Weather - 40I: Mostly cloudy, 72 degrees, wind 300 degrees at 5 knots
Weather - FKL: Overcast, 60 degrees, wind 270 degrees at 8 knots
Weather - BFD: Overcast, 57 degrees, wind 270 degrees at 4 knots
There's a saying amongst pilots that you can fly 100 hours or fly the same hour 100 times. Today was most certainly not the latter. We ended up safe and sound, which is the important thing, but I probably pushed my personal limits a little too far in the process.
A sped-up version of today's flight from OH to PA
Two of Gina's cousins have graduation parties in Syracuse tomorrow and we decided a couple months ago that we should try and fly. It's a solid 10-11 hour drive from Dayton but only about four hours by air. Although the forecasts were changing quite a bit all week long, everything indicated the weather system would move out of the area by early evening at the latest.
Had I felt any different, we would've hopped in the car and started the drive this morning. Even after making the "go" decision I was certainly accepting of the fact that we could end up somewhere other than Syracuse tonight. That's just the reality of single-engine GA flying, especially as a VFR pilot.
Loaded up and ready to fly to NY
We took off a little past noon, once the rain and clouds that has persisted overnight were well out of the region. I climbed to 3,500 feet and contacted Columbus Approach for flight following. They had me turn off course slightly as we approached CMH to remain clear of their departure traffic. This part of the flight went exactly as planned - we flew level safely below the scattered clouds and were on schedule to reach our planned fuel/food stop in Franklin, PA.
Passing north of Columbus and about to cross Griggs Reservoir
Looking out the right side of the airplane at the capital city's skyline
Polaris Mall, just north of Columbus along I-71
Happily cruising along while level at 3,500 feet
The weather was still looking quite good at this point
Passing over Baylor Beach Park in Navarre, OH
Canton, OH along with Akron-Canton Regional Airport along the horizon
The weather started to turn around Youngstown. Visibility was still probably 10 miles, but there were scattered showers and the clouds started to sink a little lower. Small raindrops splashed onto the windshield and I descended slightly to remain a legal distance from the clouds. However, I still spotted Venango Regional Airport (FKL) at least 5 miles out and made an easy midfield crosswind entry to the pattern for Runway 21. My landing was quite good and we taxied to the ramp, parked, and had the FBO top off the tanks while we went inside for lunch.
I decided on the airport partially because of the rave reviews of the restaurant - Primo Barone's - on both AirNav and Adventure Pilot. That they have possibly the cheapest fuel in the region was just another bonus. Gina and I sat down and each ordered a sandwich - I got the Spicy Sausage while she got a Hot Italian. The food was quite tasty, filling, and reasonably priced. Our total for two sandwiches, two drinks, tip and tax was under $25. In short, I'd definitely return.
While we had been eating, some rain clouds passed over the airport and the ceilings and visibility briefly dropped. I was checking the radar, METARs, TAFs, and forecasts religiously. It looked like things would be better in about a half hour so we relaxed in the pilot lounge for a little while before I headed outside and checked over the airplane. This would be a good time to point out how the forecasts for improved conditions kept getting pushed later and later into the evening.
Youngstown, OH - that's YSU's Stambaugh Stadium north of downtown
Getting mistier as we descend over the hills to land at FKL
Franklin, PA from the downwind leg for Runway 21 at FKL
Inside of Primo Barone's at Venango Regional Airport
Our lunch - Spicy Sausage and Hot Italian subs with homemade chips
We took off again a little past 4 pm, roughly two hours after we first landed at FKL. I had been checking all the local AWOS sites and all were indicating VFR conditions. However, this is where I was reminded that they're only accurate at the airports where they're located. Maybe things are more stable here at home in flat old Ohio, but the rolling Pennsylvania hills definitely cause clouds to pop up a bit differently. There were at least three different layers of few, scattered, and overcast within 3,500 feet of the ground.
After flying out a short distance I made a 180 and headed directly back to the airport, turning to remain safely clear of any clouds in the process. Horizontal visibility was still good, easily over 5 miles, but there's no way in hell I was going to fly over even a lightly scattered layer and risk having it close up, trapping us above clouds in hilly terrain. I clicked the airport lights up to high intensity and made a stable approach with a smooth landing back on Runway 21. Shortly after shutting back down in our parking spot another dark cloud passed over the airport, dropping rain at an impressive rate.
Waiting for the rain to clear and the clouds to lift...
It took a while for the rain to stop falling - Gina read a book while I kept checking every weather source I could access from my Droid. A few pilot friends were very helpful in sending along weather information via Facebook and text messages. Eventually, things dried up outside and we headed back into the pilot lounge.
This is the point, in clear hindsight, where I really should've just called it a day. We were safely parked at a nice airport with a good restaurant, close to town and hotels. Yet again the forecasts called for plenty of improvement (note my earlier comment about how no forecast had ever panned out all day long...) and we still had four hours before sunset. So, a couple hours after the failed attempt to continue on our journey, we again left Franklin, PA behind.
Marienville State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania
The clouds had lifted some - for the most part, at least. I had to turn to avoid areas where they dropped down too close to the surface to maintain safe separation from both them and the ground. But again visibility underneath the clouds was good, probably 10 miles most of the time. You could see a decent amount of space between the tops of the hills and the bottom of the clouds. We slowly meandered our way northeast, eventually approaching the general vicinity of Bradford Regional Airport (BFD) that's near the PA/NY border.
This is another one of those "in hindsight" points. Out near BFD, there really aren't too many options. In fact, if you draw a 20 nm circle centered on the airport it's the only public airport on the chart. That's an area of over 1,250 square miles! Yes, that is quite a disconcerting number to calculate here after the fact. My point is I was heading directly to BFD when I realized there was still good visibility and cloud clearance in the direction of our destination. So, instead of landing there, I turned northeast. Stupid decision. The next closest airport - Giermek Executive in Olean, NY - was another 20 miles (i.e. at least 15 minutes) away.
Within five or ten minutes, I realized the clouds were starting to get lower and the terrain out that way only gets higher - even if only slightly. The smart part is that I immediately hung a 180 and headed directly back to BFD. The less-than-smart part is that the ceilings were dropping rather quickly (the broken layer dropped over 1,000 feet at BFD in those 10-15 minutes) and I should've anticipated that from the temp/dewpoint spread being reported by the AWOS. By the time we reached BFD, I abandoned my plan make a standard pattern entry and land on Runway 32. There was no traffic, I was already lined up with Runway 23, and it was time to get the damn plane on the ground - so I made a straight-in landing and taxied to the ramp.
Unlike the airport in Franklin, BFD is about 20 minutes from town and there is nothing close by. Thankfully we were met by Phil on the tarmac, a very friendly and extremely helpful guy who works for the county-operated FBO. He couldn't reach the lady that runs the Hertz there but tried multiple times. He also gave me the number to some local hotels to stay the night including Heritage Suites, the B&B where we ended up. Before we decided on the B&B he even offered us a ride to the Best Western in town and back in the morning, hours before he was scheduled into work.
Needless to say, he went above and beyond and we are immensely thankful for all his help. That's one of the best things about General Aviation - all the wonderful people you meet who never hesitate to help you out. Heritage Suites actually sent someone to pick us up and they stopped for us to grab dinner on our way to the hotel, which I must say is quite nice - especially for the same price as the Best Western in town!
Tied down at BFD and ready to complete the trip in the morning
A safe place to spend the night - Heritage Suites in Bradford, PA!
Soooo, yeah... to say I learned a lot today would be the understatement of the century. Weather patterns in unfamiliar locations can be quite different from what I'm used to at home. Was there some element of get-there-itis? I'm not sure, as I had already resigned myself to the fact that we weren't making it all the way to Syracuse tonight by the time we first approached BFD. Regardless, don't pass up a safe landing spot when you don't have many (or any) other options.
We're perfectly fine, the plane's completely unharmed, and I kept us clear of clouds and separated from the terrain all day long. So from a legal standpoint, not one thing today would be cause to raise an eyebrow. Yet I can certainly see how my decisions easily could have been the beginning of an accident chain. Legal? You bet. Safe? I'm not so sure about that part.
Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 4.3 hours
Total Time: 194.0 hours