I took Monday and Tuesday off work, but I really wanted to be back by Wednesday morning. In fact, when we left on Sunday we were somewhat committed to staying until at least Tuesday evening since our home airport, Nampa, was closed for construction from 8:00 am on Monday until 5:00 pm on Tuesday. Of course we could have landed at nearby Boise or Caldwell and gotten a ride to Nampa, but that didn’t seem worth the hassle, plus it was good to spend a few days just relaxing with my brother and his family in Sunriver.
The plan was to leave Sunriver around 5:30 pm Pacific time, which would get us home by around 8:00 pm Mountain time. The airport would be open, and we’d still be landing well before sunset.
I called for a weather briefing and filed a VFR flight plan. The forecast was typical for the deserts of Oregon and Idaho in the summertime: a chance of widespread isolated thunderstorms. However there was a twist that I wasn’t fully aware of until this trip when I asked the briefer if he showed anything signifcant on radar along our route. There is no weather radar coverage for most of south-central Oregon. He was showing some light to moderate precipitation in Burns, which was at about the halfway point of our trip, and at the edge of the Boise weather radar coverage. I felt there was a good chance of us not flying this afternoon given the forecast for isolated thunderstorms, the fact that it was already raining in Burns, and the lack of weather radar for most of our route. I started to think through our alternative plan of leaving very early on Wednesday morning, and getting in to work that morning.
Looking at the skies near the condo everything seemed fine, just a few scattered cumulus clouds but nothing significant. However from the condo, we didn’t have a good view to the east (our direction of flight). Phil told me that the weather would be a bit bumpy given the typical summer afternoon conditions, but no worse than our trip to Sunriver on Sunday. We discussed the possibility of not flying this afternoon and departing early the next morning. I decided we should head for the airport and take a look at things from there. We could always take off, get a good look at the skies to the east and turn around and come back to Sunriver if needed. When Abe asked, I told him the weather was supposed to be ok, but possibly some thunderstorms out there to avoid.
As we walked across the tarmac to the plane, the buildups to the east caught our attention (see photo below). The weather looked more intense than we anticipated from the weather briefer’s report. Before we even reached the Mooney, we decided it wouldn’t be a comfortable trip and it wasn’t worth the risk. We’d try again tomorrow morning.
Old Pilots and Bold Pilots
There’s a famous saying, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” My goal is to become an old pilot, so I tend to be pretty conservative in my aviation decision making. The skills required to fly an airplane aren’t actually that hard. The thing that is hard is making sound decisions about flying. About 80% of the accidents that occur are attributed to “pilot error”, which I tend generalize as poor decision making. I think there was a 70% chance we could have made the flight safely that afternoon. We probably would have to maneuver around some thunderstorms, and deal with some turbulence, but we could have made it home that day. I think many pilots would have made that flight given the same conditions. The buildups we saw to the east weren’t huge, but they were a precursor of what was likely brewing further to the east over the hot desert, right in the area of no radar coverage. An additional factor in my decision making process was that there weren’t any airports between Sunriver and our halfway point at Burns, and Burns was already having enough precipitation to show up on radar. Finally, I just went with my gut feeling which told me that we would be better off not flying in these conditions.
Walking back to the car, we spotted another Mooney parked in the rear that had been in an accident. The prop blades were bent and the tip of the left wing had been torn open to reveal the fuel tank structure. Phil snapped a few pictures which delayed us just long enough to witness the running of the horses on the other side of the runway.
Every afternoon after the stable horses have completed their tourist trail rides, they are set free to run across a large field to their stables (and food). It’s an impressive sight with 35 horses at a full gallop. I was glad Phil still had the camera out to get a few pictures, though the horses were fast.
We had fun hanging out with our family on Tuesday night, and we were glad to have a little extra time together even if that meant a very early wake up on Wednesday.
Return Flight – Take 2
The weather this morning was perfect: cold and clear. After a quick breakfast, Abe drove us to the airport at 6:00 am. We thanked him for hosting our visit. He wanted to wait and watch us take off, but I told him we would take about 30 minutes to get the airplane pre-flighted and loaded. He had an early morning meeting to attend so he wasn’t able to wait around. The brisk 50-degree air caught us unprepared. Phil pulled out several t-shirts from the bag to keep the chill off while we completed the pre-flight. The outfit was complete with stocking cap and gloves. Dew covered the plane windows and the moisture moved to the inside as soon as we opened the baggage and passenger doors. I paid our tie-down fee ($8/night) and raided the restroom for extra paper towels since we only had one sheet left to help clear the dew from the windows. There was 4.5 hours of fuel remaining on board for a 1.5 hour flight, so there was no need to refuel. That was fortunate because we were ready to climb inside and warm up.
I reluctantly opened the door to year “Clear!” and quickly closed it before our body heat could escape while Phil cranked the key. We could hear the starter spinning, but not engaging the prop. I was pretty sure the problem was that the starter solenoid wasn’t activating to engage the propeller. The morning cold must be affecting the Mooney as well. We tried again with the same result. This wasn’t good. After several more tries, we both began to realize that this problem may not fix itself and silently began thinking of our options. Could we get a mechanic in Sunriver? Would we need to rent a car and drive home?
We obviously needed to try something different. We left the cozy cockpit for the chilly outside air. Phil decided to pull the prop through a few rotations manually in hopes that would loosen up the stubborn solenoid. With the keys safely on the dash, and the mixture at idle, he carefully rotated the prop through five full rotations. We both knew that this was our last chance to get the Mooney started without help. We skeptically climbed in for another starting attempt. It seemed that we had both come to the unspoken conclusion that this final try was a formality. I was hopeful, but concerned when I saw that Phil hadn’t even bothered to buckle his seat belt before this attempt. That signal led me to believe that we probably wouldn’t be flying home this morning. I decided to buckle my seat belt anyway.
I yelled, “Clear!” one more time, Phil turned the key and … nothing. We heard the same sound of the starter spinning, but no action from the prop. Phil was concerned about draining the battery with more attempts so he announced his limit – two more tries and then we’re done. I agreed that a limit was a good idea.
The next try netted the same result as before. Phil gave the key one final turn and we were both shocked to hear the familiar sound on the engine start. Woo hoo! We simultaneously grinned and rubbed the dash while saying “Good Mooney!”
What a relief. We slowly maneuvered the plane to point towards the sun allowing the windows to defrost while the engine warmed.
I was still soaking all this in. We were so close to being stuck and that last try start just seemed too good to be true. I had to ask Phil, “Did you do this just for the story?”.
After the engine temperatures were in the green, we taxied to the departing end of runway 18 to complete our run-up. While running through our checklist, we could hear one side of a radio conversation. The pilot was on his way into Sunriver and relayed instructions to another pilot so that he could find the keys to a Mercedes in the parking lot at Sunriver. We both thought that was a bold move to share that information over the airwaves. We finished the run-up and took off shortly after the sun cleared the horizon. Fog remained above the river for a hazy background as we took a last glance back on Sunriver.
The pilot that we heard before made a position call as he came closer to Sunriver. Phil responded with our position and regrets that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the use of the Mercedes. The other pilot’s instant response was a chuckle on the radio followed by, “You weren’t supposed to hear that!”
The remainder of the flight was mellow compared to the excitement of getting the plane started. Strong tailwinds were helping us get home. Phil smiled wide as he informed me that our ground speed was 171 knots.
Once we settled into our cruise altitude of 11,500′ I saw our groundspeed was a fairly swift 171 knots (197 mph), which meant the winds aloft were stronger than forecast. I filed a pilot report with Flight Watch after using the GPS to determine that winds aloft were 30 knots from 220 degrees.
With our high ground speed, we had to start our descent into Nampa 80 miles out. Nancy’s ears are sensitive, so I try to plan our arrivals so that we descend no more than 400 feet per minute. It’s also important to plan the descent to give the airplane time to slow o 95 knots (110 mph) before entering the airport traffic pattern.
What a Great Trip
Being planners by nature it was a real treat to make a spontaneous trip in the airplane. It was fun spending time with family while exploring a new place. We both agreed that we will be back to Sunriver again.