The snow level in the Oakland hills dropped to about 1,500 feet the other day, a description that makes sense only in mountainous areas at the edges of winter, or in California pretty much all of the time. Since it's almost never cold enough for snow to survive at sea level, snow in California is typically measured not by the depth of the snowfall but by the altitude above sea level where the temperature drops enough to turn the rain into snow. So in San Francisco Bay terms, a snow level of 1,500 feet means that winter has arrived. Such as it is.
My Grumman Cheetah is safely parked in the lowlands just east of the Oakland hills, well clear of any accumulation. Come to think of it, I don't think the Cheetah has ever had to deal with snow in my care. A little ice outside her hangar in Santa Rosa one day, maybe. And, OK, there was the time she got stranded in New York, right after 9/11. When I finally got back there to pick her up in October, it was cold enough that I did the preflight with gloves on. But even as I recall that chilly morning, I can almost feel my old Cessna 120 glaring down at me, her 60-year-old eyes rolling at the thought of a single 30-degree preflight being classified as a winter challenge. For while she now lives in Texas, the Cessna 120 and I did more than our share of winter flying, once upon a time. Enough, probably, to last the both of us the rest of our flying careers.
I bought the Cessna 120 with my friend Jim, who is an eternal optimist when it comes to airplanes and flying. We bought the plane in January, so our first road trip with our new baby took place in early February. The trip was from Clark County, Indiana, where we based the plane, to Hamilton, Ohio, where Jim's family lived. It's not a long flight, even in a Cessna 120, and the flight up was chilly but uneventful. But come morning, the sky was overcast with the kind of dull, gray light that usually presages a winter storm. Jim went off to call weather, and he returned shortly with the news that we'd be fine, but we needed to get moving.
After that day, I learned how to read that kind of comment a lot better. But then again, after that day, I also always made a point of calling weather myself, regardless of which one of us was going to be flying. Because "we'll be fine, but we need to get moving" turned out to be Jim's optimistic interpretation of a forecast calling for an unexpectedly fast-moving storm front to slam the entire region within a few hours. So he was correct … with one minor caveat. We would be fine — as long as we beat the storm home.
We hustled out to the airport and took off into an impressive headwind. Normally, the entire trip took about 45 minutes. Twenty minutes into the trip, we weren't even to the Ohio-Indiana border. But it wasn't until I looked down at the oil pressure gauge, and saw the needle wobbling around half its normal value, that I started to get concerned. I poked Jim and pointed to the gauge.
"Yeah, I know. I see it," he said.
"Well, should we worry?" I asked. I'd had my license less than a year, and Jim was a mechanic as well as a pilot, with more than 800 tailwheel hours under his belt.
"Not unless it gets too low."
"Well, what's too low?"
"Let's just say we don't want it to get any lower than it is."
Terrific. I started alternating my attention between the oil gauge and potential landing sites along our route. A few minutes later, it started to rain. There was decent visibility under the clouds, but I soon noticed what looked suspiciously like ice granules accumulating at the corners of the windscreen. I poked Jim again.
"Yeah, I know. I see it," he said again.
"Well, should we worry?" The interchange was beginning to feel like a ritual.
"It's still above freezing," Jim said. "We don't have to worry unless the rain starts changing over to ice or snow."
As if on cue, the precipitation coming through the prop abruptly changed from clear to white. I poked Jim again.
"Yeah, I know. I see it. We're turning around," he replied with a sigh.
Within minutes, we were on short final to Hamilton, running full power to make any kind of forward progress. It's the only time I've ever done a helicopter landing in a fixed-wing aircraft. We didn't roll at all — just bounced once and stopped, still running power on the airplane. We had to get help to get the airplane taxied in and parked.
And that was before we lived in Minnesota.