From Thence to Hence

The Freeway to Prosperity


No Plane, No Gain


Four airplanes, 19 hijackers, some with pilot training caused an event that reverberated around the world. It also put the US air transport system in general and flight training in particular under intense international scrutiny. Air transport had been taken for granted, till now, as just a bunch of huge aircraft plying over the high seas.


Arizona State University (ASU) is the third largest University in the US (50,000 students) and is located almost under the arrival flight path of Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. Last year Sky Harbor was ranked the fourth busiest airport in the world and clocked 318,000 landings. The palm-lined walkways of ASU are occupied not just by students on the ground, but huge lumbering jets noisily floating over at the rate of about one a minute. These flying noisy metallic objects were pretty much considered a nuisance.


After the calamity at the Twin Towers, the sky over ASU went silent. As the students strolled along the palm-lined walkways they kept looking skywards. The missing aircraft were conspicuous by their absence. Now, they are back, a noisy reminder of the economic force they drive. No one ever complains about the noise any more, the silence was too deafening.


There are three kinds of aviation. Military aviation is focused on breaking things and killing people. Commercial aviation is designed to move people rapidly thought large distances. And then there is “General Aviation”. General aviation covers everything other than scheduled flights managed by airline companies. General aviation includes business transportation, air charter, air taxis, personal and recreational flying, emergency medical evacuation, agricultural flying, traffic and aerial observation and the suddenly maligned flight training.


It is well known that commercial aviation in the US is a huge and impressive network. About 20 airline companies use 4,000 aircraft, employ about 40,000 pilots, operate about 20,000 flights per day and carry 1.6 million people, per day. Yet this gleaming gem of transportation is statistically overwhelmed by the sheer largesse of general aviation. Compared to 4,000 aircraft in commercial service, general aviation boasts 206,000 aircraft, of which private individuals own 140,000. These planes are flown by a staggering 600,000 licensed pilots (40,000 of them are women). The time clocked by these aircraft is about 31 million hours a year, about twice the amount clocked by commercial aviation. The number of airports accessible to general aviation is about 20,000 of which 14,000 are private airstrips. The number of airports with commercial service is about 800.


The US is also the utopia of flight training. Every nook of the country has small airports and private flight training schools. Intense competition and a glut of facilities make the US one of the cheapest places in the world for pilot training. People from all over the world come to the US to get pilot licenses. Getting a pilot license is the first step in a long and arduous process of becoming an airline pilot.


Sandy Anderson is the highest-ranking woman pilot at Northwest Airlines, piloting the world’s largest aircraft, the Boeing 747. Like all pilots, Captain Anderson did not start her flying career in a jet; she trained in small single-engine planes. "Like most of the pilots coming into commercial aviation today”, says Sandy, “I got my start in general aviation. First I earned my private pilot license, then I became a flight instructor, then began flying charter. Eventually, Northwest hired me as one of their pilots. The experience I gained as a general aviation pilot has stayed with me throughout my career." Over 50% of all US pilots follow the career path of Sandy, the rest learn flying in the military.


The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is one of the most respected government agencies in the world. They manage the traffic, safety and regulation of air traffic in the US, and their policies are copied and used in most other countries. Air traffic control is an impressive array of technology and rules. Radar and communication link every aircraft to control towers where humans and computers manage the coordinated flow and safety in the sky. The skies are divided into airspaces classes, called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and so on (for A, B, C…). Class Alpha airspace is all the sky above 18,000 feet. This is too high for small aircraft; planes flying there must have pressurized cabins, carry oxygen and fly under close scrutiny of air traffic control.


Class Bravo is where heart-stopping drama unfolds at all times of day and night. Bravo is chock full of passenger aircraft on approach and departure from major congested airports. The US has about 30 class Bravo spaces. Bravo is a cylinder centered on the airport, stretching about 30 miles on all sides. It is also an “inverted wedding cake” or inverted umbrella. The area covered by Bravo increases with altitude. At ground level, the radius of Bravo is about 5 miles, and it increases in steps to 30 miles as we go higher up.


Under the umbrella of Bravo surrounding Sky Harbor Airport is the city of Phoenix. Phoenix is a sprawling metropolis in the middle of nowhere. Located in a flat valley surrounded by jagged barren mountains and uninhabited deserts spreading for as far as eye can see, it is home to 3 million people clumping around Sky Harbor. During the day is a massive stretch of houses and swimming pools. At night it is a brilliant carpet of twinkly lights that cast a glow in the sky visible from hundred of miles away.


Part of the FAA curriculum for pilots required night flying experience, preferably close to or into Class Bravo. As a budding pilot, one dark evening I sat behind the controls of a single engine, “Piper Warrior” aircraft, tail number 8400A along with my instructor. The plan was to fly out from Chandler Airport to Williams Gateway airport and then to Falcon Field in Mesa and then to Scottsdale Airpark and finally home. Chandler is at the southern extremity of Phoenix, with Williams about 10 miles to the east. Falcon is 10 miles North of Williams and Scottsdale is about 12 miles further northwest, all under the Bravo umbrella extending out of Sky Harbor.


I started up the 4-cylinder 160 HP engine. Most cars are more powerful than that. We taxied to the runway and asked for takeoff clearance and told the controller we are bound for Williams Gateway Airport. “8400-Alpha, Cleared for takeoff, left turn approved” was the response. We sped over the southeast-bound runway as fast as the fan on the nose could pull the plane, and as we reached the dizzying speed of 60 knots (110km/hr) I pulled the nose up and off we went. Suddenly, we are engulfed in darkness and behind us lay the huge expanse of Phoenix, a glittering carpet of lights.


As we made the left turn and pointed east, climbing steadily, the controller called us. “00-Alpha, Frequency change approved, g’day” he said. That was nice of him, as we were still in Chandler airspace and were obligated to be on the Chandler frequency. However, it would be courteous of us, to inform Williams’s tower that we were fast approaching. The permission to switch frequencies allowed us to sever the radio connection with Chandler, fly uncontrolled, and talk to Williams.


Close to the horizon and at the edge of the lighted carpet of Phoenix, I could see a blink of a yellow light, followed a second later by a blink of a green light. That was the beacon of Williams’s control tower. I pointed the plane towards it, and called. “Williams Tower, Warrior 8400-Alpha, approaching from Chandler, about 8 miles west, for touch and go and stay in pattern”. That meant I would fly in, out of the darkness, touch down at Williams, and then take off right away and then come right back for more landings. A perfectly useless maneuver that gave me away as a trainee.


The controller at Williams was a sweet, soft-spoken lady with an Asian accent. “00-Alpha, clear to land, runway 30L, left base entry approved, touch and go, left traffic 30L, altimeter two-niner-niner” was her inviting response. Translated that meant, welcome, come on a shortcut approach making one left turn (as opposed to the complex “full pattern” landings, that are force-fed to trainees) and then cleared to take off, turn left and land again.


The control tower was easy to see, the runway was not. A good guess made me make a left turn correctly and the runway lights shone at me. In the dark, the depth perception goes away, so the glide slope and power setting were pure guesses. The soft thud of the wheels brushing the concrete told me the guesses were right. Retract flaps, full power and off we went. As we climbed and turned left, came the soft voice, “00-Alpha, clear to land, 30L”. After the third takeoff, I told the lady we were off to Falcon. The response was crisp, courteous and helpful, “00-Alpha, fly runway heading, frequency change approved”.


Runway heading from Williams is northwest, almost towards Falcon over a large segment of the city. The big jets were glowing balls of fire, above us, heading to Sky Harbor. We crossed a freeway, shining with a thousand cars of light. Again, I saw the Falcon beacon, well hidden in the midst of the city and managed to find the runway. Three touch and go-s later, off we headed north for Scottsdale.


Scottsdale was harder to find, the controller was grouchy, and the landing pattern was complex. After two touches, I decided to call it a day. Back to Chandler meant grazing Bravo very close. Flying south, about 6 miles east of Sky Harbor was a sight beyond expectations. Three massive runways looked like Christmas decorations, sweeping away from me on the right, so close it looked easy to reach out and touch. The amber glow of the city under us, added to the charm. The big jets dotted the sky in a chain extending into the darkness on the left. We were barely too low and barely too far to be in the jet flight path, but yet the whole scene looked surreal, in 3-D.


Tired and feeling the effects of stress, we entered Chandler airspace and the tower closed down for the night. Using a visual, uncontrolled approach, as I was about to align for landing, the instructor switched off the entire instrument panel and landing lights.  “Assume you just had an electrical failure, now get us down,” she muttered. Seat of the pants flying got us into a smooth touchdown, concluding a hard to top experience.


Basic pilot training is the bottom end of the ladder of aviation. Pilot training is difficult, intensely stressful, action-packed and information rich. About 60 hours of in the air practice, 20 hours of grueling ground instruction, and countless hours of abuse from the instructor. It is a skill that stretches physical reactions and mental sharpness to its limits, along with the need to comprehend and memorize a staggering amount of scientific and legal knowledge. Man was not born to fly, but we can learn how to, with a lot of difficulty.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at



Partha Dasgupta