With a business trip of a few days in Miami, I thought I’d try to see if I could squeeze in some training and familiarisation with the differences of PPL flying in the US. I already had a valid and legal FAA private pilot certificate (based on my UK licence) from last year’s trip to Florida, where I gained a seaplane rating. However, I hadn’t flown above 500 feet, used the radio or read a sectional chart in the US. I wanted to be closer to a position to be able (and comfortable) about renting a plane in the country in the future. I’d also seen the comparatively low prices to rent a glass cockpit aircraft, equipped with a Garmin G1000, and wanted to see what that was like too.
A simple appeal for information on one of the bulletin boards suggested Wayman Aviation in Opa-Locka airport, on the north side of Miami. One phone call secured my booking, and I turned up to find a professional flight training establishment with a range of aircraft, a large pilot supply shop and several instructors. This is a Part 141 school and it conducts professional flight training on sub-contract to Pan Am as well as catering for private pilots such as myself. After discussing my requirements with Amit, my instructor for the day, we first spent some time on groundschool. He ran through the differences of airspace, radio call, flight service/ATC and other procedures.
I was given a student account which included a website login, allowing me to reserve planes and instructors, see what I’d bought and paid for and track my activities with the school/club. This was already looking better than many schools/clubs in the UK.
After discussing my requirements, Amit proposed we start with an hour of groundschool, then “fly” the G1000 simulator. We’d then take a flight in a C172 fitted with the G1000 to include a landaway and some sightseeing, so I could familiarise myself with the procedures, see what the G1000 could do and enjoy the views.
I noted several specific differences between UK and US, and list a few below:
Free extensive pilot briefing services
Any pilot can call 1-800-WXBRIEF anywhere in the US for a personal consultation about any private flight. Your briefer will run through the likely weather conditions and determine where they will be VFR or IFR, and explain the NOTAMs and other airspace restrictions (such as for presidential flights) on the phone. They’ll answer any specific questions and have all the information about your route at their fingertips. This service is completely free of charge.
Once you’ve captured this information and worked out your PLOG, you can then call back to file a VFR flight plan by dictating it on the phone. It is available to use immediately, but will be cancelled if not activated within an hour. They remember the details from previous flight on that aircraft, so you don’t have to dictate your phone number etc. every time unless they change. Once filed, you then have 60 minutes to activate it.
VFR flight plans are activated by ATC on a different frequency
Flight plans aren’t activated by the tower of the airfield you depart, or even the ATC giving you radar control (flight information service). Instead you must change to a different frequency to request flight plan activation or closure. While flight plans aren’t required for shorter or general handling flights, they are recommended for longer landaways. It’s very important to close them within 30 minutes of landing.
I’m not sure if this (activating on a different frequency) also applies to IFR flight plans.
We have lots of Class G uncontrolled airspace in the UK. In the US, Class E begins typically either 700 or 1200 feet above the ground almost everywhere. You don’t need to be on the radio in Class E, but it’s recommended. For Class C and D airspace, you don’t need formal permission to enter (the “Cleared to Enter Controlled Airspace” phrase is essential for Class A and B). Instead, you must be in two way contact with the controller. What happens is that if you call up and they aren’t ready for you they will say “aircraft calling…. standby” rather than use your callsign. Once you’ve received a message with your callsign, you can then legally enter the controlled C or D class airspace. Class A only exists above 18,000 feet – something that we’d all like to see in the UK.
There are restricted areas for military use. Some are permanently out of bounds, others can be crossed at certain times subject to checking with the authority stated on the chart. Some have numbers while others seem to be known by names.
These were remarkably similar to those I had used at Lyneham. After departure, the tower will just say “frequency change approved” and you need to know to change to Miami Approach (or whatever) and announce you are “with them at XXX feet”. With Mode S transponders commonplace here, air traffic probably already know who you are and where you are going.
I was given a crib sheet with the standard calls for a VFR departure, and we also walked through the return sequence.
I had to remember to say “traffic pattern” rather than “circuit”. They don’t have overhead joins here, instead joining 45 degrees into the downwind leg. This would be at traffic pattern height, i.e. 1000 feet above airfield elevation. If you were joining from the other side of the pattern, you would fly over the centre of the runway at 1500 feet, descending in a turn opposite to traffic pattern and rejoining downwind midway at 45 degrees. You’d report midfield rather than saying downwind. You could expect to be cleared to land before turning base in many cases.
In a non-towered airport, you give traffic calls on the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) prefixed with the name of the airfield, your aircraft type but no tail number. For example, “Daytona Beach, Cessna 172 downwind for 09L, Daytona Beach”.
At towered airports (with radar), it’s common to be vectored directly onto final.
We then moved to the G1000 simulator. I’d read the manual beforehand, but it was nice to see the unit and be able to familiarise myself with the unit and press the buttons before going up into the air. The instructor ran through the various capabilities, from COM and NAV frequency selection, NAVAID (GPS, VOR etc.) setup, GPS (and approach) setup through to transponder and the engine management readouts.
We then quickly simulated a short flight including an ILS approach. I found it difficult to fly at first, perhaps not quite sure if I was in VFR or IFR mode. The instructor quickly changed the cloudbase to simulator IFR conditions and we continued, but I still found it awkward and wasn’t keeping height particularly well – and also making very rough control inputs. He selected the ILS approach for the return and we talked through what the radio calls would be. The approach was pretty shaky – I busted the platform height and was far too rough with course corrections on final. But we did land (twice).
I found the lag between control inputs and visual changes disconcerting. This is also why I haven’t got on with flight simulators since I started flying properly, but I may have to give this another go.
Now for real
The aircraft we be used for the real flying was a Cessna 172 with the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. Although I had started off learning to fly in the smaller Cessna 152, I’ve never been in a 172 before. They are high wing aircraft, which means they suffer much less from ground effect than a PA28 which can float further down the runway on landing.
The various critical speeds are slower than the PA28, for example a stall speed as low as 35 knots with full flaps. Cruising speed is around 90-95 knots.
Before heading off to the aircraft, Amit had ensured he had a written flight plan (plog) and was especially vigilant about having a specific weight and balance calculation he could show for this flight. He also had the various certificates, insurance papers etc. – it seems that ramp checks do happen here and there are consequences if you don’t have everything with you.
Pre-flight was pretty straightforward. I had forgotten about the 13 point fuel drain check required on these aircraft. Five on each wing plus three underneath the aircraft. Amit filled the test bottle with a sample from each one, and then poured it back into the tank. We had full fuel, enough for 6 hours endurance.
Running through the startup sequence, there is a 2 hour standby battery for the G1000 in case of electrical failure. There are also three “steam powered” instruments in case of major failures. If one of the screens isn’t working, there is a fallback mode which displays most of the information on either one. Annunciators would quickly tell you of any problem in case you missed it.
The engine start sequence was slightly unusual perhaps – more akin to the (fuel injected) Arrow. Fuel pump on, watch the fuel pressure indicator needle move, then off. Mixture off, but push in when the engine fires and at the same time pull out the throttle to idle around 1000 rpm. It’s a fuel injected engine, so no carb heat to worry about.
After start, taxi to “spot one” – a known airport location – where you call up the tower and report your location, ATIS information and request taxi. It’s a long taxi down to the hold at the other end of the airport, and when we do runup checks (what we call power checks), the right mag reading is a bit low. The plugs are probably fouled from that long slow taxi – should have used a weaker mixture perhaps. After running at 2000 rpm for a minute, it’s cleared and reads correctly. We move into position and report ready for departure.
The tower at Opa-Locka is being rebuilt, so they are using a temporary building for now – it should be done in a few weeks.
There were separate frequencies for ground and tower. At this point, we were given a squawk code and cleared for takeoff. Once airborne, we are told “frequency change approved” and switch to Miami approach (we were given the frequency on the ground with our clearance) saying “1403 Romeo with you at 800 feet” as we commence our turn to the left. We had taken off on 9L and wanted to fly west to the edge of Miami before turning north on our route. After a short delay, they came back and confirmed we were identified and under radar control (this is Class D airspace).
The G1000 provided clear indication of our route. The unusual bit was the turn co-ordinator/ball, which appears as an arrow at the top of the direction indicator. The ball is shown as a block directly underneath the triangular arrow and moves out to either side if you are not co-ordinated. It took a little getting used to. The 180 hp engine meant I needed a bootful of right rudder to compensate as we climbed out.
From the western edge of Miami, we routed north up a clearly defined road with swamps on both sides. If you have to make a forced landing, its recommended to come down on the road or tracks nearby the swamp areas – otherwise you risk being eaten by alligators after that perfect glide landing. We followed the road fairly closely up towards Lake Okichobee, where we planned to land at an untowered airfield called Pahokee (KPHK). We switched to Palm Beach approach (keeping the same squawk) as we neared the area, and they then advised us to switch to the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) as we neared the airfield – telling us they saw no traffic to affect. There were scattered clouds at around 1000 feet, so we maneouvered around them to remain VFR.
In due course, the airfield came into view and we announced ourselves – “Pahokee traffic, Cessna 172 approaching from the South West, any traffic in the area please report, Pahokee traffic”. You don’t give your callsign, just your aircraft type. There was nothing else around, so we made a downwind join for 17 (the calm wind meant that either runway could have been in use), then a standard traffic pattern for a full stop landing. Strangely there were several huts directly under the flight path, while a few yards away there was only empty fields. They must like hearing aircraft direclty overhead!
The 172 seems to fly slower than the PA28 I am used to – approach speed was 65, stall speed on full flaps of 35. I rounded out a bit high but it was a fairly gentle landing. A hard runway with separate hard taxiway, plenty of parking (hard standing with tie-downs) and fuel pump. It seemed very strange that such a well equipped facility had no tower or air/ground service. Although we didn’t go inside, there was a cafe (and courtesy car – free if you buy fuel) and possibly some basic maintenance facilities.
We then did a couple of circuits, making the appropriate radio calls and getting used to the approach configuration. I’m not used to a high wing aircraft, and so as we turned onto base and final, it was strange not to be able to see the runway because the wing dipped into the line of sight.
On one circuit, another aircraft announced they were planning to arrive on a VOR course (practicing the instrument approach) and then take the missed approach procedure. We caught sight of them when they were on 1 mile final and we were still on base. This self-announcing radio process worked surprisingly well without a radio controller on the ground – at least for the minimal amount of traffic around that day.
It did seem strange not to have to book in or pay to land or practice circuits at such a well equipped airfield.
Return leg back to Opa-Locka
After departure, we retraced our route back down the highway to Opa-Locka. We played with the G1000 a little, entering the different airport destinations and seeing how easy it was to pull up the appropriate information. We didn’t have a VFR flight plan for this return leg, and also didn’t even bother with Flight Following Service – we simply squawked 1200 and followed our route. As we approached Opa-Locka, Amit called them up and made our request to fly through their zone and then on down to Miami beach area. We were first asked to squawk ident, so the controller could be sure which aircraft we were. This surprised me, since I had thought the Mode S transponder would show up our tail number on their screen. It seems that not all controllers have equipment that shows this information yet.
Sightseeing over Miami beach
After a short delay, we were given a unique squawk code and told to proceed. Since he had already answered our initial call, we were already authorised to enter the Class D airspace. We were then handed over the Miami approach, who granted our request and told us where to report next. With the autopilot on, it was a simple case of just turning the course knob to fly down the central channel between Miami downtown and the beach strip taking plenty of pictures. It wasn’t a particularly sunny day – it had been raining earlier – but the views were spectacular. I could see the hotel we had stayed at and the whole area.
After turning south of Biscaye lighthouse, we returned northbound just offshore the main beach area. It was a surprise to see so many golf courses on what is just a sand bar. The whole area is very built up.
Once parallel with Opa-Locka, we flew inbound and switched back to the tower. We listened first to the ATIS to ensure we had the right pressure setting and runway information, then reported this in our initial call.
Return to Opa-Locka
We were cleared to join downwind for 09L. What surprised me was to be cleared to land number 2, when another aircraft on final had also been given landing clearance. I spotted the aircraft which was well ahead. We also saw a helicopter depart to the west just south of us.
Landing again was a little high on the roundout, but fairly smooth and we taxied off one of the many exit points before conducting the after landing checks. Taxied back to the FBO and shutdown, tied down – no need for covers here.
After a short debriefing and a little paperwork, I was done. I had a look round the pilot shop and was remarkably restrained – only buying a magazine – before hopping in a taxi for my flight home.
All in all, a great experience. Perhaps I tried to pack too much into the time and should have concentrated on a simpler aircraft checkout and BFR. But it was great to see what the G1000 was like and get a feel for it, plus the sight seeing was very enjoyable. There will be another time to pickup the qualifications, and I don’t feel ready for a solo flight in the US quite yet.
Some useful US sites for navigation worth looking at include SkyVector and AirNav. These have onscreen charts for the whole of the US and are great for route planning. Another interesting site is LiveATC where you can listen to live air traffic radio services from many US locations.
Time this flight: 2:45
Total Time: 198:00