I Learned About Flying From That: A Fast Tour of O'Hare

Wading through rush hour at Chicago's busiest airport.

ILAFFT O'Hare

ILAFFT O'Hare

** To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

I bought a Cessna 340 several years ago for business and personal use. It was my first pressurized aircraft, so my insurance carrier was quick to point out that despite hundreds of hours of multiengine time, I needed not only a high-altitude endorsement but also formal schooling on the aircraft before it would cover me to fly solo. I chose to satisfy the requirement by hiring an insurance-approved instructor who could travel to my home base and give me the training in my own aircraft. In the midst of the schooling, which was going well, the opportunity arose for me to conclude a multicity business trip in Chicago and meet up with the instructor and the airplane for a short evening flight home. My Chicago meetings were very near O'Hare International Airport, so it would be the obvious choice.

Wait, the obvious choice? Well, in my 1,000-hour pilot experience I thought, "Why not?" A veteran instructor was along, the weather was a perfect sunny September evening with light winds, O'Hare was 10 minutes from my meeting site, and I had been gone a week and wanted to get home. How tough could this be? It hadn't occurred to me that professional airline pilots go to ground school for O'Hare before they even take a right-seat flight into the place. We were embarking on the slaughter of the innocents.

We weather briefed and filed to our destination at the FBO, which was located about where the international terminal is today. Full of confidence, we headed out to the airplane. We completed the pre-flight, climbed into the cockpit, radioed for our clearance and commenced engine start. At this point one of the linemen rushed up on a tug and stopped, blocking our way. The situation took us by surprise, and we immediately shut down the only engine running as he ran up to the airplane and reminded us to come up on the FBO frequency before moving. I looked over at the instructor and asked, "Is this normal?" He didn't know because he had never flown general aviation out of O'Hare before. His arrival two hours earlier had been a simple three turns to the FBO ramp from 4R after landing long to avoid wake turbulence.

Turns out the FBO ran a ramp control. We were supposed to call before moving to advise them of the activity but were warned not to cross the metering line. The metering line? Neither of us had heard of that before. We asked where it was. At the edge of the FBO ramp, of course! O'Hare was so busy that the ramp got you to metering for sequencing before even talking to ground control. I gave my instructor a quizzical look as if to ask "Why don't you know this?" He shrugged his shoulders. All this was being filtered through our inexperienced brains as we were going through engine start again and copying an IFR clearance. But we were not even to the overwhelming part yet.

We taxied up to the metering line and tuned in the frequency only to find it was almost constant chatter. There was maybe a half- second gap every 20 to 25 seconds. Even at that, transmissions were being stepped on regularly. We listened intently for a break as our props churned the air and we rehearsed our clearance request. I finally got a chance to jump in, and metering cleared us via what is today taxiway D6 to taxiway M7. At least we were on the way. But wait, not so fast. We rolled just about 100 feet as I searched for M7 when my instructor cried, "Stop!" The nose of the 340 was already poking over the M7 line. What? A clearance for a few feet of taxiway? I looked down to recheck the diagram when a noise caused me to quickly pull my head back up enough to see the wingtip of a fast-moving 737 passing uncomfortably close to the windshield. "We are seriously outclassed here," I thought. "But a challenge is a challenge, so let's finish the job." I dialed up ground control. Applying today's FAA risk-factor acronyms to my fix, I should have turned around, gone back to the ramp and spent some quality time with the taxi diagram.

If the metering frequency was crowded, ground control was impossible. We listened to several minutes of a mostly one-way conversation from ground to various aircraft before there was even a hint of dead air. I looked at my instructor and just shook my head. He looked perplexed. At that point, I thought I definitely should have put up with the rush-hour traffic and met him at Palwaukee Municipal Airport (now Chicago Executive). Among other trials, it seemed we were about to go through more than 100 gallons of avgas right there on the ramp. But when things begin to move at O'Hare, they move quickly.

Suddenly, there was a freak break in the action, and I hit the transmit button. Miraculously, ground seemed to know who we were and where we were going, which was to Runway 4L. I was gratified that at least he knew what was happening, because despite what we thought was careful study of the taxiway diagram at O'Hare, neither of us could actually picture where we were in relation to the designated runway. That's because it was miles away, tucked behind the sprawling, curving terminal building around which we would have to go ducking and weaving around every kind of commercial jetliner. What do you do in that situation, with everything from regional jets to 747s in your face, pivoting right and left for their gates spewing jet exhaust, calls jamming the frequencies and a couple of hopeless novices craning their necks in every direction trying to find the right taxiway? You ask for the coup de grace: progressive taxi!

And at O'Hare, you get progressive all right. As we were swiveling our heads to find our way out of airport Hades, ground came back with, "You see that DC-9 right ahead of you? Follow him." Now, don't believe for a minute that such an undertaking is akin to trailing behind an airport jeep with a "follow me" sign on the back. That DC-9 was traveling. By the time we made the turn onto his taxiway and tried to stay up so we could see where in the world he was going, we were up to 25 knots and he was pulling away. Jet-A was all we could smell, and the blowing exhaust felt like low-level wind shear. But I kept the nose down on the 340 and did my level best to stay up with our fast-moving guide. At one point, my instructor looked over his shoulder and said, "You don't even want to look behind." No worries about that; I was barely able to stay focused on what was ahead, since the barreling DC-9 had made a turn onto 4L and was quickly leaving the earth.

We had never received instructions as to when to contact the tower, but there was no choice in the matter. We screamed up to 4L following far behind our DC-9 friend and looked around. "There's no place for a run-up!" I said. The instructor matter-of-factly responded, "Looks like we don't get one today." Thanks to that fast but long trip from the FBO, the engines were warm. Luckily the gauges were normal. Since we had stopped at the runway boundary sign at an angle, I looked up only long enough to see an endless line of angry monsters on my tail waiting impatiently for me to get the heck out of there and restore order to this chaos. I took the hint, called the tower, and O'Hare was history, never to see my embarrassed face again.

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