Gear Up: Disoriented, but Not Lost

** Ed and Dick check out the new signage at

(May 2011) DID THE EARTH MOVE for you? Good. Me too.

After 28 years of taxiing out to runway 36R at Tampa International Airport, where I have based an airplane since moving here, I am now instructed to taxi out to 01R. After all those years of thinking of my home airport as an elegant north-south-east-west kind of geographic purist, I must come to grips with the fact that something has changed.

Not that I can tell by looking. The runway is in exactly the same place it has always been. The airplanes landing over our house still scribe the same track across the sky. I know this with precision because when I lie in bed at night I can bracket approaching airliners in the right-upper-quadrant window of the bedroom. I can tell when they are too high or too low.

The runways look the same from the air too. The same visual cues are right where they belong; there has been no obvious slippage of the concrete when compared to the water of Tampa Bay or of the trees at the approach end.

Yet even Wikipedia in its treatise on declination and variation mentions the Tampa runway switch. How did things become so dislocated?

It turns out that magnetic north, created by something I don’t understand, is a mobile rascal. If you’d like to get an idea of its peripatetic history, click on that Wikipedia page called magnetic variation (or declination, as they say). You’ll see the magnetic poles wandering all over the place over the last 400 years. They posit magnetic north is moving toward Russia at a rate of 40 miles per year. Who am I to dispute this?

Nonetheless, it is unsettling to have a name change to what appears to be a stationary piece of concrete. It is almost as if your wife looked the same, but changed her name. (I’ve heard of this happening, and it is not usually associated with a happy marriage prognosis, but that’s another topic even more mysterious than the wandering poles.)

The east-west runway changed its stripes too. No longer the perfect 9/27, it is now 10/28. I became so confused as to how this had to happen that I contacted Ed Cooley, senior director of operations and public safety at Tampa International. I know Ed for a ridiculous reason. I am on the Tampa International Noise Consortium, a community outreach effort of the airport to explain to residents why airplanes make noise.

The fact that I sit on a committee of concerned citizens who complain about airplane noise is one of life’s greatest ironies. I love airplane noise. When we bought our house, the broker said that there was some “ambient noise from aircraft.” No kidding. When that 777 heads off to London nonstop, you can hear it. (And what a magnificent sound it is, but I don’t admit this to anyone.)

So, having me on a noise committee for an airport that is consistently voted the best in the country by frequent fliers and at which I have kept an airplane for all these years is very much like having a fox in the henhouse. The meetings are hilarious, to me at least. Most of the noise complaints come from just a few households, but they call often. The consortium is amazingly patient and courteous to the members, and I have often wondered why one of the administrators doesn’t break down and ask, “Did you not know an airport was near your house when you bought it? Did you only visit it at 3 in the morning?” But they never do.

Anyway, that’s how I know Ed. He had me over to the office, and we were joined by several others. Ed was just back from a planning meeting in downtown Tampa about the expected traffic increase associated with the Republican National Convention scheduled for next summer. The town and the airport are experienced at Super Bowls, so this project should be well within everybody’s capability. Still, a lot of Republicans require a lot of planning.

When I asked where I could bone up on variation, moving north poles and the like, Ed did refer me to Wikipedia as a source, saying, “It is about as good as any.” So, here are the facts as reported by Wikipedia, not WikiLeaks. “Magnetic variation (declination) is the angle between magnetic north and true north.” Variation is about 20 degrees west in Maine, about 0 where I live and 10 east in Texas. For places closer to the pole “like Ivujivik [Quebec], the declination may change by one degree every three years.”

Whatever the science, the result at home has been runway closures and, for me, a mind-boggling inability to keep it all straight. Why, I asked Ed, do we need to change? The answer lay in the history of aviation, the wet compass and the fact that all headings and radials off of VORs are in magnetic numbers. When I asked about GPS, Ed said, “The FAA says that’s at least 10 years away.” He didn’t say, but I thought, “If we could do the changeover faster, we could save a lot of runway renumbering, closures, new issue of charts, sectionals and who knows what else.”

The upshot right here at home is that what used to be Runway 36R now heads 06.30 degrees, and that is closer to Runway 01 than to Runway 36. As a result, all runways had to have their identifying numbers repainted. The FAA mandates that these numbers and the numbers on taxiways just at the junction with the runways not be painted over, but that the existing numbers be removed (without damaging the actual surface, mind you) and repainted. Not only that, but all those illuminated runway signs on taxiways had to change. The crowd at the aerodrome wanted to name this campaign “Shift Happens,” but the higher-ups nixed the slogan.

At Tampa International, where we have two parallel north-south runways (well, almost) and one east-west (ditto), the whole deal ran about $325,000 for the engineering, work and inspections. The timing had to be precise. The runways would reopen with new editions of Jeppesen and government charts on Jan. 13, 2011, at 4 a.m.

Tampa staged the work so that the old 36L, the runway for the big boys, came first. After all the painting, the FAA had to flight-check the new ILS antennas. There was a snag, though. The flight-check airplanes were snowed in at Atlanta. Thus, the ILS to 19R had to be flight-checked after the changeover, while KTPA was operating to the north. As airliners departed off of 01L, controllers were squeezing in flight checks in the other direction. I can just imagine the jokes in cockpits as controllers pointed out opposing FAA traffic off the departure end of the runway.

There was a lot to get done, but get it done they did — just like the runway changes at surrounding airports that had already been done. Plant City (KPCM), Florida, was done 12 years ago, Tampa Executive (formerly “Vandenberg” KVDF) in 1998. Peter O. Knight (KTPF) was done simultaneously with KTPA. All runways “shifted” to the right, receiving their new names with higher numbers unless, of course, they went from 36 to 01.

On the day of my airport visit, we hopped into “Airport 8.” We drove out by the gaggle of Southwest jets; it was exciting just to be at that level, seeing all the bustle of a busy airport from a different altitude. Soon we were out at the end of the new 19L, which was still closed for the shift work. I felt like I was breaking into somebody’s house and going through their closets and bathrooms. As many times as I’ve waited to be cleared onto that stretch of concrete, I’ve never stood there next to that sign and felt the wind whistle the grass.

Next we headed down to Signature Flight Support, where I keep our Cheyenne. Ed is a Cherokee 235 owner, and showing off airplanes is what we do. The line guys were unimpressed as I alighted from the elegant airport SUV. That vehicle had been ubiquitous during all the work, so it wasn't an unusual sight. Things had been changing. So much so that I'll be told to "line up and wait" (another change, will it ever stop?) on 19 Left.

All the work done so admirably during the runway renumbering will most likely be invisible (and inaudible) to the traveling public and to most of the locals. But all of this, of course, was duly reported to the Noise Consortium, and, in fact, it made a difference to a few. Now when I am instructed to head 330 degrees and maintain 4,000, that magnetic heading will take me over a different house than it did a month ago. That house would have been under the original flight path when the airport opened, but the earth moved below and slowly the arc of departures changed ever so slightly. It has taken so long that the house under the new path is most likely owned by someone who wasn’t around 30 years ago. I may get to meet the new inhabitant at the next Noise Consortium meeting. That should be entertaining.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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