Friday, November 30, 2007

Homeward Bound-- Part 4 of the Long Journey

I realize that it probably seems like I've spent a lot of posts talking about one trip. But we learned so much on each leg, that it felt right to devote a post to each leg. So we've finally made it to the trip home (though I have another post started about a side trip that Husband took with one of his brothers while we were in Nashville... but I'll save that for another time).

We had planned to depart on Sunday-- but were keeping an eye on the weather, knowing that we might need to leave early to make it back. Saturday, we double-checked the weather and decided that though the forecast showed clouds, it looked reasonable for getting home. By Saturday night, though, the forecast had worsened. We decided that our best chance to get out of Nashville and back home was to leave as soon as it was light on Sunday. So we set the alarm for 5:45, warned B that we'd be waking him early to take us to the airport, and went to bed. Husband woke up Sunday morning and checked the forecast. The 6am forecast (put out around 20 minutes before 6) showed that contrary to prior forecasts, the clouds would be at a nice high height of 8000 feet for the whole morning. After a quick (and admittedly sleepy) conversation, we decided to sleep another hour and then get up and go.

Of course, delaying our departure by an hour meant that the family was up and about before we left... so it was really delaying the departure for two hours. Just before we left, Husband checked the weather again. Oh no! Soon after we checked the 6am, forecast, they issued a special (codeword: speci) forecast. This new forecast showed the ceiling was dropping by the minute! We started going double time to get packed up and out of there.

By then time we were ready to go, almost everyone decided to join us at the airport for a sendoff (that was really nice!). So we bundled up G and H, B's two kids who are 4 and 2, and Husband's mom, S, and B, and headed for the airport. The fun part of this is that we got to drive one of the cars out onto the field to load the plane. I know that sounds silly, but it was still cool! :)

We got a little more fuel, did a preflight, and took a few pictures of the gang with the plane (I'll publish them as soon as I get them off the camera!). One more look at the forecast seemed to be in order. We didn't like what we saw, but decided to give it a try. We looked at the minimum safe altitudes in the area and decided that if we were able to get up over around 2000 feet, we'd continue. If we couldn't make it to 2000, we'd turn around and land again. After hurried goodbyes, we got in and taxied out to the runway for departure, with me flying and Husband in the right seat. As we roared down the runway (can a Cessna roar?!), Husband waved to the family watching us. We were off... but not for long. We knew that there were towers not too far off the end of the runway, so were prepared to turn a bit early to stay well clear. We made the turn to the East, and just seconds later-- at around 1700 feet, ran straight into a layer of clouds. We were both a little surprised-- we'd had brushes with clouds on the trip down, but had always had a bit of warning beforehand. This time, there was no warning. I think the difference was that the clouds on the other day were puffy cumulus types. The clouds on this day were stratus- thick layers of clouds. After a moment of breathlessness, I had the plane in a turn and descending back to pattern altitude. But I was pretty worried because I knew from studying the chart-- and looking at the screen in front of us, that there were some other towers I needed to avoid. Unfortunately, on the other side was a TFR that I needed to avoid. So I told Husband to keep an eye on those towers-- both on the map and on the screen, and let me know if I started to come anywhere near them.

After a minute, we were clear of the clouds, the towers, and headed back to the now familiar JWN pattern for runway 02. We landed without incident and as we taxied off the runway, Husband's phone began to vibrate. His brother was calling to see what was happening-- they had all watched us and saw that we had quickly entered a cloud. We reassured him that we were ok, and that we were going to go take another look at the weather and decide what to do.

Looking at the weather and the charts, it was pretty clear that weather north of Nashville was reasonable for VFR flight, but weather south, east, and west was not. So we knew our only chance was if we could get north. The question was whether or not to try for it. Husband started calling AWOS for various airports to see if we could get more accurate information for what was happening. I headed out to talk to some pilots who had just landed to see if they had information on conditions north of the field. They had actually just flown in (IFR) from West Virginia-- pretty much exactly the route we wanted to go. They confirmed that if we could make it out of the immediate area, conditions were much better elsewhere. We also determined that the weather was likely to deteriorate throughout the day, so it was basically now or "never". Talk about pressure!

Here's where the fun begins. We had to decide what to do-- take off again and take another chance on the clouds? Or hang it up and wait for better weather? Or find another way home-- which likely meant leaving the plane, the dog, or both in Nashville. What would you do?

At first, I said no. This is the sort of thing that gets pilots killed. Husband was willing to acquiesce and leave it at that. But we decided to think about things with the idea being that we should not go-- which meant that instead of thinking of why we shouldn't, we were thinking about why we should. What we decided is that:
  1. we could change our path and head straight north instead of going east first
  2. we could airport hop-- fly from airport to airport as opposed to a straight line. This approach would give us more options in case weather was worse than anticipated, and would encourage us to make the smart decision in case the weather was worse (hey! the airport's right there!)
  3. we reevaluated the minimum safe altitude, and realized that with the exception of the one group of towers that we could see from the airport, the msa was actually much lower-- around 1600 feet... meaning we could fly a little lower and still be safe.

With all of these things in mind, we decided to give it another shot. As we walked back out on the ramp, we also realized that it was much brighter outside than before and that the clouds seemed a little higher and more promising. We talked briefly about switching up our pilot flying/pilot not flying, but decided that it was working pretty well and stuck with that arrangement. So we climbed back in and headed out for try number two.

This time, we had success. We kept a very close eye on the altitude-- Husband calling out towers and constantly tuning different AWOS and ATIS frequencies so we could get an idea of weather. We did about 3 zigzags back and forth (over different airports), and finally felt like we were out of the worst of it about 30-40 minutes after departure. Clouds were still a little low, but we were consistently able to stay several hundred feet over minimum altitude and around 500 feet below the clouds. Of course, just as we started to get comfortable with our situation, I started to get uncomfortable with human factors! I had to go! Luckily, Husband was very nice about all of this, and we prepared to land at the next closest airport, 6I2. We landed no problem (I was worried my human factor need might disrupt my concentration!) and taxied over to the fuel pumps. No sense landing without getting fuel! After a quick stop to fuel, grab some snacks, and take care of the human factors... we were on our way again. This is how a quick stop is supposed to work!

As we took off this time, we found that we were able to get much higher. Going a little at a time (I was still concerned about ending up in clouds), we made it up to 5500 feet. I can't tell you how good that felt! We picked flight following as we bypassed the Lexington airspace. Now that the weather had cleared and we were headed home with a 24 knot tailwind (drastic change from the trip out!), things were good-- and I remembered something. I love flying!

We only had two other obstacles to maneuver. The route we had picked to travel home meant that we would cross the mountains at the end of the trip, more or less going straight across them West to East. When we approached the mountains, we could see a lower layer of clouds developing over them. At the same time, we wanted to climb a bit to get above the highest peaks. So, we started to pick our way through-- which confused ATC a bit as it meant we deviated slightly from our course. After we told them that we were "deviating to avoid the mountains and the clouds", they were happy and just told us to let them know when we had decided on an altitude and a course.

After zigzagging around the mountains a bit (boy, is that terrain avoidance handy!), we saw what looked to be a break in the clouds ahead of us. I pointed the plane towards the break hoping it would be big enough to get through. After making it this far, I didn't want to have to turn around! We sailed past big puffy clouds, deceiving in their beauty, and thankfully far enough away to still be safe and legal. The mountains were just below us. Husband kept asking if we were far enough above. They were deceiving in their scale: they looked close enough to touch... until you looked at the houses and cars and realized that actually we were well above them. As the mountains started to get smaller below us, we breathed a sigh of relief. We made it past!

Now, we had to figure out the second piece... we hadn't filed a flight plan back into JYO because we had thought we'd need to stop again... but looking at the fuel gauge, we would reach JYO just after we entered our hour of reserve. Knowing that we were flying back into familiar territory with good weather, we felt fine with this... so we pressed on. We thought about asking the controller to help us file one, but decided she sounded busy, and since we were back in our stomping ground, Husband cancelled flight following and filed a flight plan with Leesburg FSS (Leesburg Radio). He also agreed that it was fine to turn off the autopilot and hand fly the rest of the trip. We had decided that flying over mountains and with crazy weather conditions was safer with the autopilot keeping us straight and level and on-course. All of our maneuvering was done by putting the autopilot in heading mode and adjusting our heading to get us around.

In any case, we made it back to JYO, safe and sound, after only a little over 4 hours in the air... and that was with our non-direct route. What a difference winds make! It felt so good to know that we had made this long trip-- all on our own. It also made us realize we really need to get our acts together and get our IFR ratings so that we have more options. And it made us want a faster plane in the future!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Joyriding with the Brothers

After our adventures, it was nice to walk into the warm familiarity of my mother-in-law's (S) house. I usually spend a lot of time cooking while I'm there-- partly because I'm really into cooking, partly because it's my established role, and partly because it's something to give structure and pass the time. It's been somehow easier to get to know each new sister-in-law (there are two others, now) if I have a spoon or a whisk in my hand. And early on, I started the tradition of providing tasty things to Husband's brothers to win them over. But this trip, I had something even better! A nice new-ish plane and a nice new-ish pilot's license!

So, to break up the days this trip, instead of the usual home improvement project that the brothers undertake for S, we decided to take a few trips out to the airfield. Friday was cloudy in the morning, but by the time we got underway, the clouds had started to lift enough for us to go give it a try. All four of us-- B, J, Husband and I went out to the airport, even though we knew only three of us would fly. I offered to let Husband go, but he thought they would be quite pleased if I took them.

The first challenge at the airport was getting fuel. The line guy had told us that self serve was $.80 less per gallon... which makes a big difference when you're buying 30 gallons or so! But this was our first experience with self serve. We talked about using the self serve when we flew to Bay Bridge-- until we found out that self serve there is $.25 MORE than full service. We managed to get the plane in the right spot, and get the ground placed correctly, and even figured out the trick to getting the fuel flow to start. It was pretty cool!

After fueling up, B, J, and I climbed back in and taxied out for departure. We put in a sort of zig-zag route into the GPS-- just so that we would have some sort of plan to follow... but really, we were just flying east, avoiding the TFR and the Charlie shelves... After takeoff, I extended out a ways to avoid these crazy tall towers (one of them was close to 2000 feet tall!) before turning right back towards our course. That took us right over Old Hickory Lake. This is one of the few times I've ever flown without a plan. Usually, we fly to go somewhere-- even if it's just to go check out another airport, or get lunch at some bad airport cafe. But there's almost always a real purpose to the flight-- even if we had to invent it ourselves. This was different. Though we had picked out an airport where we could land (ostensibly so B and J could switch seats), this was more just flying for the fun of it. So we sort of meandered along at about 1500 feet off the ground. We flew over the neighborhood where J's wife's parents live. And we flew over B & J's old boy scout camp. We went and looked at some sailboats, and B & J had me fly over a certain spot so they could see the "Crab"-- I'm still not sure what it was, but apparently it's some building that is built with all sorts of funny angles. After a little while, we decided to head back to the airport. I couldn't tell at that point if they were enjoying the experience-- they were both very quiet through all of this, but they both later affirmed that they had a great time.

The return to JWN was the most exciting part of the trip! JWN is right on the tip of BNA's airspace... and since we had been flying along the outside of the airspace, I figured we'd continue that arc and then turn back to make a 45 entry to the pattern for landing on 02. This was going reasonably well until a plane took off just as we were cross the extended centerline of the runway. Still shouldn't have been a problem-- if that plane had bothered to make any consistent calls or follow the proper pattern procedures. But no, that plane was an aerobatic plane (we assume, anyway), and it proceeded to make very sudden sharp turns in all directions-- including straight up-- all within 2 miles of the airport! Luckily, B and J were quite good at spotting traffic, and helped me keep tabs on the guy... but it was crazy! Every time I'd get established, he'd all of a sudden turn toward me, or cross my path, or something. The traffic warning was freaking out by this point-- trying to keep up with all the changes. And it was clear that this other plane was a lot faster than mine, too. Thankfully, we finally shook that plane (after calling out our position every 30 seconds or so- we had NO idea if he saw us!). There was another plane in the pattern as well-- that had come from the opposite direction. After a slight moment of panic when I thought we were on a 2 mile 45, but there was no runway in front of me, I readjusted my mental map to the right and entered a left downwind and managed to fly a nice pattern and land.

I was worried B and J might think I was a bad pilot because of all the craziness with the other guy. But I needn't have been-- the first thing they told Husband when he walked up was about this crazy aerobatics guy that was doing loops around our plane! Maybe a little embellishment, but hey, isn't that flying (fish) tales are all about?! :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

One Night in Somerset-- Part 3 of the Long Journey

After checking in and getting Flyer (the dog) settled in the room, we ignored the "Do Not Leave Pets Alone in Room" sign and headed across the street to the Somerset Mall for some food. We were both starving after a long morning of frantically packing, checking the weather, getting to the airport and in the plane, and a stressful flight due to the weather uncertainty. I can't imagine what it would have been like to have tried this trip without the G1000. In fact, I felt a little silly for causing such a production and delaying for weather when the sky still looked okay, and there was just a little wind. I kept telling myself to trust the data we were getting from the points ahead of us on the journey, and that it was better to be on the ground, wishing to be in the air than to be in the air, wishing to be on the ground.

We had an *interesting* meal at the Somerset Tumbleweed Inn and thought about exploring the mall, but just as we left the restaurant, the rain came tumbling down. I have to admit feeling a little vindicated. Husband caught the look in my eyes and called me on it. We laughed, wondering if the kid who had brought us over the hotel was now thinking, "Oh.... That's the storm they were talking about!" After the rain came, we felt pretty at peace with our decision to hole up for the night, and made the best of it. We had both prepared for this sort of contingency and pulled out our laptops to get some work done. We even indulged and ordered pizza from Papa Johns for dinner. Hard to believe how quickly pizza comes when you're in a small town-- and it's the night before Thanksgiving.

After a good night sleep, a little workout on the hotel's treadmill, and a quick breakfast, we jumped in a taxi to head back over the airport. We had continued to monitor the weather through the night, assessing and reassessing our decision to land and overnight. So we thought everything was looking good for a 10am departure (we had waited to give the fog time to lift). On the drive to the airport, we talked to the taxi driver about the town. Apparently it's some sort of tourist town because of a nearby lake. We both lifted our eyebrows at that-- but didn't say anything (it looked like any other southern town to us!).

We climbed out of the taxi at the airport, and the sky did not seem to match our expectations. After preflighting, we were thankful to leave Flyer in the plane and go inside the warm FBO to figure out our options. Luckily, the FBO opened for a Gulfstream that had just come in, otherwise, we would have been sitting outside in the cold! For anyone looking for a quick fuel stop, I can highly recommend SME! They were so friendly, had a nice place to sit, decent computer access, and even had snacks out for us. At one point, they even offered to let us borrow the crew car to drive down to Nashville. We decided to wait and watch for a gap in the clouds that would let us out.

Watching the clouds rolls through and looking for a large enough opening reminded me a bit of being a little girl and trying to get the rhythm of the jump rope down so I could join a game of double dutch. While we waited for our 'jump rope game' to start, we wandered around looking at the airport. It was a nice little airport-- though they were chock-a-block with visiting planes. Another Gulfstream had landed the evening before-- and was still sitting there on the apron. Apparently the taxiway for the airport had recently been moved (perhaps to allow for an extension of a runway? or to provide more space for the airplane mechanic school based there?)-- and this had reduced the apron to the point that the staff weren't quite sure how they were going to turn the Gulfstreams around for departure. We ended up not seeing what they did-- fairly soon after the Gulfstream started its engines, we saw the opening we wanted, and made a dash for it, again with me flying and Husband navigating.

It was nice to be in the air again. We had to stay pretty low because of the clouds-- especially for the first few minutes. But we mainly stayed 100-200 feet above the VFR minimum safe altitude-- so we felt pretty good. Visibility (when we weren't in a cloud!) was pretty good-- and we could mostly see where the clouds were and appropriately ascend or descend as needed, so we only nicked a cloud once or twice. Departing the SME area, we flew right over the lakes the taxi driver mentioned. They were pretty cool! But it was a little alarming to fly so low over a body of water, especially when it seemed to be completely surrounded by state forest-- not a single good landing site around! We talked about what we would do if the engine quit on us right then. We both thought that trying to land in the treetops offered a better chance of survival than ditching in the lake, though maybe that had something to do with how cold we were right then!

Though it was a little strange to go so far 1500 feet above the ground, it was also kind of refreshing. We kept track of our route both on the chart and on the G1000, noting towers in our path. The terrain avoidance definitely gave us a little peace of mind as the landscape was mostly flat, but had little peaks interrupting the flatness from time to time. By this point, we felt very sure that we had made the right decision to wait out the weather, and the tension was measurably less in the cockpit. We both started to enjoy the flight and the sightseeing we were able to do along the way. All too soon, Husband started to notice landmarks that he recognized, and we were entering the edge of Nashville's airspace. We had decided to just fly along under the Charlie airspace (2400 feet), being careful to avoid the stadium TFR on our approach to John Tun airport (JWN).

We managed to get over the airport and into the pattern in the correct direction. The wind was really blowing hard across the plane as we flew downwind. I over-banked a tad turning final and Husband squawked a bit, especially since just as I started to roll out and simultaneously add flaps, the wind gusted preventing me from rolling out and instead keeping me turned steeply to the left. After getting that straightened out, and turning onto final, I was still having a little trouble getting a stable attitude and altitude-- but was relieved to see a four-light PAPI. The ground surface on this end of the runway was all over the place-- ridges, ravines, trees, wires, etc.

We settled out and floated out over the runway. Just as I thought the wheels would come down the last little bit, a big gust blew us up. I added a little power so that we wouldn't come back down too hard. Then, because it was an unfamiliar runway and I felt a little hesitation, I added power and did a go-around. Husband was pretty surprised-- he had been watching the wheels and knew I was only a few feet off the ground. We were both surprised when I took out a notch of flaps and we sank-- we both realized at the same time that I had only put in 20 degrees of flaps to begin with, so I was taking away important lift at a critical moment! Thankfully, the airspeed quickly started moving more to the green, and the stall horn stopped sounding, and the ground started floating away from us instead of toward us. This time around, I was nice and stable, so after a somewhat dramatic go-around, managed to get us on the ground in a respectable manner. We both let out a few "whoops" as we cleaned up the flaps and trim and started our taxi for the apron.

By the time we got the plane unloaded and all our bits and pieces stored, we saw Husband's brother B walk through the terminal and out onto the apron. After 6.5 hours of flying, 29 hours away from home, and a few unplanned detours, we made it safely to Nashville-- our first flying family vacation!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Unexpected Circumstances- Part Two of the Long Journey

After dipping the tanks to see how much fuel we needed to add, and requesting this from the line guy who met us, we scurried off to the FBO at HTS. (Side note: fuel was CRAZY expensive here-- over $6 a gallon!!!)

After taking care of a few personal needs, we settled down to take another look at the weather. Even though we have XM weather and all manner of gadgets in the plane, we always still like to take a look on the ground... just in case something new pops out at us. Besides-- it's a lot easier to consider your options and play with different scenarios when you're still on the ground. We confirmed at this point that we would not be making it to our final destination (Nashville) today. The line of storms that indicated the frontal line was already arriving in Nashville. Though Husband's mom had cheerfully told us in a voicemail a little earlier that the sun was shining and it was looking to be "a beautiful day" there, we knew that if the greens, yellows, and reds were showing up over the radar there, there was no way we'd be able to get past that line in the sky. Especially not in a 172 with only a VFR license!

So we considered the options. We could go south to Tri-Cities (TN), west toward Lexington (KY), or southwest to Somerset (KY). With all of these options, we would then be able to reassess in the air just how far we would then make it towards Nashville and adjust the plan accordingly. The idea was to get as far as we could, then land and find someplace to bed down for the night, letting the front pass over us while we were safely on the ground. We ruled out Tri-Cities pretty quickly. Though we have personal connections there-- family ties to the area-- this was also the furthest west of our options, making it less likely that the front would get past in time for us to then make it on to Nashville in time for the big turkey dinner Husband's mom was planning. While there was appeal to going straight west to Lexington (or even Louisville) as we were pretty certain the storms would be past the area in time for us to depart, we were concerned about the wind that preceeds a cold front. Winds not only slow us down while up in the air, they can make landing safely pretty tricky if encountered near the ground. Especially if gusts are involved (and they usually are with fronts). So, we opted for going toward Somerset.

With this decided, we gave the dog a little rest break of his own, and then hopped back in the plane for the second leg of the day. This time, Husband was PIC and I was on the radios and charts. As we flew towards the south and the west, the skies got grayer and the clouds got lower... and the winds got higher. We probably could have made it another 20 miles or so to the next airport, but we decided to play it safe. If we got down there and the winds were too strong for landing (the runway there was 5000 ft long, but only 40 feet wide!)... we would have to turn back towards the east-- going further away from our destination. Besides, Somerset had a nice-sized yellow splotch on the map that promised better options for lodging.

We felt like quite the pioneers as we came into Somerset. Husband had a great landing, and we talked to Unicom and let them know that we wished to stay the night. Some really nice guys helped us tie down and refuel so that we'd be ready to go the next day. Then we all went inside to try and figure out lodging for the night. Luckily, there was a list of nearby hotels and we only had to call two to find one that had availability and allowed dogs. The next step was to arrange transportation to the Comfort Inn. We again got lucky as one of the guys working there offered to drive us over in the FBO's crew car. Ten minutes later, we were standing in the lobby of the Comfort Inn, checking in. I've always thought that folks associated with general aviation were nice people... this experience really proved that thinking!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

When the Rain Comes-- Part 1 of the Long Journey

After a night of restless sleep wondering what the weather would be, morning finally came. Mist and low visibility prevented a really early departure, but we were wheels up around half past 8. We were still a little apprehensive about where we'd run into the frontal line that was sweeping across the country, but decided that we'd get as far south and west as we could.

It was, as usual, beautiful flying across the Shenandoah. I actually took a minute to enjoy the Fall foliage (it's really late this year in the Washington area, so it was in full swing). In our typical arrangement, I was the pilot flying and Husband was the pilot not flying, since we thought there would be some twiddling with the G1000 required to stay clear of storms. Flyer was asleep in the back seat, with his head resting on the flight bag.

The first part of the trip was pretty familiar-- we headed out towards Cumberland and Deep Creek Lake... but then, instead of stopping there, we continued on toward the EKN VOR. As we left the lower foothills behind us and got into the taller ridges, we encountered our first moments of uncertainty. The clouds were lower than forecast, and the ridges were rising higher. Husband stayed busy with the charts and the terrain feature on the G1000. I kept my attention outside the plane, eyes peeled for traffic and monitoring our distance from clouds and mountain peaks. We had decided that flying with the autopilot on would be the safest way to go-- to make sure I didn't get distracted and get us too close to the mountain below.

We were thankful that we had picked up flight following-- several times, they alerted us to passing traffic. We were also able to hear what other pilots were seeing in the area. We were especially glad for the extra feeling of safety the few times that we nicked the clouds. Though I do have some time in actual instruments conditions, neither of us are instrument rated, so it was important that we stay clear of those clouds-- and, of course, the ground.

We breathed a huge sigh of relief when we left the mountains mostly behind us. Now, we at least had a few thousand feet between us and the ground. Our first stop was planned for Huntington, WV-- HTS, very close to the halfway point in the trip. As we neared HTS, we started to have another concern. In planning the trip, we expected the entire journey-- JYO to JWN to take around 4.5 hours. We knew with the dog, our luggage, and us, we would only be able to go with fuel to the tabs, so we had planned a fuel stop halfway through, thinking this would be a good break, and give us lots of fuel on either side. What we had not predicted was how strong the headwinds would be. Even with our updated flight plan (you gotta love AOPA's flight planner!), our calculations on headwinds were wrong. Thirty knots of wind, right up the nose is a lot to overcome. Luckily, we always plan 60 minutes of reserve fuel, instead of the usual 30. It's a flight school rule-- and it just makes a lot of sense. Our dilemma became, do we break into our reserve by a few minutes and continue on to our planned stop of HTS, or do we land early at an airport that we haven't studied? The decision was made more challenging because we realized that an early landing would reduce our chance of being able to make it to our final destination without another fuel stop.

We decided to reduce our RPM (and our airspeed) by about 100 RPM so that we were travelling a little slower-- which then reduced the fuel we were burning per hour. As we made these changes, we watched the fuel ring expand ever so slightly (the G1000 has a nice feature allowing you to set how much fuel you have on board, and it calculates how far you can travel, taking into account current fuel burn, winds, etc.). The added distance wasn't much-- but it meant we would only eat into our hour of reserves by about 10 minutes. With 3 or 4 other airports within easy range, we felt good with this. Tower cleared us to land when we were still about 8 nm out, so then all I had to do was concentrate on the landing.

This was my longest single leg of flying since Husband and I did our cross-countries together back in March. I was very aware of this as I came in on final. I was shaking as I touched down (not a bad landing at all!) and taxied past the hold short. Tower was nice enough to direct us to the FBO so that we could fuel up and get ready for the next leg of the trip. I was very glad to climb out into the surprisingly warm air.

... more later... time for breakfast now!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Even When I'm "Not" Thinking About Flying, I'm Thinking About Flying...

So we're trying to do our first flight to a big family holiday event. Yes, I know, all the warnings about "get-there-itis"... and the pressure of trying to make a specific deadline. We're trying to do all the right things to make it a successful trip.

  • We've done the flight planning. (Lots of it. Two routes, in fact. M would be proud.)
  • We've studied the weather.
  • We've done the "no rain and no wind" dances.
  • We've booked ourselves backup, refundable commercial air tickets.
  • We've made backup plans (and backups for the backup plans-- no kidding) for our dog- in case we have to fly commercial and can't take him along.
  • We've come up with a bigger window during which we can travel (now about 28 hours, as opposed to the original 8) and still be on time.
  • We've talked about what our go-no-go criteria are (and still haven't completely decided).

And now... we just have to wait. The plane is back from another multi-day trip tonight. We can depart as early as tomorrow morning (though now we ponder the need to rearrange other commitments for tomorrow). We wonder... will that 10 gusting to 18 predicted wind really be that strong? Or will it be stronger? Will the rainshowers hold off for another few hours past when predicted? Or will they come early? What if we have to land and wait it out somewhere. Would we get far enough that we could then make it on to our family on Thanksgiving? Or would we end up stuck somewhere having Thanksgiving dinner in a roadside (air side?) diner?

These are the things that my mind wants to think about. Not the proposal in front of me that needs to be finished before I can leave. Not the client that just sent an email and wants to know why he hasn't gotten his web-based training module yet. And not even the fun home improvement project waiting at home. No. My mind just wants to fly. It wants to feel the ground fall away beneath us. And the sky open up in front of us. The colors of the trees and mountains below you. Then to feel the plane purr as the runway comes into view below you. That moment when you pull the throttle to idle and it's quiet except for your instructor's voice whispering the steps to land in your head. Then the nice, small chirp that more hear than feel when the tires meet the runway.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


I was hoping to continue the good flying this past weekend, but home improvement projects prevailed. Saturday was foggy and yucky (technical term!), so our plane was stuck at another airport after its 100 hour. Sunday promised nice weather for flying-- and our plane made it back home, but we were already knee deep in our home improvement project. So I spent the day learning how to wire electrical outlets and standing on ladders installing lights. I was sad to miss flying-- but I know I'll enjoy our newly redone basement once it is finished!

So I thought I might head out for a little midweek flying. I have a client meeting that ends at a time that would allow me to make it to the airport (the client site is closer to the airport than my office)... but alas, these are the METARs and TAF (terminal area forecast) that I found when I looked online to guage my chances for flying.

KJYO 141540Z AUTO 18008KT 2SM BR OVC002 13/13 A2991 RMK AO2

KIAD 141612Z 18004KT 1SM R01R/P6000FT BR BKN003 OVC005 13/12 A2989 RMK AO2

KIAD 141613Z 141612 18005KT 1SM BR BKN003
FM1700 19006KT 3SM BR BKN015
FM1800 20007KT P6SM BKN015
PROB30 0306 5SM -RA OVC050
FM0600 21007KT 2SM -RA BR OVC025
FM1000 30008KT P6SM -RA OVC050

For those not used to reading these... basically, the top line tells me what the weather is currently at JYO, the second line tells me what it is at IAD, and then the bottom section of lines tell me the forecast for IAD over a 24 hour period. So, the weather at JYO pretty cruddy. Two miles of visibility, mist, overcast at 200 feet-- not at all flying conditions. (Minimum visual conditions are 3 miles visibility and 1000 ft AGL ceilings-- in most cases.) However, the thing that caught my eye here is the METAR for IAD (the second line).

KIAD 141612Z 18004KT
The first part of the line just tells me that the wind at Dulles on the 14th at 11:12am EST was out of the south at 4 knots. That part's fine.

1SM R01R/P6000FT
This second piece gets more interesting. 1 SM means one statute mile of visibility (really not good-- I don't fly VFR with less than about 6 or 7-- and that's with a G1000!). R01R/P6000FT means that the runway visual range for runway 01 right is about 6000 ft. That's not much considering the runway is 11,500 ft long. So when you get to the end of it, you can see about halfway down it. But approaching it (which is when you really care where it is since once you're actually over it and landing, you better be on target!)... you can only see the very tip of it as you are on short final. Crazy. I bet the big boys are having fun today.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Living the Life...

Sunday turned out to be a lot cloudier than anticipated, but our adventures more than made up for that.

Husband invited a colleague from work, J, to join us for our flight. J is also a pilot-- and has been one for 25-30 years. J has done some really cool flying things-- he's flown a P-51, attended a top gun school, and flown all sorts of planes. He has the perfect personality for flying, too-- friendly, laid back, and intelligent. Husband and J spent Friday together at a work function, and cooked up a plan to fly to Nemacolin Woodlands for lunch. I was happy to be invited along!

Nemacolin Woodlands, for those who don't know, is an amazing resort about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh (very near Seven Springs, for those who know Western Pennsylvania). When we lived in Pittsburgh, Husband's company used to do a lot of staff retreats and planning meetings there-- and I was always jealous. The resort is huge, and has just about every activity you can imagine. There's championship golf, horses and ponies, a driving academy (picture big 4x4s and a lot of mud), mini golf, huge swimming pools, tennis, shooting, a spa, and even 10 ski runs. To top it off, Nemacolin has its own private airstrip-- right next to the main lodge. For months, we have talked about flying to Nemacolin and playing a round of golf. Well, we seem to have missed the golf season, but there's still plenty of fun to be had!

We were set to meet at 10am on Sunday at JYO. We had the plane reserved-- and figured we'd be a little late getting off as there was another lesson on the schedule for the plane before ours (7-10am). Sure enough, we get to JYO right at 10am, and there's no plane. No problem, we're easy, we'll just enjoy the atmosphere and wait. We had a great time talking to a few friends we made at the open house a few months back, and hearing about J's great flying adventures. Still no plane. Not wanting to be complainers, we wait some more. And some more. Finally, we start getting antsy and trying harder to figure out what's going on. Turns out the previous flight was late leaving, had massive headwinds, and was really late. We were giving up and leaving the airport when we found out they were 5 miles out. At this point it was almost 1pm. So, 3 hours late, we depart JYO.

The good news about our late departure was that the weather had actually improved a little! Still pretty cloudy, but a little sun peaking through. We had a nice flight over. It was the first time we couldn't just enter the airport name in the G1000 and follow the pink line, though. (We couldn't find the airport listed in the system... and couldn't figure out how to enter the GPS coordinates. I guess we have a little homework to do!) I was sitting right seat, so had the task of figuring out how to get us there. I finally realized that the airport was almost exactly halfway between two other airports-- so I entered those as our waypoints. As a backup, I dialed up the VOR DME info so that we could track it that way. (I know, I know, I sound incredibly spoiled-- but I was happy to know that I could figure out how to get there in several different ways!)

In the end, we didn't really need the VOR DME info-- we had no trouble spotting the resort (how many golf courses are in the mountains?!), and then it was reasonably easy to pinpoint the airport from there. Though, at first, I wasn't sure if we had correctly identified the field because the runway was so narrow, it looked like a road! We had called the day before to secure permission to fly in, so we followed the directions they had given and made the appropriate calls. They didn't say anything about announcing our position in the pattern, so I made those calls as well. I think they weren't used to that, because the person at the resort kept responding to each of my position calls. Does anyone know what the etiquette is for communicating during an approach to a private airport?

Later, we learned that they only have about 5-7 planes land there each week... so I guess there's not much traffic to worry about! As we landed, I was a little grateful that Husband was flying because the runway was sooo narrow! And it dropped off about halfway down-- so you could see what lay beyond and weren't sure if you were out of runway or not! We followed the signs to "aircraft parking"-- where we found a shuttle bus waiting for us! Is that service or what?! They helped us get the plane tied down and then we all loaded in the bus for the short (5 minute) drive to the main lodge.

Because we were so late, we missed brunch, so we ate at The Tavern. It was great. Good food, good atmosphere, good conversation. Like I said, the resort itself was amazing. I took a few pictures to show how cool it was. Definitely different than our usual $100 hamburger stop!

There was an ice cream parlor!

This huge aquarium was in the middle of the space where our table was. Not the same as watching planes taking off and land-- but very cool!

Husband and J in the hotel lobby... again, a little different than the normal airport stop.

After lunch and a brief stroll around, we walked back over to the airstrip. We did a quick preflight, checked the windsock, and took off for JYO with me in the left seat. On the way back, we flew right over Savage River Lodge-- where Husband and I occasionally go for a weekend away (I blogged about it a few months back). Turns out that J has also been to Savage River... so maybe we'll all go for a weekend sometime. After a circle over the lodge, we headed on back to JYO. We got back to the area just as the sun was starting to set. The winds had calmed while we were out, and planes were using 17. So we came in over the white water tower, then turned over the blue water tower for the quarries. As we flew over the quarry and turned for the 45, we got a great view of the sunset on the horizon. A nice squeaker (no greaser, but definitely a few chirps!), and we were back on the ground. What a great day!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Back to the Sky!

What a great weekend! I finally got back to flying. It had been 5 weeks since I last flew, though I did join Husband last weekend for a flight (but I was still sick, so he had to do all of the flying). And talk about pressure, my first flight back was with my boss. Normally, that wouldn't be a big deal-- but my boss is also a pilot and instructor. He hasn't been current for about 15 years or so, but he goes faithfully to the workshops to keep his CFI going. He's generally very laid back, so I figured we'd have a great time. And we did.

He met me at the airport-- I thought I'd get there early and get the plane set up and be ready for him... but he beat me there! I walked in and saw him standing next to the windows watching the planes take off. He was bundled up with a baseball cap and a big grin. We finished up filing and getting the paperwork together and went out to the plane. I preflighted-- feeling a little self-conscious. Then we loaded up and headed out.

It was a gorgeous day, a little windy, but a clear blue sky; orange, red, and yellow leaves; and lots of sun to warm the Fall air. I picked SHD for our destination. It's south of JYO, and you fly over the Shenandoah mountains to get there. It looked like winds would be calmer than to the north (thanks to the hurricane making its way up the East Coast), and I thought that would be good for my first landing in 5 weeks.

We took off and headed out to Purcellville-- my normal route for heading south. Because of the likelihood of planes coming back into JYO at that point (most of the other side of the airport is taken up by IAD's bravo airspace), I typically fly out to the Purcellville water tower and then head south on my route. Since the change in ADIZ procedures, our practice area has changed to be before the mountain ridge that denotes the edge of the bravo airspace instead of after it. So I still haven't quite figured out the best way to avoid this traffic while exiting the area. On Saturday, we had three different traffic warnings from the TIS within the first 20 minutes of the flight (and they were the only warnings we got that day). Boss just laughed at my stress over avoiding the unseen targets. I made him promise: no performance reviews while in the air!

My excitement over flying again after so long, and finally getting to take Boss along meant that of course I talked way too much. I was a little worried because Boss was so quiet. So I finally asked: are you quiet because you're busy soaking it all in or because something's wrong? His expression when he answered was all the reassurance that I needed-- the big, slow smile told me that he was just really enjoying being back in the plane. I offered to let him fly, but he declined.

Sure enough, the winds were nice and calm at SHD, and I managed a decent landing. Whew! We parked, got out, walked the few feet to the terminal and got some lunch. The cafe at SHD is actually in the commercial terminal, so you have to enter the GA terminal and walk across a small grassy spot to get to the other terminal. But it's worth it. The airport is clean and bright. The space where the restaurant is also nice and sunny-- with floor to ceiling windows looking out on the airport. The food is ok-- we both had cheeseburgers that weren't bad. The seasoned fries were pretty good, too. It was so nice a space (if a little bland in personality), that we sat and talked (mostly about work) entirely too long! We joked that if we had brought along the other member of our management team (who also used to fly), we could have had an official staff meeting!

After lunch, Boss asked if he could fly a little ... including the take off. I think he thought I'd say no, but I said no problem. Of course, my fingers were centimeters from the yoke (I think I actually kept the tips of my fingers on the yoke till I realized it might make him nervous). He did a pretty good job on takeoff, though it was a little steeper climbout than I usually do. He seemed to pick it back up really quickly, though he said switching to the use the AHRS as his primary instruments was really hard. I kept up my scan-- just like I would have if I were flying, so of course noticed his deviations from altitude. I wasn't sure what to say at first-- I didn't want to embarrass him, but we were flying over mountains, and it is my plane, and I was PIC. So, when got more than 200 feet off altitude, I'd just say: check your altitude. He'd laugh, and adjust. He took us a little bit off our route (maybe 5 miles or so) to show me a peak that he's climbed a bunch-- Old Rag. It was really cool looking. It's in a national park, and has a little stream at the top. I made a mental note that Husband and I should go back with Flyer and hike it some time.

All too soon, we were entering the airspace under the bravo and configuring the plane for landing. He gave back controls when we got to the edge of the airspace, and I got us set up for landing. The winds were still pretty gusty, so I was relieved to again make a passable landing. It wasn't a greaser, but it was 3 distinct chirps of the tires hitting the pavement (what you want in a crosswind)-- and we didn't bounce or hit too hard. The only bad part about the return was that we were over 30 minutes late-- and someone was waiting for the plane. I felt really bad as I had thought that Husband had it reserved and didn't mind making him wait, but didn't mean to inconvenience someone else. (Sorry, Husband!)

Boss' parting comment as we walked out to our cars was: Well, I guess glass does really have some good and useful features. (This is a lot coming from an old-school pilot!) In retrospect, I probably should have shown him more of the functionality available in the glass, but I guess he picked up more than I thought.