Friday, May 2, 2014

Share Your Story: Briggs Christie, Flying in Hawaii

Welcome to the 32nd "Share Your Story" post. Pilots from around the world write in featuring their flight experiences, promoting their blogs, websites, social media, novels, etc. These posts show students the diverse range of experiences/careers available to them in aviation. More details + how to participate can be found via the following: Click Here and Get Involved

Aloha from paradise, Swayne, and well done on the blog. I found it searching for some PP training talk and it's going to be a regular read. I'm looking forward to rewinding to the beginning to get caught up (and probably find both how different and similar the learning experience can be for all of us).

I would have to think that I'm approaching my flight education from a fairly unique perspective, being a bit further on in years than most of the students I've encountered (we'll call it "over 50" and leave it there, young lad). Add to that over 2,500 hours of airtime as a professional hang glider pilot, so the air is already one of my favorite playgrounds, and I figured that this whole pilot's license thing would be a breeze.


I'll save the gory details for another day, but having to UNLEARN those countless hours of instinct and reflex was amazingly humbling. Flying is flying, but landing with flaps and power and wheels instead of none-of-the-above is different story. 

The story I wanted to pass on has everything to do with WHERE you learn to fly and the people whose job it is to help you do it safely. If you live on an island in the middle of the ocean, the airports with education are few. On Oahu, with the exception of one flight school on a small strip that's impossible to drive to if you have a job in Honolulu, HNL is all you get. That would be HNL, Class B airspace utilized by every flying machine imaginable. An Airbus 330 looks really, really big when it's landing underneath you as you cross over its runway at 800'. So does an F-22, a helicopter, etc. You get force-fed a lot of radio work in a hurry. I soloed this past Monday, which is done by getting the heck out of there and hopping to JRF in Kapolei, twin strips refereed by the National Guard and not quite as crazy. Drop off the CFI and jump into the pattern with your friends (only four others this day, not so bad). All went smoothly and the sign-off was done back at the hangar.

Of course, the next step in the training here is to to solo out of the Class B airspace. To make this leap, I had to prove to the CFI that I've got the chops for it, so up we went on Wednesday. His hands and feet are away from the controls, he says nothing on the radio (even if I screw up...gotta work it out) and he's the invisible man. Outbound went smooth as silk; Clearance, Ground, Tower, Departure, I don't think they even knew I was a student. (Of course, starting at the far hangar in a C150 might have given them a clue, but I'm sticking to my story.) A quick trip to JRF to get some practice in and back we went, the CFI once again magically disappearing.

HNL has four runways, one which has been shortened but usable for several months due to repairs. Today? Closed since this morning. That's a 25% reduction in the "places to land" department and I'm showing up in the early evening when the inter-island flights are clumped together at the end of the business day, UPS and FedEx are heading out, you get the picture. Once I got the ATIS information, I switched to Departure and the chatter was constant.

I waited for a gap and chimed in with my "Cessna XXXX is with you at the Sugar Mill with information X-Ray" all official-like and...? Nothin'. Conversations with other planes kept right on. I gave it a minute and tried it again. Same result. I glanced over at the CFI and got a not-so-invisible shrug and, "beats me...try it again". The third time was indeed a charm, but instead of clearance I was given a transponder frequency and told to turn around and climb up to 2,500' and wait at the interchange (a major landmark just out the Class B). As I was doing this, I heard another Cessna chime in and receive the same instructions for 2,000' and we both acknowledged we had each other in sight. Immediately after that, a Piper...and he's sent beneath us at 1,500'. There's another Cessna just inside the Class B at 1,500' working his way into the pattern, a tour helicopter directly below us at 500' and a bonus prize: an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter (the one with two blenders instead of just one) crossing next to the whole stack on his way out. Inbound over the ocean west of us? Two B717's from Hawaiian and a B767 from Air Canada. 

We're all making circles crossing from sunshine (air sinking at about 300 FPM) into an area under a dark, drizzling cloud (air going up at 300 FPM), trying to stay rigidly at our assigned altitudes and not make any sudden moves and TWO MORE VFR Cessna's chime in and request clearance. I looked over at the CFI again and he smiled and said, "No I've never done this either". That got a laugh from both of us. What else can you do but laugh?

Somehow, I ended up second in line and headed into the approach (not having to be urged to "speed it up a bit" like the Cessna that was ahead of me, I was just fine with beating feet to get in and get down). Not surprisingly, my downwind was extended and the Tower called my base for a long final with the Air Canada flight right below me just touching down and something really big taking off out in front of me quartering to the right and away. The moment my wheels made a mercifully gentle squeak, the Tower cleared a Turboprop (who came from I-know-not-where) to land. On the runway I was currently occupying. Great.

The normal (as in EVERY other time I've landed at HNL) routine is to exit to the right on Echo or Foxtrot and work your way to the hangars via Charlie, being handed off from the Tower to Ground at some point during the process and making only one right turn to be clear of everything. Not today. Immediately after clearing the Turboprop, I got "Cessna XXXX turn left...I REPEAT, LEFT...on Echo to Delta to Bravo, hold short on Bravo". Two things: first, left is into the plaid-looking maze of taxiways BETWEEN two runways and second, I've never heard that phraseology from a Tower or anybody else. "I repeat?" Apparently he wanted to sure I got it.

We sat for a few minutes on Bravo taxiway feeling very small as a lot of aluminum went by on both sides and were finally given instructions to take Delta to Foxtrot to Charlie (at some point, you'd figure they'd run out of alphabet, wouldn't you?) and made our way to the gas pump behind the hangar to shut down and refuel. I turned to my instructor and asked, "So...NOW can I solo out of here?".

This time the laugh didn't have that nervous tinge to it.

What a circus and education. I'd love to say that I was just an epic pilot and all that, but the reality is that all the work was done by the folks on the other end of the radio. My job was to just relax, fly the plane, listen to what to do, confirm what to do and do it. The calm and business-like voices kept me just as calm and business-like (well...mostly), the hand-offs from one to the other to the other were well defined and I drove home with the confidence that I could indeed deal with this craziness and an important lesson about the people whose job it is to keep me from doing something wrong and/or stupid. I had always been impressed with the skill it takes to be an ATC, but the appreciation for their role in my LIFE grew 1000%, something that will stick with me.

Wheels up on my own on Monday. I ain't scared.

Fly safe!
Briggs Christie, Kailua, HI

Thanks Briggs for writing in and sharing your story. It's awesome to hear about your flight training experiences in Hawaii. This summer, I'm headed out to the islands and hope to try flying there, myself. It should be a lot of fun!

Thanks again for writing in and participating in the Share Your Story section of the blog, 

Swayne Martin 
Martins Aviation / From Private to Professional Pilot
Twitter: @MartinsAviation
Youtube: MartinsAviation1 


  1. Bonus points for anyone who recognizes my hat...

    Fly safe!

    1. Briggs, So nice to meet you! You're right...the air is the best playground there is. And when we can call our play work... all the better. So, I had to google the hat. :)

    2. Yeah, the hat is a relic, but memories of way too much fun in the sky!

      Solo success and no injuries that required a hospital stay:

  2. Great aerial pics and weather also seems too perfect and windy.

  3. Yeah, Hawaii weather is pretty nice for flying (spring has some interesting cloud-ceiling VFR challenges for cross-country flying, but leeward sides of the islands are always nice). There's one fun wrinkle, however: nearly all of the airports are leeward, thanks to the aforementioned nice weather. That places them directly downwind of steep, jagged mountain peaks. On a typical tradewind day, that means rotor flying in 15-20 blender winds as you climb out, an interesting start to a flight. VFR departures from HNL run parallel to the Koolau range and the downslope churn can be a bear in a C150. I've been totally weightless and had insta-bank-angle-changes up to 45 degrees on a blustery day!

  4. Another interesting twist about learning to fly in Hawaii. The night XC flight distance requirement means an in-the-dark interlisland flight. The standard route is to Lanai and back, which adds a little weirdness. When you leave the Class B airspace at the required 1500 ft, Lanai is NOT visible at all. Even at the 3,500 ft crossing altitude it's barely visible. And, since there aren't any lights on the side of the island you're aimed at, a moonless night means you're pretty much functionally IFR most of the way.

    Never has 7 clicks on the comm unit been more wonderful, since the beacon and the runway lights are the only things for miles.

    And the takeoff is directly at a mountain that doesn't have any lights either. Thou shalt turn!


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Many Thanks, Happy Flying,
Swayne Martin