Splashdown


This is the conclusion to the story of my first coast-to-coast trip, starting with Winslow and continuing in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Hour 366

The third day of my coast-to-coast trip with Dad started blissfully: with plenty of sleep. In the high desert, the best strategy is to wake up before the sun rises and take off before the heat brings turbulence and higher density altitudes. Now safely east of all the high terrain, we slept in. The overcast kept our hotel room dark even after the sun came up. We returned to the Spirit of St. Louis airport at 9AM, refreshed and energized by the feeling that we were just a day away from our goal.

I checked the airport's weather computer. The overcast was just 500 feet above the ground and extended a hundred miles east. It would have been legal to take off, but I wasn’t convinced it was safe. If we needed to land in a hurry, or if my radio failed again, things might get a little "interesting." Even if we did take off, we wouldn't want to cross the nasty weather front that had been covering Indianapolis the night before. It had continued pushing east through the night and was now a couple hundred miles east of us.  The longer we waited, the further we’d be able to fly before reaching it. I decided the best course of action was to delay our departure.  We spent some quality time on the incredibly comfy couches in Thunder Air, the private-aircraft service station where we'd parked the plane the night before.

The confluence of the Missouri
and Mississippi rivers
By 11AM, the weather had improved considerably. The St. Louis area was nearly clear and airports along our route were reporting half-clear skies. The storm front had moved far enough east that we determined we could safely get all the way to Mansfield, Ohio. So, at about 11:30, away we launched into the scattered clouds. We were still west of St. Louis international, so air traffic controllers directed us north for about 10 miles until we were clear of their airspace. Then, we were cleared direct all the way to Mansfield. This clearance, itself, was a learning experience.

“Cardinal 97H, say on-course heading to Mansfield,” the controller said.

Heading to Mansfield? From here? That was two states away! We were barely out of St. Louis -- all I knew was the airway I was on.

“Heading is … uh … standby.” I fumbled with the GPS, trying to figure out how to get it to tell me the heading to a waypoint later in the flight plan. Finally I just took an educated guess: “About 070, I think?”

“Roger, Cardinal 97H, cleared direct Mansfield.”

Well that was new. In my time flying on the West Coast, I’d file a flight plan that followed airways, then fly on the airways, exactly as planned. In the middle of the country, where there’s less traffic and no terrain, I learned it’s common to get a direct clearance to points hundreds of miles away. I’ve since come to expect this. The best part about doing these cross-country trips is learning so many new things! I punched “direct-to Mansfield” into my GPS, wiping away the 9-leg flight plan I’d painstakingly entered before we took off.

The flight was relaxing, and mostly in clear air, but the threat of thunderstorms still hung in the air. The front we’d been behind for the past day was getting uglier, enveloping half the east coast.  As we made our way east we could see a long line of towering cumulus clouds way off to our right, reaching up to 45,000 feet and clearly visible from 100 miles away. They looked very imposing and I was happy not to be tangling with them.

In our descent we found ourselves in some patches of very bumpy cumulus for about 15 minutes. It was harder than our approach to St. Louis the night before.  The evening's stratus layer had enveloped us completely, reducing visibility to zero, but stratus is typically smooth and easy to fly in. Today, we were popping in and out of clouds and getting knocked around. I fought to keep us on course and wings-level, despite not being able to see the horizon visually. This is typical of cumulus clouds, and what often kills non-instrument-rated pilots. We got a couple of hard bumps that popped us into a 30-degree-bank, and my inner ear was, at one time, begging me to bank further over instead of leveling the wings. A big part of instrument flight training is learning how to ignore your inner ear and do what your artificial horizon says instead.

A few minutes before landing, another plane on the approach to the same airport reported going through an area of "heavy rain." A second pilot piped up, "We'd like to divert around that rain as well." A knot formed in my stomach. I longed for the same kind of weather radar they had, rather stuck inside the clouds, blind!

"Uh, Mansfield Approach, Cardinal 97H, could you clue us in what all those guys are diverting around?" I queried the controller, hopefully.

"They're all inbound from the east, 25 miles east of you," I was told. Relief washed over me as we descended through the clouds and landed. We were now within striking distance of our final destination!


Hour 369

We had a nice lunch in Mansfield and refueled. Then we checked the weather. The storm front we were avoiding had continued its journey east. It was still raining with low visibility in our destination of Ticonderoga. But we were in no rush. It was only mid-afternoon and we were a single, three-and-a-half hour flight away from our goal. We headed to the pilot lounge along with a gaggle of other pilots who were stuck there trying to get to various points on the East Coast.  I took a nap.

Two hours later we reassessed the situation. The front was curving off to the north-east, following the contour of the coast. The trip from Mansfield to Ticonderoga would take us far enough north that it seemed we could sneak in behind the front. Syracuse, NY was about halfway to Ticonderoga, and seemed like a safe alternative.  At worst, we could just land and spend the night in Syracuse, and complete the last hour of flying the next day. I decided to call the Flight Service Station and see what the professional aviation meteorologists had to say about it.

"I'm in Mansfield and am trying to get to Ticonderoga, or at least as far as Syracuse if I can. What do you think?"

"It should be possible," the briefer told me, "to get at least as far as Syracuse. But there's a second system coming in off Lake Erie, so you should stay south of Akron." He even gave me a series of waypoints to fly that would keep us out of the weather. Wow, now that's good service! "Just call us again over Elmira to see how the weather is developing," he suggested.

Dad and I launched again, with the briefer's suggested route programmed into the GPS. It was bumpy in the clouds so we climbed up to 9,000' to get above the tops. For about an hour, the flight was wonderful, as a strong tailwind from the cold front propelled us at about 172 knots (198mph). The clouds eventually enveloped us again, and as the sun gradually set, we lost visibility completely and continued solely on instruments.

Around Elmira, I tried to raise Flight Service on the radio to get an update on the weather. I tried a bunch of the local frequencies listed on the chart, but each seemed to be closed for the night.  Ten minutes of fruitless radio calls later I started to get anxious. Uh oh -- Strike One. (Well, let's call this Strike Two. Strike One was the fact that we had storm fronts around.) It was now too dark to see the storms. How close were they?

Then, Strike Three -- my primary cockpit lighting failed. My instruments are normally illuminated by tiny red lights mounted all over the panel. This system failed somewhere after St. Louis. Yikes. I have 6 flashlights in my flight bag, an overhead dome light, and a yoke-mounted light, so this wasn't an emergency. But it was another strike on the list of reasons to abort the flight.

Finally, Strike Four -- "Cardinal 97H, verify that you're still at 9,000 feet, I'm not reading your Mode C."

Oh, crap. Mode C is a feature that lets controllers see my plane's altitude. This is important for various reasons, but top on the list that evening was that the controller can warn me if I'm accidentally using an altitude that's too low. I reset the transponder several times with no effect.

As the strikes accumulated, I got more and more uncomfortable about continuing the flight. I started to look at the chart to decide where we could land. I wanted to be on the ground, no matter where we were!

I had just opened my mouth to say to Dad, "Let's just land and finish this tomorrow," when, like magic, the strikes started to unwind themselves one by one. First, "Cardinal 97H, contact New York Center now, and ask them about your Mode C -- the problem might be on our end." On your end? Why didn't you tell me that 10 minutes ago??

"New York Center, Cardinal 1597H with you level 9,000 direct Ticonderoga, can you verify you have our Mode C?"

"Uh, yeah, sure, I've got it loud and clear", this new controller said, in a tone as if I'd asked him if he knew the year was 2004.

The controller also helpfully provided us with a local frequency to get weather information, and we were able to contact Flight Service again. They confirmed that the path to Ticonderoga was clear! In fact, the second front was now moving in to Syracuse, so our desired destination of Ticonderoga looked like safer bet than our backup plan. He suggested a slight further deviation to the east to keep us out of the weather. My Mom, who was tracking our whole trip on the computer, later told us that we'd been depicted as driving exactly through the center of two parallel storm fronts. Score one for the Flight Service Station!

Using my yoke light and some new batteries, the cockpit lighting situation was also looking much better -- I had a fine view of the instruments.

And -- "New York, Cardinal 97H, I hate to sound paranoid, but can you please verify one more time that you see our Mode C?"

"Yep, I sure can," he said, sounding confident. And, just to top it all off, we were out of the clouds again! We could now clearly see lights on the ground. Hooray! This will work after all! My blood pressure returned to normal.

We flew on, breathlessly. Dad and I couldn't believe we were so close to our goal. In another 20 minutes we were close enough to hear the weather being broadcast from Glens Falls -- a good-sized municipal airport very close to our final destination. They were reporting clear skies!

By this time, we were talking to Albany Approach. After we checked in, the frequency was completely silent. It was 10PM on a Friday night; is this normal?

"Albany Approach, Cardinal 97H... radio check?"
"Cardinal 97H loud and clear."
"Great, we were just worried that we hadn't heard anything for a while."
"Yeah, it's just that time of the night."

Indeed it was.


Final Approach

20 minutes out from Ticonderoga, Albany Approach handed us off to Boston Center -- the agency that covers Lake George. The Boston controller asked us to "say approach request." She wanted to know: did we want a visual approach, or one by reference to instruments?

A visual approach would have been legal. We were in the clear; there was only a single layer of clouds high above us. But a visual approach would have been a bad idea -- I discovered that in the middle of upstate New York at night, when the moon is obscured by clouds, it is very, very dark. We could see an occasional light on the ground and nothing else. No horizon. No terrain. No ground features. No nothing!

"We'd like vectors to the GPS approach to runway 2," I replied.

Apparently I caught the controller somewhat unprepared. "Ticonderoga Airport" isn't really an airport as much as a lonely landing strip with some lights and a place to park. No buildings of any kind. The only service provided is a pay phone attached to a creaky wooden stake. Not a place that gets a lot of customers, as we discovered in a moment:

"Uh, Cardinal 97H, I'm not, uh, familiar with that approach..." she trailed off, with the sound of papers rustling in the background. "Where do you want to be vectored? I can get you as low as 4,200."

Ha!  Usually the controller knows the approach better than the pilot. Now she was asking me what she should do with us!

The instrument approach at Ticonderoga
"Can you take us to PULLO intersection?" I asked. I had the approach plate for Ticonderoga in front of me already, of course; PULLO was the name of the spot that starts the instrument approach.

"Roger, Cardinal 97H, proceed direct to... that intersection," she said.

And off to PULLO we went. We passed over Glens Falls airport. Perfectly clear and well lit, it would be an easy landing. The thought crossed my mind -- why not quit while we're ahead and just land here, right now? Well, we'll come back if there's any problem. Let's try Ticonderoga first.

Down, down into the inky blackness over AFRED intersection we descended, and further down near JADSU... just following the approach, like I was trained, trying to ignore the incredible excitement that was welling up inside of me, trying to ignore the fact that I was enveloped in total darkness making mountains invisible and with potential storms in the distance, trying to ignore the flash of light I'd seen that might have been lightning 100 miles away or maybe just a camera, trying to forget what it would feel like to land triumphantly, no, just trying to forget all that and focus on doing this damned approach correctly, getting the needle centered, trying to push everything out of my mind but that mantra -- fly the plane, fly the plane, fly the plane....

I looked up out the windshield at the black nothingness. It was like being locked in a closet. Totally featureless. Wait, except--- is that a green light I just saw? Airport beacons are white and green. Could it be?

I clicked my microphone-key 5 times. In theory, this should turn on the runway lights.

BAM! The most beautiful, perfect, gorgeous, lovely, fantastic runway in the history of aviation suddenly appeared in my windshield. It was a tiny line of bright white lights about 10 miles away.

"Oh my god, oh my god!" I started to shout. "I see the runway, there it is, there it is, there it is!"

My dad was beside himself. I had asked him a half-dozen times in the last ten minutes not to talk or distract me in any way, as this was a critical phase of flight and I was trying to stay focused. Now I was afraid that he was going to burst right out of his seatbelt with pent up excitement.

But, no, fly the plane, fly the plane, fly the plane.... in the long moments I'd spent looking out the window at the far-away runway, we'd drifted 30 degrees off course. Dammit, stop looking outside, this isn't over, just fly the plane, get that needle centered...

We proceeded on the approach, descending until we reached the minimum altitude for circling around. I wanted to land straight ahead, to the north, but my GPS was telling me that our groundspeed was 115 knots while my indicated airspeed was only 90 knots. Too fast, way too fast, clearly the wind was still at our backs! So, we went right past the runway, another mile north, then turned back to the south, still unable to see anything but the runway lights. I turned on all my landing lights, extended the flaps, and down we went again, aiming for that beautifully lit runway.

1,000' ... 900' ... GUMPS OK, before-landing checklist complete. 500' ... 400' ... Flaps 30. GPS groundspeed is down to 65 knots. Perfect. Check again that the gear is down. Green light is on. Runway lights set to maximum. 300' ... 200' ... everything seems right. I see no reason not to land.

50 feet. 30 feet. 10 feet. 5 feet.

Squeak.

It's hard to describe this moment. It's emotional even writing it down. It was sort of like the end of Apollo 13, when the ship finally splashes down in the ocean.

While we were still rolling out, I started to hyperventilate. I couldn't believe that we were actually on the ground in Ticonderoga. We'd come thousands of miles, met so many people, gotten a blown radio repaired, and battled storm fronts, high density altitudes, and the Rocky Mountains. This whole experience had seemed larger-than-life, and I had fantasized about landing at this airport for so long... it was almost incomprehensible that we were actually there.

I didn't use the brakes, but instead added a little power and let the plane roll to a gentle stop at the south end of the 4,000' runway, where the tiny tie-down area and my jubilant family awaited. They waved at us; I flashed my landing light back, pulled into a parking space, and shut the plane down. I opened the door. In an instant, while I was still wearing my seat belt, my Mom was at my side. We had a tearful reunion and she hugged me like I was the last life vest on a sinking ship.

We'd done it!

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