Thursday, January 21, 2016

On The Road

 If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: airplanes are meant to fly, they like to fly, and the worst thing for them is to sit unused. This is one of the reasons flying clubs make so much more sense to me than sole ownership, at least for the average owner: the use rate on a large portion of the GA fleet is abysmally low. When we bought the Pacer on December 15, 2014, we set a goal of flying it 10 hours a month. Well wouldn't you know it, as of December 15, 2015, I had exactly 119.7 hours in the airplane. Not bad.

In the five weeks since then, I've put on another 54.5 hours...46 hours since Christmas on a cross-country totaling over 4200 miles. Yeah, you may have guessed that I still haven't been assigned OE on the 757/767, the check airmen are still backed up. It's been a nice holiday season collecting paychecks to stay at home...or rather, not.

On Christmas morning, Dawn and I departed Flying Cloud early and turned the nose eastward. We landed in LaCrosse only an hour later to wait out low ceilings across central Wisconsin, a harbinger of things to come. Four hours later it had improved to marginal VFR, and not wanting to be caught by the large snowstorm nipping at our heels, we scudran an hour east to find clear skies near Lake Michigan. It was a lovely cruise past the Chicago skyline (albeit bittersweet to see the ruins of Meigs Field), and then we landed in La Porte, Indiana for fuel. We were able to go high for a sweet tailwind on our next leg due east; I landed in Port Clinton, Ohio for three solo bounces to reestablish night currency before we continued onto Cleveland, were we were planning to meet up with friends. Unfortunately the new TAF that popped up on my stratux showed low ceilings and rain the next morning; rather than risk getting trapped, I continued on to a very dark Jamestown, New York airport to spend the night. We found a cheap and comfy hotel easily enough, but scrounging a late dinner on Christmas night took some doing; even the Chinese places were closing. We finally located a pizzeria still delivering.

The next morning dawned considerably nicer than forecast, even back in Cleveland. Our extra easting made for an easy day, though, as we climbed high to cover the 307NM to Chester, Connecticut in a single leg. Here we visited my former student Johnny G and his beautiful family. Johnny recently sold his pristine 1981 Piper Warrior which we flew from coast-to-coast a few years back, unfortunately, but it was great seeing them again.

That night low ceilings and rain moved in, and it didn't dissipate as forecast the next day until very late. In the meantime Dawn and I borrowed a car and explored the colonial town of Essex. Chester was the last place to go VFR (it's on a 300 ft MSL hill), around sunset, at which point we were looking at very marginal VFR through the Hudson River VFR corridor after dark. We reluctantly called our Jersey friends Jeremy & Crystal to tell them we wouldn't be coming, then found a cozy B&B in a 1746 house in Old Saybrook, CT.

The weather was much improved the next morning, albeit with a brisk north wind that foretold the approach of the next cold front. We took off around sunrise and enjoyed a fast, pleasant ride along the Connecticut coast and down the Hudson. It was pretty neat seeing the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty from the left seat of the Pacer. We landed in Monmouth, NJ to go to breakfast with Jeremy & Crystal and their four rambunctious young boys, and then continued past Cape May and across Delaware Bay to Georgetown, DE. We didn't really need gas yet, but Delaware was one of only four states that Dawn hadn't been to at the start of this trip. The only reason I'd been there was because I got on the wrong hotel shuttle in PHL some years ago.

The strong tailwinds continued as we scooted southward over the DelMarVa peninsula, albeit under steadily lowering ceilings. It was down to 1500' overcast as we passed Norfolk, and we decided to land in Elizabeth City, NC as the stratux showed a persistent 100-mile-wide band of IFR ceilings with rain showers starting 40nm south of there. We tarried in the extremely accommodating FBO's lounge for a few minutes before I decided it wouldn't be clearing that afternoon; we tied down the plane, rented an old Buick LeSabre beater, and found the steal of the trip: a $65 room in a gorgeous B&B in an old mansion. Downtown Elizabeth City was a bit more abandoned-feeling than I thought it would be, but we enjoyed surveying the cruising sailboats on the intercoastal waterway, hung out in a friendly pub with a fantastic beer selection, and had a superb fresh seafood dinner.

Overnight a warm front passed through, the fresh northeast winds flipped to the southwest and became even gustier, and temperature rose twenty degrees. The low ceiling persisted until 9am; as soon as the skies cleared we took off into 30 knot winds and started bashing our way southwest. Even with clear skies I stayed at 500 feet where we could at least maintain 75-80 knots groundspeed; climbing to 1000 feet slowed us to 60 knots (45 kt headwind). It was a miserable 2.5 hour turbulent slog to cover the 193nm to North Myrtle Beach, SC. Dawn handled it masterfully, as she did the entire trip. I must say she's the only woman I know who would be ecstatic to spend her vacation in a cramped small airplane clawing its way cross-country through unpredictable winter weather -- and I married her! The ride improved for the next leg as we hugged the coastline, though there was a localized patch of unexpectedly low ceilings between Charleston and Hilton Head, and the groundspeed stayed stubbornly stuck at 80 knots all the way to St. Simon's Island, Georgia. From there, though, the winds died down as we continued southward over the north Florida beaches, and it was a thoroughly pleasant, warm afternoon by the time we touched down at Spruce Creek Fly-In Community.

Our friends Mike and Traci from the AirVenture Cup Race welcomed us to Spruce Creek with much-appreciated cocktails, followed by a scrumptious dinner at the Downwind Cafe. Later we popped into Keith Phillips' hangar/bar for Darts Night, and had a great time visiting with Keith and other EAAers we know from the race and Oshkosh. I can't say I'd ever choose to move to Florida - but if I ever do, Spruce Creek would be at the top of my list.

The next morning we got a bit of a late start due to fog and a slow breakfast at the Downwind (they lost our order, oops); once airborne, I was dismayed to see that the southeasterly flow was as strong as ever, promising a slow ride southbound. We stopped fairly early to refuel at the Pacer's old haunt of Sebastian, which is where we began and ended the Bahamas trip. From there we followed the beaches southward; at Stuart I started talking to ATC, and they had me stay below 1000 feet in the West Palm Beach Class C and below 500 (!) passing Fort Lauderdale. It was interesting mixing it up with all the helicopters and banner towers as we flew at eye level with a nearly uninterrupted string of beachfront high-rises for nearly a hundred miles. South Florida is such a zoo.

Civilization abruptly and mercifully ceased at Biscayne Cay, where we left all traffic behind and began a delightful hour-long jaunt down the Keys. I had originally planned to refuel at Pompano Beach, but once there our groundspeed was sufficient to make Marathon Key with an hour reserve. Now, as the Keys turned westward, our groundspeed kept increasing until we were able to make it nonstop to Key West. We landed at 2:30pm on December 30th and found the FBO unsurprisingly chock-a-block. We stayed at the new 24 North Hotel, and while I'm not sure I've ever paid $260 for a hotel room, it was a comparative bargain & we would have paid $450+ had we stayed New Years Eve. Key West has become insanely expensive, at least during peak periods - but hey, we had the good sense to come here, why wouldn't everyone else? Duval Street was busy but not horribly crowded that night; we hung out at Sloppy Joes for a couple hours, but didn't stay out too late.

We headed back up the Keys late the next morning. Dawn flew most of the way, as she had on several previous legs. The wind had shifted to the southwest, and we enjoyed a rare tailwind as we cut across from Islamorada to Homestead GA Airport on the mainland. There we tied the plane down and put on its cover, ending the first leg of our ambitious trip. We rented a car and backtracked to Key Largo where we spent New Years Eve with my cousins Nate and Billie, and nonrevved from Miami to Minneapolis the next day. Over the seven days from December 25-31, we covered 2333nm in 25.2 hours, making 17 landings. The Pacer flew flawlessly but was just about due for some maintenance, for which it didn't have to wait very long at all.


Roger D. Parish said...

Wow! What a small world! Keith Phillips is the former husband of my wife's cousin. I've flown with Keith in a Maule at their cabin on Buggs Island Lake on the Virginia-North Carolina border. We flew down there from northern Virginia a few times in our old 172.

Darrell said...

Sam, great trip report. Can't wait to hear about the return leg(s). If your travels bring you back to KPCW or anywhere in Cleveland, ping me for the first round! ifr_blogger at gmail dot com



Anonymous said...

great story as usual! Just got done reading your warbird article too in Flying, love the photos and story, nice work.
Matt from KDSM.

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