There is a special place in the heart of every pilot for his or her “home patch.” It’s the airport where you know you enter the downwind leg over the lake, turn base over the church and final over the mall. It’s the airport where you know all the little secrets and “gotchas.” Over the years I’ve had a number of airports that I’ve called home and every one of them has taught me something.
I started my flying life out in California at an airport officially named Barstow-Daggett (DAG) or just Daggett for short. I did a lot of my primary training in a 7DC Champ with a local instructor named Joe, a very wise and patient teacher.
Daggett is at almost 2000 ft MSL and in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Summer temperatures can be well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Density altitude obviously becomes a consideration under conditions like that and its potential for disaster was demonstrated to me very well one warm morning.
We were shooting landings in the Champ. I had turned crosswind when I realized that the ground wasn’t getting any farther away. “Joe!” I called into the intercom. “We’re not climbing!”
His calm voice came through the headphones. “Yes we are, Dave. Look at the altimeter and VSI. We’re climbing, but the terrain is rising as fast as we’re going up. That was a good catch. Tell me, what would you do if the ground was getting closer even though we’re still climbing?”
In that instant everything I’d read and heard about density altitude became very real. Looking into the little mirror that let me see into the back seat I replied, “I’d turn back toward lower terrain.” I saw Joe smile, nod, and go back to watching the scenery until it was once again time to save us from going off the runway as I tried to put the little taildragger back on the ground.
Sometimes even your home patch can become a strange place. While going to college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I got checked out at Riverside airport (RVS), since renamed as the much duller sounding Jones airport. One night I went out with a friend to do some night flying. It was clear, but very dark and the airport was in a bit of a black hole.
After doing some sightseeing, we headed back. The tower gave us clearance to land on Runway 18R, and I got set up for what I thought was 18. The tower gave me a call and told me to flash my landing light.
I did as requested and then the tower controller called. “Cessna 47 Bravo Golf, you’re set up for 36L, not 18R. Do a right 270 and you’ll be set for a right crosswind for 18R.” I thanked him and did as he said. It’s a good thing that the cockpit was pretty dark or my friend would have seen me blushing really red from embarrassment. Check and double-check everything, especially on a dark night over the woods.
Before sharp-eyed readers write in to tell me that the runways at Jones are 1/19, not 18/36, let me tell you that when I flew out of there in the 70s and 80s, they were indeed 18/36. Somewhere along the line the magnetic variation changed enough that they decided to renumber the runways, something that has always been close to sacrilege in my book.
It’s always a good thing to remember that everybody in the pattern may not be a local. Making position calls referencing nothing but local landmarks can cause confusion to transient pilots. Saying something like “Cardinal 738 over Route 2, five east, for landing” can help a lot to keep traffic in the pattern safe and aware.
Some years later and 1,500 miles away, I was getting ready to land at Groton, Connecticut. I was in a Grumman Tiger with an old college buddy of mine whom I introduced to flying and who has since far outdistanced me in terms of hours and ratings.
Groton sits right on Long Island Sound and one runway has a long swatch of grass before the threshold. During the summer, local pilots know that if you’re at what looks like the correct altitude as you turn final you’ll end up adding power to compensate for a significant amount of sink over that green grass. I knew this, but Kevin didn’t. As I settled on final he said to me, “Dave, we’re a little high.”
“Just watch,” I replied. We hit that sinkhole and came right on the glide path. We looked at each other and he shook his head. “OK, it’s your home patch. I’ll shut up.” We both got a good chuckle from that episode. Without a doubt, there is no place like home.