Oops! I think I am headed for Dulles Airport

Maneuvering solo through the Washington DC ADIZ
The runway sure looked huge. I was no longer certain I was headed in the right direction. I glanced at the GPS moving map. It had seemed fairly straight forward to track the Potomac river until the blue water tank and then setup for the 45 degree entry for left traffic at Leesburg airport. Where the devil was the airport?

Two days prior to my scheduled flight, I was informed that the aircraft was going to be down for maintenance. Left with no other choice, I decided to hazard flying from Leesburg airport, where the flight school also had an FBO.

After several failed attempts to fly solo, since my checkout a couple of months ago at the nearest (by which I mean an hour away) airport at Manassas, I was really anxious to fly. Considering, I have just a few weeks left in the east coast I was determined to fly this weekend: thunderstorm or no thunderstorm. Feels simple, but believe me I am terrified of thunderstorms! I would rather be home safe than in the air sorry. Therefore it was quite a relief to hear the instructor say “Today is a perfect day to fly. There will be no thunderstorms today. It will come tomorrow”. I guess if you have lived long enough in the area, you get used to the weather patterns and can predict their behavior. Having recently moved from the west coast and unused to the weather patterns in the east, wildly scattered thunderstorms in the daily forecast was always unnerving to me.

I was glad I had decided to get a ground instruction first to familiarize myself with the Leesburg airport and surrounding before venturing solo out of an unknown airport, with strict ADIZ rules, in an unfamiliar aircraft and not to forget the Class Bravo airspace around Dulles airport and most important of all the RESTRICTED area around the White House and the national monuments. At the outset, the rules for VFR departure out of Leesburg seemed simple: squawk 1226 during egress and squawk 1227 during entry. No need to get clearance or communicate with Potomac: file a flight plan, squawk the code and self announce on CTAF and off you go. As my ground instruction progressed, I wondered at the sanity of my choice to head out solo.

All flights within the DC ADIZ airspace require a filed flight plan. Several entry/exit gates are defined to identify the point of entry and exit through the ADIZ area. All flight plans are filed as IFR (even VFR ones) and a clearance is required prior to departure. Leesburg Airport (JYO) being on the fringe of the DC ADIZ airspace has special flight rules. A Leesburg maneuvering area has been established. Discrete squawk frequencies have been established for entry, exit and pattern work. While flight plan filing was still necessary, there was no longer a need to obtain clearance. To further complicate matters, Dulles airport was a stone’s throw away. To avoid the Class Bravo airspace, it was necessary to stay below 1500ft. Further to maintain sufficient altitude above populated areas the minimum altitude was 1400ft. This provided very little room for errors.

Armed with a printout of my flight plan (proof that I had indeed filed my flight plans), I set out. A little nervous that I might get disoriented or lost and anxious not to be escorted by fighters or shot down for trespassing, I headed out following the Potomac as it meandered through inland. With visibility not so great, I decided to stay close to the river, lest I got lost. I made my way past the fork in the river at Harper’s Ferry with ease. I was excited and happy to be back in the air after a hiatus. Once outside the ADIZ I was free to maneuver to my heart’s content. The G1000, I was flying had traffic avoidance software and airspace boundaries were clearly marked, which was a blessing in that highly complicated airspace.

The most difficult part of any flight is finding the way back to the destination airport and the runway to set the aircraft down. My instructor had given a very useful clue: follow the Potomac through and at the last S turn you will see a blue tank. That should set you up to make a 45 degree entry to the runway for left traffic. I leapt for joy when I sported the blue water tank. So far so good, but where was the airport? As I looked wildly for the airport, I spotted something that looked like a nice long runway. I pointed the aircraft nose in that direction. Even as I did that I wondered if I was headed in the correct direction. It sure looked huge. Could it be? Oops! I think I am headed for Dulles!!!

I glanced at the GPS moving map. I was dangerously hanging on the border of the Leesburg maneuvering area, headed for Dulles. Any further movement in that direction would surely result in disaster. My ground instructor had clearly told me that ATC did not approve of pilots straying outside the Leesburg Maneuvering area. And I was dangerously close to breaking that rule! Why oh why had I not flown with an instructor before heading out alone —was I itching to be shot down? In jest, my instructor had shown the bold red circular area around the White House and said “Stay away from that region… you could be shot down!”

Without much ado, I banked the aircraft, and pointed it away from Dulles, wondering if I had to ask someone for assistance. Would those on the airwaves setting up to land at Leesburg be able to assist me? What were my options? Before I could decide, lo and behold, I spotted the most beautiful sight. There lay, Leesburg airport straight ahead and I was headed right towards the midfield. Home sweet home! I had made it. Granted, it was nerve racking, there were moments filled with anxiety, but once the procedures and the process was grasped, it would become normal I’ve been told. Maybe. Give me the friendly California skies any day! I couldn’t ask for more.

Note: This article appeared in the Slipstream (August issues of the newsletter of the San Luis Obispo 99s) and the Windsock (Febuary issues of the newsletter of the Santa Clara Valley 99s)

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