Bay State Challenge: Back in The Air

The first post in this series is here

The Cessna was still waiting for its new windshield when I planned my next Bay State Challenge trip, so for 17 July I reserved one of Northampton's five Piper Cherokee Warriors.

Nobody buys a Piper Cherokee for its exciting handling. Absolutely everybody who's flown one describes it with the same word: docile. Like thousands of other pilots, I learned to fly in these highly forgiving airplanes, and for today's flight I booked the least popular one in Northampton's fleet: N128PC.

There's nothing wrong with Eight Papa Charlie, but it's now the only rental on the field without a GPS, so students and instructors prefer the others. I planned to visit four of the remaining "local" airports, using a combination of older navigation techniques. Though this wouldn't technically count as a cross-country flight by FAA standards, it would let me practice some of the traditional piloting skills that tend to get ignored in this Garmin-powered age.

Playing with the jocks

Climbing above the runway, I leveled off at 2,000 feet and followed the Metacomet ridge a short way south. Westover, which I'd visited two weeks earlier by car, was just on the other side of the hill to my left. Dead ahead was the other military/civilian dual use field in the area: Westfield-Barnes. The tower controller directed me into a right pattern for runway 2, so I continued along the ridge with KBAF's main 9,000-foot-long asphalt strip off my right wing.

Westover handles the Air Force Reserve's lumbering C-5 transports, but Barnes is home to the Massachusetts Air National Guard, which flies ...

"Cherokee One Two Eight Papa Charlie, four F-15s in your twelve o'clock, will be 500 feet above you making left traffic for two-zero, maintain current course and altitude," came through my headset.

... fighter jets. The McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle is a single-seat supersonic tactical aircraft used for attacking and defending airspace worldwide. When people talk about "scrambling the jets," these are the jets they're scrambling.

"Westfield tower, Eight Papa Charlie, traffic in sight."

Everything is relative. 500 feet is a long way to kick a football, but a very short distance for watching a hundred million dollars' worth of heavily armed government property approach at a combined speed of a few hundred knots. The four-ship formation zipped overhead. They would be landing on the same runway as me, but in the opposite direction, which raised some rather obvious questions.

Fortunately, air traffic controllers live for this sort of occasion.

"Killer One cleared for low pass two zero," said the controller. I looked back to see the first jet in the flight zooming over the runway at an altitude of a few feet.

"Killer One make right traffic. Killer Two cleared for low pass two zero." The first jet made a steep right turn, which is to say he shot back into the sky more or less vertically, just as the second one started his fly-by.

"Killer Three cleared for low pass two zero, Eight Papa Charlie make left three sixty for spacing." Now I was part of the show, too. I steered my docile ride into a slow, level circle to the left, which gave me an even better view of the impromptu performance. After their low passes, the jets came back around to land. That's why I was doing a 360 - to ensure that they'd have enough time to complete their exercise before I came barging in.

Indeed, Killer Four was just taxiing off the runway as I cleared the fence and touched down. I parked in front of the tower, shut down, and went into the maintenance office to get my passport stamped.

Into the woods

Leaving Barnes, I picked up flight following, a service where air traffic controllers will follow a VFR flight on radar and advise the pilot about nearby traffic and other hazards. It also means someone will notice immediately if you disappear. Western Massachusetts isn't exactly Alaska, but it is covered in hilly forests, and if I have to make an emergency landing on a tree canopy I want the search party to have a good fix on me.

The Berkshires don't offer many good landmarks, so for this leg of the trip I used the mid-20th century's version of GPS: a VHF omnidirectional range (VOR). Using ground stations originally built with vacuum tube technology, and an entirely analog receiver in the aircraft, a pilot using VORs can position an airplane with extraordinary precision. Or at least try to. There's a craft to flying a VOR radial, and tracking my way west gave me a good chance to practice it.

I watched the mountains slide past beneath me as I cruised at 4,500 feet, listening to periodic updates from flight following.

"One Two Eight Papa Charlie, squawk VFR, frequency change approved." That's an air traffic controller's version of "AMF, YOYO." It was entirley appropriate, as the controller knew my destination, KGBR, was now directly in front of me just a few miles away. I knew it was there too. I just couldn't see it.

Faithful that my navigation had brought me to the right place, I descended and circled around the mountain that was blocking the view, and the field appeared right where it belonged, nestled in the next valley.

Great Barrington's runway is just over the 2,500 foot minimum length stipulated in the rental contract, and besides being surrounded by mountains it has a grove of tall trees right at one threshold and a road perpendicular to it at the opposite end. Fortunately, my landing was much less exciting than it could have been.

Piper Cub at Great Barrington, MA.
The little FBO had a tractor and a Piper J-3 Cub parked out front. Another Cub was now on the runway, where a young woman was practicing - and from what I saw, mastering - tailwheel landings. I got my stamp and chatted with the fellows in the office for awhile, comparing notes about which of the state's airports had the trickiest approaches. Though it wasn't technically necessary, I used the short field technique for takeoff, lowering the flaps 25 degrees and climbing out steeply until I was above the trees.


There weren't any conveniently located VORs for the next leg, so I flew by dead reckoning on a northeasterly course toward Pittsfield, the town where Herman Melville wrote "Moby Dick." The mountains rose, crested, and fell behind in my wake until KPSF hove into view.

If you don't know much about the area, you might be surprised to find a large, well-paved airfield with a pair of generously sized runways out here in the hills. It is, however, convenient to a famous classical music venue, a noted art museum, a high-end yoga resort, and quite a few other expensive destinations. For those who want to visit the picturesque wilds of the Berkshires, but can't imagine doing so without at least a butler, a maid, and a cook, KPSF is ideal.

Bumpkin on the jet ramp.
After using a fraction of the mile-long runway, I taxied to the ramp and parked, singlehandedly reducing the average aircraft value in the area by a substantial margin. 128PC was the only airplane on the ramp with a propeller. A lineman hurried out to me as I shut down and asked how long I'd be staying.

"Two minutes. Just into the office and back out," I replied. He looked relieved.

"Okay, no problem. We're just really busy, so if you were going to be longer I'd have asked you to move." I understood what he meant, and appreciated that he'd put it so nicely.

Stepping out of my rented bugsmasher, I walked past a Gulfstream and behind a Citation to enter the FBO, where I was the only customer not wearing epaulets. The pleasant lady behind the desk stamped my passport, then returned to tallying up a fuel bill for one of the other aircraft - a total I'm certain was more than the resale value of Eight Papa Charlie.

Around the mountain

As I climbed out of Pittsfield I turned to the northeast again, this time heading for an ancient and obvious landmark: Mt. Greylock. I flew at 3,500 feet and followed the valley west of the highest point in the state, which put its summit slightly above me. The winds were light enough that it wasn't too turbulent in the lower air, and the short flight I was making didn't justify climbing higher. KAQW and the adjacent town of North Adams didn't appear from behind the hills until I was almost on top of them.

I spiraled down southwest of the field to reach the traffic pattern altitude, announced my intentions at the appropriate points, and landed on a well-maintained 4,300-foot runway at the foot of the big mountain. As I taxied to the ramp, the fellow in the FBO radioed to ask if I needed anything, then directed me to the office when I told him why I was there.

Runway in the mountains.
A Cessna 172 sat parked in the grass in front of the bright green FBO. Inside, the man I'd heard on the radio stamped my passport and asked where I'd come from. We talked for a few minutes about Northampton, where he knew several instructors and pilots. At the first lull in the conversation, he returned to whatever he'd been doing on his iPad. I stepped back out to the airplane.

After spending all morning flying, it felt good to stand on the grass in this quiet spot, looking at the mountains. The place must be spectacular in the Fall. I sat in the Piper with the single door propped open in the warm breeze and ate my lunch.

Taxiing out, I noticed several sailplanes at the tiedowns; mountains like Greylock always produce strong updrafts as the wind flows over them, and glider enthusiasts inevitably flock there for the altitude boost. If aviation is full-contact meteorology, soaring is the activity's equivalent of Australian rules football.

Climbing into the sky north of the mountain, I bounced through eddies and turbulence to 5,500 feet, then headed southeast toward home base, flying over the foothills with the cold, dry air of the altitude blowing through the vents.