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First flight to First Flight – Kitty Hawk

By Chris Moon

“Canadian Golf Victor Bravo Golf, turn left heading 020 to join the localizer for Runway 5.”

Sounds simple enough, except that it was a bad vector. I was bumping along in the clouds west of the final approach path and 020 took me away from the airport.

This was at least the fifth vector I had been given by a very busy Buffalo approach controller trying to line everyone up. Erie, Pennsylvania was reporting a 100 feet ceiling and 1/2 mile visibility, so everyone was diverting to Buffalo.

At that point even I was not completely sure exactly where I was.

“Canadian Golf Victor Bravo Golf, you missed the localizer. Turn right heading 090 to intercept.”

I hadn’t missed, but kept quiet, made the turn, was cleared to land, and lined up on a very short and high final into Buffalo with the runway right in front of me. Flaps 10, forward slip, and we were down.

It was not an auspicious beginning to what was a long-imagined air tour adventure. Fortunately it proved out be otherwise, and was just a bumpy start to a great trip on the Victoria Day weekend.

My wife, Nancy, and I had decided to temporarily abandon our typical gardening duties that weekend and take an air tour from Brampton, Ontario to Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks of North Carolina in our Cessna 177RG Cardinal.

I had all the planning in place and had acquired the charts. Nancy made the reservations and had the lunch packed. The only real problem was weather. Those in southern Ontario may recall that the 2004 Victoria Day weekend was miserable – cold, cloudy and rainy for five days.

Also, there was a major convective weather disturbance moving across Pennsylvania on our route of flight. So, rather than chance getting caught up in it by heading for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to clear customs and refuel, I opted for Buffalo.

IFR clearance obtained we were wheels up at 0830 on May 21, in the clouds at 0831, and down in Buffalo 47 minutes later.

After the usual efficient processing by U.S. customs, I went into the FBO to look at the weather radar and updated forecasts. It was not looking promising. After more than an hour of watching the weather move and with the help of a pair of corporate pilots, we plotted a route across New York and Pennsylvania to take us around the east side of Baltimore and down the east side of Chesapeake Bay to Salisbury, Maryland (KSBY). Off we went, in IMC for the first half of the route (including a good roller coaster ride in building CU’s for a few minutes) and then VMC in haze into Salisbury for fuel.

Finally, blue sky and warmer weather. This was starting to look good. I filed IFR, however, because of the maze of military operations areas, restricted airspace and frequency changes around Washington.

From Salisbury we headed south and crossed over the mouth of Chesapeake Bay with the impressive Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel on our right – an 18 mile bridge over the mouth of the bay that descends twice to mile long tunnels to allow ships to cross the highway.

Norfolk, Virginia appeared in the haze ahead on the south shore, with the sands of Virginia Beach and its rows of hotels and apartments on the Atlantic coast side of the city.

I managed, with the co-operation of a friendly controller, to fly “flexible” IFR – visually along the coast so we could take in the scenery. As were passing by Oceana Naval Air Station at Virginia Beach, the approach controller called, “Canadian Victor Bravo Golf, maintain 4,000. I am bringing in a flight of F-18’s from your 10 o’clock and they will cross under you.”

We looked up and left and saw a pair of silver arrows gracefully curve down toward us, pass below us and continue to curve down on our right side to land. Awesome.

It is 60 nautical miles from Virgina Beach to our first destination, Roanoake Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s one long sand beach the whole way. As you head south the beach becomes backed by marsh and swamp, with the mainland gradually receding until there is a sizeable body of water separating them.

Eventually this widens out into several sounds, with Pamlico Sound being the largest. The Outer Banks themselves are a 107 mile ribbon of beaches and low dunes, running from north to south as far as Cape Hatteras, then southwest to Ocracoke Light. At many points the banks are up to 30 miles off the mainland.

On descent into Dare County Regional Airport (KMQI) on Roanoke Island we pass by the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk and take our first look at it. Then on down to Roanoke, a 10 mile long island just inside the Outer Banks.

We tie down and unload, and our rental car is waiting as promised. The temperature is 88F (31C), the sky is hazy blue, and what would be a 15 hour drive from Brampton registers as just 4.5 hours on the Hobbs.

Roanoke Island is a fascinating place. It is the location of the “lost colony.” the first English settlement in North America in 1587 that disappeared after three years. There are a variety of attractions too.

Manteo is a charming seaside village with shady streets, good restaurants and shops. We are supplied a pair of bicycles by our B&B host, and spend a day touring the village and the Roanoke Island Festival Park - a very impressive park with a fun interactive museum of Outer Banks history.

For every aviator Kitty Hawk holds a special spell. The next day we took our car and drove out the causeway from Roanoke to the Outer Banks. The first town we have to travel through is Nag’s Head, a beach community that is a combination of huge cottages on stilts, ramshackle cottages that have not been redeveloped, down-at-the-ears beach hotels, souvenir shops, outlet malls and chain restaurants.

Finally we are at Kitty Hawk and turn into the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The first, and most compelling, sight you see is the Wright Brothers Memorial Monument. The 60 foot stone monument stands on Kill Devil Hill, the sand dune that the Wrights used for their glider experiments. Near the base of the hill are the reconstructed workshop and living cabin (shed really).

Beside them are markers showing the path and landing points of the four flights that the brothers made that December morning in 1903. The area is now all grass with trees on the boundaries, but was all sand at the time.

There are two museums on the site, but the day is too nice to spend indoors, so we take a short look and move on. We walk a few hundred yards over to the airstrip comprising First Flight airport (KFFA) and the new pilot centre that AOPA built last year to commemorate the centenary of powered flight. We make up our minds to come back by air.

On our way back I turned into Jockey’s Ridge State Park, in Nag’s Head. I had heard of the hang gliding school that is based there and was curious about it (maybe even to the point of wanting to try it). Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern United States and a great learning centre for hang gliding.

Finally, getting up the nerve, I approached the desk at Kitty Hawk Kites to sign up. “Sorry, the winds are increasing and we are now shut down for the day.” So much for that idea - to Nancy’s relief.

Instead we enjoy a gourmet dinner at the 1587 Inn in Manteo.

The next day proved that an airplane is the way to see this part of the world. We departed Dare County Regional for the five minute flight over to First Flight. Traffic calls on departure on 122.8 and on arrival on 122.9 (don’t get confused I tell myself). We land at KFFA and roll out to the apron near the end, back track and take off. I always wanted KFFA in my log book, and now I have it.

Heading south we pass by Jockey’s Ridge. Today the hang gliders are out in force. Brightly coloured wedges float down the dune and others are carried back up.

It is time now to cross over the banks and fly down the ocean side for a view of the beaches. More importantly, almost the entire sound side of the Outer Banks is some sort of restricted or military airspace.

The Outer Banks vary in width from a half-mile or so to a few hundred yards. On the ocean side are the beaches, backed by dunes sprinkled with cottages on stilts. Behind this is the black strip of Route 12, which traverses the length of the banks. And finally, there is salt-water marsh and the calm waters of the sound. Storms have carved openings through the banks, so they are really a series of long islands.

As we fly south, the cottages peter out and we are now over the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Our view is of miles of empty beach, broken only occasionally by a group of beachcombers or fishermen.

The distinctive black and white barber pole paint scheme of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse appears. The “graveyard of the Atlantic” is what Cape Hatteras is known as, for the thousands of ships that have perished off its shores in recorded history. No perishing today, however; the sun is bright, the air warm and the winds are light.

At Cape Hatteras we turn southwest to follow the shore, making traffic calls as we pass by Billy Mitchell Airport (KHSE). Twenty-five more miles of deserted beaches and we are now approaching our final destination, the airstrip at Ocracoke Island (W95).

Finding it is easy - fly along the shore until you see a runway, then land. The airstrip is in the middle of the dunes and sand is everywhere. There are a couple of aircraft on the apron, looking just derelict enough that we cannot decide if they are actually in use. We carefully tie down and seal up the aircraft.

Our B&B hosts are there to meet us and drive us into the village of Ocracoke, a mile away. What a unique place Ocracoke is. The village of 700 residents is nestled around what looks like a small round lake on the sound side of the island, but there is an opening to the sound, making it a fine harbour.

Deep sea fishing is the big activity here and there are rows of charter fishing boats on the waterfront.

Ocracoke is remote and feels like a step back in time. It is a three hour ferry ride or a three hour drive to get to the mainland, and then a further drive to any sizeable town. Refreshingly, there are no national brand name or franchise stores or businesses; the only one I saw was a Phillips 66 gas station.

However, remote does not mean backward, as some of our best dining on the trip was in Ocracoke.

Again, our host supplied bicycles to tour the village and area. The next morning we were off to the beach. The beach is a hundred yards or so wide of beautiful sand, and miles long. There could not have been more than thirty people in sight. The water was so warm that we both went swimming.

In doing research for the trip I came across mention of “Dr. Beach” (Dr. Stephen Leatherman), a scientist who rates beaches in America. The beach at Ocracoke is on his top-three-list for 2004.

The next day our extended weekend had to come to an end. We had refuelled at Roanoke Island, so I still had 4-1/2 hours of fuel. We had originally thought about flying around the west side of the Washington/Baltimore area, but the weather was still unstable to the west. So we retraced our path up the coast VFR with flight following, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania (KLNS), where we refuelled the plane and defuelled ourselves.

There I notified Canadian customs and since the weather in Ontario had not improved, filed an IFR flight plan.

Lancaster to Buffalo was uneventful, at 6,000 feet in haze, but as soon as we crossed the border we were in the middle of cloud, rain and some bumps. Welcome back to Canada.

We had an occasional glimpse of the ground and this was the first time that we saw what many other pilots must have experienced before us – a rainbow below the aircraft, not above.

Bumping along, the directional gyro had precessed and the compass was never stable enough to reset it accurately. Thank goodness for a backup in the GPS.

Toronto Centre kindly vectored us to the VOR-DME A approach to Brampton without taking us over Lake Ontario, and we broke out at circuit height with the airport in front of us.

As I shut down there were 4.7 hours on the Hobbs for the day. We had been gone five days, and we felt like we had a two week vacation. What a way to travel!

 

TOUR TIPS

• Fly IFR if possible until you learn the airspace, otherwise be sure to use flight following.

• Read the COPA Guide to Cross Border Flying (take a copy with you).

• Get the AOPA Airport Directory or a similar guide. They are smaller than the official U.S. publications and contain needed information.

• Flyguides.com is an excellent source of information for air tourists. Their information on the Outer Banks was better and more complete than the official tourist sources, and included useful airport information and flying tips.

• Contacting Flight Service in the U.S.A. is impossible with a Canadian cell phone - in the U.S.A. or from Canada. You must use a land line based in the U.S.A.

• When making an appointment with U.S. customs you must call them at the airport of entry.