Taking a Head-Spinning, Perfect Flight
December 15, 2016
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  • Last week we were talking about private piloting, how it needs to be treated like a profession and how, with the miracles of modern technology, there are probably more than a few pilots out there who don’t practice enough and/or put too much reliance on technology. And that’s my problem. Even though I’d love to fly, I know I don’t have the time to put into it.

    I was delighted, therefore, when a friend I hadn’t seen in years and who is a private pilot showed up in Charleston to help celebrate a mutual friend’s birthday. He had the great idea of blending a passion for flying with professional demands and flies on average about three hours a week in his own plane for business and pleasure, and has a blast doing it. How sweet is that?

    As we got to chatting it became apparent that he had flown in to the Charleston International Airport — the same one with all the commercial and Air Force traffic.

    What? In a small wisp of an aircraft that seats at the most four people and looks like it could get blown off the runway by jet exhaust?

    That’s right, he said, noting that while small airports may be more convenient, depending upon your destination, they generally don’t have the multiple runways, multiple instrument approach procedures, high-intensity runway lighting, and round-the-clock operations that can all be critical for landing safely in challenging weather conditions any time of the day or night.

    Additionally, small airports are often used for student flight training and practice by weekend pilots, and generally don’t have control towers. Given a choice, he said, he would rather utilize the large airports, even though operating in that environment demands the highest levels of professionalism. After all, he’s instrument-rated, has actually taken aerobatics instruction to learn about recovering from particularly dangerous situations — something not taught in basic flight instruction — and, what’s more, had carved his teeth the old-fashioned way — by learning from a retired American Airlines captain with some 40,000 hours experience who did not allow the use of automation during his primary flight training.

    No autopilot, no moving map, no GPS navigation, no nothing except hands-on, stick-and-rudder flying and navigation by dead reckoning — using only a compass, paper aeronautical charting, and seat of the pants mental computation.

    “Meet me at the private terminal this Sunday,” he said. “I’d love to take you up so you can get a feel for how everything works.”

    His plane, a Diamond DA40 XLS, is an Austrian-engineered gem with all the bells and whistles; a single-engine machine with fancy gull-wing style doors, a large dome-like canopy that affords remarkable visibility, and slender sailplane wings with a span that seems out of proportion to the aircraft itself.

    Why? According to my friend, the long wings generate a lot of lift that translates into impressive climb performance, and, in the unlikely case of an engine failure, the ability to glide a long distance to a safe landing spot. That feature, in addition to a multitude of others, translates into an astounding safety record — the best in general aviation light aircraft.

    Even though the engine capacity is only about 180 HP, he notes that the plane will cruise comfortably at 150 knots (172 mph) and can more than easily maintain required speeds in a busy approach at the large commercial airports, even if being “pushed” from behind by jet airliners. That, of course, is going to happen all the time at Charleston International and, even more so, Charlotte Douglas International — the country’s sixth busiest airport where my friend bases his airplane.

    As a lay person, groupie, dilettante and aviation wanna-be, the complexity of the electronics was mind-boggling and seemed more challenging than the actual mechanical task of flying. And I think I’ve discovered that I must have some sort of auditory processing disorder because, while listening to all the radio chatter between approach control, the tower, and pilots of all the aircraft taking off and landing at Charleston International — bravo this and Charlie that, fly heading so and so, expect runway such and such, maintain whatever — my head was spinning and nothing made any sense at all.

    “How do you not get lost in all that?” I asked my friend and pilot.

    “Well,” he said, “it takes getting used to, but you learn to focus intensely and react promptly and precisely when you hear your call sign.”

    The flight plan was to go up toward Georgetown. It was, in fact, a perfect afternoon to fly, and we flew low and slow, taking in the remarkable spectacle of the coastline, all the plantations and former ricefields, the very noticeable preservation efforts and vast unspoiled acreage, much of which involves very private properties not accessible to most of us from the ground that we could only see and appreciate from the air.

    On the way back we flew right over east Broad Street and then were vectored onto the final approach course for runway 33. “I need best forward speed,” the tower instructed. “I’ve got a 737 right behind you.” My friend replied, “Roger — I can give you 140 knots to a four-mile final.” Will that do?”

    “That’s perfect,” the controller replied.

    As we touched down and pulled off the runway, I turned around to take a look. There it was, that 737, just as the tower announced. I just wish I could understand and explain how it all happened just so.

    Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.