Pilotage Forest Lake, Minnesota

Yes, I was able to fly today, Sunday December 18, 2011. It was a beautiful day with hardly any wind with the sun shining brightly at 8.00 am; the temperature was 36 F and expected to rise to a maximum of 46 F. This is very surprising for a Minnesota winter, and I think it’s all due to global warming. But I digress.

Tim and I pretty much did the same as what we did last week only that instead of flying out to Buffalo we flew out to Forest Lake. Forest Lake is a small city with a population of about 20,000 or so and is located in Washington County in Minnesota. And like Buffalo, it’s also 30 miles from Crystal but in the opposite direction. So using pilotage, dead reckoning and basic navigation we flew out to the small uncontrolled airport that has a sod runway (sod meaning field/grass/not the usual hard paved landing strip). We were going to practice some takeoffs and landings here. I took off from Crystal airport in the North East direction and once we were in the air, Tim got out the map to show me the land marks to look out for so we knew that we were on track. “Using such land marks is the way to get to somewhere where you’ve never been before”, and of course he’s right because once you’re up in the air, it’s not like driving along a highway and you look out for signs and exits that direct you to your destination. So Tim was showing me the various lakes, and towers such as radio towers or water towers, roads such as interstate 35W etc to use as we travelled to our destination.

Once we were almost out of Crystal, Tim asked Crystal tower if he could change frequency. Why is this important? It’s important because we were still in Crystal Airport airspace and communication is vital whilst you’re in that airports’ airspace. However, he was granted permission and Tim changed frequency to that of Anoka Airport so that he could request Transition. Transition is the process of crossing an airports’ airspace. To get to Forest Lake we had to cross Anoka Airport airspace, and we were allowed to transition through the airspace of Anoka. It’s always good practice and important to seek permission so that, in this case, Anoka Tower has you on their radar and know where you are and can help you and other aircraft with separation i.e. to keep planes from crashing into each other.

Once we were out of Anoka’s airspace after a while we changed the frequency again, but this time to the Forest Lake frequency. Now since this airport is uncontrolled, there’s no tower and there’s no one there to hear you. You’re basically changing frequency to hear other aircraft and to inform other aircraft of your position and your intentions. There’s no ATC here to direct you, so you have to direct yourself by letting others know where you are. You don’t want to be landing at the same time as someone else for instance. In addition to all this you’re always looking out for other aircraft and of course this is VFR flying. When we were about 10 miles or so outside of Forest Lake we announced our position and our intention to land at Forest Lake. We flew over the airport first to see which way the Wind Sock was blowing because it’s always best to land in to the wind and you land on that side of the landing strip from the opposing side of the wind. Normally ATC would tell you which runway to land on. Once we found which direction the wind was coming from we got in to the Air Traffic Pattern to land. Tim actually took the controls here because I have never landed, nor taken off from a sod runway.

The procedure to land is almost the same but the important thing is to land very gently on such a soft surface. But we had a problem. The morning sun was shining directly in our eyes, and Tim managed to land the plane and we didn’t stop and he turned the plane around and we flew back out. “You can’t stop on this surface because once you do, it’s very difficult to get moving again”, said Tim. The take off procedure is slightly different than the usual. The flaps are extended to second stage and the yoke is pulled all the way back. As the plane accelerates it gently takes off and you have to maintain the flight level off the ground and then gradually rise upward. Once you’re up, you can retract the flaps and proceed with normal flight. Because of the sun, Tim decided not to do any takeoffs and landings here and so instead we flew further on and decided to do some maneuvers. We practiced steep turns and emergency landing procedure.

Steep turns are basically turning the plane in a circle at an angle of 45 degrees, and at the same time maintaining the height of the plane, so that the circle is in a level horizontal plane. This is not as easy as it may sound. Before any maneuver you must do a check for any traffic, so I did a 180 degree turn to the right and then 180 degree turn to the left. When we were satisfied the area was clear, I turned the plane to the left at a bank angle of 45 degrees. This is the easy part. The next thing you have to watch out for is that you’re not losing altitude, which is very easy to do as you’re turning. So in order to not lose altitude you have to pull on the yoke at the same time. This can be difficult so Tim said that some people use the Trim wheel, which eases the pressure off the yoke and then you can concentrate on the turn. The Trim wheel is kind of a fine tuning mechanism that helps relieve pressure on the yoke whether its back pressure or forward pressure. I found using the Trim wheel very helpful when making steep turns. Tim said, “Don’t look at the instruments too much; just an occasional glance is sufficient. You’re flying VFR so instruments are secondary and looking outside and flying is primary”. He said, “Look where the dash board meets the horizon when you have that 45 degree bank angle and maintain it at that by seeing where the horizon meets the dashboard. That way you’re not looking at the Turn Coordinator to see if you’re maintaining an angle of 45 degrees. We practiced this maneuver a few times.

Next, Tim pulled and pushed the mixture switch and this caused a brief interruption in the RPMs, and he did the same thing with the Throttle which also caused a fluctuation in the RPMs. Tim asked me, “Okay you see that happening, what would you do?” I said, “I would look for the nearest open space to land the plane”. “True, but what would you do before that?” Although we had done this quite a while back, I couldn’t remember. “You would first of all try to maintain the gliding speed for this type of plane which is about 72 Knots”. The gliding speed is that speed for a given plane where you’re able to cover the maximum amount of distance for a given altitude. “So first you would try to achieve that speed and then maintain it, because if you don’t then you’ll rapdily lose altitude thereby reducing the distance you can travel to a safe place to land the plane. Then you would find the closest open space to land the plane”. So I tried holding the speed at 72 knots and then said, “We could land there”, pointing to a nearby field. So I directed the plane to the concerned field and then made preparations to land, i.e. pulled in the flaps etc. We didn’t actually land, but the aim was what I would do in an emergency such as engine failure. Tim also mentioned that depending upon the severity of your problem e.g. if you had a fire on board then you would change your frequency to 121.5 (the emergency frequency) and say “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” three times and state your problem. Mayday is the international radio distress signal i.e. if you say Mayday anywhere in the world three times during a flight problem then everyone knows you’re in trouble and will come to your rescue. We practiced a few of these and then it was time to return home.

Again, we looked at our map and found some reference points as before and headed home. Once we were 10 miles out of Crystal, I announced our arrival to Crystal Tower but failed to mention from which direction we were entering the airspace. So Crystal Tower told me to IDENT. IDENT is a button you press on the Transponder and this sends a signal to tower and they can see an extra bright blip for a few seconds on their radar screen and they know exactly where you are. I received a response telling me to land on runway 14 R i.e. One Four Right. However by now, at 9.55 am, the winds had picked up a little in this area as we had heard from ATIS. The wind was coming in from the North East and so Tim helped me with this landing. Because of the right quarter head wind, we had to press the left rudder pedal and also to turn the right aileron to counteract it, this way the plane remains straight and we can land it much more easily. With that today’s lesson was over, and there are no lessons next week with it being a Christmas week.


TAC Chart showing landmarks - double click to enlarge


3 responses to “Pilotage Forest Lake, Minnesota

  1. I am really surprised at you. We have one warm day and you jump to the conclusion that it is caused by global warming. What about those days earlier this month which were ten to fifteen degrees below average? Was that caused by a global ice age coming? You and Prince Charles make a good team. Jerry

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