|Posted by Aaron Harrington on May 9, 2012 at 8:30 PM|
Airplane: Citabria N1138E
Saturday May 5, 2012
With Steve Kauffman
My logged flight time: 2.7 hrs
Saturday, I had the chance to do something I have been wanting to do for a long time. A long cross country trip to the outter banks of North Corlina. Steve Kauffman, a friend and fellow pilot at Harford had invited me along and I jumped at the chance.
On Friday, the weather was looking 'iffy' and there was not only a possiblity of scattered thunderstorms Saturday in the afternoon, but it was looking like fog in the morning. Saturday, I came to the airport around 7am and the entire eastern shore was IFR in dense fog. However, it was quickly moving out towards the ocean and the line of rain showers and thunderstorms to our west was moving very slow at approximately 30-35 knots. After analyzing our options, we predicted that we could stay west of the fog on the eastern shore on the way down, and turn around and come back to beat the storms by a few hours. We departed around 8:30 or 9.
The flight down was terrific and I sat happily in the back of the airplane, snapping away with my camera and new 55-200mm lense. As always, whenever I am in the air, I am fully engrossed in the experience. Even as a passenger, I love it all the same. The weather was absolutely fantastic and the low lying fog was all but gone as we got about 15 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland and headed down Cape Charles towards the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and Virginia Beach, VA. We continued to follow the coastline down, originally at 5,500 ft and then dropping to 4, 500 as our heading passed 180 deg. Somewhere about 20 miles south of Kitty Hawk, we had to make the decision to continue on to Ocracoke or stop shorter at Cape Hatteras. In order to make it to Ocracoke, we would have had to fly direct from where we were over a large expanse of open watter and unfortunately, Washington Center could not see us on their radar any longer and had nobody to hand us off to. Unwilling to chance our fuel situation since neither Ocracoke nor Hatteras sell fuel, we played it safe and landed at Hatteras. Hatteras' airport was bare bones at best. No bathrooms, only a small shack with a signature book and a computer for checking the weather. We could see that the storms were getting closer than we would have liked and so it was time to depart.
We then preceeded to Dare County airport, 50 miles north of Hatteras to fuel up and switch seats, it was my turn to fly. The first 80 miles were uneventful and we could see out our left window most of the major storms we were trying to avoid and we got north of the worst of it around Norfolk, VA. At this point, I had a decision to make as I could see some cumulous clouds building ahead of me about 20 miles out. Should I go up the coast towards Ocean City, MD like we came, or go up the western side of the Easten Shore? I decided to go west and hugged the left side of Cape Charles. About that time, a Bonanza that was also flying in our general direction had long passed us and was approaching the Snow Hill VOR and encountering MVFR conditions and filed an IFR flight plan to Salisbury, MD instead of his original destination of Ocean City. This is where things started getting interesting for us. We had already been handed off to Patuxent Approach and about 10 miles north of Cape Charles VOR, Patuxent recommended that we head direct to Harford if we planned to beat the storms. I then set my sights on Tangier Island to avoid crossing too much of an expanse of water in our single engine taildragger. As we got closer to Tangier, visibility dropped from the 20 miles we had before, down around 7-8 and I was crossing my fingers it wouldnt get any worse. From Tangier, we went up towards Smith Island. About 25 miles north of Tangier, visibility was getting very poor around 4-5 miles and it was starting to become difficult to see what lied directly ahead. Before we knew it, we had flown right into a cloud and popped out the other side only 2-3 seconds later. That was it. Time to find a place to land. I listened to the Cambridge AWOS as that was our nearest alternate airport (20 miles north east). Cambridge was calling 5 miles visibility in haze and broken clouds at 1,800 ft. Steve pointed out Chesapeake Range airport to our west but that was private. St. Mary's was the next closest at 25 miles west. St. Mary's AWOS was reporting much better conditions and I told Patuxent we were diverting. They cleared us through all restricted airspace but told us to remain outside the PAX NAS class D.
On the plus side, I made a nice wheel landing at St. Mary's and we taxied over to the terminal building (which was closed) and we checked the weather sitting on the benches outside. We debated to either file an SFRA flight plan and try to make it up the Western side of the Bay or hug it over to Bay Bridge airport. The radar was showing storms closer to the western side of the bay and Bay Bridge was reporting relativley clear weather so I decided we should strike it out for Bay Bridge. We didn't get very far and at 15 miles north of St. Mary's the ceiling was low, visibility was even lower, and you couldn't see where the water ended and the sky began. I was really starting to get nervous but it was nice having Steve with me as he said "Aaron, I'm calling it!" I was so focused on flying the plane, I asked him what he meant. He said "I'm calling it, this is not gonna be safe" he was right and I agreed 100%. We told Patuxent approach that we weren't going to make it to W29 and were turning around again.
Now we felt stuck. The radar was looking really bad and we were stuck, two VFR pilots in a VFR airplane. We tied the Citabria down at St. Mary's and hung around the FBO lounge for a few hours. We finally convinced Kevin Nixon to fly the Cessna 172SP down IFR to come and get us. We were going to leave the Citabria there and come back either the next day or Monday to get it. We wanted to be 100% safe. Kevin made it to us about an hour later and said that except for a few low vis areas and a very light broken layer of clouds at 2,500 ft, it was VFR back to Harford. We then got back in the Citabria and I let Steve fly, as he has more experience than I do, and we followed Kevin out to the north back to Harford. Once we got about 15 miles north of St. Mary's, the air was clear and you could see for 20 miles. We flew VFR above the light broken layer all the way back ensuring we could see houses and land down below us all the way up to Turkey point and dropped down through a break in the clouds. We were back, safe and sound at Harford.
This was a real learning experience for me as it was only the second time I have diverted due to weather. I learned more about ADM and CRM than I have in the last year of flying and I got to enjoy a beautiful flight to Cape Hatteras, and a nervous flight home. All the while, Steve and I remained safe, made all the right decisions and made it out alive. Thinking back, I wonder what I would have done different and really the only thing I can say I might have done was tried and filed a FRZ flight plan to Potomac Airfield and maybe hop-scotched my way up to Harford County, but even that would not have guarenteed a quicker or safer return. Either way, I can't wait for my next great airplane adventure!
Thanks Steve Kauffman for the memorable trip!