Gear Up: Wicked Winter Winds

Winter winds dash a pilot’s hope.

Gear Up Garmin Knots

Gear Up Garmin Knots

What a difference winter winds make:
104 knots groundspeed!

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.

Sure enough, when I switched to the Boston Center sector that handles KLEB, I was told to expect a hold. I asked for an expected clearance time and got the news: 20 minutes hence. Still descending, I ramped the power back; there is no sense in racing to a hold. The Concord ATIS was holding up. I calculated two laps around the racetrack were possible at 500 pounds per hour burn rate before I would have to break off and head to Concord. “Hold south of the JAMMA intersection,” was the next instruction.

Now slowed to 140 knots, I turned back toward Tampa, undoing all that good tailwind component. As those fates would have it, the favorable tailwinds deposited us on the approach at the exact moment another airplane was arriving from the north. I looked him up later. He was a Cessna 310 who had departed from an airport 90 nautical miles away. He probably had plenty of gas, but first come, first serve. I sat up a little straighter and rechecked Concord.

Before the airplane could make its first circuit, we were cleared for the GPS 36 approach. The tower granted our request to land on 36, despite the broadcast information stating to expect Runway 25. We landed with 800 pounds of gas, more than enough for 1 ½ hours of flying, though I was happily done for the day. Let’s decorate a tree.

Those fates cooked up some humdingers for the next leg. A hoped-for flight on a friend’s birthday to Kerrville with a stop halfway went up in a blizzard. Nobody was going anywhere in the Northeast that day, and the testimony of harried airline travelers on TV saved me from being seen as a wimp. The prognostic chart showed a tightly coiled spring of a low with a long, weather-laden comma of a cold front hanging off it. We settled in to watch the snow.

The next day had acceptable weather in Lebanon, but that was about it. The winds averaged 81 knots, 65 of which were going to hold us back. It is possible we might have seen trucks passing us on the interstate, but the ubiquitous cloud cover would have precluded that. I investigated a stop at Louisville, Kentucky, four hours away at these winds. Next would be a two-and-a-half-hour trip to Little Rock, Arkansas. Then three more hours to Kerrville. I discussed the proposed time en route with my wife and dog, Corbett. I left out the fact that KLIT was calling for 400 over, freezing fog, visibility one half-mile. Even without this helpful information, the dog voted that we head back to Tampa. He said he'd happily check into a pet motel while we flew on to San Antonio on a big, powerful commercial airliner.

We bought two tickets from Tampa to San Antonio for $512 apiece, rationalizing that this was still way cheaper than the fuel costs with those headwinds. I love this line of thinking: A full-price commercial ticket makes sense when compared to flying our airplane. What a sorry state of affairs in many ways. We called the birthday boy and announced we’d be arriving a day late, but that we’d be arriving.

With that we flew from KLEB to Wilmington, North Carolina, into the teeth of the winds. At one point I noticed a ground speed of 168 knots at Flight Level 220, a 75-knot headwind component. Refueled, we made it home by dark and mixed a few adult beverages. The birthday celebrant had sent us buddy passes and found us space on his airline, so the next morning we flew to San Antonio for free. This saved more than $1,000, which I intended to lavish on the guest of honor, but never did find a way to do so.

Even the 737 had some headwind issues, though we did arrive on time. Low ceiling at Kerrville on the day of departure and an RVR of 1,000 feet in San Antonio convinced me, not to say Cathy, that we’d made the right choice by not pushing the Cheyenne into this trip.

This failure to accomplish the original mission left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, I always feel diminished when all that experience and all that expense cannot make for a safe, enjoyable flight that arrives on time with the coffee hot. Yet, after 45 years of flying, I know when it just doesn’t make any sense. Had I been alone, I might have tried it. Then again, probably not.