A check on the bucket list!
By Rod Lusk LifeStyle Aviation Ambassador
The reason for the trip? Son in Florida needed help on the back 12 acers on his horse farm and a son-in-law in Chicago who needs to help me with a complicated spread sheet. I had been wanting to do the Florida trip for a while, and this gave me the opportunity to fly ourselves! My wife, Connie, loves to fly but had not been on any long flights with me. I was hoping she would enjoy it!
Planning the trip was interesting up to the first day of the flight. I have a multiengine IFR rating but flying my DA40 this trip. I have the IFR rating but haven’t had the need to use it very much. I am current on procedures. We flew my own DA40, N948PA. I didn’t know exactly how long it was going to take but I knew legs were not going to be longer than 3 hours and preferably 2.5 hours for passenger comfort! I tried just looking at the map on AOPA flight planner, which I have come to like, but I found that was just too laborious. I stumbled across Air Nav’s long flight planner and the option under fuel for planning multiple stops along the way. It will automatically give you up to 10 options and you can select even legs or the shortest route. I started looking at the options under evenly divided legs and started looking at route options. My preference was to always file IFR and whenever possible to use towered airports. I made my plans accordingly and knew I was going to have to change them according to weather.
The first altered route occurred on the first leg of the first day. I had planned to go from Fort Collins, CO to Hutchison, KS for a more direct course. Looking at the airports several days in advance, it looked like this was going to work. I initially looked at the information in AOPA and noted nothing of concern and checked the NOTAMS and didn’t find any issues. I usually fly with ForeFlight as a backup and I find it easier to look at the briefing with their formats. I “packed up” ForeFlight the night before and was going through the weather and I knew that the winds were going to be gusty. I had not flown into Hutch before and was quite surprised when I looked at the briefing in ForeFlight that 4 of the 6 runways were closed. I had previously filed for Hutch and decided I would look at the weather early in the morning and noted that that the winds were going to be howling out of 180. Hutch’s runway 17 35 and 22 04 were closed leaving only 13 31 operable. I double checked the NOTAMs on AOPA’s flight planner and no mention of the closed runways under the NOTAMS; hmmm, lesson learned. Getting up early to a beautiful sunrise, that should have been a clue for inclement weather east of us, and another check of the winds indicated that gusts were going to be up to 30 kts from 180. My gut says no go and I knew Salina, KSLN, had a nice long 18 36 runway so I refiled IFR for KSLN. I also knew there was a chance that the ceilings were going to be low and an instrument approach would be required.
We were off at 06:50 and the adventure began. As we were getting close to KSLN it was clear the ceilings were low so we were starting the adventure with high winds and an instrument approach. On my approach, the autopilot kicked out because of turbulence and it was time to hand fly it in. I saw sustained winds of 38 knots; fortunately down my nose. We broke out at 1000 ft and I didn’t look at my ground speed on touchdown but it was low because of the winds.
We got out of the plane at the FBO and the marshal, fortunately, lined me up into the wind and I lost my cap getting out of the plane. We decided to tie it down for refueling. I saw a Ford Trimotor giving rides and when he turned into the wind on the taxi his tail came up while almost sitting still.
I’m questioning whether I want to climb back up into this on my next leg to Hot Springs, AK. I called the briefer and talked it over. Winds were going to remain like this for about three days and I would be going into a high pressure so the winds will die down and Hot Springs weather looked like it was going to be much better. Talked it over with Constance and decided to head on out again.
After a very short run out on takeoff, we bounced around quite a bit on departure but it was not as bad as anticipated. The ride steadily improved on our way to KHOT and the temperatures at cruising altitude were decreasing to a nice 600 F making the cabin temp a bit cooler. We were flying into the sun so up went the shades to try to keep it cooler.
KHOT was a beautiful approach in. Few CU’s in the area and a lot of planes in the pattern. We landed and it was still early. My next stop was going to be Meridian MS and I had read great things about their service there. We were feeling good so we found a hotel online, made reservations while I filed the next leg. The next leg was great with lots of beautiful scenery below.
By the time we made it into Meridian, I was tired and we had decided for future planning, three legs of about 2.5 to 3 hours was about all we wanted to do. Called the kids and told them we were overnighting in Mississippi. The FBO at Meridian was FANTASTIC! They could not have been more accommodating. The weather looked good and I asked for a tie down, they told me not to worry about it, they would just pull it into the cavernous hanger. Their courtesy cars, yes cars, were new Ford Explorers and they told us to just take it to the Hotel and they would see us in the morning. They made several recommendations for restaurants but after getting to the hotel we decided to just eat there and take it easy.
Early morning weather check looked good except for thunderstorms around Tallahassee and the Florida panhandle and I knew this was going to require a reroute at some point. I decided it would be best to do this in the air. So off for the final leg to Ocala, KOCF, grandkids and the back 12 of the farm. There were, as predicted, big storms along the panhandle which required deviation but the storms held off long enough for us to get into Ocala. Upon our landing, the kids came out to meet us. The Ocala FBO is great. They worked me into their hanger as I didn’t want my bird sitting out with the daily thunderstorms that I knew would occur.
I started work on the back 12 the next day! Several large dead oak trees had to come down. After thinking about it I managed to get Adam to have professionals cut them down and we could build the fire. After a day of picking up branches all over the acreage, his contact brought the trees down.
I had hoped that I would be able to take grandkids and our son up for a little tour of the area. Every morning brought LIFR conditions with ceilings around 300. Shortly after starting to clear the thunderstorms would build all around us and we would decide not to fly. I worked steadily away on the pasture and came to really hate fire ants. I found great joy in throwing a log full of ants onto the fire!
The weather improved on our last day there and we got a flight in for Adam and three grandsons. Noni, my wife, got breakfast for the boys while we took turns taking the boys up. What a fun day!
The next morning’s weather check was once again to be LIFR. Ceiling of 300 and IFR conditions in Ocala and all over the southeast. This was our day to fly to Chicago. I thought about going into DuPage but after talking with my flight instructor he suggested a few airports a little bit farther out and we decided on Aurora.
Our first leg into was to go to Athens, GA (KAHN) and the weather there was going to be low IFR till at
least 10:00 local. So, after talking with the briefer about the weather in we waited it out for
a while until we would arrive about 15 min after 10:00. We took off in low IFR in Ocala but climbed out of the clouds in about a 1000 feet. The cloud deck stretched all the way to Georgia. The approached into Athens was ILS 27 and
we broke out at about 500 feet. Once again a great FBO that was very accommodating. Weather check for our next stop at Evansville RGNL, TN (KEVV) looked good so another IFR departure to KEVV then on into Aurora. Weather in Aurora was looking good and this was our third leg and about 7 hours of flying, confirming that three legs a day is about our limit. As we were going into Aurora I got three reroutes for what I assumed was traffic.
Our daughter drove up as we pulled into the FBO. There were two FBO’s there and Luminaire is the one I chose as the gas was a little bit cheaper. I had called ahead and they did have hanger space available for a reasonable price. They were shorthanded and it was difficult to figure out where to park. I needed gas and a place for my bird. That is all I got and was thankful for it!
We spent a few days with our daughter and family. I got my spreadsheets cleared up and had a great time in the City. Our next and final three legs were going to be back home to Fort Collins, CO. The weather promised to be severe clear all the way from Chicago to Colorado and It was!
I was hoping that we were going to be spared the daily afternoon thunderstorms along the front range. We were about an hour and a half away from the airport so we had to get up at 04:30 to make to the airport at 06:30.
The legs home were all at nontowered airports. The tower in Aurora hadn’t opened at the time of our departure but I was able to get clearance on the ground. We were off and headed to Ames IA before 07:00. I was
going to choose Des Moines, Iowa as our first stop however at $2.00 per gallons more for fuel, I decided I could take a little jog to the north to Ames. Great little FBO in Ames and they are building a brand new FBO building that is to open this fall.Looks like it is going to be a great place. Maybe we should check it out again! Next leg was to Kearney, NE, (KEAR) and then on in. The last leg was associated with significant thermal turbulence. My first love is soaring and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be at a 12,000 ft cloud base. My wife always gets sick in a sailplane and was getting queasy in the turbulence. She held on however and made it into KFNL without issues.
I never get tired of flying the front range. There are lakes everywhere and coming off hot dry brown of the Colorado plains into the lush green front range is always a treat.
After we landed in Fort Collins we really felt the heat. It was the end of a great trip and a check off the bucket list.
Lastly, I can’t say enough about how well my bird performed! We were in the cockpit for 25.5 hours and covered just short of 3,000 miles. I found out that my wife loves adventures like this as much as I do. I told her this morning that I’m already starting to think about our next trip.
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