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?   

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