Comfort and Circling

Somewhere over the city I was born in, Red Bank, New Jersey

Back at the end of May 2022 we were looking at one our first adventures since the pandemic began. It’s amazing how few opportunities we had to get out and hope around in the little plane with things shut down, fewer gatherings to head to and so on. And for me, wearing a mask was often a reminder of how somehow a public health crisis became political, making me too aware of the political schisms and various media irresponsibilities in the country.

Every good trip starts with a negative test

But it was summertime in the northeast, which means the snow removal vehicles were all back in their sheds and the state had rolled out all of the cones, jersey barriers, and crews for road maintenance. This includes runways, a short road that we take to get into the sky. So as we taxied out to runway two-eight I was glad that the wind was less than five knots. Runway three-five would have been better with the direction of wind we had, but it had a bunch of workers figuring out something to do with the taxiway and associated markings. There were a lot of orange cones and the big X at both ends of the runway to tell pilots that it was closed. Definitely closed. So we had a tiny crosswind, and tiny tiny headwind for our take off. We were climbing up over the car dealerships of Norwood in moment.

With the plane back at Norwood after its maintenance, Nell and I were able to go on an adventure. She had helped with a commencement speech being given at William & Mary. Since her parents met and married on the campus, and I’d never seen one of her commencement speeches delivered live, we climbed in little Two Romeo Delta for the three hours down to Newport News.

Climbing up over cranberry bogs

The time from the climbing out alongside the little communities south of Boston, looking out to the east to the Cape as it unwinds into the Atlantic, to the Long Island Sound and the packed island of Manhattan is always surprisingly short to me. Nell was a little surprised that we were allowed to fly directly over JFK, but we’re really in the least conflict at nearly two miles above the airport. That’s where all the airport’s traffic is below a couple thousand feet.

I grew up, for the first eight years, on the “Gold Coast” of New Jersey, and we got a pretty good view and we crossed the New York Harbor and flew over the surf breaking on Sandy Hook’s beaches and WW2 gun emplacements. I was able to point out the Navesink River, which during my mother’s childhood froze every winter solid enough that there were iceboat racers. We could see the Oceanic Bridge, and where it met River Road there was a Dairy Queen that I can still remember, with its little sliding windows and chocolate-shelled soft-serve.

We continued south and flew over the portion of that coast that most people would be more familiar with, since so many have listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “Greetings from Asbury Park.” A little further south and we fly over Atlantic City where I wish I had the chance to land at their little airport. I admit that I have no interest in gambling, so I don’t have much reason to be there. I remember during my training seeing a video of a jet that tried to land at the Atlantic City airport and went off the end of the runway into the bay. The pilot didn’t shut the engine before exiting through the emergency hatch, so the turbine was howling, spray water, and slowly was silenced as it sunk into the salt water. The airport is not authorized for jets, so I wonder whether the insurance company had to pay out on that one.

It got hazier as we flew past Wilmington. I loved watching the coastline for as long as we could see it. The Chesapeake Bay is so vast, even from the air, but the fog started showing up along the coast (foreshadowing!), so mostly we were looking ahead and I was planning the approach into a new airport. There’s quite a bit of military training around Newport News, with Norfolk being just south, so I wasn’t surprised that I was sequenced in among a few formation flights to get to the airport.

We had landed in the area before, but at the tiny airport closer to the campus. I love little airports, but if you land at one you might be faced with fewer services than you will get at the nearby larger spot. Since we were headed down on business, it was important to get a rental car and make it to the event on time. That meant the larger airport.

Click if you want to see three hours of a commencement, this was the best speaker

It was an excellent event and went off very smoothly. It was a little hot in the stadium, but that’s what you expect from a commencement. Nell and I slept in a room in a hotel that Rockefeller’s stayed in back when they were encouraging the idea of a theme park for colonial history.

The front row paying attention

With a monstrous heat wave rolling up the eastern seaboard we got to the plane as soon as we could in the morning. With fueling, packing it up, and settling the bill we were in the air at 9:30am. Our headwind from the day before was now our tailwind and our flight time back up to Norwood was only two and a half hours. The day was not yet hazy and the landscape that slid by beneath us was fascinating.

Touring the campus the night after commencement

Checking the weather the night before there was meant to be some early morning fog over the coast of Massachusetts that would burn off as the sun rose. It should be a thin, scattered layer of clouds sitting at two thousand feet by the time we were descending into the airspace over Providence and heading north.

It was a wonderful flight north. Absolutely stunning views over the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, and the communities that are stretched along the thin sandy islands facing the Atlantic are fascinating. 

As we came in over the Long Island Sound it was clear that the clouds were not going to open over our airport so we would need to pick up an instrument clearance into Norwood. Air traffic control was happy to provide it. Since we were descending our ground speed was pretty high and we skipped through Providence approach’s airspace and into Boston approach’s. We lined up on the RNAV approach to runway 35. 

Now you remember the orange cones, right? Still working away on that project. (Ultimately, I learned that the FAA was discouraging taxiways that lead directly from the ramp onto the runway. There were too many incidents where a pilot taxied right onto the runway thinking they were headed onto another taxiway. So they were scrubbing a portion of taxiway delta and you would need to enter the runway at either end instead. This took months even though, to me, it looked like a project the size of a residential driveway.)

Nighttime in Colonial Williamsburg

So under a fourteen hundred foot ceiling we would need to break off the approach and line up for runway 28 instead. There are risks associated with a circling approach because the bottom of the clouds can be ragged and you can have the runway in sight and, moments later, then you are inside a cloud and can’t see anything at all. If you are not familiar with the airport and its environs, seeing the runway enough to get properly set up for a visual approach can be difficult. 

When I first got my instrument rating I learned that charter jet pilots are, for the most part, not allowed to do circling approaches. Not by regulation, but by the agreed practices for the various charter jet companies. That shouldn’t have been the surprise it was, because they are usually coming into larger airports that have plenty of approaches to the various runways. But my decision early on was “no contact approaches,” figuring that if a pair of professional pilots with recurrent training and experience I figured I would never get were not allowed to do them, it would be foolish to presume I should be flying them.

Years of flying in the clouds and understanding the transition in and out of them made me more comfortable with the idea. At my home airport of Santa Monica (KSMO), where I had hundreds and hundreds of landings, I even flew a contact approach once (you just need to keep the ground in sight). That requires an extreme awareness of the environs, but since that was terrain that I drove and flew constantly, I was okay with it. 

Additional equipment mattered, too. And my familiarity with it. Over time I understood that our little DiamondStar had a more advanced set of instruments than a lot of the little Citation jets that were landing at Santa Monica. And certainly more than the Learjet that crashed in San Diego not long ago while it was performing a circling approach. The additional engine on the TwinStar made it easier to accept a circling approach clearance since one of my concerns was losing the engine at low altitude and not being able to glide to the runway. 

So we dropped out of the clouds just south of the airport and I veered to the east, away from the centerline of the three-five runway. Things were darker under the clouds than they had been on top, which took a moment to adjust to. Our gear was already extended, which slows us down. As I made the gentle turn to the north and west to intercept the centerline of runway two-eight, I lowered the flaps, eased off the throttle, raising the nose to slow us further. There was a steady crosswind, but we set down right on the centerline and taxied over to our tie down. A fresh adventure for the logbook.

A steady hand on the stick

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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