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Saturday, July 21, 2012

One Week Later

Sun bronzed and full of lobsta', time to go home.  The weather all week was gorgeous, highs near 80 and lows in the mid 60's with lots of sun.  I had it in the back of my mind to depart VFR, and go out over New York City so the girls could see some of the sights.  The class B over NY only goes up to 7,000 ft, so a West bound VFR flight at 8,500 in the sunshine should get quite a view, and it would avoid dealing with the NY approach controllers, who have a bad reputation on line for being brusque.

The night before, I slept poorly and woke early.  With everyone up and dressed, we waited for the 8am taxi - no show.  I called the taxi company, and they said they had no record of my request.  Finally one arrived, and we made it to the airport and into the Bonanza about 30 minutes behind schedule, except that I really didn't have one.  My goal was just to head South of West and land somewhere around 5pm and spend the night, no pushing for a 1 day journey against the forecast headwinds.

As we climbed over the West of of the Island, I called Cape Approach (repeatedly) until I finally got an answer, and asked for VFR advisories.  When flying with radar advisories, the controllers have you on their screens, and will help you see and avoid other airplanes.  What they will not do is give you a route to fly, or an altitude to cruise.  You should tell them what altitude you are using (although they can also see it on their scopes), and you must follow the cloud avoidance and airspace rules for visual flight.

Reaching 8,500 about the time we reached the Rhode Island coastline, I set the autopilot to take us over Groton Connecticut, then New London, then La Guadia, and Newark Airports.  Turning towards Long Island, I suddenly couldn't see anything.  We had flown straight into clouds.  I immediately told the a/p to take us back North, and after a minute of white out, we were back in the clear.  I asked NY approach to give us clearance down to 6,500 feet into their Class B airspace, expecting a rebuff, but they gave me that clearance, and we descended and turned South under the cloud layer above.

As we flew North of La Guadia airport on the North coast of Long Island, it was getting gloomier and it became clear I needed to go even lower.  I asked now for 4,500, expecting a rebuff this time for sure, but after a short delay I was cleared down to 4,500 and at that low altitude we flew West over The Bronx, with the Statue of Liberty visible on the left side through the darkening gloom, and all the skyscrapers of Lower and Mid-town Manhattan.  We left the NY area over Morristown NJ, the town where my wife was born.

Freed from the sight-seeing requirement, I asked for an IFR climb through the overcast to VFR over-the-top.  VFR pilots can legally (in the US) fly over a cloud base, they just can't fly through the clouds.  I was asking to temporarily switch to IFR rules in order to get through the clouds, and then switch back to VFR.  The NY controllers once again went out of their way to make things easy, and approved me to climb, just asking that I tell them my planned VFR altitude.  The NY area controllers are unjustly maligned.  One was a bit sharp edged, all the rest were wonderful.

We headed west at 8,500, until nearing Pittsburgh bladders and caution suggested a pit-stop for lunch, so with no breaks in the under-cast, I once again switched back to IFR, and asked for an approach into Johnstown PA, the site of a famous flood in the middle 19th century.  After a little confusion on the part of the controller, I was cleared for the RNAV/GPS approach to runway 22.  We broke out of the clouds at about 500 feet above the runway after a less-than-stellar approach on my part, but it all worked out and we got lunch nearby while the airplane was being fueled.

Prior to leaving the FBO, I checked the weather, and I found thunderstorms moving Northwards over Kansas and Kentucky, threatening our planned route.  So I filed an IFR plan to Champaign Illinois, planning to stay North and land in central Illinois for the night, and then to angle southward the next day.  Cleared Direct Champaign, we blasted off once more and climbed through the rain and clouds to 10,000 feet to stay above most of the weather in the way.

A hundred and fifty miles East of Champaign, it became clear that the weather had beaten us to it.  I compared my maps and the radar picture, and decided to divert to Terra Haute Indiana, which was at the end of long clearing like a mountain valley in the clouds, with thunderstorm peaks on the left and on the right.  After a fast descent, we landed at 5pm at Hollman Airport, and received a ride from one of the great linemen to a hotel in downtown Terra Haute where we all slept solidly following a steak dinner with a few adult beverages.

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