Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ambassador of the Skies

Virginia has an aviation ambassador program: the goal is to fly to every public airport in the state and get a stamp in a little book (your aviation "passport", attend a few aviation-related events, and you receive a leather jacket as a prize. Husband and I discovered this a few months back when we went to Williamsburg, but had only gotten stamps for two airports. We decided last weekend that we really should take advantage of this cool program... so we're officially on the hunt!

So, when the weekend rolled around and we started discussing where to fly, we decided we should try to get a few more airports in our passports. Saturday was gorgeous-- clear blue skies with great visibility and lighter winds than predicted. Weather wise, we could go just about anywhere! We picked a line out of JYO to the southwest, and identified a few airports along the route. Our thinking was to land at different airports and get as far as we could by 4pm, and then to start heading back so we were sure to make it back to JYO before dark. We also made the pledge to not just rush in and out of each airport (sort of like leaving the car idling), but instead to take the time to look around each airport and discover each ones personality. Oh-- and we also decided it would be fun to take a picture of the plane at each airport-- something that captured the essence of the airport. I'm not a great photographer, so we'll see just how well that idea turns out! But for now, we'll give it a go!

After our trip to Nashville, we totalled up our logbooks. We found that Husband has around 130 hours and I have roughly 175... which is a pretty big difference. The delta in our hours is completely explicable-- I got my license a month before Husband-- and therefore flew him all over during that month; I tend to fly and he navigates if we're uncertain where we're going or think we'll need to closely watch weather; and Husband just enjoys looking out the window more while I really enjoy flying the plane! But-- I realized I need to be more purposeful in giving him more PIC time- so Husband was PIC for the whole flight instead of switching seats like we usually do.

Our first airport of the day Front Royal. Front Royal is basically just on the other side of the ridge-- so we've both flown over it many times (probably at least 25). In fact, I can remember my early pilotage attempts with M occasionally ended up with me hopelessly lost over Front Royal, thinking I was over Wincester or Charlestown or somewhere. Despite it's proximity, neither of us had ever had a reason to fly there. So we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice little airport. Our practice is to give each other "airport" briefings before we approach an airport--we go over the elevation, traffic pattern altitude, runway length and width, frequencies, and any unusual characteristics of the airport or area. For FRR, I noticed that the chart showed a right traffic pattern -- but instead of a runway number, it had an asterisk. In the AFD, I found the explanation: right traffic is only for gliders, ultralights, and gyrocopters. Yup, we were going to be mixing in glider airspace! Knowing how windy it was supposed to have been, I figured we wouldn't see any ultralights, but sure enough, when we tuned in CTAF, there were gliders in the pattern.

It took a few radio calls and a lot of looking (those things are hard to spot!), but we finally figured out where both gliders and the tow plane were... and Husband took us down for a nice landing. As we taxied in, one of the gliders came in and landed-- a very cool sight! Even cooler, as we walked toward the FBO, the tow plane took off with another glider. It was amazing how quickly they both got off the ground and in the air-- and by this point, it wasn't really even that windy.

Inside the FBO, they had a display of all sorts of miscellaneous military equipment-- most of it aviation related. We talked to the guys who were coordinating the glider activity and learned that they are out there most weekends between March and November. You can buy a sort of pass (I think it's actually a club membership) and then pay a fee for instructor and glider time. Husband wants to come try it some weekend. I might even try it-- though I tried hang-gliding once-- the kind where you're towed behind a plane up to altitude... and didn't like that at all!

Our next airport was 8W2-- New Market. It was only a short hop, so I had my hands full trying to find the frequencies and get the radios and airport briefing set up. After a little discussion as to which way to enter the pattern-- and which runway to use (no AWOS), Husband got us set up for a nice landing. When we got out of the plane, we could hear some music playing over the loudspeaker... but didn't see anyone around. We peered through the windows of the FBO and were about to declare our hunt for a stamp a bust, when we saw the stamp in the window of the FBO. I decided to try the door just in case-- and sure enough, the door to the FBO was unlocked. So we let ourselves in and got our stamp! For this picture-- we didn't see much that would be of interest to others... but I did spot what appeared to be big chicken houses right next to the runway! (My mother's father raised chickens, among other agricultural pursuits, so we have something of a family legend about chicken houses and coops.) So of course, the picture above shows the chicken houses under the left wing. It's always a little surprising to me that GA airports seem to often be in bucolic places!

Our last airport of the day was VBW-- Bridgewater. Husband did a great job of getting us into this airport. We still haven't done that many real-world short field landings... so I get a little nervous with fields shorter than around 2800 or 3000 feet (I know that this would not be short to many 172 pilots-- but JYO's 5500 foot runway has spoiled us!). Husband has more confidence on these (maybe because of my experience landing on a 2500 foot runway with a tailwind and wet pavement... not so smart!), and he did very well with the 2600 and 2700 foot runways that day.
As we taxied off the runway, we were surprised to see rows of King Airs and other larger aircraft-- including the DC3 in the picture above. Most looked to be in flying order, though they were in varying stages of repair. What we couldn't figure out-- how had they gotten into this little strip?
In any case, as we got out of the airplane, a security guard in a little cart drove over towards us. We waited for him to drive up-- worried that maybe we had missed a NOTAM or something! But when we told him that we were hoping to get a stamp, he told us to hop on and drove us over to the office. He took us in and gave us the stamp. As we walked with him, we asked about the planes out on the ramp. Apparently, there's an aircraft restoration business at the airport-- which explains all the old airplanes! We asked if we could take a picture of our plane with the DC3-- and he said sure. Then, after hesitating for a moment, he also told us to come with him and took us to the door of a hangar attached to the office. There, in the hangar, was a beautifully restored/maintained T-6 Texan! Our jaws dropped! I asked if I could take a picture-- but he was worried he might get in trouble (I hope I don't get him in trouble for writing about this-- he didn't let us loose in there or anything, just showed us from the door). Still, it was awesome to see in the hangar.
After ogling all the planes again, Husband taxied our plane over across the little gravel strip and positioned it so I could get a picture with the DC3, and then we started back out. BTW-- the picture at the top of this post was the sky behind the airport as we departed. This is a beautiful picture-- but it doesn't even begin to do justice to the sight. Though it seemed really early and still very light, I knew that the sun would soon be setting-- and our plane would eventually turn into a pumpkin. So despite Husband's desire to go to just one more airport, he turned us toward home and we headed back to JYO.
We were rewarded with a great sunset as we entered the pattern. It's tough to tale a good sunset picture-- especially from a plane! But this gives you an idea.
I must say-- we started the day not knowing what to expect, but ready for the adventure of exploring new airports. It was really cool to see the different personalities of each airport along the route-- and all were within 75 miles of JYO. It really gave us an appreciation for what GA has to offer... and made us wish, not for the first time, that JYO weren't within the ADIZ and could have a little more of a relaxed atmosphere. But then, that's what make JYO unique!

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