March 2003Features

Destination: Experience

Flight school fly-outs offer pilots a taste of adventure

On a muggy afternoon in August, a fleet of general aviation airplanes heads west from Bar Harbor, Maine, for Burlington, Vermont. First one, then the second, then the third calls up Bangor Approach for VFR traffic advisories. The curious controller finally asks, "You're the fourth airplane I've had headed for Burlington. What's going on there?"

"Training flight," he's told.

Calling this a training flight is like referring to Sean Tucker as a guy with a cool airplane. The four airplanes are on the second day of a three-day cross-country trip that will take them from Frederick, Maryland, as far north as Portland, Maine; to Bar Harbor and then over to Vermont; with a final planned stop at Niagara Falls before heading back home. The pilots include a couple of brand-new primary students, some advanced students on the verge of taking their checkrides, and some low-time certificated pilots. Two to a plane, each team has a CFI to ride right seat. During the course of the trip, the CFIs will find themselves acting as tour guides and cheerleaders as well as flight instructors.

Multi-day fly-outs like this one are structured to give pilots a taste of what's waiting for them outside the comfort of their home airports, and teach them how much fun it is to get in an airplane and actually go somewhere. "Lots of people get their certificates and don't do anything with them," says Mark Reynolds, formerly a CFI at Frederick Flight Center, which sponsored the August 2002 "New England Fly-Out." "This is a confidence-builder."

It's also a way to teach pilots how to have fun and not be afraid of the airplane - to enjoy the ticket that they worked so hard to get, says Cathy Mitchell, a CFI at Aviation Adventures in Cleveland, Ohio. Mitchell organized a Key West trip during her stint at Frederick Flight Center and has put together trips to Canada and Wichita, Kansas - home of Cessna Aircraft Co. - for her current employer.

"So many pilots are in a rut - their flights are always the same thing," says Arlynn McMahon, chief flight instructor at Aero-Tech Inc. in Lexington, Kentucky. For years Aero-Tech has offered "Adventure Vacations" to such places as Alaska; Vail, Colorado; and Honduras; they have a fairly loose itinerary but a structured approach to learning. Pilots are surveyed in advance about the areas they want to polish - night flying, for example - and will get to work on that skill during the trip.

New England, here we come

In the days before the New England fly-out, participants assemble at the flight school to meet their partners and plan the route that they'll take. The fleet for this jaunt will consist of two Cessna 172s, a Piper Archer III, and a Piper Seminole. As the CFIs look on - ready to assist but not necessarily to plan the trip for them - the teams spread out their charts and begin scrawling course routes with markers. Reynolds reminds them that they'll all end up at the same place each day but they needn't fly in a line. Then it's time to do the weight and balance calculations; the pilots needle each other about how much luggage they'll have to leave behind on the ramp once the airplanes are loaded.

For one six-hour student, it is a total immersion course in cross-country planning, and her CFI gives her a streamlined tutorial in weight and balance and fuel burn while her partner chooses checkpoints and calculates whether their 172 can carry enough fuel to reach the group's first stop - Nantucket Memorial Airport. Afterwards, she admits to feeling a little overwhelmed by all the new information.

Newbie students get a lot out of these trips, although they may be overwhelmed at first by flying farther and doing more in the air than they've ever had to do, says John Sherman. Sherman was on board for a Frederick Flight Center trip to the Florida Keys.

Sherman flew right seat with a low-timer and a close-to-checkride student. By the end of the trek, he says, he saw an improvement in the newbie's ability to fly straight and level - despite the fact that the student was piloting a Cessna 182 with which he was unfamiliar. And the higher-time student pilot got to experience some instrument meteorogical conditions on the way back North. "We were popping in and out of clouds every three or four minutes," he recalls, noting that for student pilots, experiencing actual IMC is a lot different than flying under the hood.

New York, New York

The Frederick fleet departs on a classically muggy Maryland morning in August that promises temperatures in the 90s. The plan is to fly direct at 7,500 feet over the New York Class B, then follow the coast to Martha's Vineyard before turning east over the Atlantic Ocean to Nantucket. The route will keep the airplanes within gliding distance of land.

As the airplanes depart, a scant few minutes into the first leg the pilots encounter their first challenge: the alleged five-mile visibility. The Archer pilot, who is not instrument rated, has to do a modified scan during the climbout and maintain a heading while calling up Baltimore Approach for VFR traffic advisories. It soon proves to be more than she can manage, and she asks the CFI to handle the radios while she tries to keep the airplane upright. The CFI suggests that she switch to autopilot for this phase. By the trip's conclusion, both Archer pilots will get to know George. The occupants of one of the Cessna 172s are not as fortunate; their CFI insists that they stay off the autopilot for the entire trip to sharpen their hand-flying skills.

Despite the horrendous visibility, the pilots can make out some landmarks - Ground Zero, the Statue of Liberty - as they fly over New York at 9,500 feet and listen carefully to the nonstop controllers. The airplanes keep in touch through the air-to-air frequency, but there is almost no contact during this leg. There's just too much going on, and the pilots don't want to miss a call from ATC. That's a good thing, because one of the Cessnas has to descend quickly to get out of the path of an approaching Hawker business jet. ("This guy's really going to get your attention," ATC remarks.)

New York behind them and the Atlantic spreading out ahead, the pilots can relax a bit. The coastal breezes have blown most of the haze farther inland, and it's possible to see. Landing at Nantucket is an adventure: the favored runway requires the planes to turn base and final over the Atlantic, and there is a brisk crosswind to contend with. Once on the ground, the airplanes are directed to a parking area that overlooks the active runway as well as the water. The pilots and passengers pile out of their aircraft and join up outside the FBO to compare notes. Then it's time to try conch chowder and other local delicacies at an ocean-view restaurant.

Backseat drivers

The learning doesn't stop once a pilot gives up the left seat for the day. "Sitting in the backseat was great," says Evan Baach, one of the Cessna pilots on the New England trip. "I really got to understand learning to fly from the instructor's perspective." Baach, a high-school senior from Chevy Chase, Maryland, is a certificated private pilot who will begin Purdue University's professional flight technology program in the fall. "I got to see learning in progress, which may help me when I am a CFI myself."

Riding in the back also provides a glimpse of other pilots' flying techniques and lets you compare your style with theirs. Students have as much to offer as anyone. Mary Jane Pietsch, one of the Archer pilots, readily shows her spiral-bound notebook to her trip partner. Pietsch, who leases her 1999 Archer III to the flight school and is flying it for this trip, describes herself as a "visual learner." She flies with charts within reach, but she also relies on her notebook, which she carries on her kneeboard, to jot down checkpoints, VORs, radio frequencies, and other information she needs throughout the trip. Her trip partner compares the notebook to commercially printed flight-planning sheets - which have little room for additional notes - and decides that Pietsch's method might work for her too.

"Unless you have your head in a box, there's no way you're not going to learn something riding in the backseat," says Patrick McFadden, president of Frederick Flight Center. McFadden also is a high-time student who's on the verge of taking his checkride - when he can set aside the time to do it. He and his wife, Kathleen - a student pilot who recently soloed - flew the New England tour in a 172. McFadden says that simply watching CFI Gerald Zuckerwar instruct Kathleen on radio procedures taught him a lot.

Aero-Tech trip participants never get bored in the backseat, because they are assigned specific tasks to perform throughout the trip, says McMahon. She recalls that during the school's first trip to Alaska in the 1980s - in the days before Microsoft Excel - pilots performed a total of 103 different weight and balance calculations.

A change in plans

Following a relatively uneventful if hazy leg from Nantucket to Portland, Maine, the group overnights in Portland. Split up among four hotels, some of them opt to meet up and dine together, while others take a walk around downtown Portland and marvel at how hot it is. Isn't Maine supposed to be a little cooler than Maryland?

The next morning the late-summer weather knocks the group on its collective behind once again. A planned stop at Presque Isle, Maine, is discarded when it is learned that thunderstorms will stretch across their route. The group decides to cut over to Bar Harbor, Maine, for lunch before heading out to Burlington, Vermont, the second overnight stop. Any route planning that had been completed has to be dumped. Charts scrawled with the new routes begin to resemble coloring books.

The lunch stop at a lobster shack just down the road from Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport is a seafood lover's delight: steamed lobsters, steamed oysters, and lobster rolls - the ubiquitous New England sandwich. It also takes longer than expected, and the group's departure is a scramble of last-minute calls to Flight Service to double-check the weather. There had been early morning forecasts of thunderstorms rolling into Burlington by 4 p.m., and the Seminole pilots had chosen to play it safe and skip the Bar Harbor rendezvous.

Trading in the marshy Maine landscape for the green mountains of Vermont is an eye-widening experience. The planes ascend to 8,500 feet to stay clear of the peaks. The Archer pilot plays a mental game of "What if my engine went out here?" and looks for potential landing spots in the valleys. The CFIs call to each other on the air-to-air frequency and compare notes on visibility, which is a miserable three to four miles.

It's growing late, and the prospect of encountering a thunderstorm isn't pleasant, so a call to Flight Watch is in order. The cells seem to be on their way to Montpelier, and it appears the airplanes will reach Burlington before the cells do. But as the airplanes approach Burlington International Airport, a pop-up materializes almost directly over the airport. One of the Cessnas lands just as the winds kick up. The Archer, five miles out and at 5,000 feet, hits "moderate" turbulence that sends it lurching like the lead car on a roller coaster, and CFI Mark Reynolds looks up to see his camera floating momentarily at eye level. He takes control of the plane as the Archer pilot slumps down in the left seat and wishes she were someplace else. The active runway has a 30- to 35-kt crosswind. As the Archer's wheels touch down at 120 kt, Reynolds has aileron cranked all the way in and rudder to the floor. They park at the general aviation terminal as lightning cracks and rain begins to pelt down. The other Cessna opts to make an instrument approach.

John Sherman points out that even though students on these kinds of treks sometimes worry about encountering crosswinds and adverse weather conditions, it's much better to experience them with a CFI in the right seat. "I tell them that it's a good thing that we're doing this together than if [they were] out there dealing with it at 60 hours."

Another diversion

After the excitement of Burlington, the pilots aren't anxious to encounter any more thunderstorms. The next morning a vigorous and thorough weather briefing indicates that storms are scattered all along their planned route to Niagara Falls. It doesn't take any convincing whatsoever to change destinations yet again. They are a fleet of three now; the Seminole had departed Burlington for New Hampshire earlier. Two of the remaining teams choose Scranton, Pennsylvania, for a midday stop, while the third picks a more direct route through New York that they can take if they file IFR.

As the Archer is taxiing to the departure runway at Burlington, pilot Pietsch notices the directional gyro is spinning like a roulette wheel. It doesn't stop when they are airborne. The backseat pilot hands up a Post-It note to put over the gauge. With a functional wet compass and GPS, navigation is no problem, but Pietsch can't use the autopilot. She has to hand-fly through miserable visibility, and she struggles with the same spatial orientation problems that her partner encountered during the first leg. Without George, she nevertheless develops a good scan and keeps the Archer on course with an occasional prompt from the right seat.

The backseat pilot, meanwhile, is trying to follow their course on a sectional. All the emerald-colored hills and valleys of Vermont look alike, and so she asks Reynolds to help her triangulate their position using VORs - something she's never had to do.

The visibility is so persistently poor that during the Scranton food and fuel stop, the Archer pilots wonder if they can file IFR without a working DG. Reynolds calls AOPA's Aviation Services hotline. The answer is no; they'll have to complete the trip VFR. Luckily the weather confines itself to heat-induced mild turbulence and the same milky four-mile visibility that has harassed them for the entire trip. The Archer and the remaining 172 keep in touch on the air-to-air frequency from Scranton to Frederick.

"The trip taught good flight planning problem-solving,' says Baach. "No more canned flight planning to Lancaster," a close-to-home destination in Pennsylvania. He says he had expected to do a lot of dead reckoning, but found himself flying IFR and using GPS much of the time thanks to the weather.

As if real weather and flight planning challenges aren't enough, some schools like to keep things interesting by throwing curve balls at cross-country trip participants. Cathy Mitchell says her school's CFIs have staged an ersatz Air Force One arrival and tossed unexpected restricted areas smack in the middle of the route to see how pilots will react. "Coming back from these trips, the more they've worked, the better they feel that they can handle just about anything," she says.

McMahon believes that flying a different type of aircraft, working with unfamiliar equipment such as a horizontal situation indicator or a three-axis autopilot, and the intensive flight planning of such fly-outs provides enough of a learning emphasis for Aero-Tech.

In spite of - or maybe because of - the weather, the New England trip is declared a success. You can't fly over New York and the Atlantic Ocean, chat with controllers whose accents are distinctly different from yours, or swap glances with airline pilots at big airports and not feel like you've accomplished something.

The Archer pilot who hadn't flown outside the mid-Atlantic area since getting her certificate has added 7.8 hours and three additional states to her logbook. The trip also yields a New Year's resolution-style list. Number one: Start working on instrument rating. Number two: Become a lot smarter about thunderstorms.

Jill W. Tallman is associate editor of AOPA Flight Training magazine. She is a private pilot with approximately 200 hours.

A chess game with airplanes

Putting together flight-school fly-outs

From a flight school perspective, putting together a cross-country trek is a good way to get some hours on the rental fleet at a time when they aren't normally flying - such as trips from Maryland to Key West in February. For some, it's also a major scheduling challenge that requires a lot of advance planning.

Frederick Flight Center's Patrick McFadden compares it to playing a chess game with airplanes as pieces. Once a departure date is selected - typically six weeks in advance - he and his chief mechanic must set aside airplanes and make sure they won't be coming up on their 100-hour or annual inspections. A typical cross-country trek will put 20 to 30 hours on the Hobbs meter. "If [the chief mechanic] weren't involved, I couldn't do it," McFadden says.

It's a somewhat smoother process for Arlynn McMahon of Aero-Tech Inc., whose two Kentucky schools run six trips per year. With about 20 years' experience in cross-country treks, McMahon says "we found the recipe" that has streamlined the planning process considerably. If the trip doesn't require a unique aircraft - which does call for some orchestration with her maintenance shop - "I'll pull whatever's available that's happy to go - from the schools' fleet of 30 airplanes.

For all of the planning, sometimes your clientele refuses to cooperate. Cathy Mitchell says that most of the pilots at her Cleveland flight school are small-business owners who tend to wait until the very last minute to sign up. But in Cleveland, scheduling four or five planes for a wintertime fly-out isn't much of a problem, she notes. In the fall or spring, when the airplanes are busier, it becomes more of a challenge.

CFIs who go along on these trips should know that they are expected to act as flight instructors, travel agents, tour guides, and best friends. They're generally not paid extra, says Mitchell. For that reason, it's important they go with the right attitude, she says. Keep in mind what you're getting out of it, she advises: You get to leave the area; you develop a bond with the student or pilot that you normally would not have; and you get to log the cross-country time.

For Mitchell, the main focus of these trips is to give students skills and confidence they can't get elsewhere. Not surprisingly, McFadden's concern is the flight school's bottom line. "Airplane owners love this," he says, because it puts so many hours on aircraft that might not be flying otherwise. "We wouldn't go just for the fun of it."

McMahon agrees that a trip must be profitable for the flight school, but she also emphasizes that it must be fun for the pilots. "That's what I play up mostly when I'm at an FBO putting it together and when I'm taking it out to market. This is fun! This is flying as it's supposed to be. You're not selling a trip - you're selling fun and adventure. If you can sell fun and excitement - and make a profit to boot - everybody is happy."-JWT