Gear Up: A Gaggle of Large Metal Birds

Living fast and low with other airplanes.

Gear Up Short Trip

Gear Up Short Trip

A short trip can add years to your appearance.

It is 14 nautical miles from Chicago's Midway airport to O'Hare International, but it goes by quickly at 250 knots. By the time the gear is up, you're already getting the ATIS and entering the runway and its precision-like approach into the FMS. And don't forget to call the FBO before you depart and tell it you are coming. I haven't decided if it is better to be the pilot flying or the pilot monitoring. As the PF I worry about airspace incursions, traffic, strict altitude observance and the speed limit. As the pilot monitoring, I've got all those frequency changes, ATIS gathering and FBO alerting duties to execute. It is busy.

My first experience with such a trip was from Chicago's Executive Airport (Palwaukee, KPWK) to O'Hare. The distance is 8 miles. I was in the left seat; the patient and experienced Ben Sullivant was in the right. Good thing too.

Ben has the kind of experience and calm demeanor that would be reassuring to any pilot, but especially to this novice CJ3 driver. His laconic mien and unflappable nature were just the things for my first go at short-range jet repositioning. We fired up and took off from Runway 16 and were vectored out over Lake Michigan. O'Hare was landing to the west. That doesn't tell you much as there are seven total runways that might claim to point toward the west in some degree.

Ben reached up in his unhurried manner and established contact with departure and, seconds later, with approach controllers. With his other brain he obtained the ATIS, and wrote it down. "I'm back," he said when he'd finished. "Two frequency changes, otherwise no changes," I responded.

In my bewildered state, I had allowed the airplane to slow — not to stall speeds, but slow enough that I had become a speed bump on the O'Hare conga line of approaching airplanes. Ben said, "250." I had heard this assignment from approach control but must have subconsciously deemed such a tear at 3,000 feet so close to the airport as to be ridiculous.

By now we were starting to configure for landing. Flaps 15 and gear extension speed on the CJ3 is 200 knots, a nice, round, easy to remember number. The exact runway to which we were hurtling was a blur to me. I was relying on Ben to be sure it was the right one. We touched down well enough and I exhaled in relief.

But our journey was not over. Have you taxied around O'Hare recently? Turns out it's got some taxiways. Some are clear, some have intersections with multiple other taxiways, and some open up onto aprons. I find it easy to get lost. This disorientation makes me want to slow down, so again, I am impeding the flow of the more experienced aviators who presumably taxi around this airport with a cup of coffee in one hand and lively banter on their lips.

Signature Flight Support is up there somewhere, though it can be difficult to spot where, what with the blast fence and taxiway signs. When we finally tootled in, I was a wreck. Flight time: 11 minutes. Block time: 23 minutes.

Andy Lemons held my hand for the KMDW-KORD flight. The ATIS proclaimed a mandatory 250-knot speed even though we were below the Chicago Class B airspace. Andy was smart enough to get the ATIS at O'Hare on the ground. By phone. He also called the FBO from the ground. I made a mental note to emulate these time-saving and perhaps ATP privilege-saving techniques. We departed 31C. A manifestation of my anxiety became immediately apparent: I had entered 13C as our departing runway, even though I knew better. This numeric dyslexia gave me pause. What else might my degraded skill set mess up?

After we took off we were turned east over Lake Michigan and exhorted to maintain 250. Minutes later we were turned back to the west and given speeds of 220 knots, then 190, then 170, then 160, then slow to final approach speed in rapid succession. That I could do.

It was after landing that instructions got my attention again. We had landed on 28R and turned off to the north onto taxiway November and headed back east. Luckily we were instructed to follow an Airbus that was going our way, at least at the beginning. When we were instructed to taxi via Bravo over the bridge and hold short of 32R, I lost all semblance of situational awareness. Our lemming-like leader, the Airbus, had sailed off to its accustomed gate with its customary aplomb. As we were cleared to taxi via Hotel Three to Papa Papa and then turn north on Tango Tango, my feet started to jiggle on the rudder pedals. Finally Signature Flight Support came into view and we shut down. It was still before 8 a.m., and I felt as if I'd been flying all night long.

When we departed O'Hare for Albuquerque, I was thankfully in the right seat, but I completely loused up the communications. When told to taxi via Tango Tango to Papa Papa, I thought I was a seasoned professional. But when I read back the clearance to hold short of 27L, I said, "Hold short of 27."

"That's hold short of 27L," came the reply. "Roger," I said, "hold short of 27L." "Say your callsign with read-back," said the nice man in the tower. I then said the callsign but didn't say 27L, and so it went.

Though we had originally been slated to depart Runway 22L, the tower concluded that I did not possess the necessary intelligence and he didn't have the obligatory time for such nonsense and informed us that we'd be leaving via 27L, the runway just in front of us. I pictured the poor controller coming home to a loving wife that evening. "How was your day, dear?" she'd ask. "You don't want to know," he'd reply. "Some bozo almost shut the place down." I did think to thank him for his patience when we were turned over to the tower frequency; and I remembered to include our callsign.

Caldwell, New Jersey, is just 29 miles from White Plains, New York, but on a gusty day this short trip also provided amusement. Luckily Andy was flying and I was the "communicator." This airport is tucked in between Newark, Teterboro and Morristown airports (all in New Jersey), and the one runway long enough for us was 4/22. Unfortunately the winds were reported on the ATIS as 320 degrees at 12 gusting to 18. This favored Runway 04, but not by much. We requested a visual for 04 and were rewarded with the same. When I checked in with the tower, the controller advised the winds as 300 at 14 gusting 18, favoring 22. After we talked it over, Andy and I agreed we'd take any help with winds we could get, and I asked for Runway 22. This request prompted a return to approach control, and we were vectored around to the north for another shot at landing. The runway is less than 5,000 feet long. Andy put us down nicely and taxied in, only for us to see a Falcon landing the other way. The whole shebang took about 30 minutes but I have done less work on flights from Boston to Nassau that took three hours.

"I didn't have time to write you a short letter," the saying goes, "so I wrote you a long one." The same might be said of these short hops. The challenges are compacted both in time and in space. The precision required and the communication demanded between pilots quickly separates the pros from the rookies. It is in this caldron that the wisdom of standard operating procedures becomes evident. When you are "number 10 for landing, plan on the high-speed turnoff, and maintain 200 or better till the marker," it is a good time for SOPs and standard phrases.

I suppose short hops almost always take place in busy airspace — that's what reliever airports are for. But the frequency changes, traffic alerts, congested airwaves and airways make for fascinating and sometimes heart fibrillating segments. The irony is that these flights appear in your logbook as short entries — almost inconsequential ones — not worth even recording. But experienced aviators will tell you those few short minutes can put hair on your chest and lines around your eyes.

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