Sunday, February 22, 2015

She Chose Wisely

20 minutes before this picture was taken it was blue skies over Oceano Airport

A "routine" flight on a beautiful winter weekend becomes a bit less than routine when weather intervenes. Last weekend Jeff and I and our friends Kim and Criag and Randy and Karen decided to head to Oceano for Valentine's Day weekend. We all had the weekend off and Monday off, we had time and airplanes were available. Randy made the initial plans and we all agreed to join. Randy and Karen and Craig and Kim flew down Friday evening and Jeff and I flew down the following Saturday evening after my lesson. Saturday evening's show and dinner were great and we were all tired when we got back to the hotel and decided to meet after everyone slept in the next morning for breakfast and then departure back north to RHV.

The next morning I slept as late as I could (8am!) and finally had to get up. I took my shower and made a cup of the hotel room "coffee" which I drank as I walked out to the airport, enjoying the sunny skies and light breeze. I did a quick pre-flight of my plane, loaded a bit of luggage and checked out the spinner on the plane Craig rented. That plane had begun leaking oil out the spinner on the prop and the A&P said it would be best not to fly it back without repair. We were down to two planes and 6 people but between the two planes we had plenty of capacity to fly everyone back.

I checked the tank times and fuel burn rates I recorded for the flight down to determine how much fuel we had left in the plane and how much fuel we would need for the flight back. The Arrow POH doesn't indicate the amount of fuel to allow for engine start or taxi so I assumed two gallons for that activity. Based on my calculations we would need to stop for more fuel if we didn't take on any fuel before takeoff. We wouldn't be able to carry both Craig and Kim with us if we added fuel. That wouldn't a problem however, King City airport was ideally situated and a fond memory for me. That would be my fuel stop.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking care of the plane and preparing for the upcoming flight in the cool morning air and bright sunlight. I think my favorite aviation moments are pre and post flight alone, on the ramp, with the aircraft. Eventually I wandered back to the hotel room where I found the other two couples were awake and ready to eat. Four of us checked out of the hotel and loaded the rest of our luggage into the aircraft. Then we all walked to a nearby diner and had a leisurely breakfast, deciding how we would split Craig and Kim between planes. We decided to put Craig in my plane and Kim in Randy's so we could add fuel to my plane before takeoff and remain within gross weight limits.

With breakfast done four of us went straight to the airport to complete pre-flight and waited for Randy and Karen to check out and grab their luggage. As we waited we watched with growing anxiousness as a very low cloud layer started to approach from the ocean at the West end of the airport property. In 20 minutes the skies went from clear blue to overcast. The last corner of blue sky disappeared just as Randy and Karen arrived with their luggage.

Everyone Else is Doing It

That was it. Conditions went from great VFR to low IFR in less than an hour. I was the only instrument rated pilot out of the four pilots in the group. My husband had just fueled the plane to the point where we couldn't take both Craig and Kim with us so our fates were all tied together. We would have to wait if we were all going to take off.

It was a hard wait.  We stared at the skies and looked for a hole large enough to fit a plane through. We watched as two planes took off into the low clouds and reported the tops were only 600' with clear skies all around the airport. It would be easy to take off and climb through a layer like that. Easy but not legal under visual flight rules (VFR). I doubted the planes that took off actually got an instrument clearance. As an instrument rated pilot it would be a very easy departure for me and just climb through that small cloud layer. I had no doubt I could do it but I decided not to. There was no fire burning at the airport or people threatening us with guns if we didn't take off. We had the day off the next day so no need to push it.

We sat at the airport a while longer, looking at satellite views of the area and hoping for a hole that we could take off through. The hole never came and eventually we gave up and reserved a night in the nearest Motel 6. Reservations made, the six of us turned it into an extra day of vacation by walking on the beach, getting some great BBQ and going out to see a movie.

More Choices

The next morning dawned cloudy again but the ceilings appeared higher than before and we saw hints of blue. I decided over night that I would be leaving by noon, clouds or no clouds. After all, that's what I got my instrument rating for, to depart airports when they were clouded in on otherwise nice weather days. I was ready. The night before I reviewed the rules for departing IFR from a non-towered airport with no takeoff minimums. Basically the rule was the pilot had to maintain their own obstacle clearance.

I developed my own "departure procedure" for the airport - planning to take off over the ocean and climb on a heading of 270 to 2500' before turning North on my route. I filed a flight plan for an 11:30 departure and was ready to go. I could take passenger in addition to my husband. The others would either drive or wait for a hole again.

When we got to the airport there were at least 3 other pilots all staring at the skies, waiting for a hole. Two were instrument rated but they had removed all of the "instrument stuff" from the planes they were flying. A local suggested taking off east and "as long as you clear the mesa at 500', someone could follow your beacon out". The ceilings were definitely higher than the day before, but without any weather reporting I wasn't going to assume that ceiling was actually higher than 500'. As we waited we saw a plane take off east and disappear into the distance. We didn't hear a crash so we assumed he made it.

The local bi-plane pilot started up his engine in preparation for air tours along the beach. That was a good sign, I thought, since he could only do a tour in VFR conditions. I forgot, for the moment, VFR for class G airspace was 1 statue mile and clear of clouds.

I called flight services for a weather briefing for my flight. The briefer said the cloud tops should be 500' in our area and aside from the low clouds on the coastline it was a beautiful VFR day.  I considered once again not getting an instrument clearance on the ground and just taking off and climbing through what should be a few seconds of clouds. It seemed like a lot of work to contact ATC and pick up a clearance, possibly waiting for some time to get a release, just to fly through a hundred feet of cloud. On the other hand, I thought, I hadn't gotten a clearance on the ground at a non-towered airport since my instrument training. I decided it would be good practice for me even if I was only actually in the clouds for a couple seconds.

It was decided that Kim would fly with us and we'd depart IFR as scheduled. Craig would ride with Randy if a hole opened up or rent a car and drive back to meet up with Kim. I let the other waiting pilots know that I'd radio back a clouds and tops report after take off. We watched as the bi-plane pilot loaded up his passengers and taxied towards the end of the runway and then pulled out my plane for start up.

I started up the plane and prepared to taxi to the run-up area. We saw the bi-plane take off and fly out over the water, just under the clouds. The clouds were definitely higher than the previous day. In the run-up area I completed the run-up and then contacted ATC for my instrument clearance. I was cleared as filed and told to wait up to 5 minutes to allow an instrument approach to complete at the nearby San Lois Obispo Airport. The bi-plane did a low pass over the runway and then came back and landed. About the time he landed I was cleared to take off with a clearance void time 3 minutes later.  It was that quick and easy.

We took the runway and climbed straight into the clouds. The bases were about 600' and I stayed on instruments and waited for the tops which I was sure were soon. I contacted ATC when over 1000'. The tops didn't come as quickly as suggested by the briefer. Less than 3 minutes after I took the runway we did break out of the clouds at 1600'.  I continued to climb to 2000' and then turned north direct to the Morro Bay VOR as my flight plan dictated. Once I had a break I radioed back to the pilots waiting in Oceano with the base and top report. I hoped that report that would keep everyone from trying to take off unless they actually were instrument rated. That cloud layer was deep enough that someone could kill themselves if they didn't know what they were doing.

With my rating and clearance it was a non-event but I imagined how stressed I would have been if I had taken off, expecting a 200' cloud layer, finding a much deeper layer and trying to pick up a clearance in the air. I remembered a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie where the ancient knight judged adventurer's selections of the appropriate grail cup. When someone chose poorly they died. When someone chose wisely, they lived. Yes, I thought, I chose wisely.

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