2015 Air Direct Poker Run

My local flight school, Air Direct Airways, has been running a Poker Run event for the past few years. I wrote about this event once before, 2012 Poker Run. This year Abby and I did the poker run with our friends Nathan and Allie. I bought in a $25 hand for each person. The proceeds of this event go to Homes for our Troops which is a charity that builds specially adapted homes for disabled veterans. This year as in the past few years the Poker Run has been to NH airports Keene (EEN), Concord (CON), Laconia (LCI), Rochester (DAW), and Biddeford, Maine (B19).


Nashua-Keene-Concord-Laconia-Biddeford-Nashua. Click for huge.

We got started around 10AM and went to KEEN first. The last time I fueled up (in Turners Falls) I almost filled the tanks. We hadn’t originally planned to take on extra passengers for the poker run so I didn’t consider limiting the fuel load. Fortunately, Nate and Allie plus the very limited baggage and 50 gallons of fuel I measured when I arrived at the airport put us 50 pounds under gross. No need to drain fuel, thankfully. We would probably burn about 200 pounds of fuel during the poker run, with an hour and a half remaining. The shorter runways of Biddeford and Rochester would be towards the end of the trip, and the weather was sufficiently cool that a gross weight takeoff would not be a problem on any of the runways.

Winds were relatively light with runway 14 in use at Nashua. The visibility was good for June with some haze and fair weather cumulus. For this trip of lots of small hops the highest we would get was 3000 feet MSL, VFR flying down low. Approaching the ridge line flying across the NH 101 gap we could see an airplane doing aerobatics far off to the left. Soon we weaved right to pass around Mt. Monadnock and descended. Several airplanes were joining the pattern and departing. The winds were calm and we overflew the field and entered a downwind for runway 02 which is the designated calm wind runway.

I landed long and then taxied under power to the end of the runway turning left at the end onto the taxiway that goes right to the FBO. Somehow Keene was momentarily quiet and nobody else was there from the Poker Run. We picked our cards and then headed back out. After climbing straight out to get above the terrain around Keene we turned right towards Concord cruising at 3000 feet. This time Allie was in the right seat up front and she tried a bit of straight and level flying. One of the cool things about doing the poker run with four people is that with lots of stops you can mix up who sits up front.

Approaching Concord there was a banner tow aircraft departing which actually turned out to be Air Direct’s Citabria. They were clear of the area by the time we arrived. We followed another aircraft into a downwind for runway 35. With yet another airplane following behind me I turned left at the first taxiway and we headed over to the FBO. Here we ran into Dave, an instructor from Air Direct, and some students in one of their rental 172s.

The next leg was a quick one, just 23 nautical miles to Laconia. We flew at 2,500 feet with Nathan in the right seat. This is less than 15 minutes of flying even counting time to climb and maneuver to land. Once arriving in the vicinity of Laconia runway 08 was in use (approaching from the west). There was the Air Direct banner tow aircraft again flying low and slow away from the airport, no factor. There was also a Falcon business jet approaching calling a 16 mile final. That’s a long way out but the jet is going fast. To maneuver into a downwind for runway 08 I needed to overfly the field and I did this about 1500 feet about the airport (500 feet above normal pattern altitude). I gave position reports back to the Falcon jet as they approached the airport and let them know I had them in sight. We passed over the airport as they were a few miles off the left wing. My only concern was that this was a poor position to be in if the jet initiated a go-around. But, there was mutual visual contact with the traffic at all times and if they performed a low altitude go-around I would be sufficiently north of the airport and maneuvering onto the downwind by that point.

As I turned left to enter the downwind we had a nice view of the Falcon jet’s final approach and I flew a somewhat extended downwind to ensure any wake vortices were dissipated before turning base and then final. I turned off the runway at the first taxiway and encountered the jet which was turning right to enter the overflow parking area. The FBO had previously informed some folks over the radio to go to the overflow parking area for the poker run and they would bring the cards. The overflow parking area was quite busy with the arriving Falcon jet and another larger business jet preparing to depart. We parked next to a Piper Commanche that had a very nice dog that Allie immediately became friends with.

We picked more cards and marked off our sheets. Another nice thing about having four people was having four hands, and some of us were actually getting some reasonable combinations. We also ran into Dave again, plus another Air Direct rental aircraft 42G, and another familiar looking Cessna Skyhawk from Nashua.

We departed for Biddeford behind another charter light jet that had dropped people off in Laconia. The climb out is a gorgeous view over Lake Winnepesauke and soon we leveled off at 2,500 feet. We passed to the right and a bit under the familiar looking green Skyhawk as we began descending towards Biddeford. There was banner activity here and this banner tow aircraft was picking up and dropping off banners in the grass next to the airport.

I was first in the conga line of three airplanes that were approaching the airport and I flew a tight visual pattern for runway 6 which is much shorter at 3000 feet. Still, this is easily do-able. I landed with full flaps and turned left at the midfield taxiway. We picked our cards and relaxed for a bit while 42G, Dave, the green Skyhawk, the Commanche with the friendly dog, and a Cherokee showed up. Lots of airplanes were doing the poker run!

When we were ready to go the banner airplane was still flying and we got to see them drop off one banner and pick up the next as we were walking over to the airplane. They made a low approach to runway 6, dropped the first banner, departed, looped around and made a diving low approach for 24 (the opposite direction). There is a banner hook trailing the aircraft and once it hooked the banner the plane climbs VERY steeply in a zoom climb “peeling” the banner up off the grass (you don’t want to drag it). Once the banner is lifted up the nose is pushed down to climb at best angle. It was very cool to see this up close, right in front of us!

We back-taxied in the fortunate lull in arrivals and then took off on runway 6 (there is no parallel taxiway at Biddeford). The shorter runway was no issue and after climbing out we turned left towards Rochester “Skyhaven” airport. The green Skyhawk had departed Biddeford before us and they were entering their downwind for runway 15 as I slowed to follow them.

The green Skyhawk touched down shortly after I turned final. One quirky thing about Rochester airport is that if you land on runway 15 your taxiway options are either 1000 feet from the threshold (that’s a short landing or a back taxi) or to roll all the way down to the end (4200 feet). Watching the Skyhawk roll out it looked like they were keeping some speed up to roll down to the end but then slowed and began to back taxi, announcing on the radio. At this point I was still at more than 500 feet above ground so it was an easy decision to go around and make the approach again. Fortunately no other airplanes had arrived in the meantime and I flew the pattern and landed with full flaps. I gave myself a bit of a workout and turned right at the first taxiway without back taxiing. The pilot from the Skyhawk was inside getting his cards and was very apologetic about making me go-around. No big deal, a go around from that altitude is a non-issue and good practice too.

Others were arriving as we left and we watched as we climbed away from Rochester on course to Nashua followed by another airplane. I called up Boston Approach to transit the Class C airspace above Manchester airport at 3000 feet. They had us fly a heading for a bit for Cessna Caravan traffic departing Manchester which we soon spotted. Runway 14 was still in use at Nashua. Unlike all of the other airports we visited today Nashua is towered. That’s another thing the poker run is good practice for: uncontrolled field ops. It’s an area I’m less experienced in since I trained at and do a lot of flying at a towered field.

After pushing the plane back we enjoyed hamburgers and hotdogs, and ice cream provided by Midfield Cafe. One by one the green Skyhawk, the Commanche with the friendly dog, the two Air Direct rental airplanes arrived in. We also got to watch as aerobatic pilot Rob Holland flew overhead in formation with an amhib float plan, and a Piper cub. They broke off the formation one by one and landed. It was really cool.

Apparently bringing four people along is also good luck (perhaps just probability math). Once all the hands were back at 3PM they were totaled up. Unlike every Poker Run we’ve ever done we actually won something! This was thanks to Allie’s hand, although we got to keep the prize since I bought in all the hands. We won a gift certificate to Midfield Cafe which will buy a bunch of delicious pre-flying breakfasts.

2.9 hours flying total, 6 landings, great VFR flying! The poker run is great fun and also exercises lots of piloting skills. Each of the 6 airports in the poker run have different runway lengths, widths, and directions and different terrain around them. Winds are different each year. This year one of the areas of gaining experience is lots of takeoffs and landings near gross weight. I haven’t made that many heavy weight landings in the Cardinal since it’s rare to fly with all four seats filled. Recently including my trip to Baltimore I have flown closer to gross weight but this is still rare. In this case some of these were full flap landings on shorter runways. As always, the poker run is a great experience builder.