Oshkosh and Beyond: Part 8
posted Sep 17, 2006
Fort Wayne, Indiana
The low gray clouds and cool air at Fort Wayne were quite a change from the bright blue skies we left behind in Des Moines, Iowa just 3 hours ago. If you read the previous part of this trip journal, you know that we had to do an instrument approach to find the Fort Wayne airport through those clouds. Two linemen from Mercury Air directed us to a parking spot and promptly took our fuel order. They had both tanks filled up before we even made it in the door of the FBO building. Now that we were on the ground in Fort Wayne, it was time to check the weather for the next leg of our trip: Manassas, Virginia.
The lobby of Mercury Air resembled more of an upscale hotel than an FBO. I almost thought we were in the wrong place. The wide-open space held several sets of large oversized chairs with funky coffee tables and a plasma TV mounted on one wall. We made ourselves comfortable and started up the Tablet PC to perform a weather check for our next flight to Manassas, VA. Surprisingly, Mercury Air didn’t have a wireless internet connection available. Maybe they could have done with one less frilly throw pillow and spent $80 for a wireless router. We continued around the corner and located the flight planning station. Two monitors were perched on a bare work surface with a single telephone placed between them.
I doubt the design team spoke with any pilots when they came up with the layout for the flight planning area. The spacious lobby was great, but there really wasn’t enough room in the cramped flight planning area for several pilots to crowd around the weather terminal screens. The bare walls and floor made the area very noisy as voices echoed off the hard surfaces.
Updated Weather Briefing
I managed to squeeze into the seat in front of the weather station and I pulled up the radar image for the Fort Wayne area and then panned east towards our destination of Manassas, VA. There were a few storm cells out there, but it looked like we could pick our way around them and still make it to Manassas. Our planned route would keep us well north of the major storm cells that were visible on the radar map. There were a few isolated areas of light to moderate rain right around the Fort Wayne airport, with some larger storms moving towards Fort Wayne from the southeast. I tried not to take too long looking at the radar screen because all the other pilots wanted their turn too. I watched over Phil’s shoulder to get an idea of the weather in the area. It eventually got so crowded with all the other pilots that I chose to step away. It made me laugh to see six people all huddled in the small flight planning area while eight jumbo-sized chairs in the huge lobby remained empty.
With the mental picture of the weather firmly in mind, I stepped away from the computer to let the next pilot have his turn and I phoned Flight Service for an updated weather briefing. The briefer said there was a convective SIGMET for southeastern Indiana, northern Kentucky, and northeast from there to Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. The thunderstorms associated with that SIGMET were moving east-northeast at 30 knots. All of that matched with the areas of heavy precipitation I saw on the radar plot when I was at the weather computer. The briefer confirmed that our planned route would keep us well north of the storms and their forecasted track if we left soon. Further along our route there was another storm cell in northeast Ohio that was also moving northeast at 25 knots. That cell was right on our path, but by the time we reached that part of Ohio it would be off to the northeast. The briefer said, “Once you get past the eastern Ohio border, you should be in good shape.” The current conditions at Fort Wayne were winds 210@10, visibility 10 with overcast skies at 1,900 feet AGL. Enroute we could expect clouds layered up through 12,000 feet MSL that should break up around Mansfield, OH (MFD on the map). The forecast for our arrival time at Manassas was for light winds (230@5) and clear skies.
In simple terms, we could expect more time in the clouds after departing Fort Wayne. There were storms south of us, heading towards our planned route, but we would remain clear of the thunderstorms if we departed in the next 30 minutes or so. The major weather was southwest of us, so if we decided to deviate around weather the best thing to do would be to turn northeast (left). The skies were forecast to clear up by the time we reached Manassas.
Phil completed his briefing and gave me the summary of what the briefer told him. I was glad to hear that we would be able to leave. The weather system was on the move, but if we took off now, we would be in front of it. We had taken off in these conditions before and I was very comfortable with our decision to continue eastward.
Leaving Fort Wayne
We headed out to the plane and I organized the maps while Phil tested the fuel and checked the oil. Phil went back inside the FBO building for one last pit stop while I installed a fresh battery in our Tablet PC. While I was in the building, I also took one last look at the radar map before coming back out to the airplane. It had just begun to sprinkle when I looked up to see Phil jogging towards the Mooney as the raindrops got bigger. The light sprinkle of rain quickly turned to a very heavy rain shower. Although I was kind of amused watching Phil run through the rain, I knew that I too would be getting wet very soon. The Mooney only has one door, and it’s on the right side. I briefly enjoyed the dry cabin and smiled as Phil continued his dash for the plane. Then I opened the door and hopped out so Phil could climb into the left seat. The rain had intensified in just a few minutes and I assumed we would have to wait out the storm. The fat raindrops smacked against the metal skin of the Mooney; the rain shower played a drum roll and we were sitting inside the drum.
The steady rhythm of the rain played in the background as I got the cockpit organized and got ready to start the engine. I knew this rain was just the leading edge of the storm moving towards Fort Wayne from the southwest, and if we didn’t want to get stuck here overnight, we needed to leave soon. Phil was ready to start up and take off before things got worse. I was surprised. It seemed odd to depart as the weather was deteriorating. It was only rain at this point, but the clouds seemed to be rolling in lower and faster than I expected. Why would we fly into bad weather after spending so much effort to avoid it? I kept remembering the saying “Takeoffs are optional, landings are mandatory.” Phil reminded me that it was just a little water and the storm was still moving in. I also reminded Nancy that we were taking off away from the storm cells heading for Fort Wayne. We’d be flying through clouds for a little while after departure, but the further east we traveled the better the weather would be.
By this time, the Garmin 396 had been powered on long enough to show the same weather information we saw inside the FBO on the weather computer. The route to the east was wide open with a storm cell currently southwest of Fort Wayne moving northeast. At first, I didn’t look at the 396 display. My eyes were focused outside on the heavy rain and darkening clouds. I started to wonder about the 396 purchase that I had so strongly encouraged last year. Did easy access to current weather give us license to take more risk? I hadn’t anticipated that situation and found myself caught off guard. Phil and I are a true team and we’ve always agreed that we both have a say regarding all go/no-go decisions. Phil had already voiced his opinion to go, so the ball was in my court and the clock was ticking. We’re absolutely a two-person crew, and Nancy has a full say as to what happens on each flight. Ratings and hours don’t matter—both our butts are on the line, so we both get an equal chance to say “No.”
I was struggling with my desire to be safe and yet I didn’t want to get stuck in Fort Wayne with the storms. I realized that Phil knew more details about the weather from his conversation with the Flight Service briefer. I had only glanced over his shoulder for part of the discussion. I totally trust his judgment, but I needed a few minutes to process my gut feelings. The last thing I wanted was to depart with an uneasy feeling and have an emotional crisis in the clouds. I’m sure that Phil would have plenty to juggle with an IFR departure into the soup; he didn’t need the additional burden of having to console me at the same time.
After thinking through all the details and taking another look at the 396 weather display, I agreed that it would be best to depart now. Buildings were blocking my view to the east from where we were currently parked. Once we taxied to runway 23, our unobstructed view confirmed the decision to go. The east was quite clear and the west was definitely gloomy, though the visibility already seemed better than when the rain had first started. The rain lightened during our run-up and my mind eased.
I could not have given this departure a thumbs-up if it wasn’t for the Garmin 396. The ability to see current weather and track changes in flight was critical to our decision to continue on to Manassas. Thanks to this helpful gadget (and my talented co-pilot) we didn’t have to delay our visit to Washington, DC by another day. Given all the storms that were in the area, it really was important to have continuous updates on where those storms were during the flight to Manassas. Our planned route would theoretically keep us well clear of the storms. Having the onboard weather display helped us make sure that theory was correct.
Flight 6: Fort Wayne, IN to Manassas, VA
Our IFR clearance to Manassas was, “Mooney 201UT is cleared to the Manassas airport as filed. Climb and maintain 3,000, expect 5,000 five minutes after departure. Departure frequency 132.15, squawk 6522.” I again used the CRAFT template to write all that down in shorthand:
A 3000 XP 5000/5
We departed runway 23 and climbed into the rain clouds with Fort Wayne departure giving radar vectors towards our eastbound course. There were a few bumps here and there as we entered the bases of the clouds, but after that the air was very smooth as I settled into the routine of flying on the gauges through the milky sky. I was very relaxed and thrilled that we made the right decision to depart Fort Wayne into these benign clouds. Whew!
Eventually we were cleared to climb to our filed cruising altitude of 7,000 feet. We were in solid clouds for about 45 minutes after departing Fort Wayne. The view out the window started to change from dark gray to light gray and finally to brilliant white. Soon after that we broke out of the solid clouds and were in clear skies with lots of sun shining through the scattered clouds high above us. It was great to see the sun after the heavy rains in Fort Wayne.
Looking at the Weather
Now that we could see out the windows, we took a good look to the south but we couldn’t see the storms that we knew were out there. I scrolled the Garmin 396 map west towards Fort Wayne, and we could see the storm cell we were running from had moved in behind us over the Fort Wayne airport. We were well clear of that weather, but it was confirmation that we did the right thing by leaving Fort Wayne when we did. I panned the GPS map along the route ahead and saw that it was generally clear, with some light to moderate precipitation showing up just southwest of our planned course.
As we approached the Mansfield VOR (MFD), our flight plan called for us to turn south towards Tiverton (TVT) and Newcomerstown (CTW) before the Bellaire VOR (AIR). Since most of the stormy weather was to our southwest, I didn’t want to go any further in that direction than necessary. I made a request with Mansfield Approach to change our routing to “after Mansfield direct Bellaire” and that was immediately approved. That shaved a couple of minutes off our flight time, but more importantly gave us even more distance from the thunderstorms. (You can see our re-route on the map above that shows our actual ground track compared to our filed route.)
We flew through a cloud sandwich for a good portion of the trip. The cloud layer below would break occasionally exposing the ground while the horizon remained hazy until we got closer to Manassas. Every once in a while we’d see a cloud buildup indicating turbulent air, and we’d deviate 10 or 20 degrees to maneuver around it. Other than that, there was really no significant weather to deal with.
About 15 nautical miles west of the Kessel VOR (ESL on the map below) we could see a few storm cells just to the left (north) of our course. The Garmin 396 screen showed that all the storm cells in the area were north of our course, and moving northeast at 25-30 knots. The skies straight ahead of us were quite clear with lots of blue sky visible ahead in the distance. ATC cleared us direct to the Linden VOR (LDN on the map below) without us even asking for the shortcut. Flying direct to Linden would give us an even wider berth around the storms that were north of our course.
The mountains of West Virginia were a welcome sight after so many miles of flat terrain. The rolling tree-covered ridgelines went on for as far as we could see. We were only a few flying minutes away from Washington, DC but you’d never know it looking at the unspoiled splendor of the scenery below.
Approaching Washington, DC
When we were 10 nautical miles from the Linden VOR, we got a new clearance to fly direct to the Manassas airport (KHEF on the map), and instructions to contact Potomac Approach. When we were just about to cross into the ADIZ, Potomac Approach told us to turn 70 degrees to the right to a heading of 180°. Almost as soon as we turned to that new heading we were again cleared direct to Manassas. This was very similar the sharp vector we received in Illinois during the previous flight.
We were both on high alert now that we were inside the ADIZ. That wasn’t true for everyone on this frequency. Potomac Approach had to call one aircraft three times before getting a response and they weren’t very happy about it. The reprimanding tone in the controller’s voice made it clear the non-responsive aircraft was very close to getting an F-14 escort. I could almost picture the controller’s finger on the SCRAMBLE FIGHTERS button when he informed the pilot, “Cessna 12345, that was my third call to you, sir. You are within the ADIZ and you need to keep a very close ear to the radio.” I turned the volume up on our radio, just in case.
For some odd reason, I expected the DC area monuments to burst into view as we got closer to Manassas. Then I remembered that Manassas was still an hour’s drive outside of DC proper. We followed our series of ATC instructions leading us to the Manassas field while noticing the rolling hills below dotted with homes and plenty of green vegetation. Once we spotted the Manassas airport, we were cleared for the visual approach to runway 16R and Potomac Approach handed us off to Manassas Tower.
We lined up with runway 16R and continued our descent. There was a pretty significant wind from the west that required a hefty crab angle to track to the runway on final. ATIS reported that the surface winds were 210@6, but they were clearly blowing stronger than 6 knots aloft given the crab angle I had to use. On short final I straightened the nose out with left rudder, and used right aileron to keep the wind from blowing us sideways. The upwind wheel touched the runway first, just like it’s supposed to during a crosswind landing. I quickly spotted the Dulles Aviation hangars just to our right. We taxied to the ramp and parked with help from the Dulles lineman. He was quick to get us chocked and immediately asked how he could help with transportation arrangements. I told him that we would need a cab into DC. The lineman went inside to initiate the cab call and returned with a luggage cart for us before we could get everything unloaded. Once we were inside, we placed our fuel and oxygen order, then relaxed and enjoyed the air-conditioned lobby while we waited for our taxi to arrive.
Into the City
The taxi driver arrived and we were glad to be on our way. I had the address to our hotel ready, but the driver wasn’t familiar with the hotel name or street address. We searched his map for a few minutes, but our hotel was on one of the smaller streets that wasn’t labeled on his map. Luckily, Phil remembered that we had our portable GPS with us. He powered it up, switched into automotive mode and entered the address to our hotel. We were, once again, on our way and the driver was very grateful for the GPS guidance.
After an hour-long drive, we arrived at our hotel. I was very excited for this stay. This was the first hotel that we would stay at for more than one night. No hopping around for at least four nights. Ahh—the simple pleasures.
One Final Note on the Weather
Here’s a radar image from 4:35 pm CDT, or about 3 hours after we arrived at Manassas. The light blue line shows our actual ground track from the GPS. You can see the storms were still flowing across Illinois and Indiana towards Fort Wayne. The storms that were across central Ohio when we were leaving Fort Wayne had moved northeast towards Lake Erie by this time.
I was able to plot our GPS track on the radar map using a very cool program called GPS Utility. I also used GPS Utility to plot our track on the Fort Wayne VOR 23 approach chart in the previous part of this trip journal.