Today was the day of the final leg of my Journey. I would be flying to fly to New York with a gas stop in Pittsburgh, PA. Thanks to a pilot friend, I recently discovered a web site that you can look up the cheapest gas prices along a given route. With Avgas averaging close to $5 dollars a gallon and with a 50-gallon tank, it pays to use this info, and I found an airport with avgas at $3.43/gallon! It also happened to be exactly at my half waypoint along my route. So away I went with an amazing send off by Andrea and her family waving as I tipped my wings to wave back. It became obvious immediately that this trip would be a bumpy one. I tested several altitudes for the least bumpy and realized it was futile. I also found myself with a headwind at every altitude so I settled on 5,500 feet, which gave me the best visibility and enough cloud clearance along my way. By the way, when you’re flying by Visual Flight Rules (VFR) they have designated altitudes you have to fly to keep you safe from oncoming traffic. The way it works is this: Any time you’re flying east you have to fly at an odd numbered altitude plus 500 feet. Flying a westward heading you would fly an even numbered altitude plus 500. I was flying east so I chose 5,000 feet plus 500, which is why I was at that particular altitude. This is a huge reason why maintaining a given altitude is a skill that they harp on in flight school. It’s also a GREAT reason to invest in an autopilot. I just set the autopilot to maintain my chosen altitude and sit back and enjoy the bumps! I have a fairly strong constitution, but after about 2 hours of the bumps I was anxious to get on level ground. Even the ground was bumpy… I kept focusing on the horizon so I wouldn’t get sick, and even considered diving into my oxygen – not quite sure if it would of helped, but I was desperate. Luckily I was not too far from the country’s cheapest source of Avgas so I set up the radios for Steubenville airport, announced my presence and started my bumpy decent. A final task when planning a landing at an airport is to determine the wind direction. There are several ways to do this, but by far the best way is to use your eyes to look for windsocks, flags, smoke, water ripples, etc… Lucky for me Pittsburgh has quite a bit of industry so it was easy to find a smoke stack demonstrating the wind direction. Strangely though, just about every smoke stack showed a different direction, and worse, it looked like the wind was constantly changing at a given location, not a problem if the winds are light but the smoke was nearly horizontal meaning the winds were NOT light. My radio weather reporting was telling me the winds were gusting upwards of 25 Knots, and was alternating directions radically and frequently. This is some scary stuff in that it could indicate wind shear, stormy weather, or radical topography (the way the wind whips between buildings in a big city). Either way it would be a tricky landing that would involve some luck and a whole lot of timing on my part. Anyway, I decided the final decision as to which end of the runway I would chose would be made after flying low over the airport and checking on the windsock. Unfortunately the sock was blowing directly perpendicular to either option so I just entered the traffic pattern for the northbound runway and lined it up. The pilot’s bag of tricks for landing includes the ability to abort an uncomfortable landing and try again. Many of you may remember seeing a video recently of a major airliner doing just that after wind shear pushed it sideways at a Zurich airport?! So I approached this runway with my hand on the throttle ready to abort at any time and try again. It was very tense watching the windsock dance in several directions and experiencing the plane bopping violently from side to side, as I got lower. The main task was to keep the nose of the plane lined up and straight with the runway, which you do by cross controlling the rudder and the ailerons. I was pushing hard right rudder and the stick was far over on the left just to keep the plane straight. I was definitely on the plane's envelope of crosswind tolerances and I was not excited about making this approach twice so I held it as long as I could. Just as I was about to round out (the final bit of back pressure on the stick before the wheels touch) I got smacked with a gust of wind and I immediately hit the throttle a touch to compensate. Remarkably, I didn’t feel the need to go-around as just as I did this the wind calmed down and I was able to ease the Goose onto the runway as soft as I ever had. Wild! This time I was really hoping someone was watching! As I Taxied over to the fuel pumps I was greeted by two older gentleman who seemed very excited to meet me. It turns out that one of the Gentlemen was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and loved home-built planes. At 80 years old he was sharp as a tack and though he said he didn’t fly anymore – it was clear he loved everything about planes. He ended up taking about 20 pictures of the Goose and I fielded every question he had about it proudly. And yes, the $3.45/gallon gas was no mirage. I suppose the difficulty in landing this particular spot is what forces them to keep the gas prices so low… After mentioning my white knuckled approach to them, they both laughed and said “Yep, if you can land here, you can land anywhere.” A slight burst of pride rushed over me, but not enough to quell my nerves about launching in the same conditions (though taking off is definitely easier in cross-winds than landing).
The process for take off is exactly the opposite of landing, as you can imagine, though doing it in reverse is actually a mental “cluster-funny”. The main difference is that when you’re landing, the inputs you put into the stick and the pedals are determined on how much is required to keep the plane straight. When you’re taking off, instead of just guessing the amount you’ll need to compensate for the sideways wind, you start with a full stick into the wind and then adjust as you gain speed back to neutral (no inputs). If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is… especially if you have to think the process through. That’s where experience and muscle memory reign king in flying. I’m at the place where I have fairly solid instincts once I start the process, but still have to say it aloud in my head just before doing it. Anyway, I took off fine as hoped and tipped my wings at my new friends down at the Steubenville airport and started concentrating on getting around the busy Pittsburgh International Airspace that stood between me and a direct line to my last stop on this journey.
Big cities have big airports and big traffic, which led me to my first encounter with heavy helicopter traffic covering the rush hour of Pennsylvania. I was flying a bit lower than I generally prefer in order to stay below the busy airspace of Pittsburgh. Unfortunately helicopters are made for “Low” and I found myself wide-eyed dodging them. I’m sure they loved seeing me there too?! It was fun though, and once I was clear of the area I quickly climbed back up to my comfort zone of 5,500 feet and set the coordinates for home. I also had to reset my clock since I had crossed a bunch of time zones along the way. This was crucial as my good friends and business partner David were to be meeting me at the airport when I landed to meet the Goose and I needed to give them a heads up as to when. Have you ever wondered how the airlines can be so specific when they estimate the time of landing to be at 6:31 pm? It’s the same equipment that I had that continuously computes everything from your airspeed, to the winds outside, in order to come up with a ridiculously accurate ETA. I text messaged David that I’d be arriving at 6:37pm just to see how close I could get. About 30 minutes from the airport my onboard weather map was showing spots of rain and snow in front of me, so I kicked off the Auto Pilot and started dodging each rain cloud individually. I couldn’t believe that after being stuck in a series freak snowstorms on the West Coast (while it was close to 80 degrees in NY) that I was now dodging the same storms on the East coast! The temps had also dropped below freezing at my altitude so I was especially eager to avoid the rain thereby avoiding ice on my wings. I eventually descended low enough to get just above the freezing level and set up to land behind a Lear jet. For my final landing on this journey, I reached over and clicked on both HD cameras and prayed I’d make this one a good one (for the cameras of course). After my practice earlier with the wild winds of Pittsburgh, I was able to “Grease” a landing so smooth I almost had to double check to see if my wheels were touching. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end such a wild ride – other than noticing that it was 6:36 when I touched down and 6:37 by the time I was stopped! I think that if I didn’t have friends there to greet me, I’d likely have just sat in the Goose and bawled for a few minutes. There were a lot of emotions welled up from the whole experience not the least of which were attributed to flying the first half of my journey on the “Edge”. My angel was watching over me and definitely appreciates the concept of wings to hold you up. THANK YOU MOM!