The Night I Owned Dulles

I’ve never heard this clearance anytime before or since: “You are cleared to do anything you want, on any runway you want, for as long as you want.”

Washington Dulles International Airport opened in 1962 and serves over a million passengers per month today. But it wasn't always that way. For the first couple of decades of its existence, Dulles was a virtual ghost town when compared to other major airports in the country.

I clearly remember the time in the mid-1960s when we met my grandfather there after his flight from Texas. The terminal seemed deserted in the middle of the day. Except for the passengers coming in on that plane, and the people meeting them, the only other people there were airport employees.

In the late 1970s, when I was first starting to fly, light airplanes were welcome at the airport. That's certainly changed. Today a light airplane is somewhat of a nuisance to the controllers, as they have to try to fit them in to the flow of the faster jet traffic. But back then, they were struggling to build their traffic count -- the number that justifies their existence. Pilots would come to Dulles to shoot practice ILS approaches or just do touch-and-go's. Once, in the middle of a nice sunny day, I was flying a closed traffic pattern to Runway 1R, turning base and downwind right over the control tower. Every time I touched down was another tick on their count.

Perhaps the best memory I have of Dulles was the night I had the airport all to myself. It was the summer of 1980 and I was just three years out of college and working a nine-to-five job. One Friday night, I was having trouble falling asleep. Around 3 a.m., after tossing and turning for hours, I decided that this would be a perfect time to go flying.

At the time, I belonged to a flying club that had planes based at Dulles. The planes were parked in an area of the airport called "Southeast Parking," located about where Terminal A is today. Normally, I'd have to schedule a plane to fly, but I figured that if I found a plane on the ramp at three in the morning, it was a pretty safe bet that no one else had it scheduled.

The plane I picked was a Grumman Tiger, N74026. After completing my preflight walk-around inspection on the dark ramp, I contacted Ground Control for clearance to taxi. Because it was the middle of the night, one controller handled all of the frequencies — Approach, Tower and Ground. I told him that I just wanted to do some pattern work, meaning I wanted to make some landings. He cleared me to taxi to Runway 19L, then gave me a clearance I've never heard anytime before or since that night:

"You are cleared to do anything you want, on any runway you want, for as long as you want, until further notice."

Wow! I felt like I had been handed the keys to the candy store. I flew around that airport for the next hour, doing touch-and-go's, low approaches and stop-and-go landings to every runway they had. The winds were calm, so I could land on 1R and then climb out, make two left turns and land again on 19R.

For half an hour, there was not another plane to be seen. Then the controller asked me to confine myself to the east runway (1R/19L) because an Air Florida 737 was on a 20-mile final for 1L. (I have no idea what they were doing showing up at that late hour.)

Once Air Florida had landed, I was turned loose again with the same unrestricted clearance. Once I had my fill of yanking and banking the plane, I landed and taxied back to parking. On the taxi in, the controller got chatty and invited me up to the tower to have a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise. I took him up on that, then headed home.

My logbook entry for July 12, 1980, contains this remark: "3 am. Only plane @IAD. Touch and go's. Visited tower."

Oh, and my plan worked. After all this, I finally did get sleepy on the drive home.