My first real IFR trip: Decatur-Manassas and back

My trip to DC to compete in the Nation’s Triathlon was my first “real” IFR flight. I say “real” because it combined flight in actual instrument conditions with busy airspace and a long cross-country—conditions I expect to encounter often as I fly around.

Earlier in the summer, I had signed up for the tri.The timing was such that I would come home from GATTS, have a couple of days to pack, and then fly up to DC, hopefully with my instrument rating. That turns out to be what happened.

Flight planning was straightforward. The DC metro area has a number of general aviation airports scattered around, but it also has significant restrictions on its airspace. Without going into all of the gory details, it’s enough to point out that the airports that are closest to central DC are heavily restricted. In order to fly to the so-called “Maryland 3”, you have to go to either Dulles or BWI, get fingerprinted, have security interviews with the FAA and TSA, and then get a PIN that you use when filing flight plans. I didn’t have time to do that, so I settled on Manassas, which is further out but would provide a reverse commute into and out of the city—it also helped that the route from Manassas to the hotel passed right by the bike shop where I’d made arrangements to rent a road bike.

I planned an early departure Saturday morning. Because I’d been out of the office for most of the week, I couldn’t leave earlier than about 5pm, and I didn’t want to fly night IFR in unfamiliar, complex airspace after a full, and tiring, day at work—that’s how accidents happen. My original plan was to fly from Decatur to KGEV, fuel up with avgas and diet Coke, and then continue on to Manassas. The weather at Decatur at departure time was OK, with an overcast layer about 2000’, and Huntsville Approach quickly cleared me to my target altitude. The first hour or so of the flight was smooth on top, then things got a bit bouncy because there were clouds at my filed altitude—with some light rain and a fair bit of chop. Once past that, though, things were looking good until I looked at the weather at my destination airport and alternate . Both were below minimums, so instead I flew a bit further east and landed at Winston-Salem, which was nicely VFR. It turns out that the airport there has self-service or full-service fuel, with a whopping $1.69/gal price difference—but getting to the self-service pump from the FBO is an adventure that involves runway crossings and, in my case, aggravating the pilot of a Malibu who had to hold short while I taxied. Such is life.

The flight into Manassas was perfectly uneventful, just the way I like. I had filed direct from Winston-Salem to Manassas, but I didn’t expect to get that routing, and sure enough, I didn’t; Potomac Approach sent me direct to the Casanova VOR, then direct Manassas. It was fun watching the Foreflight traffic display en route, since I could see a ton of traffic into Reagan.

Watch out for the big iron!

Watch out for the big iron!

Going to CSN first wasn’t much of a diversion, so it was no big deal. Manassas was VFR, but storms were expected later, so after I landed, the fine folks at Dulles Aviation hangared the plane. (I also want to point out that they provided stellar service: the rental car was ready when I got there, saving me a commute to the nearest Avis office some 12 miles away, and they treated me like I had just flown in on a Gulfstream.)

The return trip looked simple enough too. I filed direct Manassas to Greenbriar, WV. The race was on Sunday, and I needed to be at work Monday morning, so I had to leave late in the afternoon, meaning that several of the airports I would normally have considered as fuel stops were either closed, or would be. Greenbriar was reporting 900’ overcast, which was fine with me, so I filed, preflighted, and started up, then called Manassas Ground to get my clearance.

Here’s what I was naively expecting: “N32706, Manassas Ground, cleared as filed to LWB, climb and maintain 9000’, departure frequency…”

Here’s what I got instead: “N32706, Manassas Ground, cleared to LWB via the ARSENAL FOUR departure, thence the Montebello transition, then direct NATTS, then direct LWB; departure frequency…” Thus we see how ATC deals with the expectations of a novice IFR pilot. This set off a frantic burst of knob-twiddling as I tried to set up the KLN94 for that departure (which it didn’t have, since its onboard database was too old). I eventually got it set up, was cleared for takeoff, and then got a series of ridiculous vectors from Potomac Approach that sent me well north of where I wanted to be. However, the flight to Greenbriar was nice and smooth between layers, and, as advertised, the weather on arrival necessitated shooting the ILS, which I did smoothly. After taking on fuel, it was off to Decatur; the rest of the flight was unremarkably smooth except for a great sunset and some tasty snacks (yay vanilla wafers!) I considered it a very successful trip!

A great sunset to cap off a great trip

A great sunset to cap off a great trip. Not shown: vanilla wafers.

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