The nose of the plane was pointing skywards at a 45 degree angle, the engine was generating full power, and the stall warning horn was screaming in protest. I pulled back further on the yoke so as to make the situation worse and the aircraft finally gave up and stalled, shuddering horribly as the wings lost their lift. The Cessna, now deprived of all stability yet with its engine generating full-power, rolled to the left—the propeller’s torque trying to twist it upside down. The plane was seconds away from entering a spin that would send it plunging downwards two thousand feet to the Atlantic Ocean. But the recovery was easy enough. I eased the yoke forward about three inches to break the stall, pressed the right rudder pedal to bring the nose back into position, brought the power to cruise setting, and the plane stabilized in straight and level flight.
“Very nice,” said Bart, the check-ride pilot who was going through the process of ensuring that I knew how to fly the Cessna Skyhawk. Once he’d confirmed everything, he’d sign me off as authorized to rent planes from Mid-Island Aviation, a medium-sized aircraft rental and pilot training facility at Islip Airport on Long Island, New York.
When you rent a car, it’s enough to produce a valid driver’s license. But a pilot’s certificate alone isn’t sufficient to rent an airplane. You also need to take a check ride with an instructor who makes sure you know what you’re doing, know the area, are comfortable with the airplane, etc. It’s required for insurance reasons, and also makes a lot of sense. In my case it made even more sense. In fact, I was a bit of an enigma. I held a valid commercial pilot’s license with instrument and multi-engine ratings, and over 400 hours of flight time in my log book. Not bad. Yet all but about fifteen of those hours had occurred over 23 years ago. Only recently had I fulfilled a Year 2000 resolution, renewed my pilot’s license, and begun to seriously get back into flying as a hobby. So I was a strange mixture of highly-trained pilot and complete novice.
This manifested itself somewhat oddly, in that there were certain things I seemed to be able to do perfectly—such as physically fly the airplane, including tricky maneuvers like stall recovery—while other skills had atrophied—such as handling air traffic control and navigating in and out of controlled airspace. As a trained instrument pilot, handling air traffic control should have been child’s play, but it wasn’t. I was finding it all quite confusing.
The decision to get checked out at a field on Long Island, while on a business trip to Manhattan, had occurred to me on a whim—realizing I would be laying over on a weekend. I didn’t really care if I was good enough to be signed-off after this one check ride. In truth I felt I wasn’t, as I was still struggling with Air Traffic Control. But it didn’t matter. I was doing it for fun. We were presently a few hundred yards out over the Atlantic Ocean, the Fire Island beaches were visible just under our left wingtip, we were completely outside controlled airspace, and the flying was exhilarating.
Bart was a classic flight instructor: young, ruggedly-handsome, and with a devil-may-care sense of humor.
“Mind if I buzz the beach?” I asked him.
“No problem. No lower than 500 feet though,” he admonished. “Scenery should be great down there today.” He was referring to the thousands of young women enjoying the sun in their bikinis on a Saturday afternoon.
“Hey, this is the nude part of the beach!” he exclaimed excitedly as we came in over the waves. “Oh wait. Oh my God! It’s the gay beach. The nude gay beach!! Don’t look! Climb! Climb! Climb!”
I shoved the throttle all the way in, banked sharply out over the water, and pulled the yoke back into a steep climbing turn.
“Just kidding!” he said.
Probably his favorite joke.
We headed back to Islip for a couple of touch and go’s, so he could observe my landing skills. But I wasn’t worried about landing skills. Landings are easy. I was terrified of dealing with Islip Air Traffic Control. I have developed what’s known as “Mike Fright”, the condition of being nervous when you talk to the controllers and use the microphone, because you’re not sure how badly you’re going to screw up.
Islip is designated “Class C Airspace.” (Class “Charlie” in pilot’s lingo.) Airspace comes in several flavors ranging from A through F. Part of my problem was that we didn’t have any of that 23 years ago. We had several types of airspace, of course, but under different names, and I don’t remember it being all that complicated. In today’s world, with Class Charlie airspace you actually have to deal with Approach and Departure Control before you even get to talk to the Tower. Back in Colorado, handling Jeffco Airport south of Boulder—which is merely Class D (“Delta”)—was almost more than I could take. Now I was in Class Charlie, vastly more sophisticated. Islip was equivalent to Colorado Springs, the second busiest airport in Colorado.
At least Class Alpha would never be a problem. Class Alpha starts at 18,000 feet and goes up from there into outer space. You can only fly at those altitudes on an instrument flight plan, and you can only fly at those altitudes if you have a plane that can reach those altitudes. I didn’t, nor did I need one. Class Bravo, only slightly less sophisticated, would also not be a problem, as it occurs only around the country’s busiest airports, such as Denver International, Chicago’s O’Hare, and New York’s Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark fields. I wasn’t planning on going to any of those places either. No, Class Charlie was as far as I’d ever need to go.
My problem wasn’t that I didn’t understand the concept. My problem was two-fold. First, the Air Traffic controllers are always referring to places you’ve never heard of. These are called VFR Checkpoints. (VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules. You’re always flying either with Visual Flight Rules, or with Instrument Flight Rules.) Around any airport, all the pilots are familiar with VFR Checkpoints. And these checkpoints—none of which a visitor knows—all have nicknames, making them even harder to comprehend. I learned to fly in Waterloo, Iowa, and there we had a checkpoint which was a large building, about three miles southwest of the field. The company inside was called Santa Claus Industries. The most common clearance you’d hear at Waterloo was something like: “Cessna 27657, cleared to enter Left Downwind for runway 22, report Santa Claus.”
That meant the pilot was to report when he was over the large building. But a pilot not from that area would go “huh?”
Coming into Class Charlie Islip Airport, I knew I’d be going “huh?” a lot. And that was part of the reason I had mike fright.
The second problem was the speed at which air traffic controllers talk, the fact that you have to understand what they say, you have to write it down correctly (while you’re also trying to fly the plane), and you have to repeat it back to them correctly. And then, finally, you have to actually do the thing they’ve told you to do. I realized some months ago that I can handle any three of these four tasks. Yet an attempt to do all four makes me fail at all of them.
Even so, I managed to correctly enter the traffic pattern at Islip Airport, directly behind a Southwest Airlines 737, on final.
“Caution wake turbulence, from 737” said the tower to me, as if I might not already be scared to death of the wake turbulence from a 737. Actually, it’s not that hard to avoid wake turbulence as you’re landing. You just need to stay high and land a little farther down the runway, which we did. There was still room to make it a touch and go and we did so, circling again, and finally landing to a full stop. I hadn’t been too bad, but twice I’d not heard a clearance meant for me, and Bart had come to my rescue. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t ready to be turned loose on my own in Class Charlie airspace.
As we were taxing back to Mid-Island Aviation, Bart summed up things perfectly: “You fly the plane beautifully,” he said. “And that was one of the best cross-wind landings I’ve ever seen, but I’d feel more comfortable going up with you one more time for Air Traffic Control practice, before I sign you off.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “At least one more time!”
Earlier Bart had asked if I’d wanted to do the “City Tour” for our checkride. He said it was a flight down Long Island Sound, over LaGuardia Airport, over Central Park in Manhattan, south along the Hudson, and then low over the waves as you slip past Kennedy Approach Control on the way back to Islip. “Takes about an hour and a half,” said Bart.
That was a joke, right? Fly through the most heavily congested airspace in the world? Fly through two Class Bravo airport control areas? Fly over Manhattan? Skim the waves to stay under Kennedy’s approach path? The guy must be nuts.
“Uh, I don’t really have that much time…” I explained, which I hoped would cover me whether he’d been serious or kidding, either one.
Now, back on the ground, still exhilarated from the flying, and from only screwing up two times with Air Traffic Control, I asked him if he was serious about the City Tour.
“Oh, you’d love it!” he said. “You want to do it at night, when the city’s all lit up. You fly right over LaGuardia, you circle the Statue of Liberty, it’s really cool.”
I wasn’t worried about it not being sufficiently cool. To someone who’s scared of Air Traffic Control, it sounded like my worst nightmare. Yet I’d have an instructor with me. I would insist that he not make me do all of it on my own. I’d fly the plane, he’d deal with LaGuardia and so forth. It sounded awfully exciting. Manhattan? At night? The Statue of Liberty? The chance to actually fly through Class Bravo airspace and maybe even talk to LaGuardia tower myself? What better practice for someone who really needs to get over his mike fright? You know what they say about New York: “If you can make it through this airspace, you can make it through any airspace!”
“Any chance you’d be free Monday night?” I asked, amazed I was actually thinking of doing it.
“Sure, I’m available. But let’s see if there’s a plane free…” He checked the schedule. “You’re in luck! There’s one plane available. Cessna 62371. Want to reserve it?”
He was being so nonchalant about the difficulties, and so eager, how could I say no?
“Uh, sure, why not. It sounds cool.”
This was madness. I was supposed to be attending the Jewelers of America jewelry show all week. I was booked up all the other nights for industry events. It was going to be exhausting. Now I was trying to squeeze in a flight over Manhattan?”
Then I had another thought. “Hey, mind if I bring a passenger?”
There were four women representing my company at this show. One was in town with her husband, but the other three were on their own. Of those three, one at least might be crazy enough to want to come along for the ride.
“No problem,” said Bart.
The next day, at the show, I discussed it with all four.
“No way!” said Kim, who was the one here with her husband. Then Kim proceeded to tell everyone a horror story of the last time she’d been in a small plane. They’d nearly been in a mid air collision with an airliner. She was never getting in a small plane again. Michelle was the adventurous one. She had her own sailboat on Lake Dillon, and had once parachuted out of a plane. But she had a dinner date with a client that night and didn’t want to break it. At least that was her story and she was sticking to it. Krista rolled her eyes and looked squeamish. Then she proceeded to tell everyone her own horror story involving a small plane. Something about an engine failure and a near crash-landing in a field.
Well, with all this positive reinforcement I knew Helen would never go for it. She was the youngest of the four, always quiet and reserved. She’d never been in a small plane and this was her first visit to Manhattan.
“I’m up for it!” said Helen, surprising all of us. “It sounds like the best way of seeing Manhattan I could imagine. Do we really get to circle the Statue of Liberty?”
She’d been in New York for 24 hours and had still not caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. The others looked at her as if she were nuts.
In truth, I was half hoping they’d all refuse. Now, with Helen, if I screwed up or the whole thing had to be aborted for some reason, I’d feel really guilty. But I knew I’d appreciate the company, and if everything went OK, having Helen along would make it that much more fun.
The weather, beautiful for the last four days, turned cloudy on Monday and I began to worry that the whole thing would be cancelled. Part of me wished it would be. Then, late in the day, the clouds dissipated and the good weather reasserted itself.
So by six p.m. Helen and I were heading east on a train from Penn Station to Ronkonkomo, New York, where Bart had assured me someone could be found to pick us up and drive us the several minutes to the airport. I spent the time going over the “Class Bravo Airspace Chart” for the New York area. It looked like chaos in print. There were lines and numbers and circles and arrows and different colors and weird codes and strange marking—all in a horribly confused jumble. That was the impression from the right side of my brain.
On the left side, sure, I knew what it all meant. Most of it anyway. What it meant was that here, without doubt, was the most congested, confusing airspace anywhere in the world. How could it not be? There were three, count them three, Class Bravo airports situated just a few miles from each other: Kennedy, Newark, and LaGuardia. This combination of three major airports in close proximity is found no where else on Earth. And right in the middle of the triangle formed by the three is Manhattan itself, with its own array of skyscrapers, radio towers, tall bridges, rivers, harbors, helicopters flitting about, and enough bright lights to make sure the city truly does never sleep. A small notation printed over New York harbor said: “Highly congested airspace. Pilots are urged to avoid this area.”
It sounded like excellent advice. I didn’t show it to Helen.
Our first problem of the evening came when we arrived at the train station, phoned the airport, and found there was no one available to pick us up. Bart, apparently, was still up in the air. I’d expected, or at least hoped for, a line of cabs who would meet the train. But there was no cab in sight. I used my cell phone to call a cab company but when the dispatcher heard where we were he seemed puzzled. “What side of the tracks are you on?” he asked. When I told him, he suggested I cross over to the north side of the tracks. “There are about fifty cabs sitting there,” he explained. And he was right.
So we made it to the airport at least.
The girl behind the counter at Mid-Island was very young, very friendly, and very pretty—just like Helen. The two immediately struck up a conversation and soon were deep into subjects like the philosophy of feminism. This pleased me as I knew it would make Helen feel like she was in comfortable surroundings, finding someone so like herself here in this otherwise all-male aviator’s bastion.
“So, have you ever done this ‘City Tour’?” asked Helen, with trepidation.
“Just once,” said the girl.
She leaned close to Helen, as if to confide a sisterly secret.
“Oh, good,” said Helen. “I was a little nervous…”
“Hey, hey, hey!” he said, with a big smile. Bart hadn’t seen Helen yet, and he now introduced me to a friend of his, a guy about his age. “Mind if my friend Jim comes along?” asked Bart. “He’s an instrument-rated pilot, too, but he’s never done the city tour.”
I was a little concerned at this. A Cessna Skyhawk with full fuel and four passengers is close to gross weight. Depending on the weight of the passengers, it can be over gross.
As long as there’s not a weight and balance problem, I don’t mind,” I said. “But I’ve brought a passenger myself…” and I introduced him to Helen.
“Ohhhh, right. Yeah, you said you were going to bring a passenger. Can’t believe I didn’t remember that. Well, it should be OK.”
“We’re OK on weight and balance?” I knew how to perform the weight and balance calculation myself, but it was tedious, and would take about fifteen minutes with a pencil and a worksheet.
“Naw, we’re fine,” he said. But Helen, intelligent and observant as always, had noticed the exchange. She and I both had small backpack bags with us.
“Can we leave these here?” she asked. “No reason to add extra weight.”
“No problem,” said the girl behind the desk, and the bags were quickly stowed.
Mid-Island’s operation is spread over such a large area that often they use little golf carts to ferry pilots out to the planes. Bart grabbed one and the rest of us hopped on. As we drove across the tarmac I reflected on the fact that I had absolutely not done any flying at night since 1974—twenty-seven years ago. Night flying isn’t especially difficult. I used to do it all the time and enjoyed it. But it does take a little practice—especially the landings. And there was one other very tiny detail about night flying that suddenly came back to me.
“Do we have a flashlight?” I asked Bart. If the lights go out on the cockpit panel you can still read the instruments if you have a flashlight.
“Flashlight,” said Bart, considering the word carefully. “We should have a flashlight. Yes. Let’s see.” We’d arrived at the airplane and he examined his case. “I don’t think we have a flashlight. We’ll have to go get one.”
“I’ll preflight the plane in the meantime,” I suggested, and off he went with Jim, back to the office.
The sun was just setting, the sky was clear, and the brisk wind was tapering off. The weather was getting better and better.
“Want to learn how to preflight an airplane?” I asked Helen.
“Sure!” said Helen, eager to have something to take her mind off her nervousness.
But we ran into a problem immediately. The key wouldn’t unlock the door to the plane. Here I was ready to impress Helen with my vast flying skills, and I couldn’t unlock the door. I thought perhaps the key would work on the passenger side, but was disappointed to see that latch had no key hole. I pulled at it anyway and was astonished to discover it wasn’t even locked.
We ran through the preflight quickly enough: flaps down, check ailerons, check control surfaces, drain fuel sump, check engine oil, climb up on each wing and visually check the fuel level, etc. Helen was quite interested in all this, and climbed up on the wings as well, to see how one inspected the fuel tanks. We finished the preflight and the others hadn’t yet returned so I took the time to explain how airplanes fly. Many people think planes fly because of the shape of the wing, and all that nonsense about the airfoil creating a vacuum on the upper part of the wing, which sounds sensible until you remember that planes can also fly inverted. In truth planes fly because of the angle at which the wing meets the air. So I explained all this, and about how the plane turns and why it needs to bank in order to be able to turn, and about how the miniature wing on the tail actually holds the tail down, not up, and stuff like that.
I was feeling quite competent and intellectual and smug and then Helen asked her first question.
“What are these little wire things, on the tail?”
I looked and discovered there were little wire things sticking out the back of the tail. I studied them malevolently. I’d never seen them before. Helen had managed to find the one thing on the plane I knew nothing about.
“Those are very important little wire things,” I explained. “Unfortunately I have no idea what they do.” No reason not to be honest.
Bart and Jim arrived, and we all climbed in. I was in the left seat, the pilot’s seat. Bart took the co-pilot’s seat. I made sure Helen was in the left-hand seat in the back because I knew the view would be better from there. And Jim was in the right rear.
Check lists are wonderful things because no matter how disorganized and forgetful and scatterbrained a person is—and no one ranks higher in those attributes than me—the airplane checklist makes it all simple. You just follow it. So I started doing things like retracting flaps, fuel pump set for both tanks, mixture rich. It was time to start the engine.
“Clear!” I yelled out the window, and then hit the starter switch.
The propeller began rotating, and the engine finally caught—a little sluggishly in my opinion. I continued with the checklist: radios on, oil pressure checked. It was a night flight so I turned on every light I could find: nav lights, rotating beacon, strobe.
At a Class C airport you have to get a clearance before you even contact Ground Control to taxi. It’s almost like instrument flying. So I did this.
“Islip tower, Cessna 62371 at Mid-Island, with X-Ray, requesting departure clearance. We’ll be doing the City Tour.”
These words didn’t just roll off my tongue. I had to think about it all carefully before I said them. Although when I did say them I spoke as quickly as I could, hoping to sound like an experienced pilot. Apparently this City Tour was a common enough thing that Air Traffic Control knew all about it. We had to mention it so as to tell the tower where we would be going when we left their airspace. This would enable them to give us a clearance that made sense. Saying we had “X-Ray” meant that we’d already listened to the ATIS advisory message, which is broadcast continuously at Class D and above airports, telling us wind direction, temperature, dew-point, and other things I wrote down and never knew what to do with. Dew-point? What was I supposed to do with dew-point? Somehow I’d missed that in my training. Now was not the time to learn.
“Roger, Cessna 371, maintain runway heading after takeoff, contact departure control on 120.5.
“Understand maintain runway heading, contact departure, 120.5, Cessna 371.”
“Cessna 371, That’s affirmative, have a good flight.”
Now I switched to Ground Control.
“Islip Ground, Cessna 371, at Mid-Island, ready for taxi, with clearance.”
“Roger Cessna 371…”
And here was where I knew it could get tricky. They were about to give me taxi instructions, and I’d have to write them down fast, and repeat them back, and then do them. But the key to handling these clearances is to have in advance a pretty good idea of what they’re going to say. I knew from ATIS that the active runway was runway 6. So they would say something like: “Taxi to runway six, via echo and bravo (or some other combination of taxiways.)” Here it came…
“Cessna 371, taxi to the wide area for run-up.”
It sounded like he’d said “Cessna 371, taxi to the wide area for run-up.” But that didn’t make any sense. Wide area? What the heck was a wide area?
I was glad I had Bart with me for handling LaGuardia, but I hadn’t expected to need him for taxiing.
“Bart, what’s a wide area?”
“Oh, he means the wide area just ahead of us there. We’re so close to the end of runway 6 that he wants us to do our run-up here.”
So I made the appropriate reply and taxied a hundred yards to a wide concrete area off the taxi way. Why don’t they ever teach you this stuff in ground school?
And what a stupid term: wide area. Why couldn’t they have called it something cool like “Taxiway Holding Area Alpha 9” or maybe “Pre-departure Transition Zone Beta 7?”
Anyway, we went to the wide area and I did the run-up: increasing the throttle to 1700 RPM’s while holding the plane in place with the brakes. This is to check that the engine is performing properly. Then I did all the other little things that the checklist told me to do, like checking mixture again, doors and windows closed and locked, tray tables up, cell phone and portable electronic devices off, etc. If we’d had a flight attendant on board, this would have been a wonderful opportunity to explain to the passengers how a seatbelt works.
Finally, there was nothing left and no excuses remaining for delaying things further. It was twilight now—that last gasp of day before night takes over. So far I’d been able to handle everything in the cockpit with ambient light, but soon that would be gone. Bart helped me find the instrument lighting switches and now the cockpit was bathed in an eerie red glow.
This was still my second check ride, so I didn’t want to ask Bart for everything. I was supposed to know what I was doing. “Just get us out of the Islip Class C control area, and back into it again for landing, and that’s good enough for the checkride. I’ll help you with LaGuardia and Kennedy.”
Damn right he would.
So without asking further, I taxied over to the hold-short line at runway 6, called the tower, and announced we were ready for departure.
There were two planes on final for runway 6, their landing lights announcing their positions on the glide path. But apparently the tower thought we could take off before they arrived.
“Cessna 371, cleared for takeoff, maintain runway heading, contact departure 120.5”
I taxied onto the runway, prepared to take off immediately, but Bart told me to come to a full stop.
That seemed silly. Two other planes on final. We’d been cleared for takeoff. Why screw around? But I came to a full stop as he’d requested. Maybe he was being a control freak.
The runway stretched ahead of us now, into darkness.
“OK?” I asked Bart.
“OK,” he agreed.
I pushed the throttle full in and the Cessna’s engine roared to life—no hesitation now at all. We began rolling, faster, faster. As we hit 55 knots I “rotated” meaning I pulled back slightly on the yoke.
“Hold off on rotation longer than usual,” suggested Bart, “because of the extra weight.”
Well, he was about three seconds too late with that suggestion. I’d already rotated. Letting the nose back down now would make a hash of the takeoff. But at least I didn’t pull any further back, and in a few more seconds the plane floated gently off the runway, quite content to carry the extra weight of the passengers. In fact at sea level, after sunset, even with four on board, the plane performed better than would a Skyhawk back in high-altitude Colorado during the heat of the day, with only one person in it. We climbed out briskly at 75 knots.
“Cessna 371, turn left to exit the pattern, fly north-bound heading to clear control area and then proceed on course.”
“Roger, Cessna 371.” In a perfect world I would have written down that clearance, repeated it all back to him, and then done as he’d asked. But it seemed simple enough.
An airline pilot had once commented that flying cross country consisted of long stretches of boredom punctuated at each end by several minutes of terror and chaos. He’d been exaggerating of course. But it’s true that landings and takeoffs—along with the attendant maneuvering and air traffic control communications—are complex affairs. By contrast once you’re up in the sky things quiet down remarkably. And, yes, after awhile it can even get a little boring.
We had transitioned to that stage where there wasn’t much to do. Flying an airplane in straight flight, even climbing to altitude as we were doing now, is much like driving a car or riding a bicycle. It requires almost no mental effort.
Air Traffic Control wasn’t screaming orders at us any more. I wasn’t having to figure out complex aviation issues like wide areas. They’d sent us on our way and we were out of the Islip Class Charlie airspace. It was twilight, the air was calm, and the skies were empty. For the moment.
We were crossing over the north shore of Long Island, and the Sound was spread out before us. A dark, hazy line in the distance represented the south shore of Connecticut.
“What kind of altitude do you want?” I asked Bart.
“Let’s level off at 2,000 feet. And you’ll want to turn left and just fly west along the coast.”
We were approaching 2,000 feet now, and I leveled off quickly. Throttle back to 2300 rpm’s for cruise. The airspeed began climbing and I adjusted the trim tab on the elevator. Adjusting the trim tab on the elevator is the kind of thing you do when nothing else is going on. It sets a little airfoil on the elevator itself so that you can take your hands off the yoke and the plane will keep climbing, or descending, or flying level—whatever you set it for. Almost an autopilot, in a sense. But you typically have to keep fiddling with it to get it just right. You can fiddle with it for hours. That’s the main thing one does when flying cross country: fiddle with the trim tab. Yet soon I became bored even with that.
Now there was absolutely nothing to do, except enjoy the scenery, and keep an eye out for other airplanes. Outside of controlled airspace it was now our job not to run into any other airplanes. But the sky was still remarkably empty. I began to remember why I liked flying at night so much. Everything is so much easier to see at night. That may sound odd, but important things like cities and roads and bridges and airports are very lit up at night. Another thing very lit up at night is other airplanes. You can see other airplanes easily whereas in the day they fade against their background. Because of this it was probably safer flying over Manhattan at night than during the day.
Actually, the scenery was already becoming interesting. There are numerous coves and bays along the north shore of Long Island, and I could still see them in the fading light. This was my old stomping ground. Derry and I used to keep a 27’ sailboat on Long Island Sound, and memories began coming back to me, as I looked down at places we’d anchored for lunch, or gone swimming, or spent the night. It was very different from the air.
Of course all this was the calm before the storm. This was rural Long Island and it lulled one into a sense of complacency. It was worth remembering that we were flying 120 miles an hour towards LaGuardia airport. Things were going to get complicated very quickly.
Let’s talk about altitudes. Jet airliners typically fly at altitudes between 25,000 feet and 40,000 feet. Small planes, like our Cessna Skyhawk, typically fly between about 3,000 feet and 10,000 feet. You can fly a Cessna Skyhawk over the tops of the Rocky Mountains—requiring about 14,000 feet of altitude—but just barely. I’ve done it. You have to use the air currents much like a glider, to help the plane fly higher than it can fly on its own. When small planes circle airports for landing, they abide by something called Traffic Pattern Altitude, which is typically about 1,000 feet above the ground. You descend to that from your cruising altitude, you enter the “pattern”, and then you land. So flying cross-country at 2,000 feet, as we were doing, is quite low—not much more than Traffic Pattern Altitude. But it wasn’t unheard of.
By comparison, the Eiffel Tower in Paris is about 900 feet high. Equivalent to Traffic Pattern Altitude. The World Trade Center in New York, one of the tallest buildings in the world, is 1700 feet high. Tall smokestacks from a power station can be any height, and several were approaching us right now. These were the Huntington smokestacks, and I knew them from my sailing days. They made excellent landmarks. They were about a thousand feet high—Eiffel Tower class—and we were going to fly directly over them. Thin wisps of smoke could be seen emanating from their hollow tops. Hmmm. This was the kind of thing they don’t teach you in pilot school. Is it OK to fly over smokestacks actually generating smoke?
Hot air rises, so the air around these stacks was probably rising. How would that affect us? At twice the altitude of the stacks, it might not affect us at all. Probably it would not. Or, it might cause a very serious jolt of turbulence. Flying ten feet above the openings would certainly do so. A thousand feet? Who knew? I wasn’t really in the mood for a serious jolt of turbulence and there seemed no reason to subject the plane to even the remote chance of that. I banked gently out over the water, missing the stacks by several hundred yards, and then we were past them.
Even this mild encounter with a vertical object was a new experience for me. In all my flying I’d never had to think about buildings or towers or such. You take off from an airport and you’re so quickly so far above anything on the ground that the ground becomes irrelevant. In truth I found it kind of fun, kind of interesting. It made the sensation of flight more real, soaring above, around, or across tall smokestacks sticking up into the air. Then I remembered where we were heading: Manhattan, world headquarters for skyscrapers, tall buildings, vast towers, high pointy things. Those smokestacks were a foretaste of things to come.
“So, when do we contact Air Traffic Control again?” I asked Bart. This was eye-of-the-hurricane period, the brief honeymoon of uncontrolled airspace between the Islip Class Charlie world, and the LaGuardia Class B world. I’d never flown through Class Bravo before. Come to think of it, I’d never flown through Class Charlie before either, at least until two days prior when I’d done the checkride at Islip. All this was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool.
“I think we can contact LaGuardia approach about now,” said Bart.
He looked about, to get his bearings. Long Island Sound was narrowing rapidly. Up ahead, in the distance, could be seen a low span of lights, crossing the water.
“Throgg’s Neck Bridge” said Bart.
Beyond that was Whitestone Bridge, just barely visible.
“OK, what you want to do is announce yourself to LaGuardia approach. Then tell them you’re five miles East of Throgg’s Neck, at 2,000 feet, inbound for the City Tour.”
“You want me to talk to LaGuardia?”
“Sure. You can do it. Just have the words ready. Talk fast. And don’t screw around.”
Our chart gave the radio frequency for LaGuardia approach, and we turned Radio 1 to that frequency. Immediately our headsets were filled with the sound of Air Traffic Control at a major airport.
“American 247, turn left 310 degrees.”
“310, American 247”
“United 4801, continue climb to flight level two oh, proceed direct Albion intersection.”
“Climb to two oh, direct to Albion, United 4801”
“Northwest 556, intercept localizer 21 left, contact tower 118.8”
Intercept localizer, going to 118.8, Northwest 481”
Digits were flying about with reckless abandon, referring to call signs, altitudes, runways, headings, and who knew what else. I kind of understood it. Barely. As a frequent United Airlines passenger I often would listen in to Channel 9 on the headset, where Air Traffic Control is broadcast. I’ve always marveled at the speed with which the pilots respond, and the calm, professional tone that pervades what to the layman seems like chaos.
But now I was about to walk onto that stage myself. I was about to get on the radio and announce myself to LaGuardia Approach Control. This was insanity! LaGuardia was directing massive Boeing 757’s and DC-10’s, with hundreds of passengers in each. I was a tiny propeller plane with four seats! I had no business being here. And not only would LaGuardia Approach Control hear me, but all those other airline pilots—those United and Northwest and Delta pilots—they would all hear me as well. And for that matter, all those passengers listening into Channel 9 from the comfort of their seats, as they sipped their cocktails, would hear me. I was absolutely, utterly terrified. I honestly wasn’t sure I could do this. Was it too late to turn around and fly meekly back to Islip?
“So I just call them like a normal airport, and establish contact?” I asked Bart again, needing moral support, not really asking a question.
“Yep. Just go for it.”
I paused, my finger on the mike button.
“Delta 452, turn left to 270, intercept localizer.”
“270 and going for the intercept, Delta 452”
“FedEx 1193, descend to 14,500.”
“Down to 14 five, FedEx 1193”
“American 237, turn right to 090, contact tower point niner.”
“Oh nine oh and point niner for tower, American 237”
Uh, let’s see now, what was I supposed to say?
“TWA 355, cleared for the ILS, report outer marker”
“Cleared ILS, report outer, TWA 355”
“Air Canada 791, turn left heading 210.”
“Left to 210, Air Canada 791”
OK, would everyone just SHUT UP for a second and let me talk!!
“Southwest 222, you’ll be number 3 behind the Airbus, descend and maintain 6,000.”
“Out of twelve for 6, Southwest 222.”
There was a momentary pause. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done but I pressed the mike button.
“LaGuardia Approach, Cessna 62371”
“Cessna 62371, LaGuardia approach, go ahead.”
“LaGuardia, Cessna 371, four miles east of Throgg’s Neck, 2000 feet, inbound for city tour.”
I mentally prepared myself for a sharp rebuke, like “In your dreams, Cessna scum! How dare you try to enter Class Bravo airspace!” But instead the radio barked out a sharp order.
“Cessna 371, Squawk 1456”
“Squawking 1456, Cessna 371”
Planes show up on radar. The bigger the plane, the bigger the return on the radar screen. But modern planes carry something called a transponder, which is an instrument with only one job in life: to show itself strongly to a radar beam. The transponder can be tuned to different frequencies, so it shows up slightly differently depending on which frequency is dialed in. Some years ago they developed encoding altimeters, which let the transponder know the plane’s altitude. That way the air traffic controllers can see the planes clearly on their radar, and also know their altitudes because the transponders include that information in the signal they return to the radar. It is illegal to fly into controlled airspace of Class Delta or above without an encoding altimeter and transponder. When LaGuardia told me to “squawk 1456” it meant they wanted me to dial that code into my transponder. It’s a strange verb, “to squawk”, but that’s what it means. Bart did it for me instantly.
“Cessna 371, radar contact.”
Those were the magic words. Once the controller declared radar contact, it meant he was taking responsibility for us. We were no longer free agents. We would be ordered around, and we would do exactly as ordered. But it also meant the controller would make sure we were kept at a safe distance from other airplanes. The days of rural Long Island flying were over. We had entered Class Bravo airspace, and were caught in its clutches like an insect in a web.
“Cessna 371, descend and maintain 1,500 feet. Fly directly over south side bridge, inbound for tower dome.”
That stopped me cold. They’d just named a VFR checkpoint, maybe two, and I had no clue what they meant. South side bridge? What was that? I looked despairingly at Bart, who pressed the mike key and responded on my behalf.
“Descending to 1,500, fly directly over south side bridge inbound for tower dome, Cessna 371”.
I’d already started our descent to 1,500. That was easy enough.
“What’s South Side Bridge?” I asked Bart.
“That’s the south tower of the Throgg’s Neck Bridge,” he explained.
Throgg’s Neck was a suspension bridge, and it had high towers on either side. It was now about two miles ahead, coming up fast. I leveled off at 1,500. They wanted me to fly directly over the south tower? No problem. I’d already had experience with smokestacks earlier in the day. I could handle a bridge. I steered the Cessna directly over the south tower.
LaGuardia Approach had been going nuts ordering big jets around the sky. Suddenly there was a message for us.
“Cessna 371, contact tower 118.8.”
“Going to 118.8, Cessna 371” I managed to blurt out.
Bart changed over the frequency. An airport’s “tower” is the controller who takes over just prior to landing. The “tower” controls the runways, and gives clearance to take off and land. Large airports like LaGuardia have approach control and departure control, and they have ground control for handling the taxiing, but the “tower’ is the real epicenter, the real soul, of the airport.
I tried to make my voice sound like the seasoned, experienced professionals in the big jets.
“LaGuardia tower, Cessna 62371, with you at 1,500.”
“Cessna 62371, LaGuardia tower, fly directly over tower dome, maintain altitude, fly heading 270 after passing tower dome”
Oh, great. Another weirdo VFR checkpoint. “Tower Dome”? What the heck was that? Bart gave the appropriate response to Air Traffic Control, knowing I was clueless.
“What’s ‘tower dome’” I asked.
“Tower dome’s the top of the tower.”
There were all kinds high, tower-like things everywhere I looked. In fact, not so far away now was Manhattan itself, its forest of skyscrapers like claws in the distance, reaching up into the sky.
“The tower. LaGuardia tower. The one you’ve been talking to.”
“You mean the actual Air Traffic Control tower itself!!”
“Yes, you’re to fly directly over LaGuardia tower. Do you see it?”
I looked out the window, below me to my left, and there was LaGuardia field spread out like a map. Large airliners were queued up on the runway, and taking off just under my wing. Others were stacked up on the approach to runway two zero. I could see them all, or at least could see their lights. The concourses of LaGuardia itself were visible, their moveable jetways radiating out like spokes from giant Erector sets. And in the middle of it all, of course, was—well—the tower.
“Yeah, I see it. I’m supposed to fly directly over the tower, and then fly a heading of 270?”
“You got it.”
This was, without doubt, the coolest thing I had ever done in my life. I was flying at low altitude directly over one of the busiest airports in the world. And it was legal! LaGuardia tower had ordered us to do precisely what we were doing.
As the “tower dome” disappeared beneath me, I estimated the proper moment and then banked to the right, leveling out on a heading of 270—directly west. And there it was: Manhattan—a vast ocean of skyscrapers, a forest of menacing structures. We were flying right at them.
“Cessna 371, descend to 1,000 feet, fly directly over the reservoir.”
“Down to a thousand, cross the reservoir, Cessna 371,” I responded. This time I knew what reservoir they were talking about. I used to jog around it when I lived at 90th and Third. Central Park reservoir. We were going to fly directly over Central Park.
At a thousand feet! Were they nuts? A thousand feet is low if you’re flying over barren farmland. But I complied. Leveling out at 1,000 feet, looking ahead at sparkling Manhattan spread out before us, I wasn’t sure we could clear the buildings. Hundreds of them were dead ahead of us, reaching up, blocking our path, ready to claw our little Cessna out of the sky. It was like flying into the center of a galaxy, a billion suns crushed together, a siren song of light sucking us in to certain destruction. Like Luke Skywalker attacking the giant Death Star with his x-wing fighter, our tiny plane was flying into hopeless peril, or so it seemed. Every instinct in me was to add full power and climb as fast as we could away from the Death Star. But we’d been ordered to stay at a thousand feet, and the LaGuardia controllers must certainly be aware of what was in front of us. I had no choice. I pointed the Cessna straight at those frighteningly-tall buildings, and kept going.
We were crossing the East River now. The Triboro Bridge was to our right, Roosevelt Island to our left. And finally I began to believe that we were going to be OK. At this point in Manhattan, the Upper East Side, the buildings were only a few hundred feet high. Yet only half a mile further south, near midtown, they reached up well above our present altitude. I was reminded of that illusion, when you’re driving into a covered parking lot with low clearances and if you’re in a minivan, you just know you’re going to hit. But you don’t, quite. And we didn’t, quite, hit any of the tall buildings.
Yet this was like no flying I’d ever done. The three-dimensionality of it was breathtaking, and—now that I knew we could get through it—I found myself enchanted by the sheer beauty of this dazzling concrete jungle. In seconds we were over Central Park, a soft rectangle of darkness with the reservoir itself just ahead, reflecting back the brilliance of the city.
“Cessna 371, radar service terminated. Stay below 1,000 feet over the Hudson. Have a nice flight.”
“Thank you, LaGuardia, Cessna 371,” I responded.
Friendly folk, those LaGuardia controllers. At least once you could get a word in edgewise.
The Upper West Side flashed beneath us, and suddenly we were over the dark waters of the Hudson River. We’d crossed Manhattan in about 120 seconds.
“Drop down to 600,” said Bart. “Head for the New Jersey shoreline, but turn south just before you get there. Make sure you stay over the river.”
Six hundred feet was incredibly low, but I wasn’t worried since we were now over water, not skyscrapers. Funny the difference that makes. I banked left and pointed us directly downstream, New Jersey on our right, New York on our left.
And now we could really see it: Manhattan—the whole point of the trip. We’d been too close for a good view before—actually flying over and among the buildings themselves. Now it was spread out before us like a smorgasbord of light. It was the City of Lights—an incredible, shameless, display of luminescence erupting upwards from the black waters of the Hudson river. At our present altitude there was as much above us as below. It was scintillating, dazzling, mesmerizing—special effects so vast even Hollywood could not have produced it. I knew Helen, directly behind me, must be in awe. She was getting the ride of her life—first time ever in New York, first time ever in a private plane. I’d lived here eight years and had never seen what I was seeing now.
Mesmerizing or not it was important not to get mesmerized. Bart had switched from LaGuardia tower frequency to Unicom frequency. Unicom is like CB radio. It’s what pilots use in uncontrolled airspace to notify each other of their positions. Here, in one of the most densely populated spots on the planet, it seemed insane that the airspace was completely uncontrolled, but in fact it was. And it was uncontrolled only because we were flying so low. A few hundred feet above our heads was all the control in the world. Rolls Royce Class Bravo airspace. Yet the big jets and the LaGuardia towers didn’t concern themselves with aircraft flying just a few hundred feet above the ground. Of course flying that low, itself, would have been illegal if we truly were over the ground. But we were over water—the Hudson River—and different rules applied. We could fly as low as we wished over water, because water is “uninhabited”. Just beneath the heavily-controlled Class Bravo airspace, the Hudson river is no different than the deserts of Utah, or the wheat fields of North Dakota. Yet a few hundred yards to our left were the tallest buildings in the world, and the most densely populated island in the world. It was a very unusual combination of physical geography and aviation rules that let us do what we were now doing, and see what we were now seeing.
As we flew south we were passing the Empire State Building, a huge flaming edifice of concrete towering above us. At this same latitude, moored to the pier, was the U.S.S. Intrepid, an aircraft carrier turned museum.
I heard something from the back seat and Bart broke out laughing.
“What?” I asked.
“Jim says we should do a touch-and-go on the Intrepid!”
Funny guy, that Jim.
OK, here came the granddaddy of tall buildings. Numero Uno. The Big Apple in the Big Apple. The World Trade Center. 1,742 feet high. We were flying no more than 500 yards away from it, and much closer to its base than it’s top floor. It towered above us. But I wasn’t interested in the World Trade Center. It was just another huge lighted building, or pair of buildings. One’s mind becomes numb to such things, flying past Manhattan at night. The real jewel was coming up. Helen had her heart set on seeing the Statue of Liberty at least once while in New York, and by God I was going to show it to her.
The Cessna was crossing New York harbor now, and Liberty Island was dead ahead. The chart had emphasized that you are not allowed to fly over National Park monuments, at least below 2,000 feet. But you can fly awfully close to them. The Statue of Liberty was such a monument. And just to the north was Ellis Island, where all the immigrants had arrived, and it, also, was a don’t-fly-over-me national monument.
“What you’re going to do,” explained Bart, is fly past Ellis, then bank sharply and fly just to the west of the Statue.
“You mean fly right through that tiny gap of water, between the two?” Perhaps a hundred yards separated Liberty Island from Ellis Island.
Well, this would be interesting. 600 feet over the dark waters of the harbor, we shot past the first island, Ellis Island, and I quickly rolled the Cessna into a 45 degree-bank turn to the right. Then, with Ellis behind us, I banked sharply to the left. We were going counter clockwise, now, around the Statue of Liberty. Coming around to the south, we had a clean shot to the Verazzano Narrows bridge and then out over the Atlantic.
“We can head to the bridge now, or you can take one more turn round the statue.”
There had been so much visual and intellectual and emotional stimulation in the last fifteen minutes that I was ready to be conservative.
“Let’s head for the bridge,” I said.
“OK,” replied Bart. “Steer directly towards the Verazzano bridge.”
No navigational task could have been easier. One of the wonders of the modern world, the Verazzano Narrows bridge is the, or perhaps one of the, longest suspension bridges in the world. The Golden Gate in San Francisco takes second fiddle to this mother of all bridges. And tonight it was aglow, brilliantly, with lights draped over its towers, its cables, its roadways, everything. A brief flight across the harbor, over the bridge, and we’d be free of Manhattan and back over the Atlantic Ocean.
On the other hand, I’d completed only three fourths of a circle around the Statue of Liberty. You can’t say you’ve “circled” something if you’ve only circled it part way. And when was I going to be here again?
I banked the Cessna sharply to the left.
“Changed my mind,” I announced to Bart. “I want to circle the Statue again.”
“Go for it!” said Bart.
A common flight maneuver, in flight training, is “turns around a point”. Typically you identify an easy-to-spot point on the ground, such as the intersection of two roads, a large oak tree in a field, a farmhouse, whatever, and you fly a 360 degree turn around it, trying to adjust for wind effect as necessary to keep the radius constant. Now I was doing a turn-around-a-point, and the point was the Statue of Liberty.
But I realized we had a problem. Helen, in the back seat, was desperately trying to take pictures. A Cessna Skyhawk is a high-wing airplane. The steeper the bank, the more the wing obscures the view. Yet in this case the shallower the bank, the more we would be flying past the statue, and not around it.
I tried to find a balance, but the two goals were incompatible. So I banked sharply for a few seconds, then leveled out to a more shallow turn for a few seconds, then banked sharply again, and could only hope that somewhere in there the photography was working itself out. This prolonged the second journey around the statue, but were we in a hurry? Circling the Statue of Liberty at night wasn’t something I needed to do quickly. Like a good wine, it deserved to be savored.
Meanwhile Bart was keeping busy on the Unicom frequency. I was dimly aware of what was happening. A helicopter was flying towards New Jersey from lower Manhattan—directly across our flight path. Another Cessna was approaching from Staten Island, but they were a thousand feet higher. One more small plane was in the area as well, but I got confused on where he was. Three other aircraft. In seconds I’d spotted two of them, but Bart had identified all three, and pronounced that we were OK. The helicopter shot past, just below us as we continued our second turn around Liberty Island. Bart was keeping everyone informed of our status.
“Hudson river traffic, Cessna 371 taking another turn around the lady at 600 feet.”
That seemed to be all the explanation anyone needed. “The lady” was obviously the statue. I suspected that some of these other aircraft were queuing up to dance with her as well, but for the moment she was all ours. And how beautiful she looked, from just a few hundred feet in the air. Lights from Liberty Island bathed her radiantly, and held high in the air was her torch, aglow with fire or so it seemed. I couldn’t see her face very well. But the top of her head held no secrets from any of us.
The second turn complete, I was now ready to head southeast across New York harbor and escape into the night.
“You’ll need to climb back to at least 800 feet to clear the bridge,” explained Bart.
Certainly I could believe that. The Verazzano Narrows bridge looked like some kind of Stephen Spielberg space ship, of vast dimension, and hovering in the air directly ahead of us. I added power and the little Cessna climbed back to eight hundred feet, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan sparkling under our left wingtip. According to the chart, the tops of the Verazzano towers were at 700 feet, brilliantly-lit sentinels guarding the city. I flew between them, with Brooklyn on our left, Staten Island on our right, and the bridge itself beautifully aglow with countless lights.
“OK, drop down to 300,” said Bart as we cleared the bridge. “There’s Coney Island. Fly right along the coast, but stay over the water.”
“Yep. 300 feet. We’ve got Kennedy to deal with now.”
I pushed the nose down and it seemed we were all but skimming the waves. Coney Island was coming up on our left, its Ferris wheel brightly sparkling. People were down there eating hot dogs, popcorn, and all kinds of wonderful junk food. Perhaps a few would look up into the darkness and see our little Cessna with its flashing strobe light and rotating beacon. On the other hand, with all the distractions of Coney Island, we were probably invisible. The thought of hot dogs sounded delicious, as we’d only had a light snack on the train.
Kennedy Airport is no busier than LaGuardia, but the planes are bigger. Kennedy handles the 747’s coming in from places like Europe, South America, Japan and Hong Kong. And there they all were, stacked up on the approach path, a long, ascending line of lights stretching south over the Atlantic. This approach path brought them across the water, right to the runways which had been built out over Jamaica Bay. So when these planes crossed over land, they were quite low. And we had to be lower.
LaGuardia had condescended to treat us kindly. But the Kennedy controllers were far loftier. What would they think of a mere 4-seat Cessna, slinking in from Coney Island?
Bart handled the radio.
“Kennedy Approach, Cessna 62371, passing Coney Island over the water flying eastbound. We’ll stay under the Bravo.”
By this he meant we would be staying lower than 500 feet, and would thus be “under” the Class Bravo airspace of Kennedy. Technically, because we would be under the Bravo, we didn’t really need to contact Kennedy Approach at all. It was a courtesy call. But it pays to be courteous when flying just below the approach path of a dozen 747’s.
“Roger Cessna 62371, squawk 1245 and ident.”
Wow, I’d never been asked to “ident.” Ident (short for “identify” and pronounced “eye-dent”) is a special feature on a transponder. Normally the transponder is just sitting there, strongly returning the radar signal to the controllers, and including altitude information. Yet sometimes the controllers aren’t sure where you are, or which “dot” on their screen is you. In our case we were so low we were probably almost not visible to them at all. In such cases the controllers will tell a pilot to “ident”. You push the ident button on the transponder, and the transponder goes nuts, proactively sending out a very powerful signal of its own. I’m told that for a controller, when a pilot presses ident a burst of light appears on the radar screen and it’s very, very obvious which dot that airplane is. Yet I’d never been asked to do so, in all my years of flying. On the other hand, I’d never tried to sneak under Kennedy’s approach path, a few hundred feet above the water, either. I pressed “ident”.
“Cessna 371, radar contact. Fly heading 080, stay below 500 feet”
That was simple enough, and I was willing to make the reply.
“Roger, Kennedy, 080, stay below 500, Cessna 371.”
I was getting good at this!
Having dealt with the Cessna, the controller went on to give rapid-fire orders to Alitalia, Lufthansa, and Air France pilots.
We were cleanly over the Atlantic now, perhaps half a mile from the Long Island coast and the world of lights had vanished. The beaches were deserted, and while here and there a light could be seen on shore, there were no tall towers, or skyscrapers, or bridges all aglow. There was only the blackness of the ocean and, shining above us, a full moon casting its pale light over the waves. Things had become peaceful again, but not boring. I was only three hundred feet in the air, and was very conscious of that fact. A pilot flying cross-country can easily drift up or down several hundred feet before even noticing it. Other than for takeoffs and landings, I’d never flown this low before—ever. And I was now doing so not just at night, but over the ocean.
When you learn to fly in Iowa, low-level, night-time, ocean flying isn’t something you get to practice very often.
On the other hand it wasn’t especially difficult. As long as we didn’t hit the water, the airplane didn’t care how close to it we were. And there was no problem with disorientation. The moonlight on the waves, the nearby coastline, the occasional light on shore, all made the picture very clear to the eye. But I did keep one eye glued to the altimeter nonetheless.
“Cessna 371, continue present heading, radar service terminated.”
“Roger, understand radar service terminated. Cessna 371” I replied.
Certainly a more confident pilot would have made some farewell comment, such as “g’day mates, catch ya on the return from London” or something, but I was not up to the challenge.
Having passed underneath the worst of the Bravo airspace—the airspace that came within 500 feet of the waves—we were free to ascend anywhere up to 1,500 feet, where the Bravo airspace was still in force. A few miles beyond that, the Bravo airspace had its floor at 4,000 feet. Bravo airspace marches outwards from large airports like an upside down wedding cake—in multiple levels. What it’s doing, of course, is protecting the big jets as they climb out to their lofty altitudes, or descend back down from them. Soon we would be past all the Bravo airspace, and would be free to climb as high as 18,000 feet, at least legally. 18,000 and above is Alpha airspace, and is 100% controlled.
“Let’s climb to a thousand,” suggested Bart, and up went our little Cessna, it’s engine roaring with a new sense of urgency as I pushed the throttle as far as it would go. Whooah! My fear of heights kicked in. After flying at 300 feet, a thousand felt giddy. I joked about this to Bart.
“Hey, Bart, we must be in, like, Class Alpha by now, don’t you think?” That was an airspace joke. Declaring that we must be close to Class Alpha (18,000 feet) was actually pretty funny, and Bart cracked up. I was pleased I could make an experienced pilot laugh with airspace jokes.
I only knew the one.
Having escaped the waves, a new drama began unfolding. A few of the lights on the instrument panel were flickering off and on. There is no one instrument that is more important than any other, in general. However, at any given time, different instruments are much more important. Right now the altimeter was probably in first place. We were still quite low, and still over water. The altimeter’s light was doing fine and I could ignore everything else. Like, who cared about the fuel gage? But when landing an airplane the most important instrument by far is the airspeed indicator. And there was a problem with the airspeed indicator light. The light was flickering on and off. I tapped it a few times. It went on. Then it flickered. Then it went off. I tapped again. On. Off. On. Then off—permanently. I brought this to Bart’s attention. “Hmm,” he said. Then he took the light that was illuminating the Artificial Horizon indicator, and twisted it so it now pointed at the Airspeed Indicator. I didn’t know you could do this but it neatly solved the problem.
“You’ve just had an Artificial Horizon failure,” said Bart. “Good practice. Deal with it.”
Well, anyone could deal with an Artificial Horizon failure when flying visually. You only use the Artificial Horizon when flying on instruments. So the AH ‘failure’ was a non-event. Then the light from the Artificial Horizon, now being used to shine on the airspeed indicator, also went off.
“No problem!” said Bart, and on went the flashlight.
“Please just have that flashlight ready when we’re landing!” I pleaded. I was awfully glad I’d remembered to ask for one. I had no idea how to land a plane without reference to the airspeed indicator.
Now we were coming up on the Fire Island beaches, the beginning of which was a VFR checkpoint for landing at Islip. “Captree Bridge” connects the western end of Fire Island to the mainland. Hence “Captree” is the name of the checkpoint. Like Santa Claus, you have to know its meaning ahead of time.
We were about to enter Class Charlie airspace.
Oh, gee. How scary. As a Bravo airspace veteran, Class Charlie was so totally beneath me it was almost embarrassing to enter the stuff.
I didn’t even bother to ask directions from Bart, but initiated the conversation myself.
“Islip Approach, Cessna 62371 over captree, inbound for landing.”
“Cesssna 62371, Islip. Cleared for straight in approach to runway six.
“Roger, Islip, cleared straight in to runway six. Cessna 371.”
This was easy. There were no 747’s I had to sneak under. No helicopters were buzzing about. No bridges needed to be climbed over, or reservoirs crossed. Even my thousand foot altitude was about right for the traffic pattern. The airport beacon had been in view for some time. Now the runway itself was becoming visible. Soon I would begin a shallow banked turn to the right to line up on final.
“Cessna 371, contact Tower, 118.9.”
“Going to 118.9, Cessna 371.”
I reached up and changed the radio frequency, then called the Tower.
“Islip tower, Cessna 62371.”
I could have said more, like where I was, my altitude, where I was going, etc., but who would I be kidding? The Islip tower controller was probably sitting two feet away from the Islip approach controller, and the arrival of this Cessna Skyhawk late at night from out of the Atlantic was probably the most exciting thing that would happen all shift. The Tower controller had probably been just desperate for Approach to hand me off to him, so he’d have someone to talk to. The sky was deserted.
“Cessna 371. Cleared to land.”
Hmmm. Get right to the point, don’t you, tower? Not exactly a talkative guy. Didn’t he have some VFR checkpoints to try to confuse me with? I could take it. Oh well.
“Cleared to land, Cessna 371.”
Yawn. Class Charlie airspace was soooo boring…
Bart had his headset off, and was joking with the passengers, not even paying attention to the fact that I’d entered Class Charlie on my own, was being handed off by approach control to the tower, was getting ready to turn on final, and was about to land.
Then Bart came back to life.
“Cessna 371, come left to heading 360, intercept ILS, maintain 1,000 feet until intercept.”
Bart was pretending he was an Air Traffic Controller. He was giving me instructions that would make sense only for an IFR pilot flying on instruments. But he knew I was IFR-rated, and he wanted me to practice some more skills. Didn’t the man know I was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted?
Actually I wasn’t. I was having as much fun as he was, and the guy in the tower was a real dud.
“Roger, understand cleared to intercept ILS, Cessna 371.”
I banked the plane to the left. The Omni receiver was already tuned to the proper ILS frequency, and sure enough, here came the needle. This was all so silly. Bart was taking me down to the runway via instruments, when the runway was right there, for all of us to see. It was long, and brilliantly lit up, and there were all kinds of lights, and things were flashing on and off, and the whole runway was screaming “Here I am! Here I am!” But perhaps it was good practice.
The ILS needle moved towards the center and I banked to the right, trying to intercept the localizer perfectly. Close enough. Now we were on final, and I ran through the landing checklist. Fuel tanks on both. Mixture in. Carb heat on. Throttle back to idle. Ten degrees of flaps. Landing light on.
The airspeed indicator light was behaving itself for the moment, but Bart had his flashlight ready just in case. This was going to be an easy landing. The runway was 7,000 feet long. I needed 600 feet of it. And even though it was my first night landing in 26 years, I wasn’t concerned. Everything was so beautifully lit up, and all these flashing lights, and there was simply no possibility of getting disoriented…by…the…….flashing………uhhh …
Whooah! I had to snap out of it. I remembered one other little detail about flying at night. When landing, don’t let yourself stare at the runway. You’ll get disoriented. Keep your eyes darting around, picking up visual cues everywhere you can find them. As soon as I did that, everything was OK again. We crossed over the runway threshold, about fifty feet in the air.
“Keep your speed up on this one,” suggested Bart. “The extra weight in the back is going to make a difference. When you flare out, you’re going to sink fast, so just be ready with extra power.”
Oh, right. I’d forgotten about all those people in back. I kept the landing speed higher than normal, flared very gently, power all the way off, and then—bang—we were on the runway. Wow. Yes, we had dropped fast, those last few feet. It was not one of my velvety-smooth, sensual, kiss-the-runway-lightly landings. But it wasn’t bad, either.
“Cessna 371, maintain this frequency.”
That was an interesting clue into how slow things were up in the tower. After you exit the runway, you always—always—change frequencies and call Ground Control. Obviously, Tower was enjoying themselves so much that they didn’t want to lose me.
I took the first available taxiway exit, and then braked to a stop.
“Tower, Cessna 371, clear of active, going to Mid-Island.”
He gave me the clearance to proceed and soon we were pulling up in front of the Mid-Island ramp. One last thing: the engine shutdown checklist. Radios off. Avionics master off. Carb heat off. Mixture out. (That’s how you kill the engine. You lean the mixture to zero and suddenly the engine finds it’s only getting air in the carburetor.) The prop spun down and was silent. A few more switches turned off, and it was over. I took off the headset.
“That…Was…Awesome,” said Helen—her first opportunity to talk to me since I’d started the engine almost two hours ago.
Bart and Jim drove us to the train station and I asked Bart if he could spare a second to sign my logbook.
“Don’t need to!” he explained. “You were fully qualified and legal to fly the plane tonight. You were pilot-in-command. I was just a co-pilot. You can sign your own logbook!” And he drove off, laughing.
“Wow,” I said to Helen. “I was pilot-in-command. I didn’t even realize it!”
“I’m very impressed,” said Helen, not quite sure what pilot-in-command meant, but recognizing a good opportunity to flatter me. She fell asleep on the train ride back to Manhattan, but I was too keyed up. I heard ATC clearances going off in my head for hours.
The next night I accompanied Kim to the American Gem Society Circle of Distinction dinner, a very formal affair at the elegant “Rainbow Room” atop Rockefeller Center.
The Rainbow Room is famous for having possibly the best view of Manhattan, available anywhere. As we sat at our table sipping wine with the other guests, a thousand feet above street level, looking out over the brilliantly-lit city, I had to admit that the view was good. Yet something was nagging at me, something I couldn’t put a finger on.
Finally it came to me. A thousand feet in the air? Over Manhattan? Good heavens. We were in tightly-controlled Class Bravo airspace! Did we have a clearance for this!
I tried to not let it ruin the evening…