Monday, March 14, 2016

Southern Sun, Part II

I flew back down to Tampa on January 15th, caught an Uber ride to Peter O Knight Airport, and inspected the Pacer. The local mechanics had completed the required 50-hour muffler inspection, but hadn't been able to hunt down a slight oil leak I had noticed the previous week on the way over from Orlando. Nothing to do but fly and try to figure out where it was coming from on subsequent legs, I figured. I launched to the north, into the teeth of a fierce headwind that spawned moderate turbulence and miserably slow groundspeed. Finally I ducked down low and just offshore alongside the Gulf Coast, where the ride improved considerably and progress improved by a couple knots. I landed at Cross City, FL for cheap gas - as I had on my way north from the Bahamas last spring - which involved a pretty nasty crosswind and a wild ride down final. In the hour and a half since Tampa a fine mist of oil had again coated the right side of the windscreen, and this time I also saw oil on the righthand wing struts. Now I knew the culprit: after the crankshaft inspection AD was accomplished in Bartow the previous week, the crankshaft plug hadn't been sufficiently seated, allowing oil to leak out and be slung outward by the propeller. No mechanics on the field here, though, not on a Friday afternoon. There wasn't any danger of the plug coming out altogether, as it was held in place by the propeller flange. I decided to press on and just clean up the oil after each leg.

It was a slow couple hours to Destin Executive Airport, where I landed and booked a nearby hotel room for the night. While waiting in the FBO lobby, a younger pilot came in looking for the guy with the yellow Pacer. Turned out David has a J-3 Cub and a family T-6 Texan (!) and wanted to tell me he liked my airplane. I told him about my round-the-US trip and noted that I was planning on going to a fly-in at nearby Brewton, AL the next morning; he decided to go too, flying his Cub. We ended up meeting for drinks that night, but didn't stay up too late in the interest of getting an early start to Brewton.

Alas, Saturday morning dawned rather foggy, and by the time it finally burned off it was time for me to get going to Pensacola; I had to miss the fly-in. Dawn was flying in on Delta via Atlanta, and just like in Nassau last year I landed right after her flight. The folks at Pensacola Aviation Center were exceptionally nice, picked Dawn up from the terminal, and declined to charge me a ramp fee even though I had just fueled in Destin and didn't need gas. It was just after noon when we took off to the northwest; we hoped to meet our friends Rob and Lori in Dallas that night.

Our first stop was only 40 miles northwest, in Bay Minette, Alabama. Dawn had three states left to visit to make 50 - Alabama, Mississippi, and New Mexico - and we figured we'd knock out all three over the weekend. We borrowed an awesomely dilapidated 1994 Buick LeSabre - I once owned one of that exact year, which my friends mercilessly dubbed "The GrandpaMobile" - and sought out a decent Mexican restaurant in the little town center. From there it was a two-hour hop west to Natchez, MS, where a quick fuel stop satisfied the visitation requirements of Dawn's second-to-last state. From there we flew west across the broad Mississippi River and the plains of northern Louisiana as the sky grew increasingly grey and the south winds freshened. We were approaching a cold front that was blocking our route to Dallas with widespread rain over the TX-LA border. Initially I thought we could go through it, but as we came nearer I watched the weather steadily deteriorate via my stratux ADS-B receiver, with increasingly strong rain showers and lowering ceilings. That matched what I saw out the window as we approached the frontal boundary - and worse, we were starting to lose daylight. Nope, I wasn't going to scudrun through that. I turned to the southwest and paralleled the leaden wall, looking for a way through.

We went over fifty miles southwest before I found what I was looking for, a southern crease in the front, where the rain was light and the ceiling not so low. We turned westward and plunged into darkness under the soggy clouds. Twice, the ceilings lowered enough that I nearly turned around - but each time, we abruptly broke out into a much clearer area. By the time I worked my way back northwest to Palestine, TX, the ceilings were back up to a good 2500 feet with decent visibility underneath. Oh, but was that airport dark! Landing was the easy part; groping my way to the fuel pumps via a pitch-black spiderweb of taxiways was trickier. Thankfully the pilot lounge had a code lock with instructions, so we could warm up and dry out a bit while pondering our options. Dallas had gone completely IFR and was forecast to stay that way for another couple hours. There was no point going to see our friends if we didn't get up there until almost midnight. Waco was only 70 miles west of us, with much better weather. So that's where we went, arriving at the barren and windswept TSTC Waco Airport (KCNW) well after everyone had locked up and gone home. Fortunately there were rooms available at a brand new and charmless Holiday Inn a few miles away, and an Uber driver came to get us before we froze to death huddled in the lee of the cavernous TSTC hangars. Too cold and tired to explore Waco, we ate dinner at the deserted hotel restaurant and collapsed into bed.

Sunday morning was cold, clear and still; when we showed up at CNW just after 7am, there was a thick deposit of frost on the Pacer's upper surfaces. We spun it to face the rising sun and then rotated it periodically, as on a spit; eventually the frost softened enough to brush it off with a long-handled broom. We finally departed at 9am and had a lovely first flight against light headwinds to our first fuel stop at Coleman. After this the terrain grew rugged and periodically jumped to a higher elevation. At the same time the headwinds piped up, so I flew low among the rocks for a while to keep the groundspeed up. But then the surroundings started looking rather inhospitable in case of a forced landing; that slow oil leak that was forcing us to clean the windscreen at every fuel stop was still nagging at the back of my mind, and I went back up to an altitude that would give us a few options in case the worst happened. From there it was a slow slog to Odessa, where we landed around 12:30. The friendly folks at Wildcatter Aviation borrowed us a beautiful new crew car to scarf down lunch at colorful (and busy!) local establishment "Dumplins Y Amigos."

Just as we were about to start up for our next leg, a truck came roaring up to the Pacer with a middle-aged guy, a kid, and an old guy. Turns out the old guy used to own a Pacer and the middle-aged guy currently owns one, just across the field, and is an active member of the Short Wing Piper Club, a type club to which I belong and follow on Facebook. I mentioned that my bungees needed renewal and I had the replacement bungees along; he remarked that he had the necessary tool in his hangar and we could get the job done in an hour or so. In retrospect it would have been a good time to do the bungees and save some money, maybe while also pulling the prop to reseat the crankshaft plug. At the time I was anxious to continue westbound, especially since the winds aloft forecast was such that I wasn't sure I could make it to El Paso nonstop. I thanked him and declined, and a few minutes later we took off and started climbing to find the most favorable winds.

As it turned out, the winds were much more northerly than forecast at both 6500' and then 8500', altitudes at which the Pacer absolutely sips fuel while still giving a decent turn of speed. Consequently, not only did we make it to El Paso, we overflew it to land in Las Cruces, NM. It was a gorgeous flight along the way, skirting past the iconic sentinel mount of the west, Guadalupe Peak. My original intention was to continue to Silver City, NM for the night, but the winds were blowing stink up there, promising a miserable ride up in the mountains, so we decided to call it a night at Las Cruces. The FBO there originally quoted us $60 for a rental car, but then allowed that we could take their courtesy car overnight if we returned it early the next morning. That suited us just fine. We got a very cool room for quite cheap at the Lundeen Inn of the Arts, a southwestern gallery-cum-B&B. Las Cruces was very quiet on Sunday night, but we enjoyed walking around town and then found an excellent restaurant at which to celebrate Dawn's having visited all 50 states. As an aside, my 50th was Alaska when we rode our motorcycles there five years ago....but that was only because I had boarded the wrong hotel van on a PHL overnight and unintentionally ended up in Delaware.

We started early again the next morning, mindful that we had a mid-afternoon flight to make from PHX to MSP. This time there was no frost in the dry desert air, and we departed Runway 31 as the sun topped the eastern mountains. This was mostly noteworthy because I meant to depart Runway 26...I realized the discrepancy just after liftoff. Look at the airport chart, and you can see how it could happen. It's a similar layout to Lexington at the time of the Comair accident. This is the first time I've ever landed or taken off on a runway other than the one I intended. Las Cruces is a non-controlled airport so there was no clearance violation, and Runway 31 is plenty long, but it was still a huge eye-opener. I felt sick about it for a while.

Fortunately it was an absolutely stunning flight and my goofup was mostly forgotten as we marveled at the gorgeous scenery bathed in slanting morning light. We landed in Safford, AZ to top off on cheap gas - unnecessary given the excellent groundspeed, but it seemed like (and was) a nice friendly airport deep in the shadow of Mount Graham, and it was the sort of blissful morning aloft that you want to stretch out. All too soon we were descending over the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, dodging airspace and then landing at surprisingly busy Chandler, Arizona. I wanted to get the Pacer in for maintenance, and as luck would have it, as we cleared runway 4L I spied Chandler Aviation with its doors wide open and an empty tiedown beckoning. Soon after we shut down, Frank Setzler came over to talk. He's the owner and head mechanic at Chandler Aviation, and it turns out he used to own a Pacer. Funny how many mechanics used to own Pacers! Upon investigation it would turn out that the Pacer actually needed a bit more care than I realized, but after all I had flown it some 60 hours since leaving Minnesota, and in Chandler it was in good hands. That's good, because next we were headed to a place you'd really rather not run into unexpected maintenance problems: Baja California, Mexico.



amulbunny's random thoughts said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip. The scenery in NM AGL is stunning as well.

One of my sons' friends graduated from UND a couple of years ago and has been working for them as a CFI. He's got his ratings and told my son this week that he is applying at NewCo. He'd be a great asset to them. He told me he'd never get lost in ND because the roads were either N/S or E/W. I hope he gets hired because he's a great kid. (Handsome too but that doesn't count).

Anonymous said...

Great post, great adventure, thanks Sam!
Matt from KDSM.

Merlin Yoder said...

What a fantastic cross country trip! I can vouch for the good folks at Wildcatter in Odessa. I do wish to witness the southwestern scenery from a low and slow perspective as opposed to the flight levels. Someday. It was good for me to hear about your incident departing from the wrong runway. Thanks for sharing!

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