Saturday, April 20, 2013

Buttonwillow and Back

I just started a new job so I haven't been able to get away on weekdays and, on the evenings I wanted to fly the Arrow the winds have been too strong. However, the weather's been just good enough for me to fly cross country to two race events. The first event was in Buttonwillow, CA. Buttonwillow is just over the edge of the LA sectional from us, just south of the border that becomes southern California. The weather forecast for the flight down to Buttonwillow was not looking too friendly. There was an airmet for turbulence (AIRMET Tango they're called) and conditions were Marginal VFR. I had the 182 reserved for the flight, the same one I flew back from San Lois Obispo in IFR conditions before. But I also had a passenger that didn't fly all that often with an unknown tolerance for turbulence that was supposed to fly with me.

I was seriously considering canceling the flight but I figured I would describe the situation and if the passenger was up for it... we would give it a shot. When I described the potential conditions for the flight to my passenger, he grinned a huge grin and said, "OK!" Little did I know, he was NOT looking forward to those conditions but he figured if he wanted to learn how to fly he'd have to get over his fear of turbulence too. My daughter was strongly in favor of flying because she didn't want to drive. She has no fear of turbulence at all.

We took off into the broken clouds over the South Bay on an IFR flight plan and ATC expertly guided us around every cloud. I don't know how they do that! Eventually we climbed to 7000 feet and cruised in calm air to land at Shafter-Mitner Airport with only mild turbulence on the descent and approaching the airport at pattern altitude. 

Flying back from Buttonwillow there was another AIRMET for turbulence. I checked for PIREPS and didn't see any moderate turbulence reported near our route, but that was no guarantee of smooth air. There were no clouds where we started, but there were clouds building in the South Bay that were likely to make a VFR flight there not impossible, but not as desirable as simply flying IFR. So I filed an IFR flight plan using the most common IFR route back from the area of SoCal I was in.

We took off into a brisk surface wind and I got on course to Avenal VOR with a strong headwind. I picked up my IFR clearance once I was settled into the cruise climb. No need to pick it up sooner since we were in severe clear conditions at the time. Bakersfield Approach cleared me present position to AVE then as filed.. exactly as I expected. Then Bakersfield Approach said...

Skylane 791, I have something special for you. Today. One time only. Would you like to be cleared direct GILRO?
Approach, I would love to be cleared direct GILRO.

From 160 nautical miles away I was cleared direct to the IAF for the GPS approach to my airport! How nice was that? Normally ATC has to route IFR traffic around the MOAs between Shafter and the Bay Area but it was Sunday and the MOAs were "cold". That allowed ATC to give me a very direct routing which saved us a lot of time on the return trip in spite of the headwind. The ride was, once again, relatively calm until we got close to a small cloud bank at our altitude and over the low mountain range between the central valley and the coast. Then we picked up some occasional light chop. I thought it would be cool to do a PIREP reporting on the conditions we've flown in so far. So I did.

We were cleared direct ECYON from about 30 NM away which made our route even shorter and I could see we would definitely get some time in the clouds. I told my passengers to expect some turbulence. I told my friend in the right seat to grab his seat belt if he got disoriented, not the yoke, and explained to him how to use the artificial horizon to combat the feelings of disorientation if he had them. I slowed down the plane and prepared for the approach. All of the sudden the plane started bouncing up and down rhythmically. That wasn't something I expected! I looked at my friend and asked him if he was doing it... no. Then he looked in the back set. My daughter was literally bouncing up and down with excitement at the thought of going into the clouds. I told her there is strictly no bouncing on the approach and we descended into the clouds for an uneventful IFR approach and landing.

When we touched down at RHV my passenger friend was thrilled. He loved the ride through the clouds declaring it was like being in control of a roller coaster. My daughter loved the flight through the clouds too. She said she closed her eyes and felt like she was turning upside down - and she enjoyed it. For me.. I found out the transition into turbulent clouds is less disorienting than a transition into no turbulence clouds. On the approach we descended through two layers, the higher layer had some turbulence. Then after being cleared for the approach we flew through a layer of stratus, that layer had no turbulence to feel. It was just flying a descent when all of the sudden the outside world went away for a while, then it came back. It was a bit disorienting to have that transition without the bumps, but it was nice.

I am enjoying the additional utility and safety of flight my instrument rating has given me. It allows me to plan for a safe instrument flight instead of trying to fly below the clouds and squeeze into and out of valleys as I would have had to do on both legs of this trip. 

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