Thursday, July 26, 2012

Out and about in North Carolina

I was on vacation in North Carolina last month, spending some quality time on the beach, doing a spot of fishing, a little kayaking, eating tons of seafood and generally having a relaxing time. As I am wont to do whenever I'm in a new area, I spent one evening surfing the Internet for local flying opportunities. Google maps' satellite view is pretty darn good for getting an aerial view of the beach you were just laying on, or the fishing spot you just discovered, but there's nothing like a real aerial tour to get a full appreciation of an area.

So, at 9 am one Thursday morning I drove out to KSUT - the most excellently named Cape Fear Regional Jetport/Howie Franklin Field Airport - with my girlfriend, her parents and her 7-year old nephew, for a pleasure flight up the coast to Wrightsville Beach, east of Wilmington. The tour route would take us over the house in which we were staying, at the southern end of Carolina Beach.

A portion of the Charlotte sectional chart, showing KSUT near the bottom and Wrightsville Beach to the northeast. (Click image to enlarge.)

Now, unusually for me, on this trip I didn't have my license, medical certificate and logbook with me, eliminating even the option of some left seat time. (Yeah, I'm one of "those" kind of travelers...) But no matter, because this day I wanted my girlfriend to get some right seat time in a Cessna, because she's flown in the front of a Great Lakes with me but never in a Cessna, and I would point things out to her nephew who would ride in the back with me; his first flight in a light aircraft.

We checked in with the front desk at Brunswick Air and introduced ourselves to Dennis Faver, our tour pilot for the day. We'd be in good hands. Dennis is a CFII, and a CAP squadron commander and check airman. Good enough for me!

Dennis asked what we had in mind and I told him about our experiences to date; me as a private pilot, my girlfriend as a flight attendant, and my girlfriend's nephew, Zach, as a total newbie. With that, Dennis led me back to his office to complete the paperwork. There I got my second surprise of the morning, as I perused the sectional chart hanging on his wall: a TRSA around Wilmington that I'd failed to recognize until Dennis mentioned it. Okay, so it's not quite as notable as spotting one of the Beatles (especially as there are only two of them left) but I'd never encountered a TRSA before. Still, I wasn't the pilot today so it was little more than a curiosity as Dennis explained where we could go and what we might see.

With the paperwork done we headed out to the tarmac where Zach got his first close-up look at a GA plane, a C172N. Brunswick Air's website and Dennis both told us that the plane was vintage 1978. Damn. It's holding up a lot better than I am, that's all I can say. Darn thing was immaculate.

Zach provides a 7 year-old scale to what's claimed is a 34 year-old Cessna, while Dennis Faver prepares the interior.
Role reversal: Zach's wearing the GB t-shirt, I'm wearing a Wrightsville Beach t-shirt. Jeez, tourists.

Once Dennis had done his pre-flight and we were all secured inside, we taxied off to the departure end of the runway; on the runway.

I've only back taxied on a runway myself a small handful of times, and I always find it curiously enjoyable.

On this occasion I was jealously aware of every utterance of "Cape Fear traffic" coming over my headphones from Dennis. Is it me or is that a cool name to announce over the CTAF? I think I might have to make a list of uncontrolled fields to fly into based on their names. "Big Hairy traffic, Great Lakes biplane taking off runway 26. Straight out departure, Big Hairy."

Anyway, we were soon on our way and within a couple of minutes we'd turned north over the coast. It sure is a pretty flight early on an early summer's morning. Here's a selection of random pretty scenes as shot by my girlfriend from the front right seat.

And here's the master photographer herself, doubling as a traffic reporter if I'm not terribly mistaken! ("Horrendous traffic approaching the boat ramp at Big Pine. Looks like there's four, maybe five Boston Whalers all trying to get out at the same time. If you're still off the coast your best bet is to keep on fishin'!")

Zach was still enjoying himself, although I got the impression he was less impressed by the scenery than we were. Then again, he's a local.

On the way south from Wrightsville Beach, as we were abeam the Wilmington International Airport (KILM), Dennis mentioned over the intercom that a Marines Osprey was just transitioning Wilmington airspace on its way down from Marines' Camp Lejeune. I craned my head and managed to catch sight of a small speck way behind and above us. I thought that would be the end of it so I refocused my attention on the approach back into KSUT. (Like most tail-dragger pilots I have an unhealthy fascination with landings and it's physically impossible for me to be in any sort of aircraft and not be fully engaged in the process. Endless learning opportunities! It's one of the reasons why I love flying seaplanes so much, too. You don't so much as fly a seaplane as take off, land, take off again, land again,... Awesome.)

Here's the view abeam KSUT, right downwind for runway 23 (left traffic). Unconventional approaches are common here, I learned. Everybody seems quite patient and this being the south, manners rule.

It was at this point that I got just slightly jealous of my girlfriend in the right seat. Then again, had I been in the right seat I would have defaulted to being jealous of Dennis in the left seat. So instead, we had to settle for role reversal part two: one pilot in the back and a flight attendant in the right front seat! Dennis executed a text book approach from the left seat.

Here's my girlfriend's view of runway 23:

A couple of minutes later we were all standing on the tarmac next to the Cessna and offering all manner of breakfast suggestions to Zach, who wasn't feeling 100%. It was a hot and humid day and we'd definitely hit a little bit of thermal turbulence coming back in. But attention on breakfast abated speedily at the sound of a couple of monster rotors approaching runway 23 from our right. Suddenly, there was the VS-22 Osprey, executing a practice rotor approach and landing like a helo. The "go" part was a rotor takeoff, too.

An impromptu air show courtesy of the US Marines was yet another nice surprise. But we weren't done yet! The fourth surprise of the morning was on re-entering Brunswick Air's office. No sleepy little FBO, this. The place was buzzing at 10 am of a Thursday. (They must serve good coffee.) In any event, within a minute of entering the place we were all of us engaged in different conversations, me being pulled into an adjacent office by a friendly, outgoing gentleman who introduced himself as Howie. At which point the surprise count went into overdrive.

The walls of Howie's office were adorned with photos, commendations, certificates and other memorabilia featuring no fewer than five US presidents. Turns out Howie was the chief steward on Air Force One for eighteen years. Not even Charlie Rose is likely to have met so many influential people as Howie. Oh yeah, and I nearly forgot. Remember the name of the field? This was only the very Howie Franklin for whom the airport is named! How many other living people have an airport named after them? I know I've never met one. Anyway, he's the airport director at KSUT now, amongst other things.

While my girlfriend talked to one of the tour and banner tow pilots, Zach and his grandparents explored and I was regaled with stories from Howie, it occurred to me that this might not be a bad place to come back and do some actual flying. For a start I have simply got to be able to say "Cape Fear traffic" over the CTAF a whole bunch of times. And Howie's good for an evening full of remarkable stories, that's for sure. I was surprised not to see any float planes while I was in town, but they must be out there, surely. The geography of Cape Fear is tailor made for an amphib. Okay, so there's that pesky corrosion thing with salt water, but think of the fishing!!!!

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