Flying for FlyQuest (Part 1 of 3)

One of my great passions right now is to inspire kids to get involved with aviation and space. I’ve done quite a few Young Eagle flights, and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s dedication to that program is the prime reason I stay a member since I’m not building an airplane and don’t have any immediate plans to do so. I’ve looked into getting involved with other programs in Houston; but, so far, having found anything I could participate in as a Light Sport instructor. As I’ve said before in this blog, the aviation education community is missing opportunities to get and keep kids engaged by not getting them into their Light Sport rating vice soloing them as Private Pilot students and then dropping them off. I’m working on getting an Advanced Ground Instructor (AGI) rating to see what doors it might open; and I’m always looking for more opportunities to engage youth with aviation and space in some way. Sadly, the opportunities in Houston seem a bit limited, even though it’s Space City.

For about a two-year period, I was the volunteer leader of a team restoring a F-14A on display at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I was shuffling from my Rocket City to the other in the CTSW, flying into Huntsville Executive Airport because of their great hospitality and absence of landing fees. The particular F-14 we were working on had been in my fighter squadron, the Screaming Eagles of VF-51, and I had flown in her 28 times as a Radar Intercept Officer (26 times in VF-51 and twice in VF-124), mostly while we were on an “around-the-world cruise” aboard the USS Carl Vinson in 1983. While I was in Huntsville on one of my trips, I learned about FlyQuest, an educational non-profit whose goal was to bring kids into the aviation fold and enhance STEM (Science, technology, and math) education. They conducted programs that engaged homeschoolers, middle school, and high schoolers and sponsored or participated in local events. I don’t remember now how I first heard about the; but, as I looked into them, I thought that what they were doing was the best thing since sliced bread, and I wanted in. My first attempt to engage with them was during a Women In Aviation event; one of the volunteers on the Tomcat team, Clarissa, and I planned to attend to encourage anyone interested to join us on the Tomcat team. I printed up brochures and flyers and Clarissa made a large and wonderful photo collage. I planned to fly the CTSW up not only as personal transportation but to throw in with a Young Eagle rally being conducted by EAA Chapter 190 in conjunction with the event. Unfortunately, snow and ice clobbered the runway at KMDQ on day before the event when I needed to fly in; and despite several conversations with the FBO on the phone, I couldn’t get any solid estimates for when the runway would be usable. Runways at KHSV were in use, but there were still NOTAMS about ice on the taxiways. Staring at those conditions, I just couldn’t see committing to that trip in the CT and the prospect of a 13 hour drive solo one way wasn’t attractive either, so I backed out.

I tried later to meet up with them at an AOPA fly-in up in Tennessee; but weather once again became an issue and I couldn’t figure out a good plan to work around it. I didn’t see an opportunity to get engaged with them again until the summer of 2016 when they asked for volunteers to teach classes in an aviation summer camp. I signed up to teach a class in aerodynamics and was really looking forward to it, especially after discovering some issues with material they had borrowed from a Rod Machado text that I wanted to correct (See my blog about “Only One Form of Lift”). But, sometimes, life has its own plans; my mother-in-law’s health started rapidly deteriorating and my wife was diagnosed with a life-threatening form of bladder cancer, and I wound up with more important priorities. A few months later, I learned they were going to hold some afternoon high school classes and inquired about teaching the aerodynamics class, but the aero class was taken and the classes that were open required me to move a doctor’s appointment that was ridiculously hard to get. I figured I was done. But Providence stepped in. A few weeks before that class, the doctor’s office called and asked me to reschedule; so, after checking with my wife about whether she was okay with the trip (and getting a “yes”), I immediately contacted FlyQuest’s Educational Director, Russell Lewey, and asked if there were still classes open and could I come up? He was happy to oblige. He had an aircraft systems class open that was being taught at KMDQ; and, if I flew up in the CTSW, the kids could go out and see the systems we were teaching them about. I signed up with glee! Now, all I needed was for the Gods of Weather to cooperate, as fickle as they are.

As the time approached, the Gods smiled, and it was looking like a flight in the CTSW was going to be possible. Connie would not be going with me, so I had an open seat in CT and a Light Sport student whose dream was and is to make the long cross-country from Houston to South Carolina. I invited him to accompany me. Guillermo was thrilled to go, so I told him to pick two legs of the four leg trip to flight plan and fly using only the Sectional (How archaic!); we would fly the other two legs using GPS and routes I already had put together. The overall plan would be to fly from Pearland (KLVJ) to McComb, Mississippi (KMCB) and from there to Huntsville Executive (KMDQ), about a six hour flight, and then return home using reverse legs a few days later.

Guillermo is an architect who does very detailed planning for a living, and his flight planning reflected it. I had never seen such details fleshed out of a flight plan since training in the Navy for low level missions. He did a very thorough, detailed job; but there were still some details to tweak and it would be difficult to sustain his approach once he was on the road. He had included reproductions of the sectionals cut and assembled into a booklet, great for handling in the cockpit but taking lots of printing and construction time, something you were not going to have sitting in an FBO and replanning your next leg due to weather. Additionally, he had used some Class D airfields as checkpoints, no sweat as long as you know you can fly over the top of them but something never guaranteed due to Light Sport rules (no overflight of a cloud layer that cuts off contact with the ground). I prefer to form plans that don’t have a high probability of being forced to change on the fly; so I pointed out to him that he would have to deviate or get permission to go through if the ceiling was lower than the top of the Class D. He moved his checkpoints to accommodate those comments, and I deemed us ready to go.

On the Tuesday morning of September 20th, we manned up under clear but hazy skies. The weather brief had said we’d have 10 miles visibility, but the haze and blazing morning sun cut effective visibility down to about half that once we were in the air. The winds were out of the east and would get higher the closer to Alabama we got, but we had something less than a ten knot headwind when we took off and headed east. I performed the takeoff on runway 14, climbed us out toward the southeast, then east, and leveled us off at 1500 feet AGL. I gave the airplane to Guillermo. Flying his flight plan, he cut us across Galveston Bay; and once we moved from under the 2000 foot floor to the 4000 foot Class B floor, he climbed us up to 3500 feet and leveled us off, heading us northeast toward Beaumont. Since were dependent on the sectional for navigation, I pressed Guillermo frequently to show me where we were, and he did an admirable job of putting us right where we needed to be and was always on top of it. His preflight prep really paid off.

ATIS broadcasts for Beaumont were still calling it clear; but as we pressed to the north of it while traveling east, I noticed an thickening band of clouds ahead at our altitude. It was a layer of cumulus clouds with bases right where we were and tops two thousand feet higher. While they weren’t impossible to get over, their coverage was going to make it difficult to wind our way through them, and I wasn’t ready to try to climb over them until I understood conditions beyond. The Lake Charles ATIS was also calling “clear”; but we could see clouds down to the coast and continuing east, and there were much larger build ups over the Gulf to our south. I pulled in the latest report for McComb using XM Satellite weather on our GPS display; it was saying the airport was clear with at least six miles viz. METARS only give you the conditions at the airport and only hint at what might be beyond, but I still felt there was a good chance what we were seeing would not last. It was a safer bet to go low, so I told Guillermo to drop down to three thousand and fly there.
The view at 3000 with Guillermo flying to McComb

The clouds plagued us until we were passing Lafayette and then cleared out as I had hoped. The rest of the flight to McComb was in the clear with almost no clouds at all and only light chop that increased a bit as we approached the airport. Guillermo performed the descent to the forty-five degree entry for left traffic on runway 33; I took over a couple of miles from the airport and flew the downwind to a landing.
The McComb Mississippi(KMCB)FBO

After fueling up and taking a bathroom and snack break, we manned up and departed northeast. Optimal winds were still a thirty-five hundred, so I leveled us there and then let the autopilot fly the GPS course. Guillermo was content to rest and look around.
“Otto” Flying toward KMCB.

However, as we approached Alabama, the turbulence began to increase until I couldn’t stand the dives and climbs the autopilot was doing and I took over for the rest of the trip. The closer we got to Huntsville, the more headwinds and turbulence increased. I was throttled up to handle the headwinds; and, at about an hour out of Huntsville near Jefferson County, I was having trouble telling visually how much fuel we had left. While I knew by fuel burn and time we probably had enough to get there without landing (and that when you’re bouncing around, fuel can appear to hide in the wings), I decided to land at Walker County to check it out. (Frankly, I get curious about airports I often fly over and my curiosity makes me want to land just to check them out.) I aborted the flight as we flew past Waklker County airport, teardropping into a left downwind for runway 9, and then performing a flaps up landing with the windsock standing out to the right as I taxied over to the fuel pumps to shut down. Once the airplane was stopped, not rocking, and level on thee ground, I could see we did have the fuel to get there with some reserve; but it only made sense to add some more fuel to increase our margin. We did, got back in, and taxied back out.

I let myself get faked out on the takeoff. I taxied out to 9 again as the ASOS was reporting calm and a limp windsock confirmed it. We did our takeoff checks and, since the winds seemed to have died down, I dropped the flaps to 15 and started the takeoff roll, rotating at a calm wind speed of 42 knots. As soon as the nosewheel came off the ground, the airplane started hard drifting right; I countered with more left rudder and got us airborne inputting a hard left crab as we passed the windsock standing out to the right again. Lesson learned. With the flaps down at 15 and the nose in the air, the airplane’s ability to counter drift ain’t very good; keep it on the ground until a slightly higher speed and then pop her off like I know to do.
What a Flubbed Crosswind Takeoff at Walker County Looks Like!

After bouncing through the air for about another twenty minutes, I called Huntsville approach about 25 miles out. They surprised me by clearing me direct to KMDQ at 3500 feet. From where we were, that would mean a direct overflight of Huntsville International just slightly offset from the US Space and Rocket Center and its full-scale Saturn V mock-up. Acknowledging the call, I turned us on heading as the turbulence started kicking us for all it was worth. I slowed us down to Va (98 knots) to keep my airplane in one piece. Once, the airplane dropped so violently we were sure the earth had to have moved; without seatbelts, we would have smashed our heads into the ceiling. earhmoves
What it Looks Like When The Earth Moves While Flying

Holding on, we continued toward Huntsville Executive as I edged the course a few degrees west to make sure I didn’t knick a restricted area. I assumed it was “cold” since approach had said nothing to us, but I figured there was no reason to test it out.

We already had Huntsville Executive in sight. The winds were out of the north meaning a landing on runway three-six. We had a very gusty ten knots of crosswind as I aligned us with the runway centerline and visually picked up the VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator). I left the flaps up due to both the magnitude of the crosswind and its gustiness and came in a bit too fast, trying to get her settled down as we crossed the threshold. Trying too hard to get a smooth touchdown, I bobbled the airplane in pitch; on the third bobble, I had hit my personal safety criteria (three tries to get down), eaten up more runway than desired, so I cobbed the throttle to go around. I saw the linemen, who had come out on the ramp to show me where to park, throw their hands up in frustration as they heard the engine gun and saw me go. Nothing like the roar of the crowd..! And they weren’t even serving peanuts…

I flew a right downwind for three-six, making sure I got a good setup abeam, and then flew a right base and final to complete the landing with a solid thump. That was good enough. I taxied us down and off the runway and over to the parking spot where the linemen were waiting with our rental car, happy just to be where we needed to be safe and sound.shutdownkmdq
The CTSW shut down and empty at KMDQ. The FBO building can be seen out the right window.