Free from red tape and taking in the most famous site in aviation history; there’s a company in the US providing flying holidays in and around North Carolina. We sent Keith Wilson to find out more.
Having shut down the engine and secured the aircraft on the ramp, I walked through the gate and started up the long, winding hill in front of me. It didn’t take long to reach the top and a large monument. To the left there was a breathtaking view down the hill towards a field with four large stones. Each of these represents one of the first four flights made by the Wright brothers from this hill on 17 December 1903. The first, by Orville Wright, lasted twelve seconds and covered 120ft. Three more flights were made the same day, with Orville’s brother Wilbur piloting the record flight that lasted 59 seconds over a distance of 852ft.
I was 450ft up on top of Big Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, now a fitting monument to that spectacular day more than 100 years ago when one of man’s greatest dreams was achieved – the first successful powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine. With a tingle down my spine, I closed my eyes and imagined what it would have been like to have been here making history on that day.
The location now has a visitor centre containing a museum of models along with the actual tools and machinery used by the Wright brothers in their flight experiments. It includes a reproduction of the wind tunnel used to test wing shapes, a portion of the engine used in the first flight and a life-size replica of the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer. A full-scale model of the Brothers’ 1902 glider is also present, constructed under the direction of Orville Wright himself.
On top of the hill the sixty-foot granite monument was dedicated on 14 November 1932. The base of the monument is inscribed with the phrase: ‘In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith.’ Nearby, another full-size replica of the Wright Flyer is on display, and this allows close examination. Further down the hill a pair of old wooden buildings are open for inspection. The first is a replica of the world’s first aircraft hangar while the second was the brother’s living quarters.
The Wright memorial has its own airfield, operated by the US National Park Service and suitably named First Flight Airport (KFFA). It has a 3,000ft asphalt strip running 02/20, and a small ramp positioned next to the entrance gate, just a short walk from the visitor centre. First Flight Airport was the first stopping point on an itinerary arranged for me by Elite Aircraft Services of Raleigh, North Carolina, a company that specialises in providing a particular type of aircraft rental. It offers ‘tailor-made’ flying holidays and trips for UK and European PPL-holders around the southeast of the USA using a fleet of Cirrus aircraft, equipped with Garmin G1000, autopilot and air conditioning. The difference in its service is that an instructor comes as part of the package, escorting the pilot (and a party of up to three) and thereby alleviating the need for a visa or a checkout/type-rating on the Cirrus. So you can learn to fly the Cirrus SR20, SR22 or SR22T while touring around this part of the USA, and rates are generally cheaper than normal European equivalents.
The five-strong team of Elite’s instructors are experienced ‘Cirrus-standardised’ career instructors, with more than 25,000 hours of experience in total, and more than 14,000 hours on the Cirrus. The company was started by Matt Walsh in December 2008. He had previously worked for Cirrus in its Corporate and Training operations, so it’s not surprising that his business is a Platinum Cirrus Training Centre, one of the world’s
I had been working on a series of assignments for Pilot in Nevada and on my journey back to the UK had routed via Raleigh-Durham International Airport (KRDU) to meet Matt. There, the company’s office is on the second-floor of the TAC Air FBO, overlooking the large?and very busy?general aviation ramp.
Elite has grown considerably since the early days and now has facilities at both Raleigh-Durham and Raleigh Exec Jetport at Sanford-Lee County Airport (KTTA). It operates a modest fleet of two Cirrus SR20 aircraft (the oldest is a 2012 model) for training and hire, along with a single Super Decathlon which is used for tail wheel endorsements, aerobatics, unusual attitude and upset recovery, and spin training. It also manages a Cirrus fleet of sixteen aircraft on behalf of clients, including four SR-20s, seven SR-22 and three SR-22Ts. In addition, there’s a Piper PA-46T Meridian, and a TBM-850.
A complete aircraft management service is offered ? hangarage, discounted maintenance, chart/database updates, corporate pilots, along with flight instruction. A little surprising is the fact that some aircraft owners do not have a pilot’s licence ? yet! Some purchase an aircraft for corporate use, using the corporate pilots from Elite, before embarking on a formal training programme. Much of it is scenario-based training, though, while the aircraft is en-route to or from a corporate client’s place of business.
Aviation is viewed very differently in the USA. Unlike the UK, business aviation in particular is actively encouraged. Pretty much all the major US towns and cities have at least one good business airport, and many have two or more, so covering clients around a region is a fairly straightforward and tax-efficient operation. Customers up to 500 miles away can be reached in a little over three hours in the SR-22T, which cruises comfortably at around 150 knots. The Cirrus is an ideal platform, as it mixes speed and comfort with all-weather flying capabilities. (It is capable of a 180 knot cruise at lower levels, but with oxygen up to 213 knots at flight level 250.)
Part of a trip of this kind could be used for training or, alternatively, the whole flight could be under the control of a corporate pilot while the client relaxes and prepares for the meeting. Some of Elite’s clients take a corporate pilot on their travels for up to a week, mixing corporate flying with training. This aspect of the company’s business has grown considerably over the past five years. Raleigh-Durham International is a busy airport in Class C airspace. It has three runways (05L/23R at 10,000ft, 05R/23L at 7,500ft and 14/32 at just 3,550ft). Aside from a significant number of scheduled national and international routes, it is home to a US Army Air National Guard unit operating AH-64D Apache and Longbow attack helicopters. It also has a large and very busy GA terminal with two competing FBOs. The efficiently controlled airport environment provides excellent training.
Raleigh Exec Jetport is just 35 miles by road from Raleigh-Durham. Here, the airfield has a single asphalt runway, designated 03/21, 6,500ft in length. KTTA also has full lighting, signage and safety equipment, including an automatic weather observation system (AWOS), ILS and NDB. It handles over 60,000 movements per annum. Elite’s Cirrus-approved maintenance headquarters is based here, along with training facilities in a quiet, uncontrolled environment. Both airport locations offer simulators and the same quality of pilot services and training, with a Redbird FMX Full Motion trainer at KTTA and a Touch Trainer in the offices
“Where would you like to go?” was Matt Walsh’s first question when we met. Despite my numerous trips to the USA, this was my first to North Carolina and I wasn’t well prepared. Luckily, he had an itinerary in mind, if I was prepared to follow his recommendation. I was introduced to Benjamin Popp, an experienced 27-year-old corporate flight instructor, who had been Supervisor of Flying at Western Michigan University, after obtaining a degree in Aviation Administration there. Ben was patient, tolerant and very knowledgeable; all great attributes in a flying instructor. After discussing my flying experience and what I wanted to achieve from the trip, we moved on to the Touch Trainer simulator.
While I may have flown a good number of hours in a variety of types, including a few short ‘trips’ in Cirrus aircraft, I could not be considered current on the type by any stretch of the imagination. So, we went back to Cirrus basics. On the simulator it was easy to learn simple routines and systems ? the engine start routine for example. The Garmin Perspective system came under much scrutiny and the interface with the auto-pilot was something I needed to learn. The Cirrus is a systems-driven aircraft that doesn’t suit everyone, but it certainly is efficient.
Despite Ben’s patient and thorough instruction, after a couple of hours I was suffering serious Cirrus-system overload and we adjourned for coffee and to discuss the trip schedule for the following day. The plan was to leave Raleigh-Durham and route to First Flight Airport. Then, after a short stay, we would go south to Ocracoke Island Airport (W95), a beautiful, quaint airfield located alongside the beach in the Cape Hatteras National Park. A picnic lunch was a possibility but instead we planned to visit Howard’s pub a short walk away along the beach. It was a nice, leisurely trip with the possibility of a couple of air-to-air photo shoots at Raleigh Exec for the late afternoon/early evening.
Next day I was at KRDU airport at the appointed hour. We checked the weather forecast and it predicted a number of scattered thunderstorms. We would have to proceed with care. Using the US Met’s fantastic on-line weather radar we could see a large storm cluster directly in the way of our first leg. There was nothing to do but delay departure and continue to monitor the weather. After what seemed like hours, and two further cups of coffee, the route was clear. Ben completed the preflight walk-around with me in tow, ensuring I saw all of the critical points. After carefully pulling out the safety pin and ensuring the BRS was live, I ran through the start routine under Ben’s watchful eye.
An onscreen checklist is provided as part of Cirrus’s Garmin Perspective start-up process. N621BB, an immaculate 2012 Cirrus SR-22 GTS, fired on the first turn of the key. With all systems set and both large screens functioning correctly, Ben walked me through programming the Garmin Perspective GPS, a proprietary version of the Garmin G1000 developed for Cirrus. Next, we tuned to the ATIS and noted the details before re-tuning to the Ground frequency. We completed our power checks on the ramp and were cleared for the short taxi to the Runway 23L hold. Before we reached the hold we were cleared to line up and almost as soon as we were on the runway, we were free to depart, with a left turn out on track. With full power applied the Cirrus accelerated very quickly. A touch of gentle back-pressure on the side stick and the aircraft left the ground at seventy knots. I adjusted the attitude to obtain the best climb rate at 110. Once above 1,000ft, I commenced a gentle left-turn onto our track to KFFA, while maintaining the climb.
Before leaving the ramp, I had asked Ben how soon the autopilot could be engaged. I usually like to hand-fly an aircraft but on this occasion, having made our left turn, I engaged the autopilot and ‘flew the buttons’. It locked-on to the GPS heading almost instantaneously and, using the ‘altitude hold’ button, we continued the climb up to 3,500ft. Once there, I moved the aircraft into cruise mode by setting the power to 2,500rpm and then employed the ‘lean assist’ button on the Garmin Perspective. I started to lean the mixture until the last cylinder ‘peaked’; then reduced the EGTs by 35ºF, sat back and checked its progress. Soon we were cruising at 150 knots on around 75% power. With a moderate tailwind our ground speed was close to 175 knots. All that was left for us to do was to enjoy the scenery?while monitoring the systems, of course. Easy, this flying lark!
Once outside of controlled airspace and cleared en route, we requested a ‘flight following’ service with Raleigh and were given a squawk before later being turned over to Washington Centre. The flight following service in the US is excellent and it was nice to know that someone was keeping an eye out for us. We were notified of a few traffic items but generally we just sat comfortably in the aircraft, chatting and watching North Carolina pass by below.
With just ten miles to run to KFFA, we said goodbye to flight following, tuned our squawk to 1200 and listened to First Flight Airport’s Unicom frequency. I let down in 500ft increments using the altitude hold on the autopilot. Once level at 1,000ft, I disengaged it. The airfield had been in sight for some time and I managed to grab a few snaps of the field when Ben briefly assumed control. With the camera stowed, I positioned left-hand downwind for Runway 20 and completed the checks. Ben confirmed the flap and speed settings and I found myself on short final. The picture looked good and I flew her gently down onto the runway. After the Wright monument visit and the weather delay, we were a little behind schedule. Ben took a telephone call advising that the air-to-air shoot had been moved to Raleigh Exec Jetport (KTTA), so we had to re-think the plan. We sacrificed lunch and decided to route directly to KTTA, which gave us a little more
time to absorb the atmosphere at First Flight Airport.
On the next leg I chose to hand-fly the aircraft up to our cruising altitude. The Cirrus is a very relaxing aircraft to fly. The side-stick is most comfortable and all controls fall neatly to hand. Once at our designated altitude and on the correct heading, I switched back to autopilot. Flight following was again keeping an eye on us. We had been travelling around thirty minutes when we noticed clouds building towards our destination. Then Ben received a text saying the weather might delay proceedings on the shoot slightly, so an alternative might be to move the whole process to Smith Reynolds Airport at Winston-Salem (KINT), about thirty or so minutes further on our journey. After a brief discussion, we changed our routing, programming KINT into the GPS and notifying flight-following. This change of route would take us close to both Raleigh-Durham and then the regional airport at Greensboro.
At the appropriate time, flight following handed us over to Raleigh-Durham which kept us away from some adverse weather before moving us on to Greensboro. Once clear of that airport we commenced our descent, being handed on to Winston Salem and calling their approach frequency. There were still a few localised showers around as we made our way towards the airport where we were cleared for a left-base join for Runway 33.
After a detailed briefing in the terminal building, I got airborne again in a Robinson R-44 cameraship and photographed a series of different aircraft against one of the local landmarks, aptly named Pilot Mountain. After the sortie we landed back at Winston-Salem, but not before taking a closer look at an old Douglas C-54 on the ramp. The sun was setting and it was a lovely evening. I transferred from the R-44 into the Carbon Cub for a few sunset images of the R-44 as he made his way home to Twin Lakes (8A7) near Greensboro.
By the time I was back on the ground it was getting dark and the Cirrus SR22 GTS had already departed back to Raleigh Exec with Ben. As we refuelled the Carbon Cub I asked Matt how we were going to get back, assuming he had a car parked nearby. “Fly, of course!” was his response.
“But it’s dark and the Carbon Cub is an Experimental aircraft,” I observed.
“No problem here in the States, we can fly Experimentals at night,” he replied. “Which seat do you want, front or back?”
I chose to sit in the back and stowed my camera gear carefully. Matt is a tailwheel instructor and he loves the Carbon Cub and its amazing performance?which he demonstrated on departure. With full power applied, the tailwheel lifts almost immediately and the aircraft is airborne in what seems like just fifty yards. Most impressive with two on board, along with full fuel and baggage! The Carbon Cub is well-equipped, with a pair of glass screens rather than a scattering of steam-driven instruments. The large Dynon Flight DEK-180 seven-inch flat screens provide superb displays, especially at night, and the GPS was easy to follow.
It was an almost calm evening so maintaining height and direction was a pleasure, the slightest touch on the controls was all the correction required. We flew home at relatively low level with both doors wide open; it was a lovely warm night and the views were amazing. As we approached Raleigh Exec, Matt called the Unicom frequency, which remained silent. Thankfully, Matt had the lights turned on earlier in the evening, so the airfield was easy to locate. He had me fly a tight circuit onto final, and landing on that calm evening was a relatively easy affair. We taxied back to Elite’s hangar where Matt’s partner (and Elite’s Administrative guru) Leeanna Tolles was waiting with the hangar doors open.
Over dinner we discussed the variety of trips that could be available to British and European visitors. The most popular is the one I had planned to take: Raleigh-Durham to First Flight Airport, then Ocracoke for lunch on the beach or at Howard’s Pub, and a return to KRDU. With a little more time you can venture further afield to Washington DC using Dulles Airport, which has Class B airspace but provides excellent training opportunities. From there, you can take a shuttle bus to visit the Smithsonian. You can also visit downtown Washington by train and stay overnight, flying on the next day to Norfolk, Virginia to see the ‘Dead Fleet’ on the James River?a large collection of reserve military ships.
If you have more time, you could fly to Jamestown to visit the Settlement at Williamsburg. You could opt to see both sides of North Carolina in one day, with a visit to Ashville (KAVL) and the mountains, followed by a trip to Wilmington (KILM) right on the water. You could even venture further afield with a trip to the Bahamas, but there are visa requirements. The opportunities are many and varied for this kind of holiday adventure, and the team at Elite will do their utmost to make your stay enjoyable. They certainly succeeded for me!
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