Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Bear's Odyssey, Episode 1: "Longest Airplane Trip Ever!"

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
8 Jun 2011 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - N35 (Punxsutawney, PA) -
GEV (Jefferson, NC) - GMU (Greenville, SC)
5.6 935.4

Wanderlust set in again.  In 2005, Kristy and I flew Warrior 481 from South Haven, Michigan to Fort Myers, Florida and back.  At the time, it seemed like a once in a lifetime kind of venture.

But that was a lifetime ago.

As she grew older, I wanted The Bear to have that experience.  With her on the threshold of being a full-fledged four-year-old, 2011 seemed to be the right time.  The travails of potty training were long past, her use of a "big girl" headset was comfortable and routine, and she recently graduated to a booster-style car seat that is far more transferable between vehicles.  Heck, we just removed all the child latches from the cabinets in our house.  Can there be any greater indication of a responsible child than that?

We picked a non-ideal day and time to leave.  Kristy had to work in the morning, so we left at 1:00 in the afternoon.  It was windy (see above), hot (92°F), and hazy.  The plan was to fly one hour to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for fuel; three hours to Jefferson, North Carolina for a brief rest and fuel stop; and one hour to Greenville, South Carolina for an overnight stay and dinner with friends.

In trying to commemorate The Bear's first step in her grand adventure, I asked her where we were going, anticipating "Florida" to be the response.

"On the longest airplane trip EVER!"  The Bear bellowed with such great enthusiasm that Kristy and I were both cracking up when I took the photo (above).  It was definitely the right attitude for the onset of such a significant journey.

We loaded the airplane, closed our car in the hangar, and climbed sluggishly into the scorching haze that had settled over Le Roy.

Our first planned stop was Punxsutawney PA (N35), inspired by information on AirNav claiming that the price of avgas was $4.55/gal.  Frankly, I expected the data to be out of date.  I was delighted to find the fuel dispensed from Punxsutawney's self service pump to be as inexpensive as advertised.

Photo by Kristy

Of course, Punxsutawney is best known for its oracular groundhogs that can predict winter's end, giving it the reputation as the "Weather Capital of the World."

This led to a question: what are the implications of a little Bear seeing her shadow in Punxsutawney?  Experience suggests that this could forecast the pummeling of an airplane by hail in Georgia.  But now I'm just getting ahead of myself.

In departing at 1:00, I broke my own rule for southbound summer flying: don't fly in the afternoon.  The decision was made based on other weather and timing factors, as well as the knowledge that the most likely manifestation of afternoon storms would be isolated pop-up thunderstorms.  I expected that these would be easy to spot and they were.  The one pictured above was east of our route and I deviated slightly west to give it some space.

The entire time we circumnavigated this build up, the squelch on the audio panel opened and closed randomly.  This phenomenon halted once we had some distance between us and the towering cumulus.  I began to wonder if my audio panel was acting as a crude lightning detector.

The next build up was bigger, nastier, and directly in our path for Ashe County Airport (GEV) in Jefferson, North Carolina.  Deviating to the east, we found ourselves in the shadow of the storm and passed into a dreary twilight.  We had flown above the haze layer all afternoon, but needed to duck below as Ashe County came into range.  As we passed into the mountains and below 5000 feet, Atlanta Center lost radar contact with us.

We found Ashe County Airport nestled in the lush rolling hills and mountains of North Carolina.  The sky on the opposite side of the airport from us was nearly black.  Knowing the wind to be out of the west, I announced intentions to land on runway 28.  We were still north of the field and needed to circle around to the south for a proper pattern entry.  As I unkeyed the microphone, I saw a bolt of lighting flash to the ground against that black backdrop.  It was easily 20 miles away, but I hastily amended my intentions on the radio to the more expedient runway 10.  I floated a bit -- downwind landings are like that -- but we were down and safe.

The fellow on duty helped with the fuel pump while a distant rumble of thunder rolled across the airport.  Together, he and I inspected the weather radar.  It showed several active thunderstorm cells that had grown in intensity over the past hour, one just southwest of Ashe County Airport and another perched due west of our planned overnight stop in Greenville, South Carolina.  The funny thing about the cells was the they did not move.  The radar loop showed them building in intensity, but remaining absolutely stationary.  By calling the Greenville Downtown Airport ASOS, I found that the airport was still VFR without precipitation despite the storm raging just to the west.

The old timer at the airport sat back and let me ponder.  He was careful to offer help without offering advice; the decision was mine.  Eventually, I decided that it would make sense to proceed the remaining hour to Greenville.  If the storm engulfed the airport by the time we arrived, there were several good alternatives available nearby.  He nodded at this.  "You'll make it," he assured me once I committed to a decision.  "That storm is not going anywhere.  It will have run its course by the time you arrive."

The sky was already growing lighter when we departed Ashe County (above), though the remnants of the nearby storm could still be seen.  As we flew south, I had the Greenville ASOS set on one of the radios.  I waited tensely to receive a broadcast with updated conditions at the airport.  Finally, about 50 miles out, we heard that the skies were clear, winds were light, and visibility was 10+ miles.  As we neared our destination, a ragged vestige of the thunderhead still towered over the area, but it had already extinguished itself.

Greenville Downtown Airport (GMU) underlies the Charlie airspace surrounding Greenville Spartanburg International (GSP), otherwise known as Greer.  Greer Approach provides radar services to Greenville Downtown, Donaldson Center (the other towered airport in Greenville), and a few other satellite airports.  I contacted Greer approach, but was denied service when the controller heard that I was still 50 miles out.

"I'll never see you that far out.  Contact Asheville Approach on 124.65."

Thus began a rather confusing exchange with the Asheville Approach controller.

"Asheville Approach, Warrior 21481, six thousand five hundred, fifty miles north of Greenville, VFR to Greenville Downtown airport.  We have the Greenville ASOS."

"Warrior 21481, Asheville Approach, which Greenville?  South Carolina or Tennessee?"

My fault; I lacked the local knowledge to realize my radio call was ambiguous.

"Greenville South Carolina," I responded.

Asheville issued a squawk code, verified radar contact, and reminded us to remain VFR.  It was quiet on frequency for some minutes afterward.

Then, some thirty miles north of our destination, Asheville called again.  "Warrior 481, enter right base runway three four."

34?  Greenville did not have a runway 34 and Asheville Approach would not have the authority to direct me there even if it existed.  The controller must have thought we were inbound to Asheville.

I tried to clarify the situation.  "Warrior 481 is inbound to Greenville Downtown Airport."

"Warrior 481, enter right base runway three four," the Asheville controller repeated firmly.

It was time for plain English.  "Ok, Warrior 481 is confused.  We are not landing Asheville, we are landing Greenville Downtown Airport."

The Asheville controller was clearly annoyed with me.  "Greenville?!  Hmmm...stand by."  Then, moments later, "Warrior 481, contact Greer approach on 118.8 and have a nice day."

I still have no idea how this exchange broke down so completely.

Greer directed us in through their airspace without any issues.  Winds were calm and the tower at Greenville gave us our choice of runway.  I chose 19 so that I could make a straight-in approach and be well positioned for an easy right turn onto the tower-side ramp.

Though we were late (it was close to 8:00 pm), the rest of the evening proceeded as well as we could have asked.  Greenville Jet Center had a rental car waiting for us and we took The Bear to Red Robin for dinner, one of her favorites.  We were met there by Eleanor, Randy, and Caroline - coworkers of mine with whom I have become friends over the years, but never actually met in person.  Eleanor presented The Bear with a dry erase puzzle book that was a hit for the remainder of the trip.  It was fun to finally meet everyone in person.  Though we were not successful at keeping company stuff out of the conversation entirely, we managed to keep it from completely dominating.

GPS ground track for the day, the green portion clearly showing diversions around thunderstorms

At the end of the first day, we were past the halfway point to Fort Myers and well-positioned for the next leg of our trip.  We stayed at the Greenville Wingate (no bed bugs, Geoff!).  We originally intended to arrive in Greenville by the afternoon so that we could take The Bear to the children's museum there.  Changing schedules made this impossible to accommodate, but we were very excited for the next leg of the trip to Jekyll Island, Georgia.

1 comment:

  1. Great start to a great trip. I might not comment on every one but thanks for capturing the flying in such detail. Looking forward to reading the rest!