Journey to Springfield -- Act II

July 2009

After 10 days, I flew back to Nebraska. The repair seemed good. I briefly took AJ for a ride in the glider, spent the night at a local motel and then took to the air early the next morning.

A stop in Iowa City turned into days as one weather system after another blew through. Sharing the airport lounge with me was a nice couple from Georgia. Many guys mostly fly alone but Larry was lucky enough to have Sharon who was working on her pilot's license and who enjoyed flying. They had a turbo-charged Piper that is much more appropriate for long-distance flying than a glider. Yet, when the weather isn't right, smart people wait, regardless of how powerful the engine is on their airplane. To their credit, when the weather didn't improve, they just took a commercial flight to Georgia. They'd use their return ticket to come back later for the Piper. That's exactly how to become an old pilot.

The weather improved in the direction I wanted to fly, so I was able to escape and head toward Springfield.

A change in scenery
Moving from the flat, grayish-green farmlands, I had forgotten just how lush, green and rolling Ohio is.

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Ohio has more trees than the farm states to the west

I lived in Iowa for about 10 years. Everything just seemed to have a coating of dirt that blew in off the fields. So even in summer, the trees tended to look gray. While Washington State is green, it is the blue green of conifers. But Ohio had the rich green color of broad-leaf trees glowing in the late-afternoon sun.

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The Braun's house, just north of Springfield

It had none of the coating of dust you see further west. It was a remarkable difference and a beautiful sight.

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Kiser Lake where my family used to race sailboats

In the next few days, I had my business meeting, spent a little time with friends from earlier years, and it was time to start my return to Washington.

The return
The first day, I left early and made my way across Ohio, Indiana to Illinois. One task in Illinois was to take some pictures of my wife's family farm. She was fairly sure which one it was, but not positive. Doing the best I could to get its location from Google Earth, I had put that position as a waypoint in my Garmin GPS.

Remembering how she described her mother's recollections of driving to the farm, I tried to follow those directions from the air, and was pleasantly surprised to find that her directions took me to the same farm that was my GPS waypoint. I snapped a few pictures, then flew onward to Iowa City.

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Off the wing of the glider, the very neat Heins family farm in Illinois

The staff at the airport knew me by sight now. They found me hangar space for the night. I did my post-flight maintenance, got the glider fully ready to leave in the morning, and headed for a room and sleep. The weather predictions were somewhat ominous for the next day. Worrying wouldn't change it. Being rested was my best defense.

Dodging weather
The next morning I was up before 5am, checking the weather. From Omaha, there was an enormous, ugly storm cell moving toward Iowa City. Hail, lightning, high winds. Slightly to the north also headed our way, was a large area of rain, some of it strong.

At first glance, it looked like I was going to be there for days. But between the two systems, was a path. A path with moderate, dry weather. A path exactly where I had plotted my route westward.

But the question was, were these two systems a pair of freight trains that would stay on separate, parallel tracks? Or were they the top and bottom jaws of weather that would do bad things to fools who wandered into them?

Hoping for the best, I prepared to leave, continuing to check the radar as the morning progressed. Over the next two hours, the weather systems stayed parallel with little convergence. The Weather Underground not only has radar and weather charts, but also has a feature where it gives indications of expected paths of weather. What dumb luck - even the predicted paths tended to be parallel - not converging.

If I waited too long, the window would close. I decided to go. My Garmin 396 GPS gives me weather radar overlaid on the display with my course. As I flew, I could watch the display and check the reports from the airports further along my route to see if there was any evidence of converging systems or worsening weather.

The day before I had prepared the glider to leave. So, all I needed to do was a basic pre-flight inspection, strap in my luggage, activate my route and blast out of there. Well, the glider never really blasts anywhere - but leaving had a sense of urgency.

Over the next hour and a half, I worked my way between the systems. I could see heavy rain and dark clouds to right (north) and to the left (south). But there was a path of lighter sky and dry weather directly in front of me where I wanted to go. I weaved my way around a few showers, but for the most part, stayed dry and in relatively calm winds.

In some ways, it was hard to believe that I made it. I would never have tried this flight before the GPS with weather information as I just couldn't see enough to be comfortable. But the weather display allowed me to make good decisions. It's important to note that I was in fairly clear weather the entire time. What I saw on the weather radar, I could see around me. This was not like some pilots who have tried to dodge their way through embedded thunderstorms. I was flying VFR and stayed VFR. The weather display isn't exact and is only updated every 6 minutes. But that was adequate for my needs at this time. Regardless, I kept mental track of where the closest airports were so that if for some reason I lost the weather information or lost the GPS entirely, I could fly to a reasonable airport and land. Carefully, I passed the storm systems and found myself in clearer skies.

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Clear skies were great, but the winds were challenging

High winds
But the clear skies brought something else: high winds. As I approached my next fuel stop at Denison, Iowa, as I approached, the winds kept getting worse.
  • When I was about 20 miles from the airport, the wind was 13 miles an hour, gusting to 17. The max crosswind suggested for the glider is 10 miles an hour. The wind at the airport was mostly down the runway, so it was ok.
  • Closer at 15 miles from the airport, the wind was now 15 gusting to 22.
  • Ten miles out, it was 18 gusting to 24!

    Give me a break! And now it seemed to be shifting back and forth. Ok. I suppose this was part of the adventure. I got to the airport, and the flag was straight out, flapping vigorously. The direction of the wind was still mostly down the paved runway, but it was so strong, I might have to stop on the runway and fold my wings to be able to taxi.

    I set up for landing and late on final approach, the wind shifted 20-30 degrees. Now it was down an adjoining turf runway. Not wanting to give it another chance to shift, I quickly moved to the turf runway and landed. Amazing....these guys actually knew how to mow their runway! It was a little rough-but no problem. I got fuel, folded the wings so I could taxi and spent a little time checking the weather at the airports on my route. The wind seemed to be from a constant direction (actually giving me a bit of a tail wind). And at every airport where I wanted to land, even though the wind was high, it was close enough to one of their runways to make it ok.

    I taxied out to the paved runway, unfolded the wings, got ready....and the wind shifted again making the turf runway the better choice. This sounded like a bad game. I figured as soon as I folded the wings, taxied over to the turf runway & got ready, it would shift again. Rather than play that game, I shut down the engine and waited. Sure enough, in about 15 minutes, the wind shifted to favor the paved runway. I started the engine, made sure it would give me full power and took off. In that wind the glider jumped off the runway like a flea off a dog. But I was airborne and on my way.

    Leaving the large systems behind, I now faced a classic warm front with low ceilings and haze. As I flew along, the ceilings got lower and the haze got worse. The ceilings finally got low enough and visibility was limited enough that I was getting uncomfortable. Scrolling ahead on the GPS, the airports in front of me were reporting even worse conditions. So, just before noon, I landed at Wayne Municipal airport in Wayne, Nebraska--one of the stranger stops on the trip.

    The invisible people of Wayne
    After landing, I stopped to fold the wings to navigate the narrow taxiways. Nearby was a large open hangar. As I folded the wings I noticed a person on a golf cart heading down from the hangar. At first I thought he was coming down to talk. But he suddenly turned and drove back to the hangar. Seconds later, a pickup truck did the same thing. Both seemed in a hurry.

    With the wings folded, I taxied to the hangar. The golf cart and pickup were there, but no one was around. Odd. I walked into the airport office. The computer was on but no one was there. People usually come to greet you rather than go running away. The credit card feature on the fuel pumps had been disabled, so you'd need their help to pump fuel. There was a house on the grounds, but the screen door was locked and no one would answer. Maybe it was lunch time. Darndest thing I've ever seen at an airport.

    The weather sources on the computer showed that the front should just be moving overhead. Sure enough, by the time I went outside, the sky was better. I continued westward through clear skies to my next fuel stop.

    The next two fuel stops were similar. Strong winds, but an acceptable runway. By the time I got to O'Neil, Nebraska, the winds were out of the west, an almost perfect headwind.

    Flying to Gordon will cost you
    Do I try to make it to one last airport (to Gordon, NE) for the night? Why not. If I could make it, I knew they had a hangar for me and a courtesy car. Due to the headwinds, at one point my airspeed was 90 mph, but my speed over the ground was 62mph. Hot. Bumpy. Ugh. There was just nothing good about that flight, other than I was just a bit closer to Seattle. But, I made it to Gordon, put the plane in the hangar, did my post-flight maintenance and found a place for the night.

    The last time I stayed in Gordon, I was in a room next to a large transformer with no cellular, Wi-Fi or any other connection. The new room was even smaller with no Wi-Fi in the motel, but at least I'd have a clear cellular connection. Not so. Only when I adopted the Asian Crane Position, holding my cell phone at odd angles while doing personal contortions, could I get a fleeting connection. (Would all the older people in the room smile and say, "Rabbit Ear Antennas.") In a few minutes, I'd have to go to "Position 2." This would work for a little, then I had to try contortion "Position 3." After a few minutes, I needed to start over and see which one would work. Gr-r-r-r. Since I did my flight planning through Internet information sources, this was more than just a humorous entry in America's Got Talent. But, I did get enough of a connection to get by. How Life has changed.

    Serious flying
    The next day was a bright, sunny clear day to cross the Rockies. But in fact, it was a Siren, calling to the glider. I left Gordon, Nebraska, making fuel stops at Converse, WY (KDGW), Hunt (KLND) and Miley Memorial (Blackfoot/KBPI). But now it was time to get over the higher peaks. The wind was from the south (from my left) and it was a nice, high-pressure day with clear skies. To say this another way, the wind wasn't helping (as it wasn't from behind me) nor did I have much lift (because it was a nice, high-pressure day). I made it to the largest range of peaks.

    I was at about 5,000' but needed to make it to almost 12,000' to get over the range. I first back-tracked over a stream where the moisture was making some lift (#1) and gained what altitude I could. Then started down the canyon that I had plotted (#2), seeing that the peaks weren't quite so high at its end.

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    The GPS track log superimposed on a Google Earth map of the Rockies

    It should have been great. The afternoon sun had been warming a large rock wall. The wind was from the left, blowing against the wall. There was even a small stream that should have helped with lift. In the canyon, all I found was sinking air (downdrafts). Some of it was fast moving sinking air, possibly over 1000' per minute downward, pegging my variometer at the bottom of its scale. This was in an airplane that under power at that altitude, might gain 100-200' per minute. Despite using full power (all the gerbils were running), I was still losing altitude fairly rapidly. Flying over the areas with the most room and the least sink, and a few white knuckles later, I emerged from the canyon.

    Rather than try another canyon, there was a ridge that worked its way to the top. So, I started up the ridge. This was a better strategy and gave me escape routes if I had problems. But the high pressure wasn't done with me.

    Lift is often created by a spot on the ground warming faster than the surrounding terrain, creating sort of a chimney of rising air. It might be a field. It might be as small as a single tree. The problem is, high pressure acts like a lid holding down the rising air. So, at spots on the ground that might produce lift, the relative pressure had to get very high and sort of let loose a bubble of rising air, rather than create a chimney. With the high pressure that day, those lift-producing spots had to build tremendous pressure before a bubble let loose.

    On some days, the bubbles are like flying over popcorn or boiling water. There aren't clear points of lift, but there are enough bubbles to help. But on really high pressure days, there are few bubbles and they can be like a boxer taking a full swing at the glider's wings. That's what this day was like. A few bubbles knocked the glider into about a 50 to 60-degree bank. I was completely thrown against the harness multiple times and was glad I had carefully strapped down the luggage in the rear seat. (Actually, I was sort of glad I had my own harness on!) I worked my way up the ridge and found one spot that had gotten hot enough that it was making lift. I circled on that spot (#3) and rode the lift up high enough to reach 12,300 feet so I could make it over the peaks. The trip over the peaks had not been pleasant and I was glad for it to be over.

    The leg from McCarley, Idaho (U02) to Jerome (KJER) should have been easy. But it was hot and still a high-pressure day where there was turbulence combined with a lot of sink. So, even though it was a gentle climb over flat, but rising terrain, it was a struggle to get every foot of altitude from the glider.

    I was tired by the time I made it to Jerome, Idaho, for the night. I stayed at a Shilo Inn that would pick up pilots from the airport. The manager of the motel was very nice and went out of her way to give me a good rate for the night. But a young woman at the front desk was argumentative, did all she could avoid giving me a ride and tried to misrepresent the rates so she could charge me extra. Very strange.

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    The Snake River

    The next day, the final leg was relatively easy. A gentle tail-wind slightly increased my speed. By the time I got to the Cascade Mountains, the thermals were working, so I could simply set my course and gain altitude as I flew. By the time I actually reached the mountains, I had risen to 8,500 feet - more than 1,000 feet higher than the highest point I wanted to cross. After that, it was a gentle descent to the Seattle area (S50).

    It was pretty darn nice to see a familiar area with favorable weather.

    Final Thoughts

    If you don't come back from a trip changed by the experience, it wasn't a journey, it was just a change in geography. It has been somewhat of an adjustment to get back to my regular work. Sitting at a desk in an office, dealing with all the niggling problems of the day doesn't have the direct satisfaction of flying. In flying, the problems are real. You generally know right away if your solutions work. The consequences of your choices are significant. Within reason, everything you do, matters. If you have faced the chance of being squashed into splinters in a remote canyon, the challenges at work are small.

    Although I had music in the cockpit, the vast majority of hours were flown in blissful silence, enjoying the scenery, being calm in mind and heart.

    I think I enjoyed the Wyoming scenery the best. It had the most interesting contrasts between open grassy areas, trees and rock formations.

    Sportavia RF5B Sperber

    The log on the Garmin showed a little over 5,200 miles covered on the trip. Despite headwinds, etc., the total fuel consumption for the trip was 192 gallons, giving me an average of 27 mpg for the trip. With 58.6 tach hours flown, the average speed was 89 statute mph. Not bad, really.

    My overall planning seemed pretty good for my first long-range trip. I have tried to think if I could have done the mountain crossing any better. I'm not sure that I could. I made reasonable plans, but revised them when actual conditions suggested other approaches were better.

    I could have tried harder to find a pass to help me cross the mountains (which would have meant that I didn't have to fly so high). But, with minimal engine power, passes have their own risks with sink, turbulence, etc. If you have problems in a pass, you're often surrounded by unforgiving rock walls. The somewhat more direct, "over the top" strategy I used (without going over the highest peaks) seemed safer, giving me more options if I had problems.

    Many days, the engine seemed to run too rich. The carburetor I currently use has minimal adjustments. I will probably start a search for an alternative carburetor that has more adjustments so that if I encounter situations that are beyond the automatic adjustment ability of the carburetor, I can manually refine its settings.

    The trip was a good thing for me, personally. In the grand scheme of accomplishments, it is a small one. But the challenges were real. It forced me to make fly/no-fly decisions that I would not make in day-to-day, casual flying. I flew in higher winds and in a wider variety of weather than I normally would. Yet, I think I did so prudently and in ways that helped create good outcomes. So, while some of the flying was well out of my traditional comfort zone, it was within prudent levels of risk.

    I've pondered over the taxiing incident in Nebraska. Was there a particular flaw in my reasoning or reactions? I couldn't find any. I could see the runway markers from the air, but they disappeared at ground level. It's not that I was careless. You can't avoid what you can't see.

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    Back in its hangar after the trip, note the weaving trail on the side of the glider from the exhaust

    Probably the biggest problem the trip creates is posing the question, "What's next?"

    2014 Update
    I recently discussed the taxiing incident with a CFI. His position was that after I had made a good landing, if I couldn't see well to taxi, I shouldn't have. Alhtough I was concerned about sinking in mud, he felt that (evnetually) there will always be help available at an airport. So, just shut down before there's any damage to the aircraft. Certainly, had I done that, the outcome would have been cheaper. Point taken.