Arkansas '06

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Headed for Dallas (I thought)

Left Gaithersburg, MD on Saturday, March 25th, with the plane pointed roughly towards Dallas. Reports of spark plug fouling problems from the night before had initially had me half-heartedly going through the motions that morning, fully expecting that maintenance issues would lead to yet another cancelled flying adventure, as my schedule wouldn't allow a delayed departure if the plane needed to wait until Monday for repair. Unbeknownst to me, though, earlier that Saturday morning, the local airport mechanic had visited the flying club plane I had reserved for this trip and resolved the minor issue it had. So once I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see the plane pass all my engine runup tests with flying colors. I declared it a "go" and there was nary a hiccup during the entire trip (beyond the obligatory "automatic rough" that all engines seem to suffer from after sunset as soon as the pilot notices it's become dark enough for emergency landing spots to be difficult to identify).

The associated delay, though, meant any plans of making this trip in a single day were unlikely, so after an uneventful trip across West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, including a scenic crossing of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Elkins, West Virginia and a pretty night flight across Nashville (all with my camera cleverly stowed in the baggage compartment, out of reach) I stopped for the night in Kennett, Missouri. I later learned that this town's claim to fame was as the hometown of Sheryl Crow, though I admit my interest at the time was more as a place with a Taco Bell and motel within walking distance of an airport, alleviating the need for a rental car or taxi (and I needed a Missouri Taco Bell visit and photo for my Life's Work web page).

Of course, after being eyed suspiciously by a few locals, with a backpack on my back and a duffel bag over my shoulder, walking along the highway at night, I realized that I looked more like a drifter, maybe Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner, or maybe David Carradine as Caine ("walking the earth"), than a computer geek pilot. I had a brief vision of the local sheriff making me fly my plane to the county line, chasing behind in his cruiser, with warnings of what will happen to me if I ever come back. The guy at the motel took a look at me and asked "you got a car?" He seemed to suspect the answer was no, and he was right.

During my Taco Bell visit, eavesdropping as usual, it occured to me that for many people, the most notable events of their lives, perhaps the only notable events, are medical in nature, such as past "procedures" and maladies, and they share these stories with the enthusiasm and pride of a climber recounting tales of a particularly harrowing Everest ascent. At some point they'll die, and then they'll really have something to talk about!

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KTKX, Kennett, MO...
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... and it's airport-convenient Taco Bell

I awoke the next day to a very high overcast and good visibility, but 100 miles to the South was an area of heavy thunderstorms that had been squatting over Northern Texas and Southern Arkansas for days. This covered my intended destination of Dallas and an area so large there was no real practical way to "go around" it to get very much closer. After much hand-wringing, I eventually overcame denial, and flew onward just a little until the good weather ran out, and traded my plane for a perfume-plagued rental car in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

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Don't think I'm gonna make it all the way to Dallas

At the airport in Jonesboro, I left verbal instructions to hangar the plane for a few days. Being more used to self-important East Coast airports buzzing with bizjets, I was expecting to need to fill out some kind of registration card or something, surely they needed some kind of paperwork! After spending forever unloading a bunch of stuff from the plane into my rental car, I ventured back into the terminal building and asked (again) if I needed to fill anything out. They shrugged me off, and I asked "um, do you know which plane it is?" The response from Jessica came in a pleasant Mid-West drawl, but included maybe a hint of East Coast sarcasm: "the one you been coming in and out of?" Score one for Arkansas, the plane was obviously in good hands.

Arriving in Dallas via car, I found the street to my hotel blocked by police. Driving around, trying to find some other way in, I saw cars strewn in ditches off the side of the road. Apparently the entire area had been flooded a few hours earlier. Maybe finishing the trip by car wasn't such an act of cowardice, after all...

Headed home

After a few days of IETF geekdom in Dallas, took the rental car (still reeking of perfume 4 days later) back to Jonesboro, AR, traded it back for my plane, and took to the air, confident I'd be home in time for a late dinner.
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Cropduster at KJBR (Jonesboro, AR)
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bumpy below, smooth above, but quickly growing to overcast
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"The Mighty Mississipp, the Old Man, the Mighty Miss."
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Kentucky Lake
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homebound weather not looking so hot either...
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staying upwind of that cloud
Unfortunately, the weather gods weren't satisfied with my earlier surrender to thunderstorms back in Arkansas. Crossing Kentucky, the fluffy scattered clouds became broken (aka "mostly cloudy"), then overcast ("cloudy"), and then started to lower. Then I started to encounter patches of light snow, which was initially an entertaining novelty. But then the snow became more widespread and heavier, and I soon found myself seeking out the patches where it wasn't snowing. My wonderful planned route, that magenta line on the GPS and the corresponding orange magic marker line painstakingly drawn with a ruler on my map, was soon replaced by "well, it seems a little less dark over thattaway".
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Sigh, snowing...
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what's in these weird-looking buildings?
As the snow snowers got harder to slalom, the ceiling and visibility got lower, my handheld GPS' obstacle and terrain avoidance feature got nervouser, the pucker factor got higher, and the sun began to set, I wisely decided to set down on the next strip of asphalt I found with numbers at the ends, which turned out to be Ohio University Airport in Albany, Ohio (go OU Bobcats!)

With an ominous weather forecast for the next day, I must have spent 3 or 4 hours in the OU airport planning room that evening going over weather and charts every which way, looking for some way to get home that night, lest I be stuck there for the entire weekend. At one point, I even found myself pre-flighting the plane in the dark with an instrument flight plan on file, but the prospect of encountering icing in the clouds at night eventually brought me to my senses, and I was soon in a cab on my way to a motel.

I awoke the next morning to a motel window weather report of "foggy". The OU airport's automated weather station concurred with this analysis, reporting 1/4 mile visibility and 100ft ceilings, and there were forecasts and actual pilot reports of icing in the clouds throughout the area. By the afternoon, though, the cloud ceilings had risen a bit, providing some flying room underneath the clouds, and I took off for the time-honored aviation operation known as a "look-see", something which could take a few minutes or a few hours, depending on how far you got and what you saw. This turned out to be one of the three hour "look-see" varieties, steadily snaking through another day of (ahem) marginal visibility and snow shower dodging across Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Maryland. There are no photos from this leg, as I kept my camera stowed away, intentionally this time, for fear of jinxing myself.

Despite the marginal visibility and the widespread snow showers, the ceiling was thankfully pretty high, enough so that I was able to pick a path between the showers and make my way up and over the semi-high terrain (such as we have on the East Coast) of the Blue Ridge Mountains. By Cumberland, MD, with the mountains mostly behind, the snow showers began to taper off, and the cloud cover began to thin, and the flight came to a picture-perfect ending back at Gaithersburg, MD, with blue sky peeking between lots of puffy clouds and visibility for miles beneath.

At the end of the trip, I was a bit "wired", with my head swimming from what was really my first significant encounter with large areas of very marginal weather, and the complexity of the continual decision process involved in such flying, both in the air and on the ground. I was happy to be home. When's the next trip? Beats an appendectomy, any day, I say!

Harry Mantakos /