense of when it would be getting dark. I was still thinking of summertime and long days-- wasn't it only last week that it was getting dark at 9:30? Second, the haze I saw when I first took off from Gaithersburg should have made me turn back. I'm only authorized to fly when visibility is seven miles or more. Visibility was greater than 10 miles on the ground, but I know for a fact that it was far less only 2,000 feet above the ground. There's nothing wrong with flying at night, and on clear nights it's absolutely beautiful. And perhaps the haze would have been fine during the day. But the combination of darkening skies and haze was more than I should have accepted.

Lesson learned.

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