An evil forecast

The only light in my house is the glowing computer screen. The sun won’t rise for another hour and a half, and I don’t want to wake anyone up. I enter my username and password, and quickly type in details about my flight. I’m set to leave for the airport for a 1,200 mile cross-country flight in fifteen minutes, and I’m double checking the weather to see how much it’s changed since I went to bed.

I take a sip of bold, dusky coffee while I wait for the briefing to load.

Wind. Everywhere wind. Strong. I knew that would be the case. I’d even changed my flight plan to choose fields whose runways aligned better with the torrents that were spilling across the plains from a massive high pressure system above the Rockies into the gaping jaws of a monster low over the Midwest. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Airmet about wind.

Airmet stands for Airmen’s Meteorological Information. It’s a non-regulatory bulletin whose purpose is to alert pilots to weather that can affect flight safety. Weather needs to be pretty nasty to rate an Airmet, so when Airmets speak, wise pilots listen.

This one cautions about sustained surface winds in excess of 30 knots across my entire flight path. That translates to nearly 35 miles per hour, enough to make landings dicey and ground handling difficult. Still, by itself, it’s no reason not to go. Tessie is about as wind-proof as light airplanes get, her design letting her take on winds that would flip most other small planes.

But there’s more. Another Airmet alerts me to moderate turbulence. That makes sense. Winds tearing along the surface act like water. As they crash into obstacles on the ground, the currents of air splash high into the sky. Strong winds on the surface almost always cause a rough ride above it.

So the flight will be unpleasant, but, still, not un-doable.

The Airmet tab on my weather briefing shows there is yet one more warning. I slide my mouse up and to the right and click on it. It’s a LLWS warning. I stare at it. I’ve never seen one before, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what LLWS stands for.

Isn’t an LLWS some sort of licensed social worker?

I open up the Airmet to read it. Low Level Wind Shear. Ah. Nasty piece of business. Shear happens when the wind dramatically changes in speed or direction between two altitudes. It can be so abrupt it can cause your wing to momentarily stop flying. Near to the surface shear is dangerous as hell, and has even brought down airliners.

And the Airmet isn’t just calling for LLWS in one place. No. The LLWS warning is for hundreds of miles and includes two of my fuel stops.

I lean back in my chair. Is this flight a good idea?

High winds. Turblance. Wind shear. It’s not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it’s a lot to contend with on one flight.

I take another sip of coffee. The car is packed. I’m ready to go. Eager to go, in fact. I’m race bound, and I know my desire to make the race has the potential to interfere with my aeronautical decision making. I have no doubt that I can make the flight. Still, that’s not the right way of thinking about it.

The right way of thinking about it isn’t can I make this flight, but should I make this flight?

If I were the last pilot alive and the plague serum needed to be delivered, I’d succeed. In fact, in that scenario I’d risk worse. But it will be a difficult and stressful flight. And if I’m honest with myself, if I was just going to fly for fun, I’d stay home today. Of course, if you only fly when the weather is perfect, you won’t fly much, and certainly not far. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and effort into the racing…

But I’ve given myself three nice-length days to make the flight. I still have the option of doing it in two longer ones.

I check the forecast for the next two days. It’s much… calmer.

I consider a bit longer, then I get up, go into the flight lounge, pull my flight shirt off over my head, and place it back on a hangar. The sky will still be there tomorrow.

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And it will be a lot more friendly.

 

Weather worries

I still don’t have an airplane. I’m frustrated, yes, but not worried. I’m confident my maintenance team will have me in the air in time for the first flight of the race season.

So it’s the weather that I’m worrying about.

Here’s why: Our first trip this season will take us out over the eastern plains of New Mexico, cut across the top of Texas, bisect Oklahoma, lob off the top of Arkansas, plow through the middle of Tennessee, and land us in western South Carolina. Then we’ll race through Georgia to central Florida. Homebound we’ll go up the gulf coast into Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana, and then angle home across the Lone Star State. All told, a nearly 3,000-mile, two-week journey that ropes in the first three races of the season.

By the time we get home from the first trip of the season, we’ll already be due for our first oil change.

It all looks simple enough on the big wall planning chart in our flight lounge. No tricky terrain. Easy-to-avoid military air space. Plenty of fueling options.

But the weather… Now that’s a different story. Weather is ever dynamic, ever changing. Especially over so long a course. I’m yet to see a day see a day when there wasn’t trouble somewhere along our planned route.

Of course, we’ll take it in baby steps. Carefully looking down-range a day at a time, with one eye on the next day. I have no real concerns. I know we’ll make it. I also accept the fact that there’s no way we’ll make it as planned. Although we’ve carefully marked out our fuel stops, planned where we think we’ll spend each night, and inquired about hangar space en route, I know the plan will fall apart in the teeth of the weather gods. We’ll have to deviate from our course. We may chase weather; it may chase us. We may have to set down and wait it out.

We might even get trapped somewhere.

Of course, that’s half the fun of flying by light airplane.

But still… I’m worrying about the weather…

 

Get well soon, Tessie

I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.

A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.

It was a lot to process.

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Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.

This should not have happened.

I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.

The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.

Hopefully, she gets well soon.

I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.

The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.

And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.

It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?

I was bluer than my race shirt.

There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.

Rather early in the day.

In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.

And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.

 

Waiting out the weather

I draw back the curtains and peer out. It’s six A.M., but on the western cusp of the central time zone it’s still dark out. I expected that, but there’s something funny about the darkness. It doesn’t quite look right. The streetlights in the Hampton Inn parking lot look remarkably romantic. They have a postcard quality to them. Lights more distant take on a diffuse, painterly quality.

Huh. That’s strange.

I squat down and look up towards the sky. No stars.

Ut-oh.

I fetch my flight pad from the nightstand, open the Garmin Pilot App, and gently rap the screen above the airport icon at Liberal, Kansas. A blood-red symbol with white letters appears. IFR. That stands for instrument flight rules, and it means the weather minimums are below what’s legal for visual flight, called VFR.

We’re a VFR airplane. A second rap on the screen brings up the details. Ceiling 300 feet. Overcast. Mist. Crap.

Oh, the report didn’t include “crap.” That was my editorializing.

This was not in the forecast. But come to think of it, none of the weather Lisa and I have been dueling with on this cross-country was in the forecast. It’s the last day of a three-day trip back to Santa Fe for much needed maintenance after the race in Indianapolis. We’ve worked our way, hunting and pecking a route around weather, for 824 miles. We only have 302 miles to go but there’s no going anywhere at the moment.

Yesterday—barely underway—we put down on the cusp of a line of early morning thunderstorms at Sedalia, Missouri. Just west of the airport, on final approach to Runway 05, we overflew an abandoned industrial building surrounded by a moat-like chain-link fence. Weeds grew tall around it. It was sad and weather-beaten. Even its red brick walls were faded to dull pink. Still, even in a state of semi-ruin it was impressive. The building was gigantic, covering acres. All along its front were huge, tall, closely spaced doors. It looked a bit like a shipping warehouse, but the scale was wrong.

After landing, I asked the airport manager what the building was. He told me that for decades it served as the primary engine repair shop for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In fact, his grandfather first came to Sedalia as a boilermaker for the railroad. The “Works,” built in 1904, covered 120 acres and was the largest railroad repair facility west of the Mississippi River. Generations of men worked there, at one time 4,500 of them.

But time changes all. Following the steam age, it was all downhill. For a time the building serviced cabooses, but when the railroad dropped the caboose, the facility was finally shuttered. In June of 1986 the Union Pacific, who had brought the Missouri Pacific, let the remaining 87 employees go, and held an auction to sell off the contents of the building.

We spent two hours on the ground waiting out the weather. A light rain soaked the tarmac, but the bulk of the storm slid south. When the rain stopped and the ceilings lifted we took off for Wichita.

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We never made it.

Not 60 miles downrange from Sedalia, small grey puffy clouds started forming all around us. We ducked lower. The clouds grew and merged, becoming a solid blanket of grey cotton blotting out the sky. Then the ceiling began to drop. With each passing mile the gap between the grey sky and the ground shrank. Below our wings was rich farmland, littered with cellphone towers.

It was time to land. Quickly running out of sky, we called up the nearest airport by pressing the “NRST” key on the Flight Pad. Miami County Kansas, eighteen miles away, was the winner. I turned northwest, remembering the friendly folks at Miami, Oklahoma.

My mistake.

As it turns out, there are actually eleven cities in the county named Miami. One each in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. (Only five have airports.) I’ve lived in New Mexico for half my life and didn’t know we had a city named Miami.

The old terminal building at Miami County Kansas is now a restaurant called We B Somkin BBQ, which was just closing for the day when we taxied up. Apparently they are only open half days on Sundays. The staff glared at us when we came in the door, and didn’t utter a word. We were finally directed to pilot’s “lounge,” a single, closed-off room in the far corner of the building. The air was stale and stifling, and the room was filled with buzzing flies. There was no internet, the windows were painted shut, and the amenities were limited to a few hard plastic chairs, a folding table, and a pile of brochures touting the airport. Apparently the Mid-Way Drive-in Theatre is a must-see local attraction.

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Using our cellphones, we studied the weather and plotted our escape.

Our escape route to get us free from the clouds took us southwest to Strother Field, between Winfield and Arkansas City, Kansas, on the Arkansas River. From there, we’d strike due west for Liberal, which was our goal for the day. We had originally planned to be at liberal by 1pm. It was nearly 2pm now, and we still had 400 miles to go.

The sky was still grey above when we lifted off from my least favorite of the Miamis I’ve visited, but the ceiling had risen, and we flew over the fields at a comfortable 800 feet, keeping a sharp eye out for cell towers, both off our nose and on the moving map in the cockpit.

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By the time we reached Srother Field the sun had come out and it was a whole ‘nother world. From damp, cool grey to sun-scorched baking heat. The metal nozzle of the fuel pump singed my fingers as I topped up our fuel load for the last leg of the day.

But the weather gods weren’t done with us yet.

Flying over a country road that extended arrow-straight to the western horizon, I watched afternoon thunderstorms bloom on my cockpit radar. They began as isolated patches of green, like moss on a forest floor. Then, the centers of the larger patches turned bright, cheerful yellow, like Kansas sunflowers. Next the centers deepened to angry orange, soon topped by fire engine-red. As the powerful convective currents pushed the storm tops high into the atmosphere, the centers of the storms turned brown-red, like dried blood, on my radar, and finally, blooming like multicolored wild flowers, the tops of the storms displayed lavender purple.

One storm cell, as powerful as they come, lurked to the south of our course. It was tall and strong, but small in diameter. We couldn’t make out its direction of travel. Whether it would cut us off or not. Since we were entering a no-man’s land where airports are scarce, we started reviewing our options. As we closed in, it was clear that it would let us pass, but ahead a squall line was forming outside of Liberal. We’d beat it there, but it looked like it might be a wild weather night.

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On touchdown at Liberal, the sun was still pounding down, but the horizon was ringed with towering thunderstorms. We arranged for a hangar and crew car with the friendly folks at Lyddon Aero Center, then headed for the Hampton which offered a special airport rate on a pair of splendid king suites.

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Worn out from the day, I kicked back in my “living room” at the hotel and studied the weather for the final day of our trip. There was no forecast weather. I set my alarm for 5:15 AM.

So much for forecasts. I set my flight pad down and look out the window again. The night is retreating and now the blankets of fog are clear in the muted twilight. The far side of the street is cloaked in mist.

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My cell phone makes a sound like an old fashioned telegraph. I just got a text. It’s from Lisa, across the hall. “Ready for wings up,” it reads.

“Look out your window,” I text back.

A minute later my phone telegraphs again: “Well, crap.”

Yeah. Crap. It looks like we’ll be waiting out the weather.

Potholes in the sky

Thump! The seat belt dug into my waist. The vertical speed indicator’s needle swung down as if broken. Bam! Now the nose of the plane jerked upwards. Then the plane disappeared out from under me, dropping like a roller coaster car. I levitated out of my seat and my headset slammed against the Plexiglas above me.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” I cursed softly under my breath. I cinched the shoulder belt as tight as it would go and looked up to see if I had broken the window. I hadn’t.

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It was a rough day in the skies above eastern New Mexico. Planted fields, dark green, sucked in the hot sunlight like solar collectors, radiating out towers of rising air above them. Lighter, fallow fields had less heat rising above them. As we flew over patches of earth of differing colors, we passed through columns of rising air moving at different speeds. Meanwhile, in the sky above me, the opposite thing was happening. Scattered cumulous clouds of varying sizes were generating columns of falling air, downdrafts, each of a different speed and size. To top off my misery, a strong wind was gushing over the terrain like water over stones in a mountain stream, striking mesas and buttes, splashing currents of wind high into the atmosphere, then crashing back down again.

Three flavors of turbulence. It was wild. And there was nothing to do but ride it out.

I had my left hand wrapped around the yoke and my right hand wrapped around the windshield brace, which I’d covered in a piece of grey foam rubber pipe insulation from Home Depot for just such an occasion. I didn’t fight the winds, beyond keeping the plane rightside up. I’d lose 500 feet. Then gain 800. Then lose 300. And gain 200. A blue and white feather in the wind. Trying to hold an altitude would just be hard on the airframe and on the engine.

Altitude control a lost cause, I worked on my attitude control. My personal attitude. Flying in turbulence isn’t really much fun, but I tried to tell myself that people pay good money for being bounced around at amusement parks, and here I was getting it for free, and for a lot longer than any carnival ride. And then I remembered.

I really don’t like amusement parks.

 

A race for home

It looked like I had another race on my hands. I had just won one, the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race in Terrell, Texas, the day before, and now I was on my way home. But this time I wasn’t racing other men and machines, I was racing the elements.

The forecast called for fog in the morning so I got a late start. The weathermen were wrong. There was no fog. They also called for a few thunderstorms in the late afternoon. They were wrong about that, too: Both in how many there would be, and when they’d develop.

Back in the day, the sky a mystery over the horizon, flying must have been frightening. But thanks to near-real time radar on my iPad in the cockpit, I can see a storm a hundred miles away. Two hundred. I can see further than I can fly. So from far, far away, as I flew west, I was able to see the storm grow.

Actually there were many storms, but most posed no threat. Out from Plainview, Texas, they sprouted to the north and south of my course. I watched them billow and grow off my wings, giving me cooling shade and painting my radar first green, then orange, then red as they towered into the atmosphere, higher and higher.

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They were beautiful, but no threat. I slid between and below them as they grew into monsters, but before they turned ugly. My worry was dead ahead. West of my destination a thunderstorm started to grow. It looked like it was barreling down on my home base as I was thundering towards it from the opposite direction.

The race was on.

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I was doing 111 miles per hour. A good, strong thunderstorm can move a more than half that speed, so they can cover some ground pretty quickly. Plus, storms tend to kick wind out ahead of them. I expected to meet the front’s headwinds before I landed. The race looked to be a close one.

As we both closed in on the airport, the storm and I, I was pulling ahead on the radar. But in the real world it looked different. I was able to watch a menacing shadow from the storm’s anvil move across the landscape like an invading army, and on the final stretch I passed into the shadow, looking up from my cockpit at high, turbulent clouds above me as I made my turn to final approach.

On the ground the bright day turned to dim twilight, and the windsock snapped and groaned against the wind. The sky turned an evil shade of darkest grey. I quickly re-fueled, taxied to my hangar, and got the plane inside, sheltered from the sky.

Then, apparently deprived of its prize, the storm suddenly moved north, not leaving so much as single drop of rain. The sun came back out again and the wind died to a whisper.

 

Ultimate formation flying

I was standing on the beach, toes in the surf, when the squadron flew over me, wingtip to wingtip, each flier impossibly close to the next, in perfect formation. I stood riveted, ocean forgotten, neck craning upwards, eyes locked on the sky. As they passed overhead they changed course, the entire flight moving in unison as if it were one object, not a group of five.

No, it wasn’t the Blue Angels. Not the United Kingdom’s Red Arrows. Not Ireland’s Silver Swallows, or even South Africa’s Silver Falcons. It was the Texas Brown Pelicans, native-born pilots who can teach us all a thing or two.

What do they fly? Themselves. I’m not talking about men in man-made machines. I’m talking about those nasty-tempered, big-beaked, web-footed, mangy-feathered denizens of every dock in every port of the seven seas. Right. Real live Pelicans.

Believe me, those iconic pier post perchers, ugly to my eye on the ground, are a sight to behold in the air. Part sailplane, part pterodactyl, the long-winged, raggedy-feathered pelicans have grace and beauty in the air that puts the Bald Eagle to shame. That long Pelican beak, out of proportion on the ground, balances wide-wide-wide wings that sweep back gracefully towards the tips. Often loners on the ground, Pelicans soar in silent squadrons of four to twenty in the air. Sometimes they fly diamond formations, other times in long lines of follow-the-leader.

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Unlike Seagulls, whom I find to be over-grown hyperactive hummingbirds flapping their wings all the time, Pelicans float and glide, rarely flapping their wings to maintain lift. And when they do, a single, leisurely flap, does the trick.

The squadron soared up the beach between high-rise condos in stable slow-flight, drifting on the evening air, on a mission only they knew, and standing there on the beach I wished I could be up in the grey evening sky with them.

Debbie, Rio, and I had “flown” into Galveston Island in our Jeep earlier that afternoon. Bad weather had cancelled our air race, but I’d made the mistake of renting a non-refundable condo, so we traded air-racing glory for a ground-based family vacation.

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Ironically, the weather on race day was lovely. Blue sky and sunshine. But the day before it was soup to the ground most of the route, and we and the other racers would have been trapped here for days afterwards, even if we had made it here in one piece, so I guess scrubbing the race was a good call on the part of the race director. Still, I hope the race is rescheduled both because I want to fly that awesome course around the island and over the bay, and so that I can put my life jacket to good use.

Instead of racing, we splashed in the Gulf, ate tons of fresh seafood, and visited the Lone Star Flight Museum, which is a gem-and-a-half that’s still recovering from Hurricane Ike eight years after the fact.

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In the airport terminal next door to the museum’s hangars a plaque on the wall marks the high water mark during the storm. The plaque is above Rio’s head. Waaaaaaay above his head:

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We also took a harbor tour. And a ride in a high-powered jet boat (sorta like flying, but windier and wetter). We watched a cruise ship embark on a voyage to Mexico and watched working fisherman unload their catch.

And always there were pelicans in the sky. Soaring. Gliding. Cartwheeling across my racecourse in formations large and small. And always I found my eyes cast up to the heavens, wishing I could join them.

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A change of plans

I was supposed to be packing. And it probably looked like I was packing: The flight bags were on the bed. The carefully inventoried shirts for the trip hung on the doorknob. Debbie’s Miracle Fold was out of the box and ready to use, and various toiletries littered the bathroom counter top.

But I lacked focus. I’d half fold a shirt, and then remember I needed to replace the outdated backup sectional chart. That accomplished, I was distracted by gathering cables to charge the wolf pack of power hungry devices we travel with. The first shirt still half-folded, I found myself staring at a traveling tube of toothpaste, debating whether or not it still held enough for two people for three days.

Then, withered tube of paste still in hand, I found myself sitting in front of the computer. Again.

No, I wasn’t impulsively cruising eBay or checking to see if anyone left new comments on my latest dispatch for General Aviation News, although I’m not immune from either of those activities. Instead, I was impulsively checking the weather to see if it had changed in the last ten minutes. You see, the forecast for the Texoma Air Race was looking grim.

I had no doubt that Rio and I would get there. Sure, they were calling for some low ceilings around Childress, Texas, but nothing we couldn’t scoot comfortably under. And once again, I was facing headwinds flying East, which is rare, and had already happened to me an unfair number of times this racing season. We’d probably need to add one more fuel stop. Assuming, of course, that I actually got us packed in time to load the plane and leave.

What was I doing? Oh yes. Folding the shirts. Wait, did I remember to get out enough socks? Hmmm… I wonder how the weather is shaping up?

Race day itself wasn’t looking good for the home team. Of course, it was still three days off, and anything can happen in three days when it comes to weather. Still, if the forecasts were to be believed, we’d get there fine, but the race would likely be scrubbed, and the forecast for the next day—the official alternate “rain” day—looked just as bad. In fact, it sure looked like Rio and I could be grounded by weather in Sherman, Texas for several days.

So should we go or should we stay?

Obviously, as I was packing, I’d already made the decision to go. I had decided that since there was no safety issue in getting there, that was the only thing that mattered. If we went and sat in fog for three days, well, that would suck, but we’d have time to get to know Sherman, Texas. On the other hand, if we stayed home and the weather changed for the better and the race was run, I’d lose a ton of League points to my competition, and I’d be mad as hell.

So we were going. But that didn’t stop me from checking the weather again. And again. And Again. It was on one of these mid-packing weather checks that I got the email. It was from Pat Purcell, the Race Director for the Texoma:

“Texoma Racers, the 9th Annual Texoma Air Race has been CANCELLED… The ceiling are forecast to be solid IFR…” She went on to say that surrounding weather would make it impossible for some pilots to get to the race, and for others to get home again if they made in there in the first place. She pushed the race back a week.

A sock in one hand, and a new tube of toothpaste in the other, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was really looking forward to this race, one of the largest of the season, and one in which we were facing three stiff competitors in our Category and Class: An opportunity to really pull ahead (or fall behind). On the other hand, I knew deep down that the weather was going to interfere in the race, so I was secretly relieved.

Then it hit me that our whole calendar had just become a mess. We needed to move up some maintenance on Tessie. I needed to cancel Rio’s soaring lesson. There were bills to pay, and a story due that I was going to write in the break between races next week, that now needed to be written right now. Plus I had some commitments on my calendar that would keep me from packing the night before we’d need to leave next week, so I still needed to finish packing.

I pulled myself together and folded the shirts, organized the socks and charging cables, and started filling up our blue Sporty’s Flight Gear Navigator Bag for the trip, now more than a week away.

Then I got to work on my story, my bills, arranging for the maintenance, and all of the rest. Two days later, on the day of the cancelled race, the plane’s luggage now in a large pile in the middle of the my office floor, I pulled up the weather, and this is what I saw:

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What are the odds of that? The weathermen got it right. Oh well, at least we’re packed and ready to go. A week ahead of time.

Gosh, I hope in all the confusion that I remembered to pack the toothpaste.

Shaken, not stirred

My hosts at Pratt told me the field was used to “outfit” B-29s during the war. The massive bombers were built in Wichita, then flown to Pratt to receive their turrets and machine guns.

They had a crew car and said I was welcome to take it to town if I wanted to get a bite to eat. But instead I decided to feed my gear. I brought all my various electronic parasites in from the plane and plugged my GPS into the wall next to a lamp, my iPad into the plug shared by the water cooler, and my cell phone had to make friends with the microwave’s plug.

It was warm and friendly and the airport residents wanted to know where I was from, where I was going, and whether or not my Ercoupe had rudder pedals. (She does not.)

While my head was buried in weather forecasts on a huge iMac in the pilot’s lounge, I heard the lineman say to a local pilot, “Well how’s that for a change in the weather?”

I looked over my shoulder at them and was surprised to see sunlight. Stepping out onto the ramp, I could see that the entire southern sky was a towering mass of grey, like the ramparts of a fairytale castle in the air. Sun spilled over the ramparts and above us was glorious blue sky with not a single cloud. The storm was retreating south.

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Still, the distant horizon to the west remained white. There were still clouds out there, but the number of reporting stations made it difficult to know what was really happening on the micro scale across my route. I decided, rather arbitrarily, to give it another go at noon, an hour away, and if I couldn’t get through, I’d stay the night at wherever it was that I managed to reach. Decision made, I had the lineman top off Tessie’s wing tanks. She actually has three gas tanks. One in each wing, and one in the nose.

The engine runs off the nose tank, sometimes called the header tank. The gas flows down from the header to the carburetor by gravity. An engine-driven fuel pump pulls gas from the two interconnected wing tanks to fill the header, which overflows back down into the wings. Like a beating heart, the pump keeps the fuel constantly flowing between the tanks. The whole design is a great safety feature: If the heart fails, the engine doesn’t die. In fact, if the pump fails you’d have about an hour’s flying time. There’s a float gauge on the nose that lets you know if the level starts to drop, signaling either empty wings or a dead fuel pump.

While the lineman gassed me up, I admired the other plane on the ramp. Sharing the tarmac with my expensive-to-maintain antique was a brand spanking new expensive-to-buy Diamond Twin with the aeronautical equivalent of the curves of a Playboy centerfold. I gotta say, this is one sexy airplane. But despite being new, the owner was having some mechanical issues dealing with the brakes. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I found some sort of perverse reassurance in the fact that new planes aren’t immune to expensive maintenance issues. My only defense is that our last annul cost nearly half as much as the plane herself did, and I’m guilty of wondering whether our family’s money might have been better spent on a newer airplane. Apparently not.

At noon as I headed for my ride, I told the twin owner that I hoped the weather gods were feeling kinder than the brake fluid gods (he assured me he thought they would be) and I was off and on my way.

I cruised in sunlight at first and wondered if I should have taken my winter flight jacket off, but soon enough I was under a high blanket of grey again and the temperature in the cockpit dropped. The ceiling seemed to stay put, but the stupid ground got higher and higher with each passing mile. The rules for the kind of airspace I was in state that I’m supposed to stay 500 feet below the clouds. How high off the ground? Actually, there is no set altitude over empty, open prairie. You just have to be high enough to land in an emergency without hurting anyone on the ground.

The horizon grew brighter and brighter as my opening between sky and ground got tighter and tighter. The final edge of the clouds clung to a ridgeline southwest of Meade. I sailed over the flat, open ridge at 200 feet above the ground and then burst into bright, clear sunshine. For a moment all was calm and beautiful.

And then the turbulence hit.

You can almost count on angry air between frontal boundaries, and this region did not disappoint. I had a momentary vision of my being bounced right out of the cockpit, and falling (with 12 bottles of expensive red wine) to the earth below. I tightened my seatbelt and shoulder belt, and then did the same for the case of wine that was riding shotgun with me. I climbed back up to 500 feet, then added another two hundred for good measure, Tessie was like a bucking bronco. I held onto her yoke with my left hand and onto her windshield support with my right. My only mission was to get the wings level when the churning air knocked one wing higher than the other. The up and down lurching I didn’t worry about. One blast of air would send us up a hundred feet, the next would fall on us like a hammer, driving us back down again.

And just when I was far enough out from the frontal boundary to escape the turbulence, I entered a popcorn sky. Well, that’s what I call it. I’m sure that’s not it’s formal name. But a popcorn sky is one populated by a sea of small cumulus clouds, all at the same altitude.

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They are beautiful and look puffy and harmless like cotton candy, but each one of the little bastards has it’s own personal weather system. As you fly under each, you hit the updraft. It’s as if the cloud wants to suck your plane up into its hungry maw. And as you hit the far side, you encounter the downdraft. Angry you escaped, the cloud hits you with a rolled-up newspaper.

The game is harmless, but tiring. Like taking a roller coaster to work. After about one hour of it, I was sure glad I was transporting wine, not champagne.

And finally, after hours of being jostled and jolted, Runway 26 at my homebase appeared off my nose. I was glad to be home again: I’d had enough flying.

Well, at least for a day or two.

 

Weatherwise is never wise enough

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Fully loaded to within a few pounds of gross weight with fuel, spare oil, and wine, I taxied down the giant apron originally laid down for B-29 bombers during World War II. I was going faster than normal to minimize low power running, as my cylinder break-in was only half over. I zipped past rows of brick chimneys that are all that remain of huge arched-ceiling hangars that once lined the field to house fleets of the big birds, contemporaries of my little ride.

I did a running runup, checking the mags and the carb heat as I taxied, so when I reached the end of the runway I made my radio call and rolled right onto the 100-foot-wide mile-and-a-half long stretch of asphalt without stopping.

It was cold and cloudy, with a solid ceiling about 3,000 feet up. As I was still generally flying at 500 feet, this was not an issue at all. I’d studied the weather in my hotel room before driving out to the airport and it looked like the cloud cover would stay with me for about the first quarter of the trip. There would be some low—but legal and safe—ceilings near Dodge City, but the airports beyond were reporting clear skies.

I lifted off, banked left at 500 feet, and headed west, anticipating a late breakfast at the Red Barron in Dalhart, and being home with my new case of wine by noon.

Neither of those things happened.

Half an hour into the flight something odd happened to the horizon. It turned white. A knot formed in the pit of my stomach. This didn’t look good for the home team. I tried to tune into the Dodge City automated weather broadcast, but it was still too far away. I activated the weather reporting on my iPad and was stunned to see a red dot above the Dodge airport. I clicked for details and learned that the airport was shrouded in freezing fog with virtually no visibility. As I looked wider, airports to the north seemed clear, while airports to the south were reporting low, but legal ceilings. Deviating north seemed to be the best option. But as I approached the great while wall I could see an orange glow to the south. The sun was trying to break through down there. Looking north, the color of the sky was such a dark grey as to nearly be evil.

Cockpit weather is a great thing, but the types of systems we use in general aviation are never quite up to the minute, so I believe in trusting my eyes over my tech. I turned south, keeping well clear of the wall of cloud and fog.

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After flying south for about ten minutes I thought I’d found the end of it. I turned west again, congratulating myself on my superior airmanship and decision-making skills. Still, I kept one eye behind me to ensure that I had a safe escape option.

Everything was going fine, when suddenly the clouds exploded downwards and patches of fog sprouted up everywhere below me. The way ahead became dangerous, and the escape route behind was closing off.

It was clear I couldn’t get the hell out of Dodge because I’d never get there.

I did a quick one-eighty and dropped down to 400 feet. Then to 300 as the cloud deck chased me. It’s hard to estimate how far above you the wispy grey tendrils are when you look up at them through the clear canopy, but I knew for damn sure I couldn’t risk flying into that soup. It was time to get on the ground. I called up the nearest airport on my flight pad: Kinsley. I selected the “Direct To” command and a course was plotted for me.

As I came in low over the farm fields, I could see neither hide nor hair of the airport, even though my navigation said I was right on top of it. Finally, I spied the hangars and then the strip: A frozen ribbon of white, narrow and short. Was it snow or was it ice? There was no way to know from above.

Still, any harbor in the storm. I’d rather risk sliding off the runway and pranging the plane than fly into the grey soup and risk ramming a cellphone tower or some other cloaked obstacle at full speed.

I wheeled over the airport and entered into a low downwind pattern for the north-facing runway. I wanted to touch down at the slowest possible speed and give myself as much runway as possible to slow down without braking. I powered back, raised the nose and slowed the plane to the lowest airspeed I dared use, and aimed for the first few feet of the runway.

Slowly, slowly, down we came. The wheels touched the white-cloaked asphalt, and…

Nothing happened.

It was a totally uneventful landing. I decided it must be snow, not ice, painting the runway white. I exited at the only taxiway and parked in front of a hanger. I shut down the transponder, radios, the engine, and then cracked open the canopy. A wave of bitter cold air poured into the plane. I hoisted myself up out of the cockpit, grabbed my cell phone, and stepped onto the wing. I closed the canopy behind me and jumped down the to the ground where I did the crazy chicken dance trying to stay on my feet. The apron was a sheet of black ice. As was everything on the ground at Kinsley.

I skated my way to the grass at the edge of the apron and then tromped through a thin layer of snow to what I thought was the terminal building. It turns out it was the local gun club, and based on a sign on the window, it hadn’t been used since 2005.

Next I checked the doors at five hangars. All locked. All cold. No signs posted about who to call or where to go. It was like a ghost airport, abandoned and frozen. Large chemical tubs stood in stacks everywhere between the buildings. It was a crop duster strip, but it was the off-season. No one would be back until spring. There was nowhere warm to stay and wait out the weather.

I trudged back across the black ice to my forlorn-looking little plane. I climbed back in, buttoned myself in and looked around. From the ground, the sky didn’t look that bad. I checked weather for Dodge again and was highly annoyed to find it reported good visual conditions. My unscheduled landing was unnecessary. Oh well. I reminded myself of the old aviation saying: It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.

I fired Tessie back up and taxied with utmost care to the very end of the short runway. I gently tapped on the brakes to stop the plane, and then held her in place and applied full power for an aircraft carrier-style takeoff. The strip was short, with tall tress on both ends. The official “obstructions” text for the airport reads: “Trees, both sides, 45 feet high, 1,700 feet from end, 33:1 clearance slope.” I released the brakes and in a cloud of snow Tessie shot down the icy runway. We lifted off, easily cleared the trees and headed back up into the grey sky.

No sooner than I was off the ground than the blue “friendly weather” icon for Dodge City turned red again and the sky returned to its threatening antics. I flew dead south, towards the orange glow. Still, the way west was blocked. Near a wind farm the sky was a patchwork of low dense clouds and beautiful blue. The blue holes in the clouds were inviting: Come up on top and enjoy the sun, they seemed to say. I could see how thin the cloud deck was. Popping up through a hole would be quick and easy. But there were two problems: I’m flying under the Light Sport privileges of my commercial license. That means I’m not “allowed” to fly out of sight of the ground on top of the clouds; plus the problem with popping up through a hole is you can’t be sure there will be another hole to get back down through at the other end of your flight.

I decided I needed to pack it in and find an airport with a warm terminal and wait out the weather. I checked my options and chose Pratt Regional, about 30 miles away, back to the east.

When you absolutely need to be somewhere on time, take a car.

As I approached Pratt I could see that it, like Great Bend, had once been an Army Air Force field, with its distinctive triangle of three runways, except now a cattle feedlot covered two of them. From above I could see a dozen airplanes and many hangars with welcomingly open doors. I entered the pattern and descended toward my new shelter from the storm. When I touched down after more than an hour and a half of flying, I was actually farther away from home than when I lifted off that morning.

 

Next time: Waiting for the weather