THIS WILL BE EASY
Yes, the words “this will be easy,” echoed in my brain as the word came that I would be flying to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in September 2022. After all, I had just performed in the Reading Airshow in June 2022, and Lancaster is only about 15 minutes short of Reading. The route would be the same (theoretically). All I had to do is land in Lancaster as opposed to Reading. The route would essentially be the same. The checkpoints would essentially be the same. The fuel consumption figures would essentially be the same. What could go wrong?
And so, on the morning of Thursday, September 15, 2022, I found myself at the Falcon Field Airport preparing Katie for a trip to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes to prepare an aircraft for a long cross-country flight when one must stow baggage, get two GPS navigation units and one iPad programmed, ensure that the ADSB In function is working, check the oil, check the fuel, check the radios, install the parachute and the host of functions one must perform before getting an aircraft built in 1943 in a position to depart on a six-hour cross-country flight.
DIVERTING TO CHARLOTTESVILLE
Thankfully, by 11:13 a.m., Katie was airborne, winging her way to Salisbury, North Carolina. Fighting headwinds along the way, we touched down at 2:01 p.m., when Katie was serviced and I grabbed a sandwich. By 3:15 p.m., we were airborne heading for my second fuel stop, Winchester, Virginia. Flying north towards Lynchburg, I continued to monitor the weather reports at my second fuel stop in Winchester. The weather reports indicated the ceiling was 4,000 feet mean sea level, which just happened to be the same as the tops of the Shenandoah Mountains to the immediate southwest of Winchester. For some strange reason, the idea of descending in the vicinity of mountains into an undercast and shooting an instrument approach into Winchester was not appealing to me. I thought there had to be a better way to accomplish my second fuel stop. The weather reports indicated that Charlottesville was severe clear, with calm winds. So, I dutifully notified the air traffic controller that I would be diverting to Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a busy airport with jet traffic and airline traffic, and I was concerned about my ability to effect a quick turn at that airport, a concerned that turned out to be unjustified. In fact, taxing from the active runway towards to the Signature ramp, I observed the fuel truck with a technician waving in my direction. In no time at all, the Kate was parked and receiving fuel as I went inside to pay the bill. Realizing that Lancaster is only about an hour and a half away, I was airborne by 5:40 p.m.
ARRIVING IN LANCASTER BY SUNSET
Flying northwest at an altitude of 6,500 feet, I observed the clouds in the area of the Shenandoah Mountains, overflew Winchester, and in short order found myself at 7,500 feet in clear skies during my approach to Lancaster. My improvised fuel stop in Charlottesville had been a complete success. In speaking with Potomac Approach, I was given a clearance to proceed directly to the Martinsburg (MRB) VOR and then direct to my destination. This route would keep me clear of the restricted airspace known as P-40 which is Camp David.
As I commenced my descent into Winchester, the sun was setting and the ambient light was decreasing. I acquired Runway 13/31 visually and was cleared to land on Runway 31. I touched down at 7:12 p.m., right at sunset. After taxiing clear of the runway, I followed the “Follow Me” truck to the flightline, shut down, and was quickly greeted by Ed Foster, the Airport Manager. Ed had a long acquaintance with the Commemorative Air Force having conducted a number of airshows in Georgia earlier in his career. He then introduced me to his fiancé, Sonya. In short order, I had extracted my luggage from the Kate, secured the canopy cover, and obtained a rental car to drive to the hotel.
FRIDAY, MY DAY OFF
Technically, the arrival day was Friday, September 16, but I had arrived on Thursday. This gave me an opportunity participate in a conference call in my hotel room on a large jet transaction before I made my way to the airport. There, I was greeted by FAA inspectors who inspected my pilot credentials and my aircraft. There were a number of FAA inspectors at the airshow, since the airshow was being used by the FAA as a training event. In any case, the inspection of the aircraft took a fair amount of time and was accompanied by “trade talk” between the FAA maintenance inspectors and me concerning how aircraft are inspected at airshows.
I took some time to wax the Kate and improve her appearance. I began exchanging text messages with Captain Randy Ball about meeting him and his mechanic Erin May Kelley for dinner. Randy was performing in the airshow flying a MiG-17 that was not his aircraft, but an aircraft he was flying for a customer. I located Randy and Erin May in a hangar and observed the pristine MiG-17 he was to fly in the airshow. In due course, we retired to the restaurant and engaged in a spirited discussion about the protocols Randy follows in operating a Russian jet aircraft with a flight endurance of just over 1 hour. As it turned out, Randy sets very high minima in terms of weather and does not crowd the margins. He generally does not make any attempt to fly the MiG-17 aircraft in poor weather conditions. He simply will not do it. If those protocols and conditions are good enough for an experienced airline captain who flies vintage jet fighter planes, they are good enough for the rest of us flying on the airshow circuit.
THE SATURDAY MORNING BRIEF AND FLIGHT PERFORMANCES
George Cline would be our air boss at the Lancaster Airshow. George Cline is a very interesting personality. He is extremely intelligent, quick witted, and has a great sense of humor. When he is the air boss, he is all business. Everything goes by the book, and everything goes by the numbers. The briefing by George on Saturday morning was uneventful. All of the protocols were discussed. Divert points, deteriorating weather, crash fire and rescue, air crew extraction, radio failures and all the other eventualities were covered during the briefing. I would be flying just after 1:00 p.m., so I resolved to be at my aircraft no later than 12:30. Grabbing an early lunch, I befriended some old pilots who were operating an Army UH-1 helicopter and took a number of photographs of that machine. The aircraft had served in Vietnam, and it had a number of bullet whole patches to prove it.
By 12:30, I was strapped in my airplane ready to go, and observed the other aircraft in the flight sequence as they started before me and taxied out for their performances. Since I would be flying just after Nathan Hammond, I started roughly at the same time of Nathan and taxied out after him. Sitting in the runup area, I was able to observe Nathan’s performance. In no time at all, George gave me the instruction to lineup and wait, and then depart runway 31. Without an Allied fighter plane to interact with, my flight profile was fairly benign. I took off to the northwest, made a sharp climbing turn to the right, followed by course reversal to the left, and came speeding down Runway 13 at about 200 feet and 170 knots. At the end of runway 13, I made a climbing left turn to the left followed by a course reversal. And this sequence of events took place over and over again until George cleared me to land. On each low pass, I activated the smoke system on the Kate and kept it on until I departed the crowd area going upward into the sky.
The last performance in the show was Randy Ball in the MiG 17, and his performance was simply spectacular. Randy flies the MiG very smoothly and with a great deal of precision and gets a lot of performance out of the aircraft which features an afterburner. I got some great video of Randy performing in the show.
That evening, dinner was convened in a private room adjacent to the restaurant where George Cline, the Air Boss presided, regaling us with stories of his adventures on the airshow circuit, and in the FAA as an air traffic controller. While George is all business on the radio frequency, after hours, he is a very entertaining person to have in your presence at dinner.
THE SUNDAY SHOW
The Sunday morning briefing by George Cline was basically a review of the information we had considered on Saturday morning. The pilots were instructed to sign airshow posters and be ready to perform as they had the previously day. I checked the weather than morning and satisfied myself I could at least make it as far south as Greenwood, South Carolina before sunset. After the briefing, I packed the Kate, grabbed an early lunch, and was in the cockpit ready to go by 12:30 p.m., just like Saturday. In due course, Matt Hammond started his aircraft, and I followed out after Matt. I was airborne just after 1:00 p.m., and departed the airshow about 1:15. George gave me a handoff to Lancaster Approach Control, and I climbed to 7,500 feet, heading toward Winchester, Virginia. I arrived in Winchester at 2:22, and was airborne by 2:43, just 21 minutes later. I arrived in Salisbury, North Carolina by 5:04 p.m., and was airborne again by 5:33, just 29 minutes later. Official sunset at Falcon Field Airport was 7:45 p.m., and I touched down about 7:47 p.m. Because of build-ups enroute, I had been required to climb to an altitude of 8,500 feet while enroute to Salisbury. The last leg of the journey would be flown below the Charlotte Class Bravo and the Atlanta Class Bravo with the result that it was flown at low altitude. Cruising along at altitude, I got some good video and still shots in the Kate enroute to Salisbury, and also some good video shots from the Kate enroute to Falcon Field as I flew to the northwest of Atlanta International Raceway. By the time I extracted my gear from the Kate, and installed the Canopy cover, it was pitch dark.
REFLECTIONS ON THE LANCASTER AIRSHOW
As I look back upon the Lancaster Airshow, I realize the fallacy of expecting Winchester Airport to be clear, especially in light of its proximity to the Shenandoah Mountain Range. In the future, I will bear that in mind and consider Charlottesville as an alternate fuel stop to Winchester. Even though the low-level significant prognostic charts tell pilots the area will be dominated by high pressure, that does not mean there will not be no build-ups. You may be flying in a high-pressure area, but you may have to climb to 8,500 feet or higher to get over the buildups and stay out of the clouds. So, the lesson learned is to carry adequate fuel and be prepared to climb higher to get over buildups even in weather conditions that are reported to be favorable.
The dinner with Randy Ball and Erin May Kelley was certainly interesting. Randy has a lot of very sound ideas about how pilots can stay alive flying experimental aircraft cross country to and from airshows. Randy stacks all the cards in his favor. He has all the flight systems and all the information at his disposal to make sound decisions early about whether to divert or about whether to even start the flight. A great number of airshow pilots could learn a lot from Randy Ball about how to conduct flight operations safely.
On a lighter side, while I have worked with George Cline in the airshow industry for many years, I never realized what a remarkable sense of humor he has. George has some great stories to tell, and he certainly entertained us during dinner on Saturday evening after the first day of the airshow.
From an operational standpoint, I departed the Lancaster Airshow at 1:15 p.m. local time, and was on the ground with the engine stopped by 7:47 p.m. The fuel stops were accomplished with dispatch, and that made all the difference in getting back to Falcon Field on the same day as the airshow just about sunset. Everything had worked flawlessly. The aircraft had performed properly. All the systems had worked properly. The fuel consumption values were consistent with my previous experience. Everything worked to my advantage in accomplishing a routine, cross-country flight. Yes, indeed, “This will be easy.”
COPYRIGHT 2022, ALAN ARMSTRONG
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED