Friday, January 29, 2016

Southern Sun

Growing up in the Great White North, I knew a few snowbirds among my parents' circle of friends and supposed that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line was perpetual glorious summer. I wasn't fully disabused of this notion until my frigid motorcycle trip across the South six years ago, which comprised two legs of a nearly-15,000 mile ride around the Lower 48. I rode shivering in temperatures mostly in the 20s and 30s - the warmest it got between San Diego and Florida was 49 degrees, in El Paso - and an enormous winter storm that dumped a foot of snow on Dallas chased me all the way from Texas to Tampa. I'd already been flying airliners to the south and southeast for a few years and should have known better: of course the South has winter. It's merely more moderate than the North, and only really stays nice in a few localized spots: Southern California, the low desert around Phoenix and Tucson, the Gulf Coast, and most of Florida - basically, all the places the snowbirds end up.

When we set out for the East Coast with the Pacer on Christmas Day, it was with the intention of reprising the motorcycle trip, in stages as in 2010, but from the air this time and clockwise around the country with additional forays to Mexico and Alaska. This time I had no illusions as to the weather difficulties associated with making such a trip in the winter, and the first two legs to the Northeast and down to Florida did not disappoint. We made our easting between two major, fast-moving systems, had one nasty cold front pass over while holed up in Connecticut, and snuck down to North Carolina ahead of the next. From there we fought our way down through strong southerly flow funneled between a warm front over the Atlantic and a stationary front stalled over the Appalachians. Basically we made the most of each short weather window, and in fact spent three of the first four nights in different places than originally planned. Once in Florida, however, all signs of winter weather disappeared.

We flew back to Minneapolis on January 1st for a few post-Christmas family events; I returned south the following Tuesday, alone, to fly around Florida visiting friends and procuring routine maintenance for the Pacer. But in the meantime, winter had come to Florida with a vengeance. I drove from the Miami airport to my cousins' place in Key Largo through driving rain courtesy of a strong cold front, and it had scarcely improved when I drove up to the Homestead General Aviation Airport the next day. Finally the rain abated and the ceilings rose just enough for me to sneak north to Sebring. There I visited a friend who is a 777 captain for my airline, toured the Lockwood factory, and flew an AirCam during a brief window between rain showers and low ceilings. What a fun airplane! I'll admit that the first time I shoved the twin throttles forward, I was wholly unprepared to be airborne and climbing at a vertiginous angle within the span of about three seconds.


The next morning I was intending to fly up to Orlando early to tour the Flying Magazine offices and give a few staff members plane rides, but the ceilings were low - way low, with fog that persisted well after it was forecast to clear. I postponed the Orlando engagements 'till the following morning, and concentrated on just getting to Bartow for Pacer maintenance. It needed an oil change and I was also within a few hours of two recurring ADs being due. My 160-horsepower Lycoming O-320-B2A has a hollow crankshaft that requires periodic inspections for corrosion and cracking. A few years ago, before I bought it, surface pitting was found in the inner diameter of the crankshaft, which mandates a fluorescent penetrant inspection (FPI) to check for cracks every year or every 100 flight hours, whichever comes first. It's not a big deal to do it during the annual - but if you put on more than 100 hours between annuals, it's kind of a pain.

My friend Dick Karl, who resides in Tampa and also writes for Flying, gets his Cheyenne maintained by Bill Turley at Aircraft Engineering Inc. I had met Turley on a Tampa overnight when Dick and I flew his plane over to have a new ELT installed, and Bill remembered me when I called about having his busy shop do the oil change and FPI inspection. Due to the weather, I wasn't able to land in Bartow until 1:30pm, but the shop got me right in. To do the FPI, you have to remove the spinner and propeller, drill out and remove a thin disk that acts as a plug on the end of the crankshaft, clean out the first 3.5 inches of the inner diameter, apply the penetrant, let it sit, apply developer, and then inspect with a blacklight. The last step is to bang a new crankshaft disk into place and reinstall the propeller and spinner. To make the oil change easier I also removed the upper cowling. Because of my late arrival, the shop didn't have time to take care of my 50-hour muffler AD. I figured I'd get it done at another airport within a few days. Once the Pacer was put back together, I flew up to Orlando Executive Airport, where I had a couch to crash on at a nearby friend's apartment.

The next morning dawned - what else - cold, foggy and overcast, with rain showers. The forecast called for improvement so Flying's art director and his 7-year-old son picked me up and headed to the airport, where the weather already looked much better. We preflighted, started up, and taxied out only to hear an IFR arrival on short final report breaking out at 400 feet. Low ceilings were rapidly moving onto the field, so we taxied back and spent the next two hours in the FBO watching a massive rainstorm lash the airport. Finally there was just enough of a break in the weather to get in a pleasant 30-minute Young Eagles flight. The boy was nervous beforehand but ended up loving it. On our return we were met by Flying's staff photographer. The Pacer and I had been roped into serving as models for a story on marginal VFR flying, and you couldn't have asked for a much better day for the subject material - especially for Florida. I can't say I've ever been a model before, and I felt a bit foolish posing with my iPad or "talking to FSS" on my cell phone - "look more worried!" - but the results, with the atmospheric rain-slicked ramp and a backdrop of ominous-looking clouds, were pretty spectacular. And then the photographer and I went flying and managed to sample pretty much every marginal VFR situation ever invented: scudrunning under low ceilings, reduced visibility in mist, VFR over the top of a thickening broken layer, spiraling through a suckerhole, dodging rain showers. I actually had to pick up a special VFR clearance to get in under a 900-foot broken layer, the first time I've done that since my CFI days. You'll be able to see the photos in Flying's March issue, out in a few weeks.

The weather cleared considerably by the afternoon, when I took off for Tampa's Peter O Knight Airport. Like Sebring, I had stopped here on my way back from the Bahamas last year and found it a great little seaside field tucked between Tampa's downtown and seaport. On my way there, I noticed a fine mist of oil slowly forming on the windscreen. Uh-oh. After landing I went to see the resident mechanics to see if they could take a look and, oh, maybe take care of the muffler AD while they were at it. At 3pm on a Friday afternoon? Not a chance! I assumed the oil was coming from within the cowling, so I opened it up and started looking. There was some residual oil, though it was possible that was from the unavoidable mess that's made when removing the oil screen during an oil change. I checked the oil screen bolts and found one fairly loose. Maybe that was it? Everything else I checked was tight. Concluding I'd have to fly it again and recheck tomorrow, I secured the airplane, ubered to the decent downtown hotel I got cheap on Hotwire, and then headed to Dick Karl's beautiful waterside home for a "guys' night in" dinner party. It was a lovely evening with interesting company, an eclectic mix of doctors, lawyers, newspapermen, and younger Part 135 pilots. It was fairly late by the time my shared uber ride dropped me off downtown.

Dick may have fed me just one too many dirty martinis, as I woke with a splitting headache. No big deal, it was solid IFR anyways and not forecast to improve until noon. Meanwhile my intended destination, the Florida panhandle, was overcast at 200' with 2 miles visibility and no great improvement in the offing. Screw it - I was done fighting the weather, for now at least. I called Peter O Knight and arranged for the mechanics to complete the muffler AD inspection and hunt down the oil leak the following week, then headed out to TPA and caught a Mad Dog to frigid (but clear!) Minnesota. I'd be back less than a week later with a daunting goal: flying 1600 miles west, clear across the continent, against winter headwinds and whatever weather systems came marching across the plains.,-81.50207518919316&chart=301&zoom=7&fpl=%20X51%20KSEF%20KBOW%20KORL%20KTPF%20KTPF

Part II to follow....


jsterner said...

What a boring life you lead Sam. :-) At least here In Tucson it is warm and sunny, but the only exciting thing I get to do is grind around the pattern with a C150. Keep up the great stories.


DK said...

Had the pleasure of having you bring me home to MSP from RSW this week. As a longtime reader of both the blog and your Flying column it was great to finally be aboard with you!

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