Saturday, March 3, 2012

Weekend Trip to Florida

I probably fly to Clearwater, Florida more often than anywhere else. It helps to have relatives in the area, and it helps that I can fly in to a small airport just 20 minutes from their house. Last week my daughter had some time off school so it was a good time to make the trip and spend a few days in sunny Florida with the family.

In order to keep this entry interesting for pilots without completely confusing everyone else, I have marked some paragraphs as "pilot stuff". You can safely skip those if you desire.

My daughter loves flying in “the little plane”. She usually takes over the entire back seat, gets out her iPod, her books, sketchpad, markers, and other things to keep her busy for the 2½ hour flight. We always bring snacks and drinks with us on this trip, because we always get the munchies. My favorite thing to bring with in the plane is nuts & chocolate trail mix. It has the right balance of sweet and salt to keep me going.

Both legs of this trip were interesting. I filed for my usual southern route: over the top of Atlanta-Hartsfield, Albany, Cross City, then direct to Clearwater. Atlanta approach is good about putting me at 5000 or 6000 feet right over the top of Hartsfield. I am out of the way of ATL traffic, I get a direct route to Albany, and I have a great view. On this trip they made me climb pretty quick to get to altitude, and it made me wish I had a turbocharged engine! Soon we were past ATL and on our way.

Pilot stuff. The winds at altitude were pretty stiff. My on-board GPS doesn't do wind estimation (my dearly-missed LORAN did) but by my estimates they were out of the west at around 50 knots. On our heading they were a bit of a hindrance and I had to maintain a very healthy crab angle. South of ATL I was cleared on a heading to intercept V-95. After about 5 minutes it became pretty clear that we would never reach the airway on that heading. After poking at the GPS a bit I told Atlanta the heading wasn't working and asked for direct Cross City (CTY). And that's what we did. That saved us a little bit of time but we still took a little longer than the usual 2.5 hours.

Pilot stuff. As we got close to Clearwater I checked the weather at St. Petersburg (PIE) and found out that the ceiling was broken at 1400 feet. This concerned me a bit. Clearwater airpark (CLW) doesn't have any instrument approaches, and Tampa approach usually can't vector me that low. At 30 miles out all I saw below me was a solid layer of cloud. Tampa approach had encouraging news for me:  another plane (a Cirrus) had just gotten in to CLW. But I didn't take any chances and developed “plan B”. It's always good to have a plan B. I got out the plate for the ILS 17 approach to St. Pete and studied it. I even dialed in the frequencies. If the overcast didn't break up, plan B was to request the ILS and fly it to get under the clouds and, if conditions permitted, break off the approach and fly to Clearwater VFR. Fortunately I didn't need that plan. The overcast broke up closer to Clearwater and I was able to descend and fly directly there. Winds for our landing on runway 16 were 220 at 16 with some gusts.

The first two days in Florida were very warm, especially for February. My daughter was able to partake in her favorite Florida pastime: swimming. Saturday afternoon we went for a stroll in nearby Brooker Creek Preserve. We saw an American Anhinga (snakebird) drying his wings. We almost stepped on a pigmy rattler: good thing we spotted him in time.

On Sunday morning we went to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, home of Winter, the dolphin without a tail. For those unfamiliar with Winter, I refer you to the recent movie Dolphin Tale. The movie's storyline is completely fictitious, but Winter is very real. She was rescued in 2006 near Cape Canaveral after she became entangled in a crab trap line. Unfortunately the line was tightly wrapped around her tail for so long that it had cut off circulation, and her tail eventually fell off. Most dolphins don't survive an injury so serious, but Winter did and she is now a permanent resident of the aquarium. To compensate for her missing tail, she taught herself to swim like a fish. Soon Hangar Prosthetics volunteered to take on the challenge of constructing a prosthetic tail for Winter. She doesn't wear it all the time, but she uses it to help build up muscle mass that has been lost through lack of use. In our visit to the aquarium, we saw Winter and her companion Panama.

After finishing up at the aquarium, it was time to head to the airport and fly home. With rain falling throughout the northern part of Florida, it was another interesting day to fly. We entered the clouds at 4000 feet shortly after takeoff. And we didn't see anything but grey for the next hour and a half, We flew through a few rain showers, but we didn't encounter much turbulence. Somewhere between Tifton and Macon we finally broke out of the clouds.

You would think that once we landed, our adventure would be over. But I decided to make one extra stop before putting the plane to bed. I taxied over to the self-serve pumps to get fuel. And there I encountered .... the slowest pilot known to man. Now I am reluctant to criticize a pilot for being cautious. Pilots should be cautious, and should do things with deliberate care. But there is a difference between being reasonably careful and just being slow. This guy spent countless minutes fiddling with his credit card. He agonized over pumping the fuel. He took great and interminable care replacing the hose. He backtracked to get the right tool for closing up his fuel caps. He sauntered over to the machine to retrieve his receipt. He spent ├Žons rearranging things in his luggage compartment. Only then did he realize that he would need to push his plane away from the pumps before he could start and safely taxi away. You'd think that noticing another plane patiently waiting to move up to the pump he would be eager to push (or pull) his plane out of the way to make room. But I suppose one cannot discern the thought processes of the excruciatingly careful pilot. Once he pushed the plane away from the fence (but still entirely in front of the pump) and carefully stowed the tow bar back in the luggage compartment, he cautiously secured the compartment door. Then he eased himself up in to the cabin, taking great care to place his headset on in exactly the correct position. Finally, with much fanfare, he fired up that mighty engine and inched his plane forward. But not too far forward! With all due care he stopped well short of the taxiway (and still most decidedly in front of the pumps) to ensure he got a proper clearance from the tower before proceeding. I think I aged an entire year just watching his glacial pace. I was tempted to declare a low fuel emergency while I sat there idling (well, no, I wouldn't really do that...but it was tempting). So, after a delay that would have made Godot proud, I finally was able to fill my tanks.

With the unexpected delay behind us and the plane safely returned to its tiedown spot, we were on our way home, ending another wonderful trip to Florida.

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