Gear Up: Getting it Done

A wind vector of 178 results in net 120-knot headwind. Dick Karl

"Hey, Dick. Just so you know, the airport is closed.” It’s Max calling from the FBO in Lebanon, New Hampshire, about an hour before our proposed takeoff time. “There’s ice on the runway; they are scraping it now. If we can just get a little more sun, it won’t take long before they’ll open 18/36.”

“Well,” I ask, “what’s the temp?”

“Thirty-three right now.”

This isn’t the first time in 50-plus years of flying I’ve encountered a delay. Nowadays, though, I’ve got more resources than ever and delays are rare. If there is a hiccup, it usually isn’t for long.

It was not always thus. Early on—with nothing but a private certificate and a budget that could carry renting a Cessna 172 for an hour about once every three to four months—frustration, disappointment, delays and cancellations outdistanced flight serenity most of the time. Living in a med-school dorm room in New York City meant all proposed flights began with a lengthy discussion with the flight service station. It had to be VFR all along the proposed route. I was usually hoping to get to Ithaca, New York, a Shangri-La well-known for its horrible weather.

If the forecast was good, a rental airplane had to be available. If it was, I had to have the cash. If I did, it was a go, and I would walk to the subway, take it to the Port Authority bus station, ride the bus toward, but not to, Teterboro Airport. Disgorged at the corner of the airport perimeter, I’d walk the three-quarters of a mile to the FBO. There, I would declare myself “current.”

Only once or twice did the stars line up so that such a flight was possible. And then, you had to get back to KTEB. That forecast had to hold for at least 24 hours.

Today, with our Cessna Citation CJ1, I am almost never delayed more than an hour or two for such events as “ice on runway.” The airplane is immensely capable, certified for known ice, radar-equipped and capable of reaching Flight Level 410. I have my own personal minimums, though. It just isn’t worth it to take off zero-zero or stretch a flight beyond reasonable fuel reserves. A thunderstorm encounter in a Beechcraft Musketeer 45 years ago has left me permanently allergic to flying close to any such beast.

A CJ makes a planned trip almost a certainty. Skirting a thunderstorm (or, even better, flying over them) at 370 knots is a lot more plausible than in a Musketeer. Coupled approaches to minimums are actually quite easy, and if range is an issue, I just stop for gas. Whereas an ILS used to be necessary for really low weather, the advent of LPV approaches has made almost everywhere as accessible as Kennedy or Dallas-Fort Worth.

“It’s Max—we’re open.” So began a flight that demonstrates all these facts with clarity. had predicted a net headwind component of 70 knots over the route to Charleston, South Carolina, a stop on the way to Tampa, Florida, made necessary by the unfavorable winter jet stream. Atlantic Aviation at KCHS participates in the Corporate Aircraft Association’s fuel program available to turbine airplanes flown under Part 91 (but not Part 135). So, cheap gas.

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

We loaded up. By “we,” I mean me, my wife, Cathy, and our rescue knuckleheaded mix of a dog. I was careful on startup to be alert for sliding on ice. I took an extra five minutes with cockpit preparation and the initialization of the navigation. Our clearance was: “GREKI just north of JFK, flight-plan route, maintain 6,000, expect Flight Level 360 in 10 minutes.” Slowly, tentatively, we taxied out to Runway 18.

Takeoff was routine. I knew I had to recycle our new ADS-B transponders after takeoff because of a programming glitch. After completing the after-takeoff check list—gear up, yaw damper on, flaps up, engine sync on, flight-level change selected, nav engaged, autopilot on—I set about getting the transponders reset before calling Boston Center. About then, we entered cloud. When I looked back up, the airplane was in a right turn. We were climbing at an appalling fraction of our usual 2,500 feet per minute, and all previous settings for climb and navigation had dropped out.

OK, it was time for good old Cessna 172 “needle, ball and airspeed” flying. I selected a heading that was close enough and a vertical speed of 2,000 feet per minute and hand-flew the airplane until we popped out on top and I could get the autopilot on and figure out what was going on.

Hanging in there, our navigation gradually got squared away. Our two GPS boxes weren’t talking to each other because they couldn’t agree on what time it was. (There was a two-second difference in Zulu time between the two.)

“Hanging in there” was a good descriptor for the entire flight. The winds at FL 360 were roaring at 178 knots; the headwind component was more than 120 knots at one point. But we just kept on chugging along. I found myself thinking that even with a 100-knot loss, our groundspeed was greater than we used to enjoy in our Piper Cheyenne on a windless day and more than twice as fast as that Musketeer.

Come to think of it, “hanging in there” is the great life lesson of aviation. Yes, it is glorious to flit about with a 100-knot tailwind (my personal best was a groundspeed of 577 knots in a Beechcraft Premier—nothing personal about it; it was the airplane, not me), but making headway against ferocious winds, just like a successful approach in lousy weather, carries with it a sense of perseverance. I feel great reverence for any machine or animal that keeps at it until the job is done.

All this is true in life as well. People who display great resilience become our heroes. Both Eisenhower and Churchill spent time in eclipse during their careers, but it did not bring them down. Our most celebrated athletes almost all have demonstrated resilience and perseverance. They get it done. So does our 20-year-old Citation. It’s the best, and I am lucky.

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter