Gear Up: A Minute Here, an Hour There

Timing is everything in flying.

Jack Benny, the legendary comedian, was asked once about the secret to being funny.

Benny looked away to his right. Beat. Benny cupped his chin in his hand. Beat. Benny looked left, and then his eyes ricocheted back to the right. Beat. A small smile. Beat. Then, with explosive exclamation, "Timing!" Very loud.

Timing indeed. Timing in all things. In life, timing has a lot to do with your ultimate job, your spouse, your home -- almost everything. The same holds for aviation. Timing can dictate a career, a furlough, a great opportunity or unrealized hopes. And then there is the very specific effect of timing on flying: It has a lot to say about the weather. As the dew point and the temperature collapse toward each other at the destination, all inbound pilots are very aware of timing.

An early summer trip in our Cheyenne from Tampa, Florida, to the Northeast demonstrated these weather principles clearly. With my trusty dog, Corbett, I'm filed to Georgetown (KGED) in Delaware for 8:30 am. Timing gets a bad start. A thunderstorm is in progress when we get to the airport. Furthermore, we're parked out in the rain, even though there is plenty of room underneath the big canopy at Signature Flight Support. The explanation is: timing. The line guys were going to move us under the protective custody of the tent, but lightning stopped them. I am offered an umbrella. This seems reasonable until it starts to look like a lightning rod; besides, have you ever tried to load a Cheyenne in heavy rain with an 80-pound dog on a leash while holding an umbrella in gusty winds? By the time we get boarded, I'm soaked. The dog is unperturbed; he's a lab.

Except for the fact that this thunderstorm is parked directly over the airport, extending about 10 miles in all directions, the weather looks good for this first leg. I am worried, though, about the thunderstorms encroaching on Lebanon, New Hampshire (KLEB), our ultimate destination, later in the afternoon. This meteorological prognostication makes me understandably eager to get going. Timing will be important when we get there.

But there is no sense taking off into a thunderstorm right here in order to avoid another one more than 1,000 miles away later in the day. I taxi out to 18L with a wary eye behind a Beechjet and ahead of a Gulfstream I. It is very dark. At the runway's end, it gets even darker. Across the runway on another taxiway, I can see a commuter Beech 1900 cooling its heels.

When I check on with the tower, they ask for my intentions. I reply that I thought we were on a ground stop. "No," comes the response.

"So the Beechjet has decided not to take off?" I ask.

"Yes, but we can move him if you are ready to go."

"That's OK; I'll stay in the queue," I reply.

"Smart move," comes the commentary, presumably from the Gulfstream.

The tower announces visibility is down to a mile. I can feel the wind rocking the wings. We are cooled by the recently repaired air conditioner blowing cold air onto my soaked clothing.

Soon the winds ease, but the ominous dark green-gray cast to the sky is unchanged. The commuter Beech 1900 says, "We want to get going." The tower clears him into position and hold. Next, the tower inquires of the Beechjet. "Just a minute," he replies, "I want to talk this over." It is still very dark, but on our Avidyne EX500 Nexrad page I see a corridor almost straight to the west that looks clear of precip. The Beechjet declares himself ready.

As the Beechjet taxies into position, I ask if a 270-degree heading would be available for us. "No," says the tower, "cleared to heading of 310 degrees maintain one thousand six hundred." I'm dubious, but I do know these controllers are especially skilled when it comes to working around Florida thunderstorms. We take the runway.

As I contact departure I get just what I wanted: a heading of 270, maintain 4,000. Seconds later, "maintain eleven, one-one thousand, cleared direct to Taylor when able." As soon as I hit the coastline, a turn on course is possible.

We climb up to 22,000 and I turn on the heater fuel to keep us warm. As we turn northeast, we're cleared to 23,000. It is cold, but I chalk the sensation up to wet blue jeans. I check the outside air temperature. It is ISA plus 17! But it is still minus 14 degrees Celsius out there. It is now clear the heater isn't working. I turn off the recirculating fan; this stops the cold air from blowing on us. Our bleed air is quite warm, so it may be tolerable without the heater. Now that the AC works, the heater doesn't; if that doesn't define aircraft ownership, I don't know what does.

Soon I'm given a deviation and a choice. Turn right to avoid a military warning area, or climb above it to 25,000 feet. I select the latter; it makes for a straight track and gets us above some clouds. Timing. Had we gotten to the airport 20 minutes sooner, there would have been no delay and we'd be 100 miles closer to our destination. If the airplane had been protected on the ground, we'd be drier and less cold.

Three hours later a cold man and an uncomplaining-but-shivering dog start down. We arrive at KGED to pick up my wife and grandson, who are waiting to be whisked to KLEB, right where that weather is congregating, just as predicted four hours ago.

I have filed for just 21,000 feet because the trip is short (about 350 nautical miles) and I want to keep the cabin warm. Dover approach step climbs us to 11,000 and turns us over to Washington Center. Washington Center becomes New York, which soon tires of us and we're shuffled off to Boston. I make my usual request for direct CREAM, direct LEB, but my heart's not in it. Even if I get it, I won't like it. This track will take us through some rough-looking thunderstorms on the Nexrad. In a thick Boston accent, I'm told to sit tight, go direct HTO, we see the weather too. Now I see the red moving rapidly west to east as the Nexrad page refreshes itself. A course directly to Rutland, Vermont, will take us through the western edge of red, but I'm guessing it will be gone by the time we get there. Timing. I am aware of how tight this airspace is. Jets from Europe are all lined up coming into Kennedy and Newark, and then there are the Boston and Manchester arrivals and departures. I'm not hopeful when I ask for direct RUT, direct KLEB, but I get it immediately. God love Boston Center.

My 4-year-old grandson sends his instructions forward to the cockpit. "Stay away from the black clouds," he suggests. Four-year-olds have a way of getting to the point that adults don't have. Their sense of time is different too. This young man enjoys light to moderate turbulence -- he thinks the bounces are "fun" -- but he's very sure he wants to stay out of that black stuff out the window. My enthusiasm for this favorable routing is soon diminished by the instruction to descend to 17,000. Seeing that we're still more than 130 miles from landing and that this altitude will put us directly into the dark cloud we are now above, I try to negotiate a higher intermediate altitude. No go. I reluctantly pull back the power and select 17,000 on the altitude preselect. In a gesture of pure passive-aggressiveness, I set the decent rate at 500 feet a minute to delay our penetration into the clouds. I warn the passengers. They look solemn -- even the dog.

I don't understand this altitude restriction, which we frequently get going northeast-bound and never on the return, southwest-bound trip. I ask Boston for a phone number so I can call when we get on the ground and ask why. No sense tying up the frequency on a busy weather day to bother the harried controller.

The next day I call Boston Center on the land line and find myself talking to an extremely friendly man named Ed Green. "Yeah, one of my guys said somebody asked for the phone number, so I was aware that you might call," he says. It turns out that our route of flight traverses several sectors and that makes it harder to grant exceptions to the customary altitudes used in this part of the world. On a hectic day, there just isn't time to coordinate a delay in descent, he said. Coming southwest-bound, we're already in the low 20s before we start to cross all the sector boundaries.

Green was a great ambassador for the folks whose voices are familiar to all of us, regardless of regional accents. It was just luck, and good timing, that I got him on the phone.

Lately, I've been amazed that I almost always get where I want to go when I want to get there, despite the weather. This salutary outcome can be ascribed to a good, well-maintained, if elderly, turboprop, excellent avionics and, almost always, timing.