Late Start


I love virga

Due to some maintenance issues, the plane was stuck in Long Beach while Nell needed to be in Stowe, Vermont to give a talk. I stayed in California to wait for the work to be completed. We really needed the plane on Thursday for Nell’s appearance out on Martha’s Vineyard, the other ways of getting out there seemed arduous. So I stayed while she headed across on the redeye. The part we were waiting on was meant to arrive on Friday, then it was pushed until Monday. On Monday after lunch I went down to Long Beach and just kicked dust around in the hangar until the work was complete. The idea was that if it was early enough in the afternoon I’d make one push and clip some flying hours off the fifteen or so necessary to make it across the country.

I was, of course, watching the weather across the southern Rockies very carefully. It was unusually benign for August afternoons. They finally debugged the issue (bad fuel feeder pump, dead on arrival from the factory) and the engines were humming again. It was 6:18pm before I took off. There was a huge fire blotting the Banning Pass from my view, so I jogged a little left and wiggled out over Big Bear.

One of ForeFlight’s new features is a glide ring. That’s sort of silly with a twin engine airplane but I turned it on anyway. The first flight after maintenance is typically fairly high-risk. I am almost always alone in the plane for it and often climb to 4,500 feet before leaving the neighborhood of the maintenance facility. The ring shows where you could glide to without engine power. It takes the wind and terrain into account, so as you cross terrain it deforms which means it is less a ring and more of an amoeba.

The sun is sets behind me as I fly over the desert near Twenty-nine Palms, on the edge of Joshua Tree. It casts the shadows of the mountains astride the Banning Pass, long shadows that stretch across the desert floor. They lengthen as the sun continues down and I am racing the edge of that shadow, still a little ahead of me. It is 8pm and I hope to land in Albuquerque before midnight, grab a few hours in an airport hotel and then bounce back into the sky in the morning. By then I’ll have ten hours of flying left to Norwood, Massachusetts and a little Avis car that will carry me back to Nell.

The desert is not hospitable terrain and there are few lights below. It may be silly, but I find the amoeba comforting, especially when it envelopes a few small airports.


Amoeba of safety

The lights of Winslow, Grants Pass, and other little towns out in the dark were warm in the ink below. Then as I came into the valley the sprawl of the big town itself made a carpet of glitter spilled across the obsidian table. It was late enough that the approach controller put me on the ILS way out in the valley and (following the new night rules) I followed it to runway 8, more than two miles of concrete waiting for Two Romeo Delta’s new wheels, tires and brakes.


Runway 8 directly ahead

It was past 11pm when I landed at Albuquerque, but the FBO there is very familiar and they dropped me at the lovely Courtyard Marriot for the night.


First check on wake-up

It was really frustrating to wake up the next morning and see that ForeFlight’s great circle route flight planning drew me right through the biggest storms that were (slowly) crossing the country. I would need to deviate south. I decided that I’d head for Tulsa, where Dexter and I spent the night near the beginning of the summer. Summer thunderstorms are monsters, but they have a lifecycle. On my launch from Albuquerque’s Sunport, the storm closing in on Tulsa was just forming, pulling moisture off the fields of Oklahoma and using the heat of the rising sun to draw it up into the upper atmosphere. Cooling, it would condense, descend, and eventually release as rain. The movement of the air masses up and down against one another generate the cloud-to-cloud lightning which can clue us in that something wickedly large this way comes.


Clear sky for launch

It was pretty clear that I wouldn’t make it through the north-south wall stretching north of Chicago and nearly south of Kansas City. So I planned to duck around all of it below instead. Warmer in the south, but fewer monsters is always better. The storms move west-to-east so it’s not possible to sit them out, I just catch up with them once I start flying again.

There was some last-minute wiggling on the way into Tulsa and I actually landed in a light rain. As Nell knows from being involved in the adventure on other flights, threaded our way around the weather involves a lot of research about where to stop. You balance the price of fuel against the distance to food and the availability of a good FBO. Sometimes your choices are limited and you take what you can get. As I was approaching Tulsa I considered landing further south. I had been to Riverside airport, though, so I knew the Christensen Jet Center had a nice nap room, snacks, an attentive line crew and inexpensive fuel. I was on the ground for less than an hour, even with my mandated sixteen minute nap.


The image from FlightAware tells the story of the next leg. To depart Tulsa I flew almost directly south, picking my way out ahead of the leg of a new storm and then turning and trying to fly as much north as I could ahead of the front with the major activity in it. It was a constant task of strategic planning, choosing whether to head further east around a cell, or to slip between it and the front. I had climbed to 15,500 feet and was on oxygen, and a lot of the cloud activity was below me. I was taking advantage of a twenty-two knot tailwind, which over a fifteen hour trip really makes a difference. It seemed like I might make it to Cincinnati on this leg, and then I could see if our friend Claudia was available for dinner, but then the entire city was engulfed in a blot of extreme precipitation on my NextRad map and I worked on planning my stop in Louisville. I landed at the big international airport because they had an Atlantic FBO and ForeFlight told me there were some steakhouses nearby. Yes, there were, and in town I found a great filet at Jeff Ruby’s. Apparently he started in Cincinnati, so I did make it there for dinner. Or lunch. Technically might have been breakfast. It was enough to get me back to the FBO for a nap and into the plane after the storm had finished sweeping over the airport.


Taking off I heard the tower diverting airliners around the storm cells to the east. I cleverly ducked behind the line of storms and flew north, turning east in Pennsylvania and landing at Allegheny County, an airport that I have been to more than a handful of times. All I needed to do was fly up past Columbus, hang a right and follow the ILS onto runway 10. I’ve done that a few times.

The last half hour was difficult. The video is right after I descended to start ducking under the clouds. I had just dropped through a thin layer and it was one of those few moments when you feel the speed of the plane through the sky and I tried to capture it with the camera. Twenty minutes later the sun had set behind me, everything ahead was dark with rain or just plan dark.

I have an air traffic controller talking to me about precipitation up ahead, what my plan is for getting to Allegheny, the synthetic vision drawing a nice 3d view of what is ahead, my moving maps (both on the G1000 in the instrument panel and on my iPad running ForeFlight right next to me), NextRad and ADS-B images of the compiled (therefore delayed) radar scan of the weather, and graphical representations of the local airport weather reporting. And I can see that it will only be ten minutes through the lightest of the perception. And, in fact, it wasn’t ever loud rain on the canopy. Dexter and I flew through much louder, heavier rain. But I lost the sun at the same moment I went under the cloud and the feeling was doom-and-gloom. As I approached Pittsburgh the controller routed me around the city so that I wasn’t in the way of the departures off the big international airport. I took off at 7:13pm and landed almost exactly two hours later.


For a lot of the flight up I was studying the weather between Allegheny and Norwood. Just before my descent I concluded that there just was no way to make it to Nell that night. I called her once I was on the ground and explained that with the sky dark it wasn’t safe to navigate around the thunderstorms. So I spent another night in a travel hotel (Springhill Suites!) just a mile from the plane. I work up early and ten minutes before seven I was waiting to launch into the clouds.

There is an amazing feeling as a pilot, which I wish more people could experience. When you are below the clouds in the morning it is grey, a little cool, and wet. The application of some knowledge, some skill that took a couple years to hone, and you break out on top, into a landscape indescribable beautiful. It is hard won, very rewarding. You are mobile in a way that few are. The sky that morning, when I first popped up on top, was rolling hills of clouds, almost waves, shining in that early morning sun.

Off to the right a layer hung above, the remains of last night’s storms. I could see a set of the Pennsylvania hills cutting up through the clouds from below, a shark fin of geology which could have been a disaster for a pilot who chose to trying to sneak along under the clouds in the dark.

I flew on for a little of two and a half hours. I stayed “in the system” of instrument flight because although it looked clear ahead, the trip was long enough that it could change and the sky was mysterious enough after the night’s storms that I didn’t trust it. I could have. I never went into another cloud and landed on a visual approach to 17 at Norwood.




Nell is always with me in the plane

Random other images:

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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2 Responses to Late Start

  1. Carl Rossi says:

    That was a wonderful read! Thank you for taking the time to put it together. I am going to be in Austria in a few weeks, and will be visiting Diamond, should be fun.

  2. Chris says:

    Great post. For me, you perfectly expressed something that I feel deeply with this passage:

    “When you are below the clouds in the morning it is grey, a little cool, and wet. The application of some knowledge, some skill that took a couple years to hone, and you break out on top, into a landscape indescribable beautiful. It is hard won, very rewarding. You are mobile in a way that few are. The sky that morning, when I first popped up on top, was rolling hills of clouds, almost waves, shining in that early morning sun.”

    Absolutely wonderful. For a rating that is often cited for its utility and technicality, I continue to be stunned every time I break out on top.

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