Saturday, July 20, 2019

Holiday Road: But There's No Place Like London

Wrong Number

Ground track on departure from BKL generated by ForeFlight

Lakefront Tower loves to vector departures out over Lake Erie and away from the heart of the Bravo encircling Cleveland Hopkins. Over the water in a climb attitude, Warrior 481's Plexiglas was filled with a non-differentiated cobalt blue where water and sky merged without even the slightest hint of horizon. It was an instrument flight condition in clear air and broad daylight. Eventually, we were given westbound vectors, then cleared direct to our destination through the Cleveland Bravo.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
20 Jul 2019 N21481 BKL (Cleveland. OH) - LOZ (London, KY) 3.4 1994.8

At 6,000 feet, the air blasting forth from Warrior 481's vents was strikingly warm. I glanced at the outside air temperature and saw that it was 28°C (82°F). Even flying a mile above flat Ohio farmland, we found little relief from the heat.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, contact [garbled] Approach, one two four point zero."

"One two four zero, Cherokee Four Eight One, see ya," I signed off with Cleveland Approach. I did not know which facility I was calling next because neither Kristy nor I heard an intelligible name, but I tuned the provided frequency and made a general call.

"Approach, Cherokee Two One Four Eight One, six thousand."

"What was that tail number calling Cleveland Approach?" Cleveland? It didn't sound like she said Cleveland.

"That was Two One Four Eight One at six thousand," I answered. The controller literally responded with a non-committal grunt and never called us back. After the passage of many minutes, I became suspicious and scanned the sectional chart for other likely approach facilities. We were northeast of a towered field in Mansfield, OH. Mansfield. I replayed my memory of the garbled transmission. That fit; she might have said Mansfield. The approach frequency was one digit off from what Cleveland Approach had provided: 124.2. That's gotta be it.

I switched frequencies and called Mansfield Approach. "Cherokee Four Eight One, Mansfield Approach, radar contact, Mansfield altimeter is..." That was certainly more welcoming than the last guy.

For a three hour cross country leg, it is a good sign when a wrong number from ATC is the most exciting thing that happens.

Counterintuitive Cooling

Although she could have borne the weight, I only fueled Warrior 481 to the tabs (36 gallons) in Cleveland rather than topping off (50 gallons) because of the heat. That placed a three hour leash on our flight time. I chose the London Corbin Airport (KLOZ, airport #193) in London, KY as our next stop because of good reviews and inexpensive fuel ($4.35/gal). That is how we found ourselves in the home town of Harland Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Actual flight time to London was three hours and three minutes, our longest leg for the day. It was an uneventful flight over unexciting terrain. As the flat countryside began to wrinkle south of the Kentucky border, the atmosphere blowing into the airplane cabin became increasingly more refreshing. Counterintuitively, the flight south brought us into cooler air that decreased from 28°C (82°F) over Lake Erie to 22°C (70°F) near the Kentucky-Tennessee border.

Ground track from ForeFlight, BKL to LOZ

Before we signed off from Indy Center for landing in London, we overheard Center coordinating weather deviations for airliners, particularly those bound for Knoxville, TN. Towering cumulus crowded the southern horizon ahead and weather radar (ADS-B) displayed red and yellow blotches over Knoxville. All indications foreshadowed a weather delay.

Home of the Colonel

London Corbin Airport sported a massive runway that appeared to have been meticulously scrubbed of all essential markings. From the pattern, only when the sun fell on the surface just right could I see hints of chevrons at the approach end, a faint breadcrumb of a center line, and a ghostly vestige of the number 24.

That's some cheap airplane fuel right there.

While I fueled Warrior 481 to the tabs, Kristy and The Bear went in search of air conditioning. They found it in what appeared to be a former passenger terminal (London Corbin no longer hosts commercial flights, but it did in the past). London only suffered from normal summer heat instead of the sort of heat suffocating Cleveland. Despite it being cooler in Kentucky, the cumulative effect of a hot day was taking its toll on all three of us.

We were one hour away from our destination in Andrews, NC. But the view to the south was not suggestive of a safe flight; forget fun or easy. No wonder commercial flights were deviating around Knoxville.

As I stood on the ramp surveying the weather in our path, I decided that London, KY seemed like a wonderful place to grab dinner. I had no idea what sort of cuisine the town had to offer (fried chicken, maybe?), but it just simply did not matter. The sky told me that it was dinnertime.

There's nothing like a textbook thunderhead to admire on the way to dinner.

I poked my head into the FBO office. "Do you have a crew car we could borrow to get dinner?"

The fellow at the desk started, then gaped at me for a moment. "What did you say?" he asked in a thick Kentucky accent. As we looked at each other, it was clear that we were both thinking exactly the same thing. Whoa, that guy has quite an accent!

I asked again about a car and he tossed me a set of keys along with a map to get to "The Strip". "All the restaurants and hotels are right along here, but you can also hop on I-75 and find more stuff at the next exit," he explained helpfully.

The car was a Nissan SUV with the official logo of the London Corbin Airport emblazoned on the side. As it turned out, The Strip only boasted fast food places (humorously, without a single KFC in sight). We found the most palatable option available, ate, drank a lot of lemonade, and returned to the airport.

Weather Delay

When the sky looks like this, pilot discretion is the better part of valor.

Back on the ramp, I studied the sky. The storms were moving north toward London. Going through them was not a possibility and they were sufficiently widespread that an end-run around them would have been a significant detour. I decided that the easiest thing to do was let them roll overhead and continue to Andrews in their wake.

The Bear was no longer scowling at me. She was glaring now. She took the ground stop as a personal affront, yet another delay on the road to SurnameFest. Kristy and I realized that, in recent years, our luck with weather has been quite good and en route delays have been rare. The Bear had no memory of past thunderstorm delays. Being held personally accountable for a convective atmospheric phenomenon rising tens of thousands of feet over the world is no easy thing.

I passed time chatting with one of the flight instructors about the airport and its history. I later learned that his name was Russ after seeing a random picture of him cutting the tail off of a solo student's shirt posted to one of the Facebook aviation groups. He explained that the absence of runway striping was not the product of in-progress maintenance as I originally thought, but the unfortunate outcome of a cut-rate contractor that watered down the paint. "Barely lasted three years," he explained in reference to the striping. With the precision approach runway markings essentially nonexistent, he expressed surprise that the FAA still allowed the airport to operate its ILS approach.

The FBO was set to close at 8:00 pm and, as the staff went about their end of day duties, we were invited to stay as long as needed, even if it came to spending the night. When I assured them that we would be able to get out that evening, they indicated that the airside door to the building would be unlocked if we needed to return. The guys from the London Corbin Airport were genuinely friendly and helpful; what a wonderful place!

Racing the Sun

The storms never came to London. Tracking northward, the weather split and passed on either side of the airport. With the southern route clear of weather, we returned to the Warrior and plotted a course to Western Carolina Regional (RHP) in Andrews, NC.

Looking west from the London Corbin Airport at the time of our departure.

Though the storms to the west and east of the airport were far enough away that I was comfortable departing, the distant sound of thunder still rumbled disconcertingly across the otherwise deserted airport.

Looking east from the London Corbin Airport at the time of our departure

I was very cognizant of the hour and of how little daylight remained. The airport in Andrews was situated in a one-way valley in the Smoky Mountains. It was not the sort of place that I wanted to trifle with in the dark of night. My plan was to fly direct to MARBL intersection, follow the Hiwassee Reservoir southeast to Murphy, then track the highway to the airport.

KRHP and the surrounding terrain. Note 1A3 in the lower left corner where we stayed for the 2017 eclipse.

Aloft and bracketed by the two storms on each side, I called Indy Center for flight following to Andrews. The air was smooth and the dying sunlight highlighted the various towering stacks of cumulus in all their menacing glory. It was particularly gloomy to the southwest, the darkness occasionally split by searing filaments of distant lightning.

Looking east over the KY-TN border

As we crossed the Tennessee border, it was evident to me that our race with the setting sun was one that we would not win; we were stymied by the immutability of celestial physics. Thirty-five minutes remained to Andrews, yet the valleys below were filling with ground fog and the deepening shadows allowed humanity's feeble artificial constellations to outshine daylight. I did not want to descend into that unfamiliar mountain valley in Andrews after dark. No way.

I made the decision to divert to Knoxville for the night.

Strike Three, Yer OUT!

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
20 Jul 2019 N21481 LOZ (London, KY) - DKX (Knoxville, TN) 0.9 1995.7

If the intensity with which The Bear pummeled the back of my seat was any indication, she did not take this news well. If Cleveland was strike one and waiting on weather in London was strike two, then a diversion was clearly strike three.

Kristy isolated me at the audio panel and talked The Bear down while I arranged with Knoxville Approach to divert to Knoxville Downtown Island Airport. "Island Home" as the locals call it, a fitting name for a port of refuge on a long journey.

The weather system that split around London Corbin Airport. Track from LOZ to DKX courtesy of FlightAware

While I was isolated, The Bear may have said something along the lines of, "If we flew on a REAL airplane, this wouldn't have happened." Kristy calmly reminded her that we heard the "real" airplanes being diverted all over the place that evening because they are not immune from thunderstorms, either. She also pointed out that Robbinsville was far away from the big airports, whereas the Warrior was capable of delivering us to within a half hour of SurnameFest. The diversion was part of the cost of  that convenience.

I have a good copilot.

Silver Lining

My Dad lives in Knoxville and the Downtown Island Airport is a frequently visited destination. Mentally settling my internal debate about diverting versus continuing on, I took solace in the sight of the runway lights glowing at the familiar island haven. I adjusted our flight path to avoid the tall radio towers northwest of the field and touched down softly on runway 8 in the darkness.

Me, The Bear, Carol, and Dad at the Knoxville Downtown Island Airport, August 2017

The silver lining in all of this is that the diversion to Knoxville meant a visit with Dad and Carol. I had been trying to incorporate a visit with them into our itinerary, not expecting that circumstances would present the perfect opportunity. They were only too happy to receive us. Within 30 minutes of our initial contact, they had collected us from the FBO (open until 10:00 on a Saturday night!) and whisked us away to air conditioning and comfortable beds. While I appreciated the offer, sleeping at my Dad's place was a much better solution to our problem than the couches at the London Corbin Airport would have been.

We did not make SurnameFest on the day intended, but the extra time spent with Dad made it well worth the delay. The alternative was a 13+ hour drive in the car from New York to North Carolina. I prefer six hours in an airplane with some interesting stops along the way to spending half a day in the car. I may have struck out with The Bear, but I still feel like I won the day overall.


Could I have made it into Andrews that evening? In principle, yes. There's an instrument approach to runway 8 (not surprisingly, there is not one to 26 because of the terrain). The lowest minimums are 2298 feet above the ground, so it is not a particularly precise approach, but it would have lined us up with the runway and helped us manage our altitude around darkened terrain on a clear night.

Here's the thing: I was so tired from the week prior and the travel and the heat that the thought of using those instrument flying tools never occurred to me. Even if it had, I was probably too tired to tackle it. So, yes, I could have made it to Andrews on the scheduled night had I been up for the challenge. But considering my level of fatigue that evening, I stand by my choice.

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