For anyone on the East coast of the US of “moderate” age, the winter of 2013-14 has already shaped up to be one of the more brutal ones in memory. Along with a healthy dose of snow, whose total inches this year are already several multiples of the last few year’s snowfall combined, the “Polar Vortex” has brought with it low ceilings, brutal winds, and of course, soul chilling cold. A Spring Break trip to Fairbanks to escape the winter seems somehow a plausible option.
Polar Vortex – My own TFR
While on the topic of bad winter weather…I’m officially NOT on the like list for the new practice of naming winter storms. Pure marketing / ratings hype. No real value. Further, while it’s been a bad winter in relative terms, this still isn’t that bad. If it’s a full on blizzard that actually closes schools in Rochester NY you can name it. Other than that…it’s just a snowstorm.
In between these vortices there were numerous, albeit slim opportunities for me to get my first solo cross country flight in. 7 as of the previous entry..none of which materialized with sufficient margin of safety for my flight to be approved. Numbers 8 and 9 followed the same course as their predecessors.
But then we come to number 10. The new year is upon us. New hope and of course new weather. Saturday, January 4th had a chance. That was, of course based on the weather forecasts made on December 31. By the 2nd it had snowed again. Enough to cover the ground and the plane in a thick blanket of white. Normally that ends the planning for the week. But, the polar vortex, in all it’s sub-zero glory turned out to be a bit of a saving grace. Due to the extremely low temperatures, the snow didn’t melt. Why is this good? Since it didn’t melt, it didn’t have a chance to re-freeze! So, in the early evening of the 3rd, I trekked out to the airport, snow blade in hand.
This thing is amazing. Took about 30 minutes but I had the plane uncovered with only minimal icing on the leading edge.
Still not “on” but the flight had a chance.
Saturday morning I got up early to check weather and get the preliminary go/no go from my CFI. We were on. Another “quick” trip to the airport to get the plane plugged in. A nice and necessary addition to the equipment list for the year was the block heater. A moment of panic when I realized I was not the only one with aspirations of committing aviation that morning. No outlets to be had. I knocked on a few hangar doors and was able work out a power arrangement. The aviation neighborly equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar. Nice neighbors.
With plane plugged in, I went back to work on the snow removal. I missed a lot of spots the night before but took my time to make sure everything was free and clear. C172’s have a lot of nooks and crannies where snow and ice like to hide.
2 hours later, with clear skies, and only moderate winds, my logbook was signed and I was ready to go!
As it was still REALLY cold out, I was instructed to spend 3/10’s of an hour letting it warm up (I would be able to deduct 2/10’s from the billing). Fine by me as it gives me a little more time getting the nest set up for flight.
Queue “challenge” 1
The plane started rather effortlessly. Oil pressure was good and the engine was running smoothly The radios, which typically protest the cold weather by not displaying frequency information for a while came to life immediately as well. But then there was the AI. The checklist says to ensure the gauge has erected and righted itself. Well..it was definitely doing something. Bouncing from bottom to top and back like a basketball. Hmm…one would expect it to be frozen in place due to the weather but bouncing all over the place? Odd.
A radio call to my CFI who was just starting up a plane with another lesson to discuss. “Wait a few minutes and see what happens.” I waited all the minutes I could. The bouncing stopped! But then it essentially pegged itself representing a nose dive.
Now it should be noted that the Attitude Indicator is not required for VFR flight but it is definitely useful..particularly for a student pilot embarking on his first real trip away from the home airport. At the very least, the absence of it, or the re-commencement of its dribbling would be pretty distracting. I don’t think my CFI would allow me to make the flight that way but I could tell we were both quite torn on what to do. After 9 previous weather related busts, a glitchy gauge was NOT an acceptable reason for cancelling the flight.
Always a fan of the “let’s go up and take a look” approach, my CFI suggested I take off and stay in the pattern to see if things would rectify in the air. Agreed.
Focused back on the flying I taxi into position, make my radio call and am off in the air. At 1200 MSL I make my left turn to stay in the pattern, approaching TPA of 1500 on the downwind. I look at the AI just as my CFI calls over the radio to inquire. “Is it working?” My response, thankfully, came after a second of consideration. I was initially going to say, “Well, it came off the full on dive but now seems to be indicating a shallow climb…” Which is, of course, exactly what I was doing! Instead, I simply replied “It appears to be working fine.”.
“Text me when you land in Williamsport.”
And like that I was off on my adventure.
Route of flight was very straightforward. Go direct Harrisburg VOR and then follow the river north to Williamsport.
By the time I crossed HAR I was at cruise altitude of 5500, had flight following coordinated, and into my navigation. Due to a nice wind out of the Southwest I was making almost 130 knots over the ground.
Fully marked chart on my kneeboard with corresponding fully populated navigation log. HAR on Nav 1, FQM on Nav 2, General N94-HAR-FQM flight plan in the GPS as backup #1 and full flight plan loaded in ForeFlight on the iPad as backup #2. No way I was getting lost on this flight! Of course, the visibility was amazing, I just had to follow the river, and I had rehearsed this thing for 10 times so to call myself over-prepared is probably accurate.
FINALLY…had a chance to take some pictures. Save for the old windscreen..the scenery was stunning.
Outside Duncannon checkpoint
Focused on the outside..squealing with delight on the inside
Once past Selinsgrove and nicely on course I began to prepare for my arrival. Approaching from the south, Williamsport has a little challenge in the form of a mountain. If you are into a spiraling descent you can go over it but again, just follow the river and a normal approach can be made.
KIPT has an ASOS which is updated continuously. By using the ident setting on the COM 2 radio I could just begin to pull it in at Selinsgrove.
What I heard was NOT encouraging. While the winds aloft were around 230/22, winds at the airport were out of 120. That they were opposite was not immediately troubling. What seemed off was the wind number. 120 at 13. Hmm. That seems a bit strong.
I was handed off to NY Center. I let them know I was a student pilot (forgot to do that with Harrisburg Departure). NY Center was quite accommodating. Went out of their way to ensure I knew I could ask for any assistance required. While that was reassuring, I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. Thank you would have sufficed. I think I responded with “Roger, will ask for help if needed.”
Getting close to Muncy the wind had not changed direction. It was now 120 13G23. KIPT has a Runway 12 so I wasn’t too concerned about a 13 knot headwind. It was the shorter runway (still plenty for a 172 into the wind) but I would request it if they didn’t immediately offer. The gusts to 23 though was definitely troubling. My limits were a 13 headwind.
After requesting release from NY Center after assuring them I had the field in site (not quite accurate but I knew where I was) I contacted Williamsport Tower. As hoped, I got runway 12. Enter and report a left downwind.
I was already near pattern altitude so I just started lining up to enter the 45 left downwind. And then the thing I should have figured out happened.
Quiz question: If winds aloft are 220/22 and winds on the field are 120/13G23 what can you expect?
Turbulence? Well, yes. How about wind shear? Well, double yes. An essentially 180 degree shift in the wind NEVER happens in a nice linear fashion. In this case, it was pretty much instantaneous. Looking back over the flight, the reason was quite obvious. The mountain.
With winds out of the southwest the winds were blowing over the mountain top. Of course there would be some turbulence as I got down below the ridgeline. But then you’ve also got the new, and relatively strong opposite wind in the valley. Once you hit that zone you get the wind shear.
I got tossed pretty good but kept it under control. Definitely found a new, even higher level of focus. Yes, I considered turning back but fell back on the “let’s take a look” mantra. I should have done this ahead of time but did make this firm decision on downwind. I would attempt the approach. If I was not fully stabilized both on airspeed and descent profile on my base turn I would abandon the approach and fully reset. My lesson for the day for sure.
I reported my downwind. The controller cleared me to land. There was some additional information given which I heard, processed (I think) and moved on with approach. Additional information was winds 120/13 G24, Peak Gust 28, blowing, and drifting snow on runway surface. Ok…this is going to be fun.
I made by base turn and things looked correct. The wind was definitely in line with the runway. There was absolutely zero side drift and my ground speed on final was REALLY slow. Plenty of time to get everything in order. I had originally planned on carrying only 20 degrees of flaps but 30 was still a good choice. I took 5 extra knots of airspeed over the threshold to account for gusts. In the flare it was, as is always the case, a matter of patience. Just hold it off and wait for the plane to land. The wind swirled a little which caused me to do a little rudder dance but still with plenty of time to get it settled. Very decent landing!
Taxi to the FBO….KEEP YOUR WIND CORRECTIONS RIGHT ALL THE WAY TO THE TIEDOWN! Didn’t forget that lesson this time and today was a good day to remember.
After getting the plane as secure as possible I went into the FBO to get my signature and get reset. Nice little airport with its own mascot dog. Will have to remember to bring treats next time. No landing charges but the little dog definitely wanted his “fee”.
15 minutes to reset then back into the cold for the flight back.
I got 12 again for departure. Got to experience ALL the bumps and wind shear on the climb out but this time I was ready. Within a few minutes, I was at cruise altitude, clear of the Class D, back on with NY Center and following the same flight plan back home.
So, while I made 130 knots ground speed on the way up. I was barely making 80 on the way back! I guess everything balances out.
Peaceful, uneventful cruise…and that’s just fine. My first chance to really enjoy the whole flight.
Wish I could say I nailed the crosswind landing on the return (winds had picked up here as well) but it was definitely passable.
Patience pays off but it is a hard lesson to learn.
Next XC flight will be a time builder to KUNV prior to my long XC.
In the meantime, I think it will be time for my CFI to start drilling me on airwork (aka making me super humble once again).
Can’t wait…as always.