In January of 2016, I had decided to take a VFR flight without any real destination in mind and just fly for the sheer pleasure of flight. I had flown north then west, visiting several airports I had never flown to before, and as a bonus, learning a little local history. This year, I decided to do the same thing, but went south, then west. I moved to South Carolina in 1985 and that pretty much eliminated any ability for significant eastward travel, at least on a local level.
My stated goal was to add more stamps in my airport passport, that wonderful program instituted by the South Carolina Aviation Association. According to their website, the program is designed to encourage pilots to fly to all of the airports in South Carolina and it’s been a resounding success, at least from what I have seen and heard. The grand prize for visiting every one of the 59 public use airports in South Carolina is a leather jacket, which I am seeing more and more often on pilots around the state, including our very own Chip Lanham. For details, you can visit their website and apply for your own passport book.
I had done some preliminary planning the night before and on a cool and windy Sunday morning, I blasted off and pointed the airplane towards Beaufort County Airport (KARW) and called Charleston Approach to request Flight Following. This was a departure from last year when I studiously avoided talking to anyone to get the full “just flying to fly” experience, but a trip to the Charleston ATC Tower last summer caused me to re-think that strategy. There I learned that those men and women responsible for the traffic in their airspace really, really want to hear from you. They have a lot of airplanes they are trying to separate and there is a completely different set of rules if there is someone out there they aren’t talking to.
Since I am almost always on an IFR flight plan, I have gotten out of the habit of asking for Flight Following, and quite frankly, my early memories was that ATC was often too busy to offer services to us little and annoying VFR guys that were just boring holes in the sky. Whether that impression was mistaken, or there has been a change in ATC attitudes and procedures, the bottom line now is that they DO want to hear from you- Flight Following is as much benefit to them as it is to you, and after that last Tower tour, I resolved to always ask for it every time I was VFR, and so, as I was climbing to my planned altitude of three thousand feet, I made the call.
I almost regretted it immediately.
Whoever was working that day advised me I could not have three thousand feet and that the correct VFR altitude for my direction of travel was either 2,500 of 4,500. Keeping my tone friendly, I advised him that 3,000 was an acceptable altitude and that the rule didn’t apply until over 3000. Negative, he said, that was good until 2,999. I was silent for a moment- I knew he was wrong but on-air arguments always sound stupid, no matter how right you may be. I did not want 2,500 feet, because, as you know, altitude is your friend, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice 500 of it because the controller had a mistaken understanding of the regulation.
OK, I said, then I’ll take 2,999. No, came the reply, VFR altitude is always plus 500. He was absolutely right, of course. 14 CFR 91.159 spells out very plainly the cruise altitudes for VFR flight, based on your magnetic course, which in my case was an even altitude plus 500 feet. But he had missed the line in the reg that states that it is for “…level cruising flight more than 3,000 feet above the surface…” and that it starts at 4,500 for my direction of flight, not 2,500.
Now what? I didn’t want 4,500 since my destination was relatively close and I didn’t want 2,500, because, as previously mentioned, I wanted that extra 500 feet. I was silent for a few seconds, mulling over my possible responses. An argument wasn’t going to resolve anything at this point, and I was seriously considering canceling my request altogether when he suddenly came back on the air with a squawk code. Did someone else in the room advise him of the correct regulation? I don’t know and when I mentioned this a few days later to a friend of mine who works at the facility (and is a pilot himself), he just shook his head and sighed.
No harm done but a week later, another pilot, retired from the airlines with years and years of flying and thousands of hours, told me that the problem was that controllers are much less likely to be pilots than earlier generations, when most were pilots, even flight instructors. At any rate, it was an interesting start to my day, and quite frankly, I didn’t need anything more interesting that what I was already involved in. 2016 had been one of my least active flying years in a long, long time. It seemed my flights were always being canceled, whether due to a change in plans, airplane issues, or just my own motivation. In a word, I was rusty, and I knew it. I needed this flight just to get some landings in and brush up on my pilotage, and the conversation with the controller was an unwelcome distraction.
Once level at 3000, I started to look around. The aerial view of the Lowcountry was very familiar to me, of course. I had finished up my license with Col. Woodrow (Woody) Faison out of Mt. Pleasant Airport in the late 80s, after multiple starts and stops in the years prior. Back then, it was East Cooper Airport, and now named Faison Field after Woody, a World War II bomber pilot who also flew in the Berlin Airlift. He was a wonderful person and I still miss seeing him, sitting in his office with his dog, Rudder, answering questions in that soft-spoken, Carolina mountain drawl.
As I approached Beaufort, I was handed off to the Marine Air Station there. Looking at my chart, I saw that my route later that day would take me through some Military Operation Areas (MOA) but I was assured by the controller that they were not active for today, which opened up my available airspace considerably.
I have always liked Beaufort- it’s the second oldest city in South Carolina, behind only Charleston. Founded in 1711, it still retains the small town feel that has been lost by many of the other Lowcountry locations that have seen dramatic population growth. For example, the Beaufort population has grown from 9,400 in 1970 to 13,000 in 2015 while in that same time period, Mt. Pleasant increased from 6,100 to over 81,000. By the way, it’s pronounced Bew-fert. The exact same-spelled town in North Carolina is Boh-fert. Now you know.
One of my favorite parts about flying into different airports is the opportunity to talk to the locals. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Beaufort Airport was going to be my only opportunity to actually have a conversation with anyone until I returned home. Since I had decided to fly on a Sunday, I would not find any other occupied FBO on my trip that day.
Even at that, the visit started inauspiciously. The part-time line guy who met me at my airplane said he had never heard of the passport program and mused that perhaps Beaufort wasn’t an active participant. I assured him that Beaufort was indeed part of the program, since I had seen other people with the Beaufort stamp in their books. He also quoted me a pretty reasonable price for fuel so I asked him to fill both my tanks.
I walked inside the FBO office and looked around- save for an older gentleman sitting in the lounge and watching TV, there was no one else there or stirring on the field. I was familiar with this airport, having stopped there many times over the years. It has a nice homey feel to it, always with friendly people. As I stood by the front desk, watching my plane being refueled, I looked at the bulletin board and noticed that the Jet Fuel price was the same as the 100LL (also known as Avgas) price I had been quoted by the line guy. Interesting, I thought, usually the Jet Fuel is considerably cheaper than 100LL, you seldom see it at the same price…wait a minute…
I searched the board and yep, there it was- the avgas price was much more expensive, even more than my home field. He had mistakenly quoted the Jet fuel price instead of the 100LL. Had I known that, I would not have had my tanks topped off here. Darn! My next thought was, which fuel was he actually putting into my plane? I looked outside again and was relieved to see that he was fueling me with the 100LL. At least that was not an issue. When he came back in, I queried him about the price, which is right about the time he realized he had misquoted it to me. He felt bad about it, but it was spilled milk by then and no use complaining. I would need fuel during my trip anyhow- it was not like it would go to waste. I then asked about the passport stamp- he was still not sure if Beaufort had a stamp, but he asked the TV-watching gentleman, who said of course there was a stamp, it was right there on the desk, and sure as heck, there it was, practically under the employee’s hand. He stamped my passport and then we got to talking.
It turns out that he was a retired train engineer and had worked for in the train business for 40 years. He loved the job until he was promoted to management, and then learned to hate it. He said he discovered that 80% of the employees did their job just fine, but there was 10% who were pretty much useless and wouldn’t follow any rules, and the last 10% were watching to see what happened to the useless 10% before they decided what route they would follow. This was a variation of the 80/20 rule I had always believed in but after listening to him, I decided that, in my experience, his version was more accurate.
As I was walking out to my plane, he came out behind me and asked if I was going to Ridgeland Airport. I said it was on my list and asked him why he asked. No reason, he said, he just heard a lot of the locals mention that airport. When I took off and set course for my next destination, I realized that, in fact, I had not originally penciled in Ridgeland, even thought I would have to overfly it to get to Hampton County, which was my original plan. I had already contacted the Marine Air Station and told them I was going to Hampton, but I called back and said, never mind that, let’s make it Ridgeland, and off I went.
Part 2 to follow