Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Bringing Her Home

On December 8th, 2014, Dawn and I became the proud new owners of a Piper Pacer. It was a day I'd been dreaming of for over 20 years. However, there was one small detail to take care of before I could enjoy my new purchase: it was in Kalispell, Montana, some 880nm away from its new home at Flying Cloud Airport (KFCM). This is a long flight in any 110 knot airplane, but crossing the Rockies and northern plains in wintertime is especially challenging. Kalispell itself often gets socked in for weeks at a time; Pacific storms packing high winds and heavy snowfall alternate with high-pressure systems that fill every valley with dense, long-lasting fog. I needed a 2-3 day weather window that coincided with a stretch of days off work.

There was one other wrinkle. When I priced out insurance, a couple companies would have covered me without a checkout, but I ended up choosing a $400 cheaper policy that required my first 2 hours and 15 landings be with a CFI. Fortunately, Jeff Skiles had already asked if he could come along, and he happens to hold an active CFI certificate and has some Pacer time to boot. I put him on my insurance; his pilot history form reportedly caused a bit of a twitter in the AOPA insurance office, but they didn't hold his one $40m claim against him. Jeff's schedule was wide open as he was temporarily between gigs, but his US/AA flight bennies wouldn't get him to Kalispell, meaning he had to ride on a buddy pass I borrowed from a friend. Thus, flight loads to FCA became a consideration.

Our first try was December 10th. There was dense fog in the area for several days prior, but it looked like there would be a window to get out of Kalispell and across the Rockies. After that the prognosis was a bit iffy. Worse, there was no direct flight to Kalispell that day, and the flights going through Salt Lake City filled up in the last 24 hours. We decided to postpone and try again the following Monday, December 15th. There was a direct, wide-open flight to Kalispell, so the main question was the weather. I obsessed over it constantly during the weekend, reading and rereading the NWS forecast discussions. A Pacific storm was moving through, and the main question was whether we could get out of Kalispell before the fog rolled back in. Once across the Rockies, the prognosis looked excellent.

On the appointed day, I stashed my truck in our new T-hangar and Dawn dropped me off at MSP, where I met Jeff. We got on the FCA flight without a problem, and by the time we descended over the Rockies a low overcast had faded and the valley was bathed with afternoon sunlight. The Pacer's prior owner, Paul, was understandably emotional over the impending departure of his plane, but went over the box of parts he was including, gave me a few last tips, and shook my hand as we posed for a picture. I finished a thorough preflight, Jeff and I strapped in, I started up, and with one last wave to Paul we taxied away. A few minutes later we were airborne and headed northeast to Columbia Falls, where Highway 2 enters the Rockies.

Crossing the mountains turned out to be quite easy, for it was clear other than a few low scattered clouds on the western side. We climbed to a lofty 9500'; the Pacer performed quite well in the cold air despite being somewhat heavy. We followed the highway southeast and then cut northeast through Marias Pass, where turned towards Great Falls. Jeff had his iPad running Foreflight with a Stratus ADS-B box, which is how we got the new TAF for GTF as soon as it was issued. The airport was clear for the time being, but the new forecast called for dense fog starting around midnight and not clearing until noon. Helena, on the other hand, had no forecast fog whatsoever. We decided to go there instead though it was about 50 miles out of the way. We arrived shortly before sundown; my first landing in the Pacer wasn't really pretty, but it wasn't bad enough to scare me, either (I can't speak for Jeff!). I sprung for a heated hangar so we wouldn't have to deal with frost or preheating in the morning.

After a hearty meal and a good sleep, we were back at the airport by 7am and airborne at sunup. As forecast, Helena was beautifully clear and Great Falls was thoroughly socked in. Billings, also, was reporting low IFR. Lewistown, 107nm east of Helena, was clear and forecast to remain so. After that there were very few reporting stations to the east, but the weather was generally pretty crummy. We landed in Lewistown after a very nice morning flight, refueled, and discussed our plan. It seemed like the worst weather was southeast, while most airports to the northeast (Glasgow, Wolf Point, Sidney) were reporting marginal VFR. We ended up following US-87 east to Mosby, then veering north along the Musselshell River to Lake Fort Peck, and then east to Sidney, where we refueled. Some of it was fairly marginal VFR under low ceilings, but with good visibility underneath. After Sidney the ceilings steadily increased to several thousand feel. Initially we were headed towards Jamestown ND but then Jeff's ADS-B alerted us that unforecast snow had started falling in the vicinity and was rapidly reducing visibility. We headed southeast for Aberdeen SD instead.

We refueled and took off from Aberdeen at sunset, and so I got to test out the Pacer's night-flying capability. It has old-school red flood lighting that actually works quite nicely. There were a few patches of snow in southwestern MN which the ADS-B helped us stay clear of. I was pretty impressed by the system and will likely be getting it in the future (of course there's the ADS-B Out mandate to contend with but that's a rant for another day). We flew over my neighborhood and then down the Minnesota River, landing at Flying Cloud at 7pm - 8.8 flying hours from Helena in 10 hours by the clock, not bad at all with three frigid refueling stops. In all, I reckoned that our weather- and terrain-prompted zig-zagging added about 170nm to the great circle distance from KGPI to KFCM. We made it home early enough for Jeff to drive home to Madison the same night.

The next day I went back out to the hangar and just putzed around with the airplane for a while. It was pretty hard to believe she was mine. The weather cleared a bit so I called up my brother Steve up to go flying, and we took my pup Piper along on his first airplane ride. The pooch got a bit excited but didn't do anything too disastrous until after the flight; then he puked all over the front seat of my truck. A few nights later he went up again, this time with Dawn and I as we looked at Christmas lights - just like I'd written about in that month's Flying magazine. And then in January, we took the Pacer out to western MN for a family gathering, in which I took several of Dawn's cousins and their kids for plane rides. All told, I have just over 20 hours on the Pacer so far, and I've really enjoyed getting to know her (my landings are much improved). It's been a wonderful first month with an airplane of our own.


Anonymous said...

Great story! Good looking place Sam. Thanks for breaking down the cost of ownership for those of us contemplating it as well.
Matt from KDSM.

jsterner said...

Congrats Sam, I'm envious grinding around the pattern in a rental 150.

D.B. said...

Nice! Welcome to Airplane ownership (V35A Bonanza & C150 here). I like the overhead windows in the Pacer (kind of like a Decathlon).

Sam Weigel said...

D.B. -- The nice thing about PA20s & 22s is the huge range of STCs available for them. You can put on big engines, long props, tundra tires, PA18 tailfeathers, alternator conversions, lightweight starters & batteries, remote oil filters, skylights, add a left-hand door, put on seaplane/patroller doors, skis, floats, convert from tri-pacer to taildragger, VGs, leading edge cuffs, stall fences, wingtip extensions, extra fuel tanks, dual toe brakes, Cleveland wheels & brakes, and more - it's all been done! Mine is only moderately modded...converted from a TriPacer 135 to a Pacer, then had a 160hp engine (from a Tri-Pacer 160) installed, clevelands and pilot-side toe brakes added, micro VGs, 8.50 mains, 4.00x4 baby bushwheel on the tail, and the Steve's Aircraft skylight, which I love. Brightens up the cockpit a lot. I have other mods planned though...limited only by time & money!