CONGA LINES, SKYLINES AND THE LADY WITH A TORCH
©Hal Stoen, Stoenworks
"La Guardia Airport, information Charley. Clear, wind 220 at 10, temperature 65, dew point 42, altimeter 30.27. Landing and departing runway 22. Advise on initial contact that you have information Charley." I was still about fifty miles away from the Big Apple, level at eleven thousand on an IFR flight from a small Pennsylvania town where I had spent the previous night.
Having the La Guardia ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) well in advance meant that there was one less thing to do as I got closer in. I had a custom form that I used for navigation, and there was an area to write down on it the departure and arrival ATIS numbers. Flying as a single-pilot operation I found that I needed to get as many of my ducks in a row as early as I could. In addition, there were always a lot of airplanes and helicopters in the New York area- I wanted my head up, looking out the window for traffic, as much as possible.
I had been working the East Coast for the last three days, picking up and dropping off company servicemen and taking salesmen to the nearest airport to their customers. On this flight I was alone in the company Cessna 421B, N1557G, running over to New York City to pick up another salesman that was arriving on a commercial airline to join us. The plan was to meet his arriving flight and then return with him to our group, probably all still sound asleep in their motel rooms. It was 6:45 in the morning.
It had all of the makings of another beautiful day as VFR conditions extended up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Although we were in sunshine, the valleys down below were still in shadows with the cities and towns showing their twinkling lights as we passed eleven thousand feet overhead. This was one of my favorite times as a corporate pilot. Just me and the airplane, early in the morning. It was like you _owned_ the sky.
New York Center shakes me from my bliss. "November 1557 Golf contact Center on 123.85. Good day!" "123.85, good day to you Sir." "Good morning Center, Cessna 1557 Golf, one one thousand." "Cessna 57 Golf, New York, descend to niner thousand, Newburgh altimeter is 30.24." "Out of one one thousand for niner, 30.24, 57 Golf."
Usually our visits to the Big Apple were accomplished by landing at Teterboro, a corporate aviation haven, and for old-timers the site of Arthur Godfrey's infamous Teterboro Tower fly-by. This time however the commercial airline connection dictated that we use La Guardia, a field that we also often used.
La Guardia was a nifty place to operate out of. Located right on Flushing bay, corporate aircraft parked on the ramp of the old Marine Terminal, the base of operations for the old Pan American flying boats. The terminal building was circular in construction. Inside, the place was a virtual museum of the Art Deco style. Murals covered the walls depicting those long gone days of the Pan Am Clippers. I loved the feel of the place. It was almost like you could close your eyes and travel back 50 years in time .
"Cessna 57 Golf, turn left heading 080, maintain 5,000." "Zero eight zero, out of nine for five, 57 Golf."
"Cessna 57 Golf, contact Approach on 127.6." "One two seven point six, 57G."
"Good morning Approach, Cessna 1557 Golf is with you, five thousand, Charley." "Good morning 57 Golf, turn right heading 090, intercept the runway 22 localizer and track it inbound. Descend to and maintain 2,500." "Zero nine zero, localizer inbound, out of five for two point five, 57 Golf." "Cessna 57 Golf I have traffic behind you, a Boeing 727. Keep your airspeed up as much as practical." "Ah, roger (Chuck Yeager homage), I can give you about 175 knots up to the Marker, then I'll have to slow down." "Understand 57 Golf, give me what you can." I bring the power up a few more inches to raise the airspeed to 175 knots indicated. The expensive real estate of Manhattan Island begins to fill the right side of the windshield as I see higher traffic most likely descending into Kennedy, about 15 miles ahead and to our left.
"Cessna 57 Golf youíre three miles outside of the Marker. Separation between you and the trailing 727 looks good, you can reduce your airspeed as necessary. Thank you for your cooperation, contact the Tower now on 126.05." "Going to the Tower, 57 Golf." The power is reduced to 25 inches. "Good morning La Guardia tower, Cessna 57 Golf is with you, outside of the Marker." "Cessna 57 Golf, you're cleared to land, runway 22." "Cleared to land, 22, 57 Golf." The first notch of flaps is dropped. The airspeed decays to 145 knots and the gear is lowered just as we cross the Marker.
The amazingly small electric motor (ships power is 24 volts, DC) that drives the gear whines behind me, under the floor boards beneath chair number three. All systems are electric on the 421B, the only hydraulics on the aircraft are the brakes. I am rewarded with three green lights, kind of like an aeronautical Pachinko game. Now that the gear is down and locked my landing checklist is complete. About one mile out the next notch of flaps is lowered. Airspeed is 120 knots. Approaching the threshold of the runway, flaps are lowered to the full 45 degree position and power is brought back to the stops. We glide across the end of the runway in front of a United 727 patiently waiting his turn to go now that he has worked his way to the head of the line.
And what a line it is. There is a Conga Line (as Air Traffic Controllers call it) stretching from the terminal all along the parallel taxiway for runway 22- morning rush hour, aviation style. "Cessna 57 Golf, taxi along without delay, take the second right turn, contact Ground point seven when clear." "57 Golf." We make the turn and Ground clears us to the Marine Air Terminal parking. A sharp lineman is there to guide us to a parking place. The gyros spin down as I check the cabin for cleanliness, then go outside, close and lock the airstair door. I give the waiting lineman my fuel order form and head off for Art Deco Land- and a lesson in life about New York City cabbies.
Although I had been to La Guardia numerous times in the past, I had never left the airport grounds. Typical corporate pilot life- "Where did you go?" "Oh, all over the place." "Well, what was it like?" "I don't know, I never left the airport." In any event, all I had to do was walk over to the Main Terminal building and meet my fellow employeeís flight.
Hah! This naive kid from the Midwest had a lot to learn about airport logistics.
I picked up the latest edition of the New York Post at the newsstand and walked out to the front of the Marine Air Terminal building. Well, there's the Main Terminal just to the left, must be a couple of thousand feet away. A little farther than I remembered, but still not bad. Hmm, where's the sidewalk? What sidewalk? There is no sidewalk. Well how the heck do I get from here to there? There's a line of taxis with a Starter standing by the curb. I walk up and ask "Excuse me. I need to get over to the Main Terminal. What's the easiest way to get there?"
He looks down and sizes me up. I can see his visual reaction written on his face- "Hick."
"You gotta take a cab." "Well, can't I just walk over?" "No, you gotta drive or take a cab." "You wanna cab?" "No, let me check on something." I step back from the Starter and look at the long line of cabs. There were about twenty of them- and the line wasn't moving. I try to think this through. "......Here's this New York City cabbie......probably hasn't had a lot of fares this early in the morning.....looking for a big hit fare going into the heart of the City......waits in this long line of other cabbies that are looking for the same score.....finally gets to the front of the line....I waltz up and say "Take me to the Main Terminal"...oh, he's gonna just love me for that....
I walk back into the Marine Air Terminal and go up to the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) desk. "Say, do you have a courtesy car that can run me over to the Main Terminal?" "Yes, we do......" ....(Oh, thank you God!)....."but it's on a hotel run right now and probably won't be back for an hour." (Crap!) Back out to the front of the building. I swear that the lead cab is the same one as when I left. "This is gonna hurt." I tell myself. Somehow, the Starter seems larger than he was before. "Yeah, say I'm going to need a ride over to the Main Terminal." There, I had said it.
He gives me a look of disdain and motions for the lead cab to pull up and then opens the door. I crawl in and the driver, who I _just know_ is named "Bruno" and lives in the Bronx, actually says "Where to Mac?" Just like the movies. "Main Terminal please." He actually turns to me and says "You're kidding." Slam, the flag goes down. Stomp, the cab lurches away. We whip around the perimeter road. "Hey, these guys _do_ drive fast." Alright, I figure that if I give him a twenty dollar tip he won't hurt me or my family. I stare out the side windows, not daring to look up at the rear view mirror where I just know Bruno is staring bullets at me. We approach the terminal after about a two minute ride. A car pulls out in front of Bruno. He leans on the horn and sticks his head out of the window, unleashing a string of epithets that I hadn't heard since my Navy days. I start thinking that maybe the twenty dollar tip is too little- perhaps fifty is more appropriate. We come to a screeching halt in front of the Terminal. I give him a ten dollar bill to cover the fare and the fifty to buy my safe exit from his cab.
Bruno and I part company. He doesn't wish me a nice day.
The "Arrivals Board" shows that my passengerís flight is on time. In fact, when I get down to the gate the plane is just unloading. We greet and I am relieved that he just has a carry-on bag. No long waits at the baggage claim area. Of course, now we have to run the gauntlet of taking a cab back over to the Marine Air Terminal. We walk outside. He asks "Where's the plane?" I point and say "Right over there." "Well, how did you get over here?" "Cab." This one could be worse. Rather than going around the loop, the run is pretty much direct going back the other way. He says "I'll get the cab." I give a weak smile and mutter "Thanks." The ride is shorter, and thankfully the driver is apparently a recent emigrant who hasn't mastered the art of New York City anger. I had not a clue as to how much he tipped him, I just wanted to get back into the safety of "aviation surroundings."
You know, they're right. The most dangerous part of any trip is the ride to the airport.
I go to the FBO desk and pay my bill. Interestingly, La Guardia had no landing fee. However, through the art of double-speak, they had a _departure fee_. Then, to add insult to injury, they had an _additional_ "prime time departure" fee that was added on to the normal departure fee. "Prime time" was defined as any time between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. The fee was based on MGTOW, Maximum Gross TakeOff Weight. Poor little old 57 Golf with its lowly 7,450 pound weight got nicked for an additional $100.00.
Considering the fact that we would be able to walk out to the airplane, hop in and takeoff, I considered it a bargain.
The walk around inspection was uneventful. The correct fuel had been added, no loose access caps or doors, no water in the sumps. N1557G, like all 421Bís, had 12 fuel sumps to drain- 13 if you included the crossfeed drain. Truly a fuel system from hell.
OK, I have my passenger on board. My debt to New York City has been paid. I fire up the engines and turn on the Radio Master. I'm ready to go.
Unbeknownst to me, we have a date with the Empire State Building.
La Guardia Ground issues our IFR clearance and our taxi instructions to runway 22, which is still the active runway. The conga line of commercial carriers is longer than it was when I arrived. This is going to be a _long_ wait. I have all of the navigation equipment set with the route for our return to Pennsylvania. After a SID (Standard Instrument Departure) out of La Guardia we will pick up the Harrisburg VORTAC and proceed RNAV (aRea NAVigation) direct to our destination.
Funny thing about SIDs. I _never_ flew one to itís completion. For that matter, the same applies to their cousins, the STARs (Standard Terminal Arrival Route). Once Departure or Center issues _any_ change: heading, altitude, route, what-have-you, all bets are off and the SID/STAR is no longer a valid navigational chart. And, as it turned out in my case at least, that always happened. Of course, in their defense, the redeeming value in their presence is that they give explicit instructions so that in the event of a communications failure everyone from the crew doing the flying to the ATC person sitting at the scope knows what to do and what is going to happen.
We are taxing in a more or less sailboat fashion, "tacking" back and forth on the meandering taxiway that is on the Northwest side of runway 22, while the airliners in their long line are pretty much head to tail on the Southeast side of the runway. A glance at the chart that is mounted to my wheel shows that this will change when we get to the crossing runway, 4/22. After this point, there is no longer a Northwest parallel taxiway for me to continue on, only the one on the other side. At that time we will have to cross over and join the long train of aluminum.
I can see some major engine overheating in my future.
"Cessna 1557 Golf, La Guardia Ground." "57 Golf, go ahead." "Are you ready for departure?" "Yes Sir, we are." "I have a proposition for you. If you're willing to depart VFR, and accept an intersection takeoff- at your discretion, I can get you out right away on runway 13. There is 6,000 feet available from the intersection you are approaching right now."
A glance over at the conga line verified that this was a no brainer, even for this Norwegian.
The out for the ATC guys is the "at your discretion" phrase. Even though they initiated the clearance, a little unusual in itself, the procedure was "at our discretion." "Yeah Ground, we'll take you up on that offer. Thank you very much!" "OK Sir, change your squawk to 1245 and contact the Tower now. Be prepared for an immediate departure, and tell them that you are ready to go." I reset transponder 2 to the new VFR code and switch the selector to Comm. 1, La Guardia Tower.
"Tower, Cessna 57 Golf is with you, ready to go at the 13 intersection." "Roger 57 Golf. Fly runway heading. Maintain VFR at, or below 2,000. At your discretion you are cleared for an immediate takeoff, runway 13 intersection." This is all happening fast. Fast makes waste. Fast makes mistakes. I start bringing up the throttles to full power even as we are in the hard right turn onto the runway. Only one item is left on my checklist- "Transponder: ON." I reach over and turn the knob from "standby" to "on". With the light load, 57 Golf's 750 "horses" accelerate us rapidly down the runway. We pass through the "recommended safe single-engine climb speed" of 106 knots and break ground at 110 knots, using far less than half of the runway that was available to us.
My head is down for a moment as I verify and then switch the auxiliary main fuel pumps from "on" to "standby". When I look up again I see that we are aimed directly at the Empire State Building. Not a few degrees left of it, nor a few to the right. We're headed right at the darn thing. This is not faulting the guys at La Guardia, we're VFR- see and avoid. Wow, what a perspective. 57 Golf had a large front windshield, and the 102 story structure was occupying a fair portion of it. "Cessna 57 Golf, squawk 1200. Good morning." "Ah, roger 57 Golf.....shouldn't we call somebody?" "Well Sir, you can give Newark Departure a try if you like, they're on 126.45. So long!"
It just amazed me. Here we were, over one of the largest cities in the world, and it was "..if you like." I watched for traffic, and the skyscraper, as I tuned Comm. 2 to 126.45. "Good morning Newark, Cessna 1557 Golf with you, over downtown Manhattan, squawking 1200. Advisories if you have the time." "Cessna 57 Golf, Newark. Stand-by." As we were "standing-by" we whisked past the Empire State Building. I could see people out on the observation deck, even at this time of the day. I couldn't help myself- I waved at them. The temptation to circle around the lovely structure was almost overpowering. I resisted.
God, it was an incredible sight!
"Cessna 57 Golf, Newark. I have you in radar contact now, squawk 1265. Maintain VFR. What are your intentions?" "Well Sir, we're out of La Guardia, we want to transit your area and depart VFR to the Northwest." "OK 57 Golf. Tell you what I want you to do. Maintain VFR at or below 2,000 feet. Proceed direct to the Statue of Liberty then direct to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I'll have further VFR clearance for you at that time." "Roger, 57 Golf."
Wow! This flying VFR in New York City was cool! I reached over and reset transponder 2 to the new code and hit the transponder transfer switch. The Brooklyn Bridge passed off to my left, and the "Lady With a Torch" loomed off of the nose.
I cheated just a little bit and flew so that the statue would pass below on my side of the airplane. We passed over the Statue of Liberty at 1,700 feet- a truly beautiful lady. Now it was a left turn of about 30 degrees as we headed for the bridge. At this point I could resist no longer, and turned to my passenger sitting behind me and to my right back in the passenger cabin. "Say Bill, you've been to New York City before haven't you?" "Oh yeah, many times." "You've seen the Verrazano Narrows Bridge before?""Is that it right ahead of us?" He rose up and turned around for a second to look before he picked up on the humor. We chuckled and he sat back down while I muttered an apology to Bob Newhart for abusing his schtick. The long graceful suspension bridge passed below us just as Newark called on the radio.
"Cessna 57 Golf, contact Departure on 123.85. Good morning." "One two three point eight five, good morning Sir." We get handed off through several sectors and are eventually able to head up to the Northwest and a VFR cruise altitude of 12,500. The rest of the trip was uneventful- well, with the possible exception of my landing. My passengers kidded me that those were always "eventful".
All in all, quite an experience for a "hick" from the Midwest. I had the opportunity to see New York City as few people ever will.
I will always be grateful to aviation, and the people that work in it, that made it possible.
The memories linger on.
© Hal Stoen
December 1st, 1999
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