Caution: Wake Turbulence
Landing behind a 757 at O’Hare as a Student Pilot
by Glen Janssens
"Cirrus 731 Papa Papa, you're cleared to taxi via Lima Lima, left on Mike Mike across runway Two Seven Left, right on Hotel, hold short of runway Three Two Right and await further instructions – I’ll try to catch you on the roll.”
I ease in left rudder and follow Chris’s outstretched finger as we make the left onto Lima Lima. He had filed the flight plan, and he was the one rapidly scratching down instructions from Chicago Ground on his kneeboard moments earlier. “It’s one of the only airports where I still use paper.”
Though I am in the left seat, it’s clearly at the benevolence of Chris Guare.
I feel a surge of adrenaline as I pull on to Mike Mike and pick up speed while taxiing. How am I here today? I have exactly 110 hours under my belt, simultaneously pursuing a Private Pilot license and an Instrument Rating – both of which are in sight, but I’m still a student pilot.
I had always wanted to fly but I could never justify it. That had changed 18 months earlier when it became clear that Ashland, Oregon would be the best place for my daughter to attend high school. With that decision, my “regular” commute to the Bay Area (where my business is located) would morph from four to six hours instantly.
Determined not to miss the key moments in my daughter’s high school years, I knew I had to jump in with both feet. I drove straight to Gnoss Field [KDVO] in Novato at the end of one such trek south from Ashland. It didn’t take me long to determine that Cirrus was making planes that were designed for the kind of flying that I wanted and needed to do.
In a stroke of luck, the third person I met at Gnoss Field was Patrick Scanlon of Scanlon Aviation. An incredible CFI, Pat heads up a Cirrus training program with an Avidyne Perspective-equipped SR20. My training – extended due to a broken knee – had been one of the more rigorous things I had experienced since undergrad.
Just in time, Chicago Ground came back through on Com two: "Cirrus One Papa Papa, cleared to cross Three Two, left on Hotel Two, across the pad to Alpha Bridge, left Alpha Two One then follow Bravo all the way around to Juliet, left on Juliet One and await further instructions."
I'm now out in front of Chris's finger (“There's Hotel Two. Left. Looking for Alpha Bridge.”) as he furiously scratches down the taxi instructions.
“What’s Alpha Bridge?”
"You get the full tour today." There's a grin in Chris’s voice. As I cross 32R and round the corner he continues, "Alpha Bridge is used for most of the departures at O'Hare."
I can't believe I'm taxiing over I-94. Our instructions take us between two of O’Hare’s huge Concourses (B and C). Now everything towers above us. We taxi past lines of 747s and 777s, all prepping for long-haul flights, docked at the terminal I was standing in just 45 minutes earlier.
Six months earlier, I had started looking in earnest at purchasing a plane. After exploring lots of options, it became clear that my travel needs (offices in Sausalito, California and Ashland, Oregon and many business flights up and down the West Coast) dictated that I should consider a business purchase as opposed to fractional ownership.
After running the numbers, re-running the numbers, then running them again, I took the plunge and settled on a 2012 naturally aspirated SR22 from Cirrus. Buying a plane is a strange thing. You take a demo flight. You look at a lot of pictures. You have a bunch of conversations about everything under the sun, then you take a deep breath and sign up for something you’ve never seen or touched because it hasn’t been built yet.
I happily opted to have Cirrus put the plane into their demo program which allows them to show off their latest and greatest to perspective buyers. They offer some great incentives with the program, coupled with the fact that the plane is broken in by the company that built it. That’s how it ended up in Chicago with Chris Guare.
In an email along the way, Chris said something like, “Seriously, call me ANY time you’re coming through town. I’ll meet you wherever you are and we’ll go up for a flight.”
I took him up on it. On a perfect day in late March, I was routing from the East Coast through O’Hare. A day before, I delayed my return to SFO, emailed Chris and was greeted by the most enthusiastic response I could have imagined. I offered to catch a taxi to Chicago Executive [KPWK] but instead Chris insisted, “I’ll just meet you at O’Hare.”
I wondered what that meant. How does one just “meet at O’Hare”?
I follow instructions and text Chris when I land. He dispatches a shuttle from Signature Air. On the way, I attempt to get the lay of the land and discover that Signature is based on the far north side of O'Hare.
Thinking it might be set up in a fashion similar to Oakland, I ask the driver if there are separate runways for General Aviation. "Yeah, it's like we're in a different world out here on the north side." I feel myself relax a bit, thinking that at least ground operations will be separated from all of the major commercial flights heading to all parts of the world.
Fifteen minutes later I am standing in the lobby of Signature Air with Chris, a really warm and friendly person with a decidedly Midwestern accent. Turns out that Chris had been a corporate and commercial pilot for many years, flying business jets around the country. He’s new to Cirrus and is helping develop sales in the Chicago area.
As we speak, Chris can’t help but notice me craning my neck to see around the corner where my plane is sitting on the ramp. “You haven’t seen her?!” He almost jumps up and down, "Let's stop talking! You need to see your beautiful bird!!"
I feel a grin coming on from the moment the doors swung open and I am hit by the oddly muggy March Chicago air.
He is right. She is beautiful.
Somewhere down Bravo, we pass an Airbus 320 that must be 20 feet taller than us. "He's in the penalty box." "What's the penalty box?" I laugh as we taxi past and Chris explains that it’s where planes without gates have to hang out. We must be four to five miles away from our starting point by now. I can see the signs for runway One Four Right. Apparently the shuttle driver didn't know that they use the same airport. Probably a good thing, I think. Just keep going with it...
I have to slow up a bit to let a Bombardier CJ200 regional jet (like the one I flew in two days earlier) pass in front of me. Does anyone out here care that we're in a plane that could easily become lost beneath the A320 that we just passed?
Suddenly I hear Chicago Ground crackle through on Com one. We're being passed over to the Tower. Chris calls in as I hold short of 14R as instructed. We get our clearance. Chris’s commercial pilot voice kicks in (he sounds an octave lower), "Cirrus One Papa Papa, cleared for takeoff One Four Right, climb to 5,000 at One Six Zero."
My heart rate spikes as I realize I’m on. I hear my instructor’s voice in my head, reminding me to focus on my take-off flow. Fuel pump: on. Fullest tank: yes. Mixture: full rich. Flaps: 50 percent. Landing light: on. Within moments, I'm rolling along at 70 plus knots, a couple thousand feet down a very long and very wide strip of concrete. I pull back slowly on the sidestick to ease the front wheel off and… we’re lifting up, swiftly leaving Chicago O'Hare, the Penalty Box and all of my concerns about being able to do this, below.
We head west to DuBuque, Iowa [KDBQ] on an IFR flight plan. It’s a non-stop "check this out" tour with Chris showing me as many things as he can cram into our 100 plus mile flight. There’s a lot to check out. With a slight tailwind, we’re there in 30 minutes. What an incredible machine.
We immediately turn around and fly back to DuPage, Illinois [KDPA]] for an iced tea, then jump back in to the plane and hustle to get me back to O'Hare. Life speeds up when only 16 miles of airspace stands between you and a major airport. Again on an IFR flight plan, Chicago Approach vectors us toward runway 22R. We’re cleared for the visual.
As I listen to Approach, I realize that we are number two behind the 757 that is six miles off our nose. The phrase, "caution, wake turbulence" takes on a whole new meaning when you’re in a 3,000 pound plane behind a 100-ton airliner.
Everything that I’ve read about wake turbulence flashes before me as we line up on the glideslope on Final. Chris reminds me of what I had only previously learned in books – that we need to land upwind of the touchdown point for the bigger plane. I come in at 170 knots until we’re a few miles out, then begin the process of slowing to 119 knots Indicated. I bring in the first notch of flaps, then follow with the second notch at 100. We float in ground effect two, three, 400 feet past the 757’s touchdown point and.... glide it on for the sweetest landing of the day.
What a rush! I couldn't have planned a day like this if I had scripted it. Nothing like having an incredibly capable plane, complete with an incredibly capable pilot sitting next to you, to make it possible.
Down the road, I aspire to be able to fly in and out of the O’Hares of the world on my own. For today though, on a 777 on the way back to San Francisco, I pinch myself and ask, “Did that really just happen?”