Sequest-ow-er

Today the FAA issued a press release detailing at least one of their responses to the recent “sequester” of across-the-board spending cuts dimwittedly implemented by Congress.

Trenton, NJ - Mercer County Airport (KTTN)

In a not-so-surprising move, they decided to close 149 traffic control towers across 38 states, representing about a third of the nation’s 500+ control towers. You can see the full list here. The closures will begin April 7th and will fulfill at least part of the $637 million in cuts required by the sequester.

“We heard from communities across the country about the importance of their towers and these were very tough decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Unfortunately we are faced with a series of difficult choices that we have to make to reach the required cuts under sequestration.”

Indeed, it is estimated that about 2,500 jobs will be lost, and could affect the $200 million in business revenue these airports generate collectively. But that’s actually the less important issue, in my opinion a distant second, to the issue of safety.

“We will work with the airports and the operators to ensure the procedures are in place to maintain the high level of safety at non-towered airports,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

It is true that there is plenty of flying done every day at non-towered airports around the country. We as pilots are trained to monitor and self-announce our positions and intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency, or CTAF. That system works, but as Richard Collins explains in his very interesting book The Next Hour, “there is no regulation about using this, only a recommendation.” He goes on to cite that “the NTSB has found that midair collisions most often involve recreational flights…flying at or near uncontrolled airports below 1,000 feet above the ground.”

Just last week I encountered a situation at my local uncontrolled airport that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I was out flying in the pattern with other students and instructors, practicing short- and soft-field landings and takeoffs, when an airplane decided to join the pattern in an unconventional manner (taking a shortcut). That wasn’t the only problem–although he was active in stating his intentions to join the pattern for the active runway, 10, he was in fact flying to join the pattern for the opposite runway, 28. It wasn’t until he crossed directly through the downwind leg of the busy traffic pattern, narrowly missing another aircraft, that he realized his mistake.

Sure, many of the airports whose towers will be closed might seem “sleepy” on most days. But having extra eyes on the sky is never a bad thing. They can help in emergencies, or when the weather gets bad, or when the traffic becomes congested. Let’s take for example the lone tower scheduled to be closed in New Jersey, at Trenton-Mercer Regional (KTTN, the airport shown in the photos in this post). It’s actually the first towered airport I flew to, and they were the first controllers I talked to, nervous as I was. It is not what I would consider a “sleepy” airport. According to the entry on AirNav, KTTN saw more than 200 operations per day in 2010, before Frontier Airlines added scheduled service to several destinations in the Southern US. I cannot imagine how this airport will operate without a control tower: large and small aircraft, intersecting runways, military operations, complex ramp space.

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Apparently there is the possibility of a last-minute amendment proposed in Congress to provide more funding for control towers. This seems unlikely to me, and since it has only been pegged at $50 million, may be insufficient anyway. The FAA mentioned that the towns themselves, such as Trenton, could take on the cost of operating the control tower.

Some communities will elect to participate in FAA’s non-federal tower program and assume the cost of continued, on-site air traffic control services at their airport

This may also be somewhat difficult. I’m not sure there are many cities and towns that have room under their financial belts, let alone the aviation saavy, to take on this responsibility.

So it seems as though we as pilots will just have to make due, and after my experience last week, I can’t help but worry more about safety. In a final note about traffic and midair collisions, Richard Collins had this to say after he installed a traffic alert system in his small single-engine airplane (incidentally, based out of KTTN for many years).

The main thing that I learned was that when near an airport, there’s a lot more traffic than I ever saw…

That sure is a scary thought, and with the loss of these control towers, we have many fewer eyes (or radar dishes) that we can count on to help keep enough space between our airplanes.

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Flight Training Update: a solo flight to Cape May

I was happy to find that, when it came time to fly my solo “cross-country” flights, I was allowed to choose where I would go.

I decided to pick places that I would actually fly to once I get my license. In my last post I described my flight to Reading, Pennsylvania (KRDG) which has an interesting approach from the east, is a quick 30 minute flight, and has an aviation museum and a restaurant with “good buffalo chicken wings” according to my flight instructor. While I probably will not vacation in Reading, I will certainly make that flight with passengers, as a so called “$100 hamburger” flight.

The next flight had me land in Scranton, Pennsylvania at KAVP. As I mentioned, I had been to that airport several times on commercial airlines to visit family. In fact, my entire extended family on my Mom’s side meets every summer in Scranton. The drive is almost 3 hours from my house, while the flight with a moderate headwind is less than an hour. My goal is to never have to drive to Scranton again!

After those flights, I still needed just over an hour of solo cross-country flying to meet the FAA minimum. I decided I would fly to Cape May, New Jersey at the southernmost point of the state.

New_Jersey_Population_Map

Cape May is a place I would like to visit: it is one of the more iconic destinations for a romantic weekend getaway in New Jersey.

Cape May From Above

But the drive is about 2.5 hours, and I haven’t been motivated to make the trip…until I can fly there!

I took a half-day off work and reserved my favorite Cessna 172S for a few hours in the morning. Again I scheduled it the day before the forecast arrival of a winter storm, and I scoured the weather reports and forecasts in the days leading up to the flight. A few days before, the 48 hour forecast seemed promising: light winds throughout New Jersey with visibility greater than 6 miles and ceiling above 12,000 feet. Perfect.

The night before the flight I spent a few hours on the basic flight planning. It almost felt like I was back in school, feverishly cramming for a big test the next day. I plotted the course and decided on checkpoints, calculated distances, alternates, and the sequence of radio frequencies I would likely use to communicate with air traffic control.

planning2

I visualized what the descent and approach into Cape May County Airport would look like, and studied the airport diagram. Based on the forecast winds I had a good idea which runway I would be landing on. It is amazing how much it helps to go through a thorough planning routine, even for a short, simple flight. I know I can fly the airplane, but situational awareness is so key that going through a mental rehearsal while I plan a flight helps me stay ahead of the airplane during every phase of the trip. More on situational awareness in a future post…

planning1

The next morning I woke up early to that subtle sense of anticipation that soon “I GET TO GO FLYING TODAY!!” Okay…so maybe it’s not so subtle. I should say that I sprang out of bed faster than I ever do when I have to go to work.

I arrived at the airport about an hour before my flight, which left me plenty of time to call Flight Services, obtain a full weather briefing for the flight, file a VFR flight plan, and finish calculating the magnetic heading, the pressure altitude, estimated ground speeds, and time en route based on the current wind conditions.

After a quick meeting with my flight instructor I was comfortable making the “Go” decision, and once it was finalized and I picked up the keys to the airplane my heart rate ticked up just a bit from the sheer excitement. I’m no longer nervous to fly solo, it’s just so so much fun.

ramp WWD

I think my iPhone camera is no longer suitable for these pics…

The preflight inspection, engine start, taxi, and run-up were all smooth. There was barely a breath of wind as I advanced the throttle and accelerated down the runway and eased the plane off the ground at 61 knots.

As I climbed to 6,500 feet I called the Flight Service Station and opened my flight plan, then contacted McGuire Approach to obtain VFR flight following. I could already see Philadelphia and Atlantic City, and just a few minutes later the entire shape of southern New Jersey came into view. I still had some 70 miles to go but I could already see Cape May. The airspace was quiet on a Friday morning, and the controllers were pleasant. I enjoyed the view as much as I could while I scanned the instruments and maintained course.

With about 10 miles to go I advised the controller that I had the field in sight and she released me to change frequencies and descend at my discretion. During the descent I dialed in the Cape May AWOS for the latest wind information, chose the appropriate runway for landing, and began setting up for the approach. As I descended through 2000 feet there was some light turbulence, but the approach and landing went well.

Then another aircraft called over the common traffic advisory frequency for Cape May that he was taxiing to a different runway–the intersecting runway–from the one on which I had just landed. I was worried–had I made an error in choosing this runway? I rechecked the AWOS. The winds were changing somewhat, but I was sure I made the right choice. Perhaps there is some sort of local preference for that runway–and to be honest, there was a crosswind component for both runways, I could have chosen the other and accepted a slightly stronger crosswind. Just to be safe I decided to takeoff on the same runway as the other airplane, and in taxiing across the field I passed the Wildwood Naval Air Station Aviation Museum. There was a row of old, forlorn-looking military transport aircraft on the ramp.

Again, apologies for the picture quality

Again, apologies for the picture quality–it’s not foggy, it’s just a scratched iPhone camera lens

I wondered about the stories those planes could tell, and was kind of melancholy seeing how most of them were gutted of essential parts, and are now nothing more than giant paper-weights and bird nests.

The takeoff was smooth and as I climbed up to 5,500 feet I contacted the same controller at Atlantic City. A few minutes later after I leveled off at cruising altitude I heard her give a traffic advisory to a Coast Guard aircraft, and I could tell she was talking about my airplane. I looked out the windshield and just then a Coast Guard Gulfstream IV jet came into view, just 1,000 feet above me passing to the east as I was flying north. That’s the closest I’ve been to another airplane while flying, and such a cool one at that!

The flight home was smooth and uneventful, and as I said “good-day” to New York Approach after he released me from radar service, I decided to practice a short-field landing back at Princeton…

Well, the cross-country flight was extremely fun, and I can’t wait to make the same flight with a passenger (think: romantic weekend getaway…+FLYING!!!). One important thing I learned, however, is that I need more practice on short-field landings!

Thanks for reading, until next time.

Brian