Charlotte, NC to Washington DC

Thursday, April 2

This was one of our shortest days of flying, since we had pushed a little the night before. We hung around the hotel in the morning, so that Nell could send her script off to the producers, and then made our way to the airport. There was weather around Charlotte and hanging over DC, so I had filed an instrument flight plan.

Conga line behind us

Conga line behind us

The passengers hung out in the comfortable FBO lounge while I loaded the plane in a wet wind. It wasn’t really raining, but the occasional gust picked up water from the runway and tossed it at me. While everyone was getting aboard I warned them that there could easily be a delay waiting for our departure slot. I was glad I warned them; there was nearly a ten minute wait just to talk to the clearance controller. He read my clearance to me, I read it back, then the ground controller had me taxi up to the main runway and hold short before I crossed it. We waited there another ten minutes.

[Part of our Spring Break 2009 Trip.]

When we scooted across (while another heavy jet rolled into position down at the other end of the runway) we then continued our roll across the crosswind runway (where landing traffic was coming in very regularly) and got in line to take off. We were in line behind six huge passenger jets. These were Southwest-sized planes (Boeing 737s) or the Airbus equivalent (A320s). I stayed at least a city block back from the jet in front of me because even just the power they use to taxi is enough thrust to flip our little plane over onto its back. That would ruin our whole trip.

As we inched forward the ground controller would say, “One Romeo Delta, hold at taxiway charlie to let a regional just in,” and I would stop and another plane would get in front of me. On the third one we were a little perturbed, but the truth is the ground controller was working it out so that our departure time lined up with when we reached the end of the runway. Sure enough, when we got to the end there was no delay, we just rolled out, held for a moment for landing traffic on the crossing runway, and then pushed the throttle forward. (While we were holding I noted that there were eight large jets waiting to take off. We were the only little piston plane I saw on the airport that morning or the night before.)

As we climbed up into the clouds, and then through them, we followed the rapid-fire instructions from the Charlotte departure controller. He handed us off to another controller and she allowed us to climb on the assigned heading. Once things calmed down Nell said, “Was that a difficult departure?” I explained that there wasn’t anything difficult about the flying, but the environment was full of professional pilots, and controllers who dealt almost exclusively with professional pilots, and I didn’t want to be the little guy screwing up their flow. She nodded. “You were sweating before we even left the ground.”

There is a little airport closer to my brother than any large airport, but it is within a freedom-stealing piece of airspace known as the FRZ. It’s ridiculous to think that someone could do damage with a little airplane, but they continue to severely curtail the general aviation activity around the nation’s capital. Just more of the security theater that everyone is so fond of since 9.11. So we were flying into Dulles.

It was just a little over two hours in the air. We were between layers almost the entire way, the overcast layer was below us by a couple thousand and there was another broken layer a few thousand feet above us. It was surreal. Way off to the right we could see the Atlantic.

It was below freezing up at seven thousand feet, so I was working to stay clear of visible moisture. (Below freezing temperatures plus visible moisture equals ice forming on the aircraft, something our little plane is not equipped for.) Ice is not an immediate problem, I have had a little ice form on the leading edge of the wings before, but it would mean changing our flight path or getting cleared to a lower altitude. Down low we would burn more fuel and go slower, so I just asked for little deviations around clouds. And, in particular, I steered around some precipitation which showed up on our NextRAD weather radar images. The rain might have been below us, but I didn’t want to find out by flying through it. Freezing rain is the type of precipitation which forms ice the fastest on the plane.

(One of my first instructors said that he was flying our little training plane in the clouds one fall and hearing planes around him diverting for ice and he felt pretty good because he was clear of it, and then all of a sudden he was in a downpour and it seemed that an inch of ice formed in less than thirty seconds. He went from complacent to declaring an emergency in less than a minute. A hundred and eighty degree turn and a descent to warmer air and he was fine.)

As we approached Dulles we were giving clearance to lower altitudes, and I felt better about heading into some of the clouds. On the way up I kept checking the weather at Dulles and for a lot of our flight it was right at the minimums for the ILS approach. It was fog, and that would be a little interesting for us. The runways were so long that I imagined it would be possible to hang at the minimum descent altitude and look for the runway for quite a while before we had to leave to land somewhere else (or to try again on the same approach). Half an hour before we got to Dulles a wind blew out a lot of the fog and the ceilings were a few hundred feet higher. That’s all we needed.

The Dulles approach controller vectored us around for the approach and a couple business jets buzzed in right over our heads. We were slow traffic for him to have to deal with. When we got on the ground I had email from TW saying, “Hey, did you get a hold? What was that. That looked like some real IFR flying from here.” He had been watching us on FlightAware, a site which shows the radar track of the plane in flight. What he had seen was the tight loop on the final approach course where the controller realized that he had faster traffic coming up behind us, so he had to take us off the approach and then put us back on after that plane.

Dulles Terminal

Dulles Terminal

We landed and taxied past the great Saarinen terminal building. I point it out to the boys and said that the last time they had been at this airport was last year’s spring break, when we flew in on JetBlue.

The lineman marshaled us into the parking area of the FBO. We went past two dozen corporate jets. There is a lot of money in Washington, DC. We were the only little piston single there. When we went inside and the boys were talking to the woman behind the counter they said we had come from Santa Monica and she said, “In that little plane?”

Yup, that little plane brought us all the way from coast to coast again. We unpacked it, buttoned it up, and headed off in the FBO’s crew car to take a look at the Air & Space hangar at Dulles, where they have a space shuttle and all sorts of cool aircraft to see.

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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