Since I started flight training in 2014 I’ve been a member of a group called “Flights Above the Pacific Northwest” (or FATPNW for short) on Facebook. I learned about them at the Northwest Aviation conference at the Puyallup fairgrounds. It’s a really cool group of NW pilots that share their flying adventures often with photos & video of our amazing landscape here in the upper corner of the country.
We have everyone from aviation enthusiasts, student pilots all the way up to professional pilots that fly for the airlines on the page. Anytime I have a question about how to do something, I usually get 30+ responses and many of them are incredibly detailed. It’s a good representation of what the entire aviation community has been like for me. Incredibly welcoming and giving. In fact, they were recently even written up in AOPA magazine after surpassing their 2,000th member! Here’s a link to that article: http://www.aopa.org/News-and-Video/All-News/2015/May/14/Connecting-pilots
Throughout the year they have fly-ins around the PNW. This year the first fly-in was at a little airport in the town of Mattewa, WA called “Desert Aire” or M94 for you aviation buffs. The Fly-in was announced while I was still a student pilot working towards my check ride to get my private license. So on the Facebook page I replied “Maybe” to the invite. But I desperately wanted to go! I’d been watching the events they held over the past year with anticipation, I couldn’t wait to go to my first one!
After I passed my check ride on May 9th, I still had some work to do. I immediately reserved the plane for the day of the Fly-in from 11:30 – 4:30 as the Fly-In started at 1PM. The company that I got my private license through and that I rent planes from has a policy that you have to do a “Mountain Checkout” to be able to fly over the mountains. Basically it’s two hours of ground instruction with the chief instructor so that he’s confident that you know how to plan a flight over the mountains. There’s also a flying portion to that, that allows you to LAND at mountain airstrips. I scheduled that mountain checkout a couple of times and the weather just wasn’t cooperating. Finally we got the ground portion done and when it came time for the flying portion, the plane was in for it’s 100 hour service and wasn’t quite done. I told Shawn we could just fly without the cowl on, that it would just keep the engine cooler, but he wasn’t having anything to do with it.
The week before the Fly-In was quite warm in the Puget Sound, in the upper 80’s! Which meant in Eastern Washington, the weather was scheduled to be OVER 100°!! The thing you have to worry about when temperatures get that hot is a little thing called “Density Altitude”. Basically you keep in mind “High, Hot and Humid” when you are concerned about Density Altitude. Any of those conditions will affect airplane performance. While it wasn’t going to be particularly humid in Eastern Washington it was going to be bloody hot! And while Desert Aire is only at 586 feet of elevation, calculating density altitude, the plane would perform as if it were at 3,400 feet of elevation. This affects your takeoff performance, your climb rate, etc. If you really want to get a good idea of what Density Altitude is, I’ll link to a really fun FAA Video later in this post that was done 1966 with Harry Bliss, a traveling photographer. I’ve watched it twice now and while it’s good information, it’s just fun to watch! I wish the FAA would redo some of these videos and make them more modern! But I digress . . . Because of the high temps, the decision was made to move the Fly-In to 11AM instead of 1PM! YIKES! I checked the schedule and someone had the plan before me, so I couldn’t leave any earlier! But when I was talking with Shawn about flying with now Cowling, he looked at the schedule and moved the person before me to another plane and let me have the plane ALL DAY LONG! I had it booked form 9AM – 8PM! Awesome!
I got to Thun field early for some breakfast, checked out the plane and got ready for my adventure! After my pre-flight, my instructor, Meg, was kind enough to tow the plane to the fuel pumps so I could top off the tanks before heading out. While filling up there were a couple other guys filling up one of the Spanaflight planes and they came over and iitro diced themselves “Are you John?” One of them asked. (Obviously a FATPNW member!) “Why yes I am!”. They were Matt and Maverick, a couple Clover Park students working on their commercial licenses. (And honestly, with a name like Maverick, what other career choice do you have really?) I finished topping off, hopped in the plane, fired her up, did my run up and I was off!
I was set to rendezvous with Matthew & Pat by Crest air park so as I flew past Lake Tapps I called up on the radio and we quickly connected. I thought I saw them flying through the mountains so I followed, it turns out I was ahead of them. My flight plan had me cruising over at 7,500 feet. I stayed in contact with Matthew & Pat and they must have ADS-B in their plane because they were like my own personal flight following. They were letting me know of traffic in the area.
I have to say, my first trip over the Cascade range was pretty cool! It’s amazing how many lakes there are up there that you never see driving by, or even hiking in the area. Once we got over the highest peaks, I dropped down to about 5,500. As I flew over the airfield in Ellensburg, I tuned in the ELN VOR for the 086° Radial, and tracked that sucker like a BOSS!!
Once we reached the checkpoint FEBUS, we turned south and I tuned in the frequency for Desert Aire. It was really cool hearing all the planes in the pattern for landing! It sounded like runway 10 was in use so I added the procedure for runway 10 to Foreflight to give me a good idea what I was doing. I announced my position 5 miles out, 2 miles out, entering the 45°, Downwind, Base and Final. I bounced my landing a little bit, but not bad. I’d give myself a 7.5 out of 10 on the landing. Taxied and parked the plane and hopped in the shuttle vehicle for the Restaurant.
It was really cool to put some faces to names, etc and finally meet all these folks I’ve looked up to for a year+. Due to the density altitude concerns, we didn’t stick around very long after lunch and soon there were planes taking off from little ol’ Desert Aire every couple of minutes or so. I had a blast and now it was time to head back. I created a video of my flight over and condensed it to less than 9 minutes, if you’d like to have a look, watch the video below. Takeoff and landing are at normal speed, everything else is sped up.
Once I got back to KPLU, Teri met me at the Hangar in and we had a quick drink and salad. Since I had the plane for the day, we figured it would be fun to go up and tour around Mount Saint Helens. So soon we were back in the plane and off again. We climbed up to about 7,500 feet and I flew south over Eatonville and headed towards Mount Saint Helens.
One thing I’ve learned about being the guy with the pilot’s license, if you want your passengers to have a good time, you should probably keep the prettier stuff on their side of the airplane. So unless you’re flying solo, you’re probably just a tour guide. And you hope your passengers get some good photos that they’ll share with you! Well there is also the fact that you’re the guy with the pilot’s license! And that’s pretty darn cool.
Teri’s sinuses were bugging her so we just had time to go around St. Helens and come back to the airfield. We came in for a straight in landing on runway 34 and I lost altitude pretty quickly to get there. Another lesson learned, when passengers realize they have sinus issues, come down a lot more slowly than you would normally. Makes for a much more pleasant day!
Anyway, this was a super fun day and it really gave me an idea of what it would be like to actually OWN a plane. Where you could actually just come and go as you please. Pretty awesome!!