Saturday, June 1, 2013

DSWT Day1 - Calm Winds - RHV > WMC > BAM > EKO

Launching on the Adventure

Today I launched on the big adventure, my "Desert SouthWest Tour" or DSWT. The morning started off a bit rough. I slept poorly last night, most likely because my mind was racing try to make sure I had everything ready to go. I got up early, got my briefing, updated my flight plan and dragged my husband down to the flight club so my car wouldn't have to sit there all week. He smartly took advantage of the opportunity to go fly as well.

Me & N20791 - ready to take off
on the big adventure.
We got there shortly before 7AM and I wanted to be flying before 8. There were the usual delays for fueling the plane and adding a touch of oil.  I took my time doing the preflight, making sure to be extra careful. Then I loaded my supplies onto the plane and set it up for my upcoming single pilot operation. I wanted to make sure things like camera, snacks, water, iPod, pulse oximeter and O2 bottle and cannula were in easy reach. Eventually I was ready to take off.

Flying "IFR" over the Sierras
I launched into the rapidly warming skies and picked up VFR flight following. I was restricted, as expected, in my climb to 4500, then 5500, then 7500 and finally allowed to climb to my cruise altitude of 11500. I took advantage of the 4500 ft level off to lean and mentally "mark" what best power was at 4500 feet. 4500 feet happened to be the altitude of the first airport I would land at.  The pulse oximeter showed I had 95% O2 saturation at 11,500 feet but I figured I would put on some O2 anyway. Not a lot, but some. After all, that's what the bottle was there for. The air was very smooth over the central valley and then the Sierras. I took many pictures of the mountains, Lake Tahoe and the transition from green to desert. The air stayed relatively smooth as I entered the desert proper and cruised towards Winnemucca (WMC), my first stop.

A last bit of snow
From Blue Canyon on the California side of the Sierras across the mountains and then towards WMC I abandoned the "direct" routes offered by the GPS and flew "IFR" as in "I followed roads". These areas were so remote I figured it would be good to be near people and civilization if I had problems. I wondered if the people on Hwy 80 below saw my plane and thought it was a police plane. They didn't seem to notice. Then I thought how, if I worked really hard, I could be paid to patrol the highways in a plane, just as I was following them today. To be honest, I wasn't sure that was something I'd want to do a lot of in that heat!

Lake Tahoe
When I was switched over to Salt Lake Center there was a noticeable change in the controllers pace and tone. Myself and the other pilots coming from California all talked with a relatively fast cadence. The SLC controller, on the other hand, spoke very slowly and carefully. The change in the controller helped mark the fact that I was no longer in familiar territory.

A Lot of Bouncing

Into the Desert
About 30 miles out from WMC I started to reduce power and descend. I checked the airport's weather and it reported calm winds, just as forecast before I left. I thought that would mean low turbulence also, just as calmer winds usually result in less turbulence in the Bay Area (until much later in the afternoon anyway.) I was so wrong. "Calm winds" doesn't mean diddly related to turbulence in the desert. It just means no winds. As I descended through 9500 feet towards 6000 feet and lower turbulence kicked up from the heating going on in the desert below me. It wasn't even 11 AM yet and already the heating was starting.  As I was jounced around I was happy I'd had the experience of much worse than this.. and I hoped the rest of the trip wouldn't be like that!

I found the airport, announced my intentions and bounced my way into the pattern. I got to pattern altitude at the right point and speed and started the landing process abeam the numbers. Everything was going fine, I thought, until I was on final. Then I became aware my airspeed seemed too slow, the ground speed was fine, the airspeed was slow. Of course, this was the result of the high altitude (density altitude at this airport was 6000'). I flew everything right, didn't even overshoot final, but I let my instinctive judegment of airspeed based on how fast the ground was moving, overtake watching the ASI. Thus I was slower than I should be. I kept trying to adjust and feeling very strange about the approach. I rounded out too high and bounced the plane twice. I decided it was better to turn this into a touch and go rather than attempt to save that landing. Fortunately I had the mixture set for best power (not full rich) as I should and was able to do a successful touch and go. I left the airport area feeling a bit downtrodden. I want earn a commercial pilot certificate and I bounce a landing!? I have to do better than that. There's no excuse.

Ready for take off - Battle Mountain
OK, I told myself, don't let it happen again. Fly the airspeed, ignore the visuals. Fly airspeed and track. Those are most important. After another 25 minutes of turbulent flight I approached Battle Mountain airport. This one was in the middle of a broad valley and had a density altitude over 6500 feet. I monitored the winds and picked a runway. This time I flew the airspeeds regardless of the visuals and turbulence and it was beautiful. On the centerline and not even a hint of a bounce. See? I told myself, just fly it right and I can do it! Feeling redeemed I taxied back and took off for Elko.

Battle Mountain Airport
More bouncing around in turbulent low air (I didn't want to spend the time to climb out of the thermals on the short stretch to Elko). DA at Elko was 7500 feet. Runway 23 was preferred for calm winds. The winds were 5 knots or less and the people there were taking off on both runways but mostly favoring 23. I told myself to fly the aispeeds again and I flew a great pattern that would have worked wonderfully - IF the pattern altitude was 800' AGL like the last two airports. At this airport pattern altitude was 1000'. So when I did my base turn at a good time for an 800' pattern, I was high. Rather than try to force the plane down I announced a low pass down the runway, and did another go around. I probably could have saved it but with the density altitude being higher I figured I would err on the side of caution. On the second pass I adjusted my timing and landed well.

I taxied over to the FBO and shut down at 12:38PM. Very tired but very pleased that I finished the flight and was able to adjust to the high altitudes. I didn't overshoot the center line once turning final :) I will have to keep improving, however. Tomorrow's flight will put me in the pattern (!) at 8400 feet to land at Bryce Canyon which is 7,600 feet high. I will be leaving my hotel at 5:45 in the morning and hope to be in the air by 6:30 and get to Bryce before the heat does.

Ups and Downs

Some may wonder why I talk about when I fly what I consider to be poorly just as often as when I fly very well. Actually I haven't written about every good landing here... let me tell you about the landing I did at Auburn last weekend.. it was awesome, strong crosswind and I had ailerons at full deflection and landed great right on the center line! ... OK, back to the topic. I'm not exactly sure why, but I know one reason is so other people who may be new to flying know, there are good days and bad days. Everyone has both, but it is always possible to make a bad day into a good day if you make the right correction after a mistake. The other may be to mark my own progress. These bad landing days are getting fewer and further between for me. 

N20791 in Elko Airport. We did it.
In any case... there is much more to tell about today.. the very friendly people at El Aero FBO at Elko Airport. The doctor who flew in to Elko to see patients in his Cessna 304 and then suddenly found me very interesting when he learned I flew myself, solo, "all the way" out here in a 182. The friendly CFI who responded to my queries on UNICOM trying to figure out where transient was ... and more. The people make the adventure the most fun. Aviation is special community. I'll leave those teasers for you to wonder about for now. For me, its time to go to sleep. I have a very early day tomorrow, now that I've learned what flying in the desert really can be like I will now try to manage it :)

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