Monday, June 27, 2011

NY Trip, Day 3 - A significantly less stressful trip home

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: B16-SDC-38D-OSU-40I
Weather - SDC: Partly cloudy, 74 degrees, wind 160 degrees at 6 knots
Weather - 38D: Few clouds, 80 degrees, wind 170 degrees at 10 knots
Weather - OSU: Overcast, 76 degrees, wind 200 degrees at 5 knots
Weather - 40I: Partly cloudy, 78 degrees, wind 200 degrees at 4 knots

Gina and I both had a great time at the graduation party last night. It's always nice to see the family, especially since we don't make it to Upstate NY very often due to the 10-11 hour drive. Of course, it's much shorter by airplane - when the weather cooperates...

After a nice breakfast with her parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins, we gathered our things and headed to the airport. The local skydiving operation took off in their 182 filled with jumpers a few minutes before we departed. We said our goodbyes and I back-taxied down Runway 10 at Whitfords and took off shortly past 11:30 am.

The weather was great for the vast majority of today's flying

Compared to Saturday and Sunday the weather was downright spectacular. I leveled off at 2,500 feet for the very short flight south of Lake Ontario's shoreline to Williamson-Sodus Airport. We were heading there to meet pilot blogger friend Chris since he lives in the Rochester area. Originally I intended to land there on our flight up Saturday but the weather threw a wrench into those plans.

There was another airplane inbound to land from the opposite direction and I spotted him a few miles away. I made a 270 to the left to help with spacing, then followed him around the pattern and landed on Runway 10. Chris was waiting in the nice terminal building and we surprised him with two six-packs of Oberon, which any former Kalamazoo resident would most certainly appreciate. He was quite happy about the delivery and kindly bought us lunch at Bad to the Bone, a tasty little BBQ joint just down the road. I've actually visited both SDC and Bad to the Bone before while on business trips to Rochester but it was nice to finally fly myself in for a visit.

Looking north shortly after takeoff from Whitfords

Harvesting the crops down below

Sodus Bay and Lake Ontario

Parked at Williamson-Sodus to visit Chris

We all had a great time chatting before, during, and after lunch. In the end, we spent nearly two hours on the ground. Chris had to head back to work and we needed to continue the trek home since there were some storms moving from Indiana into Ohio. We were certain to make it to our fuel stop midway in Salem, OH and I figured we'd re-evaluate the weather situation there. I topped off both fuel tanks at SDC and we were back in the air just before 2:00 pm.

The view under the scattered clouds was great. You could see downtown Rochester, the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario... just about anything that was within 50 miles. I initially attempted to climb over the clouds for a smoother ride then realized they got higher as we went further inland. So I descended back down to 4,500 feet and remained there for this entire leg of the trip home.

Looking west along Lake Ontario towards Rochester

The views of the Finger Lakes region were great today

Conesus Lake - quite a few boaters were out

Genesee River near Mount Morris Dam

Letchworth State Park - the "Grand Canyon of the East"

It wouldn't be Upstate NY without a bunch of wind turbines

The town of Ellicottville, NY

As we neared the NY/PA border the clouds disappeared and we were treated to our first clear sky of the entire journey. The haze started to increase once the scattered layer disappeared but visibility was still very good. It was much nicer to be crossing the hilly terrain from this altitude with unlimited visibility than lower under an overcast as we had done the two days prior. I spotted Venango Regional Airport (where we stopped for food/fuel on Saturday) about 10 miles off the left wing as we flew towards Ohio.

Salamanca, NY and the Allegany Casino along I-86

You can see Venango Regional Airport (FKL) off in the distance

Crossing over downtown Youngstown I was able to see the town of Boardman out my window. My grandparents lived there the first 20 years of my life and I spotted their old neighborhood and some local shopping centers. I took plenty of photos that I'll have to send to my grandma - I'm sure she'll enjoy the view as much as I did. Much of my love for aviation comes from my grandpa and it was neat to finally fly over the area where I always visited them growing up.

Boardman - the Southern Park Mall and US-224

Another shot of Boardman and Mill Creek Park's golf course

It helped to have overflown Salem Airpark on our outbound leg to NY on Saturday. I spotted the airport a ways out, cut off flight following with Youngstown Approach, and continued in while descending since we were already aimed for a perfect 45-degree entry into the pattern. There was an almost-direct crosswind at about 10 knots and the treeline there made the winds a little swirly just prior to touchdown. My landing was still pretty good and we taxied down to the fuel pumps at the east end of the runway.

Salem is well-known for their restaurant... but the restaurant's only open until 2:00 pm on weekdays. I forgot to check that and our stop at SDC eliminated any chance of arriving at Salem in time to grab a bite. We landed just past 4:15 pm and were taxiing for takeoff around 4:40 pm after I had completely filled both tanks again. I checked the weather while we were on the ground and the storms I had seen on radar earlier had almost completely dissipated. While I had a feeling we still wouldn't make it all the way home in one shot, I realized we'd be getting much closer than Salem. With that knowledge in mind, we took back off and leveled off at 2,500 feet flying direct to Stewart.

Departing from Salem Airpark

A landfill that's only a few miles from Salem

Something interesting happened about 15 minutes into the flight while on flight following with Akron-Canton Approach. I was monitoring 121.5 on Com 2 and heard the distinct sound of an ELT going off. I immediately reported it to the controller who asked a few questions about the signal strength and where I started/stopped receiving it. We were just about directly over top of Beach City Airport (2D7) so I assume it was coming from an airplane hangared there, and mentioned that to him. Hopefully it was a false alarm (as ELTs usually seem to be) but calling in the report was definitely a first-time experience for me.

We continued on towards Dayton and the haze suddenly grew real thick near Millersburg, OH. Visibility probably dropped below 10 miles but it was still VFR. I was thinking that the cold front moving in from the west may have been stirring up the air ahead, reducing the visibility. If you're a meteorologist and that makes no sense, please let me know! :)

I called into Columbus Approach (we weren't handed off and weren't receiving VFR advisories at this point) to inquire about the darkening skies up ahead. They told me there was a line of moderate precip about 30 miles out. I knew that meant we'd be landing somewhere and I was hoping to make it to the Columbus area. At that point, even if we were stranded overnight, we'd be near family and friends and could easily get picked up and drive back to Dayton if necessary. The sky grew darker but visibility actually improved and I flew just north of CMH's Class C airspace while deciding what to do.

Within a couple minutes rain started to fall and was hitting the windshield at a decent rate. Our current position meant Ohio State University Airport was our best option and I had already checked their ATIS in preparation. I quickly called OSU Tower with information Tango and they cleared us to land on Runway 14. We were just over 5 miles out and I could still see the airport clearly through the rain so the conditions remained VFR. The winds were shifting due to the incoming storm and Tower quickly amended our landing clearance to Runway 23. That worked out perfectly and put us on a straight-in final from our current position. I touched down rather softly around 6:00 pm and we taxied to the ramp to wait out the storm.

We sat down inside the terminal and I pulled up the weather. The sky opened up a few minutes after we got inside and I was glad to be on the ground - it was pouring, which would've seriously reduced visibility in the air even though the clouds were plenty high. I had them top the plane off (it was that or pay a $10 ramp fee for less than an hour on the ground - ugh) while I continued to formulate a plan. There was another rather nasty (lots of dark red on the radar) storm cell that was moving in from Dayton and tracking almost directly east over top of I-70. After a little while it was clear we could get out, fly south for a while, then turn west and head direct to Stewart. That would let us squeeze between the storms and keep us in the clear.

OSU Tower cleared us for takeoff on 27L just past 7:00 pm. I turned on course and contacted Columbus Approach for flight following and told them we'd be tracking south towards Washington Court House before turning towards Stewart in order to avoid the weather. You could see that nasty cell moving closer from the west and I was glad my plan worked. We easily kept a wide berth (10+ miles away) around the storm and remained in the clear. I flew almost directly over top of I-71 for a little while before turning due west towards Waynesville.

The storm we were avoiding - still off to the northwest

Passing south of the storm while paralleling I-71

The outlet mall in Jeffersonville

Around 15 miles out I spotted Caesar Creek Lake and was excited to see the familiar landmark - we were almost home! There was a lower cloud deck out there between Columbus and Cincinnati and we skirted along underneath while approaching the lake. It was almost as if the weather gods finally decided to smile upon us because the clouds suddenly lifted and the sun came out just as I was entering the pattern at Stewart.

I crossed midfield from the north and entered a left downwind for Runway 26. We landed around 7:45 pm and taxied over to the tiedown in the grass. Gina drove the car over to the airplane and helped unload everything while I disconnected all the electronic gadgetry and sealed the plane up. After a long three days of flying, we were home!

Tied down back on Stewart's soft grass

Obviously we got stuck on the way out and had to spend a night in PA before flying the rest of the way to NY the next morning. That right there eliminated any time savings of flying vs. driving. Yet we still proved the efficiency and time savings of GA today. Consider that we took off from Weedsport, NY around 11:30 this morning and were back at our house about 9:00 this evening - including a half hour chatting in the office at Stewart before heading home. Had we driven, including the almost two-hour visit with Chris near Rochester, it would've taken at least 12-14 hours with the necessary food and gas stops.

In the end, the whole journey was a great learning experience and it even still somehow managed to save us a bit of time. Yeah it cost an extra few hours (without the weather diversions, it would've been closer to 8.0 hours on the Hobbs instead of the 11.0 that I logged) but $300 is certainly a small price to pay for being alive and safe. Oh, and thanks to those delays and diversions I managed to hit another big milestone - I crossed 200 hours total time on that final leg from OSU back to Stewart!

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 5.2 hours
Total Time: 200.7 hours

Sunday, June 26, 2011

NY Trip, Day 2 - Avoiding clouds on the way to Syracuse

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: BFD-B16
Weather - BFD: Partly cloudy, 61 degrees, wind 320 degrees at 4 knots
Weather - B16: Partly cloudy, 68 degrees, wind 300 degrees at 6 knots

A good night's rest was most certainly in order after yesterday's adventurous and stressful flying. Our driver last night was nice and stopped at a corner store where we picked up some delicious subs that seriously hit the spot. Then we watched a little TV and I checked the weather a few more times before kicking back for eight hours of much-needed sleep in the very comfy bed.

Turns out there was one more negative thing about pushing on to Bradford instead of simply staying in Franklin last night - the terrain around Bradford is quite conducive to the formation of morning fog. And it's the kind that hangs around... for a while. So we took our time eating breakfast and getting ready while I watched the clouds slowly lift up the hills surrounding town. It was close to noon before we got a ride back to the airport from the kind folks at Heritage Suites.

Watching the low clouds burn off from the B&B

I checked all the METARs and TAFs and everything between Bradford and Syracuse looked acceptable, so I made the "go" decision. We loaded all our supplies into the 172 and I did a very thorough preflight before starting the engine and taxiing down to the end of Runway 32. We took off about 5-10 minutes after a Continental Express Beech 1900 - one of a couple daily commercial flights into BFD.

Although sunny skies were still nowhere to be found, both the ceilings and visibility were much better than last night. I climbed out and leveled off below the lowest cloud layer - we probably flew somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 feet AGL for the first half of the flight. Perfectly legal as we were mostly in Class G airspace and remained clear of clouds and sufficiently high above any populated areas on the ground. Horizontal visibility was very good, probably in excess of 20 miles except for where rain was falling, so I was quite comfortable flying at the relatively low altitude above the surface. It was easy to turn and avoid any areas with lower ceilings or heavy rain as we made our way towards Syracuse.

Even though there were clouds, visibility was much better than last night!

The worst part of the trip weather-wise was between Hornell and Dansville. It's not an area to mess around in down low, as there are some VERY large wind turbines on top of the hilly terrain. Needless to say, I paid very close attention to the minimum safe altitudes printed on my Sectional chart!

A new cloud layer developed in front of us and I had to make a quick decision whether to continue or land. I decided to climb and take a look because I couldn't tell how far that scattered layer extended in our direction of flight. The way the weather had been working was that we'd fly a bit north, then east, then north, then east again to stay in good conditions. After a circling climb of about 1,000 feet I could see that the layer was widely scattered and we would be able to very safely fly over the top and continue northeast. Had it looked any different, I would have circled back and landed at Dansville.

Alfred State College in - you guessed it - Alfred, NY

Once we passed over those tall hills capped by wind turbines, the visibility continued to improve. The terrain also grew increasingly lower so that left me with more altitude options for cloud avoidance. Flying over the Finger Lakes was very interesting - you could actually sense the moisture being pulled into the air. The clouds were visibly lower over the water, almost like they dropped down to fill an invisible bowl. It was pretty easy to stay clear of the clouds by descending or turning by this point of the flight.

The clouds dropped down a bit over Canandaigua Lake

At this point, we were quite close to our destination... but the weather gods still weren't going to give us a break. We were over Cayuga Lake, only 20 miles from our planned destination of Skaneateles, when I saw a major obstacle - a solid wall of dark clouds and rain to the east. The clouds actually dropped over the lake (as mentioned earlier) and I went under to take a look. We were only a couple miles from Finger Lakes Regional Airport and I planned to land there if things didn't look good ahead.

Luckily the sky cleared quickly and significantly after ducking under those clouds over the lake. Within a minute the ceiling was a couple thousand feet higher and I could see many, many miles to the north. I knew we wouldn't have to land at Finger Lakes but the dark sky out the right window also meant that we wouldn't be landing in Skaneateles. However, it worked out that Whitfords Airport (B16) in Weedsport was almost the exact same distance from Gina's aunt and uncle's house as Skaneateles Aero Drome.

One airport was well in the clear and the other was socked in by rain so it was a pretty easy decision at this point. I flew straight towards Whitfords, passing by the airport and then descending to enter the pattern from the north. There was a decent crosswind from the right and I was slightly high on short final, so I dumped in all 40 degrees of flaps and made a pretty smooth landing. I taxied over to the small ramp area, found an open tiedown, and shut her down.

Parked on the ramp at Whitfords Airport in Weedsport, NY

Of course it looked like this a few hours after landing!

Gina's cousins met us at the airport about 15-20 minutes after we landed. The timing worked out perfectly since it took a little while to unload everything, secure the tiedown ropes, and button the plane back up. We hopped in the car and arrived at the graduation party just about an hour after it had started.

Today was a whole lot better than last night even if it did require some quick decision-making and continued cloud avoidance. I definitely attribute part of that improvement to a lack of fatigue thanks to a good night of rest in PA. I'd also like to think that I applied something I learned yesterday, even if only subconsciously, to today's flight. So there you have it - we made it to NY!

Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 1.5 hours
Total Time: 195.5 hours

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NY Trip, Day 1 - Where we examine safe vs. legal

Plane: Cessna 172
Route: 40I-FKL-BFD
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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The final Space Shuttle launch - who's going?

You may recall me mentioning a couple weeks ago that Gina and I were considering going down to Florida to see the final Shuttle launch. Well the cards aligned and I managed to fight my way through massive server overload (as you may imagine, the tickets are in slightly high demand) and snag us Causeway tickets to see Atlantis blast off into space for the last time on July 8th. Sooo... we're heading down south in about two weeks!

I already know of at least a few fellow pilot bloggers and friends that are also heading to the Cape for this historic event. If you are going, please leave a comment on this post - it would be fun to meet up with you if we're all in town long enough. If you happen to have tickets to view the launch from the Causeway, even better. At least some of us are hoping to finally say hello in person, so make yourself known if you're interested!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

USAF Museum Series: Part 14

After spending a while in the new Korean War gallery last month I ventured into the Cold War and Missile & Space galleries. Since my last visit, the museum has also put another missile and a satellite replica on display. I always have enjoyed this part of the museum due to the wonderful layout and lighting. Aside from being a great place for photography, it's just a sheer joy to walk around the hangar.

ICBMs tower overhead in the Missile & Space Gallery

The DSP satellite is a new addition to the gallery

East half of the Cold War Gallery

West half of the Cold War Gallery

As always, just a reminder that you can access any of the posts in this series by clicking on the USAF Museum tag in the navigation bar to the right or at the bottom of the posts.