The distant exotic airport was at Pratt, Kansas, population 6500. There's an FAA airport facilities directory that we always check for new airports and this one had a note saying "Caution do not mistake lighted cattle pens for lighted runway." That brings an unfortunate image to mind, doesn't it? Anyway if you think FAA documents are boring just think about gems like that.
On the way out we turned off the huge G1000 map and just used the headings and checkpoints I'd calculated. You basically make yourself a sheet of what to do and what course to fly and what time you'll be at different points, so when you're in the air you can tell yourself "I've been flying east for ten minutes I should be able to see Kingman pretty soon". You check winds before you go and figure up wind correction angle. You read magnetic variation off maps and consider that too. Magnetic variation refers to the idea that your compass doesn't point straight up to the north pole, it points to magnetic north, which is a point someplace up near Canada that moves around from time to time. Every five years, scientists and navigators check to see where it's ended up these days and we go around re-painting compass roses on the ground and updating maps. So if a town you're going to is straight east, you don't fly straight east on your compass, you correct for it.
Learning to tell where you are with a map and what you see is an art. I learned quickly that observing grain elevators is no help at all, because there are a thousand of them. It's also really hard to recognize little towns. If there's a big highway or big river that helps, but we were north of highway 54, and so much of Kansas just looks exactly the same.
On the radio we talked to Kansas City Center. There are 20-something centers in the United States, and they've divided up the country so that when an airplane flies from one coast the the other, he's always got somebody to talk to. Pratt, Kansas doesn't have a control tower, nevermind a departure or approach frequency to get you started into it when you're 20 miles out. And that'd be a pain anyway, to fly across ten states and have to switch frequencies every time you're over a little town to get traffic advisories.
So here are all the radio frequencies I talked to during the trip:
- Wichita clearance, before I even started the airplane engine, so they'd know to expect me. They told me an altitude to stay under and a transponder code (four-digit number) to put in so radar would know what was up.
- Wichita ground, to use the taxiways and not get in the way of some United flight getting out. They told me which route to take to the beginning of a runway.
- Wichita tower, to tell them I was at the runway intersection ready to take off.
- Wichita departure, who gave me headings and altitudes through their airspace
- Kansas city center, who could have given me traffic advisories but in truth there was nobody out there so that wasn't too exciting.
- Pratt traffic. There's no one in particular monitoring this, it's just a frequency assigned to that airport that you're supposed to announce your intentions on and hope that others are doing the same. They're not always though.
We basically did the reverse of these on the way back, the only difference being that "departure" became "approach". And we'd periodically switch to a weather frequency to listen for updates there.
Dang it just talking about that makes me feel bored and tired! So what was cool about the flight? It was a lovely evening after work. I flew over some small town having a football game, I could see the stadium lights and little tiny football players running around and cars everywhere. We got out far enough that there weren't all solid farms, there were acres of land that were just there being land, with hills and trees and creeks.
Earlier this week I went on my first night flight, so sometime in the next few days I'll be combining things and going on a night cross country. Then there's a test with an instructor, and a solo cross country. Then we do a handful of review flights for my final checkride! It sounds crazy fast when I talk about it, and think that in a month or two I could be a pilot. Time to go, huh?