Friday, June 17, 2011

A Bear's Odyssey, Episode 7: Dances with Precip

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
17 Jun 2011 N21481 DKX (Knoxville, TN) - DWU (Ashland, KY) -
PKB (Parkersburg, WV) - 5G0 (Le Roy, NY)
5.2 956.1

It was finally time to decide when to make the final leap home.  Friday?  Saturday?  After some flight planning, we came to the conclusion that flying home Friday, June 17 would be in our best interest.  Though it meant only a single night in Knoxville, and we did not want to shortchange my Dad with respect to time, the three of us were ready to return home after so much time away.

I planned to fly direct to Salem Airpark (38D) in Salem, Ohio for lunch.  I learned of this destination in conversation with fellow blogger, Steve, and thought it would be nice to try someplace new.  Usually, we stopped in Parkersburg, West Virginia on the way home from Knoxville.  Furthermore, the forecast for west central Pennsylvania called for lower ceilings than I prefer for cross country flying.  Thus, by tracking to eastern Ohio, we would avoid the need to fly low over some rather unforgiving Pennsylvanian terrain.  From Salem, we would depart directly for Le Roy.

Friday morning, we awoke to poor visibility along the entire planned route.  We delayed departure an hour to allow conditions to improve.  Nonetheless, I brooded during the drive to the airport.  Would the conditions actually improve as forecast?  Once we arrived, I checked the weather and discovered that visibility and ceiling were not only solid VFR for the entire route, but better than forecast.  It was time to repack all that luggage in Warrior 481's baggage compartment (above).  Fortunately, we had become quite adept at this over the course of our journey.

The Bear took her goodbye picture with Carol and my Dad, the latter being notoriously difficult to catch smiling in any photograph (he comes by it naturally, my grandmother is the same way).  We departed Knoxville and leveled off at 7,500 feet with the haze layer beneath us and high clouds above (about 10,000 feet).  Our ground speed registered 140 knots (161 mph) - for the first time on the trip, we had a significant tailwind and would make Salem nearly forty minutes earlier than planned.  Knoxville Approach handed us off to an unusually perky and chatty controller at Atlanta Center, the sky cleared, and all was right with the world.

Crossing into Kentucky, we were transferred to Indianapolis Center.  I heard a lot of aircraft requesting weather deviations, but the way ahead looked clear for us.  Until, "Warrior 481, there is a line of moderate precipitation extending along your route of flight about 40 miles ahead."

Uh-oh. The controller suggested that we could turn northwest (i.e., the wrong way) and pass through a hole in the line of showers.  He queried another aircraft that he had just vectored through the hole and the pilot responded with, "good visibility, light chop, light precipitation".  I accepted the vector and veered away from our plotted course to Salem.

As we flew on, a very dark line appeared on the horizon: the advertised rain.  Looking to the northeast, along our original route of flight, the sky was significantly brighter.  Staring at that dark line of precipitation ahead, I had a crisis of faith.  Should I follow the controller's recommendation and continue toward the dark clouds ahead  or turn back on our original course toward prettier sky?

In the end, I continued following the Center controller's advice knowing that he could see more of the big picture than I could.  Given the length of the line of showers, it was entirely possible that following our original course would have simply brought us into contact with it later on.  The controller offered an opportunity to pass through the line and leave it behind entirely.  Nonetheless, I kept tabs on nearby airports in case we ran into anything that I did not like. 

As we drew closer to the rain showers, the hole was obvious as a gap in the line of showers at least a mile wide.  I could see right through it to sunshine on the other side, whereas the air on either side of the hole was obscured by moderate rain.  I made a slight heading adjustment and we plunged through the hole.  Light rain spattered the windscreen, but visibility remained excellent (better than what we usually get in Georgia).  To the best of my knowledge, this was The Bear's first time flying through precipitation.  Within minutes, we passed through the hole and emerged into bright sunshine.  The unnamed Center controller in Indianapolis gave us one heck of a good steer.

This is the point where my original plan began to fall apart.  We lost a lot of time flying to that hole and I needed a bathroom break.  The GPS predicted another 1.5 hours to Salem and I was sure that I would not make it.  While I was contemplating a pit stop, Indianapolis Center handed me off to Huntington Approach.  After providing the current local altimeter, the next thing the controller in Huntington said to me was, "Warrior 481, verify you have on board weather radar."

Egad.  If my bladder was not reason enough to land, that question confirmed that it was time to reassess the situation from the ground.  Searching the chart, I located nearby Ashland Regional Airport in Ashland, Kentucky (above) that looked like a reasonable place for a pit stop.

We landed at Ashland under bright sunny skies.  The weather radar depicted some minor cells northwest of our route of flight, but conditions were otherwise fine.  This left me puzzled as to why Huntington Approach would query me about weather radar.

It was nearly noon and all three of us were getting hungry.  Salem was still over an hour away, but our favorite meal stop in Parkersburg, West Virginia was only twenty five minutes to the northeast.  That was an easy decision and we went with the old standby.

One benefit of the rain we flew through was that most of the grime from the deluge at McCollum Field was washed off of Warrior 481.  She positively sparkled on the ramp at Ashland (above).

We spotted Parkersburg from fifteen miles away, a huge "X" carved out of the forest in the middle of nowhere.  As we approached the airport from the southwest, a Purdue University Cirrus approached from the northwest.  The pilot, probably a student based on his radio technique, had not yet located the airport and was blindly following his GPS toward it.  I asked Kristy to help me find him and, sure enough, she spotted him a few miles off of our left wingtip.  When the Purdue pilot still did not have us in sight, I offered to widen our pattern behind the faster aircraft and land after him.  The tower controller approved this plan (which, frankly, made his task of separating aircraft easier) and we followed the more technologically-advanced aircraft to a smooth landing on runway 21.

We had lunch at Mary's Plane Place and The Bear had some of that yummy chunky applesauce she so enjoys.  After lunch, I checked the weather again.  There was no precipitation along the route, but ceilings were only 3000 to 4000 feet over western Pennsylvania and New York.  I decided to fly north from Parkersburg to Salem, then turn in toward Le Roy.  I was far more comfortable flying at 3000 feet over Ohio than Pennsylvania.

Aloft at 3000 feet, the ride was bumpy.  We still had a tailwind.  Unfortunately, we were too low to raise Indianapolis Center for flight following.  Thus, the final leg home was flown "old school", relatively low and without radio contact with anyone.

Over the last few years, I have become very comfortable with cross country flight at higher altitudes while in contact with Center controllers.  Despite the bumps, I thoroughly enjoyed this lower altitude cruise over lush Ohio countryside to the sound of radio silence (with rare interruptions on the Guard frequency).  Kristy dozed in the back and The Bear followed her lead by napping in the airplane for the first time since we left New York the previous week.

At Salem, we turned on course for Le Roy.  We flew just south of Youngstown, Ohio (above).  The buildings photographed quite crisply without so much atmosphere between them and the camera lens.

We crossed into New York state just south of Jamestown.  Soon after, familiar fields of windmills rolled past underneath.

From the pattern at Le Roy, The Bear exclaimed, "I see our hangar!"  We were all happy to be back home.

I made a smooth landing on runway 28, graded as "at least a nine" by Darrell who was present as the sole witness of our return.  The Bear exited Warrior 481 and sweetly hugged the old airplane that had carried her across the country and back.

It was quite an adventure for us all.  Brown Bear was truly an unsung hero in all of this, dragged from state to state without complaining once.

After pushing the airplane back in the hangar, I found The Bear at her workbench ready to tend to any post flight maintenance needs.  Other than needing an oil change and a bath, Warrior 481 was running great, however.

Instead, The Bear was placed on bug detail.  An airplane can pick up a lot of bugs flying between Florida and New York.

GPS ground track for Day 7.  The deviation through "the hole" is clearly shown in blue.


Driving home, Kristy and I reflected on how this trip differed from the one six years ago.  Obviously, bringing The Bear along made a huge impact on the logistics of travel and meant that Kristy spent less time participating in the flying than before.

My cross country flying habits have changed significantly.  I am far more comfortable with busier towered airports than I was six years prior, which led Kristy to comment that we had visited more "upscale" airports this time around (yes, dead frogs were invoked again).

Six years ago, I had never spoken to a Center or a Bravo approach controller, let alone utilized them for flight following all the way to Florida.

I had gone from relying on Flight Service Station weather briefings by phone to self-briefing via DUAT on a computer or through my iPod.  Six years ago, I was a new DUAT account holder, but did not have sufficient comfort level with the system to actually brief my own flights.

One thing that did not change: I carried paper sectional charts for the entire trip, despite the fact that I had access to them electronically on the iFly 700 GPS.  I was glad to have had them, particularly when Fort Myers approach asked me to fly to the Lee County VOR.  It was much easier to peruse the chart (which was already folded and open to the appropriate area) than to pan around on the touch screen GPS in an attempt to locate the VOR.

Overall, we flew 26.3 hours (The Bear only 23.0 hours) to 13 airports (10 new to us) in nine different states (NY, PA, NC, SC, GA, FL, TN, KY, WV).  Fuel prices ranged from $4.55 (Punxsutawney) to $6.76 (Marathon) per gallon.  I indulged in the masochistic act of tallying up the fuel bill and discovered that we paid, on average, $5.41/gal.  We saw lots of sea turtles, ZERO dead frogs, and one hail storm.  We experienced passage through the heart of one of the busiest Bravo airspaces in the United States, made two Lord of the Rings references, relied on VOR navigation for the first time in years, received vectors from air traffic control around bad weather for the first time, and established a new southernmost landing point in the Florida Keys.

Yet, at the end of this journey, the question foremost in my mind concerned The Bear.  What was her perception of the trip?  What did she understand about the distance we covered and the places we visited?  Will this adventure be an important, early memory for her, or will it be lost in a jumble of early childhood experiences?

Regardless, I am glad to have had the privilege of sharing the experience with her.

GPS ground track for the trip south

GPS ground track for the trip north


  1. Awesome flight, write up and pictures!

    It sounds like a perfect vacation, good wx, flying time and most important time shared with family.

    I really appreciate all the pictures of the Keys, I'll get to reference them more when Mary and I finally get to make that trip.

    Good time added to the flight log and more so the experience we gain on the extended vacation flights, dealing with communications, wx and airspace.

    Thanks for sharing....makes me want to plan our next trip!


  2. And now, having made it to the fitting conclusion, I say congrats on an awesome trip! Great photos throughout as always and it looks like the little one will come away from this with a bunch of good memories.

    Sorry you didn't make Salem - I haven't actually visited it yet myself, though I hope to address that this coming weekend.

  3. As always - Great essays and awesome pics. It was great to meet you and your family. Thanks for sharing your adventure. - Ed D.

  4. What a great trip Chris!!! Bear is such a trooper. I'm glad you all had a good time and made your destinations without bed bugs!

    Thanks as always for sharing. Have a great Independence Day!

  5. @Geoff - Yeah, I thought of you every time we stayed in a hotel. Thanks for chiming in, haven't seen much activity from you lately.