Return from Missouri (Part 2)

From the author: I apologize for the delay and the disjointedness of posting this. I’ve been dealing with a family medical issue and thought I still needed to write the second half, knew it would take a while, had the AOPA issue jump up which I thought was quicker to deal with, and then realized this part was done and I just needed to post it.

There was sign next to the self-serve fuel pump I hadn’t seen before. It mentioned a “SUPERUNICOM” operating on the same frequency as the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF), 122.8 for this airport. I had never seen or heard of it and, since I was focusing on getting the CT refueled, I didn’t take the time to read it. I fueled up for the next leg, and then met Connie inside the FBO. We sat down to a lunch of peanut butter crackers and Diet Coke while I pulled out the iPad and plotted a new course for our next leg.

Our next fueling stop was to be in Mount Pleasant, Texas. It’s an airfield we typically use as a fuel stop on the trip to Missouri and back from Houston. A single but very nice six thousand foot runway, great facilities, great people, and airplanes from the Commemorative Air Force. To get to it down the west side of the mountains, we still needed just a small jog further west, so I planned to fly southwest to Grove near Lake of the Cherokees before turning almost due south toward Texas.

The winds were strongly out of the southwest when we taxied out for takeoff on runway 19. Three clicks on the CTAF frequency (and not by us) triggered off an automated voice telling us the wind direction and velocity, our SUPERUNICOM at work. Once we were ready, I gunned her up the hill for 19 using no flaps because of the strong, gusty crosswinds, and we hit the top of the gradient about the same time I got to flying speed. We got airborne with a little hop before starting to climb away and turning right almost immediately. I climbed around the scattered clouds at speed driven again more by the oil temperature gauge than anything else. We leveled off a forty-five hundred feet for this leg; the winds were better there, the clouds were below us, and the ride was fairly smooth. To our left, the deck looked fairly solid, the cumulonimbus clouds were still there and quite tall, and I was very glad I had made the decision I did. As we flew over the ridgelines to the south we would have to cross, the clouds looked like they were lower than I had initially thought.

As we motored south past Sallisaw and Fort Smith under the clouds to our east, we saw a regional airliner cross several miles in front of us in a descending left turn. We watched him arc toward the cloud deck and then disappear beneath it as we moved toward skies that were turning milky. The visibility was dropping below us. At first, I thought it was mist; but there was a whiteness to it I couldn’t reconcile. As the puffy clouds moved past us below, one of them was as black as the side of a heavy thunderstorm, even though it was only a hundred feet tall and wide. Then, we were suddenly flying over a wildfire, the source of the white smoke that was filling the sky. There was no one or any equipment down there; it was burning in a solid east-west line. We pressed on south beyond it, and the sky quickly began to clear.

Soon, we were swinging past the snake-like curves of the Red River and entering our home state of Texas. We were still about thirty minutes away from Mount Pleasant, three hours flying time away from home, and a six to seven-hour drive if we were to switch to a car. It was just before two p.m. in the afternoon, the sun was blazing, and the clouds were building, fired up by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico still hundreds of miles away. The visibility was good but not unlimited; there seemed to be some haze in the distance. The cloud bases were moving up but they were also growing vertically; I knew there was a good chance that the next leg of the trip south toward Houston would have to be flown lower, both because of a slight change in heading and because of the building clouds. Both the NEXRAD satellite weather being displayed on our Garmin 496 and the view out the window said there were building cumulonimbus clouds just east of our route; once I got on the ground at Mount Pleasant, I’d take some time to recheck forecasts and take a more leisurely look at them for development and movement. With the long day, we could wait out any convective activity if needed; there was often a two to three hour window late in the day after the thunderstorms had died down when you could fly in, and that was just enough time to get to Houston from there. Since we were flying Light Sport rules, we would have to turn into a pumpkin shortly after sunset; if we couldn’t touch down at Pearland by then, Mount Pleasant would be our stop for the night.

We started picking up KOSA’s AWOS; winds were light and out of the south-southwest, meaning we would be heading for a straight in on runway 17. As we approached, I heard a Bonanza also coming in from the west; but he was much closer so I expected him to be on the ground by the time we got there. I slowly descended the airplane down to about two thousand feet AGL, and we bounced toward the city of Mount Pleasant which we could see through the haze. The confines of the airport and then the black strip of its runway slowly materialized, and I let down to the pattern altitude of 1400 feet to pick up the red and white lights of the 4 light PAPI. They were all white, so I pulled the power back and started slowing down to eighty knots so I could drop to fifteen degree flaps. There was just a little bit of gustiness in the winds, so I slowed down to sixty knots instead of a calm wind fifty-four and flew the glide slope on the PAPI using power until I made the runway and I touched her down.

Turning right onto taxiway Charlie, I called clear of the runway over the radio and headed us toward the FBO and the self-serve gas pumps to the north side. Pulling up to the pump, I went through the Shutdown checklist, pinning the BRS to keep it from being inadvertently fired, shutting down my electronics and then the engine before pulling the circuit breakers that act as a Master switch. We opened the doors and slid out, and Connie headed toward the FBO while I got out and headed to the pumps to get us gassed up before taking my break.

Unlike the day before when a low pressure system in the Gulf had pumped lines of thunderstorms up from the south, the cells I was seeing on the radar seemed to be moving very little and the coverage was isolated to small pockets we could fly around if needed. The forecasts were calling for a chance of thunderstorms until six p.m., but our route (for the moment) was clear. As Connie and I took another Coke and Cracker break, I told her it looked good for pressing on. We had the option of stopping for the night at Nacodoches if Houston got socked in; there was bed and breakfast there I was interested in checking out if the need arose. So, after getting refreshed and briefed, we climbed back into the CT and took off to the south.

The cloud bases were at about forty-five but the tops were up at about eight thousand and rising in the fiery sun, so I leveled off at thirty-five where it was about eighty degrees and infected with a bumpy ride. Turbulence usually forces me to hand fly the airplane especially with Connie aboard; I do a better job smoothing out the bumps than my simple autopilot which has no filters and climbs and dives like a Kamikaze in them. We flew south past Longview, Nacodoches, and Lufkin before driving just east of the large Class B ring surrounding Houston, watching the rain from numerous cells fall in misty sheets just east of us. I held our altitude until we were approaching the east side of Galveston Bay, before letting down to 2500 and finally 1500 feet to scoot under the floors of Houston’s Class B. Hugging the coastline on the north to give us some option other than ditching if we suffered an engine out, we made our way past La Porte and the restaurants at Kemah before turning west just south of Clear Lake. The familiar haunts of Johnson Space Center and Webster slid down our right side; we could see the large expanse of runways that are Ellington Field just beyond. I dialed in Pearland airport’s ASOS; the winds were favoring runway 14. We entered the pattern on a forty-five from the southeast, put the flaps down at fifteen on the downwind abeam, and landed, glad to be home.