Lesson 160
22 January 2002
1.8 hours

A Perfect Day for Pilotage

Today's flight was so pleasant it might almost have been boring--if it hadn't been for the flying.  And it was a fluke of a day, clear and dry, between rainy yesterday and rainy tomorrow. There was not a hint of cloud anywhere, with very good visibiity through the dry air, despite a mile deep layer of thin brown haze that obscured most of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 100 miles to the west.

My idea was to fly to two nearby airports, mostly just for the fun of being up in the air, but also for the two practical purposes of practicing pilotage and landing at very different airports.  (Pilotage is navigating by looking out the windows and studying the map )

My colleague Phyllis came along, not to discuss American literature but, as she said, "to ride shotgun."  Fortunately, we didn't need the gun today, so she was able to help with the navigation.  And she did well at following our progress on the sectional chart--especially considering that for much of the flight we stayed below 1000 feet above the flat, wooded tidewater landscape east of the city and north of the river.

First we flew east to the confluence of the James and the Appomattox, at Hopewell.  We passed over the federal reformatory and then over City Point, where near the end of The Civil War one John Maxwell (no relation!) used what he called "a horological torpedo"--a time bomb--to blow up the Union Army's supply depot there, nearly killing General Grant.  (After the war, his application for a patent on his timer fuse was denied, although according to the National Park Service at City Point, he really did invent it and it really did work.)

From City Point we flew on over the noxious plume of smoke that always rises from a chemical plant east of Hopewell, and down the James, crossing 600 feet above the Route 156 James River lift bridge.  A few miles east, keeping outside of RIC's Class C airspace, we turned north and left the river, passing over mostly featureless woodlands, with only a few farms and an occasional back road, none of which appear on the sectional chart.  And at 600 feet above the ground, the navigation was more dead reckoning than pilotage.  I just kept to the compass heading and waited for a highway or railroad to appear.  My GPS was Velcroed to the yoke, but I tried not to look at it all this time.  And I kept marvelling at how dauntless pilots were to fly cross-country before there was GPS and radio navigation instruments.

Eventually I spotted the New Kent Airport off our left wing.  It's a pretty little airport, with a runway almost exactly half the length and width of FCI, the one we had left 20 minutes earlier.  The size difference tends to fool the eye--and it certainly fooled mine today, so I came in high and fast.  (In my own defence I could say that I was somewhat preoccupied by my wish to stay below  the RIC Class C airspace, which begins there at 1200 feet above the ground.  But the truth is, my eye got fooled.)  Eventually the 172 slowed down enough to stop flying before the go-around point I'd chosen on downwind, but the landing was not a pretty one.

We took off again and headed south and then west to Petersburg and Dinwiddie County Airport, PTB, where I managed to do one of those landings in which you're not quite sure whether you're flying or taxiing--so the runway must be exactly the right size for my eyes.

FCI, I found when we got back there after flying the length of Lake Chesdin and then heading north for a quick look at construction on the new Route 288 across the James west of the city, is evidently a little too big for them--at least it was today.

But all in all it was a calm and pleasant flight.  We stayed low enough most of the time to feel as though we could see into kitchen windows--but of course moving at two miles a minute, you can't really do that.  (Hmmm.  Maybe I should go for a balloo--  Nah.)

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