Lesson 96
19 December 1998
2 hours

Fighting the Wind

My plan was to fly north from FCI to our house and take a few photos, now that the leaves are off the trees and the house is visible; then fly on to Lake Anna, turn northwest and fly up the lake to Orange County airport and land.  On the way back, I figured on flying southwest to Gordonsville airport, and then southeast back to FCI.  It seemed a simple plan.  Chris was coming along for (good) company.  The weather forecast looked good for the Saturday.  The airplane was my favorite 172, N75709, which I'd reserved for the whole afternoon, so we'd have plenty of time to enjoy the trip and to hike around a bit at Orange County..

But late Friday afternoon, I got a call from Dominion Aviation:  709 was down for maintenance (I found out later that the new engine, with just over 100 hours, had blown up).  I could have N73852 instead, but only from 9 to 12 in the morning.  Okay--even though it would mean getting up early and having barely enough time for the trip.

0800:  The weather briefer said the wind at 3000 feet was 210 at 23, so I figured that into my nav log without really thinking about it, and woke Chris up. The sky was overcast, so I phoned the FCI AWOS.  "3500 broken," it said.  "Visibility 10."  Now quite the bright, sunny day I'd hoped for, but good enough, so I woke Chris up.  At 0830 I woke Chris up.  That time he ate some breakfast, and we headed for the airport.

The windsock drooped straight down, and by the time I finished preflighting the airplane I'd forgotten all about the wind aloft.  I was mainly preoccupied by a note on the dispatch box saying that the DG was precessing and was unreliable.  The magnetic compass in that airplane is hard to read, so I was glad for the GPS in my flight bag.

But as soon as we got up to fifty or sixty feet above runway 15, the wind caught us so strongly that I crabbed 15 degrees and still was blown way off the runway line.

I climbed straight out to 2000 feet and, without thinking far enough ahead, commenced to turn right, thinking to pass the field well to the west, away from the pattern.  Normally this works better than departing from the downwind leg because Richmond's Class C airspace begins only about a mile northeast of FCI.  Today however, it was probably not so smart--because that wind was a whole lot stronger than the "210 at 23" that the briefer had predicted, and the higher we climbed, the faster it carried us back toward the pattern.

Finally I ended up crabbing on a heading of 330 to hold a course of 360.  That means the wind was probably more like 230 at 45 or 50.

We crossed the river and found the house.  I circled it a few times at 1300 feet--which is right at the 1000 foot above-ground-level minimum for densely populated areas.  Chris snapped a few photos (I'll add one or two later), and we headed north for Lake Anna.

The wind was, if anything, growing stronger, and I wandered back and forth, trying to find a crab angle that would keep us more or less on course.  We crossed over I-495, but not where I'd expected to be, so I corrected and corrected again.  Then I un-corrected--and so on.  Eventually I realized that I didn't know precisely where we were.  Nothing on the ground looked familiar or seemed to resemble anything on the sectional chart, so I gave up on pilotage and used the GPS.

A few words about that GPS:  It's an early model that I bought years ago for hiking.  All it does is tell you the heading, speed, etc., and lay down your trail.  It has no maps or other data, but will remember waypoints and you can also program waypoints manually by telling it the latitude and longitude.  In other words, it's two or three generations behind the new handheld GPS's designed for flying.  On the other hand, it's paid for, and the new ones all cost well over $500. I was gritting my teeth, about to buy a new GPS, when I discovered a Palm Pilot program called "FlyingPilot" that reads data from a simple GPS that you plug into the Palm Pilot's serial port and does most of the things the new GPS's do.  So that's what I used to navigate with on this flight.  I'll just say "GPS" from now on, but I really mean GPS connected to Palm Pilot running the FlyingPilot program.

Okay, so I followed the course line on the GPS and in a few minutes we could see Lake Anna ahead.  At the dam, the course to Orange County airport is 314, but our heading was generally about 290, and our ground speed varied between 100 kts and 70 kts.  The lake and the GPS took us directly to the airport--although we were almost directly over it before we saw it.  With this wind, the clear runway choice was 25.  I was still a little high on base and final, but the wind held us back, and we touched down neatly on the numbers and stopped just a few feet past the one taxiway, midfield.

We went to the head and walked around briefly, then it was time--past time, as it turned out--to head for home.

Took off and headed straight out for Gordonsville.  I wanted to land there or at least do a touch-and-go.  But the GPS said our ground speed was 63 knots--with 110 indicated--so when we finally spotted the field, with its short, narrow  runway, I just turned away and headed for FCI.

With such as stiff headwind, there was no sense in trying to fly any higher than necessary, so I dropped down below 1000 feet, which put us below the worst of the wind, and in fact we flew most of the way at 800 feet, making about 95 to 100 knots over the ground.

I love flying low!  It really feels like flying.  The problem is, though, that you can't see very far, and in that area there's not much in the way of landmarks--no roads to follow and few things to tell you where you are.  So the GPS was very helpful there.  All I had to do was follow the course line on it (on the Palm Pilot, actually) and it took us right to the airport.  The wind disappeared again when we approached the end of the runway, so I just quit crabbing and lined it up straight and level, and the tires touched down so smoothly and soundlessly that it didn't seem we'd landed at all.

We were on the ramp with the prop stopped at 11:57--just in time for the next party to fly out and probably get caught in the rain with no DG.  But I'm not going to fly any more cross-countrys in such a short period.  It's aggravating to have to hurry back when you're having such a good time.

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