From Confessions of a Thankful Pilot
The first light of dawn was filling the eastern sky when the Skyhawk’s engine came to life. It was 7:10 on October 9, 2013 and I was about to begin a journey that would be as epic for me as the flight across the Atlantic had been for Lindbergh.
Who could have known that wanting to tear down years of animosity that my dad and I had for each other 25 years ago, would lead to the two of us taking flying lessons together, attaining our pilot license, and eventually to this moment. Cancer had taken my dad in 2001, so today I’d be wearing his David Clark headset on the trip as a way of bringing him along with me.
After years of planning and dreaming, I was finally doing it. I was flying from Galion, Ohio (GQQ) to Winter Haven, Florida (GIF) to visit my son, Jason.
Replacing the roof on the house had been the final push I had needed. I’d done it myself, and viewed the feat a heroic undertaking for a 61 year-old man with tortured knees from over three decades of running long distances.
Because I’d successfully met that big challenge, and saved thousands of dollars in the process, I felt I could reward myself in an equally big way. Now here I am at 5,500 msl, crossing over Interstate 71, the first visual checkpoint on the first leg of my dream flight.
In addition to tracking visual checkpoints, I was also tracking VOR radials and, planned to follow a few Victor airways. Both of these navigation tactics were in addition to the flight plan I had programmed and activated in the Garmin 796 clamped to the yoke. Many pilots reading this will laugh, thinking that all this redundant navigation was overkill. But, as you will read, there were times when I lost sight of the ground and missed visual checkpoints; discovered en route that a VOR I needed to track wasn’t transmitting; and, yes, I actually lost GPS satellite signals for a short time on the return flight. For a minute or two, the Garmin had no idea where we were. I didn’t have to panic in any of these situations because I continuously maintained a crosscheck with all three navigation systems.
Although I am Instrument rated, I wasn’t current, so I was flying the entire trip VFR and taking advantage of Flight Following. So, after departing Galion Airport, I made contact with Mansfield Approach who put me in the system and gave me a discreet transponder code. Mansfield later handed me off to Columbus Approach as I neared the Appleton VOR. Over the remainder of the 197 nm (nautical mile) leg, Columbus would hand me off to Indianapolis Center and Indy would hand me off to Charleston Approach.
I had the legs of the trip planned so as to accommodate the Skyhawk’s 38 useable gallons of avgas, and allowed for 15 minutes of fuel use for startup, taxi, and runup. I’m a very conservative pilot who has made and will make mistakes but doesn’t want to add fuel exhaustion to the list. So even though I lean the mix at altitude, I still use 10 gallons per hour for preflight planning calculations and maintain a strict personal minimum of 1 hour fuel reserve. Bottom line, I had a fuel stop planned for about every two hours of flight.
“Skyhawk 1742 Victor, Charleston. Radar services terminated. Squawk VFR. Frequency change approved. Good Day.”
“42 Victor,” I replied. “Thanks for your help.”
During the time leading up to my trip, I proudly told a few pilots of my plan to fly a Cessna 172 from Ohio to Florida.
“Really (as in are you nuts?),” was the typical response from the pilots I hang with, and it made me start doubting that I could or should actually do it. Another odd response I got, was from my dental hygienist when I told her. She asked about my copilot. When I told her I was flying solo, her eyes opened real wide. “Flying to Florida without a copilot sound dangerous,” she said (as in, are you nuts?) I tried to understand her point of view, gave up, and said, “Well, I did manage to drive all the way here for the appointment by myself.”
I was also proud to tell anyone who would listen, that 1742Victor doesn’t have an autopilot so I was hand-flying the entire 1,750 nautical miles. More often than not, that got me the non-verbal blank stare (as in are you nuts?).
I’ll bet Lindbergh heard a lot of the same types of comments before his flight. I’m sure he had doubts, just like I did that I could actually make it happen. But, like Charles, I had to try.
I made my position report to Beckley traffic on 123.0 MHz and started my pre-landing checklist.
Referred to as Raleigh County on the sectional but as Beckley by everyone else, BKW is unique in that it is an uncontrolled airport with scheduled air carrier flights. Although it doesn’t have a tower, it does have a fully equipped terminal including TSA, car rental, FAA offices, and a full-size airport restaurant.The view near Beckley, West Virginia was distracting to this flatlander. The airport sits at 2,504 msl and has a traffic pattern altitude of 3,500 msl. There are mountains nearby (yeah, I know they’re small by western U.S. standards) and as I found out on final, there’s a deep gorge at both ends of runway 10/28.
“Beckley traffic, 42 Victor (is) turning (to) left base for runway one-zero,” I announced as I looked for other airplanes.
Although there were just a few mild bumps on downwind, with winds gusting to 20 mph and my inexperience with flying low and slow near mountains and over gorges, I braced myself to handle a squirrely airplane tossed around by sudden mountain-induced updrafts, downdrafts, and all manner of sideways drafts.
“Beckley traffic, Four-Two-Victor, turning final for One-Zero.”
No turbulent air so far, but now the gorge at the end of the runway where I’d be the lowest and slowest before reaching the runway, was getting big in the windscreen. I held the yoke tightly with both hands and waited for the wrestling match.
Other than correcting for the anticipated crosswind gusts however, I glided over the deep trench, without much of a problem.
The Skyhawk’s tires chirped with delight at 9:13 a.m. and the first leg of our journey was complete.
Although I had recorded one-hour-fifty-three-minutes of actual flight time on the first leg, the Hobbs had ticked off 2.2 (remember start, taxi, and runup at the departure airport, and then taxi at the arrival airport). The FBO put 21 gallons in the wing tanks while I talked with a pilot parked next to me on the ramp. He had planned on flying to the east coast of North Carolina to go fishing with friends but decided to cancel because of inclement weather at his destination. My next leg was through North Carolina but I’d be far enough inland where the sky was clear and the winds were light.
I ate a few handfuls of almonds, dried pineapple, and dried mango that I brought for the trip, dewatered, and rehydrated. Then it was time to settle back into the pilot’s seat.
Four-Two-Victor and I departed Beckley, West Virginia at 10:14 a.m. I gently banked right, after reaching pattern altitude to intercept and track the 161 degree radial to the Pulaski (PSK) VOR, 46 nm away in Virginia. Then, I contacted Charleston Approach as we continued our climb to 7,500 msl over the Blue Ridge mountains.
“November-One-Seven-Four-Two-Victor, contact Indy Center on one-two-six-point-five-seven.”
I repeated the frequency back to Charleston, thanked the controller, then switched frequencies.
Prior to reaching Pulaski, Indy handed me off to Atlanta Center. After reaching the PSK, I turned right to 207degrees toward the Barretts Mountain (BZM) VOR, 81nm away.
I’d cleared the Blue Ridge chain and was in North Carolina talking to Charlotte Approach by the time we reached Barretts Mountain. After crossing BZM, I banked slightly right to fly the 54 nm direct to the Spartanburg (SPA)VOR.
Soon, I was flying over South Carolina and Charlotte Approach was instructing me to contact Greer (Spartanburg) Approach. After crossing SPA, I nudged the Skyhawk onto a 195 degree heading toward the Greenwood VOR 47 nm away and my destination for Leg 2, Greenwood County airport (GRD). GRD has three runways but only 9/27 is open. Its 631msl field elevation is more like what this flatlander was used to.
Ten minutes out from the airport, I adjusted power and trim for a 500 fpm descent and listened to the Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) radio report. The wind was favoring runway 27.
Four-Two-Victor and I touched down at 12:13 p.m., one-hour-fifty-nine-minutes, and 228 nautical miles after leaving Beckley. Two legs completed. Two legs yet to fly.
A quick restroom break. Another handful of dried fruit and nuts washed down with a swig of bottled water. Rick, the airport manager at Greenwood, put 22.1 gallons of avgas in the wings and cleaned the windscreen, before wishing me a safe flight. I thanked him and told him I’d see him on the return trip. I pushed the red BATT and ALT switches up, yelled clear out the side window, then turned the key to start 42Victor’s ever-reliable Lycoming.
I pushed the throttle full forward at 1:07 p.m. The Skyhawk’s 160 winged horses carried me down the runway as fast as they could and then the sky pulled us up into her embrace.
This time, I turned to intercept Victor Airway 185 and radioed Greer Approach.
“42 Victor is off of Greenwood, VFR, climbing to 4,500, and would like Flight Following to Bacon County Airport (Alma), Alpha-Mike-Golf. I’ll be flying to the Colliers VOR, to HADOC Intersection, and then to the Dublin VOR to avoid Bulldog.”
The Bulldog MOA (Military Operations Area) was the reason I couldn’t just fly direct to the Alma VOR and Bacon County Airport. This huge tract of airspace is the training playground for fast moving fighters and other military airborne hardware. The top of the MOA dome is 10,000 feet msl. Also collocated in the north portion of the MOA is R-3004 A and B, restricted areas that top out at 16,000 msl.
Before long, Greer handed me off to Atlanta Approach and Atlanta handed me off to Augusta Approach. Thirty-two nautical miles after leaving Greenwood, I reached the Colliers (IRQ) VOR, turned to 235 degrees, and followed Victor 56 which runs almost parallel to the northwest border of the Bulldog MOA.
“Augusta Approach, Four-Two-Victor requesting status of Bulldog.”
I might get lucky.
“Four-Two-Victor, Augusta. Bulldog is hot.”
A few minutes later, ATC told me what I wanted to hear.
“Four-Two-Victor, Augusta. Bulldog is now cold.”
“Four-Two-Victor copies and turning to the south to go direct to Alpha-Mike-Golf.”
I cancelled the active flight plan in the Garmin, punched up direct to Bacon County, and made my turn south.
Then Augusta radioed again.
“Four-Two-Victor, be advised Bulldog went hot again.”
I know it’s highly unlikely (I hope), but for an instant I pictured the Augusta controller and the military controller in Bulldog looking at their radar screens and talking to each other on the phone. “Look, a Cessna 172! Hey, it’s pretty slow today. Want to have some fun?”
Anyway, Augusta was waiting for acknowledgement and intentions.
“Four-Two-Victor copies. Returning to original course.”
In a multitasking flurry, I cancelled the direct-to course in the Garmin, re-activated the Leg 3 flight plan, and steered back to Victor 56 toward HADOC. I also made up my mind that regardless if the MOA went cold again, I wasn’t going for the same gag twice.
Fifty-six nautical miles from IRQ at 1:51 p.m., the OBS needles and the Garmin agreed we had reached HADOC. I turned the Skyhawk southeast to track Victor 51, roughly paralleling the west border of Bulldog on the way to Dublin (DBN). We crossed the Dublin VOR at 2:08 p.m. and then continued the final 63 miles on V51 to Bacon County, Georgia.
Bacon County’s Automated Surface Observation System (ASOS) reported clear skies, visibility 10 miles, and light winds out of the north. As I made my position reports and flew the pattern, I looked below to see wetlands and lots of birds near the approach end of Runway 33, putting me on the alert to avoid a bird strike. I also saw that there were no aircraft parked anywhere on airport property. There were no Xs on the runway to indicate the airport was closed and nothing in my preflight planning indicated the airport was closed. Even so, no airplanes at an airport is an ominous sight.
Well, I was about to change that.
Careful to keep an eye on the birds on final, I made my third touchdown for the trip at 2:40 p.m., (1 hour and 33 minutes after departing Greenwood) with another nice squeaker. But, there was no one on the ground to witness it.
There was no friendly FBO with a ground crew to greet me at Bacon County. I taxied to the self-serve fuel pump, set the chocks, and headed for the only building on the airport that I could see to find a men’s room.
The door was open, a television was on, but the place was deserted. I didn’t see a computer anywhere to check weather, but there was a telephone on a lamp table I used to call flight service.
I dutifully recorded 1.7 hours Hobbs time for Leg 3 (186 nm) and 18.65 gallons for fuel use. I had been calling Jason at the beginning of each leg, so I let him know I was about to leave Georgia and would see him in Winter Haven in about 2 hours.
I still hadn’t seen another soul at Bacon County by time the Skyhawk’s wheels left the earth at 3:22 p.m. I intercepted V157 shortly after takeoff and flew the 189 degree radial to the Waycross VOR and contacted JAX (Jacksonville) Center to get flight following. I continued on V157 after crossing Waycross and began the 46 nm hop to the Taylor (TAY) VOR.
I had flown a little more than three-quarters of the total flight. Skies had been clear, I had consistently found my visual checkpoints, and my VOR tracking had agreed with my GPS flight plan.
Then, I crossed into the Sunshine State.
The Taylor VOR is the first navaid I was going to use after crossing from Georgia into Florida. But I had missed a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) that Taylor VOR was unusable below 8,000 on the radials extending from 174 degrees to 224 degrees.
After crossing TAY at 4,500, I climbed to 5,500 and banked slightly left to a heading of 173 degrees to continue following Victor 157. At some point in the 83 nm between TAY and OCF (the Ocala VOR), and before I could receive Ocala’s radio, I lost Taylor’s navigation signal.
No problem. I still had two backup systems, ground references and the Garmin, to rely on.
As I got close enough to receive Ocala’s signal, I noticed a scattered layer of clouds starting to spread out below. I was handed off from JAX Center to JAX Approach as the scattered layer transitioned to a broken layer. A scan of the XM weather on the Garmin showed a nice picture of where the clouds were based on the ceiling reports from the area ATIS, ASOS, and AWOS systems. Winter Haven was reporting scattered clouds.
After crossing OCF, I took a 145 degree heading to track V537. The plan was to follow Victor 537 until reaching the CERMO Intersection (which has a highway for visual reference), change heading to 175 degrees until reaching JENSN intersection (no visual reference), and then take a 179 degree heading direct to Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field (GIF).
The clouds below had become a solid undercast before JAX Approach handed me off to Orlando Approach. Although I now had lost visual references, I still had VOR tracking and GPS tracking to rely on. I was only about 30 minutes from GIF. I weighed my options. I could turn back, land, and wait for the clouds to clear or I could continue VFR over the top of the clouds to my destination, which was perfectly legal. Everything would be fine if: the engine continued to function; the clouds didn’t rise; and my destination remained clear enough for landing.
I decided that I’d continue for fifteen minutes more. If the clouds didn’t begin to part, as the airports were reporting 30 miles ahead, I’d turn back north or west where airports were reporting scattered to clear. I’d easily be able reach a clear airport and still have a one-hour fuel reserve.
Before reaching the CERMO intersection, about 10 minutes into my 15 minute limit, a big hole opened up in the cloud deck. I used it to get below the ceiling which was still plenty high for VFR at 4,000 above the ground over Florida but the ride wasn’t nearly as smooth. Orlando cleared me direct to GIF and now that I could see the ground again, I used ground references and the Garmin to fly the final minutes of the trip.
As I closed in on Winter Haven, the sky opened to a scattered layer at 2,500 and a broken layer at 3,500 that was also becoming scattered. Orlando handed me off to Tampa Approach. Both had been extremely friendly and helpful after I told them this was my first flight to Florida.
I made my fourth and final landing of the day (also my worst one) at 5:42 p.m. The Hobbs read 8.1 total engine hours for the day. I had flown more miles (875) and more hours today than I ever had. I was a tired but happy pilot.