Thursday, October 2, 2008

Minding the Gap

"A thousand feet to go." Even though I'm alone in the cockpit of Good Dog, I still say this out loud to myself as I pass through 5,500 feet above mean sea level (MSL)... and then smile. My private pilot instructor, M, used to say that every time the autopilot chirped its announcement that we were within 1,000 feet of our desired altitude. I'm in the middle of my commercial, long solo cross country flight. So far, it's going reasonably well, though I never want to think that in the middle of a flight. There's still far too much time for things to fall apart!

I'm not used to flying by myself. Though I now have around 260 hours in our plane, the vast majority of that time is with Husband, one of my instructors, a handful of friends and family, or a combination of the above, also in the plane. It's kind of nice up here by myself. After checking in with ATC and arranging for "flight following" (not only do I get "company" for the flight, Husband can then easily track my progress along the way), I settle in and unmute the XM Radio to enjoy a little Flight 26 music.

Today's flight is sort of a long distance round-robin so that I can meet all the necessary requirements. I departed Leesburg and flew to Martinsburg, WV. After a touch-n-go there, I departed on a southwesterly course for SOP in Pinehurst, NC. I'll land there, and then go back north to land at IGX in Chapel Hill, NC, where I'm to overnight with my mom. Then, I'll return direct to JYO the next morning. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to make the flight today. Flying is often all about the timing. You have to time when to pull the nosewheel up on take off, when to start your descent, when to flare in landing, and when to depart. Today, the timing is about finding the gap-- i.e., waiting long enough for weather to clear in Leesburg, but not so long as to get stuck by the convective clouds that are predicted for the afternoon. So far, I'm lucky. I was able to make it off the ground before anything big showed up on my route going south.

As I keep tabs with ATC, I also keep twiddling with the Nexrad, tuning the range way out to see what colors lie ahead. Greens are okay; yellow I keep a close eye on and try to avoid; orange and red make me sit up and make a new plan. There are two clumps of green and yellow on either side of my route near my destination. It looks like I'll be able to thread the needle between them, but I'll have to keep an eye out. On the plus side, watching the weather gives me something to do as I fly along at 115 kts indicated airspeed. With the headwind, my groundspeed is a measly 98 kts or so. But I have plenty of fuel. Since it's just me, I had the line guy top off the tanks. It's my own version of Captain Dave's "uh-oh" fuel.

As I get closer to the two clumps of green and yellow that I see on the screen, I begin to be able to see the clouds that are causing those colors. I'm relieved to see that the clouds are pretty flat. There's one small area-- the farthest away from my path-- that has a little height to it, but it's not a big huge towering cumulonimbus. More of a small cotton ball cloud. Still, to be safe, I switch the autopilot to heading mode and move the heading bug over so I fly a little more away from that part, and a little closer to the flatter cloud that corresponds with the green on my screen. As I get closer still, I can see rain leaking out of the clouds on either side, and even get a little rain on the windscreen-- but I can always see through the rain to sun on the other side. So I continue on through.

Now, I'm approaching SOP and ATC releases me, telling me, "Radar service is terminated and squawk VFR." I acknowledge and switch over to the CTAF (common traffic area frequency). There are a few planes around, so I carefully sequence in among them. One of them seems to be a plane carrying packages that will need to be offloaded (and then new packages loaded on, I assume). Another is someone doing pattern work. There are a few others that I can't identify, so I scoot in for a quick touch and go. I land, then quickly pull the flaps up, adjust the trim, check my instruments and mixture, and push the throttle full forward as I announce that I'm on the go for runway 5. Then, I'm back in the air. I turn left and head north to IGX, hoping that the text message I cued for my mom sent as I rolled down the runway. I would have taken time to pull off the runway and call her-- but I want to make sure those two cells don't close in over the airport.

As I approach Chapel Hill, I see the rain clouds are right where I left them... they haven't moved. That's good, as it means I'll be able to make it through the gap and land without a problem. I call Unicom for an airport advisory-- and learn that 27 is in use, so I set up for a 45 entry to 27. I call that I'm turning left downwind for 27, and Unicom calls that 27 is right traffic. Ack! Somehow I missed that in my briefing! So I climb and turn and head over the airport for a right downwind. I get established, turn base, final, and then land. Not my prettiest landing ever-- but also not bad. I taxi toward the FBO and ask where to park. I'm instructed to a spot in the grass, and then the FBO comes to life to tend to an air ambulance that has landed right after me. Mom has arrived, so I slip away while they get the patient transferred from the ambulance and settled in the plane.

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