Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Flight To Totality

Pixelated Boomers

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
18 Aug 2017N21481SDC (Sodus, NY) - PKB (Parkersburg, WV)3.61686.2

A barrage of weather deviation requests from airliners choked the Cleveland Center frequency as we approached Pittsburgh. The controller earned his pay that day, guiding commercial aircraft around the thunderstorms east of the city as well as the other deviating airliners. Sometimes, he broke from the standard script for brevity. "Yeah, do that," he told at least one airliner with a deviation request.

Kristy leaned toward me to study the screen of the yoke-mounted iPad where Nexrad weather imagery overlaid an IFR low altitude en route chart. A blotchy line of yellow and red ran parallel to our course several miles off our left wing. We were in and out of the clouds on a track to pass directly over the top of Pittsburgh International Airport.

We flew our ship along the back side of a cold front that swept eastward like a plow, lifting warmer surface air aloft while spawning thunderstorms and rain along its leading edge. Normally, I would have departed Sodus as early as possible for a multiple-state cross country flight to avoid afternoon towering cumulus, but I had deliberately delayed launch to ensure our passage behind the weather system. As we flew in and out of the clouds roughly parallel to the front, up-linked radar data showed a consistent trend of storms moving away from our position.

Not requiring help from either Cleveland Center or Pittsburgh Approach, a tiny bubble of tranquility seemed to surround Warrior 481 as we listened to numerous, sometimes borderline frantic, requests for detours around the worst of the weather. We reaped the clear advantages of careful planning and lack of required schedule. Aside from hand-offs, our only interaction with ATC was when Pittsburgh Approach called an airliner to us as traffic, 1,000 feet higher at our two o' clock. We saw it, marveling at its crisp appearance against a mountain of white cumulus, and declared it no factor.

Photo by The Bear

"And Everything Under the Sun Is in Tune,
But the Sun is Eclipsed by the Moon"

Months before, Lisa emailed to say that she had reserved a house in Copperhill, TN to witness the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse from the path of totality. She invited us and other family members to join her. It seemed like a great excuse to fly somewhere new. Along the way, we planned to stop and visit with Dad and Carol in Knoxville, TN.

Ground track from KSDC to KPKB provided by FlightAware 

We planned for lunch at the Mid Ohio Valley Regional Airport in Parkersburg, WV. Inbound, Indianapolis Center cleared us for the RNAV-21 approach. I followed GPS guidance along a virtual path through the sky as our airplane physically bounced in and out of clouds until we broke out near the final approach fix. Though our ground track was aligned with the runway, our heading was 20° right owing to wind. In the flare, a combination of really hot asphalt and a sporty front quartering crosswind created the sensation that we were hovering just a foot off the runway. The Warrior simply did not want to settle.

The self service fuel pump at KPKB is the least self serve I have ever used. There is no credit card reader and an attendant was required to note the volume I pumped. Still, for the attendant's trouble, I saved $0.15 per gallon.

Brown Bear really gets around.

Our last visit to Parkersburg was in 2011 on the return flight from Florida. Since then, the previous airport cafe, Mary's Plane View, had been replaced by an apparently nameless, generic diner. Though the decor was less homey than in the past, the people were friendly and the food perfectly adequate.

Popcorn Fatigue

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
18 Aug 2017N21481PKB (Parkersburg, WV) - DKX (Knoxville, TN)2.61688.8

Although our delayed departure that morning was well timed to avoid ugly weather around Pittsburgh, it put us airborne during the worst part of the day for afternoon cumulus. None of the clouds that towered around us showed evidence of serious convection, but they made for a bumpy ride. I asked for deviations around the ones showing significant vertical development, but we rode through several others. I requested and was approved for a climb to 10,000 feet, but even at that altitude, we did not top the clouds and the Warrior's performance in the rarefied air was sufficiently marginal that downdrafts made it challenging to hold assigned altitude. Going below the clouds was not an option; there was far too little safe space between the cloud bases and the mountain peaks.

It was a hard flight. I offered to stop somewhere to wait for calmer evening air before continuing, but Kristy wanted to soldier on. On the other hand, I do not think The Bear noticed the bumps at all. After hand flying from Parkersburg to Knoxville, the old joke about "I just flew in from [insert name of city here] and, boy, are my arms tired" was literally true in my case. Still, the whole family agreed that it beat the 13 hours required to drive to Knoxville.

FlightAware ground track from Parkersburg, WV to Knoxville, TN

We landed at one of our homes away from home, Downtown Island Airport in Knoxville, TN after a total of 6.2 hours in the air, half of which were in instrument meteorological conditions.

Knoxville was on the direct path between Sodus, NY and Copperhill, TN. Naturally, we stopped to visit with Dad and Carol overnight. The next morning, I took the opportunity to fly with Dad for the first time and explore the Beechcraft Heritage Museum in nearby Tullahoma, TN. Could there be any better way to spend National Aviation Day?

The Fountainhead

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
19 Aug 2017N21481DKX (Knoxville, TN) - 1A3 (Copperhill, TN)1.01689.8

Copperhill, TN is a small mining town at the intersection of Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. The airport, Martin Campbell Field (1A3), reminded me a mountain version of Le Roy; a 3500 foot single strip with minimal facilities, but impeccably maintained by an enthusiastic manager. I called Alan a couple of weeks in advance to verify that tie downs were available. He indicated that there were eight parking spots on the ramp. A few days later, Alan called to say that he was getting a lot of inquiries from pilots wanting to fly in for the eclipse, indicated that I was second in line, and took down my information to reserve a parking spot. I am glad he did. As it turns out, he had over 25 aircraft arrive at his tiny airport for the eclipse.

After Dad and I flew to Tullahoma in the morning, we enjoyed lunch in Knoxville before Kristy, The Bear, and I returned to the airport for the short hop to Copperhill.

One plane to rule them all...

"Why is the One Ring painted on that airplane?" Kristy asked as we walked to the Warrior.

I wandered over to take a closer look, then understood once I saw "My Precious" painted on the Cessna 150. Someone really loves their airplane. I understand that.

At six thousand feet, we were skirting west of the Great Smoky Mountains en route to Copperhill when I saw something very unusual.

Kristy has one of those fancy water bottles with a button-actuated valve, a flip-up mouthpiece, and a straw going to the bottom of the bottle so that the drinker does not need to upend the bottle to drink. When she decided that she was thirsty, Kristy snapped open her water bottle. When she did that, the near-sea level air in the headspace of the bottle acted like a piston that forced water through the straw and out of the mouthpiece at an impressive velocity.

I went from surveying the hazy mountain range to my left to watching my wife being sprayed in the face by a fountain of her own creation. Water dripped off of her glasses, her hair, and - oh yes - even the Warrior's headliner. It was impressive...and kind of hilarious.

I think I will stick with my cheap screw-cap water bottle.

The Hills Are Alive (Again)

When we cleared the ridge immediately north of Martin Campbell Field, I was struck by the lush green countryside surrounding the airport. Evidently, it was not always like that. As the name implies, the earth beneath Copperhill, TN was once a warren of copper mines. They are dormant now. A photo on the wall of the FBO taken not so long ago shows the airport completely surrounded by deforested terrain, the vegetation having been destroyed by acid rain resulting from SO3 released by mining operations. With this knowledge, I noticed on departure that none of the trees in the lush landscape were particularly tall.

The same photo also shows that both ends of the runway were once painted "19". Oops.

Martin Campbell Field photographed from left base for runway 2.

I flew over the airport to inspect the wind sock. "Chris, is that you?" called Alan from a handheld. I confirmed that it was and entered the pattern for runway 2. I flew the pattern a little tight and rolled out on final only to discover that updrafts produced by the local terrain were countering my effort to descend. I tried a forward slip, but could see that I would not be able to safely land with the runway distance remaining.

I went around for another attempt. On the radio, Alan commented that he did not realize he would be getting an airshow that day.

"I aim to please," I broadcast. I flew a wider pattern the second time around and better managed the updrafts. We fueled up, tied down (with Alan's help), and waited for our ride. To his credit, Alan said nothing about the first landing attempt. His associate made a comment about showing Yankees how to fly their airplanes, but there was no malice in his tone, only good natured teasing.

Blanche Manor Lodge

The house Lisa picked out for us was the Blanche Manor Lodge, a large, rustic home with adjacent horseback riding.

Georgia Sparty

A few of us ventured into Blue Ridge, GA to sample the craft beers produced by the Fannin Brew Company. The proprietor, Tom (a transplanted Michigander with a degree from Michigan State, as it turned out) explained how craft breweries in Georgia function. By Georgia law (until September 1, 2017), he was unable to sell us beer by the glass. He could, however, sell us a brewery tour for $15 and throw in a free pint beer glass in which we could "sample" up to six, six ounce quantities of their beer. There were at least eight options available on tap.

"Is there actually a tour?" inquired Penny.

"No," Tom declared with just a hint of incredulity.

I thought that everything I tried was excellent, though my favorite was the Blackout Stout, brewed specifically for the eclipse. I bought Penny a "I Blacked Out Watching the Eclipse at the Fannin Brew Company" T-shirt. Nate and his dad, Mark, both of whom are more sophisticated beer aficionados that I am, also seemed to enjoy the offerings.


Ever see a Bear ride a horse? I can now say that I have.

She rode for over an hour, not bad for a first time.

"Daddy, my butt hurts," she informed me the next day.

Bipolar Abode

During our stay, we discovered that our rental house had a mixed personality.

Blanche Manor was a great place to absorb the beauty of nature in the southern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Special Effect

On August 21, 2017, the main event occurred: a total eclipse of the sun. Watching from our rental house, we fought no crowds and our view was unhindered by clouds.

I took no photographs. I wanted to experience the moment, not fiddle with a camera. As the eclipse approached totality, the air palpably cooled and the quality of light changed. It was dimmer, like in the evening except that the light was cast from the wrong direction -- overhead rather than from the horizon. I watched the final sliver of sun vanish through my glasses and, in that moment, it was like a switch was thrown. The radiant heat of the sun was gone, the landscape went dark, and crickets began to chirp.

"Pull off your glasses!" Terry reminded everyone.

I have never beheld a shade of blue deeper than the one I saw in the sky during totality. A couple of planets sparkled brightly, providing stark contrast to the photonegative of a full moon hanging in the sky, a sphere of deepest black encircled by the ethereal crown of the sun's corona. Writhing bands of shadows tracked across the gray, sun bleached asphalt. It was a phenomenon known as "shadow snakes" that, remarkably, still baffles physicists. The tableau was like a movie special effect, an impossible scene conceived by a science fiction writer and rendered by computer.

In under two minutes, it was over. When the narrowest crescent of sun emerged from the occluding moon, the world brightened and warmed immediately. The difference between totality and almost-totality was striking.

A huge thanks go to Lisa for organizing such a worthwhile trip.

Enhanced Risk

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
22 Aug 2017N214811A3 (Copperhill, TN) - MGW (Morgantown, WV)3.01695.7

We planned to use Tuesday, August 22 as a travel day home. Days beforehand, the weather looked favorable for a light aircraft journey back to Rochester, NY. Flight planning the evening before revealed no particular challenges beyond our expectation for fog in the morning.

Early on the morning of our departure, I saw the revised convective outlook. The tan region represents an enhanced risk of severe thunderstorms and it overlaid a significant portion of our route. I realized in that moment that the likelihood of our making it home that day was much lower than I had been expecting.

A few days at Blanche Manor had revealed that the region is prone to significant fog until mid morning. Our goal was to depart Martin Campbell Field as soon as the fog allowed with plans to reach Morgantown, WV for lunch.

Indeed, the airport was completely fogged-in when Terry dropped us off. Though there was an obstacle departure procedure for Martin Campbell field, I decided that I wanted to see the ridges surrounding the field before we departed.

As we waited for the fog to lift, I heard squeaking at my feet and encountered this little guy. Flying to new states always seems to reveal hitherto unknown creepy crawlies.

Once the fog lifted, we were the third of three aircraft to launch for home. Two turned toward Florida and we turned toward New York. I was surprised to hear the pilot of the Aztec, who boasted to me about his extensive IFR travels around the United States, unable to use proper phraseology to receive his clearance home from Atlanta Center.

Though the morning was still cool, the nearby ridges were already producing their own weather. I chose a northwest heading to avoid the ridges and building cumulus while receiving our IFR clearance from Atlanta Center. The controller stipulated that we needed to maintain our own obstacle clearance until climbing above 5,000 feet.

Clouds south of Knoxville, TN

We stayed in visual conditions for most of the flight, eventually climbing to 9,000 feet to remain (mostly) clear of clouds. We would reach Morgantown right about 1:00 pm.

Cardinal Sin

"We just had an airplane pop out of the clouds one hundred feet away and almost hit us," another aircraft reported to Clarksburg Approach. From his tone of voice, the other pilot was justifiably rattled and struggling not to sound that way. He was in our vicinity and also at 9,000 feet.

"I'm tracking a primary target," reported the Clarksburg controller. A primary target is an aircraft that shows up on conventional radar, but is either not transponder equipped or being flown by a pilot that has willfully deactivated the transponder. As a result, primary targets do not display an altitude on the controller's screen. Usually, primary targets are Cubs and other light aircraft without electrical systems flying far below IFR traffic at 9,000 feet. As a result, such aircraft usually present little cause for concern to an air traffic controller. This was an exception.

The key premise of Instrument Flight Rules is that all aircraft are participating so that they can be safely separated by Air Traffic Control. This other pilot on frequency had just encountered a non-participating aircraft flying through the clouds illegally. There are many stupid pilot tricks out there, but  this is one of the most egregious.

"I'll report that to Washington Center and have them track it," finished the controller in Clarksburg. As with many of the incidents we overhear on the radio, we will never know what really happened or what (if anything) happened to the perpetrator.

FlightAware ground track from Copperhill, TN to Morgantown, WV with the foreshadowing of weather to the west.

At Morgantown, the winds were already quite strong and we landed in a substantial crosswind.

Weather was moving in.


"Daddy, it's really windy!" exclaimed The Bear from atop the Warrior's wing. When I locked the cabin door before we left the airplane for lunch, I felt the Warrior shuddering and swaying on her landing gear.

A C130 departs Morgantown, WV

We had lunch at Ali Baba, located in the Morgantown Airport terminal. This is one of the best airport restaurants that we have sampled and, just like our previous visit, everything was good and the falafel was particularly excellent.

As we finished lunch, I started checking the weather. From the convective outlook that morning, I already knew that a weather delay was possible. When I looked at the radar, I knew that it was a certainty. Center weather advisories covering the state of Pennsylvania warned of tornadoes. Local weather in Rochester also warned of tornadoes, rare in a geographic area whose inhabitants consider themselves immune from such things.

With such a weather outlook, it is a better idea to book a hotel room, take the kid to the pool, and enjoy a nice dinner. That's exactly what we did. It meant missing work the next day and taking an extra day of vacation, but the best decisions are made when these external variables are not even considered as factors. After all, in the grand scheme of things, they're not.

By 5:00 that afternoon, the wind in Morgantown was absolutely howling and the college town was pummeled with a driving rain while we dined at an Outback Steakhouse adjacent to our hotel. By 7:00, the worst of the weather had moved through (above), but another storm was approaching Rochester and I would not have wanted to complete the trip after dark.

I think every pilot goes through a validation process following the decision to cancel a flight. Did I make the right decision? In this case, there was no question.

The Calm in the Wake of Storm

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
23 Aug 2017N21481MGW (Morgantown, WV) - SDC (Sodus, NY)2.41698.1

There is something about the quality of air and the appearance of clouds in the morning after such vicious weather. The air is cooler, crisper, and calmer. Tattered clouds linger as remnants of the storm, defanged and forlorn.

Mortantown weather was barely on the IFR side of the line between IFR and marginal VFR when we departed. Our departure was later than intended owing to a taxi dispatcher that sent our cab to the wrong hotel. Perhaps that was retribution for my calling the dispatcher "ma'am" only to be informed that I was speaking to a "sir".

We flew home at 9,000 feet and above most of the clouds. It was a much smoother ride home than the previous afternoon would have been. The only bumps we encountered were on descent to the Williamson Sodus Airport in the Rochester region. Down low, the air was still unsettled, as demonstrated by the fact that I had to add full power on short final to keep the airplane from dropping out of the intended glide path.

FlightAware ground track from Morgantown, WV to Sodus, NY


When I stand on the ground and look up at the sky, I see the clouds differently than I did before earning my instrument rating and actually flying within them. I see more nuance in their shape and behavior. As I exercise my "license to learn" in the clouds, my understanding of forecasting tools and interpreting conditions while aloft continues to grow and this, in turn, feeds better decision making. At the same time, I still find that go / no-go decisions are harder to make for IFR flights than for VFR. The stakes are higher and the potential for exposure to truly severe weather (thunderstorms and icing) is significantly greater. Still, I continue to learn and grow.

Along the way, we're staying connected with family and friends, visiting cool places and seeing amazing things (a total eclipse of the sun probably ranks as the most amazing to date), and having experiences beyond the reach of those who do not fly (e.g., self-inflicted facial fountains -- some experiences are admittedly more enjoyable than others). Even as we have morphed from the road-trip style flights of our VFR past, the amount of learning that occurs on each IFR flight still ensures that each trip is just as much about the journey as the destination.


  1. Excellent as always Chris. I truly enjoy reading your articles. I would recommend them to anyone training for their IFR ticket or any newly minted IFR pilot contimplating what to do with the rating.

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

    2. When I was 5 or so, I took a water bottle just like that on a trip to Tahoe. Half way up the mountain I dumped water in my face. I closed it back up, and when we met my mom at the top, I told her I was having trouble opening the bottle, and could she do it for me. She too was promptly drenched. I think it was a few years before she learned that was no accident...

    3. LOL! The first time we experienced this effect, it was with a tube of hand lotion. That was messier.

  2. Great stuff all around on this trip. You certainly made the right call as I said when we talked about this before. In small-world news... a) I've also dined at Ali Baba before and agree it's excellent and, most importantly, b) Gina did the exact same thing with the same sort of water bottle on our trip to Boston last year - and I agree it's most entertaining.

    1. Thanks, Steve. What brought you through the airport in Morgantown, WV? It seems like that's a little outside your usual airspace.

      See? Proof positive that physics can be hilarious.

    2. Right! I remember this now!