Today my passenger was a colleague, Phyllis, and the "mission" was to find and photograph her house. Her house is in a suburb only a few miles from FCI, Chesterfield County Airport--but it's also inside the outer circle of Richmond International Airport's Class C airspace. No problem there--although I managed to find the difficult way of doing easy things.
The house is actually beneath the Class C airspace. The outer circle (this is a donut-shaped ring) goes from 1400 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level--that is, above sea level) to 4200 feet MSL. The terrain there is about 200 to 250 feet MSL, and it's fairly densely populated, so the FAA regulations required us to remain at least 1000 feet above the the ground--or at least 1250 feet MSL. That gave me about 150 vertical feet of space to fly in "freely," that is, without contacting Richmond's Air Traffic Control--FIRST.
Oh, sure, it would be legal just to fly in there, circle the house a few times, and fly back out again. As long as I stayed between 1250 and 1400 feet. And, sure, I can keep a Cessna 172 within 50 feet of a given altitude while doing steep turns. I've done that many times during checkrides. But can I do it in a 15 knot wind while hunting for one house in an urban sprawl of houses in heavily wooded subdivisions?
This was complicated by the proximity of FCI to Richmond's airspace--only about 1.1 nautical miles. And the house is only about 4 NM from FCI.
Okay, so the prudent plan was to contact Richmond ATC and let them know what the plan was.
We took off from runway 33 and continued northwest at 1300 feet, keeping away from Richmond's airspace, while I called ATC. I explained that we wanted to take photographs at that altitude, but just beneath their airspace. Now, I have to confess that I hadn't spoken to a controller in over a year and was feeling just a teensy bit apprehensive about this.
"Squawk two four three five." (Sorry, I've forgotten the exact code.)
I read it back--"Squawk two four three five"--and entered it into the transponder.
"I can't get a lock on you," she said. "Maintain VFR and I'll try to find you later."
Maintain VFR. Well, okay, that's cool. I stayed on the frequency and turned my attention to figuring out where we were and where the house was. At 1000 feet above the ground, you can see everything clearly down there--but it all looks the same. Yes, I had set a waypoint in my GPS--but it was only a guess at where the house really was. And in any case, I knew from experience that flying to a specific waypoint is one thing. Spotting the house on the ground is something else entirely.
You'd think it would be easy to find a house on a lake--right? Not this one. The lake is a narrow one, a damned-up creek. Besides, in early February, everything here is the same grey-brown color--roofs, roads, lawns, trees, lakes. Even the people tend to look grey-brown in February. And at 1000 feet AGL and 100 knots--that's nearly two miles a minute--those grey-brown things go by fast in one big blur.
It turned out that my waypoint was in the wrong place. But finally I spotted a familliar road (among roads) and then the narrow, winding lake that the house is on. The point that the house sits on. The house itself.
"There!" I shouted into the intercom, pointing at the blurry grey-brown ground "There it is!"
Well, you get the idea. I set up a 45 degree banked turn around the point. (Cool! A turn around a point that's really a point!) And watched the altimeter. I wasn't worried about the Class C airspace, having contacted the controller, but I did want to keep a legal distance above those houses. Phyllis got out her camera and started shooting.
Right about then, I heard the controller, who had been talking steadily with the transport guys all along--heard her say, "November eight five two, I still don't have a lock on you. Maintain VFR."
"Maintain VFR. Eight five two," I said and went back to flying in circles.
"That's four," Phyllis said.
We did one more turn around the point, while she shot a couple more frames, and then it was time to get out of there.
And here's where things began to get tricky and I began to get confused.
The way out was directly toward FCI. We weren't going to land, however, but instead fly beyond FCI to Dinwiddie County Airport, about 15 miles to the south, and and do a few landings. But the upwind leg for FCI's active runway was only 2 or 3 miles from where we were and 100 feet below our altitude, so we'd have to climb smartly to overfly the field. And it was already past time to announce our intention on FCI's frequency. But even though we were VFR, I decided I'd better let ATC know what we were going to do. Of course, she was busy, and by the time I got through to her, we could see airplanes dead ahead in the FCI pattern and I'd already heard the Richmond controller talking with someone who was on final for an ILS approach at FCI and there was a helicopter practicing landings and-- Well, okay, I finally got the controller and told her that we were leaving her airspace.
"Are you going to land at Chesterfield?"
"Negative." And you can probably figure out what happened next. I didn't have time to request permission to leave her frequency. Well, that is, at that moment I thought I didn't. Now, of course, I know what I should have done. But then, because she was busy with another transport already, I switched to FCI's frequency and announced that we'd cross midfield at 2000 feet. I was already climbing at Vy (the best rate of climb speed), and just to be sure, I pulled the nose up to Vx (for the best angle of climb). We were at 2000 feet and close to the pattern almost immediately--but high enough to be safe. Now what do I do? Call the controller back? Figure that she'd figure out what was what? I still wasn't thinking quite clearly, so I took the latter option, changed the transponder to 1200, and kept on truckin'.
Later I realized that when I told the controller we weren't going to land at FCI, she probably thought I wanted to remain under her wing, so to speak. And in any case, I should have contacted her again as soon possible. But I didn't. As far as I know, nothing untoward came of the experience--and I certainly learned something about communicating with Air Traffic Control. And something about myself. (And if she should happen to read this--sorry!)
The rest of the flight was easy and pleasant. We flew to Dinwiddie County Airport (PTB) and did two touch-and-goes and one full-stop landing. Then we flew east over Hopewell, keeping low to see things better, and down the James River to the drawbridge, where we watched some barges pass upstream, beneath the bridge. On the way back to FCI we climbed to one mile above the earth--5200 feet MSL--just to see how it all looked from up there. I suppose one could call it a waste of gasoline, but a mile up, everything looks very different. Everything seems to slow down. You can see distances, and the problem of locating a house among houses doesn't seem difficult or important at all.
The air had been quite smooth
all thie time and, although there had been a noticeable crosswind at FCI
when we took off, it was light when we arrived, and the landing was easy.
So altogether, it was an interesting flight. And despite going around
in all those circles, Phyllis didn't throw up, not even once.
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