Who Me? Worried About Flying.
By Steve Aughinbaugh – July, 2000
I have noticed that I now worry more about long cross-country flights than I did during the first 200 hours of total time since getting my pilot’s license. I am now at 350 hours total and about 250 since I got my PPSEL. My idea of a long cross-country is anything over an hour or two. The explanation for this could be many things. Here is what I have considered:
From this list I have concluded that having my family with me and not flying as much are the major reason for the "knot in my stomach" feeling that I had before our trip to Indiana. Let me tell you about the trip and how I dealt with my worries.
I have flown to (or attempted to fly to) northern Indiana for the past 2 summers. The first time I flew completely solo, just me and I only made it as far as St. Louis. Thunderstorms in Illinois and Indiana kept N642RJ on the ground while I rented a car for the rest of the trip. Later that fall I did make it to Indiana solo. Last year Cindy (then fiancée, now wife) went with me and we made it all the way there and back with a lesson about short field landings (but that is another story). I have also flown to Oshkosh, WI each of the last two years. But I had a friend who is also a CFII with me going to and from OSH. So I have made this trip before and ones like it before. But this time it felt different.
The 4th this year was on Tuesday. So I could use Saturday, Sunday or Monday to get there and Wednesday Thursday or Friday to get back. That is one of the ways that I reduce the stress level is to have lots of options of when I fly. But we needed to pickup Colin at football camp in Wichita Falls, TX (T47) on Saturday at noon. I was concerned about making the trip from Wichita Falls to Wabash, IN (IWH) all in the afternoon. That would have us arriving at or after sunset with little margin for delays. And it would be over 7 hours in the airplane, probably close to 8. Oh, N642RJ is my Cherokee 180. I flight plan for 110 KTS and 10 GPH with 49.5 usable in case your are wondering. So what to do? There was a simple solution, stop overnight somewhere after T47. We decided that it would be fun to stop in Tulsa at Cindy’s parents. There is a nice little airport near their home. Young Field (1H6) is just 3 miles down the road from them. OK that feels better.
The part from Tulsa to Wabash could then be flown with two legs (needed because of fuel and comfort). I have a friend in St. Louis so I contacted him and he was going to be in town. We agreed to meet for lunch on Sunday. So the plan was to leave Aero Country (T31) on Saturday at 9 AM, pick-up Colin at T47 and leave there about 2 PM and get to Tulsa by 4 PM. Then on Sunday leave 1H6 by 9 AM and get to Creve Coeur (1H0) by noon. Leave there by 2 and get "Back Home in Indiana" by 5 PM.
Getting home to Texas would be simpler. We planned to leave Wednesday by 10 AM and stop somewhere in Missouri for food and fuel and then to T31. A direct flight from IWH to T31 goes right across the middle of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and this is the midpoint of the trip also. From past experience I have learned that there are very little in the way of services in this area. Avfuel, yes, but nearby food and facilities are not so plentiful. But with almost 700 NM between departure and destination, even what seems to be a large deviation will only cost you a small amount of time. So I planned to stop in either Columbia, MO or Malden, MO. Stopping at Malden would only add 8 minutes and Columbia would add 15 minutes of flight time. I would make the decision as to which one later after I got a better feel of where the best weather would be at that time.
Ok, now some of my flexibility was gone (I could feel the knot getting bigger), but the trip up was now over two days with the second part having the option of moving it a day later if needed. I also told myself that we could drive if we had to. It would have been long hard days of driving, but that is an option. Part of the fun of flying is the adventure of it, but a 2,150-mile road trip would be an adventure also! OK, that part of the planning was done, now what was the weather going to be like?
With a long trip like this I start studying the weather 5 to 7 days in advance. What I am looking for at this point is how well the forecasts predict what actually happens. It was a typical summer pattern with a front across the middle of the country. But the weather forecasters were having trouble predicting where it would be more than 24 hours into the future. The front would be predicted to move southeast but instead it would backup, going northwest instead. And then it would move back to the southeast. There were also waves of showers that were moving across northern Texas. One day it looked like I might have clear weather for the whole trip. It even looked that way on Friday night. The knot was getting smaller.
But Saturday morning the weather picture brought the knot back to full strength. The weather on a direct line from T31 to Tulsa was great, but at T47 in Wichita Falls it was not so great. It was right on the edge of a broad area of forecasted rain showers with the possibilities of afternoon scattered thunderstorms. What to do? Get more information.
I looked over the current conditions at 6 AM and talked to the FAA flight briefer at 6:30 AM. The forecast were for VFR conditions until late afternoon and the rain was still a ways from Wichita Falls at 6:30. So we went to the airport. On the drive to the airport I was still thinking that we might leave N642RJ in the hanger and drive. (It made the knot smaller to think that way.) But, one last check with flight service at 7:45 confirmed that things were developing as expected and the rain was southwest of T47 and moving slowly. I decided to get 2RJ out of the hanger.
Now our challenge was to get the airplane to the runway. It turns out that this was the week that the contractor decided to resurface the taxiway at Aero Country. I knew this and had a couple of ways that I was sure I could get the airplane to the runway. I had even planned for the extra time needed to pull the airplane down our taxiway and up the partially resurfaced north-south taxiway to the concrete cross taxiway. From there we started up and back-taxied on the runway to position ourselves for take-off.
At 8:05 AM we were in the air with a ceiling of about 3,500 and visibility of about 8 mile. North of Denton, TX we went through a small shower of about 5 minutes (the knot got a bit bigger). 30 Minutes later we could see the clouds thicken as we neared T47. A call on 122.0 to flight watch confirmed that it was raining in Wichita Falls and that the thunderstorms were still well southwest of there. About this time we entered the rain. The visibility was good and the air was smooth. We flew in the rain for the remaining 15 minutes to T47. I have flown in the rain before (about 30 minutes worth) but this was my first time without a CFI beside me. Bigger knot! I knew I could turn around and that kept it small enough to deal with.
We landed at Kickapoo Downtown where they were expecting us and had our courtesy car waiting. The guys in the FBO told Cindy they were surprised to see us land in the rain since they thought that thunderstorms were just around the corner. They had a class of new pilots in ground school at the terminal. I guess they thought the weather was too bad for students or perhaps this was pre-planned. I did not ask fearing that the answer might be something like: "Well, no we are not flying, even the birds are on the ground!"
We spent the next 3 hours on the ground and it rained the whole time. We attended the football camp award ceremony and went to lunch waiting for the rain to clear a bit. It did not. The knot in my stomach had gotten smaller upon landing at Kickapoo (T47) but it was now growing again. So much that I did not eat much. I had some of Cindy’s french fries and a Coke. So what to do? Again, get more information. Kickapoo did not have any Internet access or weather radar service. But, Wichita Falls Muni does have it and it was close by. We asked for directions and off we went. Finding the FBO was a bit of a challenge. There is a well-hidden gate with a keypad lock and intercom. I have noticed that these places are a lot easier to find when you approach them in an airplane instead of a car. The weather radar showed the major part of the weather was just about to reach T47 and there was little significant weather to the north with a bit more to the east. I knew that we could spend the night here and leave the next day. It is always an option to stay on the ground. We headed back to Kickapoo and on the way I talked with the Flight Briefer again. He confirmed what I had seen on the radar and that the conditions were still VFR for my planned exit route from Wichita Falls. I decided we should load up and launch. Just as we got back to T47 the rain actually stopped. We pre-flighted and loaded without getting wet.
The plan was to flight north-northwest a bit north of a direct route to Tulsa. If I reached 2,500 and did not like what I saw, I planned to land at Wichita Falls Muni which was 8 miles north of Kickapoo and wait the weather out there. There were also 4 or 5 other airports within next 45 miles that I could duck into if I needed to. I always try to be aware of as many options as I can. We re-entered the rain a few minutes after taking off and just as we were passing Muni. But the visibility was still about 6 miles, the air was smooth and the ceiling was 3,000 or better. We spent the next 20 minutes in a steady rain shower and just north of Duncan, OK the weather cleared. No problem! The knot in my stomach was almost gone. J
Now that I think back, we probably should have skipped lunch and checked the radar sooner. But the lunch was enjoyed by my passengers and did not cause any problems. I also realize that I used two other tools to help with the flight. One is my Lowrance Airmap GPS. A GPS really helps with situational awareness and giving you the confidence that you know where you are and what is up ahead. The Airmap is unique in that it contains the FAA obstructions in its database. Obstructions are towers mostly and other objects that jut up from the ground suddenly like tall buildings. You want to avoid these while flying! The other big help is Cindy, my "co-pilot". She keeps the sectional and follows our progress backing up the GPS and confirming the location of towers and other landmarks. She also looks up VOR and COMM frequencies and tunes the radios for me. That is a big help. Between Cindy and the Airmap, we always know where we are.
The rest of the trip was pretty mundane, fun but "normal". As we approached Tulsa, Cindy got the approach frequency for me and I contacted them. Cindy dialed in the transponder code and the controllers followed us in to 1H6. We woke up Colin and called Cindy’s parents. Colin did not even realize that we had flown in rain. Partly because it was not a heavy shower and partly because he had indeed fallen asleep! No knot in his stomach! Most of the time I think his stomach is empty based upon the amount of food he eats!
The weather for the leg on Sunday had rain just to the west behind us and at our destination in St. Louis as we departed. The briefer suggested that it would be best to get out of Tulsa in the next 50 minutes and that the rain would mostly likely be east of St. Louis by the time we got there two and half hours later. I agreed and we were off by 9 AM. You could see the weather approaching as we climbed out of Tulsa. This time when I talked with Tulsa Departure I asked for VFR flight following to Creve Coeur (1H0). This is another technique that I use to keep the knot a bit smaller. It is also good practice for learning a bit about IFR flights. I also believe that the controllers along the way like the extra assurance that they are in contact with me as I traverse the busier airspace around Tulsa, Springfield, St. Louis and other areas. I used VFR flight following for almost all of the remaining legs on this trip. The controllers were all easy to work with and pointed out the rare traffic in my area. I was still able to switch to Flight Watch for weather updates with a simple request. I flew the altitudes that I wanted and they cleared me through class C and B airspace for an almost direct flight to my destinations. The only exceptions were in St. Louis, but that was not a problem.
As we approached St. Louis the approach controller handed me off to the Spirit of St. Louis Airport tower. My destination (1H0) was on a direct line seven miles past Spirit. I informed the Spirit tower of my request to traverse their airspace and they suggested that the best route was to follow the river at 2,000 feet or lower. 1H0’s elevation is 451 feet MSL. I agreed and had some fun with it. By this point the rain had indeed moved to the east of St. Louis, but the humidity was still very high and the air was hazy, perhaps 4 or 5 miles visibility. So we moved over to the north a bit and followed the river. The river goes just a bit north of Spirit with the airport having been built in the river bottoms. You may recall a few years ago that there was a major flood in the St. Louis area. At the time there were business jets floating over the ramps at Spirit! Some of them were being serviced and could not be repaired quickly enough to fly them out to higher ground. I tried to imagine what a sad sight it must have been to see airplanes floating like that.
The tower released me to the Creve Coeur unicom and we entered a right downwind after I had announced a left downwind and was correct by the FBO that all traffic was to be to the west of the airport. I should have checked that during my planning. Once on the ground we found that the FBO was very busy. It turns out that every Sunday they have a BBQ lunch that starts serving at noon. Several people were already here at 11:15 and a couple of them had brought some great looking pies! We’ll have to remember this place and plan to be here a bit closer to noon the next time we are in the area. John met us and we opted to eat at a local microbrewery since I did not want to spend the time waiting until noon for the BBQ. The microbrewery’s air-conditioning was also a bit better than the FBO’s and that felt great!
Before we came back to the airport we stopped by John’s house and I used his Internet connection to take another look at the weather for Illinois and Indiana: isolated thunderstorms to the north and south of our route and the forecast of scattered storms by evening. We should be fine. I use the AOPA web site for Internet weather and DUATS access. I find that this site is the best for my needs and it is easy to use.
Upon our return to the airport the haze was mostly gone and the visibility was much better. We launched, bid Creve Coeur good-bye and contacted St. Louis departure asking for a higher altitude and a more direct route to Wabash. Higher he could do, but not direct yet. St. Louis Lambert is just to the east of 1H0 and they also had a major airshow going on near the Arch. But higher was good since the air would be cooler and we were a bit ahead of schedule. By this time the knot was completely gone. A bit further north we were allowed to turn northeast on course and finish our climb to 5,500 and even cooler air!
We stayed with VFR flight following and I also monitored 122.0 with the second radio. From listening to other pilot’s requests on 122.0 I learned that there was an isolated thunder cell about 50 mile south of Wabash and another one about 60 miles north. From 5,500 feet as we approached the area, we could see them but they were not a factor for us. From listening to the static on the ADF it also appeared they were not very active. Before we left St. Louis I had called mom to update her that we would get to Wabash at about 4 PM and perhaps a bit early if the winds helped much. The winds were less favorable east of St. Louis and the front than they were west of there. So we arrived at IWH just before 4 PM with my mom and sister waiting for us. We parked N642RJ near the pumps and they met us on the ramp.
I was back on the soil of Indiana and the town where I was born. Home is still Texas, but it is fun to visit my birth state, town and the family that I have there. That is one of the neat freedoms that being a pilot affords us. The ability to visit places more often and with greater flexibility than you can without being a pilot. I did some checking on commercial airfares. We could not have flown to the airports that were most convenient and probably would not have gotten to visit with Cindy’s parents in Tulsa. We also would have needed to drive to Wichita Falls and back on Saturday and then leave Texas on Sunday if we flew commercial. The unrestricted direct fare to Ft. Wayne (35 miles from mom’s, Wabash is about 12) was $747 each or total of $2,241 for the three of us! We could have gone to Indianapolis (100 miles south) with connections in Tulsa AND Chicago for $451 each or $1,353 total. With an advanced purchase I could get the price down to $239 into Fort Wayne, not bad but it still would have been $717 for the three of us plus about $30 and 5 hours to drive to Wichita Falls and back. With N642RJ we used 135 gallons of fuel or about $300 worth. Even if I added the fixed cost in I would still be under the costs for going commercial with three people. Now with just two people, going commercial probably cost less. But it is not about the cost, it is the freedom and the adventure of flying yourself. Besides we had a great time getting there.
Getting back home was similar. Wednesday dawned with that same front backing up again. It just would not keep going in one direction. Early morning was IFR at Wabash, by 9 AM things were improving and looking good in North Manchester where we were 12 miles north of IWH. We left for the airport and at 10:15 at Wabash the ceiling and visibility were still a bit too low for me, 1,100 and 3 miles. By 11:15 it was 1,900 scattered, 2,500 broken and 6 miles. Another pilot confirmed this as he left IFR from IWH on his way north. He was nice enough to call back into the unicom and let me know what was up, literally. I also had just checked with Flight Service and our route was similar to this until almost to Missouri. From there it was clear skies all the way to Aero Country. We decided to leave.
We waved good-bye to mom and Ray and climbed through the scattered layer and then deviated north a bit to get through the broken layer. On the way to 6,500 feet I contact Grissom approach and asked for VFR flight following. They again agreed and we were on our way. It was clear above us, but not below. The cloud deck below remained mostly broken. Cindy and I would point out holes that we felt we could get down through. But there were a couple of 10 to 15 minutes times when neither of us could see a hole large enough or near enough to use. The knot in my stomach came back but I controlled it by practicing flying by reference to the instruments only while Cindy and the controllers looked for traffic. I did not actually put my foggles on, but just kept my head in the airplane. I felt confident that if I had an engine problem that I could descend through this layer on the instruments and find a suitable landing spot on the farm fields of Indiana or Illinois. (Have you been here. It is almost nothing but corn and pasture fields.)
As we got closer to the Mississippi River the more the clouds broke up. As we crossed the river they were all behind us. An hour later we were on the ground at Columbia, MO (COU). I had picked the northern route because it was the quickest way to clear the clouds in Indiana and Illinois and to avoid the rain that still existed in southern Indiana. Columbia also had a restaurant on the field. I had called the number in the AOPA Airport Directory for the restaurant before we left Texas and the number was no longer active. But when I called the number for the airport they gave me the new number and told me that it had changed owners and still had good food. It is always good to check things like these before you leave just to make sure.
The restaurant was as advertised. I made the mistake of ordering the large tenderloin. It was very good but the definition of large was to have two large tenderloin patties instead of one large patty! It was more than enough. Colin was happy with his double cheeseburger with two half-pound beef patties! When you are a 15-year old 6 footer you can eat a lot.
It was at this point that I almost had a mutiny. I mentioned that the next leg would be the longest at 4 hours and 15 minutes due to the head winds. Cindy and Colin looked at me like I was crazy. I explained that leaving at 3 PM we would get back at about 7:15 and if we stopped somewhere to stretch our legs, then it would be more like 8:30 or 9 PM. Plus we would have to spend about 50 minutes in a hot, humid airplane as we descended, taxied and climbed at the rest stop. They agreed that maybe they could tough it out and I agreed that we would stop if they really felt the need.
So back to the FBO to pay the bill, $2.87/gal was the most expensive fuel on the trip. Then into the airplane to start the, hopefully, last leg. As we climbed out of COU I noticed some noise about the same time that Cindy asked me if I heard it. Sure enough I looked above Cindy’s head and the upper door latch on my Cherokee was not closed. The bernoulli effect was pulling the top of the door out from the frame and air was whistling by. We were barely out of the pattern so I called Columbia tower and told them I was returning to the field. They cleared me to enter downwind and asked it I had a problem. I told them about the door latch and stated that it was not a problem and I wanted to land to latch it. On downwind I checked the runway length with my GPS and the chart, 6,500 feet. So I asked for a stop and go on the runway and it was granted.
I have had this happen before when I was by myself and I know that having an open door is not a problem with keeping the airplane flying, it is just noisy. I told Cindy to not worry about it and if the other latch gave way that it would not be a major problem either. It would just get even louder. After my first experience with not getting the door latched I got in the habit of reaching over and giving the door a push at the top and side just to make sure even when someone else closes it. I am sure I did this but I must not have pushed hard enough at the top. I have also noticed that on hot days I don’t actually shut the door at the point that I have the door check in my checklist. Perhaps I should modify my checklist to add a second door closed check at the end of the Before Take-off checklist. We landed and slowed down. Cindy latched the upper latch and I checked it as we were rolling. I then configured the airplane for take-off and we were off again! A touch and go instead of a stop and go, but the door was latched this time. No problem.
We left Columbia behind and headed for Springfield crossing the Lake of the Ozarks. Just north of Springfield, MO I contacted Springfield approach and asked for VFR flight following again. We were at 6,500 in cool, smooth, cloudless air with the engine droning along. N642RJ was trimmed for level flight and I was flying mostly with my just my toes on the rudder pedals. With just a bit of pressure on the left or the right to bring it back on course as it drifted. Early in the flight I was flying like this when I noticed the airplane swinging to the left and right. At first I thought maybe I had bumped the rudder pedals. But no, I had not. And the rocking was rhythmic. I turned around and noticed the 185 pound teenager in the back with his CD player on was swinging is head side to side to whatever rap or music he had going! I was beginning to get seasick so I tapped him on the knee and asked him to pretend he was dancing instead of actually doing it in the airplane!
Of course he thought this was pretty funny and from them on whenever he wanted our attention he would just shift his weight around to let us know that he was still back there. He can move the airplane a lot when he wants to. But at this point he had settled down and was taking another nap. So it really was a smooth ride.
We were flying with about 65% power on this leg to ensure that we had plenty of fuel reserve. At this power setting the 180 Lycoming uses about 8.5 gallons/hour. I kept is like this for about three hours. At this point the passengers were beginning to get restless, no air rage or anything close to that. So I bumped the power back up to full cruise at 75% power and 10 gallons/hour. We still had over two hours of fuel left and at this speed only an hour of flight time until touchdown at T31. About 50 minutes from Aero Country we were handed off to DFW approach. It was about 6:15 PM on a Wednesday and this was the busiest controller that we had heard on the whole trip. Just north of the Red River he called out a frequency change to me for one of his other sectors. Another pilot thought is was for him and responded. He corrected the other pilot and I acknowledge and signed on to the new frequency. I also informed him that I could cancel flight following if was too busy. He said is was not problem and I stayed with him until I was about 15 minutes out even though he was talking almost non-stop. He was still willing to help me out and call traffic for me even though he was very busy. For all of our complaining, the ATC system is a really great system, staffed with good people.
We landed at Aero Country and taxied across the newly oiled north-south taxiway and up to my hanger. I shut the engine down at 7:10 PM. We were back "Deep in the Heart of Texas!" Overall we had spent 15 hours in the airplane and about 14 of that in the air. We had landed at 6 airports and traveled over 1,550 nautical miles (1,800 statue miles). We have flown and landed in rain. Seen distant thunderstorms from the air and overflew a couple of solid cloud decks. We had visited family not often seen and had eaten more than we needed to. Would I do it again, sure! Will I have a knot in my stomach again? Probably. Having the knot is not bad, not listening to it at all or letting it overwhelm you is bad.
Any pilot that flies much is going to encounter less than idea conditions someday. Here in north central Texas we are blessed with a very high percentage of great, almost perfect weather days. That is great, but it also gives you less opportunity to learn how to safely fly in less than perfect weather. Most long cross-country flights will involve travel from one weather system to another. Somewhere along the route the weather will be different and perhaps worse than where you were. Using the tools that are available, forecasts, flight watch, flight service, your own eyes and judgement can make these flights just as safe as the local $100 dollar hamburger run. So plan a long cross-country. Go home to see mom or your Uncle Bob or your old college classmate or to that get-away resort. But be smart and be flexible. You may not make it all the way sometimes or at the time you planned. Remember that you can always land and wait out the weather or rent a car to complete the trip. It is all part of the adventure. Have fun!
PS. Three days later on the Saturday after we returned from Indiana, Cindy and I jumped in the airplane again and flew 2 hours to Houston to visit her brother then returned on Sunday. All of it was in that almost perfect Texas weather we have here most of the time. Having a pilot’s license really is great! J