Monday, March 23, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part II: Atlanta to Sebastian

When the Bahamas plan first came together, my sailor/pilot friend Andy was planning on flying the rental Piper Warrior. As a fairly junior captain at NewCo, though, he ended up getting a trip that conflicted with our schedule, and couldn't get out of it because the company put his annual line check on that trip. Andy is still joining us in Marsh Harbour for the sailing portion of our adventure, but I needed to find a second pilot to come with us, and on fairly short notice. All the friends I contacted were enthusiastic about the trip, but had schedule conflicts or were tight on money at the time. "You should have told me last week!" or "I'll do it next year!" were common responses. I was just about at the end of my rope when I thought to give Kevin a call. Kevin and I were training partners on the Mad Dog last year, and we rode motorcycles and hung out during that month quite a bit. He and his wife are really cool, adventurous people, ideal for the trip - except I knew Kevin hadn't flown a small plane in a long time. After some hesitation due to that fact, he said they were in, and he'd just do whatever was necessary to get current. Within a week, the plan came together, and it ended up working really well.

The night that I landed the Pacer at Falcon Field, I stayed at Kevin and Jeannie's house in Peachtree City, GA. The next morning, Kevin and I were back out to the airport at 9am, with a preliminary stop at the nearby Aircraft Spruce and Specialty East. A steady drizzle was falling, but it only extended a few miles south and wasn't forecast to get heavy until later in the day; ceilings and visibilities remained high. We took off just after 9am for the short, bumpy hop to Upson County to top off with cheap gas. There was a strong crosswind out of the south, though, and my landing left a bit to be desired. From there we set course for St. Augustine, Florida, 234nm to the southeast. The winds aloft clocked around more to the west at higher altitudes, so we climbed to 7500 feet and were rewarded with a 90 knot groundspeed - not great, but better than the 80 knots I was showing at 2000 feet on the way to Upson County, and with a much smoother ride. Shortly after takeoff, I turned the controls over to Kevin, and he flew most of the rest of the day except for takeoffs and landings. He quickly adapted to the lighter control forces and flew smoothly, but I had to continually remind him to stay coordinated. "I haven't touched rudder pedals except for takeoff and landing in 20 years!" he protested.

Passing Macon we left the cloudy skies behind, and I regretted not packing a cap to keep the bright southern sun out of my eyes. We got VFR flight following from Atlanta and Jacksonville Centers, whose low sectors were rather quiet on this Tuesday morning. We veered a bit east while crossing the Okefenokee Swamp to remain within gliding distance of civilization, and then dropped down to 5500 feet. Jacksonville Approach was fairly busy, and we waited until we were past the extended centerline for Runway 7 at JAX to descend further to 3500. Approach cancelled our flight following when we were 10 miles north of St. Augustine, and as soon as I contacted the tower it was clear we had walked into a bee's nest. There were six or seven planes in the pattern, mostly student pilots speaking poor english, and the controller was just losing it. He instructed us to enter a left downwind for 13, then told another aircraft to disregard and make a seven mile straight-in for 13. I set up for the midfield downwind, and then got yelled at for not making a seven mile straight-in - the controller had mixed up our callsigns. He still made me go seven miles east, pirouette around a smoke column (controlled burn), and then drag it in on an excruciatingly long final approach - with nobody ahead of us for miles. The student pilot behind us had to greatly extend his own downwind, the controller called us out to him (misidentifying us as a Cherokee), and the poor kid's "looking!" responses sounded increasingly frantic. After all that, my high flare and plunker of a landing on the 150' x 8000' runway wasn't very surprising. Hey, at least I didn't groundloop - it was an even bigger crosswind than at Upson County. To top it off, ground control informed us that the municipal fuel pumps - the ones with the 2nd cheapest AvGas in the entire United States - were out of gas. He instead directed us to Atlantic Aviation, a beautiful facility with excellent service and $6.65 AvGas. C'est la vie.

Kevin and I had a very good lunch at the Fly-By Cafe, paid for our gas (hey, thanks, a 25¢/gal "local's discount"), and took off on our last leg down the coast. A new controller was on tower frequency, and sounded even more overwhelmed than the last guy (I later found out it's a non-FAA contract tower). I was happy to switch over to Jax Approach, who readily granted our request for VFR flight following. We cruised at 5500 feet for most of the way, the better to stay in smooth, cool air above most of the swarming GA traffic, until thickening afternoon cumulus forced us down into the bumps at 3500 feet. Most of the restricted areas for Cape Canaveral were cold, and we got a nice view of the shuttle assembly building and landing strip. Passing Titusville, I glanced down and was shocked to see a Space Shuttle sitting on the ground directly underneath us; I wheeled over for a circle. I later found out it's a full-scale mock-up on the grounds of the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Like everywhere else, Sebastian was quite windy - a 30 degree southeasterly crosswind gusting well above 20 knots. I finally made a good landing considering the conditions, and taxied over to Skydive Sebastian. We are renting the Warrior for the trip from Xena Aviation, whose owners Stacey and Jerry also work for the dropzone. I got Kevin familiarized with the Warrior while Jerry flew a couple loads of skydivers in a Cessna Caravan, and when he was done for the day we went flying - Kevin in the left seat, Jerry in the right, and me observing from the backseat. The wind was still pretty gusty so it was less than ideal conditions to get a rusty light plane pilot current again. Kevin did some airwork in the practice area - rediscovering those rudder pedals again - and then came back to the airport for pattern work. It was pretty neat watching Kevin steadily remembering things that were obviously still somewhere in a long-disused part of his brain. His landings weren't great by the end of the lesson, but the rest of his flying had improved by leaps and bounds. The sun was setting as we tied the Warrior down next to my Pacer, and after checking into the hotel we enjoyed a good dinner and some much-deserved cold beers. That night I also got some really exciting news on the job front; I'll share that in the next post.

Early the next morning we flew again, departing shortly after sunrise to enjoy some mercifully calm air, and Kevin's landings got steadily better. By the end of the hour, he was clearly comfortable with the plane, and Jerry gave him his blessing. In all the checkout took only 2.2 hours - not bad for someone who hadn't touched a small plane in 27 years! We took a couple of celebratory laps in the Pacer and Kevin made his first taildragger landing, and then we gassed up the plane, tied her down, put on her canopy cover, and caught a cab to Melbourne Airport. I have one more two-day trip for work tomorrow, and then we'll all be heading south next Friday for my first big adventure with my little yellow Pacer. We'll be back in the U.S. on April 4th, and I should have some really nice photos & video to share.,-91.52929686951346&chart=301&zoom=14&plan=A.K3.KFCM:A.K5.C09:A.K5.KSER:A.K5.K24:A.K7.KFFC:A.K7.KOPN:A.K7.KSGJ:A.K7.X26


Addison Conroy said...
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Blogging with Spencer said...

Pretty sweet sounding trip! Do you have to obtain any special clearances or anything like that to fly around cape Canaveral?

Ron Rapp said...


That is all. :)

Sam Weigel said...

Spencer - No, there are several restricted areas but only the one directly over the launchpad is active most days. The larger restricted areas go hot only on launch days. You can actually even shoot approaches to the shuttle landing strip on weekends...I later did this during a Daytona Beach overnight in which I hung out at Spruce Creek and few a friend's Twin Commanche.