Sunday, September 20, 2009

New England Wedding

My buddy Eric, an old friend of about 18 years, married the love of his life this last weekend in Matunuck, Rhode Island. Jodie and I booked a room at a Bed & Breakfast and made plans to fly the Tiger up to Quonset State Airport (KOQU).

The Tiger has been at the avionics shop in Hagerstown, Maryland, having its autopilot worked on. The autopilot has been removed from the airplane and shipped to Oklahoma for overhaul. Not having an autopilot is not a big deal -- to the contrary, I've only ever flown one airplane that had a working autopilot, and the autopilot in the Tiger hasn't worked since I bought the plane, so.... no big deal. Jodie and I just drove up to Hagerstown and took the airplane from there on Saturday morning.

It was the type of day that pilots refer to as "CAVU." That stands for "ceiling and visibility unrestricted." In the photos below, you might think it looks a bit hazy. In all of these photos that look toward a horizon, we could see more than sixty miles. It may not be "Rocky Mountain Clear," but for the mid-Atlantic, this was "visibility unrestricted." As we approached New York, I saw Sandy Hook off our right wing. The last time I saw Sandy Hook was when I went to Farmingdale.

There were a LOT of airplanes in the air, and the air traffic controllers were so busy there wasn't a break to get a word in edgewise. It was our intent to fly right over Manhattan, so I kept working the radios and flipping frequencies until I could get a controller to talk to me.

* * * * *

I've had several people remark that they are surprised we could fly over New York City, so here's a quick primer on airspace. (If you want to skip it, just scroll down to the next break.) The atmosphere over the earth is divided into 3-dimensional sections of "airspace." The boundaries of different types of airspace are invisible, but they are very real to pilots and air traffic controllers. Those divisions help keep everyone safe.

"Class B" airspace, or "Bravo" in pilot lingo, is airspace around the busiest airports, such as Newark, La Guardia, and JFK. It is generally shaped like an upside-down wedding cake. There are rules for flying through Class B airspace -- the most important rule being that you must have permission (a "clearance") from Air Traffic Control. Without a clearance to fly into it, you can still fly around it, under it, or over it.

The Class B airspace around New York is clearly marked on the maps that pilots use to navigate. Here's a piece of the New York "sectional" chart that shows the Class B airspace....

I added the red squares around what look like fractions. Those fractions tell pilots what the dimensions -- the top and bottom -- of the Class B airspace are at various places. In this case, the top of the Class B airspace is 7,000 feet above sea level. Thus, to fly across New York without going into the Class B airspace, we had to stay above 7,000 feet. Following other FAA regulations, that meant that we would fly at 7,500 feet when flying to Rhode Island, and at 8,500 feet when flying back home. At those altitudes, we did not need permission from ATC and, in fact, did not even need to talk to them on the radio.

But there is following rules, and there is being smart. I couldn't even guess how many airplanes are in the skies over NYC at any given moment on a Saturday morning. Suffice it to say that the air traffic controllers sounded like auctioneers on every frequency I listened to -- and there are a LOT of frequencies.

* * * * *

So as we were approaching New York on this Saturday, I was busy flipping radio frequencies and talking to ATC to make sure they knew we were coming across. Meanwhile, Jodie took photos of our vistas of New York geography, like this one of Long Beach and Brooklyn in the distance, with Staten Island in the foreground.

The New York air traffic controllers are notoriously short on patience for students or other pilots who do not know - or who do not sound like they know - what they are doing. I was doing my best to be short, convey all the information, and sound like I was on top of my game. It worked, and we got radar services as we crossed Newark International Airport. I grabbed the camera for a quick shot.

We could see exactly how New York was laid out. We could see dozens of miles up the Hudson River, past the George Washington and Tappan Zee bridges. We could see beyond Manhattan, and the way that Long Island paralleled the Connecticut coast line into the distance.

As we approached the city itself, individual buildings and streets stood out in sharp relief.

Ground Zero was a very obvious hole in the cityscape.

Looking at the East River, I tried to understand what Cory Lidle had been thinking.... It still escapes me.

The last time I was at Liberty Island was probably 1994 or so.... And 1982 before that. Time to go back?

Central Park....
It was a treat to see New York like this. We flew the same route on the way back, too, though our camera battery was dead so we didn't get any pictures. In the image below, the green line is our course on the way east; the red line is our course on the way home the next day.

After crossing the city, we flew the length of Long Island Sound. Because our course took us across the sound at a very slight angle, it was more than 100 miles that we were over water, although we were never more than 10 miles from a shoreline. We descended to 500 feet over the ocean as we flew past the beach house where our friends were preparing for the wedding, then skimmed the water to a landing at Quonset State Airport. A lineman motioned us to a parking spot while another lineman pulled our rental car up to the plane. Minutes later we drove off the airport toward the bed & breakfast.

The wedding was beautiful. It was a touching and very happy time, seeing a beloved friend marry someone he obviously loves dearly. And although I don't yet know her well, it was very satisfying to see such similar sentiments from his bride.

The wedding went late into the evening, but we woke in time for breakfast and a walk through the small town of Narragansett. I found a used bookstore where I picked up some old books on aviation and was tempted to purchase an autograph by Charles Lindbergh. Then we said goodbye to our friends and headed to the airport.

Quonset State Airport is an Air and Army National Guard base in addition to a general aviation airport. Shortly after we had arrived, a C-130 had taken off (after what looked like a 600-foot takeoff roll!). There was a whole line of Army Hueys behind our plane, and they were arriving and departing as we loaded the plane.

I also caught sight of this plane, which I can't identify....

We loaded up and took off over the water at 2:03 p.m., staying low for a few miles as we headed south and then southwest.

We passed the island where we would like to live in our next life....

Beyond Jamestown, Newport was visible off our left wing, with a cruise ship visible in the harbor.

Our camera battery went dead as we turned toward home over Long Island Sound. Jodie fell asleep as we climbed to 8,500 feet and I enjoyed the spectacular views alone. Alone, that is, except for the constant chatter of ATC and a thousand jets that were taking off from the New York airports. ATC called every few minutes, "Grumman 28244, traffic is at your 10 o'clock and 2 miles, an Airbus 319 climbing to 8,000 feet only." I watched many large jets passing by, perhaps a mile or two away. One in particular passed across our path ahead, 500 feet below our altitude. I listened as ATC called to the plane -- "Northwest 469, you are clear of the Grumman traffic, left turn to three four zero, climb to one zero thousand." I watched as the nose came up on the airplane and it banked away. I looked down to confirm we were still holding course and altitude. When I looked back up, Northwest 469 had disappeared into the vast, blue sky on its way to Minneapolis. (Out of curiosity, I looked up the flight later.)

Jodie woke as we flew over the Pennsylvania countryside. It was approaching four o'clock. There's a decent Italian restaurant at the airport in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, just a half hour short of our destination. We landed and had good pasta on the outside deck, then took off again for the short flight to Hagerstown and our car.

It was a beautiful trip. With the exception of the last ten minutes of our flight east, the air was smooth and free of clouds the whole trip. What would have been a 7- or 8-hour drive was two and a half hours of the most beautiful scenery. Good travels.


Anonymous Brian said...

That Central Park picture is amazing!

1:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 80% sure the plane you cant identify is a Shorts aircraft, which model I cant remember.

6:56 PM  

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