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An IFR Flight

I flew out the the Hanscom Airport in Bedford, MA (airport code KBED), just a little northwest of Boston, for the weekend, October 12, 2007 to attend a friend's wedding party (the wedding was a month earlier) and also to visit some other friends who live in Boston. I flew back Sunday night, October 14, 2007. While the return flight was generally uneventful, a few days later, I noticed that still had the track data from my flight. (Aside: they are a very cool site.) And looking at it, I can see details relating to decisions I made during the flight. I've got around 850 hours of flying time now, so I figured I'd write up a little description of the trip home since it's been a while since I've written one and my perspectives are probably somewhat different.

The Preliminaries

I was planning to leave in the afternoon, but after checking the weather, it looked like there wasn't going to be anything significant happening. A little rain in western New York, but no threat of thunderstorms and high enough cloud bases so that ice wouldn't be a real threat either. So I decided I could let my departure slide later. Since I was instrument and night current, I could return after dark. I decided as an arbitrary cut-off, that I'd want to get to the airport and do my preflight inspection before dark (it's just easier) but I would fly any of the trip after dark.

While at my friends' place, I did a final check of weather and filed my IFR flight plan. Then we headed out to the airport. We got there as the sun was low in the horizon. I managed to do my preflight inspection before dusk. Then I started the engine, did some initial checks and then called up ground control to get my clearance.

It begins

Hanscom Ground replied that they had no clearance for me. I was caught by surprise for a moment. They told me that I could contact Flight Service and file with them (again).

I did not really want to have to take the time and money to shut down the engine, get out the cell phone, call flight service, navigate their damnable voice-controlled menus, get to a briefer, re-file the flight plan. Then wait a few minutes until it got relayed to the tower. Call them up and see if they got it. Then restart the engine and start back where I left off.

In the meantime, I also heard someone calling to taxi for a VFR departure, and coordinated a (transponder) squawk code so they could get flight following once airborne. I knew the weather in Massachusetts was VFR, I could see just a few very thin clouds in the fading light, and knew I could fly under or over them.

So I called back ground control and told them I was ready to taxi for a VFR departure westbound, and requested if they could arrange a transponder code for flight following for me. He said he could, asked me the plane type, destination, and altitude and cleared me to taxi to Runway 29.

While taxiing, he gave me the squawk code and departure frequency for Boston Approach Control. I heard another plane call up to request to taxi. I still had to do the engine runup, but there was a runup area at the end of the taxiway, right before it reached the runway. I did the runup and was set before the other plane got too close. I called the tower and was cleared for takeoff.

After the initial climb, the tower hands me off to Boston Approach.

Flying VFR

I call up Boston Approach, he asks me to "ident" (via the transponder) and tells me to remain clear of the Boston Class Bravo airspace. Hanscom airport is a bit northwest of Boston's Logan airport, but still within their airspace. See the chart below. The two blue dots are on Hansom and Logan.

Boston chart
Click here for larger image

Hanscom's airspace is the dashed blue-line circle and goes from the surface to 2600 feet above sea level (MSL or mean sea level). The west part of their airspace is just below Boston's airspace, which, at that radius, extends from 4000 feet up to 7000 feet MSL.

A few seconds later Approach responds that I'm radar identified and asks me what my on-course heading will be. It's almost due west and I tell him. He then tells me I'm cleared into the Boston Class Bravo airspace. So now I can continue my climb and not have to worry about the airspace restrictions, which is nice. Since I was on the western edge of his airspace, heading west, he could let me transit his airspace without affecting any of his traffic.

There was some restricted airspace about 10 miles west of Hanscom. Fortunately the GPS displays it, so I was able to steer clear of it. I level off at 6500' MSL, heading towards Albany. My plan was to fly the course I had planned to fly IFR, which was more or less direct to Albany, then direct to Rockdale (VOR), then Ithaca. It's slightly north of the direct route, but it keeps me north of the Catskills and I'd rather have the flatter terrain below me, since there are clouds, the air aloft is cold (around freezing) and it's night.

Boston Approach hands me off to Boston Center. I can see a thin deck of clouds getting closer, and they look like they're at my altitude. I wasn't really sure about how low I could go. 4500' would be the next lowest altitude, and that early on I preferred the altitude, which generally gives one more options. I advised Boston Center that I am climbing to 8500'. "Roger, 7-Charlie-Foxtrot."

I watch the deck of clouds below me, as the crescent moon on the horizon sets. It's quite pretty.

Winds up high and clouds down below

The only downside is that the winds are kind of strong. The GPS says I'm going around 100-110 knots, rather than around 150. So I was fighting about a 40 knot headwind. I decided that at some point I'll need to go lower otherwise it'll take me a lot longer on this trip leg. To do that I'd have to descend below the cloud deck and to do that I'd need an IFR clearance. But I could also hear that the Boston Center controller was, at that point, fairly busy. I didn't feeling like either making her life more difficult or, worse, getting refused the IFR clearance. So I decided to wait until she passed me off to Albany Approach, since they would be much less busy. I knew we were getting near the NY state border, so they'd be handing me off soon.

And within about 5 minutes, Boston Center says, "Mooney 747CF, contact Albany Approach on 125.0." Thus it's off to Albany.

Switching to IFR

Remember that up until this point, I'm still flying VFR at 8500 feet. My course was my IFR flight plan, which was direct Albany (ALB), direct Rockdale (RKA), direct Ithaca (ITH). I call up Albany, check in, and tell him that I'd like to request an IFR clearance to Ithaca and add that the winds are strong at this altitude and I'd like to descend as I'm on top of a cloud layer. The approach controller says to expect an IFR clearance and asks if I can maintain VFR for the next 10 miles, because then I'll be in his airspace. I tell him that will be no problem.

The only thing was waiting to chug along those next 10 miles going about 50% slower than "normal" due to fighting the headwind. In reality, it meant I'd have to wait 6 minutes instead of 4 minutes. But that's not the point...

A few minutes later, he came back with my IFR clearance, cleared direct Ithaca, descend and maintain 6000 feet. Woo hoo.

How Low Can I Go

At 6000 feet, I had picked up about 15-20 knots in speed. I flew that for a while, but that altitude put me right in the bases of the cloud layer. It was at night and the temperature was right around 0 Celsius and I was in "visible moisture" (i.e., clouds). While never a guarantee, those conditions must be present for ice to form. Since it was night, I would have to get my flashlight out, shine it on the wings, and check every few minutes.

There was no ice build-up that I could see, but I just didn't like flying in those conditions and having to pay that much attention to checking for ice. I called Albany and asked if I could get lower, down to 5000 or 4000 feet. He said he'd check.

A minute later he called back and said he could get me down to 4000 feet, but I'd have to follow a specified route. He read it to me, which amounted to going on an airway to Rockdale, then down to Binghamton, then back up to Ithaca. I told him to standby as I looked up the route.

I considered a few factors. That route would get me down to 4000 feet, which would be less of an ice risk. That's good. But I'd be going further out of the way, which would take longer (and I wasn't picking up any ice now). That's bad. I'd be 2000 feet lower, and the headwind would be less, so I'd go faster. That's good. I'd have to spend the extra 30 seconds reprogramming the GPS. That's not really that bad. It's likely Binghamton Approach will let me skip part of the route and go direct Ithaca, meaning I could get the best of both worlds (direct and at a lower altitude). That's good. So I said I'd accept that route.

He amended my route clearance to the one he specified and cleared me to descend to 4000 feet. Since it would take another 30 seconds before I'd have everything programmed into the GPS, I asked him for a vector to get onto the airway. He said that I was on the airway right now, and suggested a heading. That's easy. Once I got things dialed and told him so, I was cleared to "resume own navigation." And then he handed me off to Boston Center.

At 4000', I wound up also being in an out of another base layer, but I could tell that that was about as low as the clouds went. The Binghamton and then Ithaca ATIS (recorded weather) indicated that the clouds were probably around 5000' near them. And I was still checking if there was any ice build-up, but it was clear.

After crossing Rockdale, I turned onto the airway to take me to Binghamton. Boston Center then handed me off to Binghamton Approach. I checked in with them, and they cleared me to go direct to Ithaca, without my even having to ask. Again, woo hoo.

The Arrival

As I got closer to Ithaca, I was in the clear. Binghamton Approach handed me off to Elmira Approach. I was cleared to descend down to 3300' and told to report the airport in sight. After a minute or two I was able to spot the approach lights and airport beacon and told them I had Ithaca in sight. I was cleared for the visual approach and told to contact Ithaca Tower.

Mount Pleasant is about 3 miles before the approach end of Runway 32 and probably around 2500 (with antennas sticking up on top of it). I was coming in a little to the east of Mount Pleasant and could see to align with the runway, I'd need to turn left, but I didn't want to do that until I was past Mount Pleasant. I could make out the general shape of the land, and could see Route 13 which leads to the airport, and knew once I was near that it would be safe to descend. In addition, the GPS has a terrain mode, which was able to show my position relative to all of the terrain around me. It made for a simple cross-check to make sure nothing unexpected was ahead.

I called the tower and told them I was on a visual approach, and was cleared to land.

Night landings tend to be a bit trickier to judge, and often result in a somewhat less smooth landings. For some reason, probably more luck than skill (and chanting "look long, look long" on the landing flair to remind myself to keep the nose up), I had a smooth touchdown. It was 8:30pm and I was home. It was about 2 hours en route (plus time on the ground at Hanscom), and things worked out as I had planned. Even the perturbations to the plan didn't cause trouble, the night departure, the VFR departure, the headwinds, picking up an IFR clearance on the fly (a pop-up clearance, technically), descending, changing the route, and getting in. It's nice when things work.

High-Tech Instant Replay

There's a web site, that allows people to track current and past IFR flights for free. It's cool. I looked up my flight and was able to find the track, as shown below.

flight route
Click here for larger image

The cool thing is that the different route segments can be clearly seen. In the first part, I'm going directly to Albany. Then there's a turn and I'm going direct to Ithaca (that was after getting the clearance from Albany). Then there's a left turn and I'm headed slightly south of Ithaca. That was when I was on the airway route followed by a little zig-zag around Rockdale. Then a turn to the right to go direct to Ithaca (when Binghamton cleared me direct to Ithaca.

And even cooler is a page that shows my position and altitude track. Again, the initial climb is shown. The last track there is 5600 and climbing. Then a half-hour later it shows me at 8200. Then the descent to 6000, with some level flight there. Then down to 4000. And finally the descent into Ithaca. There are minor altitude deviations, but I don't know if those are my fault, or a problem with the system. I've seen tracks before show 10,000 foot changes between 1 minute measurements (you're at 10,000, you're at 20,000, you're at 10,000), so it's not necessarily pilot error.

The cool thing is that I started out VFR. But they tracked my entire flight. I assume that this was because Hanscom tower initiated the VFR flight following and I had a transponder code to use before takeoff. This also might have been why it was so easy to get the IFR clearance. I was, essentially, already in the system. It's just that the controllers didn't have to, well, control me, because I was not operating under instrument flight rules. Like I said above, it's nice when things work.

This page last modified Jul 08, 2009.
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