Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sitting One Out

Another chapter of flying the long cross country in a light aircraft

Sitting sipping my yerba matte tea I see the light rain washing the road dust off my vehicle in the parking lot outside this roadside hostel. The leaves of the maple outside my window rustle gently, but by looking up I can see that the trees on the hill above the road are swaying to much more than a gentle breeze. By my estimate it is blowing 20 knots or better at hilltop height, and probably much harder than that if you climb to the mountain top that frames this verdant valley. Oh, and it's cool, near 50°F here at 1500 MSL. I don't need the weather channel talking-head to tell me it's close to freezing level at the top of some of those 4,000 MSL mountains this morning.

These are the days I am more than happy to sit out flying. Why? Simple. My airplane, a light, single-engine, piston-powered four-place machine, is not outfitted for this weather. Sure, I can fly it in the clouds if I want to—both the airplane and the pilots are qualified and equipped for flying on instruments (IFR). Ice, however, we don't do. The airplane is simply not equipped to deal with an inflight icing encounter. We've got pitot heat, and that's about it.

Days like today, when a slow-moving occluded front is dumping more rain than anyone has seen in decades on the northeast, and a bubble of chilly artic air is pushing in over the top and behind this mess, well, aircraft equipped as ours is are best left tied down tight or tucked in hangars.

The good news is that we planned for this. Anytime we take a long cross country excursion in our airplane we make sure to pad each stop along the way with potential bad weather days. We pick airports that won't box us in too much (that is, won't force us to wait for a perfectly sunny CAVU day for a safe exit); and we pick fuel stops and destinations where there are both fair weather and foul weather activities to keep us busy. That way we take all gotta-go and get-there-itis pressure off we pilots.

The result of this wise planning is that I've discovered wifi in the tininest libraries, in the tiniest towns in the USA. Cosy coffee shops are my friends...as are art galleries, museums, and even this efficiency by the side of the road meets muster for rainy day activity (well stocked with DVDs, give-a-book / take-a-book library, elliptical treadmill and satellite TV).

I've learned that just about every FBO can get you a rental vehicle or loan you a crew car to get into town. And where there are no spare vehicles I've been chauffered by line crew and even an FBO manager or two. Airport folk (and hotel folk, too) are great about recommending a good spot for chow and negotiating preferred hotel rates for the night. There have even been a stop or two where people have taken us into their homes, feeding us and providing us respite from the storm. That's inspired me to return the favor more than once. It is all part of a sort of pay-it-forward attitude in aviation that never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

By creating our trips with routing over many possible stop off points, and by building time-padding into each long leg; and by knowing ahead of time that we'll find good folk to help us along the way, we can rest easy as the storms pass over us. To me there is nothing so soothing as watching weather I'd rather not fly in from the ground. It is infinitely better than experiencing that heart-wrenching moment where your realize you'd rather be on the ground than in the air; trust me.

And when the storm clears? Expect glorious skies and some sweet performance out of your light bird from this spot to the next. I've managed to hopscotch from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans and back again without missing a date or a deadline using this kind of long distance flight planning. The best benefit of all from our flight plans? If the winds and weather always blow in your favor you are left with extra vacation days at some of your favorite spots. And who is ever not in favor of a little more fun?   

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Just Fly There!

I have a confession to make: in my bathroom there is a bookshelf. Yes, this is one of my contemplative zones. And of the many books and manuals on that crowded shelf is one that is fairly unique: John F. Purner's 101 Best Aviation Attractions. Flipping through the contents of this 101 chapter book one is quickly struck by how many of Purner's “attractions” are actually air shows,
airfests and fly-in adventures all over the world.

Out of date though my copy may be, it is still relevant, and when I'm looking for an excuse to go flying it is perfect. I cross-check the information in the book with more recent data found on the Internet and more times then not I can find the perfect excuse to pull my airplane out of the hangar, fuel up, preflight and be off.

Flying in to an event can be an experience all on its own. It's one worth preparing for, too. Don't discount information from friends who have been there! Some of my most fun fly-in experiences, from seafood fests in the Everglades to glider competition weekends, to an all-women's backcountry fly-in educational weekend were tips from good friends who were in the know. And those good friends who have been there are also knowledgeable about how those arrival/departure/parking procedures work in real world conditions, such as a misty marginal visibility morning arrival, or departures scrambling rapid-fire in the moments after the last performer lands and the first crack of summer lightning and thunder strikes.

I remember with an eerie clarity the opportunity I had to be a backseat passenger in a French Robin (think of it as a Grumman Traveler), one of four, who flew in formation into Paris' Le Bourget airport, where Lindbergh landed nearly a century ago. We waited with impatience half the morning in front of a roaring fire at the tiny FBO in the countryside for the Paris skyline to clear of low cloud before we could takeoff. Once airborne the whole of the city of lights spread below us; the Seine a jeweled belt winding through its middle, sparkling in the sudden sunshine of mid-morning.

We were vectored onto downwind and glided deftly over the gritty industrial buildings and apartments that now surround Le Bourget. Scenery? Nothing to write home about right around the airport. But getting to land where Charles Lindbergh landed? Where the Paris Air Show is held every other year? Even from the backseat it doesn't get any better than that.

All fly-ins have these items in common: arrival and departure procedures. If you do anything in your
preparations to go even to the smallest of fly-ins, please, check the NOTAM for your destination airport. Even if the fly-in is small, check web information and, if you find nothing there, call the principal listed for the event. They all have a plan for how to get the bulk of traffic safely in and out of their airfield. You need to know that plan before you takeoff. Why?

Fly-ins are notorious for bringing aircraft much closer together than what is normally encountered in a traffic pattern. Most of us are accustomed to seeing a couple of airplanes in the airport traffic pattern, but at a fly-in of any size you are more likely to encounter as many as a dozen aircraft converging on one point in space (say, the entry waypoint on the arrival procedure). Some will be eye-popping close! Be ready. Bring an observer to help you spot and avoid traffic. And study your arrival procedure carefully before your flight, so that you can focus on flying the airplane. Finally, spot landings are often necessary when airfields are crowded with incoming airplanes. Practice a few before you venture out, so that you can be flexible and capable of helping ATC get all those aircraft safely on the ground.

Am I making you itch for an excuse to go flying? Autumn can be the best season of all for flying in much of the country with events such as Triple Tree and Petit Jean affording you wonderful venues for cross country flying. If you don't have Purner's book, you can still find great ideas for fly-ins on the internet. Browse to Socialflight.com, Funplacestofly.com and Flyins.com. Don't discount your AOPA or EAA calendar, either. They are also loaded with national and sometimes international fly-in treasures. You'll want to check next via direct email or telephone call to confirm the dates and get detailed information on each event. Then practice your pattern skills, study your NOTAM or arrival procedures, and go fly!