Thursday, May 24, 2012

Diversion to a Spaceport!

“N615FT, please remain above 500 ft, cleared for low approach, runway 15”…

This is what I heard from NASA tower yesterday, thanks to my flight instructor. I was being diverted to the airport where space shuttles landed!

As a part of the visual portion (VFR) of flight training, students are taught and then tested on being prepared against sudden (and supposedly unexpected) changes of planned routes to nearest airports. So-called “diversion procedures”, these route changes basically consist of a simulation of what is to be done in case of anything that keeps the flight away from going as intended. A sick customer, an equipment malfunction (except for an emergency like a whole engine failure etc) or a deteriorating weather could be a solid reason for a real life diversion. The flight instructor, therefore, intentionally asks the student to divert the planned route to another point in the vicinity, usually an airport hardest to find, during a normal cruise flight…

… and they sometimes get very creative!

From the student’s point of view, diversions are always painful. The workload of the normal cross-country flight almost triples up the instant the instructor asks him/her to deviate from the course. You have to open up your map (which is called as “sectional chart” in aviation), draw a new course from your current location to the instructed destination, simulate the radio calls informing two different stations about your route change (the FSS and the approach control), measure the heading, distance, time to be spent on the way along with the total fuel burn while still controling your aircraft and checking the air traffic (including the birds!) outside. Sadly, these are not all. You also have to open up your airport directory to check the information about your destination airport, set up your radios to destination frequencies, call the other aircraft or the air traffic controller to tell your intention and set up your aircraft for landing configuration.

And all this time, you keep flying your aircraft without losing your intended altitude and heading. You’re not allowed to get any help from your instructor whose job is mainly nothing but watching and evaluating you as you’re testing the limits of your multitasking!

NASA Shuttle Landing Facility (KTTS)
Back to the creative part, the initiating command from the flight instructors comes in various ways. Some first ask you to take them to the planned airport to have a breakfast (even asking if you liked bacon) then change their minds into having a “simulated” heart attack, asking to go to an airport of simultaneous choice, while others just cut a preplanned distractive conversation by dryly saying “take me to the X airport”. The latest one I heard was, on the other hand, was a breakthrough in imagination: “let’s assume you have a passenger who wants to fly over the NASA SHUTTLE LANDING FACILITY (KTTS) so badly that you can’t deny him. What would you do?”. I’m sure the good old Piper Warrior was as surprised as I was when Jason asked me to divert him to NASA’s military “spaceport” in Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Fl.

The Diverted Route
Alright, that was a training flight and I am a respectful student who trusts his instructor all the time. Yet, anyone taking a glance at that spot on the sectional chart could understand how I initially felt (and why I’d curse on my imaginary passenger!) at that moment. The whole area was surrounded by restricted airspaces, not to mention the “requested” destination was a military airport. Then again, my instructor was denying to help by asking me to “find a way”. I desperately called Orlando Approach for help…

“Orlando Approach, N615FT, over Dunn airport at 4500 ft, requesting a low approach to NASA SHUTTLE LANDING FACILITY”. Since we wouldn’t be allowed to actually land on a special-use military airport like that, all we could be allowed was to fly over it at low altitude, which is called a “low approach”.

“N615FT descend and maintain 2000 ft, maintain VFR and remain clear of restricted areas XXXX and XXXX; contact NASA tower on …” they said, after giving me my squawk code (to identify my plane on their radar). That was something, at least proving me that there was nothing wrong in my request. I contacted NASA.

Control Tower of KTTS
Conversation was just too brief and standard for that portion of my flight which was obviously extraordinary to me:

“Good afternoon, NASA tower, N615FT requesting a low approach”.

“N615FT cleared for low approach on runway 15, please remain above 500ft and remain clear of the restricted areas (right on the east of the facility) (or get intercepted by the fighter jets!!!)”.

The rest was fun: I descended to 600, lined up with the 300-ft-wide-and-15000-ft-long runway, slowed down to 65 knots and dropped my left wing in straight-and-level flight, trying to help my instructor to take better pictures 8) Actually, all to be seen over the so-called “gator tanning facility” was a runway wide enough for two 737s to land side by side and a small control tower with some extra toys attached on it; but who cares?? We were flying over where space shuttles landed!

On the way back to Melbourne, “Flying is a whole world of imagination” said my instructor, who obviously knew clearly what he was doing in the first place. The lesson was satisfactorily completed.

PS: Video will come soon…

1 comment:

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