November 19, 1999
35.6 hours

    I remember reading accounts of Air Force and Navy strike flights: their planning and execution.  For all kinds of reason, a particular target might require two or more flights of fighters approaching from different directions at different altitudes, timed to the second for arrival on target.

    For instance: a target in the bottom of the confluence of two broad valleys, with Anti-Aircraft Artillery placed just so, might call for three flights - two on target and one for AAA suppression - approaching down two different valleys, and one popping over a ridge-line to start a bomb run.  They might elect to arrive one flight from a given direction, on primary target at time "T", with, say, the flak-suppression flight on its target at time "T+8" (seconds).  If they could work that out, then at about the time the defenders are looking in one direction at the first bomb bursts and trying to sort out a low-level high-speed attack, the suppression flight arrives from a different direction eight seconds later to clobber the AA guns... as the second strike flight arrives on the primary target at , say, "T+15"; time enough for the suppression jets to do their work and for the first strike flight to clear off the target (so nobody collides at 500 knots), and just enough behind the suppression flight that any survivors in the gun pits are still shaking the ringing out of their ears before drawing a bead.

    There are damned good reasons for planning some kinds of flights down to the second.  I used to read about combat pilots planning their work out to what seemed outlandish degrees of detail, and, while I could understand the reasons for it, it looked like voodoo to me.  At first glance, I couldn't imagine taking that sort of detail in hand:

    "Yeah; I'm going to grab a handful of variables, mix 'em all up with a couple that I'll never really define..." (like 'winds aloft') "... fly one hundred six miles and tell you exactly where I'll be at twenty-two minutes and nineteen seconds after the hour."

    Well, today, when I flew past the familiar 'X' runways of WDR (Winder/Barrow County) on the third leg of my first real cross-country flight, I was about eight seconds behind, but that was close enough for me to start getting the picture.  (Frankly, it was almost miraculous, given how my second leg went.)

    At that point in the flight, the clouds had long been slowly slabbing closed and sagging down on me.  I'd planned the westward third leg of the flight at 4500 feet cruising altitude.

    (That altitude, because the course was 183: three degrees west of due south, and therefore between 181 and 360 degrees, which means I cruise at an even-thousand altitude plus 500 feet.  That's somewhere in the Federal Aviation Regulations, but I'm not going to look it up now.  Eastbound flights - between 000 and 180 degrees - cruise at odd altitudes, over three thousand, plus 500 feet.)

    By the time we'd put Athens behind us, the ceiling was down to 4000 on average, broken.  So, I was down to 3000.  I knew from pre-flight weather briefings that it wouldn't get any lower, so we pressed on through the gloomish air.  When Barrow County airport came up a tad right of the nose, I'd never seen it like that... from that angle.  The only other times I'd seen WDR was during approaches from the west (the opposite direction) for landings.

    In fact, WDR had been the bottom-right corner of my navigational universe; a sort of mental fence out there to the east, beyond which was nothing I'd ever seen before.  And then today, I expanded the whole picture by bagging two more airports to the east/northeast, and slipped up on WDR from behind, headed west.  Three miles on my right and like a virtual airport in a simulation, it just floated by, a big bluish 'X' squashed flat in perspective under the cloud deck, while I ticked-off my stopwatch to midfield.  That's where I'd laid a checkpoint mark on the chart; planned to hack at 2:37:14pm.

    I had to be scrupulous because it was so close.  Also, I had to figure the thirty seconds I'd dropped when I over-flew my last check point so precisely that it went straight under the nose, and I didn't see it (and stop my watch) until I spent that much time wiggling around looking for it.

    Anyway, I watched for a point as precisely abeam the mid-field as I could see, and hacked it: eight seconds late.

    Not too bad.  After all: I knew exactly where I was, why I was there, and how I got there.

    And; the whole point of planning a flight like this is: "If I hadn't been right there at 2:37:22, well, where would I be?  How would I find out?"  (because...)  "Where'm I gonna land this thing?"

    In this case, this afternoon, I had LZU dead off the nose (heading 262, even accounting for all the bobble in that whiskey-ball compass on the dashboard), and I had flown about 130 miles in a great big triangle.  I ended up just about exactly where I'd figured I would, two hours before.

    Not all of it, of course, went that way.  The flight from Toccoa to Athens carried some nice goofs, but that one also included a very nice little improvisational chart dance: I picked out Interstate-85 intersecting a secondary road, with the intersection closely flanked by two radio towers.  I put that picture together as it was all sliding to my rear quarter (looking over my shoulders, in the harness), quickly, before it went out of sight.

    We'd been looking for a checkpoint that hadn't appeared on time.  It was the first one on departure from Toccoa, and I set it too far away from the airport.  (That's an elementary note, dummy: pick a close-in departure checkpoint in order to establish departure course early on.)  At ten miles, I had plenty of time to "doh!" the departure a somewhat embarrassing number of degrees to the north.

    (Hm.  Yeah.  There's more practice: catching floating-ball compass headings on climbout and transition to cruise.)

    Interstate-85 appeared three minutes too early, and not at the proper angle to my course.  For the first checkpoint away from the airport, I thought that was just too wild an error, so I started looking at the chart, right away.  With a forecast 13-knot wind at altitude (which was working out about right), and the way my 170-degree departure turn from the airport came off (not terribly well), I figured us to be about 15 degrees off course.  As Terri quizzed me on a couple of data-points, I was putting the terrain picture together with the chart, and I saw it.

    "There's a tower, over there, is that the tower you're thinking of?"

    (She thought she'd found the tower I'd marked as a checkpoint on the chart.  I, however, was looking for two radio towers about three miles away, and just on either side of the I-85 intersection.  That's where I thought we were.)

    "Yeah...three hundred & five feet, that looks like it..." (<chart>)  "Uhm, actually, waitaminnit..."  (<chart> <fly the plane> <chart>)  "No, no, I think that's the 475-footer, there should be another one on that side.  I got it.  I've got us."

    "Okay, so let's put it back on course, and we'll take a time hack."

    "Except...I'm about, ah...three miles east of where I want to be."

    I figured out an intercept heading back to my course line, and we made our way on over to Athens, and that was about the worst goof of the day, with a nifty backhand catch.  Along the way, all that voodoo of dead reckoning started coming together into a bigger picture of driving an airplane around the world, and making sure that it gets there.  To fly along a route VFR ("Visual Flight Rules") to a determined destination involves a connection to the earth, close, in what might seem like something contradictory to the matter at hand.  The main reason for this is that the airplane must eventually be put back down.  The best, usually most earnestly desired, place to put it down is at an airport, and they're not just every place one can shake a stick at.

    At root, VFR flight doesn't depend on radio beams or radar or GPS (hah!) to maintain awareness of one's position.  Everything about it depends on the surface of the earth.  Because an airplane is essentially swimming above that surface in a constantly swelling ocean of air, that relationship to the earth is largely conceptual, and always subject to error, with potentially extremely serious consequences.  The point of precision flight planning with dead reckoning is constant observation and correction the airplane's motion over the earth.

    Almost anyone could get an airplane off the ground, but what comes after that makes the difference between pilots and embarrassing (at least) statistics.  This is a sort of bottom-line challenge that starts with the prospect of simply turning right back around and landing where one took off.  Of course, landing the airplane is a completely different matter from taking off.  Beyond that; anyone who can land an airplane, can also lap around the pattern endlessly.  (Actually, it's a fun thing to do in the right airplane.)

    Finding a different airport, and flying there, is a completely different matter, again.  Just about anyone can take off, and fly off... somewhere.  ("See ya!")  That's no way to actually go anywhere, though.  To actually go somewhere starts with laying out a chart and drawing a line, and then figuring out how to fly that line, over the earth.

    At three or four thousand feet and looking down in order to keep that connection to the earth, the line is woven of strands of time ticked-off a stopwatch, stick & rudder, features down there related to polychromed symbology on this too-large sheet of a chart folded about thirteen ways, a touch-of-trim now (elevator-wise), an average on the compass-ball ("181...183, oops, nice gust...179..."), a touch more (or less) throttle, and deft processing of tasks in kaleidoscopic evolution of complexion, all pointed in one direction.

    When the last checkpoint comes by eight seconds too late on one's first attempt, one nonetheless feels something of a grip on that line.

    That was a good two hours in the logbook.

    Tonight's homework: sectional chart, plotter, E6B computer, and flight logs.

    Tomorrow: sixty miles down to Baldwin County and back.


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