Last Friday morning at 1130, three LSAs departed from Apopka, Florida’s X04 for a long weekend in Franklin, North Carolina. Another sport pilot and I flew the Remos while the SportCrusier (formally a PiperSport) and Gobash each had a sport pilot (one working on his private) and a CFI. Pilots and passengers of a Cessna 182 and Piper Arrow joined the group too, making it a baker's dozen of folks in toto heading to the mountains. The plan was for those in the 182 and Arrow to fly ahead on their own to Franklin (IA5) while the LSAs flew as a flock to IA5 via the midpoint of Vidalia Regional (KDVI). Once in Franklin, we’d spend the weekend hiking and whitewater rafting before flying home on Monday under the same plan.
When First Landings, the flight school where I received my Sport Pilot training, announced it was organizing a North Carolina “adventure flight,” I just had to sign up for it despite the fact the trip was completely intimidating to me. I thought, “What better way to leave my comfort zone of local flying than with a group of other pilots and instructors?” And that was exactly one of the school’s intentions for the trip, according to Chris Esposito, co-owner and instructor at FL.
“To really become a better pilot, you need to push yourself and get outside your comfort zone: A long cross-country flight spanning several states will do both. Pilots who go on our ‘adventure flights’ gain a real-world understanding of weather patterns and a sense of the dynamically changing nature of weather,” says Esposito. “They hone their skills at new airports with different wind patterns and take the airplane through a variety of atmospheric changes, from high-density altitudes to rain showers to gusting wind conditions. We do our best to make sure everyone stays safe, and we always have alternative airports planned in case weather deteriorates beyond our safety limits.”
Truer words could not have been spoken. During the trip I experienced a lot of firsts that pushed me out of my comfort zone.
The Biggest First
-Weather. Other than a nice tailwind and beautiful weather, our first leg outbound to KVDI was uneventful. The last leg to our destination would prove somewhat more challenging with a threatening wall of weather approaching North Carolina from the west, possibly placing our IA5 within its reach that afternoon. (It was the same storm system that, though the brunt ended up bypassing Franklin, would ultimately rip through parts of North Carolina the next day with tornados touching down killing more than a dozen people.) Once we landed at Vidalia, a radar check indicated that though we might encounter some rain, the bad stuff looked like it would pass to the north of Franklin. Good news for us but we still made quick work of gassing up and getting back in the air so we could reach IA5 before the storm, with the plan to first fly the course to Toccoa Regional (KTOC), our alternate airport south of IA5. As we neared KTOC, we would determine if we should land there or if the coast was clear to head for IA5.
Luck would have it that as the LSAs neared KTOC, the 182, piloted by an instrument rated pilot, had already arrived over Franklin and the pilot radioed that gusty wind conditions and cloud cover were such that they were turning back to Toccoa to wait for us and see if conditions improved. So KTOC it was. Once all of us were on the ground, we waited a bit and then decided to give it a try with the metar reporting 3,800-foot ceilings, but still gusty winds. Since the Remos was the only one of the LSAs without a CFI, we decided to play musical chairs and that I would ride in the 182 and Adam Valencic, FL co-owner and CFI, would transfer over from the Arrow and pilot one of the light sports so all the sport pilots would have CFIs with them. It was not easy going. Though still VFR, weather had deteriorated with lower ceilings than what was reported in the last metar. As the LSAs flew the four-lane highway that cut through the wide valley into Franklin, they encountered moderate turbulence. And once at Franklin the winds were all over the place…calm, then cross then gusting. Having arrived ahead of the flock in the Cessna, I was able to witness the Arrow and all the light sports land. One came in high, initiated a go around and landed fine second time around. One got caught up by a gust as it was nearing touchdown but landed, and one had to slip to lose altitude on final but a lull in the wind made for easy touchdown. The last caught the wind just right (light) and came in with a relatively normal approach. It was a relief to have arrived at our destination.
I’m not afraid to admit I’m glad weather was only a factor on the one leg on the way to Franklin, for it was the most intimidating part of the trip for me as a new pilot. Up to this point, I had never really had to deal with weather en route. Flying short flights locally with no pressure to get somewhere, and being familiar with Florida’s weather patterns, made it easy to make a go/no go decision before getting into the air as well as to avoid in-flight surprises. As Esposito says, there’s nothing like experiencing dynamic weather in a real-world environment.
Other Firsts (in no certain order)
-Flying beyond my “local” area of familiarization. Until this trip, I had ventured no more than a 45-minute flight away, mostly north or west, of my home airport, much less two states away!
-“Formation” flying. I liked flying as a group … there is some comfort in that. We kept in regular communication with each other, allowing the new pilots access to the CFIs if we had any questions as the flight unfolded while at the same time allowing the CFIs to “keep an eye” on us newbies.
- Elevated terrain. I flew the leg out of Franklin on the way home and it was a gorgeous morning. We were able to fly well above the mountains and track over a nice wide valley, so the conditions were quite different from the way in, making it enjoyable and stress free (other than knowing that the only emergency landing spot for the first 20 minutes of the flight was the four-lane highway below, but I guess that’s better than none!). All in all, a great intro for a flatlander’s first time thousands of feet above sea level and in mountains.
- Sharing flight time and the right seat. My flight buddy and I shared flying time by switching seats midpoint each way. In the left seat, it was nice to have someone not only along for the ride, but who you could rely upon for help with navigation and radios, especially during heightened work load, like turbulent weather and even flying into a completely new airport. To be completely honest and revealing, sitting in the right seat felt plain weird, situationally and emotionally. I didn’t like it. The one good thing about it, though, was I was able to take the controls and give my buddy in the left seat a break.
-Discovery of a bird’s nest in the engine. You always hear about the threat of such things during flight school and that’s one of the key things to look for during preflight, but most of us had never actually discovered one in an engine. So you can imagine our surprise when we took the cowling off the Remos during preflight the day of departure and found a bird’s nest cozied up against the firewall. It took a good 20 minutes to clear it out.
-Flying an LSA as a transportation vehicle to a destination. Not only did we sport pilots gain a ton of new knowledge and experience, we also were able to enjoy a long weekend at a fun destination that normally would have been a 10-hour drive by car with less than a 5-hour flight by LSA.
A long weekend of flying, hiking, whitewater rafting, new friends … what more could one ask for?
For a photo gallery of the trip, click here.