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El Nino is the Antichrist

How to describe the perfect flying weather… I’m not sure I could do it. I thought I had flown in the stillest calmest air before, but this was something else.
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Interpreting the Cardinal Rule of Go/No Go Decision

On December 1st, I dropped off my 182 for its annual inspection. I lovingly rubbed the propeller and said my goodbyes to my airplane, “I’ll be back soon” I whispered, and with only three or four glances over my shoulder, I exited the maintenance hangar and drove away, a feeling of emptiness in my stomach.

The process was supposed to take six to eight days to complete and as per Jim’s usual (Aero Mechanics in Bountiful Utah), it was completed as expected. However, it was not until January 10th that I was finally able to get the 182 home. This is the story of how I broke the go/no go cardinal rule and made a “go” decision when a “no go” was the right one.

It should be said right now that everything that happened was legal. The reason I feel that this was a “no go” flight was that I knew in my gut I was going to push the bounds of my comfort level regarding the weather and winds I would have to do battle with going home that day. There were no personal margins built into this flight, just the minimum legal margins with terrible winds that would beat me up pretty badly as I made the flight.

I knew this going into it. I knew I would criticize other pilots for making the same choice. I knew that I saw myself as “better than” that kind of decision-making. What can I say? I had been broken by El Nino.

I had been six hundred miles from home for ten days and counting, and without my airplane for over a month. A single opening in the weather appeared and the legal requirements were met … right behind this one single day where I could legally take my airplane home was another storm and then another after that.

I had called the airport and requested my aircraft put in a hangar so it would be warm and ready to go early that morning. I had paid meticulous attention to the flight plan and had every detail worked out.

I had to cross several mountain ranges and I would have a variety of altitudes to fly to circumvent the WX. I would have to fly about 150 miles out of the way (in total) split between three different areas of weather. I had to have four alternates if the weather didn’t end up being where I thought it would be, what I thought it would be, or when I thought it would be there. I figured there was a good chance I would end up in some small town in Northern Nevada waiting another ten days for a second break in the weather.

When I got to Bountiful Skypark the morning of my planned departure I could see a storm to the north moving south toward the airport. I expected this and knew I would lose my window to depart if I didn’t get going within a couple hours. My direction of flight was to the south fifty miles then to the northwest, so as long as I got out of there in time, the storm (pressed up against the Wasatch Mountains) would be no factor. As I walked over to the terminal, the kid who runs the airport there came walking over with a look on his face I immediately understood. I glanced at the parking area and saw my aircraft tied down, with three inches of snow covering the entire airplane.

He started to explain why, but I didn’t really listen, my heart sank, my mind in a daze. It didn’t matter to me “why” they forgot, or couldn’t or whatever their reasoning was, it was done. Bountiful WAS a great, quiet little airport, but now it’s overly busy and management was handed off to…less engaged individuals.  As you can tell I’m still a little bitter.

I called up my good friend Jim and asked him for a favor only a desperate man would ask. I asked him if he could tow the snow-covered beauty, my frozen baby, into his maintenance hangar and thaw it out for me.

I made sure he knew I thought what I was asking was ridiculous. Even though I would brush as much snow and ice off the plane as I could, it would still leave a small lake on the floor of his shop. I also knew Jim would have to pull other aircraft out of that hangar to accommodate my request.

I told him I felt lame and that EVEN IF he were to be gracious enough to help me I likely would not be able to depart in time given the new turn of events. God, the thought of putting that airplane back out in the snow (if the storm to the north hit, I would not be able to relocate to another airport) for an indefinite period of time was heart breaking.

Why Jim said that he would help me out and why he went to all that trouble is beyond me. But he did, and we got the 182 all ready for flight. Luckily the weather from the north was moving slower than I feared and my friends and I were moving faster than I thought. I was able to make a break for it to the south.

Salt Lake Tower cleared me into Bravo to the south over I-15. They gave me an altitude of 6500 feet. I couldn’t achieve that altitude and maintain minimums, so I requested 5500 feet and explained why. They gave that to me and after a bit handed me off to Salt Lake Departure who told me to climb and maintain 6500 feet for VFR traffic heading north over I-15 eight miles to the south of me, northbound. I again had to explain why that was not going to happen and requested 5500 feet.

I love controllers. For the most part I have had nothing but great experiences with those dedicated peopled in the towers and centers all over the west. These guys were no exception. I got approval for 5500 and not one minute later, got a call telling me the Mode C was not reporting my altitude. I recycled the Transponder and hit Ident as requested but no joy. After a little more troubleshooting we concluded the transponder was INOP for Bravo.

I looked to the north and the storm appeared to be pretty close to Bountiful, and another storm was blocking me to the south. SLC asked me if I would like them to get me through to the west and out of class B, and that they would be happy to do so, or I could land at SLC and address the Mode C issue.

I thanked them and requested they help allow me through to the west. Love those guys and gals.

Once outside the Mode C Veil, I cancelled flight following and continued toward Wendover to the west. This was one of the areas of concern because if weather were blocking me I would have to turn back and land at one of my alternates such as Tooele. There is restricted airspace to the north and the south of this corridor between SLC and Wendover. Luckily the cloud layer was low here, and so I went VFR on top and enjoyed some sunshine while I trekked west.

I really do think it’s beautiful flying on top of the clouds. Huge holes appear below you revealing the ground below but the horizon obfuscates those and presents a fluffy white landscape that can only be experienced from the air above. The air was calm up there, unlike below where it was quite choppy and uncomfortable.

Wendover was below me and the clouds, which previously seemed to be my friends, turned on me. I expected clouds out here and I knew there was a mountain range to the west of Wendover that would likely push the cloud layer up to higher elevation. I did not, however, expect to have to fly at 14,000 or more feet to top those clouds.

Now, I don’t have oxygen in my airplane and I have little to no interest in Hypoxia so I obviously could not stay on top and out climb the clouds. I can only take my best guess that the clouds were up to 14+ thousand feet, they could have been much higher or lower, but I did not know and I did not want to get into a situation where I only had one option, so I had to turn back and see about going under the clouds.

On top of all this, the engine started to sound rough to me. I found myself looking suspiciously at the manifold pressure for power loss and I saw it dropping. The carb heat came out, followed by a further and large drop in power (as expected) and when pushed back in an increase in power to the expected point. I have no idea if I was seeing phantom drops in power, if the engine was really running rough or if it was all in my head, so I had to get out a piece of paper and take physical note of where the manifold pressure was, etc.

The engine, although still sounding strange to me, never exhibited an unexpected drop in manifold pressure again, thus cementing my paranoia for the rest of the trip.

This was not a fun flight.

Regarding Wendover, if the cloud layer was too low or if precipitation were occurring around the mountain pass over I-80, I would be forced to land at Wendover. I could see from the satellite weather that on the other side of mountains from Wendover the clouds were nil and clear skies ruled, until the Ruby Mountains. I really am not a fan of the town of Wendover, although the airport is really cool so landing there is always something I consider a joy. I just didn’t like the idea of taking up indefinite residence in Wendover.

Anyway, I turned back and descended down from about 10,000 feet to 6000 where I was well below the clouds. The turbulent air was brutal, bouncing me around, this way and that, but other than it being uncomfortable the visibility was good and there was no precipitation (24 OAT at 6000 MSL).

I probably did not have to, but I diverted north to stay over I-80 and go through the pass. The mountain to the west of Wendover were not covered and the clouds were well over them, but I really didn’t like the idea of being surprised on the other side by weather I could not see until I was between a mountain range and whatever I would discover over there. So add more miles to this trip and put a “yes” in the fuel stop at Elko box.

One the other side I could see clear skies, sunshine, and the air calmed down for me reducing the turbulence to light. I climbed back up to 8500 and could see ahead the Ruby Mountains loomed, wearing a beautiful white cap of smoothed clouds.

Seriously, weather is beautiful. Not always flyable but always beautiful. The clouds were really low on the west face of the Ruby’s and so they got pushed upslope only as high as they had to before the air descended over the east slope. It looked like God had used a butter knife to spread them thinly and smoothly over the peaks and valleys. While this was an incredible view, I knew I could not fly as planned through Secret Pass.

While it was possible to go under the clouds the shape of the pass is such that I would not be able to visually verify I had a way out of that pass until I turned a corner in that pass and by then I would be too committed. Not a lot of room to turn around down that low in Secret Pass and if the clouds were blocking my way I would be in a situation where my options would be back down to one. Not acceptable.

I could go north toward one of my alternates (Wells, Nevada), or I could top the clouds over Secret Pass, maybe … In order to know that I would have to fly a bit closer and get a good solid look. The good news is that getting closer meant if I did divert to Wells I would get to fly north along the Ruby ridges taking in all that beauty. That seemed fine to me as long as the air wasn’t in a huff and so some caution was called for.

It turned out that at close to 10,000 feet and a few miles from Secret pass I could see that not only could I fly over the clouds easily but that the weather just ten miles ahead was beautiful. Automated weather reported winds calm at Elko and clear skies with 10sm visibility. Elko was great; I truly have come to love that little FBO there and the people who run it. Once there, the usual 172, who always seems to be there every time I am at Elko, was doing pattern work.

I was very glad to be on the ground. This whole ordeal took about three hours thus far and I was getting beat up by the wind for most of it. Complimentary coffee, full tanks of gas and some good conversation later, I was ready for the second, longer half of the journey. I checked the weather for changes and saw that some low level clouds had moved in to the south and another area of clouds to the north. It didn’t look good for me. I decided to take off and go have a look. When I walked outside the wind was blowing hard at the surface. Crap.

The windsock revealed that the surface winds were blowing straight down runway 23 and I do find it kinda fun to take off in half the distance. However, if I had to come back and land I would be doing so in some bad wind, not too bad as long as it stayed strait down the runway, but the odds of that are exactly opposite the amount the pilot desires them to be.

My experience with Elko is that the winds a hundred feet above the runway could be moving in just about any direction. However, the surface winds are generally directed one of two ways by the contour of the surrounding mountains. A crosswind was probably but not a 90 degree crosswind and there are four runways to choose from so I felt okay if I had to come back.

Once up there it was fly over this patch of clouds and under the next. Fly to the north of one and way to the south of another. Just zig zaggin north and south, up and down. Kinda like the highways below, winding and twisting their way through the high desert westward to California, to gold and fame (unless you are the Mormons, then to Genoa and cowboy poetry).

It was an aggravating trip filled with self-doubt, desperation, moments of triumph, carb ice (I fly a older 182), a constant reminder that Mother Nature has more horsepower than a 182 (mountain waves), and turbulence… that is until about 15 miles south west of Lovelock, Nevada.

How to describe the perfect flying weather… I’m not sure I could do it. I thought I had flown in the stillest calmest air before but this was something else. From 10,000 feet down to 6,000 the IAS and the groundspeed were identical, the air was so clear I could see forever, the mountain tops were beautifully capped in snow, and I saw a herd of wild horses near Pyramid Lake. It was delightful. I didn’t want to land. I wanted to fly and fly and fly.

I dialed up Oakland Center and requested a test on the Transponder. They gave me code and everything checked out for them, altitude reporting and everything, no prob. I dialed up Nor Cal Approach and then Reno tower and had the same results, all good.

The airplane was running super smooth, the engine sounded SO good and all the way over the Sierra ridges and down into the Truckee airport the air was smooth as smooth as could be. After landing I took in that fresh pine smell and felt the warm high Sierra sun on my face, I was home.

I pushed the airplane into its hangar and slowly, lovingly, ran my hand down the cold prop and over the hot cowling. Looking at the airplane, I couldn’t help but feel foolish for having a strong emotional connection with my airplane, but it once again brought me home. “Sorry about all that” I said, and “thank you”.

I am a conservative flyer. If there is weather, I usually just don’t fly. I don’t have to fly, it’s not my career, and even though I travel a lot for work, trains and automobiles abound. It turned out that if I had not gone that day, in that one opening in the weather, my aircraft would likely still be out at Bountiful. El Nino is the Antichrist and would have trapped it there and snowed and rained on it for the better part of two months. I live in the Sierras, and I vote for more drought years.

Nonetheless, I felt like I was being pushed by my own need to get home WITH the airplane flying into conditions I previously would not have. Nothing else about it was dangerous, and all legal minimums were well my flight. But personal limits, those were stretched, bent, and in some cases ignored.

Recently I had a trip planned with some friends to fly from Truckee to a small dirt strip in Death Valley. Doing my flight plan I found acceptable VFR conditions for my flight with little to no personal margins, similar to the flight I describe here. I could go, take my passengers and have a great weekend, and once I was south of Mammoth Lakes the weather would be beautiful.

I canceled the trip. I just don’t want to be “that kind of pilot”.

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