Early May flying adventure

Each year, I try to visit Columbia, CA at the beginning of May for a fly-in with camping, canards, and tequila.  It’s a beautiful airport with on-field camping, and a real pleasure to attend.

This year, the weather didn’t look as promising, but I figured I’d keep my head on my shoulders and play it by ear.  I got a standard briefing and watched the weather, and it looked like there might be a window to get to where I wanted to go, so I loaded up the plane and headed out.

Taking off from 77S  on Friday morning, I headed south towards my first stop, Redding, CA.  Ceilings were about 3,000′ AGL so I stayed near I-5 for most of the route.  I flew through some light rain along the way too, but nothing bad.  One eye on the moisture, another on the outside air temperature, and another on my airspeed.  Wait, how many eyes was that?

For most of the trip, my ground speed was a sedate 90kts because of headwinds, so the flight south took quite a bit longer than usual.  I also spent some time maneuvering for weather, most significantly after Medford.  The pass near Ashland had some crummy low clouds along the ridge.  As I got closer, I was eyeballing it pretty fiercely.  Ahead, I could see open air on the other side, but the window between the ridge and the cloud was less than 200 feet tall.  “@#*$ that, that’s a sucker hole”, I announced aloud to myself.  I banked the plane and turned back to the semi-clear sky behind me.  Considering my options, I climbed up to about 8,000 to take a look over it.  Ahead, I saw that this was a cloud bank that just covered that pass, and there was a big, stable dry path to the Dunsmuir valley, so I flew on top for a few minutes and emerged in a nice clear valley.  It was a little bouncy, but compared to the claustrophobia of the Medford valley, overall a nice change.

I followed I-5 down to Lake Shasta, getting bumped around a little bit along the way, but nothing extraordinary.  Some intermittent rain hit along the way, but I kept the temperature up using altitude so no problems.  Finally, I trudged my way into the Central Valley and down towards Redding.

I landed at RDD and grabbed some lunch at the Chinese restaurant.  As I ate, I watched the weather.  Looking east, I could see the hills clearly, but there was obviously some rain out there.  Pulling up weather on my phone, I could see that something yucky was moving through parts of the valley, but it looked like the route into Columbia was still fine, so I finished eating and headed back into the air.

My route was fairly simple: Go direct RDD->KGOO->O22 so I could safely avoid the Beale Air Force Base TFR.  I would skirt along the edges of the MOA to the north of it, then make my dogleg to KGOO and continue into Columbia (O22).

As I flew, I noticed a pattern beginning to develop.  The ‘little line of rain’ I had seen actually extended much further than it looked to the eye, the cloud bases were beginning to drop ahead of me, I found myself needing to navigate around tiny scattered baby clouds that were just sorta hanging out at all levels, and the terrain below was mostly canyons and cliff faces.  The rain was picking up, and while the temperature was high enough that I didn’t worry about ice, I started to get a funny feeling at the back of my neck.  30 minutes into the flight, I was north of Chico and something didn’t feel right, so I shut off all distractions in the cockpit and went over the list in my head:

  1. Dropping cloud bases ahead.
  2. I needed to maneuver around small clouds to find clear spots.
  3. The rain was increasing, affecting my visibility.
  4. I was being kicked around with moderate turbulence meaning there was active winds bouncing off the canyons.
    and then the hint I had missed all along hit me:
  5. Those baby clouds were at ALL levels.  I had even seen some down below me, touching the ground.

Suddenly, I realized the implications of my mistake.  The temperature was trending downwards towards the dew point, and the adiabatic flow was probably the only thing keeping the ceilings as high as they were through brute force if nothing else.  In simpler terms, I was probably in the middle of a cloud that couldn’t really form ONLY because there was warm wind  holding it off for an unknown period.

I immediately responded.  I noted my heading, then made a 180 turn.  Sure enough, the big open area I had flown through minutes before was slowly closing before my eyes as clouds formed in the calm spots.  I chopped the throttle and descended to remain clear of the clouds, then let my feet do the walking on the rudder pedals as I stole a couple quick moments to cross verify my position on the chart.  Plotting my escape, I decided to divert to Red Bluff, CA, a hop, skip & jump south of Redding.

I worked my way east, exiting the mess that was forming and zeroed in on KRBL.  Along the way, I noticed the winds picking up and the rain getting heavier, and with them came more of these battleship-sized clouds steaming their way across the sky at all altitudes.  I stayed well clear of them and came in to land on runway 15.  After I touched down, I parked, shut off the engine, then just rested for a moment, suddenly weary.

Eventually, I grabbed my gear and went into the FBO to check weather.  Sure enough, this offshore storm was moving in and dumping a bunch of crud all over.  I hung out in my cockpit for an hour or so, checking how things were developing and taking a little nap, then decided this trip probably wasn’t going to work out.  Columbia was started to get boxed in by weather, and a quick call to the organizer of the fly-in revealed that turnout had been quite limited so far.  Checked in with the local Enterprise rent-a-car and while they had nothing in stock, the gentleman there kindly offered to give me a ride up to Redding to try my luck up there.  That was super cool, ‘Jim’ at Red Bluff Enterprise is tops in my book, and I’ll definitely be doing business with them when possible.

I grabbed a shuttle to the Comfort Inn and stayed there until the next morning.  I spent the first half of Saturday splitting my attention between re-runs of Law & Order on TNT (RIP Jerry Orbach, you were great), my laptop with aviation weather websites, and the window showing me the sky outside.

After lunch at a local cafe, I headed out to the airport.  The ceilings were up and the rain was starting to slake, but the winds were howling.  I stood out by my plane and watched the sky for a while.  Those battleship clouds were still around, but they were all at least 1,000 AGL and more scattered than before.  But they were booking!  The ASOS was reporting 20kts gusting 28kts, but it was right down the runway.  I watched a pair of helicopters blast past, heading north, then watched a Cessna 185 come in to land.  He came in slowly, inching his way down to the runway like he was a helicopter himself because of the wind, then carefully taxied over to where I was waiting.

“How’s the ride up there?” I asked.  He said it was fairly smooth.  He was heading south, so he had been fighting this headwind the whole way, but he said he could barely feel any turbulence.  Thanking him, I headed over to my refueled Warrior and took to the air.  My no-flaps takeoff roll was nonetheless short, and I had to dance a little on the pedals to stay coordinated as I made the turn to downwind and picked up 40 kts in a few seconds.  Tuned into the Redding VOR and D->RDD on the GPS, I blasted up I-5 at an indicated 120kts and a ground speed of about 145kts.  This was with me throttled back, too, so it was quite a ride.  Occasional gusts would give me a little ‘push’, but I had a nice margin on my IAS so it just felt like bumps.

Closing in on Redding a few minutes later, I looked ahead and decided the weather forecasts were either optimistic about the Shasta Corridor or that I was just getting too conservative in my old age, so I called into the tower and set up for landing.  One thing really caught my attention and that was the increased radius of my turn from downwind to final!  I had planned ahead, I thought, but it was obvious I had underestimated the energy expenditure of that 180, so my pattern was a little pot-bellied.

Landed no flaps, I still managed to make the first turnout, then it was over to the Jet Center to check out weather again and do some real thinking.  It was becoming clear that my usual Siskiyou pass route wasn’t going to work.  There were low ceilings developing, and I knew this wind would set up a real teeth smasher in the I-5 canyon, so I needed an alternate.  I checked out the weather radar and saw that it was better if I headed east, so I spent some time in Google Earth checking out some routes before finally deciding.  I would fly RDD-089 (Fall Rivers Mill)->LMT Klamath Falls.

I carefully taxied out, did a careful run-up, then took off into the 20kt headwind.  I made the careful 180 again then screamed across the countryside towards Burney Mountain.  As I turned east, my ground speed dropped from 150kts to an almost lethargic 130kts, and I climbed joyously into the clear air (well, clear below a 10,000 foot overcast I guess) and reveled in the freedom of being able to maneuver.  As I closed in on the ridges, I thought about the incredible mountain-wave and vortexes these winds might be creating, so I stayed high and steered clear of them on their downwind sides.

Breaking free of the Valley, the weather immediately improved…  then got choppy.  As I turned direct towards Klamath Falls from 40 miles out, I tried to radio a turbulence PIREP to Flightwatch, but they weren’t able to hear me or I them, so I contented myself with actively trying to avoid chipping a tooth each time I was slammed up and down in the cabin.

It smoothed out as I entered their Class D airspace and my landing was nice and smooth.  One notch of flaps this time, and still, made the first turnout.  I was starting to notice a trend…

I decided to take a little break and get an updated weather picture, plus there were some friends in Klamath I wanted to see, so I spent an hour hanging out and watching the Wx.  Finally, it was time to head out, so I jumped back into the cockpit took off.  As I was holding short of the runway, the tower was talking to a commuter that was coming in to land the opposite direction on the same runway.  He asked me if I was ready to go, and I was.  “Cherokee 33139, winds 160 at 5, cleared for immediate take off runway 14.  Start your left turn as soon as possible.”  Acknowledging, I took to the runway and took up.  I climbed a couple hundred feet before turning crosswind.  As I did, I looked over and saw the tower was right next to the runway and I could have legitimately started my turn early enough to fly by.  Keying up, I said “Shucks, looks like I missed my one chance to actually buzz a tower!”  After a moment, the controller radioed back with a chuckle: “Yep, you did.”

I headed north across Klamath Lake.  There weren’t any weather stations ahead, but the radar looked promising so I flew on up, getting bounced around a bit over the water for some reason.  Snapped some pics and then hit a little rain.  Checking the outside temperature, I saw that it was almost zero, so I immediately chopped the throttle to descend to warmer air to pick up a safety margin against icing.  Once or twice as I was descending, I saw a couple of tiny white spots on the wing.  No actual ice, but it looked like a couple of water droplets had hit the wing and exploded….  then parts of them had stuck.  That’s as close to ice as I want to get, so I watched them closely as I descended.  outside temperature rose to a couple degrees, but now I knew I had to make a decision.  The route I had chosen would take me just outside the Crater Lake wilderness area and would require a climb from where I was now.  Looking ahead about 10 miles, I could see the rain continuing, the clouds dropping, and the ground rising until everything met.  I clucked to myself, then did another 180.

Turn turn fly away,
live to fly another day.

I pulled up weather on my iPhone using the fantastic AeroWeather app and contemplated routing back through Klamath to Medford then up I-5, but the only station in that valley between them described some iffy weather, so I flew back to Klamath and landed just as it started to rain in earnest.  My friends picked me up and took me to their home and gave me a nice place to sleep, then I was out the door at 6:00 Sunday morning and grabbing a weather briefing.  It didn’t sound to good, so I started to think an Amtrak exit might be best for now.  I thanked the briefer and hung up, then walked out to meet my taxi.  A few minutes later, I was looking up at the sky and seeing big patches of blue, so I called back for an abbreviated briefing.  “Say”, I started after giving him my tail number.  “What can you tell me about weather north of Eugene?  Any holes or big breaks in coverage I might be able to use”?

It was the same guy I had talked to, and he gave me the bad news.  No good openings, there was an AIRMET for icing to 25,000′, and the Eugene area looked cruddy.  “The train it is.  Heck, it was worth a shot considering this clearing sky above me, but it sounds like I can do this flight another day.”  He offhandedly responded with “I think you made the right decision the first time”, and I had to agree.  It gnawed at me a little, but years ago I decided to stick to weather abort decisions, so I got onto the train.

10 minutes out of the station, it became obvious that I had chosen correctly.  The mountains were in the clag, the blue spot over Klamath Falls was stuck in one tiny spot and closing, and every direction I looked, it was a mess.  We quickly transitioned from rain to snow then worse, and I have a small album of pictures to prove it.

I’ll probably grab a train back to Klamath in a few days when it’s nicer.  “Time to spare, go by air” and all, but it’s still an adventure I’ll always remember.  It might not feel glorious or anything, but I know I picked up some good experience that will serve me in the future.

Plus, who knows?  Maybe next year I’ll actually be able to go camping.  🙂

PS: I wrote the above while on the train.  Now that I’m back in Eugene, there are big chunks of blue sky above.  I found myself second guessing my weather abort, but then I gave myself a mental slap on the cheek.  “Ben”, I scolded myself, “I’d rather be thinking about how I might have been able to make it than discovering that I definitely can’t”.

– Ben Hallert

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