Huntsville familiarization flight, 3 Aug

Because I was in Huntsville without the boys this weekend, I thought it would be fun to scope out the local area from the air. I had previously been to Executive Flight at Madison County Executive Airport (KMDQ) to have a look around; after a couple of transcontinental phone calls, Donna had set me up with a new CFI and a G1000-equipped Cessna 172 for a Friday afternoon flight.

I immediately liked my new CFI: his name is also Paul, and he is also a former Marine (though, lest you think we were twins, he was a UAV pilot rather than a Cobra mechanic… oh yeah, and he’s younger and better-looking then I am too). We had a quick brief on the local area: our route of flight would be south from KMDQ, more or less following US 231 south. This would take us to the east of the restricted areas at Redstone Arsenal, both of which were live at the time of our flight. We would then turn west, roughly paralleling the Tennessee River, until we got near enough to Huntsville International to land. Here’s what our route of flight looked like (except that we didn’t actually have any waypoints named “junk”). The yellow shaded area represents what the FAA refers to as a congested area– normal folks would refer to it as “city” or “urban,” I guess.


Right after takeoff, I called Huntsville Approach and got a transponder code so they could give us radar service and advisories. As we flew, I could see all the familiar landmarks I already knew, like the Von Braun Center, Memorial Parkway, and the Arsenal gates, just with a different perspective. One thing that was immediately evident is how green Alabama is at this time of year compared to California: as far as the eye can see there are fields and forests. Even the built-up areas have lots of green.

Our flight and approach to KHSV went well, though we were sequenced in and around a couple of commercial jets. When we arrived, I was greeted by the sight of a 12,000-foot runway. Bear in mind that I am used to landing at Palo Alto… which has a 2,400 foot runway. That’s right; each of KHSV’s two runways is five times longer than my normal runway. This might not seem like a problem, but it actually is: you judge your height above the runway in part with your peripheral vision. Longer runways tend to be wider, too– Huntsville’s runway is 150′ wide, compared to 50′ at Palo Alto. This was a real challenge; my first landing had way too much float in it. (On the other hand, if you’re gonna float, it’s nice to have 2+ miles of runway to do it on!) The next three were better; we then headed back to KMDQ, where I stuck a nice, squeaky landing.

Although the scenery was different (and that’s mostly what I was looking for), this was a useful refresher on operating in class C airspace, where the controllers largely tell you what to do and when to do it. Of course, as pilot in command, you have both the responsibility and the legal authority to deviate from ATC instructions as required for safety… but you may have to make a report to the FAA Administrator, or his designee, if you do. More on that another time…

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