Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cedar Key has no Cedars

Sunday, despite Saturday's icky IFR overcast, was a clear, beautiful day. Weather systems move fast in the Southeastern Lower 48! And despite the cold the teething year-old niece of mine had given her 3-year-old sister being a very big cranky fussy deal for them, it wasn't that bad for an adult. So, after sleeping in to make up for crawling in at 2am, back out to the airport.

By the way, the 3 year old calls 21L "Henry" and insists that the airplane's a he. She is as possesive a minx as any woman could possibly be with a boyfriend - I've now racked up three temper tantrums and a seriously cheesed-off three year old because I'm going to go fly Henry and Not Taking Her. That's even worse in her world than the fact that I'm also taking Daddy time away from her. I'm not going to fly her, though, because I've already been warned by my brother, my father, and D the C130 pilot who also flies Henry that she loooooves making the airplane do power-on stalls. She can't reach the rudder pedals, but she sure can reach the yoke and haul back on the yoke with all her might. I hate power-on stalls (They're very hard for me to do, because of the damage to my shoulder, neck, and back), and have no intentions of getting in a wrestling match for the controls with a 3-year-old at altitude.

So, really, it was after a talk with Daddy about why she can't come, and a world-class pout and glare when the pout didn't work that we went to the airport.

Great VFR day here means 30 miles of visibility. While the air was nearly calm - 3 knots of variable wind at VLD's surface - it was ripping southward up top. Never wasting an opportunity for free speed and saving on the $5/gallon gas, we climbed to 7500 where it was roaring south at 30 knots. (34.5 mph) At 7500 feet, which is far, far higher than I usually fly, I could see more of the ground - and more of the clear blue sky above. The middle third of the world, though, looked like someone had taken a dirty eraser and swiped the horizon to smudgily reveal the whiteboard beneath.

My brother has an odd belief that VFR should be flown by landmarks on charts, not with VOR guidance backup. I don't happen to agree at all, but it was a decent training exercise (though I kept an eye on the GPS and the tuned-in VOR anyway. Why take chances?) Fortunately, Cedar Key airport, CDK, is pretty much 110 miles nearly straight south (178 degrees). As long as I held my heading, life was good.

It's easy to fly by landmarks in Alaska; there are mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, and glaciers for convenient landmarks. It's hard to pick things out of a lower 48 sectional map, where you can go a hundred miles and only see one or two contour lines. So I got better at how to pick out towns, what a four-lane road looks like from the air, and matching river squiggles on the map to river bends on the ground. I also noticed, no matter how busy Jacksonville center seemed with commercial traffic, that the skies were awfully empty. For the entire trip down and back, I only saw a handful of other planes in the air.

Cedar Key was thankfully easy to find - it's on the biggest island of a bunch jutting out into the gulf of Mexico. Cedar Key airport was not - it's barely 2355 feet of faded light sand-colored asphalt half-hidden by trees on three sides. Of course, the island it's on isn't that big. I knew where it should be, and I set up on downwind well before I actually saw it. When I did see it, it looked very, very small. I also had a problem making my brain go through the normal landing flow - all of downwind, base, and final for runway 23 is over water. I don't like getting that close to the water - at home, hypothermia will kill you quickly if anything goes wrong. So the first pass, with a brain still adjusting, I saw the final straw - a twin on the runway. That's it, I went around. The second time I could see the runway, and with that guiding reference, everything else could be made okay.

We didn't get to spend any time at Cedar Key, because the phone call to the wife of we're here and safe produced a "please be back home in time for dinner." So we looked at the other airplanes parked there, watching out for cactus on the ground that's a disaster for airplane tires and three-year-olds (The niece has been to Cedar Key before). Then it was back - but the helpful tailwind was now and unhelpful headwind, we only climbed to 4500 feet, where it only slowed us by 20 knots.

That is, first we went along the shoreline at 600 feet, and I ogled at seeing palm trees in a native habitat. (They do grow wild! really!) Then we followed a river, and my brother used this as time to show off 21L's snappy roll rate by trying to track the river bends down the center at 110 mph. I'm not a great fan of this - it stretches my comfort boundaries, does not fall under "gentle handling", and the mild G's, akin to a roller coaster, puts acute pressure on the injured neck. My brother flies C130's at 50 feet with night vision goggles - he thinks this is a really fun game in bright daylight and a small plane. I played along, doggedly, a little sloppily, and much more gently.

Then we climbed to 4500 feet, and came home in time for dinner. I've decided that either I'm growing accustomed to hearing Southern English, or that VLD only has one controller who mumbles, because I can understand most everything I'm getting from approach, center, and towers. I'm still not responding quickly because I have to think about it - and this annoys my brother, who wants responses snapped out like lightning strikes. This, too, is a difference between a 200-hour VFR pilot like me, coming back after two years off for physical therapy, and a 2000-hour pilot who does this for a living with the military as much as a difference between our temperaments.

No matter; we made it down and safe, paid for the gas, and made it home in time for dinner.

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