Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part I: Minneapolis to Atlanta

When Dawn and I bought the Pacer, a major motivation was being able to take it on long adventures, and turning some of those adventures into published stories. Even before I bought it, though, my brother Steve and I were planning a flying/sailing trip to the Bahamas with several friends over Dawn's Spring Break this year. The original plan was to take two rental planes, but once we bought the Pacer, it seemed silly not to use it for the exact purpose we bought it for. Sure, it's a long ways from Minnesota, and a rental plane would probably be more economical, but I bought the plane with the express intent of putting 120 hours a year on it. So the plan evolved: bring the Pacer south, rent a Piper Warrior as the second airplane, fly to Great Harbour Cay, Staniel Cay, and Eleuthera, and have several more friends airline it into Marsh Harbour to join us for 4 days of cruising the Abaco Sea on a 46' catamaran. The longer the winter dragged on, the better the plan sounded. There was just the small matter of getting the Pacer 1200 NM south before the trip.

Surprisingly, given that I'm in the bottom 10% of Minneapolis Mad Dog FOs, I didn't have too much trouble getting time off for the trip. I did, however, have a lot of flying in the middle of March, leaving last week as my best window for repositioning the plane. I had a four-day trip that was scheduled to finish at 8am on March 9th, so I tentatively set that as the departure date. Initially the long-term forecast looked good, then soured significantly in the days prior. A major system was pumping a ton of moisture from the Gulf into the southern states, and Atlanta was predicted to have a soggy week. Besides rain, low ceilings, and restricted visibilities, the southerly flow could potentially set up rather unfavorable winds aloft, making for a very long 1200 miles. It was looking pretty dicey over the weekend.

On Monday morning, I woke early in Pittsburgh and looked over the weather very carefully. My initial plan had been a nearly direct path to Atlanta, with two stops for fuel at convenient airports offering cheap gas. Atlanta's forecast had actually improved significantly, with rain not forecast to begin until after my evening arrival and possibly breaking in the morning for an escape to Florida. However, low ceilings and rain showers in southern Indiana, western Kentucky, and central Tennessee required a deviation from the direct routing. Strong northwesterly winds made a non-stop flight to Morris, IL a good choice for the first leg, and from there I could choose to fly to Glasgow, KY (the more direct route) or if weather dictated, Danville, KY. Even the latter option involved only about 40nm extra over the great circle route. I decided it was doable, suited up, and flew my one leg from PIT to MSP. After landing the Mad Dog at a breathtakingly clear and surprisingly warm Minneapolis, I scooted over to Flying Cloud airport, changed out of the monkey suit, gassed up the Pacer, and launched to the southeast.

I climbed to 9500 feet on the first leg to take advantage of a 35 knot tailwind. I enjoyed it while it lasted; as expected, it faded after the first 90 minutes, and I descended to 7500 feet for a slightly better true airspeed. I got VFR flight following with Minneapolis and Chicago Center, and then Rockford Approach. I landed at a beautifully sunny (but surprisingly still snowy) Morris Municipal Airport at 12:35PM after 2:30 enroute for an average groundspeed of 120 kts. I filled up with $4.50 100LL, updated my weather database, and took off, initially climbing to 7500 feet. I knew lower ceilings would force me down at some point but wasn't sure when, or just how marginal they would be along my route. The METARs were all worse than previously forecast and several TAFs had been amended, but the airports directly along my route were still all reporting 1500' ceilings or better when I took off from Morris.

The scattered layer began along a very well-defined line around Lafayette (Indiana) and I descended to 3500' in preparation for ducking under. It grew progressively more broken, and I finally descended through one of the last big holes around Crawfordsville, IN. Initially I was able to maintain VFR at 1500' AGL, but the ceilings dropped and I ended up descending to 1200', then 1000'. The ceilings ahead appeared even lower. I dialed up an AWOS further south and it was reporting an 800' ceiling; another to the west, 300'. Indianapolis, however, was still reporting 1900' broken. My intended route was no longer tenable, I had to make a change, and east was clearly the way to go. I turned 45 degrees left, changed the route on WingX to reflect my new destination of Danville (KDVK), and scanned the chart for obstructions ahead. There were many short towers atop a ridge extending southwest from Indianapolis, but the ceilings had already started to rise by the time I got there, and I was enjoying a good 2000' ceiling by the time the ground dropped away again near Martinsville.

There was a new problem, however; by descending my slight tailwind had turned into a slight headwind, which along with the zig-zagging was going to put me at Danville with about 55 minutes of fuel remaining. That's legal, and I've grown pretty adept at estimating fuel used in the Pacer down to about a half-gallon, but I've always maintained a personal one-hour minimum reserve. It was tempting to fudge it this time, because Danville had cheap $3.95 gas and I could make it to Atlanta non-stop from there. Stopping short would mean an additional fuel stop with the associated delay. If you do it this time, you'll do it again, I told myself. Next time it'll be 50 minutes, or 45. No, I'd do the right thing. If I didn't make it to Atlanta tonight, so be it. Chattanooga would be a fine place to bed the Pacer down, and it has airline service if I subsequently got weathered in. Seymour, Indiana was right along my route, and WingX showed that it had perfectly reasonable $4.45 self-serve AvGas. I landed at Seymour, topped off, and tried to check the weather. The pilot lounge weather terminal wasn't working, and there was no wifi. Oh well - the weather appeared to be excellent south and east, so I took off and called Flight Watch once airborne.

Flight Watch reported that the ceilings and visibilities were excellent east of a line extending southward from Louisville, so there was no longer a reason to go as far east as Danville. I adjusted my course more southward, skirting the eastern edge of Louisville's Class C and then proceeding directly to Russell County Airport in Jamestown, KY. Besides offering cheap 24-hour AvGas (I would be arriving around 5:30pm EDT), it appeared to be a nice quiet little airport that would make for a quick pitstop. I was surprised to find it a virtual beehive of activity compared to my last two stops, with a Citation landing immediately after me and a Twin Commanche departing ahead of me! The FBO was closed but I was able to check the radar on my phone; there were a few scattered returns around Atlanta but so far the heavy stuff was holding off and the enroute METARs looked good.

My last leg of the day contained the most interesting scenery, crossing Lake Cumberland shortly after takeoff and then meandering through a wooded, hilly landscape criss-crossed by verdant river valleys and lonesome-looking byways and pockmarked by little dales with wisps of smoke rising from homesteads in the clearings. My very first article for Flying opened with a description of this exact area from 35,000 feet, but this was my first time seeing it at low altitude. The terrain changed dramatically once I crossed Walden Ridge just east of Hinch Mountain; the Cumberland Plateau fell away, replaced by the lowlands of the Tennessee River Valley. I've ridden motorcycle in this area quite a bit, and recognized the familiar form of the Great Smoky Mountains rising to my left through a light drizzle that began near Dayton, TN and continued all the way to Atlanta. Ceilings remained high, though, and visibility was generally excellent except for a few localized areas of around 6-7 miles vis.

I crossed into Georgia near Dalton, paralleled a low ridge for about 40 miles, and climbed slightly to clear the last bit of terrain near Pine Log. By now the last light was fading, but the terrain was flat the rest of the way to my destination of Falcon Field in Peachtree City, and the weather was good. I talked to tower controllers at Cobb County, Dobbins AFB, and Fulton County before ducking under the Atlanta Class B, passing about 8 miles west of Hartsfield and getting buzzed by a Mad Dog on final for 8L in the process. Pretty cool, though I suspect their TCAS had a thing or two to say about it. It was finally pitch dark when I crossed over Falcon Field and entered the left downwind for Runway 31. My sim partner from initial training, Kevin, was still a few hours from landing at ATL, but his wife Jeannie picked me up from KFFC, as their house is only a few miles away. The next day Kevin and I planned to fly the Pacer south to Sebastian, FL, but that would entirely depend on the weather. In the meantime, I was just happy to have safely made it 840 nm around a fairly active weather system in 9 hours time (7.9 hrs in flight).


Jimmer said...

Cool to hear that you flew into Morris! I've been in there a few times as it's 10 mins from the airport that I train at (1C5 - Clow International). Hope you enjoyed the time in Illinois

Anonymous said...

Great article looking forward to Part 2! Matt from KDSM.

Anonymous said...

Should Dalton AFB be Dobbins ARB? - LT_DT

Sam Weigel said...

Anonymous - Yep! Corrected, thanks!

Addison Conroy said...
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