Dallas Executive Airport – Great place to fly from
Another business trip found me in Dallas in December again, and I found time to visit Slipstream Aviation at Dallas Executive Airport for the third time. The airport facilities continue to amaze me, full IFR towered 7am-9pm with four runways, ILS/RNAV approaches, diner, FBO and plenty of hangarage – yet usage is at such low levels that you practically have the whole place to yourself. This will change next year when the US Commemorative Airforce move in [Video] – filling the skies with lots of exciting warbirds. They’re building a couple of large new hangars especially for them. This airport promotional video gives a flavour of what it’s like; the garish yellow AA5 is the aircraft I flew in and my instructor features twice (23 and 46 seconds in); also the ATC speaking at the start sounds exactly like it was on the radio.
Slipstream – Great flying school
Flight school Slipstream operate several Grumman AA5A Cheetah aircraft – great for training, low wing and very similar to a Piper PA28 but with a castoring nosewheel. These are IFR equipped with Garmin 430, Mode S and VOR/ILS but no DME or ADF. I’ve flown with them a couple of times before and very much enjoyed it.
Mischa, the CFI and school owner, would be my instructor today. The warm 24ºC was tempered by crosswinds of 8 gusting 22 knots – well outside the demonstrated crosswind limits and beyond my comfort zone. The theory session went quite well I thought, revising emergency procedures and discussing differences between US and UK rules. The tablet flight planning app ForeFlight is extremely popular here, and we compared it with SkyDemon. SkyDemon offers a virtual radar screen and can include climb/descent when calculating fuel usage but doesn’t yet incorporate US airport plates or radio frequencies properly. I do find it easier to use than ForeFlight and prefer it even here; the depiction of controlled airspace is very clear/uncluttered and with the plates it would be ideal.
Checkout – Strong crosswinds test me to the limits
During our ground instruction session, I asked about how VFR flight plans and Flight Following work here in the US. Almost continuous radar coverage means that VFR flight plans are really only used in remote areas out of radio/radar coverage (eg Rocky Mountains). These have to be opened/closed on a separate frequency, Flight Service, which uses 122.0 and 122.2 nationwide. It seems to be relatively rarely used, but can also provide weather updates and other information services. Instead, Flight Following can be requested to ensure someone is looking out for you on radar and can alert you to hazards (traffic or terrain). I understand this is similar to Traffic service in the UK. You can just request Flight Following from the Clearance or Ground frequency during your initial call. You will be allocated a discrete squawk code prior to takeoff, told a departure frequency to use, and instructed to “contact departure” once airborne and the tower has confirmed your squawk code is being received. You usually retain the same squawk code throughout your flight, even from coast to coast.
I wouldn’t have flown solo in the gusty conditions today. Mischa was more than happy to push my comfort zone and emphasise any aspects of weaker handling skills. After departure, we did some stalls, steep turns and PFLs then returned for about half a dozen touch and goes. The ease of access to the facilities is a joy to behold. No booking out procedure, just call for taxi and departure. On return, just request touch and goes and be “cleared for the option” (i.e. full stop landing or touch and go at your choice). We were subsequently cleared for close left pattern 17 and could repeat the circuits without further radio calls, although did receive wind status on final.
Mischa then switched runway so that the crosswind was 90 degrees and we shared controls, first with me only on the rudder, then again with me only on ailerons and throttle. We were touching down on the windward main wheel only. It really helped to focus on the end of the runway, lining up with the centreline. The ailerons were constantly needing adjustment to keep on track, while the rudder movements needed to be less frequent and allow time to settle between changes. One or two of the touch-and-goes landed on the mainwheels only (the nosewheel never touched the ground), but I don’t think I managed a single wheel touch-and-go.
Although only an hour in the air, I was sweating by the end of it. Mischa certainly put me through my paces. The debrief listed a number of bad habits and traits that I’ve never fully refined, but I found his attitude and teaching approach very positive – some of the best VFR instruction I’ve had. For example, I have a tendancy to want to straighten up the ailerons prior to touchdown, which in a stiff crosswind meant we were swept away from the centreline. I don’t think I’ve really exercised these single wheel landings before, although I’m sure I’ve done one or two in the past.
We had a further circuit session of about 40 minutes with less wind where we alternated between runways (left base for 17, then right base for 13, then 17…). A departing executive jet was slotted into our sequence without delaying either of us. In the UK, regulations wouldn’t permit ATC to clear an aircraft for take-off while still taxi-ing to the hold and simultaneously clear us to land while downwind. In the US, common sense instinctively drove us to fly a longer, slower circuit pattern, ensuring everyone was safely and smoothly accommodated. Mischa reckoned he could fit in a landing every 3-4 minutes in this format, packing in up to 14 landings an hour and providing more instruction practice for the time spent airborne than a typical UK circuit pattern.
Flight Review completed
Although not strictly necessary, once we had completed both ground and air instruction, Mischa was happy to sign off the checkout as a full Biennial Flight Review (BFR), so I would be legal in the US for a further 2 years.
Solo landaway to Waco
I hired the Grumman for a solo landaway, planning first on SkyDemon, looking up the plates and NOTAMs on ForeFlight and then calling the free briefing service to double check I wasn’t doing anything stupid. The 1-800 number provided me with a free Abbreviated Brief for my route that confirmed if any TFRs (Temporary Flight Restricted Zones), significant weather, airport closures or anything else significant might affect my flight. There’s no need to call for PPR, book out or file a flight plan.
I departed to the south and made an initial landing at Mid-Way Waxahachie (I’d been there before), self-announcing a base leg join.
As I departed Mid-Way, a KingAir joined the pattern, crossing midway overhead for a tight circuit. Arriving at Hillboro Municipal, I made more of a mid downwind join as is normal, keeping clear of the noise abatement warning to the south east. The runway and taxiways were perhaps not in as new condition, but perfectly serviceable, and free to use (as in most US airports).
The office/FBO had briefing information, self service fuel pump and even free bibles (similar to Gideon bibles in hotel rooms). A friendly Cessna pilot spoke to me, he’d just dropped in to refuel despite being only a few miles from his home base in Dallas. I didn’t ask if this was because of the price of fuel or a precaution due to low fuel onboard.
With such a short stop, I didn’t bother tying down and there weren’t any chocks around. There’s no parking brake but I did engage the control lock. As I approached the aircraft, a gust of wind blew it around on the spot so it faced into wind (I did say it was quite windy) but fortunately it was still well away from other aircraft. The castoring nosewheel would have that effect, rather than just staying put or moving on the nosewheel direction.
Next stop would be Waco Regional, which is the largest airport in the US I’ve been to. It has a main terminal with four jetbridges, several FBOs serving GA of all shapes and sizes. When 10 miles out, I announced inbound on the tower frequency and was asked several times what aircraft type – Cheetah that I’d been using at Dallas Executive wasn’t enough, he wanted Grumman (which could mean just about anything). I was addressed as “Grumman 87 Uniform” and was given a straight in VFR approach which simplified things greatly. I kept the speed up to minimise disruption – there was one other training aircraft in the visual circuit. I had the ground frequency already punched in (unusually not within the same MHz number), so after landing was able to switch cleanly and get taxi instructions to the FBO. The ForeFlight airport plate was useful, but didn’t show your position on it.
On arrival at the ramp, two team members rushed out and chocked the wheels after I switched off. “Want any fuel?”. No. Well that’s fine then. No handling fees or landing charges apply. I went inside the airconditioned FBO with comfortable chairs where they also provide free bottled water, a vending machine for snacks/soda and a free to use crew car outside. (I’m guessing that a fuel purchase would be expected if you want to borrow the crew car). No yellow reflective jackets in sight anywhere.
Departure didn’t require booking out, just listen to the ATIS and call ground as I had done in Dallas. I was asked to confirm I didn’t want Flight Following. Initially I declined, but after some thought I changed my mind and said yes, whereafter I was given a squawk. Completing power checks at the hold, I switched to tower and announced ready. Maybe there was some concern for unexpected behaviour as a foreigner, but I was surprised at just how long I had to wait at the hold prior to departure – it seemed to me there was plenty of opportunity to nip in and depart in 20 seconds during the 2-3 minute gaps between arrivals.
My first SNAFU occured after take-off when told to “Contact Departure”. I didn’t know the frequency and had expected to get this either during my ground clearance (I only got the squawk) or when told to change. Foreflight only lists multiple departure frequencies unless you look at the Airport directory section. Simply asking “Request Departure Frequency” got the required result. I was then surprised that Departure couldn’t see me on radar (at least that’s what I’m guessing). “Squawk Ident” was said but not followed by the usual “Identified”. After a long pause, I guess they must have spotted me because I was then instructed to “Resume Own Navigation” and turned north to parallel the inbound traffic. I small jet passed below and to my left, probably on the ILS, but I saw and heard nothing else.
On return to Dallas, I was given a “right pattern for 17” (i.e. join downwind to the left of the runway) while another aircraft was lining up to depart on 13. When downwind, without prompting, I was cleared to land on 13, which was then quickly corrected back to 17. It’s still strange to me that you can be cleared to land while there is conflicting traffic on the runway, but given that radios rarely fail, it seems very efficient.
I was pleased with my landing – that intensive training session had had some effect. My US radio procedure still was far from perfect. Unlike some, I don’t find ForeFlight adequate and am uncomfortable switching between Foreflight and SkyDemon – I’ll either need to have two tablets, and/or make better use of the Garmin to lookup frequencies, and/or use more printed material – something needs to change so I can figure out a better solution.