Wednesday, February 08, 2006

One Plane, No Train, One Automobile*

It all started with an innocuous e-mail from Angel Flight yesterday morning -- Could anyone fly a 9 year old boy with Microtia Atresia from YNG to N94. A quick check of the work calendar demonstrated that the IFR Pilot could play hooky from work and do a good deed. JP was quickly drafted to co-pilot since the boy, his mom, and their luggage was less than 250 pounds.

After conferring with the linking pilot, who would be dropping the passengers at their final destination of TEB, we switched from N94 to CXY. N94 only has two instrument approaches, a NDB and a VOR, and neither of them are GPS overlays. Call me crazy, but at this time of year, I want lots of options. CXY, with MDT just on the other side of the river, provided the perfect alternate. No worry about the added fuel price, we'll just fill the aux tanks at the home base (at $2.76 a gallon for 100LL), and we're good for 6 hours or more of flying time.

Hiccup number one of the day: The home base pilot shop was fresh out of approach plates for Pennsylvania. We had the CXY plates, printed out from AOPA, but that's not enough. OK, no problem, they're certain to have them at YNG. After all, it's hardly a stone's throw from the PA border.

We launched around 9:15. Condition were good VFR for the first part of the trip. Soon, though, the clouds couldn't be dodged, and we picked up an IFR clearance the IFR Pilot had filed earlier that morning "just in case." ATC hardly batted an eye. Just gave us a new squawk and we kept on going.

Handed off the YNG Approach, we were given a vector for an expected visual arrival. Hmmmmm. That would be great if we could get it, but there sure are a lot of clouds out here. Not two minutes later, Approach changes our vector and tells us to expect the ILS 32, as weather is worsening.

Turned in pretty close to the marker to expedite the approach, the IFR Pilot got a bit behind when he didn't start turning or descending quickly enough. Quickly correcting and descending, we were out of the clag and JP spotted the airport just after we confirmed that the lights were on. A smooth landing ensued.

We taxied to the FBO, only to find that they too were sans Pennsylvania approach plates. Having taken my instrument checkride at YNG a few years ago, I recall that there's a flight school there. A phone call determines that they are in possession of the treasured approach plates. While the IFR Pilot let the pretty blonde drive him over, JP briefed the passengers and loaded the baggage. (Hey, them's the perks of being the senior pilot!!!!!)

After checking that bathroom needs have been satisfied, we loaded up and blasted off for the 1.5 hour flight. We started at 6000, but that had us smack dad in the clag. Not a good place to be with a Airmet Zulu for moderate rime icing. So up we went to 8000. Hmm, no help there either. How about 10,0000? Perfect. Bright blue sky and piercing sunlight. Fire up the XM Radio, it's an easy cruise now to CXY, which is reporting clear below 12,000. Love it when a plan comes together. See for yourself:

We're maybe thirty minutes from CXY when the Mom peeps up and announces that she has to go the bathroom. From the tone of her voice, it sounds as if a request to "hold it" will be overruled. Checking the NRST function on the beloved Garmin 430, we're 15 miles from PSB, which has an ILS. That'll have to do. We advise NY Center that we have to divert for "environmental needs," my patented line so that the whole sector doesn't have to be told "Someone in 78S has to go potty!"

Down we go back into the clag. It's a quick trip, though, and we're on top of PSB in a matter of minutes. JP looks for the windsock but has trouble finding it. We're lined up for 34, but way, way high. Whatever, the runway's long, let's just circle to 16 and land with a tailwind. No one else appears to be around.....

On the ground, our assessment proves 100% spot-on. There's no one around, and I do mean no one. No line boy. No FBO staffers. No airport employees. In point of fact, the entire airport building is locked tight. Uh oh, methinks we diverted to the wrong airport. Momma can't hold it any more, and so makes the executive decision to attend to her environmental needs on the side of the airport building. Did I mention it was rather cold and windy?!?!?!?

Next problem, the cell phone won't grab a signal. There's no RCO on the field. It's starting to snow pretty good and the ceiling doesn't look like it will permit a safe VFR departure. Now what?

After a bit more exploring, we locate the telephone. An IFR flight plan gets filed, and then there's an interminable wait for a void clearance. Eventually we get it, do our run up, and blast off for the 30 minute jaunt to CXY. The descent and landing prove to be non-events, we hand the passengers off to the linking pilot, and we stuff our faces at Subway.

Properly fortified, JP and the IFR Pilot switch places so that JP can continue amassing hours. We're in the clag through 8000. JP does a fine job in and out of time, but after about a half hour or so, we're starting to get some very, very light rime. The IFR Pilot makes the executive decision that flying in the tops is not such a swell idea, and we ask for and get 10,000.

Wonderful, this is proving to be pretty uneventful. The IFR Pilot ponders taking a nap, but (1) that would be rude, (2) it's pretty cold in the non-so-airtight 1964 Cessna 172, and (3) I can only find one of my gloves. So I amuse myself by plotting our location on the sectional and getting some updated weather from Flight Watch.

Which is when things start getting interesting. Flight Watch tells us that conditions in the area of home base are much, much worse than when we left. Visibilities between one and four miles. Scattered clouds at 1600, broken 2000, overcast 2400. Snow. OK, time to sit up and pay attention.

JP and I formulate a plan of attack. Since the home base has no approaches, we'll go to the one two miles east that has a GPS. We'll try that one time, and one time only, after which it's off to the alternate and the ILS.

More time passes. We cross the border into Ohio. The IFR Pilot starts checking all the various AWOS's in the area. Holy moly Batman. Phrases like "Runway visual range." "Heavy snow." "Freezing fog." Egads. Handed off the CAK Approach, we're told they are IMC.

We decide to divert back to YNG, which is 20 miles north of us. It's broken below us so, we can see plenty of the ground, so we figure this is a good choice. Handed off to YNG Approach, we're told ceiling is 500 feet, visibility 1/4 mile, heavy snow.

What the heck?!?!? I can see the ground below me. On the 430, JP spots a airport literally right below us. 38D, Salem Airpark. Hey, I've been there. Just remember not to confuse the airport with the dragstrip located right nearby! We advise YNG we're diverting and landing immediately at 38D. As we start descending, we get some gruff from them about being on an instrument clearance with an assigned altitude. I use my authoritative lawyer voice and advise we're canceling IFR and landing immediately due to the weather.

JP makes a nice approach and we're on the ground a couple minutes later. It's actually pretty clear in the immediate vicinity of the airport, but jeez, to the north, south, east, and west are ominous clouds. Good choice, JP, to put us on the ground forthwith!

We wait it out for a bit, chatting with the folks that run the airport. It's a family that just purchased it last June. They've got an ambitious plan to add more hangars, a restaurant, and an ice cream store. Guess what destination has just been added to our summer dining itinerary?

It comes to pass that the weather isn't. There's talk of us staying the night, but JP and the IFR Pilot want to sleep in their own beds tonight. So one of the boys offers us his Jeep Cherokee to drive home. He tells us it's pretty cold and not the smoothest of rides, but we snap up the offer like there's no tomorrow. It's a fair trade -- our plane is definitely worth more than this car (though at least it has an XM radio, which makes the trip home a bit more tolerable).

So, we wheel 78S into the lone available hangar, throw our belongings into the Cherokee, and set off for the hour drive home. Along the way, we pass through torrid snow squalls, some so bad that it's tough to see the tops of some cell phone towers. The snow looks wet and sticky, and visibility on the road isn't too swell. But, we make it home safe and sound.

JP now gets to drive back tomorrow and exchange Cherokee for Skyhawk and bring 78S home to the home base.

But, we extend our most profound thanks to Mike and Brenda Pidgeon and their kids, proprietors of Salem Airpark. They hope to have the restaurant open in September, and they're pretty reasonable on fuel. If your in the neighborhood, please throw some of your business their way. (The IFR Pilot bought a Salem Airpark tee-shirt; JP, being the big spender, scooped up a Salem Airpark baseball hat.) These are the kind of people that make aviation special. We all need to support them. I know they'll appreciate it. We certainly did.

And, with that, 20% of Goal #4 has been achieved.

(With apologies to Steve Martin and John Candy...)


Paul said...

Great story, now thats real world flying. Too bad we don't get to do much of that out here in San Diego. I'd love to get some of that decision making experience you guys obviously have.

Scott said...

Great story, like being in the cockpit with you. Thanks

Neil said...

Great job IFRP & JP! Your efforts are certainly appreciated, and im glad you guys had a safe trip home.