Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Timing is everything- Reprise

METAR KSHD 1905Z 0118G24 1 1/2SM +TSRA 003SCT 043OVC

That was the weather as of a couple moments ago. Translation for those who don't know aviation terminology: nasty. One and a half miles visibility (half of the minimum required for visual flight), winds really gusty, heavy rain, thunderstorm.

A mere 3 minutes before that, I was still airborne, trying to make it in quickly, knowing what was coming. My student with the CT-SW invited me to lunch at Tangier Island, and I couldn't refuse that kind of deal. The flight out there is about a hour and a half, and was gorgeous. Not many clouds- just some scattered stuff a good distance above. Just enough to give us a little bit of shelter from the sun. Tangier is an interesting place. No automobiles there- not really any need, since everything is in reasonable walking distance. There are bicycles and golf carts. Instead of that though, we just took a nice, leisurely walk for a few minutes, and arrived at what appeared to be a good seafood restaurant.

We were not disappointed. I'd never had soft-shell crab before, and I've fallen in love with it. He said it was among the best he'd ever had. We decided that we will have to go back there again really soon.

On the return, we headed back out over the expanse of water. You always have to evaluate properly before flying a single-engine aircraft over large amounts of water. Even with the nice glide of that plane, we were facing several miles of swimming if the engine died. We couldn't climb either, because there is restricted airspace above. We did get to shoot through one restricted area, since it was not active, saving about 15 minutes.

I guess, in retrospect, it was a very good thing we saved that time. We caught a little bit of rain on the return, between Lake Anna and Louisa, but nothing serious. Right back out of it in under a minute. But we were mainly watching two cells of interest on the weather overlay in the GPS. One, we were skirting to the north, not really any big deal. A good chunk of yellow on-screen, but we would pass by it quickly enough.

The one that kept my attention was barely north of Shenandoah at the time, and showed red in some places. It hadn't fully developed west of home, but we knew it was only a matter of time.

Crossing the mountains is always the first concern. As clouds begin to form a little lower, you have less and less room to make it across. At 4,000' MSL (above mean sea level), the crossing is no big deal, as long as the engine doesn't quit at an inconvenient time. If you have to drop to 2,500', there are only one or two places along the ridge to get across, and both can be hairy with a bit of turbulence.

I was watching the main thunderstorm, which loomed large, having already developed a well-defined anvil at the top. From 10 miles out, we could see that the heavy rain was within 2 miles of the airport. At that point, I began to expedite, but there is only so much you can do to speed up in turbulence before risking structural damage to the plane. My student had already offered me the landing, even though his atempt at Tangier had not been really pretty. Good thing too. These conditions were beyond his limits.

We made it to the downwind for runway 23, with the rain about a mile away. The weather decided that was the time to change wind direction. We'd flown the pattern expecting a direct crosswind, and on short final, it shifted. Suddenly, it was a ten knot tailwind component. (Essentially 25% of the stall speed). Meaning we would be touching down with over 50% more kinetic energy than a no-wind landing, and almost triple the energy we'd have had landing on runway 5. But there really wasn't time to go around to the other runway, so I just dealt with it.

Turned out I had an audience. Dena was covering the unicom desk, and a couple other friends were watching also, knowing that the wind was starting to get crazy. I guess you chalk it up to either concern for those involved, or a morbid desire to watch (we'll assume the former). Either way, I had several people watching, hoping it would go ok.

That little plane is just so small, any gust of wind tends to throw it rather well. A cross-wind component at the official limit of the plane, with gusts beyond the limit, makes for some fun. I actually managed a really smooth touchdown on the right main tire, and managed to hold it there for a few seconds. Dena congratulated me over the radio.

As we tied the plane down, the rain started. Moments after getting inside, the real deluge began. About three or four more minutes spent getting home, and we'd have had a much more adventurous flight.

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