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My first trip to the world's busiest airport... in a small propeller plane

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In June 1995, I was a flight instructor at the Ben Epps Airport (KAHN) in Athens, Ga. I had just graduated from the University of Georgia and was about to leave my part-time job flight instructing for a job in the claims department of the now defunct Fortune Insurance Company in Jacksonville, Fla.

Even though airline hiring was going on at the time, I hadn’t really thought about an airline career. The mid-1990s were at the height of the pay-for-training years in which airlines would hire pilots as long as the pilots agreed to pay for their own initial simulator training. This could cost tens of thousands of dollars and, with several student loans already, I didn’t want to add to my debt load.

As I got ready to depart Athens for a new insurance career, Ken, one of my star students, was trying to meet the requirements for a commercial license. Ken was professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia and had been bitten by the flying bug. He had already earned his private license, his instrument rating, and now had his sights set on becoming a commercial pilot.

About this time, one of the flying magazines ran an article about a general aviation pilot who had been flying around Atlanta at night and, on a lark, asked the approach controller for touch and go landings at Hartsfield International (KATL). To most people, Hartsfield is THE Atlanta airport. It is the hub and headquarters of Delta Air Lines and, until its merger with Southwest is complete, Airtran. According to CNN, ATL is the busiest passenger airport in the world with more than 95 million passengers passing through its terminals in 2012. The airport’s website reports that there are almost 2,500 departures and arrivals each day.

Ken read the article about the touch and goes at the world’s busiest airport and hatched an idea. He wanted to make a cross-country trip from Athens to Hartsfield. Even though he was a licensed pilot, Ken did not feel comfortable making the trip by himself so he asked me to join him. Flying the trip under instrument flight rules would make it easier to get in and out of Hartsfield, we hoped. Pilots must have a clearance to enter the busy Class B airspace around Atlanta and it comes automatically when you fly IFR. As an added bonus, Ken could log the trip as a cross-country flight to meet commercial pilot license requirements.

On the day of the trip, June 26, 1995, we rented a Piper Warrior from Sonny’s Air Service, the small flight school at the Athens airport where I worked. The low-wing single-engine airplane seated four and was the fastest rental plane in Sonny’s fleet. Ken flew while I sat in the right seat, my usual perch while instructing. We also brought along Brooks, one of my friends who wasn’t a pilot but who loved airplanes and flying.

After almost 20 years the details of the trip are a little hazy in my memory. I remember the controller (who probably wasn’t very pleased to have us disrupting the flow of his traffic) making us do 360 degree turns while we waited for a gap in the never-ending line of airline jets approaching for landing. We finally found a gap between Delta and ValueJet, the forerunner of AirTran, and made our landing on runway 9 right, up to that point in my flying career, was the largest piece of pavement I had ever seen. We made the approach and landing at about 120 knots, about as fast as a Warrior can fly and about as slow as an airliner can fly.

I remember taxiing to the FBO (fixed base operator), the terminal for private airplanes on the north side of Hartsfield. Ken paid the landing fee which was about $25 for our Warrior as I recall. We explored the FBO and filled our tanks with free cookies in the pilot lounge.

When we got ready to leave, we started the engine and got our clearance. The ground controller, rather than having us taxi to the end of the nearest runway, directed us to a runway intersection directly in front of the FBO on taxiway “Dixie.” (Normally taxiways are named for letters of the phonetic alphabet. In Atlanta, where Delta Air Lines is based, taxiway “Delta” is renamed taxiway “Dixie” to avoid confusion.) I had always been taught to never accept an intersection takeoff and had given my students the same advice. In this case, however, the runway in front of us was 9,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. The Piper could almost take off going across it. A glance at the airport chart showed that we had approximately 5,000 feet remaining from the intersection, nearly a mile and about as long as the runway at Athens. Judging that to be a sufficient distance, we accepted the takeoff clearance and were soon on our way.

The trip back to Athens was uneventful. We returned home, our exploratory mission successful, and now had the bragging rights that came from flying into Hartsfield and mixing with the kerosene burners who props were invisible inside their jet engine nacelles. The entire round trip had taken just under two hours.

Soon after that trip, I left Athens to start work at an insurance company. Office work didn’t take, however. I never quit flying and a few years later I went back to full-time instructing, this time in Florida at the FlightSafety Academy. A few years after that, I returned to Hartsfield, this time as the First Officer of a Delta Connection Canadair Regional Jet. Since then I have returned there flying corporate jets back to the same FBO (although it is now under new management). My current job has taken me back to Hartsfield as a simulator instructor.

Ken’s love of flying eventually led him to become a Certified Flight Instructor in addition to his teaching duties at the University. While Brooks never became a pilot, he fulfilled his love of aviation through building and flying remote control airplanes.

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