To Fly Is To Learn—Every Time

A seemingly easy flight from Charlottesville to Tampa proves that there’s no such thing as an easy flight.

“Do you want to fly this leg?”

It’s Capt. Bill, my flying buddy, once again demonstrating his seemingly limitless generosity. I met Bill while attending Cessna Citation CJ1 recurrent training at SimCom in Orlando, Florida, where he was my instructor. He now manages and flies a CJ2+ based in Hilton Head, South Carolina, for a cool company. Sometimes he hires me to be his first officer/co-captain.

Let’s face it: Getting to fly a great airplane for a really nice group of people with a captain who has done—and seen—it all is about as rich as a butterscotch sundae. Add in Bill’s preternatural amiability, and you have a recipe for enjoyment that borders on the outrageous.

“No,” I say. “Thanks, though. You’re all settled in the seat with headset, so let’s just keep our spots as we left them a week ago when we landed here (in Charlottesville, Virginia).”

Today, we’re flying to Tampa, Florida. The weather is good, save for a narrow band of convective activity strung across the state just north of our destination. Three thousand pounds of jet-A should see us landing with 1,200 pounds reserve—a little extra for insurance. We strive to land with 1,000 pounds; most operators are happy with 800, and the book’s minimum fuel is 600 pounds.

Things don’t go according to plan. This flight proves that you can always learn something new when you get a throttle in your hand. In this case, the flight seems to imitate life. It’s as if the surprises and challenges conspire to test the pilots, just like life tests each of us as human beings.

It’s as if the surprises and challenges conspire to test the pilots, just like life tests each of us as human beings.

The weather in Charlottesville is spectacular: cool, clear, light winds and bright springtime foliage. It is a beautiful part of the country. I enter the flight plan, do the cockpit checks, send the takeoff speeds to the PFDs, and luxuriate in the time spent waiting for our people. The ramp is busy; multiple jets are also waiting for their charges. The sound of several APUs comes through our open passenger door. It feels good to be part of whatever it is that is going on in Thomas Jefferson’s hometown.

With the airplane prepared, I stroll inside, the FBO and learn that the gathered crowd might be related to a lacrosse game at the University of Virginia. Bill and I wonder if an interest in lacrosse comes with a private jet.

Our passengers arrive, and we load up. I would love to tell you more about them as they are truly wonderful people, but they deserve their privacy. We’re off at 9:42 a.m. Our planned route is 711 nautical miles, which should take us just under two hours. We climb to 4,000 feet, get turned on course, and do the after-takeoff checks. Soon, we’re level at 40,000 feet, accelerating to a true airspeed of 415 knots and lamenting the 50 knots of headwind. We’re burning 440 pounds per side, or about 130 gallons an hour.

Our onboard information about the weather is robust. Among the Collins Pro Line 21, Nexrad and ForeFlight systems, we can see the narrow band of weather sloping east to west about 20 miles north of Tampa. There’s almost no extension out into the Gulf of Mexico, so we discuss the possibility of a slight deviation to the west on the arrival into Tampa.

As if reading our minds or listening in to our conversation, Atlanta Center calls with a reroute. “Ready to copy,” I say. Now cleared direct to HEVVN and the FOOXX 5 arrival into Tampa. This amounts to a major deviation out over the Gulf of Mexico, and we watch with interest as the “fuel at destination” numbers fall from 1,200 pounds to 960. This is still acceptable as long as our current groundspeed and fuel burn don’t change.

Next comes a “turn right to 060” command. This is almost a circle around what we gather is Valdosta, Georgia—and another slight drop in the fuel calculations.

Then comes “descend immediately to Flight Level 270, expedite through Flight Level 310.” We will now be burning more gas, but before we can figure out how much, we get another reroute. “FOOXX 5 is shut down. Proceed to TAY, JAYJA and the DADES 7 arrival.”

We hear several airplanes inquire about Orlando International Airport and learn that it is closed. Airplanes arriving from the north and west have been sent to HEVVN, then down over the Gulf to KPIE (St. Petersburg, Florida), then across the state to Orlando. This has saturated the apex of Miami’s airspace resulting in the FOOXX5 shutdown. Hm. Not exactly bank foreclosure on the house but not comforting, either.

We double-check Tampa weather. It is still acceptable, but the ATIS is calling for ILS and LOC approaches to runways 1L and 1R. With a visual approach unlikely, this will add more time to our flight. At FL 270, we are now burning 660 pounds a side—about 200 gallons an hour. When I put the ILS 1L in the FMS, our arrival fuel ducks below 600 pounds and a “check fuel at destination” light comes on.

There are few relationships in life that are better than the compatibility between a captain and first officer. When two aviators share similar philosophies but each has something to add to the symbiosis, the feeling is almost magical. So it is with Bill and me, though my contribution is usually to say, “Hey, that’s a good idea.” We get to work discussing our strategy almost the way you’d talk with a trusted partner about a sudden family or financial problem. 

We talk about the multiple airports available to us should our fuel get too close for comfort. I set about getting weather at Ocala and Gainesville and suggest that Bill throttle back to 550 pounds per side, which he does. We watch with satisfaction as the check-fuel light goes out.

Down the DADES 7 arrival we go. We can see several airplanes lining up for the ILS 1L, so we decide to ask for the LOC 1R; the downwind leg will be much shorter without having to get in the long line of airliners that stretches almost to Sarasota.

Bill kisses the airplane onto the runway, and we make a favored turn off. The Signature linemen pull up the passengers’ car, and we unload. The pax are oblivious to our reroutes, circles and early descents. What a day. It started as a simple, easy trip and ended up with challenges that left me feeling happy with our performance. That contentment is one of flying’s great satisfactions that gets richer after the chocks are in place.


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