Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why I Fly (Chapter 12)

The man who taught me to fly, Lewis, has remained a good friend of mine since we met in 1995. On Saturday he got married. Sandra and I have grown fond of him and are very happy for him. At the wedding his brother, Walt, described him as "having the capacity to be really excited about anything." As a result, hanging out with Lewis is always a hoot. But it also made for Lewis often chasing in a new direction, or after a new dream. Sandra and I often wondered if he was capable of settling down. But he seems to have been fully smitten.

Lew and his future bride set out to have a destination wedding. They jetted around the globe looking for "the place." They finally settled on Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop, a small town about 100 miles north east of Seattle – 100 miles in a straight line. By road, it takes nearly 5 hours and goes though some of the most ruggedly beautiful mountains and valleys in Washington State.

We took the plane OVER those mountains and valleys. As I was planning the flight, I thought over a couple issues. First, this is some of the most hostile territory in the state. There are no cities, no roads, no airports, not even any flat spots, just tall mountains, deep valleys, and steep ravines. Second, there were some tall mountains. And the highest one at 10,500 feet was nearly directly in out path. Third, we would be coming back at night. Fourth, there are flight paths that stay closer to civilization, and thus options in the event of something going awry, but that route takes you south to Seattle then east, and back north again. I’ve used that path in previous night flight.

I decided to take the twin engine Piper Seneca to speed the flight, allow for quicker climbs, and some redundancy in engines as we crossed the mountains.

Now, how do we get from the airport to the lodge? It is about 13 miles, too far to walk or bike in a suit or dress shoes. We called around and found Mountain Transporter offered a van service, but charged by the hour. And we would be at the wedding for several hours with the meter running. The lodge’s concierge was willing to pick us up and take us back, and get this, FOR FREE! The only catch was that the concierge got off work at 8:00 P.M. so we couldn’t stay much later than that.

The day of the wedding turned out to be a beautiful day for both the wedding and for flying. Sandra dropped the kids off at Grandma’s and while I picked up some SeaBands for her on my way to the airport to preflight the plane.

We prepared for take off: review engine out procedures, taxi on to the runway, hold the brakes, 2,000 RPMs, check the engines, release the brakes, ease in the rest of the power, verify runway alignment, airspeed indicator alive, 60 mph, verify runway alignment, 70 mph, verify runway alignment, a little back pressure to lift the nose, 80 mph, nose wheel off the ground, mains off the ground, accelerate to 105 mph, no usable runway ahead of me, retract the gear, accelerate to 120mph, trim for 120. 1,100 feet on the altimeter, we are 500 feet off the ground, so I banked the plane to the east, rolling the wings level, I pulled the engine back to 25 inches of manifold pressure and reduced the RPM to 2,500 for the climb. Whoa. That is a busy time.

As I cleared Paine’s airspace, I called up Seattle Radio to open my flight plan, and then switched over to Seattle Center for VFR flight following. We continued to climb. At 9,500 feet, Sandra asks "How tall is that mountain ahead of us?"

"10,500 feet. We are a thousand feet below the peak." I reply. "Our flight path will take us north of it, and we should be above it by the time we reach it."

About that time the air traffic controllers called us up "Do you have Glacier Peak in sight?"

"Affirmative. It is beautiful up here." We continued to climb, leveling out at 11,500 feet. I set the RPM back to 2,300, nursed as much manifold pressure out of the engines as the thin atmosphere could provide, and synchronized the propellers. The airplane settled down and continued to accelerate.

We were level for just a brief period when the controller asked when we planned to start our descent to Methow. Ahead I could see the ridge on the east side of Lake Chelan, and I had to clear that before I could start too much descending. Soon the lake was passing beneath us and I could see Steheiken out my window.

Rolling the trim wheel forward I started down over the ridge, picking the small town of Winthrop out of the golden brown valley in front of me. Sandra said "are we landing already?"

"Yep, but we are still too high. I have to lose some altitude quickly." As we descended over the ridges and hills, we started bouncing on the thermals. I pulled the throttles back to 16 inches of manifold pressure and continued to descend. As we got to within 4 miles of the airport, we were still too high. I made a arcing left turn to the north, went over the lodge, and then turned south back towards Twisp in shallow right turn. We were finally coming in low enough that I could make final u-turn to the left to end up entering left down-wind over the hills on the east side of the airport. I extended the gear, and ran the pre-landing check-list. Flaps out, we touched down and rolled out. I turned around on the runway and taxied back to transient parking.

Exactly one hour after starting the engines, they were shut back down.

The wedding was beautiful. It was held on the bluff overlooking the valley to the north. Since we have been friends with Lew for so long, we have developed quite a few mutual friends. It was fun to see so many of them gathered together, celebrating in honor of Lew and his new wife Stacy. And the conversations were a kick too. Lew had a long and varied career is several odd aviation jobs, and the crowd reflected his past. Sean did a tour as my flight instructor, and is now a pilot for Alaska. Lew’s friends from his east coast tuna spotting days were there (that was a colorful group). They were the perfect match for a delicious dinner.

Eight o’clock came much too soon, and after a bit of coordination the Concierge drove us back down the hill to the valley below and to the airport. We stopped along the way to drop off some of the house-keeping staff that was carpooling with us. It was a little after 9:00 P.M. as I began the preflight for the trip home.

Funny how earlier in the day, I did not notice the moon was out. But now that the sun was set, so was the moon. And in a small valley with rapidly climbing terrain on either side, I was missing that moon. It was DARK. Before starting the plane I stood on the ramp and looked north and south. From the ground I could see the silhouette of the hills against the night stars. I could see the faint lights of the next city down the valley. I examined the charts and found the highest points near the airport. I planned my assault of the inky blackness.

We taxied out to the runway, and I found the ridge lines and horizon against the stars. I planned my take-off. I recited the engine failure on take off mantra. I mapped in my mind my route ahead: Take off south, slight turn to the right to follow the valley floor. Climb. The throttles advanced. The take-off roll started. Full power.

We arced right, and headed towards Twisp. The plane climbed. But something else odd occurred. When we were below the ridges, their outline was visible against the star-lit sky. But from above, all the ridges disappeared into the dark back void below us. I could not see the rising terrain below me.

I knew that there are no mountains over the road. I stayed on course over the road as we climbed. We covered the ground between the airport and Twisp quickly – too quickly. We were over Twisp and the country highway’s lights south of the city were spaced too few and far between to assure we remained over the road. Worse, I was not high enough to leave the valley. I eased the plane to west side of the road below, and made a tight turn to the east, now headed back toward Winthrop as I continued my climb over the highway. When we got back to Winthrop we were high enough to clear the immediate hills. I had more maneuvering room. One more turn back towards Twisp and I was at 9,000 and climbing. Ready for to assault the North Cascades again.

"Black as ink" is not black enough to describe the mountainous terrain below. Once again, I was able to see the silhouette of Bonanza Peak and Glacier Peak. We continued to climb. I contacted Seattle Center for flight following. They wanted to know if I had the mountains in sight, and I did.

I had expected some turbulence on the ride home, but it was as smooth as glass. As we configured for cruise at 12,500 feet, I knew I had 2,000 feet between me and the highest point around me. We were above the mountains, but again the terrain vanished in blackness below. I had to calculate when we were past the mountains in order to descend.

My head was processing. I started with take off time, and distance combined with airspeed, and then an estimate of maneuvering time over the two small cities… 120 miles an hour, two miles a minute. Add in a bit for the forecast 20-knot headwind but if I had the forecast head wind I would expect a bit more turbulence. What are the actual winds? Just what is my actual ground speed? And a flash of numbers on the panel caught my eye. The DME displayed my closing speed on the Paine VOR.

Wait. The DME had just locked on to the Paine VOR. I tuned and identified the VOR to assure I was on the right one. I was 50 some odd miles away from Paine Field. That will work. I measured the distance from the Paine VOR to Glacier Peak – about 45 miles. In seven or so minutes we would be at 40 DME from Paine, at least 5 miles past the peak, and I could safely start down.

The lights of the cities surrounding the Puget Sound started coming in to view. Seattle, Everett, Bellevue. Dark spaces revealed bodies of water, ribbons of lights drew bridges. Ahead was the Hewitt Avenue Trestle and to the right of that, Lake Stevens. Past it is Port Gardner. We made it.

Seattle Center requested I notify them when I had Paine Field in sight, at which time they canceled my flight following. As we descended nearer to home, I slowed the plane from the high-speed descent, down to below 150 MPH where I could extend the gear.

Rolling the plane to the right to line up with the runway, I simultaneously extended the flaps. Soon we touched down just short of the fixed distance markers.

Back at Regal, there was a T-6 Texan parked in the Seneca’s space so we made another lap around the ramp looking for a space to tie down.

Engines shut down at 2.3 hours total time. Point three. An extra 18 minutes to climb over the valley, fly into the headwind, and taxi around? All in a good day of flying.
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