Thursday, June 5, 2008

Trip Report: Clearwater, FL

The Route

At the end of the year 2007 we flew down to Clearwater, FL to visit relatives. We had four in my Mooney: myself as pilot, my wife in the right seat, and our two children were in back. I filed a route from PDK to CLW, a trip that I have flown many times before. The route I always file is ATL V97 PZD V35 DONHU direct. This route goes directly over the top of Atlanta Hartsfiled, then down to Albany, then Cross City, then directly towards the Clearwater area with a landing at the small field of Clearwater Airpark. The last leg goes out over the Gulf about 8 miles offshore. Some might be surprised that I can get permission to fly directly over Hartsfield, but I have flown this route many times successfully. I file IFR at 9000 feet. Upon departure, Atlanta puts me at 5000 feet and sends me right over Hartsfield. We get a great view and we save some time. Our destination was CLW, Clearwater Airpark. This is a small uncontrolled GA field with one runway and lots of helpful people. It is our destination of choice whenever we fly to the area. However, it has some hostile neighbors, nighttime restrictions, and no instrument approach (not even GPS). The runway is lighted but takeoffs are prohibited after sunset and landings are only allowed until 9 pm.


We left PDK on December 29 at 4 pm, a little behind schedule. I calculated an arrival at 6:30 pm—about 45 minutes after sunset with plenty of time to land before the deadline. I used the portable Garmin 396 GPS navigator to keep track of our position and also to keep tabs on current weather conditions. We encountered some weather around Thomasville but it was very easy to steer around it with the 396. About Cross City with the sun setting I checked the weather at St. Petersburg (PIE) as it is the field closest to CLW. I was dismayed by what I saw!

METAR KPIE 292253Z AUTO 23005KT 7SM SCT003 21/21 A3008

A scattered layer at 300 with light winds and no spread between the temperature and the dewpoint, just as night was falling. It was the classic setup for fog. We were still 30 minutes away and I could only watch as the weather deteriorated. 10 minutes later the layer had become broken and I was pretty sure we would not get in to CLW. As we descended in to the area I still saw clear skies, but as we got closer to Clearwater I could see the blanket of fog. Approach asked me what I wanted to do (the dreaded "say intentions") and I requested the ILS 17 in to PIE but I would keep watching for a break in the fog. As I intercepted the localizer I could see breaks in the fog and I thought that maybe we could get lucky. I requested a vector towards CLW to take a look, and approach gave me a vector. Then he asked me "do you know what a cruise clearance is?" I responded, "I've read about them, but have never gotten one." Then he cleared me "Cruise 1700". Cool!


The layer of fog covered CLW but there were breaks visible in it. Just to taunt me it ended about 2 miles north of the airport. Had CLW been 3 miles further north it would have been in the clear. Using the 396 as guidance (with some help from the controller), I circled the airport and looked straight down in to blackness. "That must be it" I thought. I clicked on the airport's CTAF frequency and watched the runway lights come on. "Yep, that's it." Although there were some holes in the clouds I did not feel good about being able to see the runway on any sort of final approach. I continued north away from the airport and as I looked over my shoulder I could see the runway lights disappear in to the clouds. Although I was able to see the runway looking straight down, the slanted view that I would need while approaching for a landing was blocked by the fog. So I told approach that we could not get in and that we needed to divert to PIE. I hopped over to Clearwater CTAF and asked the folks in the FBO to tell my father (who was waiting there for our arrival) that we were diverting.

We weren't the only ones to get caught by the fog. Lots of planes were diverting to PIE and we had to get in line for the approach. Once we intercepted the localizer I looked ahead and could see lots of street lights. I could even catch a glimpse of the beacon at PIE. But when I looked where I thought the runway should be I only saw blackness. We intercepted the glide slope and started our descent. Then the runway lights appeared out of nowhere. Then they disappeared. For the rest of the approach the lights played hide and seek as the low clouds moved. For a time we could see the beginning of the runway but not the end. It was a very weird experience. At 300 feet, of course, we had a clear view and we touched down without difficulty.


After landing the tower asked us where we wanted to park. I hadn't been to PIE in a few years, but the last time I was here my FBO of choice was Air BP. But tower gave me some bad news "They were bought out by Signature." "Well, then, I guess its Signature." We were cleared to taxi to the Signature ramp, but as I approached the lineman was giving me baton signals that I had never seen before. He looked like he was waving me off or directing me further down the ramp. But as I looked in the direction he was waving all I saw was grass. I couldn't go back out to the taxiway without a clearance so I really wasn't sure what this guy wanted me to do. He eventually told me to stop, and held me there until a jet on the ramp departed. Then he waved me in and parked me on the ramp. Even before my wife got out of the plane, a man came out of the building and yelled at the other linemen "get that Mooney out of here, we have planes coming in." My wife managed to get one of our daughters out of the plane but we were not given any time to unload or even ask questions. A tug was immediately hooked up and we were moved off the ramp. The plane was towed all the way to the other end of parking, a very long distance from the terminal building. After we were parked and out of the plane I asked for a golf cart to get all the luggage back to the building. "Oh yes, I will bring one out right away." 10 minutes later there was still no sign of a cart, so my daughter and I grabbed everything and walked. He finally caught up to us about 100 yards from the building. When I complained to him about being moved off the ramp ("We didn't even have time to unload pur luggage") he responded with "well we are very busy tonight." "In other words," I said, "we don't burn kerosene." "Oh no sir, even our jets are being moved off the ramp." But that excuse fell flat as I looked over at the ramp and saw several jets unloading their passengers and luggage.

Once inside I complained again to the lady behind the counter and I was given the same excuse: "we are very busy tonight." But none of that excuses the rude treatment and the feeling of being second-rate to the bizjet crowd. So, putting that behind me, I started dealing with other things I know about Signature. I asked "What fees are you going to be charging me?"

"We charge $18/night for parking," she responded.

"That's it? No other fees?"

"Yes sir, that's it."

"There's no ramp fee or handling fee?"

"Oh yes, well there is that too if you don't buy 7 gallons of fuel."

"I specifically asked you what fees I would be charged and you didn't mention that one! That's exactly what I'm talking about when I ask you about fees: I want to know all the fees. Why would you leave that out?"

She had no response for that. So I ordered 5 gallons per side. I would have make it 3.5 per side but I was afraid they would only put in a total of 6.9 then claim I didn't take on 7 gallons. I am not a big fan of Signature Flight Support.

The Tour

There was no way I was going to leave the Mooney at Signature for longer than I absolutely had to, so we planned to relocate it the next day from PIE to CLW. In the meantime we visited my family, including my brother, his son (my nephew) and his grandson. My nephew is an A&P with Mesa Airlines and is very much in to aviation, although he is not a pilot. His son is 10 years old and I see him very infrequently. So I asked them if they'd like to go along for the ride. They both readily agreed. My father dropped the three of us off at PIE Signature. Much to my surprise the line crew had brought my plane up from the back 40 and parked it on the ramp to prepare for our departure. We took off from PIE and headed due west to the coast, then turned south. We toured the coastline at 2500, then ducked down to 1000 as we got close to the southern end of the peninsula to get below Tampa's airspace. Off the southern tip in the mouth of Tampa Bay is an amazing structure with an interesting story: the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

We flew all the way down to the bridge to get a good view. No we did not fly underneath it! Then we turned around and headed back up the coast. Once we got out from under the low shelf of Tampa airspace we climbed back up to 2500 and went all the way up the coast to Honeymoon Island. From there we turned inland and headed towards CLW. For the landing I had a direct crosswind with some gusts, along with some wind shear on short final. But the landing was successful and good enough to impress my nephew.

Clearwater Airpark

I can't say enough good things about these folks. I have been flying to CLW for years when I visit my relatives. They have always been great! In the midst of a busy city the place feels like an old-fashioned sleepy country airport. On rare occasions they don't have room to park me, but I almost always get a spot on the pavement. They recently tore down the old terminal building and put up a temporary one. Supposedly they will be building a new permanent building soon, but who knows when that will actually happen. The "temporary" building is actually quite nice and much better than its predecessor. It is a clean and comfortable facility with a wonderful staff. It isn't cheap, but it is less expensive than nearby PIE. Parking is $15 a night with the first night waived with a fuel purchase. Compare that to Signature which charged me $18 a night and the threat of an additional charge if I didn't buy fuel (and their fuel was much more expensive, too)! I love going to CLW. They're just awesome.

The Return

For our return trip I filed my usual route from CLW to PDK. This is not the exact reverse of the route down. It is: CTY V579 VNA V362 MCN V323 HUSKY direct. Although I know from experience that Atlanta will take me over the top of Hartsfield on the way out of PDK I also know that they won't do that for me on the way back in. There are set traffic corridors for the Atlanta area to make life easier for the controllers. Departures leave on the cardinal directions (North, East, South, West) and arrivals are brought in on the "corners" (Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast). If I filed a route that arrived from the South then approach would just give me a revised route that arrived from the southeast. So why fight it? I just file a route that takes me over Macon then towards the Atlanta area. This route is also fun because it follows I-75 for about 100 miles and we can wave to the cars as we pass them by.

Our return trip was faced with more headwinds and the threat of a wide area of occasional moderate turbulence over the entire northern half of Georgia. Unfortunately both forecasts were correct. Our progress was slow and starting somewhere south of Macon it got bumpy too. The last 40 minutes of the flight was bumpy and quite uncomfortable. Fortunately my family has cast-iron stomachs and generally doesn't mind the turbulence. But it was still not fun. The only good thing about the return trip was the absence of rain and clouds. We left Clearwater with warm temperatures and landed at PDK in 40 degree weather. For a minute there we were all wishing we had stayed in Florida. We unloaded, tied the plane down, and headed home, tired but satisfied.


The images in this log were created by Google Earth. The airplane's track was captured by the Garmin 396, then later downloaded to a computer, processed by GPS Visualizer, then loaded in to Google Earth. The color of the flight path indicates the ground speed: red is slowest, then yellow, green, blue, and magenta.

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