Airports Aviation Articles

Remembering my first soft field landing

In flying, as with anything else, when you have a goal, it helps to stay laser-focused. It helps to avoid distractions.

This is especially true when you're working on earning a new rating or trying to learn a new skill.

Take soft field landings, for instance.

I did my first soft field landing in April 2018. It was several months before I would get my private pilot ticket, and my instructor at the time, Justin, was intent on teaching me soft field landings on actual SOFT FIELDS.

That's the only way to learn it if you want my opinion. Simulated soft field landings might get you checkride-ready, but there's nothing like having some actual grass and hard dirt under the wheels to show you what it's really like.

The field in question was Lee Bottom Airport (64I), a gorgeous 4,000-foot-long nicely kept grass strip tucked away among trees in Hanover, Indiana. While it made some instructors nervous, Justin loved that field, and would often be happy for any excuse to touch down there, as long as the grass wasn't wet.

I still have video of my first landing there. With my Go-Pro pointed out the window – slightly crooked, as always seemed to be the case – I swung the plane onto final, at Justin's direction. Nervously, I could see the tops of the 60-foot trees passing below me as our aircraft glided closer to the airstrip's threshold, the branches seemingly reaching up trying to snatch our little Cessna in their clutches.

I was always nervous at this point -- particularly on days when there was a strong headwind and the airplane appeared to be moving slowly over those trees. On days like this, I was tempted to add power and come in too fast, floating down the length of the airstrip.

"I just feel soooo slow coming in over those trees," I once quipped.

"That's because we've got the headwind," Justin replied. "Don't worry about your groundspeed. Your airspeed is what is important."

But invariably I would glide over the trees and come down beyond them, landing just past the white cones of the airstrip's threshold. I'd try to add just a little bit of power just before the wheels would touch down on the grass.

The rough feeling of the grassy strip just rushing by under the wheels was so alien to a student pilot like me, who was so used to the smooth concrete of runways at controlled airports.

But I thoroughly enjoyed applying full back pressure to the yoke as I held the nose up and gently pumped the throttle so as not to lose momentum before turning the plane around near the end of the grass strip. Using no brakes, to avoid getting stuck in the grass, I'd taxi back to the threshold, set the flaps at 10 degrees and take off again.

We did this over and over again, in all types of winds, lesson after lesson. Because I was determined. I wanted to get my soft field landings down perfectly. I had a goal. I had a checkride. And I wasn't going to let anything distract me.

But one evening was different.

It was June 16 of 2018. It was sometime around 7 o'clock in the evening, and Justin and I were once again returning to Lee Bottom Airport to do some soft field landings. It was supposed to be a short lesson, and after one or two landings, we were going to fly back to the flight school and head for home.

But as we were gliding down on final, something caught our eye. A small plane was parked midway down the field, off to the side of the airstrip. We couldn't tell what it was. As we drifted closer, we could begin to make it out.

"It's a Pietenpol!" Justin said.

As we touched down on the grass strip and rolled passed the airplane, it grabbed my attention.Pitenpol

"You wanna stop?" I asked.

"You wanna?" Justin replied.

Thankfully, no one else was scheduled to rent the plane after us that evening, so there was no need to get back to the flight school right away. Sure, I had a lesson, but we could get back to that later. Right now, I wanted to check out the classic plane. After landing, we pulled our plane over into the grass on the side of the strip and climbed out.

The kind owner of the aircraft -- I don't recall his name, unfortunately -- had flown in from the north that afternoon and was more than happy to show us his plane. It was bright yellow taildragger with an open-air cockpit, with two big front wheels that reminded me of oversized wheels that came from a child's wagon.

On the side of the aircraft was mounted a device we could tell was the pilot’s pride and joy. It was labeled the "Bacon Savor" -- a simple pointer that warned the pilot when he was about to exceed the critical angle of attack and stall out.

On the ground next to the airplane was a simple blue mat. The pilot had actually flown in and planned to camp out that night under the stars – perhaps making use of the fire pit near the airfield to cook some grub.

It seemed like the perfect life.

Of course, we had to get going. I had a lesson to finish -- more stuff to learn -- I had to get ready for that checkride. But just as we were about to head back to our plane, we spotted another aircraft about to land on the field.

It turned out it was Elijah -- another pilot who flew out of our flight school. Cheerfully, he landed and taxied over to where we stood.
Quickly joining the conversation, the four of us found ourselves laughing about the things pilots and student pilots often joke about: Eccentric flight instructors, strange airplanes, predicaments we shouldn't have gotten ourselves into but did anyway, upcoming checkrides, stupid oral exam questions, etc.

Before we knew it, two more hours had elapsed.

By the time Justin and I climbed back into the plane and took off, the sun was setting -- and we were way later than we planned. As we flew west, we followed the Ohio River with the burning horizon in front of us. Behind us in his airplane, Elijah tried to race us back. He lost, but to be fair, we had a pretty big head start.

So much for avoiding distractions. Truth be told, I wasn’t very focused that night. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time practicing landings or doing maneuvers like I originally planned.

But we did have a whole lot of fun. And in the final analysis, I guess those are the lessons you remember most.

Travis K. Kircher is a private pilot based out of Louisville, Kentucky.

 

Why it Took us 3 days to Fly to Oshkosh

Only a few days have passed since we returned from the "World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration" at EAA’s AirVenture and I am already having withdrawals! There is nothing quite like sleeping under the wing of an airplane that you flew in and waking up to the sound of aircraft engines whirling to life. As anyone who has been to AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin knows, the week is completely unforgettable and there is no shortage of things to see and do.

This is the 4th year my husband and I have flown in, and the 2nd time that we’ve flown my father-in-law’s 1931 Waco ASO. This "Straightwing" biplane was restored in the 70’s and has an open cockpit. It is a wonderful aircraft, but definitely not ideal for cross-country flying. It’s extremely windy, and even in the middle of summer the air gets freezing once you’re at altitude. We knew we were in for a long trip before we left, but the series of events that followed were nothing short of unexpected.

Our plan was to leave Saturday morning, have a leisurely trip up, and arrive that evening to set up camp. However, the reality of our trip to Oshkosh was very different. When we got up Saturday morning, it was pouring rain and ceilings were at 800’. We had to wait for that to clear out, so we weren’t able to depart until around 3pm. We had a 20 knot headwind, and ForeFlight indicated our speed across the ground varied between 60-70 mph. We were slow, and the thunderstorms from earlier had broken up but there were still showers we had to avoid.

We made a quick fuel stop in Harvard, Illinois at a gorgeous grass strip called Dacey Airport. After this we were finally in the homestretch to Ripon.

An important side-note: for those who haven’t read the Oshkosh NOTAM, the gist of the arrival procedure is to approach the town of Ripon, southwest of Oshkosh, and visually separate yourself from incoming traffic. Once you have a half mile separation from the plane in front of you, everyone is instructed to fly at 90 knots and 1800 ft in single file to the next town of Fisk. Once directly over Fisk, the Air Traffic Controllers ask you to "rock your wings" for identification purposes and then they assign you a runway and you are passed to another controller who clears you to land. There are often 4 or 5 aircraft on final at any given moment, so accuracy landings "on the dot" and turning off the runway as soon as able are important. The NOTAM states that no talking on the radio is allowed, so usually this approach is actually easier than landing at some other airports.

With the NOTAM in hand and mostly memorized, we approached Ripon with high hopes for a smooth arrival and landing. After all, the 3 other times we have flown in there were never any issues. However, when we were less than 5 miles from Ripon we heard this on the radio: "Attention all traffic – the Oshkosh field is now closed to incoming traffic for the Bonanza mass arrival. Begin holding. This will be a LONG delay so divert to an alternate if you have low fuel." Partly because we didn’t expect a long delay, and partly because the fuel at Dacey was so expensive, we didn’t fill the tank up. We were far from a fuel emergency, but didn’t have enough to hold for a "LONG delay." We immediately turned to our alternate, Fon du Lac. As we got near and contacted the temporary control tower, we were out of luck again. Fon du Lac was where the Bonanza mass arrival was departing from, and were again told to divert due to "150 Bonanzas on the runway" (Certainly something you would only hear at AirVenture.)

We began looking for a third alternate, and located untowered Dodge County airport 23 nm away. The annoying thing about this section of our trip was that dozens of other aircraft were forced to do the same thing, and we were all inbound to Dodge County at the same time. One such aircraft had a stuck mic, so he was continually transmitting over everyone else trying to coordinate within the pattern. Eventually we all were able to communicate and land, and I must give props to the staff at Dodge County for the "refueling assembly line" they had created to deal with the sudden influx of frustrated aircraft.

The whole FBO was full of pilots who had to divert. Several were on their phones calling every hotel in town only to find out they didn’t have any rooms available. We asked around for a bit about lodging but it appeared our only option in Dodge County was to set up our tent and camp out. With less than an hour left of daylight, we decided to try going back to Fon du Lac, where my father-in-law had found a hotel with open rooms.

We immediately took off, watching as others began pitching their tents on the airport below us. Thankfully Fon du Lac had cleared out the Bonanzas, and we were able to land there (behind a C-47!) and tie down for the night. We were generously given a ride to the hotel by a T-6 pilot who had the same misfortune as us while trying to enter Oshkosh. His wife had brought a camper up earlier in the week and she drove there to retrieve him. After some late-night pizza delivery, we were exhausted and got some rest before a second attempt to enter Oshkosh on Sunday.

Sunday morning we were awoken to the sound of thunder and heavy rain. The weather had taken a turn for the worse overnight, and it was clearly going to be IFR for several hours. We spent most of the day in the terminal at Fon du Lac, watching The Open Championship on tv and monitoring weather. Finally around 3pm the skies began opening up. Immediately engines could be heard starting and it was "go time" for getting into Oshkosh. We took a few moments to refuel and ready the airplanes, and went on our merry way towards Ripon.

10 miles from Ripon we began monitoring the approach frequency. It already didn’t sound good. The controller urgently repeated the phrases "we are oversaturated! Everyone approaching Fisk turn LEFT and enter a hold! If you are not at Ripon, do not come to Ripon! Enter a hold and come back with a half-mile separation!" We figured this was just a big push of traffic, and it would pass through soon. We were very wrong.

This video was taken by someone else who was in the air the same time as we were. You can hear the hecticness and see the planes that are too close for comfort.

Our approach took several minutes, and the controller hadn’t mentioned a hold in a while so we figured it was safe to go over Ripon and enter the lineup over the railroad tracks to Fisk. However, as soon as we got closer we realized just how many aircraft were trying to do the exact same thing. Dozens of planes could be seen in any direction at different speeds and altitudes, going every which way and being way too close for comfort. It was very reminiscent of a WWI dogfight. We maneuvered around a few such planes but ended up with a Kitfox on top of us, a Navajo flanking us on the right, and a couple small Cessnas flanking our left. Clearly this wasn’t going to work and we would be turned away if we even tried to approach Ripon.

We broke away from that disastrous group and entered a hold around the rather large Green Lake. After a few circles mixed with other traffic, it became clear they were not allowing people to enter Oshkosh any time soon. The controller continued to instruct planes to "turn left and enter a hold," "restart the approach," or "stay away from Ripon." At one point he said "there are 300 of you between Ripon and Fisk, we cannot have that and we need better separation!" I’m not sure of the 300 figure was an exaggeration, but it certainly felt like it was accurate.

We stayed in a hold for a little over 2 hours before we decided to return to Fon du Lac and try again later. During this time several other aircraft began declaring low fuel emergencies and were granted permission to land. We monitored approach for several hours after we landed and it was the same story: people turned away right and left for airport oversaturation or improper compliance with the NOTAM.

We spent another night in Fon du Lac and got up at 5:30am Monday morning. Oshkosh officially opened for arrivals at 7:00am but we were not going to get there late and enter a hold. We departed Fon du Lac at 6:40 and went straight into Oshkosh. This was the arrival we were accustomed to. Peaceful, respectful, professional. We landed on the yellow dot and had an incredibly fun week. I hope that next year they seriously consider a way to handle the record-breaking traffic!

If You Want To Appeal An FAA Order/Decision, Make Sure It Is Final.

FAA Decisions

It isn't uncommon for someone to be unhappy with an FAA decision. Fortunately, our laws provide a mechanism for appealing or objecting to certain final orders or decisions issued by the FAA. Specifically, 49 U.S.C. § 46110(a) provides that a person with a substantial interest in the FAA's order/decision "may apply for review of the order by filing a petition for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit or in the court of appeals of the United States for the circuit in which the person resides or has its principal place of business." The petition must be filed not later than sixty (60) days after the order is issued unless reasonable grounds exist for filing later than the 60th day.


However, in order for an FAA order to be subject to review by a court, the order must be "final." What does it mean to be "final"? Well, the courts have held that two requirements must be met: (1) the FAA's action must evidence the completion of the agency's decisionmaking process, rather than simply tentative or subject to further consideration; and (2) the FAA's action must determine certain rights or obligations, or result in legal consequences. Courts also consider whether the decision or order is at a stage where judicial review would interfere with or disrupt the FAA's administrative/decisionmaking process.

So, for example, if the FAA issues a letter merely restating a previously adopted interpretation of a regulation, that would not be considered a a "final" decision. However, if the FAA issued a new interpretation or clarified an existing interpretation, in either of those instances it is quite possible that the FAA's action would be considered a "final" decision subject to appeal.

Additionally, if the FAA issues a letter or notice in which it indicates that a party's practices may potentially violate the law, that letter or notice may not necessarily be the completion of the agency's decisionmaking process such that it determines a party's legal rights or obligation
s. For example, neither a letter of investigation nor a notice of proposed certificate action is considered final agency action because the FAA hasn't yet determined whether it will actually pursue enforcement action and issue a final order subject to appeal.


As a result, if you are concerned about something the FAA says or does, before you run to the courthouse to file a petition asking a Judge to tell the FAA it is wrong, make sure the FAA's action is actually a "final" action subject to judicial review. Otherwise, you could end up wasting time and money only to have the Judge tell you that the Court doesn't have the authority to even consider your arguments.

Components of Airport Certification (14 CFR Part 139)

If there is one thing I have learned during my time in aviation, it is that sometimes you learn the most when you research aspects of the industry that you generally feel aren’t "relevant" to you. Pilots can learn so much from Air Traffic Controllers, Airport Operations can learn so much from MRO facilities, and the list continues on. Taking the time to look at daily happenings at airports, whether from a flight, operations, maintenance, administrative, or another perspective can help you gain valuable insight to further your career and enrich your experiences.

Just in the way that airport operations personnel could benefit from learning how to fly, pilots could also benefit with learning some basics of how airports are run and which regulations they must adhere to. It should be no surprise that airports have their own special section of the Federal Aviation Regulations that they must follow, and that is 14 CFR Part 139. In this article I would like to give an overview of the main parts of Part 139 so that pilots can better understand why things work the way they do at airports.

Although Part 139 is the baseline for airport certification, not every airport in the U.S. has to follow it. The regulations are specifically for airports that serve scheduled and unscheduled air carrier aircraft with more than 30 seats, serve scheduled air carrier operations in aircraft with more than 9 seats but less than 31 seats, and that the FAA Administrator requires to have a certificate.

The Airport Certification Manual (ACM)

Perhaps the most vital piece of Part 139 compliance is the Airport Certification Manual. This is a document that outlines exactly how an airport will conduct their operations to comply with Part 139. The airport operator writes the ACM, and then every single page is reviewed and signed by the FAA inspector assigned to that airport. If approved, the airport is then issued an Airport Operating Certificate (AOC) which allows flight operations to proceed legally.

Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting

Often referred to as simply "ARFF," aircraft rescue and firefighting is a major component of airport operations because they have constantly to be ready for any aircraft emergencies. The airport’s "ARFF Index" (designated by letters A-E) is dependent on the longest air carrier aircraft that serves the airport with five or more average daily departures. The ARFF personnel and equipment must be able to properly handle the aircraft type, and they must do a drill where they successfully reach the midpoint of the furthest runway from their station within 3 minutes of being alerted to an accident.

Airport Inspections and Maintenance

There are four types of inspections that airports are required to do under Part 139. These are regularly scheduled, continuous, periodic, and special inspections. Airport operations personnel must physically drive or walk around the airfield, carefully inspecting several key features. These include signage, markings, pavement condition, lighting, FOD (foreign object debris), wildlife, and many others. Regularly scheduled inspections can happen several times a day, and the airport operator outlines in the ACM just how many they are required to do.

Wildlife Hazard Management

Unfortunately, airports can quickly become a very dangerous place for pilots when birds or wildlife are in the area. Just look at Sully! Part 139 airports are required to have a wildlife management plan in place, to help mitigate and eliminate the natural hazards that animals can create. These programs are designed to focus not only on scaring away wildlife already on the airfield, but to move their habitat outside of the security fence so they are less likely to be there to begin with.

Airport Emergency Plan (AEP)

As mentioned before, airports must always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Thus, a Part 139 airport must submit an airport emergency plan to their FAA inspector in addition to the ACM. This document is a handbook on what exactly should happen in case of an emergency. All possible scenarios should be covered, including terrorism, fuel farm fires, natural disasters, and of course aircraft accidents. FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-31C, Airport Emergency Plan, provides guidance in meeting the requirements for the plan.

Snow and Ice Control Plan (SICP)

Depending on the airport, snow and ice may be a major problem that has to be dealt with every year. Keeping the airport safe and open is the biggest concern during a snow event, so airports are required to submit a plan for how they will tackle the runway contaminate. This plan must include staffing expectations, equipment usage, priority areas that will be plowed first, and much more. During this time they must also monitor the conditions and let pilots know how what to expect when landing.

Records Keeping

Part 139 is very clear about which records must be kept on site and for how long. Most records, including inspection reports, NOTAMs, incident and accident reports, and fueling inspections are required to be kept for 12 calendar months. Records for the training of personnel who operate in the movement area (the portion of the airfield controlled by ATC) are required to be kept for 24 calendar months.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of Part 139 Airport operations, but I hope that this broad overview helps you to understand the daily happenings at an airport at least a little better. There is more than meets the eye, and airports have to constantly work to stay on top of every aspect of their operation. If you’re curious about what else Part 139 covers, bring out your FAR AIM and take a look! You will definitely learn something you did not know before.

Top Five Things to Look for in a Flight School

So you have finally decided that you will chase your dreams and get your pilot license. That’s great! The next big step in the process is to pick a flight school. However, with the number of flight schools around nowadays (sometimes multiples at single airports) it can be difficult to know which flight school to choose. Ultimately you will be giving a large amount of money to them, so it is very important you find the right fit for your goals and needs as a flight student.

In this article I would like to outline some of the most important things to look for in a flight school, to hopefully assist you in choosing the perfect fit. Sometimes it is worth driving to the next town over for your preferred flight school.

1. Availability of aircraft

One of the number one complaints I’ve heard from my flight student friends is that they are unable to schedule their flights when they need to because there is limited aircraft availability. Having too many students trying to fly too few aircraft can lead to a lot of frustration and unhappiness from all involved. Speak with current students and see how often they are able to fly. Is it flexible or will you be fighting for a plane when the weather is nice? Another important thing to think about is what you will be flying after you complete your training. Does the flight school offer rentals without instructors? Is there a local flying club that has ties to the school? Having a game plan for when you’re flying on your own will save you a lot of work once you achieve your goals to earn your license.

2. Experienced instructors

One of my pet peeves with flight instructors is when they are clearly just instructing to get the hours to move to the airlines. Although this is what the majority of instructors are doing, it doesn’t mean they get to be lazy or haphazard with teaching you. Watch out for instructors who do not take your training seriously, or will cancel your flight for the slightest inconvenience. A good instructor will tailor your lessons to your learning style, and will do the best they can to advance you through the lessons so you aren’t wasting money. Remember, no matter how nice the person is, you have the right to switch to a new instructor if you feel you are not making the progress that you should be.

3. Training Options

The training options that you look for in a flight school have a lot to do with what your personal goals are as a pilot. Do you intend to fly as a hobby or are you ultimately wanting to make a career out of it? There is a notable difference between a Part 61 and Part 141 certified flight school and it is up to you to decide which you prefer. This goes along with the availability of aircraft as well. Do you want to fly the classic Cessna 172 or are you looking for a more "mission-oriented" type of aircraft? Have an open mind about new aircraft if you’ve only ever experienced one type, but be picky if you need certain type ratings or endorsements for your ultimate aviation goals.

4. Good Maintenance

I can assure you that when I first started looking at flight schools, I didn’t think twice about how their maintenance was. However, once I started flying and planes continually went out of service for the most random things, I began to wonder how smoothly our maintenance department was operating. Ask any potential flight schools who is in charge of maintenance, how a student would report a discrepancy with the plane, and how quickly the turnaround time usually is if a plane does go down for maintenance. Keep in mind that aircraft have regularly scheduled inspections, and ask how long they usually take to complete them. You may be surprised to learn that they are not up to standards. Determining the airworthiness of a plane is ultimately up to the pilot in command, so knowing how well the maintenance has been kept up is important.

5. Safety Record

Even if all of the above features of your soon-to-be flight school appear to check out perfectly, safety should always be the number one concern for pilots. Closely tied to maintenance and instructor experience, the safety record of the flight school directly impacts you. Keep your ear to the ground for any stories of unsafe operations and be watchful for regulation compliance. If the flight school ends up getting shut down for operating unsafely, you may be questioned about it during an interview for an airline. In the short term, you won’t have access to the planes you were flying. Keep tabs on the history of the flight school and be cautious if anything seems off.

The time you spend comparing flight schools will always pay off in the end. Don't be afraid to be picky and ask the hard questions. Flight schools would not be around without students so make sure you do your due diligence in the beginning, and enjoy your time training. What do you look for in a flight school? Let me know in the comments below!

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