Sunday, April 03, 2016

Why I fly: A day trip to Spokane

My son, Isaac, applied to college on the other side of the state.  In Washington, that’s 300 miles and a six hour drive one way.  He was called for an interview for admissions into the program, so I offered to fly him instead if the weather was clear.

The day before I filed an IFR flight plan from the Paine VOR direct to the Spokane VOR, which involved coming up with my own airway between the two, including finding the highest point four miles either side, and setting my minimum altitude at 2,000 feet about that.  This would put me at 11,000 feet over the Cascades.  The forecast was for scattered to broken clouds in the departure area and clear on the east side of the mountains.

I awoke at 7 AM for my 8 AM departure.  Out my window, I saw gray.  Lots of gray.  I called the Paine ATIS to hear about a 600 foot overcast and visibility restricting fog.  That’s not in the forecast.  My son drove us to the airport while I called flight service.  The briefer told me about the conditions I could already see.  Overnight a front had moved down from the north and mucked up my hope of good weather.  He also said there were clouds over the Cascade Mountain Range with undetermined tops and the freezing level was at 10,500 feet.  Great.  My plan was for 11,000 and any clouds would put me in freezing conditions over remote mountain terrain.  Bad plan.

I filed a new plan to go from the Paine VOR to the Seattle VOR and then follow V2 across to Spokane.  This would add about 10 minutes to the trip, keep us at 9,000, well below the freezing level, and pretty much over I-90 (the world’s longest runway).  Better plan.  By now the weather at Paine field was 500 ft overcast.  That’s enough to take off in, and if things go bad, an instrument approach will get me down to 200 feet – out of the clouds.

Isaac and I prepped the plane, plugged in our headsets, programmed the GPS, and buckled in.  We called for our IFR clearance and instead of what we filed we got KPAE PAINE3 departure Vectors V2 MWH ZOOMR ONE KGEG (the identifier for Spokane).  I knew this would take some special decoding.

The PAINE3 departure can be summarized by “do what you are told.”  It is vectors on course.  OK, That’s not hard.  Next is “vectors to join Victor 2.”  Again, do what you are told.  The ZOOMR ONE part was new to me.  Back the charts.  This arrival starts at MWH (Moses Lake) and then goes to the ZOOMR and GANGS intersections, then on to the Spokane VOR.  Both ZOOMR and GANGS are on Victor 2!  Calling out arrival added little to no value to the flight plan.

8:22 AM we were cleared for takeoff, my plane’s fresh engine pulled us rapidly south on the runway and into the sky.  At over 1,000 feet per minute climb I had less than 30 second from when the plane lifted off until the outside went gray and we lost visual reference to the ground.  “Fly the little airplane” I told myself as I looked to the artificial horizon in the center of the instrument panel in front of me.  I began my instrument scan, looking to my airspeed to make sure I was maintaining 80 to 90 MPH, then to my heading indicator to stay pointed at the runway heading of 160 degrees.  But wait, I was at 180 degrees!  I was already 20 degrees off.  I banked the airplane left to get it lined back up and continued to climb.  We are only 20 seconds or so into the clouds.  I went back to the instrument scan.  As we climbed through 1,500 feet we were still at full power.  I pulled the throttle back and gave the propeller control a spin to let the engine settle in at “25 squared” for the climb out.  Back to the instrument scan.  Paine tower handed me off Seattle Approach Control.

Around 2,000 feet Isaac piped up and said “Wow!  This is so pretty at the tops of the clouds.” I glanced up to see the clouds clearing away from around the nose of the plane as we skipped across the ragged tops, and then they fell away below us.

The sky above was beautiful-morning-blue, and we could see the mountains to our left shrouded by higher clouds.  Now above the first layer of clouds we could see that we could have flown direct over the mountains at 11,000.  The controller cleared us up to 9,000 feet where we were 1,000 feet above the second layer, and then direct to BANDR, a fix on our intended airway.

From there, the trip was boring.  Lots of straight and level, a couple air traffic control hand offs, a right downwind for runway 21 at Spokane, strong crosswind out of the south, and the left wing low to a pleasingly smooth one wheel set down, then the other, and finally the nose.

Isaac’s interview went well, or we are hoping it did.

A couple hours later we were back at the Spokane airport filing a new flight plan.  Paine Field was reporting 100 foot overcast – worse than when we left!  Going over the weather reports and forecasts with the weather briefer we realized the most recent forecast predicted it would already be clear, but it was not.  The overcast was hanging on.  Arlington to the north was clear, and Boeing to the south was clear.  So I filed a return trip with KBFI as the alternate, and off we went.

Again the flight was uneventful.  After passing Moses Lake I requested an update on the weather at our destination and got back a relieving report of 1,200 scattered.  As we flew along there were a couple of opposite direction planes called out by the controllers.  Crossing over the Cascades Mountains we were turned northwest and given direct to Paine.  Shortly after that we were given clearance to descend.  A left downwind to the runway and soon we were parking the plane.

4.3 hours of running engine, One instrument departure .7 hours of actual instrument time, One good adventure with my son.