Sometimes the Bear Bites You..

I had planned to take off the day before, but when I went through my takeoff checks, I noticed an unusual amount of friction and a little noise in the stick when I moved it in pitch. I couldn’t believe it was happening; the airplane had been trouble free for some time. I had flown it only a day or two before and noticed no problems. So. now, when I was trying to take off for a trip to southern Georgia and northern Florida to see my sons including my youngest who was an Army officer home on leave from duties in Afghanistan, it was acting up! “Get-there-itis” raised its ugly head, tempting me to fly anyway; but the seasoned aviator and safety side of me, including my newly minted Certified Flight Instructor Light Sport mentality, knew the thing to do was taxi over to my mechanic’s shop and check the problem out. I had done exactly that..and Tom’s great troubleshooting quickly pinned the problem down to a stubborn pitch servo in the airplane’s autopilot, which we ultimately completely disconnected. After placarding the autopilot “inop” we considered the airplane good to go, but I had to taxi back to my hangar and shut down for the day. Flying Light Sport meant that night flying was not an option and it was too late in the afternoon to get to my destination before nightfall. I determined to try again the next day, though I knew an approaching cold front might make the weather problematic.

As I watched the weather that night, the terminal forecasts and ceiling and visibility predictions painted a picture of morning fog, primarily east but along my route toward McComb, Mississippi, my first and only gas stop before I landed at Troy, Alabama for my first stop. I was going to spend a day or two there seeing two of my sons and then fly on to St Augustine Florida where I was going to meet up with Chris and we would have dinner. The next day, I planned to fly up to Franklin, North Carolina and see my sister for a night before looping back east and stopping in Auburn, Alabama to have lunch with a high school buddy before finishing the day by returning home. I knew the advancing cold front would determine how much of that trip I was really going to do, but I had the timing of the whole thing down to accommodate it…or so I thought. I let my son Michael and his wife, who live in Troy, know I wouldn’t launch until I thought the weather on the ground was breaking. The weather forecasts painted a picture of improving conditions until the next evening when the cold front would finally move in from the west and shut the weather in Houston down. I hoped to be long gone and on the ground when the front caught up to me in Alabama.

The morning brought the same forecasts…ground fog expected to burn off by ten in the morning and only scattered clouds after that. Though there had been some expectation of fog in the Houston area, it hadn’t formed so we had scattered clouds at about three thousand. I went out to the airport planning to get off sometime between nine and ten, using my iPhone and an iPad to keep tabs on what the weather was doing in the interim. I preflighted my bird, stowed my luggage, readied the cockpit, and the watched as conditions slowly improved at Beaumont and Lake Charles. Visibilities at McComb were still below Light Sport minimums (3 statue miles) when I took off at nine thirty heading east; I still had over an hour to see them get better as they were at my two checkpoints not far west of it. I turned east and climbed to fifteen hundred where I stayed until I emerged from under the two thousand foot Class B airspace floor out over Galveston Bay, where I climbed up to thirty-five hundred and leveled off. I had a good ten knots of tailwind even at that altitude, and I hadn’t been forecasted to get any more by going higher. So, I was content to stay there as I pressed on toward Beaumont. The clouds were dotting the sky like clumps of popcorn, and, true to Andy’s Maxim that says any altitude I pick will be exactly where the clouds are at, I climbed to fifty-five hundred feet as I approached Beaumont to keep my VFR cloud clearance requirements intact. I contented myself with bouncing my GPS calculated course against the one on my sectional charts with my hand-calculated headings as I crossed by the airports at Lake Charles, Louisiana and headed out onto the Louisiana plains.

Everything was just cruising along, until I was just northeast of Jennings. Ahead of me, I squinted at a white layer of fog and low clouds hugging the ground…not in a localized patch or two…but in a north-south wave extending as far east as I could see. The green plains disappeared underneath it, and it wasn’t supposed to be like that. I was plowing toward it at over 120 knots as I pulled down the latest weather observation at McComb using the XM satellite weather function on my airplane’s Garmin 496. The airport was covered by an 800 foot ceiling…a solid overcast! Instead of being clear, they were in Instrument Flight Rule conditions! Obviously, what I was observing wasn’t matching up with what I had been expecting. It was time to reassess, and I didn’t want to do that in the air. I knew Jennings, Louisiana was only about twenty miles to my southwest, so I spun the airplane about and headed for it. I immediately started a descent, flying around the clouds from clear and only slightly bumpy air to more hazy visibilities and a bit more turbulence Underneath them. I switched up to Jennings unicom and monitored it for traffic as the radio lit up with chat from pilots farther east diverting from fields they too had thought would be clear but were covered by clouds.

I glanced down at the chart as I approached the airport and it was showing THREE runways crossing like the legs of a stick triangle that had fallen apart. I could see the newer, wider runway paralleling I-10 (and right next to it…I had seen the airport and that runway from the highway when driving past and wanted to land there!) but NOTHING of the other two!! I rolled into a right turn to sort it out as I watched a high wing Cessna depart to the east; where the hell were the winds? The airport didn’t have an automated weather service spouting information over the radio and I couldn’t find the windsock; so that added to my confused state. Nothing was adding up! So, I continued to orbit. Then, on the radio I heard some experimental airplanes calling downwind for runway three-five; so I rolled out on the reciprocal heading and flew down with the airport on my left. As I did, I finally saw the runway they were aiming at; it was paved but very narrow, not much wider than a taxiway at some airports…which is why it had been hard to see. I never did see the airplanes in front of me but heard them call they were clear of the runway, so I slowed down, turned left onto base leg, dropped the flaps to fifteen about half way in, and maneuvered for the turn to final inside a water tank that was as high as me and not as high over the tops of some buildings as I was used to. I landed just a little big long and put on the brakes to make a turn off to my left toward a building that was marked it was the terminal but didn’t look to be open. As I turned onto a parallel taxiway, I saw another building marked FBO with a gas pump and an airplane parked next to it people were getting in. I headed there.

As I pulled up, the Cessna Centurion left, so mine was the only airplane on the ramp. An airplane landed over my head on the grass to the east of the runway, so I finally knew where the third runway was. It was Stearman fly-in day, and though that could be a good reason to stick around (as is the Cajun food, I understand), I wanted to do nothing more than sort out if there was any hope of continuing eastbound.

A gent watching the place let me use the computer in his office. The forecasts to the east were still out of synch but the observations were clearly showing instrument conditions I could not legally overfly…even if I gassed up and tried to leapfrog it. After looking at what was happening…and as much as I hated to abandon my trip east…I became quickly convinced my options were to stay in Jennings and get trapped there or beat feet back to Houston and sit out the deteriorating weather there. I decided to do the latter. So, after gassing up, I hopped back in the airplane and headed back the way I came.

The cloud density was definitely increasing, and in the short time I had been on the ground the average tops had climbed another thousand feet. There was clearly a lot of instability in the air. I climbed to sixty-five hundred feet and took a look; I could see row after row of cloud tops westbound and couldn’t tell for sure whether they were too tightly packed to let me see enough of the ground. But I was okay where I was and as I continued, it was apparent I still could navigate legally above them. I stayed high, pushing my throttle up a bit to counter the headwinds and get home as soon as I could, until I was west of Beaumont. I descended to get beneath the clouds but was only under them before I approached Galveston Bay and they all ran away. I crossed Chambers County airport as I notified folks I was doing so before flying just off the north shoreline and then clinging to the west side near La Porte as I flew on over Kemah. In a few more minutes, I was back home at Pearland, putting my airplane in its hangar.

As soon as I had done so, I checked the weather again and found the forecasts had finally caught up. The cold front had moved south faster than forecast and shut down almost everything along the southern coasts. It would clobber things in for another day or two. That was bad news, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I thought I had lost my chance to see Chris before he went back, but I discovered the next day he was going to be stateside longer than I had thought. I rescheduled the trip for a few days later and sat wand watched the weather to see what it would do. Turned out that it closed down the weather in northern Florida as well, so even if I had made it to Alabama, I still wouldn’t have been able to tag up with Chris in St Augustine. Instead, the delay put us both in Troy Alabama the next week and I saw him there (as well as my other kids) before he went back. In the end, my aborted trip cost me two hours wear and tear on my airplane and that much gas, but nothing else.

And that, ladies and gents, is the important thing about it all.