Lesson 52
24 April
2 hours

Solo cross cuuntry to Newport News.

I was apprehensive about this trip because the Newport News airport, PHF, is surrounded by other airports--including Langley AFB to the northeast and Norfolk to the southeast--and the two runways cross in a screwy way at one end, and the traffic ranges from puddle-jumpers like the Cefsna 152 I'm flying to sleek corporate jets to 747s.  Also, I wanted to try flight following, but didn't know if I could keep up with the additional radio work it would require.  One extra worry was that the forecast was for a 12 knot crosswind at Chesterfield by the time I expected to get back, which might make landing tricky, although I managed not to think about that most of the time..

The day was clear, with pretty good visibility.  The wind at 3000 feet was 310 at 17.  The course from Chesterfield to Newport News is 288--so in other words, I had mostly tailwind out and headwind back.  The course is right down the James River, all but a few miles on each end, so navigation wasn't going to be a great problem.  I figured the headings, speeds, times, and fuel comsumption, and entered them in my nav logs.

I also set up a route on my hand-held GPS, just to see how it would work as a back up navigation tool.  (It worked fine, just sitting on the panel, but I only looked it a couple of times because I wanted to navigate by pilotage and VOR.)

Everything seemed to be going well.  I hit my first checkpoint right on the button, making good time because of the tailwind.  I could see about fifteen miles or so, and was able to pick out the next checkpoint already, so the navigation was even easier than I'd thought.  I activated my flight plan, but didn't try for flight following because I was making such good ground speed and wanted to use the VOR to check on my location and progress.  I was over Jamestown Island almost before I knew it, got the ATIS for Newport News, and then called the tower. I forgot to say "with information Quebec" so he had read off the altimeter, wind, active runway, and all.  It seemed almost immediately that I was approaching the airport, and at that point everything seemed to speed up by a factor of ten or twenty.  But I spotted the airport and figured out which runway was which.

The tower said something about cleared to land runway two five.  I had sort of expected that because the wind was from the west.  The traffic pattern is normally left-hand; did that mean I had to fly past to the south and then turn left to enter the pattern?

While I was mulling that over, the tower called back and told me, "Ident."  Well, I knew I should know what to do, but at that moment it just didn't make any sense to me.  He said it again, and I had to say, "Student pilot.  I'm not sure what that means."  Hated doing that and felt really stupid and inept.

The tower comtroller said, "Disregard" and asked for my present position.  I said I was over Felker field at 2000 feet (about 6 miles west southwest of Newport News airport).  Right about then I saw a 727 climbing out from runway 20, heading across my flight path, about 3 or 4 miles ahead.  Oh-oh.  This isn't good at all.

Amost immediately the tower said, "Report three miles right downwind, runway two zero."

Huh?  Three miles right downwind--   Well, at least that keeps me on this side of that runway.  I repeated the instruction and  hooked a hard left, heading north, parallel to runway 20, while trying to figure out what "three miles right downwind" might mean.  Suddenly I remembered what "ident" meant--press the IDENT button on the transponder.  Dummy!  But he already has me in sight, so it's too late for that now.  What a bonehead.

Okay, I guessed at when I was "three miles right downwind" and reported.  Clear to land runway two zero.  Turned right base, then final, got lined up, altitude okay, glide angle okay.  Right crosswind, but not too bad.  Flare and down.

"Two five bravo, turn right, taxiway Charlie.  Contact ground on one two one nine."

I turn off, dial in 121.9 and punch the swap frequency button.  Ground says to taxi and park.  Well, duh.  Taxi where?  I see a several big commercial and corporate jets to the left.  More corporate jets to the right.  Where's the general aviation?  There are some military jets to the right, beyone the corporate jets, and far beyone them I see a few light planes.  I stop and look around, and finally ask ground for advice.

The ground controller comes back calmly and nicely.  Explains how the ramp is laid out and where things are.  Says to turn left and that a lineman will flag me to a parking spot.  Then he says I might like to come up in the tower after parking and gives me instructions for getting up there.  Wow--neat!  But I'm thinking, they probably just want to see what this moron looks like.

I thank him and turn left, and eventually a lineman appears and gets me parked.  Shut down.  He puts in chocks.  I ask him to top off the tanks.  Go in and close my flight plan and file one for the return trip.

Paid the fuel bill.  Another lineman took me part way to the tower, and the ground controller came down to bring me up the rest of the way.

There were three guys up there, nice guys, and when I started to apologize for being so stupid, they all said kind things about just being there to help, and how everyone has to learn, and so on.  Then one of them--the one who had told me that "right downwind stuff"--said, "This is my first hour working this field."

Well.  That made me feel a little less stupid.  It turned out that he'd been a controller for eighteen years, but had just been transferred to this airport, and I was one of the first planes he had handled there.  He didn't remember saying "downwind"--thought he'd said "base" but I had repeated it back to him, so I'm pretty sure he had.  But he was trying to spot me visually and keep me out of everyone else's way, so he was probably a bit frazzled, too.

The tower is high enough so that every part of the airport is visible, and with enough vision angle to see beyond things.  I could look right down on top of my little Cessna, where it was parked near the tower. Everything seemed clear from that height, and the airport layout obvious.  How could anyone possibly get lost?!

They showed me how the radar works--really confusing because if two aircraft are near each other their identifications on the screen alternate at about one-second intervals.  At one point I saw four of them cycling through in the same place.  The weirdest thing of all was that most of the time I wasn't aware that a controller was actually talking with a pilot.  Planes landed and took off, but the radio communications were sotto voce.  A few times I tried to listen in, but never heard a single complete sentence.

They'd all traveled by air, but none was a pilot.

The ground controller fixed me up with flight following right on the spot.  He printed out an extra copy of the little slip of paper they have for each plane they handle, so I'd have the transponder squawk code ready, even before starting to taxi.

Back in the plane I got the frequencies right, got the ATIS info, and ground cleared me to "taxi to runway two, hold short of seven."  So I was going to take off on the same runway they'd landed me on, but in the opposite direction.  They didn't seem to care that I'd have a crosswind and a bit of tailwind.  I got there, ran up, and switched to the tower frequency.  Got off okay.  On crosswind they asked me if I was squawking the flight following code, and of course I saw that I'd left the transponder on standby.  Switched it to altitude, feeling dumb again-but a whole lot less dumb than on the way in.

Flight following went easily.  They probably all passed along the info that I was a student pilot, while handing me off from one controller to another.  At any rate, I managed to hear what they were saying to me and to get the frequency changes right.

With the headwind, I had some time to look around a bit and enjoy the view of the James River, brown and broad,
meandering back and forth half a mile below.  Flying over Jamestown Island, I thought about the English colonists who
tried to live there 391 years ago.  By coincidence, there was a story in this morning's paper about tree-ring research showing that the Roanoke Island and Jamestown colonies were founded in the two very driest years in centuries.  No wonder they had such difficulty!

I think Jamestosn Island wasn't quite an island back then, but the river was the same river.  From 2500 feet up, you generally can't see individual people, and your perspective of a place is really different from when you're swatting at mosquitoes on the ground.  Everything looks clean and neat.  You can see rivers best, but there are also lots of man-made things to look at--power lines, expressways, maybe with trucks on them.  Farms and factories and other signs of human activity.  But no men, no women, no little kids playing in the back yard   The view is spectacular--but up there, it's just you and that engine, and distant thin voices in your headphones.

A few days ago I came across a web page that gives another perspective on our pretty little planet:  http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/uncgi/Earth
It's a synthetic image, with the clouds removed, but interesting.  You can click on the image to re-center it, and there are lots of viewing options to try at the bottom of the page.

Back at Chesterfield the wind was 030 at 3 gusting 18.  I entered the pattern upwind for 33, went around the pattern, and got lined up on final.  There were some interesting bumps on short final, but I got lucky and landed during one of the "at 3" intervals.  Felt pretty good.

Inside the terminal, Adam wanted to know how it went, and I told him about the tower visit.  We planned the next trip and chatted for a while.  I stopped for a hamburger on the way home and took my time with it, enjoying the day.  Back at the house I went to the bathroom and thought about Tuesday's zipper event.  No such trouble to--FLIGHT PLAN--aw hell I forgot to close my flight plan!  What if they've already begun a search!  Run to the phone.  The number--1-800-WX-BRIEF--tap it out: 18009727433.  The robot voice.  Pound star.  Music, finally a human. "This is four seven two five bravo on the ground at Chesterfield I'd like to close my flight plan."

Whew! No hint of emergency or displeasure in the human's voice.  I guess it's okay.  What a moron!

I go for a walk to unwind a bit, but the whole flight--and especially the dumb things--is still playing back in my mind. Flight following wasn't so hard, after all.  But that flight plan, forgetting to close it was really stupid!  And Adam had even written "CLOSE FLIGHT PLAN" on a Post-It and stuck it in my log on Tuesday.  But I haven't entered today's flight in the book yet.  Hey, wait a minute.  I filed the flight plan in Newport News--but when did I activate it?  Aw, geez, I don't remember activating it.  Aw, hell, I didn't!

Well, so that's one dumbness cancelling out another.  But dumb is dumb, all the same.

If I can just keep from repeating these stupid mistakes--well, I hate to think about it, but that's how I've been learning flying, all along--making one dumb mistake after another, but making most of them only once.

My next cross-country is to Elizabeth City NC, on the Currituck Sound near where the Roanoke Island colony was founded and lost; then northwest to Franklin VA; and finally back to Chesterfield County Airport.  That's about 185 nautical miles (212 statute miles), with two legs passing over the Great Dismal Swamp.  Should be an interesting flight.  I've never been to either of those airports, so it'll all be new.  And I'll probably be good and tired by the time I get back--even if I don't make too many dumb mistakes.

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