Gear Up: Wicked Winter Winds
The winds of fate can blow with a gentle moderate assistance, or they can be right on the nose at 80 knots. Fate is the hunter, as Ernie Gann so eloquently put it, and the winds are frequently the weapon of choice. No matter what you fly today, winds will have a heavy effect on your sense of well-being. You know, of course, that tailwinds are generally milder than the roaring, boring headwinds. On almost any trip, the headwind leg has higher winds than the tailwind leg, for reasons known only to celestial bodies.
Though I was fully aware of these unfair and disagreeable facts, I did plan a trip last winter that I hoped would be within the capability of the Cheyenne my wife, Cathy, and I own. Good for 240 knots down low and 223 at Flight Level 250, this sturdy turboprop has a five-and-a-half-hour range if flown thoughtfully. So, a flight from Tampa, Florida (KTPA), to Lebanon, New Hampshire (KLEB), for the holidays — a distance of 1,061 nm as the goose flies — is a pretty sure bet in winter, with traditional average push of 25 knots or so. That is, it is a sure bet if the weather in New Hampshire is good and no dawdling on an approach is required. After the holiday sometimes referred to as Christmas in politically incorrect circles, we planned to fly to visit friends in Kerrville, Texas, a mere 1,518 nautical distant. How hard could two 750 nm trips be in an airplane that flies that fast (or slow, if you are a jet pilot) be?
Not doable, it turns out. Here’s how it all went down.
Faithful readers will know KTPA-KLEB is a common flight for us, and you may wish for a more exotic itinerary. But it is a trip that stretches the capability of the airplane and frequently that of the pilot too. Though I have flown it many times, there is always something to learn — hopefully not the hard way. We left Tampa close to on time; no help from the 30-knot crosswind on climb-out was noted. Once we turned toward the northeast, though, we started to smoke. We were settled at FL 250 50 minutes after takeoff, drinking coffee, watching the KLEB weather on the Avidyne EX500. Groundspeeds were in the respectable 250-knot range, and the heater was working — this is not always predictable.
Bad news, KLEB was 1,800 feet overcast instead of the forecasted 6,000 feet overcast. Lebanon is in the mountains, and there is no radar coverage. The lowest Boston Center can give you is 4,800 feet msl. The airport is close to 600 feet, so we really need 4,500 over to make a visual approach.
Well, it was still early. We weren’t even to Charleston, South Carolina, yet. Maybe the weather would improve to match the forecast. I looked up the weather at Barnes, Massachusetts (KBAF). It was good. It is only 90 nm short of KLEB, has cheap fuel and an instrument approach and is within radar coverage. Ordinarily, I would have planned to stop there for gas rather than risk arriving at KLEB, being told to hold and then getting vectored out north for a GPS approach to Runway 25; all that could add 30 minutes to a trip and would tip us over the edge of prudence.
But I have learned a thing or two (or 50) from the boys at Elite Air in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I have been flying Lear 31As as a first officer. The Elite Air guys know that owners and charter customers intend to get where they are going. Stopping at Barnes is not part of the plan. And so, slowly, I have been learning to be more focused on outcome while still being safe. In fact, that focus made me, I believe, more safe. Let’s see if we can’t make KLEB, I thought to myself.
By the time we were sailing over some grandchildren in Delaware, it was obvious no improvement in the destination weather was forthcoming. Soon the Avidyne showed the forecast had changed to predict what we already knew: With a ceiling of 1,800 feet or so, an approach was in the cards. I calculated and recalculated the fuel overhead Lebanon and thought we’d be there with 800 pounds of Jet-A remaining. Concord, New Hampshire, 44 nm to the southeast of KLEB, was VFR and they have radar coverage. I kept her coming.