Before the Storm
"Runway 6 cleared for takeoff, Cherokee 408."
The little red, white, and blue Piper was already rocking in the gusty winds as I shoved the throttle forward; the airspeed needle jumped to life only seconds after we started rolling down the runway. Angry grey clouds skimmed overhead; a diagonal rain shaft scooted by a few miles east. I glanced to our left; the only airplanes left at the Nantucket Airport were three good-sized jets, all the small planes having cleared out the previous day. Maybe this wasn't the best thought-out plan. I hesitated to rotate, letting the speed build a bit above normal, and then gingerly pulled back on the yoke. The lively little Piper sprang up into the maelstrom, shrugging off the gusts. Hurricane Sandy was predicted to be one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the Northeast, and now I was playing Hurricane Hunter in a 2000-pound, single-engine airplane.
Dawn and I had made plans to visit Nantucket weeks before anyone ever heard of Sandy. My ex-student Johnny, whose beautiful 1983 Piper Warrior I helped ferry across the country earlier this year, urged us to use the airplane whenever we liked. A windstorm had stripped Minnesota's trees bare early this year, so we thought a late-October flight along the New England shoreline would be a perfect second chance at leaf peeping. Flight loads in and out of BDL were wide open, car rental was cheap, and I got a good off-season deal on a beautiful B&B in the middle of Nantucket Town. It was all set, and then came the pesky monster that the press irritatingly dubbed "Frankenstorm." I reloaded the NHC website five times a day and eventually made the first "Go/No-Go Decision" only an hour before our flight to BDL on Friday night. Saturday was forecast to be gorgeous, the winds weren't supposed to really kick up until Sunday afternoon, and the hurricane wasn't forecast to make landfall well down the coast until Monday night. We'd be long gone by then.
Saturday indeed dawned as a beautiful, crisp fall day, and the pattern was already busy when we drove up to tiny Chester Airport. The plan was to fly to Nantucket, land, and fly back early if the forecast had changed appreciably for Sunday. The flight up the Connecticut coastline at 1500' was stunning, though most of the trees were a bit past peak. We lingered to circle around Newport, RI a few times, ogling the beautiful tall-ship megayachts swinging on their moorings. A gaggle of Lasers were racing further out in the bay, and a few J-24s were running downwind under colorful spinnakers past Newport Bridge. It certainly didn't look like a town bracing for a superstorm.
New Bedford and Buzzard's Bay were similarly resplendent and I decided to detour across the base of Cape Cod and over Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown. From there we flew east and south down the length of the Cape, eventually splitting off to follow the spit of Monomoy Island and then climbing to a more suitable altitude for the short water crossing to Nantucket. The airport was lively when we landed, but the parking attendant looked a little doubtful when we told him we'd be tying down for the night. The forecast was still holding fast, though: moderate wind and high clouds in the morning, but nothing too crazy for VFR flight until late afternoon. I decided to stay and leave early in the morning.
We had a fantastic time in our short stay on Nantucket; it's a perfectly charming little island and town, with quaint cobblestone streets and lots of architecture dating back to its days as a whaling village. It was a perfect sunny day for exploring, but there was a touch of anxiety in the air, especially on the waterfront as nervous mariners scrambled to get their boats out of the water or, failing that, tie them up securely for the blast that was forecast to come straight into the harbor. It seemed half the town was at a pier-side bar called Captain Tobey's for what turned out to be a going-out-of-business party. The talk there centered on the storm, which combined with the last-party aspect gave the whole shindig a bit of an end-of-the-world vibe complete with rounds of free shots, increasingly frenetic dancing, and nearly culminating in drunken fisticuffs. We excused ourselves before it got too out of hand and walked to dinner through darkened streets swirling with newly fallen leaves driven by a suddenly brisk, chilly breeze.
The overnight change in weather was grimly apparent at first light. Most of the trees were suddenly bare and stark against the leaden sky, and hearty gusts spilled down the narrow lanes. At the airport, though, the VFR weather briefing showed ceilings along our route at 2500-3000 feet, good visibilities throughout, few radar returns, and wind at our destination still almost calm and not forecast to exceed 15 kts crosswind until that evening. We loaded up, preflighted, and taxied out to Runway 6.
Banking to the west over the town and towards Martha's Vineyard, the air was surprisingly smooth. We leveled off at 2500', with a good 1000' to go before the lowest cloud deck. I could see the Cape shoreline to our north. Nearing Martha's Vineyard, though, a scattered cloud layer appeared 500' below us. Halfway across the island, it was starting to close up, so I dropped down underneath and proceeded northwestbound 1000' off the water with scattered rain shafts ahead. I didn't like that at all; an engine failure would give us precious little time to broadcast our predicament to the world before ditching in a very choppy, very cold sea that happened to boast a large shark population. I turned due north to the mainland shore, where the clouds were considerably higher. I figured that here, if the weather got too bad, there are plenty of airports to land at and file IFR the rest of the way. In fact from that point on it was an easy flight back to Chester, where we landed in a light 8-knot crosswind.
Johnny and his son met us at Chester, and after putting his faithful little plane to bed we all went to breakfast at a local diner. There too, talk of the impending storm predominated conversation. In the coming days, Johnny's home would be spared from wind and water damage but he and his family would be forced to evacuate and later cope without power for several days. Other friends of mine who live on the Jersey shore have destruction all around them and are without electricity "indefinitely." But we didn't know any of that Sunday morning. After breakfast, we wished Johnny's family well and left them to their last-minute preparations while we scooted up to Hartford to barely make it onto a NewCo flight that had suddenly filled up with last-minute passengers trying to escape the storm. I was scheduled to return to the east coast a few days later with a LaGuardia-based trip, but how much of it I'd actually fly, I could only guess. (to be continued...)