Weather was bad last week, so we didn't fly. :-( Today we had a mission in mind - a specific one. That mission was to get me the 2 hours of night cross-country I needed...no, wait. The mission was to get to New Bedford, MA airport before the Airport Grille closed, because I had to be inducted into a sacred private pilot tradition...the $100 hamburger.
(Actually, since I was renting the plane and paying for instructor time, it was more like a $250 hamburger, but I digress.)
My CFI told me to plan the flight while he gassed the plane, since we had to get to EWB before 8:30pm and it was already 7pm. I got a weather briefing, of particular note today because the day had been overcast. I found that reporting stations along our proposed ~90-nautical mile flight path were reporting cloud decks of between 4000 and 5000 feet broken, with full overcast at flight level 120 (12,000 feet). Freezing level was reported around 5,000 feet. Happily, there was no real wind, which made the flight planning that much easier. I plotted out the route (7B2->PUTNM->PVD->EWB) and wrote down all the relevant freqs I would need. Bradley approach, at 125.35; Providence approach, EWB's tower/CTAF freq, ATIS for New Bedford, the like. Nav freqs - Putnam VOR, Providence VOR, and Barnes VOR as a backup. Then I measured out the distances along each leg of the route, grumbling because the route traversed the edge of my New York VFR sectional chart, requiring me to flip and refold the map which would be a pain in the ass in the airplane.
Having calculated fuel burn for each leg, I determined that I would certainly have enough to get there and back. Nine gallons per hour, plus a gallon and a half at each end for start, taxi, runup and climbout; remember that of the 42 gals in the airplane, 38 are usable and for night flying a 45 minute reserve is required...yeah, still good.
My CFI was getting antsy (he really wanted that hamburger) but I could feel the stress rising - I'm not familiar with the flight planning math and process, and rushing was causing my brain to vapor-lock, so I told him that I needed to chill and do it right. He grinned, which told me I'd passed a test by not letting him push me. IM SAFE - stress.
Eventually, though, everything was written down and we went out to the airplane. He had gassed it, and he told me he'd sump the tanks while I did my walkaround. I was OK with trusting him to have done that, since his ass was in the airplane too, but I checked everything else. As he put it, "Always check for yourself. No pilot wants to die, but worst of all would be dying embarrassed because you know you'd cut a corner." Everything on the airplane was OK, so we put our flashlights on our heads and got in. I started up and we taxied out to One Four, did our runup, turned on the runway lights (5 clicks on the mic at 122.7) and were off. I turned left to head east out of the traffic pattern, staying a bit north of east to avoid the ridge south of the airport which was visible at night only as a large dark area - I couldn't actually see it, which made me nervous about where its top was. Once I could see over the top of it to Westover ARB, I turned a bit more easterly and started talking to Bradley. "Bradley approach, Cessna 12732," (If you want to listen in at http://liveatc.net, use this link; search to time stamp 13:30 on that file).
There was a pause, then Bradley said something to another airplane (whoops, but not my fault, that airplane hadn't said anything I had heard - must be on a different freq) then: "Other aircraft calling Approach, say again your callsign."
"Bradley, Cessna 12732."
"12732, Bradley approach, go ahead.."
"Bradley, Cessna 12732 just departed Seven Bravo Two, at two thousand going to three thousand five hundred. We're VFR to New Bedford, request flight following."
"Number 732, roger, ah, can you phoenetically spell your destination?"
"Bradley, destination airport Echo Whisky Bravo."
"732 roger, squawk 5210."
"Bradley, 732 is squawking 5210."
She talked to someone else, then: "November 12732, radar contact four miles east of Northampton airport. Altimeter three zero two eight."
"Bradley, altimeter three zero two eight, 732." At that point, we were in the system, so I cranked up NAV1 and set PUTNM on it (117.4). The indicator showed one hundred forty degrees, which matched well with my planned magnetic course of 139° so I centered the needle and turned to 139° Leveling out at 3,500, we did some sightseeing - we could see Westover to the south, a dark area in the blaze of light that was the Springfield area; the Quabbin Reservoir to the northeast, a dark area with some soft reflected light shining off the surface. A while later we passed over Southbridge, with a dark area north of Southbridge which was likely Southbridge airport; my CFI remarked that the airport beacon (a green/white flash, for a civil airport) had been out of service since last year's tornado. Before reaching the Putnam VOR, he had me switch over to the Providence one (which was almost in line, a five or ten degree course change) and we headed for the more southerly of the two lighted areas on the horizon - the northern one was Worcester, MA and the southern one the city of Providence.
Bradley came on as we got near our closest approach to PUTNM and cleared us for frequency change, rather than handing us off directly to Providence. Since they didn't tell us to squawk VFR, I left the transponder alone and made initial contact with Providence; they accepted us quickly, indicating that they had gotten transponder and destination data from Bradley.
As we got near Providence, I pointed at something off to the right - a green/white flash. "Is that the airport?"
"Nah, too far south, that's...probably Quonset Naval Air Station. See the white flash is double?"
"Oh yeah." It was; the green/white/white of a military airfield. "Oh, so then PVD should be over...there..." I looked and pointed ahead; after a few seconds, I found the beacon on the shore of the bay in a dark patch. It's funny, but airports are dark spots at night - runway and taxiway lighting is much dimmer than city street lighting. Found it and aligned the nose.
"Okay, what heading are you going to fly once we get past PVD?"
I looked at my flight plan. "One hundred ten degrees to head directly for EWB."
"Sounds about right."
So we headed that way, and I fiddled with the radios to get ATIS information for New Bedford. About halfway there, Providence told us to contact the New Bedford tower. I had a moment of 'wait, where the heck are we?' panic - you're supposed to tell them where you are. "Where the heck are we?"
My CFI laughed. "We're about fifteen miles west of the field, over Falmouth." Then he ribbed me about that reaction for a while.
"New Bedford tower, Cessna 12732 is with you level at three thousand five hundred, fifteen miles west of the field, inbound for a full stop with information Golf."
"Cessna 12732, cleared to land runway One Four, report final."
"732 is cleared to land One Four, will report final, thank you."
Did that. We had pretty much a straight-in approach, just having to jog north a little before turning right to align with One Four. I haven't done many straight in approaches, but what I figured I'd do was descend to pattern altitude and then when I guessed I was the same distance from the runway as I would be flying a square pattern, I'd just use the same throttle/flap/speed - power to 15, carb heat, speed at ninety, first 10 of flap; then pretend I'd turned base and go the second increment of flaps and look for eighty, and finally report entering final at seventy with three increments of flap, power at idle. That turned out to work fine. As I was coming in I reported final, and the tower asked "12732 what are your intentions?"
At my CFI's prompting I said "New Bradford tower, 732 would like to taxi to the restaurant and park."
"Roger, 732, turn onto taxiway Alpha to the ramp. Are you familiar with the airport?"
My CFI clicked on and said we were, so I found the lit sign for taxiway A and hunted until I saw the yellow traffic line turn off towards it. Followed that line off the runway. My CFI pointed to a floodlit area and said "Park it right under that floodlight, near the red truck." We did that, and just left the plane (took the keys). There was a gate out, with the access code written on the inside; writing it down, we walked over to the airport terminal and the Airport Grille, moving a bit quickly. Luckily, we'd made it! We ordered hamburgers with the air of Mission Accomplished, and laughed that I'd finally done the $100 Hamburger.
The trip home was more relaxed since we didn't have a deadline. Did a quick walkaround (just flew the plane, after all; mostly looking to make sure nobody had chocked it or otherwise messed with it) and started up. Set radio frequencies, then "New Bradford ground, Cessna 12732 is at the ramp ready to taxi for a westerly departure."
"12732, cleared to taxi via taxiway Alpha and Bravo across runway Zero Five to the active."
Since he had cleared us specifically to cross Zero Five (and since I knew from the NOTAMs that Zero Five/Two Three was closed, anyway) we taxied straight across it, making sure to look first. Getting to the end of One Four, I did my runup, and called in; the tower cleared us to depart immediately, and while we were climbing out they announced on the freq that traffic control was closing for the night. We headed back west, and my CFI said "Okay, I'm beat, I've been flying since nine AM" and stretched his seat out. "Hey, this is comfy, actually." The movement actually shifted the CG of the airplane aft a few inches, and I found the airplane picked up a couple of knots speed since the horizontal stabilizers weren't having to do as much work. Neat.
On the way home, he stayed in full snooze position, every once in a while asking me a practice oral exam question. Do you know what IM SAFE is? (Yep. Recited it back for him). Okay, how about 3P? That one I didn't know, I knew 5P but he wanted the structured risk management model Perceive, Process and Perform. And so it went, his 'nap' clearly a check to see how well I would handle the flight back without him looking over my shoulder. I was grateful for the vote of confidence even that gave, though. On the way back, I noted that I was losing sight of some lights on the ground. "Hey, I think there's a cloud bank ahead of us." We were at 4,500 feet (NEODD and SWEVEN!).
"What are you going to do?"
"It looks like it goes down pretty far, but I think I can climb over it."
"Okay." So I did; at five thousand feet, lights beyond the cloud popped into view.
"Yep, I'm good."
As we passed the Putnam VOR again, I found Southbridge, the Quabbin, and Westover, and using those reference points I identified the gap between the east-west ridge south of 7B2 and the north-south ridge east of Amherst. Looking through the gap - "Okay, I see Route 9 lights, and that's Amherst, then, so I know where the airport is. I don't see the beacon yet, though, so I'm going to wait to sign off with Bradley until I'm ready to descend."
Did that; as we flew through the gap, I turned west, and there was the green/white flash. I configured for descent (three thousand five hundred at five hundred per minute, seven minutes at one hundred twenty miles per hour is fourteen statute miles, and it's about fifteen miles to the ridge gap from the airport so I should hit pattern altitude a mile from the airport configured to enter a left downwind for One Four, perfect). As we started the descent: "Bradley approach, 12732 has Northampton in sight, beginning descent, we'd like to cancel flight following."
"732, squawk VFR, frequency change approved, have a good night."
"Thanks Bradley, 732 is squawking VFR. Good night to you." Reset the transponder to 1200 and the radio to 122.7, 7B2 CTAF.
We ended up right where I wanted in the landing pattern, and as we turned from the 45° entry angle onto the downwind, I ran a GUMPS check. When that was done, I turned on the runway lighting, turned base and announced, turned final, and...
Greased the landing, which is rare for me even during the day. Touched down at what felt like a walking pace, airplane settling smoothly onto the runway, and made the turnoff with no effort - had to add power to taxi that far.
$100 hamburger: ACHIEVED.