Thursday, August 7, 2008

Getting There is Half the Fun!

Husband and I left for Oshkosh on a Wednesday. We originally planned to leave on Thursday, but decided getting out here earlier would ensure we made it to there before the airport closed for the airshow. Unfortunately, large storm cells rolled through the area that afternoon, so we weren't able to get out very early. The good news, though, was that the storms were fast-moving, so after watching them for a bit, we were able to go ahead and leave.

Once off the ground, the air was reasonably smooth, and not too hazy. There were still some large buildups hanging around, but we were able to see them both on the Nexrad and in real life and though we had to do a bit of maneuvering, we maintained a safe distance from the storm cells. Combined with a really stiff headwind, we weren't able to get very far before the sun set. Given that neither of us were night current, we decided to land just west of Pittsburgh in Wheeling, WV (HLG). We thought it looked like a pretty big airport (it was towered, with multiple runways, etc.) and that it would be easy to get fuel and arrange for a place to stay. Boy were we wrong! It was empty! We were able to call a cab-- which took over 30 minutes to arrive, and then had a 15 mile drive into town for a hotel. So much for a quick stopover! But, we were able to find a room at the local Hampton Inn and settled in for a good dinner at a local place with a sports theme. I studied the arrival procedures while Husband read the paper.

The weather the next morning (Thur) was much better than expected, and we were able to depart around 8am. This was my leg to fly, and we had great weather. We alternated between 4500 and 6500 for most of the way. Given that we had stopped much sooner on Wed evening than anticipated, we did not have a planned fuel stop. So Husband did some calculations as we flew and pinpointed an area just before Lake Michigan that looked good for fuel stops. He picked out an airport (don't remember which one) that seemed a good choice and was right along our route and we amended our flight following destination. We didn't get a response when we tried contacting Unicom for an airport advisory, so we decided that we should overfly the field and check things out (there was no weather reporting for this field). Good thing that was our plan-- the field was closed! Not only were there large x's on the ends of the runways, but there was a large truck parked in the middle of the hard surface runway. Time for plan B! Luckily there was another airport (Ottawa Executive) a short distance away-- still on our route of flight. So we headed there and had more success this time around.

After fueling up, we took off again and I initiated a pretty steep climb to get as high as possible before going feet wet over Lake Michigan. After much discussion, and seeing how clear the weather was (so we could go high) we had decided to go the "water route" over the lake to save time. At 8500 feet, we had a shore in sight the entire time. We had thought we'd be within gliding distance the whole time as well, but I suspect there was a short amount of time when we weren't. We amused ourselves while overflying the lake by calculating the point at which it would make sense to glide toward the shore in front of us instead of going back to the one from which we came. We also reviewed the procedures for a water landing-- or ditching. I suppose non-pilots would think it a bit morbid to talk about such procedures, but it seems a natural conversation given the circumstance, though I really prayed we wouldn't have to test our knowledge! A little more than halfway across, Muskegan ATC cancelled our flight following and told us to monitor Milwaukee-- but only to call them in case of a real emergency.

About this time we started trying to monitor the Oshkosh ATIS. Bad news. The airport was closed-- and would be for at least another 60 minutes when another update would be given. Of course we continued on across the lake, but we started pondering what to do-- and tried not to think about why the airport had been closed. It could only be bad news. Listening to the approach frequency, we discovered that the holds were filling up and pilots were told to begin impromptu holds prior to arriving at RIPON. Once across the lake, I decided to do a few circles on the edge of the lake so that we wouldn't fly into the inevitable chaos near the airport.

After a few circuits, Husband convinced me that we should start heading toward the arrival point. About this time, we heard on the approach frequency that the airport was open again and they were starting to position arrivals to begin the landing procedure. Interestingly, the ATIS wasn't updated with this information for at least another 30 minutes. We saw a lot of aircraft as we approached RIPON, the beginning of the procedure. They must not have been listening to approach, though, as many seemed to be continuing to hold. We were able to slot into the sequence pretty easily (in fact there wasn't really anyone right in front of us) and started flying up the railroad tracks. Husband and I had discussed our procedures before we got there, and had decided that I should use the autopilot instead of hand flying to avoid inadvertent altitude changes that close to the ground. This meant that I was using the heading bug to control the left right tracking of the plane, which was not the easiest thing given how much I was trying to keep my eyes outside the plane. Somewhere around FISK, about the time ATC recognized us and I waggled our wings, we lost the railroad we were supposed to be tracking. Within a few seconds, we felt lost. We made the safe decision and decided to turn left out of line and head back to RIPON. It took a few minutes, but made sense given the large number of aircraft in the area. We wanted to make sure we were not one of the idiots you read about who fly in oblivious to everyone and therefore cause huge amounts of trouble.

So, try two. We sequenced back in-- this time in with several other planes. This was good as we could play follow-the-leader. I also was hand flying this time which made things much simpler. Unfortunately, about the time that the tower acknowledged us, the plane in front of us seemed to levitate. I've never seen a plane go so slowly! After watching it get bigger and bigger, and feeling the controls get mushier and mushier, I decided I'd had enough and we got out of line again. This time, on our trip back to the beginning, we discussed what our SOP would be. Instead of waiting for the airspeed to drop so much, we'd start putting the flaps in as soon as the airspeed dropped below 85-- and we'd try to get a bigger gap between us and the plane in front of us.

Try three. We made the now familiar turn past the windmills and over the railroad tracks at RIPON. We got in line behind what I think was a Mooney. Again we were acknowledged. This time we were told to head to runway 36 (try two was to 27 and try one was to 36). The controller nicely held our turn to base to give us a little more spacing (those controllers really know what they're doing!). We followed the Mooney on in, waiting to see if we'd be directed to 36L or 36R. We thought they'd send the Mooney to one and us to the other, but we both ended up being cleared to land on 36L.

By this point, I of course full flaps, and had slowed as much as I could. We kept waiting and watching to see what would happen with the Mooney-- would it get off the runway? My mind was trying to grab onto my training-- what was the rule here? I knew I wasn't supposed to land if there was another plane on the runway-- but would the controller tell me it was time to go around? Or should I keep descending? I knew there was a waiver for Oshkosh so that planes could be closer together than normal, was there one for the runway as well? Just as I was getting close to flaring, and therefore getting close to the point of no return, the controller blared into our ears with a very rushed "White High-Wing Cessna-- hold off till the green dot. Land on or past the green dot!" Oh... okay! So then I shoved in some power (too much, to be honest. It made Husband yelp at our high angle of attack). I was able to get things mostly under control, and somehow, miraculously, we flew at about 15 feet off the ground until the green dot. I think I landed about an inch behind it. It wasn't my most graceful landing, but I did get a "Atta-boy, Good Job, Sir!" from the controller (and I forgave him for not realizing that it was a woman flying the plane.

Knees shaking, palms sweating, and heart racing (and with a huge grin!), I taxied off the runway at the controller's instruction. After cleaning up, I high-fived husband and let out a big "woo-hoo! Welcome to Oshkosh!" Then began the longest taxi of my life. We were marshaled along in a long line of planes. Every hundred feet or so, there was another flagman waving us along. We snaked in and out of planes and parking spots and runways. Finally, we were marshaled into a row and brought to a stop. As we opened the doors and hopped out, we got a (somewhat subdued), "Welcome to Oshkosh". I had been waiting a long time to hear those words.

Note: We later learned that the airport was closed for a crash. A Lancair crashed just off the end of 27 and both the pilot and passenger died. Turns out, they were from Washington, PA (a town just a little east of Wheeling where we spent the night). They had taken off for Oshkosh just 8 minutes before we departed Wheeling, so we likely shared airspace with them in the first few minutes of our flights. (They were in a much faster plane and probably didn't need the fuel stop that we took, so arrived in the area two hours before we did.) So sad.

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