Tacoma Tower, There’s a Coyote On The Alpha

John HurlbutFlyingLeave a Comment

So yesterday I climbed into my trusty training airplane, N1151M, for the first time in nearly a month. The last letter from the FAA put me into a tailspin, pun intended, about my future of flying. It took me a week or so to calm down and revise my game plan, but I got it together. See my previous posts to know what I’ve been battling against. The finish line is in sight however, so I’m super excited again about obtaining my Private Pilot’s License. Yesterday was the day I finally got back in the air!

The last time we flew, my flight instructor Meg said that the next time we flew we’d expand my “sandbox” a bit and head over to Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW) from our home field, Pierce County Airport, Thun Field (KPLU) . As I hadn’t flown in a month I was unsure if that would still be on the table or not.

I checked in at the flight school where Meg greeted me with a big smile and welcomed me back.  I got the dispatch log for 51M and started with the flight dispatch form and began to calculate weight & balance. I rechecked the weather and headed out for the pre-flight check. I found a total of four frogs today. Meg has a neat little game she plays where she hides plastic frogs around the airplane to verify that I’m doing a thorough preflight check. Each frog represents something wrong with the airplane. For example one of the frogs today was on the back window of the plane and it represented a cracked rear window. Meg asked if we could fly with a cracked rear window and I answered correctly “no”.

After our pre-flight check we went through the start up procedure, and I taxied us to the run up area where we went through our third and final checklist before departing. I made the call on the radio: “Pierce Traffic, Cessna five one Mike departing runway three four to the Northwest, Pierce Traffic”

A quick scan of the surrounding area and I taxied us to the edge of the runway, turned 90 degrees to the left and applied full power. I tell you what, I can never imagine that getting old! The feel of getting pressed back in your seat as the airplane picks up speed, applying as much right rudder as you need to keep the plane on the centerline… 

“Airspeed is alive!” I announce as we get up to about 40 MPH And the airspeed indicator starts to arc to the right as we gain speed down the runway.  At about 55-60 MPH I can feel the nose wheel start to get a little light, so I pull gently back on the yoke and just like that, we’re airborne!

Meg asks me to level off at 2,000 feet, which I do and over the fairgrounds we point the plane to the Northwest. We have to be very careful where we fly and how high we fly.  This is some of the busiest airspace in Washington.   The SeaTac class Bravo (B) airspace is just to the north of us starting at 1,800 feet. If we drift too far north at 2,000 feet we’re likely going to have some excited air traffic controllers yelling at us and will likely have some explaining to do.

To the south of us is McChord field that hosts a bunch of C-17s and we don’t want to meet any of them either!! So passenger jets and military jets all around us. Be extra careful and watch your Sectional chart carefully. 

Once we get over Fife we listen to the ATIS  (Automatic Terminal Information System) for Tacoma Narrows. I adjust the altimeter and Meg tunes in the tower frequency for Tacoma Narrows & announces we are over the Tacoma Dome at 2,000 feet. As this is my first approach at a tower controlled airport, I wanted to listen to Meg talk to the controllers before I gave it a shot. The controller asked us to “Ident” and Meg pushed the appropriate button on the Transponder so the tower could identify us on their radar screen. (All general aviation aircraft fly with their transponder code set to 1200, so by pushing the Ident button we “bloomed” on the radar screen so the controller could figure out which plane was us on their screen).

We flew over Stadium High Scool (Tacoma’s answer to Hogwarts according to Meg) and set up our approach to the airport. The tower contacted us to let us know we were clear to land on runway one seven. 

Setting up on final Meg was helping me with the throttle and controls as we were dealing with a pretty stiff crosswind. As we floated closer & closer to the runway Meg finally asked to take over completely. This landing was clearly above my skill set. We were crabbing our way in (nose pointed into the wind basically flying sideways) and as we got closer to the runway Meg deftly applied the left rudder to straighten out the plane so it was now flying straight down the centerline. About 10 feet above the runway, the wind completely died and we dropped like a sack of rocks! Thud! Touchdown! Meg calls that a “carrier trap” landing. Having never landed on an aircraft carrier myself, I’ll have to take her word for it. (It would surprise me if she had not however)

We parked by the restaurant when a BEAUTIFULLY restored 1934 Waco YMF pulled in behind us. Meg knew the owner and introduced me to Bob Juranich. I got to climb up on the lower wing of the biplane and peek inside the cockpit. GORGEOUS airplane to say the least! Here’s a picture if that very plane. My iPhone was turned off so I didn’t get to snap a photo myself. I guess I’ll start putting it in “airplane mode” when I’m flying instead. That’ll give that mode more meaning to me anyway! If you’d like to know more about the plane, here’s a great article Meg wrote for General Aviation News about it a few years ago.

Then it was back in the plane, fire her up and time for me to talk to Ground Control: “Tacoma Ground, Cessna one one five one Mike in front of the restaurant, requesting permission to taxi to runway one seven” and the reply “Cessna one one five one Mike, taxi to runway one seven confirmed, taxi to Alpha via bravo three” and my read back “Cessna one one five one Mike taxing to Alpha via Bravo three”. Give the plane a little juice and right rudder to point her at B3 and onto the taxiway we went. We were in the run up area doing our final pre flight check when Meg tapped me and pointed “Look a coyote!” And there she was! Pretty puppy (ok full grown mamma, but I call all dogs puppies) just sauntering across the Taxiway. Meg jumped on the mic “Tacoma Tower, we have a coyote on the Alpha!” The tower requested more information. As we sat there and finished our checklist we heard the tower telling everyone coming in for a landing the location of the coyote. Kinda cool! The coyote made it across the taxiway and across the runway without incident and disappeared into the trees beyond it.

After the check, we headed to the hold short line and now it was my turn to talk to the tower: “Tacoma tower cessna 1-1-5-1-Mike ready for take off, runway 1-7 departing to the northeast” “Cessna 1-1-5-1-Mike, clear for take off for left departure to the northeast” “Cessna 1-1-5-1-Mike, clear for takeoff” taxi to the runway, left rudder to turn onto the centerline, full throttle and we’re off! We make our crosswind turn and then our downwind turn and soon we’re flying over the narrows bridges! I’ve dreamt of taking off from that airport for 30+ years and I finally did it! Sad that they had time to build a whole second bridge in the meantime, but hey! I’m good with it!

We made our course correction and were headed back over North Tacoma and I got to talk to the tower again, confirming the call with Meg “Tacoma tower Cessna 1-1-5-1-Mike, permission to change frequencies, clear to the east” “Cessna 1-1-5-1-Mike frequency change granted, I see no traffic” Meg thanked them and we were on our way back to our home airport.

I actually made a pretty darn good landing at KPLU and taxied us back to a parking spot where we secured the plane. We did our debrief and then checked the plane back in. I have to say after a full month of not flying, it felt REALLY good to be back! I learned some new skills, and I got to land (well Meg got to land) and take off at a new airport. I felt pretty nervous at first, wondering if I’d remember what to do, I made a couple of mistakes, but overall it felt AWESOME! Next lesson Sunday!


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