Mixing with the Big Boys

737 at Lindbergh Field

737 at Lindbergh Field

This past weekend I took Rudy to Comic-con. It is the international convention of people in the comic business, held each year in San Diego. With the success of movies like Batman, The Matrix, Spider-man, Batman Begins, X-Men and so forth, Hollywood has discovered Comic-con. Attendance has exploded. In my later youth (maybe I’m still in that), I was one of only a few kids I knew who read comic books, so I’ve always considered comics a small, niche audience, a strange little subculture. When it was possible to schedule a day to take a look with Rudy (who loves comics like only a ten-year old can) I jumped at it.

We flew down. It has been unbearable hot in Southern California (and, apparently, across the country and around the globe), and even at six thousand feet it was ninety-five degrees. Rudy, as usual, was an excellent sport. He helped with the pre-flight, testing and draining the fuel. He untied us and un-chocked the wheels. He did a couple radio calls and as I copied the clearance for the mini-route south through LAX’s airspace the tower controller at Santa Monica said, “You’re son’s doing a really good job on the radio.”

Researching our adventure, I located the San Diego Convention Center with Google Maps and then looked for nearby landing strips with Runway Finder. The closest was San Diego International, also known as Lindbergh Field. It was less than two miles along the harbor’s edge to the convention center, which turned out to be a ten dollar cab ride. (We would have walked back, but our tootsies were tender from tromping around in the show.)

There were a couple other smaller fields, but each of them looked to be a good fifteen to twenty minute drive. That meant renting a car, which meant parking, plus navigating a strange city… Lindbergh Field seemed like a better bet.

Depending on the size of an airport, the airspace around it will be a particular class. Lindbergh Field is a Class B airport. I fly out of Santa Monica, which is Class D. D means there is a control tower, and they often have a radar feed from a larger airport nearby (LAX feeds Santa Monica). For a Class D airport you need to establish communications before you can enter their airspace. Class C fields are between the two. I’ve landed at quite a few of those: Van Nuys, Santa Barbara, John Wayne and Fresno. When you are learning the airspace classifications, Class B is “B for Big.” Other examples of Class B airports: LAX, JFK, Newark, O’Hare. (There are no Class A airports, which I guess means there is nothing bigger than B.)

Most larger airports with scheduled airliner flights have multiple runways. That makes it much easier to serve large and small planes. Up at Santa Barbara I usually land on One Five Left, a four thousand foot runway, while the regional commuter jets land on the six thousand foot runway, Two Seven. So although we are at the same airport, I am not really competing for the same space. Even LAX has four runways (all oriented the same way), so the freight and private Gulfstream jets land on the south runways and the trans-continental and trans-oceanic land on the north.

There’s only one runway at Lindbergh. They have six hundred operations (either a takeoff or a landing) each day, and seventy percent of their traffic is commercial. If they operated twenty-four hours a day they would have three minutes between each plane on the runway. They don’t, so it must be more frequent. That’s fast and busy.

I asked an online friend (also a DiamondStar pilot) if he had flown into San Diego. Specifically, I asked if the controllers treated him like a pain in the ass. (Word is, for instance, that you can land at LAX in a little plane, but they will take an hour and a half to get you a takeoff slot.) He said the controllers were nice and he had no problems.

It was only a forty-five minute flight down. As I approached, they vectored me very carefully into the airspace, right over the Mission Bay VOR, so that I was lined up perfectly for a forty-five degree entry to the traffic pattern. They switched me over to the tower, who told me about four traffic targets which I should be looking for. I watched them on my traffic scope and caught sight of them out the window. My favorite was: “Boeing 757 on a two mile final, do you have it in sight?” The huge passenger jet, flying past me about a mile to my right and in the opposite direction? Sure, got that. Understatement: “Cleared to land after the 757, caution: wake turbulence.”

I landed after a 757 and before a 737. I touched down right on the thousand foot markers, no bump or bounce, and turned off at the first taxiway. It was a two minute taxi to Jimsair, the general aviation service joint. They were friendly even though I wasn’t a jet. (By the end of the day, when we were leaving, there were more than a dozen corporate jets parked on the same ramp as our little piston plane.) We hopped into a cab and in less than ten dollars were walking the last couple blocks to the convention center.

(There was a mile long line, even with our pre-registration printed up from the Internet. Our friend renee came and saved us. It was over a hundred degrees. After a couple hours (close to three) of walking around the convention center looking at comics, comic artists, comic art, comic costumes, comic collections, and a graphic novel or two, Rudy was ready to head home. He especially loved the WhizKids booth where he was able to play Hero Clicks for nearly an hour with real “professional players.”)

The take off was even better than the landing. But first, I made my one goof of the whole trip when I called Lindbergh Ground before calling Lindbergh Clearance. Whoops. Wasted forty seconds of their time because I had neglected to notice there was a special frequency just for picking up your clearance to leave the field. Okay, then we taxi, do the run up and hold short of the runway. I listened to the tower and they were talking to a Skylane (small propeller plane like us). It’s the same “There’s a 747 on short final, do you have that traffic?” call that I got. It’s a constant stream of landing and departing big jets.

They land the jet and ask if I can be ready to go. I say I am ready to roll. I drop the flaps, lock the canopy and close the vents. I open the throttle a little. The moment the Cessna Skylane crosses in front of me to land the tower says, “Niner Seven One Romeo Delta, position and hold.” I roll out onto Two Seven and, since the runway is nine thousand feet long, continue in a very slow roll, so I am that much close to rotation speed. (The plane can take off in little more than a thousand feet.) I have slow-rolled a couple hundred feet when I hear, “Alaska Four One Six, position and hold. The small plane in front of you will be making a right turn off the deck. There’s a 737 on four mile final. Can you be spooled up and ready to go?” “Affirmative.” The Alaska Air 737 that was holding short on the other side of the runway starts to roll out onto the runway behind me. In front of me the Cessna is just clearing the runway. I hear the huge jet engines behind me start to spool up to take off thrust.

San Diego Tower

San Diego Tower

The tower says, “One Romeo Delta, cleared for take off, make your right turn as soon as altitude permits, faster departing traffic behind you.” No kidding, the 737 rotates (leaves the runway) at 151 knots, a good twenty knots faster than I cruise. I acknowledge and as soon I am a wing length off the ground I bank right for my departure heading of 310. That puts me on a direct course for the control tower to the right of the runway, so I correct a little left. I fly past the tower, about hundred feet from it, level with the windows in the top. As I close in the departing jet is roaring off the runway and the tower says, “Nice job, One Romeo Delta, thanks for the help today.” I love those moments, because it means I’ve been flying enough, and paying attention enough, and trying hard enough, that I seem professional and confident.

It was a good flying adventure because it would have been a three hour drive down and it wouldn’t have seemed worth it for the time we spent looking around. But the flight itself was really fun, and we were able to return whenever we needed to, and we had no worries about traffic on the I-5 (which didn’t look good from the air, by the way).

On the way down Rudy sat in the co-pilot’s seat and was interested in nearly everything that was happening. On the return flight he sat in the back. He asked for his headset to be isolated from the air traffic controller chatter and listened to his iPod. He read his Dungeon & Dragons book, ate his roast beef sandwich, and sipped his Fiji water. I looked back as I leveled out at our cruising altitude (6,500 feet above the Pacific) and it didn’t look like a bad Saturday afternoon at all.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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