A few friends in the Bristol Aero Club regularly take a week’s holiday together and go somewhere different to fly and explore. They’ve made some European tours, but in recent years have spent the time in the USA. I joined them for a week’s intensive VFR, with five of us sharing two Cessna 172’s from King Aviation in Mansfield (1B9), about 20 miles south west of Boston.
We packed a lot in. During the week the five of us jointly flew about 50 hours (so about 10 each) in two aircraft. I visited 18 different airfields (of which 16 where I landed or took off and logged about 10 hours block time). Our journey took us from Atlantic City in the south west to Bar Harbor in the north east, and we visited several of the islands including Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The highlight was flying the Skyline Route up the Hudson River, alongside Manhattan at 1500 feet and below some of the skyscrapers.
We did quite a lot of preparation beforehand:
- Finding low cost flights, hire car, airport parking and accommodation with late free cancellation. Some were able to use loyalty points to get amazing discounts, so we didn’t all fly out on the same route or dates
- Ensuring that all had FAA Piggyback licences based on our current licences, following my detailed process write-up on how to get one.
- Travel insurance with specific coverage for private flights. I use Traffords. If you had a problem when flying privately with standard travel policy, you would be on your own.
- Taking out renter’s insurance which covers excess cost of damage to aircraft before the aircraft owner’s policy kicks in. It also covers 3rd party liability (e.g. if you landed on the puppy farm). The choice seems to be between AOPA USA and Avemco, I used Avemco which were a bit cheaper but needed a phone call. You can cash it in for 50% refund if you don’t need it for the full year. Others used AOPA and were equally happy.
- Researching possible destinations and routes, especially those with nearby hotels or attractions
- Taking several excellent and free FAA online courses, especially for the New York area (controllers did ask us about this prior to transit)
- Reading up on FAA Radio procedures. I found this blog/podcast and associated book a very approachable and easy read
- Checking out some flight navigation apps. I’d tried Foreflight before, but this time downloaded Garmin Pilot and the free maps for SkyDemon. There are plenty of others, many with free 30 day trials
- Meeting up a few times in the evening to discuss plans, and circulating ideas by email
Kelley, who runs King Aviation at Mansfield, operates not just the flight school but also manages the airfield on behalf of the local municipality. It’s an uncontrolled field with one hard and one grass runway. She was happy for us to block book the aircraft for the full seven days, and unlike some schools, encouraged us not to fly if the weather wasn’t good enough by not setting any minimum daily flight time. Boston had suffered its worst winter on record and snow was still on the ground only four weeks before we arrived.
The hourly rate is very much less than the UK, and there are rarely any landing fees to pay. They charged on Hobbs time, from engine start to stop. Taking turns to fly, we’d estimated about 10 hours each but would experience at least double that when including passenger time.
Our initial plan was to stay near Mansfield for three nights, making a couple of day trips then going on-tour further afield for a few days. Our exact route would depend on the weather.
Saturday 9 May – Checkouts and Nashua
The first day went as planned. The early morning fog cleared quite quickly and we were all checked out before lunchtime by two instructors. We had already prepared all our paperwork (UK licences, medical, FAA Licences, Renter Insurance, Photo ID, Credit Card). One in our group needed a full Flight Review (minimum 1 hour ground plus 1 hour airborne) while the rest only required an aircraft checkout for re-familiarisation and to confirm we knew how to fly and land it. C172s are high wing and have a tendency to float during the landing but are very forgiving and easy to fly. One of the aircraft had a new engine and would benefit from touring rather than just training circuits.
After lunch we flew up to Nashua (KASH Boire Field) and bought a large supply of local charts and two copies of the AFD (Airfield Directory). These all have short expiry dates but are relatively inexpensive. The pilot shop there is quite extensive and benefits from there being no sales taxes in New Hampshire. The growing uptake of tablet Apps for navigation has reduced demand for printed charts and many pilot shops are going out of business. We couldn’t get copies of a few specific ones, but the owner had set aside some for us at our request.
I like the FAA Chart format which includes the airfield elevation and tower frequencies as standard. They only have one pressure setting (QNH) so there’s no confusion with QFE but it helps to know how high each airfield is. On the chart excerpt below, you can see Mansfield has an elevation of 122, lit at night subject to limitations and uses the common CTAF frequency 123.0. The NDB frequency and morse ID are given in the red outlined box (it has a GPS approach as well as an NDB one). And of course they use Inches rather than Hectopascals for the altimeter setting. The AFD (Airport/Facility Directory) can be more confusing because to lookup any airfield you have to know (a) the state and (b) it’s common name. For example Martha’s Vineyard can be found under Vineyard Haven in Rhode Island. A free comprehensive vector mapped online FAA chart is accessible at SkyVector.com
The trip was uneventful. Once airborne, we requested VFR Flight Following, and were allocated a unique squawk code for the entire flight being handed off seamlessly between a few controllers. Nashua tower could see us on radar and cleared us to land with one on final behind us and one departure still on the runway. I still find that very strange compared to the UK.
Sunday 10 May – Keene and Bradley
Sunday looked like being quite misty on the coast, and so despite us wanting to visit a couple of the islands off the south coast (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard), we headed north west to Keene (KEEN) and south west to Bradley (KBDL) in a triangle. Keene (also known as Dillant-Hopkins) is nestled in the hills and reminded me of Welshpool. All uncontrolled and self-announced, the FBO operator ensured that for noise abatement everyone was aware runway 02 is the one to use unless tailwinds exceed 8 knots (it was 6 knots when we arrived). David made an excellent job of his first tailwind landing and was able to turn off at the first exit. The local FBO was friendly and helpful, printing out an airfield chart for our next destination at no charge. There is a good diner just off the other side of the field but we needed to press on.
My leg was from Keene into Bradley International Airport, mixing it with passenger jets and other traffic. Again VFR Flight Following passed our details seamlessly between controllers unlike the often disjointed LARS service in the UK. We were instructed to maintain 3000 feet as we flew above the ATZ of Westover Arb (KCEF) and asked to maintain best forward speed while expecting a straight in approach for 24. Wind was picking up by then, about 12 gusting 18 just off the nose but I was pleased with the greaser of a landing on the 10,000 foot (approx 2 mile) runway. I think that’s the longest one I’ve landed on and 2,000 feet longer than Filton UK.
After vacating runway 24 at 19 (see big red splodge on chart below), Ground gave us quite a long set of taxi instructions (four taxiways, two runway crossings) and double-checked our readback. Our taxi route was then revised, and again readback confirmed (I made a slight error with one word). It was helpful to have two other pilots watching and listening.
“Taxi via Charlie, Sierra, Juliet, Alpha, Cross runway 15 and 24, hold short runway 15”
was later amended at the hold for 15 to
“Turn right runway 15, cross runway 24, taxi via Juliet, Alpha”
I used the SafeTaxi feature of Garmin Pilot on the ground, which helped enormously at these unfamiliar large airports. In the air, I found it little more than a sectional chart showing current position and much preferred SkyDemon because I’m so used to it. SkyDemon was better at warning of potential airspace infringements but doesn’t yet properly support US radio frequencies, plates or NOTAMs.
Bradley has an interesting aircraft museum (New England Aircraft Museum) a couple of miles down the road. The FBO (Fixed Base Operator) drove us there and back, and would have lent us a (very new looking) crew car for free which we avoided only because we wouldn’t have been insured. Although no landing fee applied here, there was a reduced handling fee to pay because we also bought some fuel. It’s often worth calling ahead to the FBOs at these larger airports to compare handling fees which can vary significantly.
Deb flew the last leg of the day back, by which time the wind was picking up – the tailwind meant we touched 130 knots ground speed at times. She opted to land on the grass runway, something relatively unusual for her these days because she instructs, and pulled off a textbook landing. All in all a very satisfying, challenging day with good mix between small and large airfields plus familiarising with the local radio protocols.
The weather forecast wasn’t so good for the next couple of days, but looked promising for the remainder of the week. Our plans were uncertain, but we decided to checkout of the hotel next day as originally intended, see if we could fit in a short flight in the morning but return to base, stay in the local area and take the following day off.
…Part 2 took us west and south of New York to Atlantic City