Flying High

When I owned Piper N47943, a four seat single engine airplane, I thought it prudent not to fly myself to assignments. I did not want the stress of being the pilot and the photographer. But, when I got an assignment to go to Washington DC to simply take straight on photographs of several monuments, I thought no stress why not fly, take the pictures and fly home. It was a perfect summer day. CAVU all the way. (Cieling and Visability Unlimited). I filed a visual flight plan and we were on our way. I was very naive in my selection of airports in the DC area. My choise was Washington National, right in the middle of town, and a very busy place.

The trip down was beautiful and I made a smooth landing on the 6000 foot runway. As I was taxing to my parking place, I received a radio call from ground control. The caller advised me to make a reservation for my departure. He gave me a phone number and instructed me to call one hour before we would be ready to take off. The art director and I rented a car and we drove around Washington. I took the photographs and we went to lunch.

When we were ready to head back to Teterboro Airport, I got to a phone, [cell phones had not not yet been invented], and called Departure. A very busy air traffic controller spit out departure instructions. I read them back and we were on our way to the airport.

As instructed, I contacted departure control when we were ready to taxi. When finally I was able to break into the frantic jumble of pilots also trying to reach departure, a hectic voice said “we have an amendment to your departure are you ready to copy”. While still in my parking space I read back the departure instructions.

I was told to start my engine. The jumble of voices on the radio of pilots waiting to taxi was without interruption. Then ground control was on the radio saying “N47943 taxi to the active runway, we have an amendment to your departure, are you ready to copy”. I acknowledged my latest departure instructions and was ready to roll.

Seat belts fastened, I rolled forward made a right turn and taxied to runway 18 and took my place behind a 727, a large commercial airliner. When I looked back I saw another 727 roll onto the taxiway behind me and then as I slowly rolled forward there was another one behind that one. I was about twelth for departure. The radio traffic was constant. Like Jeopardy contestents the one that was quickest on the button got heard and those guys in the big planes were really fast. Then I heard “N47943 we have an amendment to your departure”. I wrote it down on my knee pad, read it back and squeezed along between the big airliners.

Finally, I was number one for departure. Just as I was making my turn onto runway 18 through all the radio chatter I heard “N47493 we have an amendment to your departure“. Without pause, the controller announced “maintain runway heading, climb to 1500 feet and then follow the river”. When I reached 1500 feet I looked down. I was crossing the river. It went right and left. I tried to break into the radio clatter, but was unsuccessful. I had to make a decision with 50–50 chance of making the right decision. I turned left.

After about 45 seconds an agitated controller’s voice was on the radio. “November47943 execute immediate right turn, immediate right turn”. I made the turn and then was cleared to climb to 3000 feet, was handed off to air traffic control and headed home to sleepy Teterboro.

Some two weeks later I received a phone call from the FAA in Oklahoma City. What did I think I was doing in one of the busiest airports in the country, was his first question. Then how much flying time did I have? Did I consider myself a weekend pilot? Did I think I could handle the stress at an airport like National? Then he told me the left turn was going to take me into restricted zone-357, which was directly over the White House. I listened as a large lump formed in my throat and I was having difficulty swollowing. Then came the worst of it. Jets had been scrambled and ground to air missels were aimed at ME. He said “when I made the right turn the alert was cancelled”. After berating me for some time he finally let up and said “stay away from big commercial airports” I learned that day that there is more to flying than smooth take offs and landings and straight and level flight. Airline pilots are the best at what they do and have spent years honing their craft. My hat is off to them.

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