Sunday, January 20, 2008

Unexpected Christmas Gift

No, I didn't get a new plane for Christmas!

We all rush around trying the find the perfect Christmas gifts for those we love... but sometimes, we are blessed... or maybe the trim gods smile on us, and the truly perfect gifts fall right into our laps.

After an exciting trip down to North Carolina, we had a nice Christmas Eve and morning with my parents. But by around noon, the clouds were clearing and our thoughts turned to flying. We knew that Christmas Day would be the best day to get in a flight as it was supposed to get rainy and cold the day after. So we invited my parents along for a little flightseeing. Mom was too beat to come (she's a present-wrapping fiend!), but Dad was definitely game for a flight. So he, Husband, and I headed out to the airport.

We found the plane tied down and ready to go (the line guy had come out after we landed on Christmas Eve and tied it down for us). Before takeoff, we put in an estimated waypoint for my parents' mountain house, though we figured we'd just be able to follow the roads along to get there. With so few roads in the mountains, it's pretty easy to find places. After take off, we flew along the GPS route for a few minutes till we picked up 321-- the road we take to get to my parents. It was pretty cool to see it from the air and see how close together everything looks compared to on the ground when things are separated by big mountains. Dad was getting more and more excited as we got nearer to the house. In just a couple of minutes, we saw the turnoff from the highway into the valley where the house is. We could see the new development of homesites, and picked out a few familiar farms along the road. Then, we saw first the long driveway (around .5 miles!) and then, finally, the distinctive roofline of my parent's house. As soon as he saw it, my Dad, who was moving from side to side in the back of the plane (he likes the pictures from the back), picked up his cell phone and called my mom. Soon, we could see her moving around on the driveway-- a white and red speck against the dark grey driveway.

We circled for a while-- maybe close to 10 minutes. Dad took tons of pictures-- I think around 40 or 50. Husband even took controls for a few minutes so that I could take in the sights, as well. It was so amazing to see this place that I have known since I was a little girl from the air. I could see the river and Mrs. Shore's house, and the horse pasture... it was really awesome. Flying in the DC area is always interesting and often challenging. But I will never be able to come fly over my own house or neighborhood here. Or-- as they joke about at the flight school-- I guess I could fly over it... exactly once. And I'd have a very interesting story to tell, though I might not get the chance!

After we soaked in enough of the house, we flew over the town, and circled Boone. Then we flew over to Sugar Mountain and circled Grandfather Mountain, pointing out familiar landmarks to each other-- like the viaduct, the Boone golf course, and Chetola Lake. We even picked out the tiny runway in Boone that's owned by the power company (we need to find out how to land there!). We finally turned back toward the airport when we saw some snow clouds in the distance.

We had such a great time-- and Dad was so impressed with the pictures (it was cloudy-- so they weren't the best-- but really cool, nonetheless)-- that we decided to go back up on Thursday for a quick flight with Dad before leaving for Asheville. The sun was out-- so Dad was able to get some great shots.

A week or so later, Dad called to tell me about a dinner he and Mom had hosted the night before. During the course of the evening, his guests (homeowners in the same valley) noticed some of the pictures out on the table. Apparently they were quite enthralled with the pictures and Dad had a great time showing them off. Though not always a talkative man, he talked for 10 minutes about being able to show off these pictures. And then it hit me. For a man who loves all kinds of maps, and who loves this little valley even more than I do... our flights on those two days were truly the perfect gift.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Riding the Wave

After our Thanksgiving travel experiences, Husband and I were watching the weather very closely for our Christmas trip down to North Carolina. After a weekend of clouds and rain, we were happy to see a clear forecast for Christmas Eve. Our plan was to take advantage of the nice weather and have a little fun on the way down to my parents. We knew there was a pretty stiff headwind forecast-- but figured that we'd still be able to get in a few stops along the way. The winds on the ground looked reasonable-- and seemed to be up and down the runway all along our route. W24, LYH, W90, and 0V4 are all within a few miles of each other, so our plan was to hit as many of these as possible before we got to our bingo time and needed to leave the area so we could make the Christmas Eve service with my parents.

Isn't it funny how most flying blogs start with something along the lines of, "the plan was to..." but rarely finish with completing that plan?!

After a good workout at the gym and a final check of all our gear, we loaded up and set out. By now, the winds were forecast for around 50 knots at altitude. We double checked with our flight instructor as we preflighted and decided that even though our progress would be significantly slower than desired, it would be fine to fly. We took off and started down to our first stop, W24. We could tell the winds were crazy soon after we were air born. The turbulence below the Bravo shelves was intense. So we were happy to leave the Bravo airspace behind us and climb up to our cruise altitude.

Our route took us right down the edge of the foothills of Virgina. While West Virginia is very mountainous (though someone from Colorado might not see it that way!), where Virginia and West Virginia come together is right where the mountains start to break up. From our perch, we could see flatlands over to our left (the East), and we could see the very straight long ridges to our right (the West), and below us was a mixture of both, showing up in scattered peaks and smaller hills. Flying along, Husband set the autopilot and we admired the view. A few times along the way though, we noticed a strange occurrence. We would start to lose airspeed-- and occasionally altitude. At the same time, our RPMs would decay. The autopilot would keep fighting it, and that seemed to make the situation worse. We discussed the possibilities. Was this some form of mountain wave activity? Was there something wrong with the airplane? We talked about landing, but every time we got really worried, the problem seemed to get better. So we tried flying a little further away from the hills... but how far was far enough?

We were thankful to see that our first destination was approaching-- but as we started our descent, the turbulence became intense. Given how we were getting bounced around, we decided maybe it wasn't the day to get a bunch of stamps in our aviation passports. After considering our various options, and realizing that we would need to land and refuel somewhere, we decided that we should cut our losses and land at Lynchburg. We'd at least get one stamp, check for the updated weather, and regroup. So, we called Tower and set up to land. Once on the ground, we ended up at Falwell Aviation-- the newest FBO on the field.

Falwell Aviation is run by a couple of brothers. One of them happened to be there when we walked into the FBO and offered to give us a tour. It was really interesting. He and his brother also own a airport W24-- the airport we were going to land at before we decided to come on to LYH. Apparently their family had owned a trucking business a long time ago. They put in a runway at their family farm, and started to use planes to ship some of the materials by air. Over time, that grew into an airport used as an alternate for the factories and airlines using LYH. Now, the family owns the airport, a flight school, and a whole fleet of airplanes. Pretty cool. You never know what you're going to find at an airport!

Back to the flying tale. After fueling up and checking the weather, we got ready to depart. On our runup, we noticed some strange fluctuations in the RPM. We were pretty confused at first-- but realized that we were doing the runup with our nose not facing into the wind. Oh yeah! That's right, M always taught us to face into the wind to do the runup. Hmmm. Maybe this is why. :) So we turned the nose into the wind, and tried it again. Yep. That did it. Things seemed fine. Quick call to Tower and we were on our way again. This time with me flying. We got off the runway and were about 10 miles off the airport, when the problem started again. This time, the drop in RPM, airspeed, and altitude was even more pronounced-- we lost our ability to climb. Unsure of what the issue was-- or the best way to deal with it, we told the controller we had just been handed off to that we were experiencing difficulty holding our climb and our altitude, and that we wanted to return to the airport. We both looked at each other at this point. We couldn't believe we were having to make a "return to airport" call. We were transferred back to Tower and told them what was going on. Another plane (I think maybe a commuter plane) was also approaching, but the controller had them extend their downwind a bit so we could come on in. We landed without issue and went back to Falwell. On the ground, we decided to give our instructor a call. We ended up talking to a few instructors-- and all agreed that based on the conditions we were seeing and our location, we were experiencing mountain waves. They gave us a few pointers on dealing with it-- to try and ride the wave, using power to keep us somewhat stable. We decided to give it one more shot. So after a quick text message to my parents, we called Tower and departed LYH. In the air, we found that by adding power as the RPM or airspeed started to decay, we could keep the altitude from decaying. It was definitely more work than usual, but we were able to feel confident in our ability to keep the plane flying and somewhat stable. As we continued south, the wave activity decreased, and things got easier. We landed safely in Morganton as the sun was getting low in the sky. Dad and Flyer were there waiting for us. We were pretty happy to see Flyer bound across toward us when we got out of the plane (the airport was empty).

Some lessons learned:
  • Mountain wave isn't just about sudden and violent drops, it can show up in other forms
  • If it's gusty or high winds, it really matters if you keep your nose pointed into the wind
  • ATC is really great about helping you out
  • Your flight instructor can be a great source of information even after you get your license-- it's in their best interest to help keep you safe... but you have to let them know if you need help
  • High winds at altitude can impact performance in some surprising ways-- it may feel smooth, but anytime there's something unusual in the flying conditions, you should keep an extra eye on things

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Suddenly I See!

It feels like a lot has happened since I last blogged! It will take a few posts to catch up on all the stories... but if I keep delaying the writing, it will just take longer. This first post is about not flying... but not to worry, some flying posts will follow as soon as I download the pictures!

December is always a very busy month-- for everyone, I'm sure-- but is especially so because I make a lot of cookies. So I was really looking forward to our Christmas trip. Because of the gift of an additional holiday, we were hoping to fly down to Hilton Head for a quiet weekend before flying over to my parents for Christmas night, and on to other relatives after that. But it wasn't just the bad weather that kept us in town and on the ground.

The Wednesday before Christmas, I had a stinging sensation all day in one eye-- I thought maybe some dust from the construction on our house had gotten in my eye. A reasonable conclusion because I am very allergic to dust. The next morning, all seemed fine, so I put in my contacts as usual. By an hour or so later, as I drove to work, I noticed that my sunglasses seemed fogged over... so I took them off to clean them... and discovered that it wasn't my sunglasses! Everything was that fogged over... like flying with about 2-3 mile visibility! When I got to work, I tried taking out the contacts and cleaning them-- and even without the contacts, my eyes were cloudy. I attended a few meetings-- all the while my vision getting worse (yes, I know it was dumb!).

Finally, after the end of my second meeting, and realizing that I could no longer read, I decided it was time to take action. So I postponed the next meeting and headed to the eye doctor. Luckily, I caught him right before he left for lunch. After looking at my eyes for about 45 seconds, he sat up straight with a look of surprise and ordered me to take out the contacts... now! So I took them out and asked what was going on. Then he took another look at my eyes, and then told me that I had a chemical burn on both of my corneas. This was scary news... especially to a pilot.

Let me stop and say here that I know that my eyes are important for a lot more than just flying-- especially since I don't fly for a living. But at that moment in time, I couldn't let myself imagine losing my sight completely-- that was too horrible... so flying was the thing I thought of.

He put some drops in my eyes and asked if I was feeling any pain. I wasn't-- maybe just a little tiredness, like after your eyes have been dilated, but no real pain. Again, he seemed surprised. What he didn't tell me was that I would feel pain, and lots of it-- some of the most intense pain I've ever felt! After getting a prescription for some antibiotics (thank you, K, for filling it for me!) and a very surreal and careful drive home, the pain started to set in. I lost complete sight for about 12 hours, and then couldn't keep both eyes open for about 18 more hours. Finally- after about 30 hours, I was able to stand light again. And then by the next morning, my eyes felt normal, though I sure wasn't in a hurry to put in my contacts again!

The ending to this story? My eyes are now just about back to normal. By 48 hours after the trip to the doc, my vision was almost back to normal (almost 20/20 with glasses). By Christmas Day, I finished the antibiotics. By New Year's Day, I was allowed to wear contacts again for short amounts of time (less than 8 hours). By next week, I should be able to wear contacts like normal.

What was the cause? I still am not completely sure-- though most likely, I had something on my hands that transferred to my eyes when I put contacts in or took them out. It could have been hand lotion, some Vick's vapor rub I used one night, or even the peppermint oil in the peppermint marshmallows I made one night. (Apparently all of those substances get into your pores and don't always come out with a simple washing.) All I know is-- I'm telling everyone I know-- if you wear contacts, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water before putting them in or out... and think about what you've had on your hands! Your sight is too important!