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!


flyaway said...

i'm definitely learning some of the practical aspects of flying (diversions, unexpected weather, personal minimums, safety consideration, ...) from your posts. thanks for putting them up. my own goal is to fly us down to wilmington, nc sometime in 2008. there is a community airstrip right next to my parent's place and i would love to be able to land there.

Matt said...

Yes definitely get your IFR add on. It's the best thing in the world to just go through the clouds! (When there's no ice of course...)