TRIP TO COPPERSTATE, 2011
After I flew to Oshkosh this summer, I got a brochure for the Copperstate fly-in in Casa Grande, Arizona, a bit southeast of Phoenix. So, based on how successful the trips to OSH & back were, and almost as a lark, I said to my wife, Karla, “How’d you like to fly in the RV to Phoenix in October?”. She thought it would be a great idea, so I began planning for it.
My WingX and ForeFlight apps on my iPad make it very easy to plan even such a long trip. We both agreed we wanted to make the journey at least as much fun as the destination, so our plan was to allow 3 days out, 3 days there, and 3 days back, without any heroic long legs and certainly no night flying. While night flying was part of my pilot training, and I did it then without a second thought, after gaining experience, there’s no way I’m going to fly at night, except perhaps a short distance over terrain I know very well on a clear moonlit night. The plan was to do one 3-hour leg each morning and another 3 hour leg each afternoon. The tanks hold 19 gallons each side, but for weight and balance, I was limiting us to about 32 gallons for each leg. Neither of us cares to fly as long as the plane is capable of with full tanks, anyway, and with leaning, we cruise at about 8 gph.
The big day, Tuesday October 18 arrived. We got up at 0530, drove to the airport, and got the plane ready. After the preflight and weather brief, we took off. As soon as the plane popped up off the runway, the oil door popped open. Darn! I KNEW I had left that screwdriver on the wing for a reason, but I’d apparently overlooked latching the door, and had just put the screwdriver away. So, I eased it back down to the runway, taxied off, shut down, and closed the door. At 0800, we lifted off for real this time, and headed toward New York City. The plan was to fly the New York VFR corridor to see the Manhattan sights, then head west. It was cloudy, but high enough for us to fly at 4500’, and calm.
About halfway to New York City, the radar was showing rain there, so I informed ATC Flight Following that we were going to change route and proceed directly to our planned first stop, at 2G9, Somerset County, PA. We flew through a couple very brief showers. The flight was nice, and we enjoyed the terrain. We were against 15-25 mph headwinds, even at 4500’, so our groundspeed wasn’t great. The terrain, especially over PA, was interesting – mostly flat with ridges of regular height. Because Karla had not made a “pit stop” since about 0600, she was getting quite uncomfortable, so we landed earlier than planned, at KAOO Altoona, PA. It was nice and sunny at Altoona. The terminal building had a restaurant, so we had a great lunch there, in a window booth with the sun shining in.
Even though Altoona has commercial service, and thus Security Directive SD-8G, it was a nice, laid-back place. We checked the weather ahead, and the clouds and rain were increasing. Ahead of us, our next destination, 1H8 Casey Municipal, IL, was showing rain, but the rain pattern was in a large C-shape. I figured by going further south, toward KHNB, Huntingburg, IN, we could go into the center of the big “C” and get further west before hitting the rain. After refueling, we were off again. Soon the sun went off too and we were back in overcast conditions again, but continued to fly under the cloud cover. The scenery was very nice, with lots of farms and valleys. We went through the south part of Cincinnati Class B and crossed the Cincinnati River twice. There was substantial turbulence south of Cincinnati – about the only significant turbulence we encountered on the whole trip. The autopilot handled it smoothly. The weather continued to go downhill.
By the time we got adjacent to Louisville, KY, KHNB ahead was showing rain, so we stopped at KJVY, Clark County, IN. Again, it was a nice airport, with friendly, helpful people with a most delightful charming, Southern type accent. By now the weather conditions were really worsening and lots of wind and still cold with temps in the 50s. We tried to get the canopy cover on the plane, but it was so windy we needed a third set of hands. The fuel truck driver helped us and we got it on the plane.
Once back in the terminal, the FBO people got us a room at their special rate at the Candlewood Suites, a 2 year old motel, and brought us over there. The room was really nice and the place was bright, clean, and the people were very helpful and friendly, so overall not a bad place to be stuck. There was an Outback Restaurant within walking distance, so dinner was good. However, walking back, it was not only cold and windy, but then starting to shower.
Back in our room, we began planning our next stops for 2 more days. Meanwhile, the weather was deteriorating all over the area and eastward to Nebraska. The TAFs for the next day did not look good at all.
We called Enterprise for a car, only to find out all they had were pickup trucks and I mean big, full-size, 4-door pickup trucks. Enterprise came over, in a fire engine red Dodge Ram pick up with the full 6-person cab and a hemi engine to pick us up, with the promise to charge us for a compact car! At the office, we lucked out and a Chevrolet Impala got turned in as we were bemoaning the fact that they only had huge trucks to rent us. So we grabbed the Impala instead of the red monster truck, and we went to Walmart to buy Karla a hooded sweatshirt, as she’d been cold all day.
The guy at Enterprise also recommended a good barbeque place where he used to work, just down the road. So, after our Walmart shopping, we headed to the Texas Roadhouse, complete with buckets of peanuts on every table and hot rolls that they make there and bring to your table the minute they come out of the oven. A couple oddities we found in all the restaurants we visited in Clarksville – they still allow SMOKING in Indiana restaurants, and tap beer is available only in either 10 oz (too small) or 22 oz (too big). Luckily, the smoking section was far enough away from where we were so it really didn't bother us. We had another very good meal.
The airports where we landed made us appreciate the amenities they offered; much better than being stuck at some small airport with no amenities and no vehicle.
On Wednesday, we awoke to wet roads and wind, although there was enough of a break to possibly fly west. It was highly tempting to try to make it west. It was marginal VFR; 1100 to 1500’ OVC. After waiting all day to see if the ceilings were going to trend up or down, they didn’t move, but by then it was too late to go. It was highly tempting to try it, as it was all wide open VFR beginning a couple hundred miles west of us. Then, after we’d decided we were not going, about 3:00 it started misting, so I guess it was a good call to stay.
On Thursday, the morning’s weather did not seem to be as bad as the TAF had predicted, and it was again very tempting to try going west. The wall of VFR was now only 50-100 miles west of us, and ceilings still 1100-1500’ between us and the VFR. Karla wasn’t happy with trying it, and, based on how many extra days it had taken to get west, we were both concerned about getting back home in time to resume our jobs as scheduled, if we ran into any more bad weather. So, we decided to stay put and head back east on Friday. So, instead of heading to the airport, we went to Denny’s and had a nice breakfast, then went to tour the Marengo Caves. It was only in the 40s, with a NW wind. It was also too late to consider continuing west, as we were still 2 days away, and the show only runs for 3 days, ending on Saturday. So, we’d have tried flying for 2 days to get 1 day of the show, if no other problems.
We did actually get to Kentucky long enough for us to cross that state off our bucket list. One of the two big bridges crossing the Ohio River from Indiana is out of commission for awhile and we were headed to explore some caves in Indiana, but had to cross the river into Kentucky to pick up the highway. Traffic was badly backed up, and stop-and-go for about half an hour to get over the bridge. Only thing was, because of the other bridge being closed, we ended up taking the detour and, you guessed it, it took us right back across the same bridge we came over! Ha, ha, ha. Not to be outdone by construction, we found an alternate route and went to the Marengo Caves via the "scenic route", which consisted of mostly small, neat houses and a grain elevator. We did, however, drive parallel to the longest train we have ever seen. We found the caves, a national historic site, with no difficulty, as there were billboards advertising them every 5 miles or so.
As it turned out, they were very interesting. We took both tours; one consisting of a 40 minute walk and the other a bit longer, lasting about 70 minutes. Really fun and interesting, and I finally learned how to tell the difference between a stalagmite and a stalagtite; the one ending in "tite" are the ones growing down from the top and the others, "mite" coming up from the bottom because you might trip over them. Another little joke, but an easy way to keep them straight in my brain.
It was a teachers convention or fall break or something, so LOTS of kids with their parents at the caves. Right up our alley. Both times we got into large group tours. Had we waited, we could have practically had a tour to ourselves but oh no, we had to get into ones with tons of over excited kids. The second tour, we were a bit smarter and got to the front of the line with the other childless couples. The good thing is, the caves stay year round at the same temperature 52 degrees, so Karla was comfortable wearing a stylish zip front sweatshirt in your basic light grey color and with a hood and lined in fake sheepskin from Walmart, plus a down vest over that. We also noted very low ceilings, into the hilltops, as we drove west to the caves, so it was just as well we didn’t try to fly west that day. We had a great Mexican dinner Thursday night.
Friday morning, we checked out of the motel, turned the rental car in, and went to the airport. In preflighting the RV, I saw that the back half of the nose wheel pant was smashed and torn off. I hadn’t noticed it when we landed. I talked to the lineman and asked him if he’d seen it when he refueled us when we landed. He said he did see it, and had assumed I knew about it, and was just flying it that way. It certainly wasn’t like that when we left Altoona, and I don’t recall anything bad or unusual about our landing there at Clarkesville. So, I removed the rest of the wheelpant entirely. I have no idea what happened to the wheelpant, but some sort of conflict had obviously taken place.
Here’s a real oddity - I’d noticed before, after buying the plane and flying it awhile without the nose wheelpant, then installing the wheelpant, that it did not seem to fly as fast with the wheelpant on as it had with it off. Sure enough, after removing the wheelpant and taking off, it seemed my indicated airspeeds at my usual cruising 2300 rpm were about 10 mph higher than they had been since installing the wheelpant last spring. Not a scientific analysis, but it sure seems that way, seat-of-the-pants.
We left Indiana at 0945 Friday morning, in sunshine and calm skies, with high hopes of getting home easily. But Mother Nature was not smiling on us, and apparently we were meant to spend more money before getting home.
Anyway, the plan was to go over the mountains of West Virginia, then on to KHGR Hagerstown, Maryland for lunch, then home. However, the clouds gradually got thicker and lower as the terrain started getting higher. We left Indiana at 5500’, but toward the end, we were down to 3500’. Eventually, it was clear that we were not going to be getting over the Appalachians, so we stopped at W22 Upshur County, Buckhannon, WV. It was getting pretty cold, too.
Although W22 is a very small airport, there were extremely nice people again and they had a courtesy car for our use and of course a BATHROOM!!!! The guy in charge recommended a great restaurant downtown which we gladly took advantage of.
This town is also home to Wesleyan College. Main Street is like small towns used to be, and in fact Buckhannon was voted one of the best small towns in the country. After lunch, we rode around in our extremely classy old, smaller model Chrysler courtesy car with an “I Would Rather Be Flying” bumper sticker! We drove about 40 miles out into the rising Appalachian hills and back, touring the area.
We figured we were in coal country, and the terrain was mostly hardwoods with gently rolling hills with some beef cattle grazing on the hillsides. We saw some of the loveliest foliage we have seen this season. Then back to the airport, but too late to leave, and the cloud cover still too low anyway, so no chance to get home today. The airport guy recommended several local motels. We had a great dinner in town and spent the night in a nice hotel.
The next day, Saturday, was clear and we had a nice local breakfast, took the courtesy car back to W22, preflighted, and took off northeast, direct to Springfield, at 5500’. However, soon the dreaded clouds made their appearance again, and so we climbed to 7500’ to get over them. We were also enjoying 20-30 mph tailwinds. However, as the miles wore on, the clouds (below us this time, rather than above us) got more and more prevalent, until we were flying over a solid overcast. I kept checking the METARs ahead, especially at Albany, and it kept showing Broken and seemed to be opening up with time, so we flew on, hoping for a hole when we needed it. Karla had never been on top of an overcast, and she found it quite eerie.
When we got to Albany, there was a hole in the overcast over the airport, the first I’d seen in a couple hundred miles, and they were reporting 4000’ Broken. So, I asked ATC if I could go from 7500 to 3500 over the middle of their airspace. They said “no, but you can go to 5500”, to which I had to say “unable, due to clouds”. A couple minutes later, we’d gone past the big hole right over the airport, but there was a smaller one ahead, and then they approved the big drop to 3500’. The slot was small enough that I had to turn northwest to clear the clouds as I came down through it, but they approved that, too, so down we came at about 5000 fpm.
Shortly after leveling off at 3500’ and resuming on course, however, it became apparent that the 4000’ Broken Albany was reporting was really more of a fluke hole that was just sitting there all morning, and that conditions under the clouds were really more like about 3000’ OVC. So we went down to 3000’, then high 2s as the ceiling got a bit lower, and continued toward Springfield. However, it was quickly becoming apparent that we were not going to make it over the Green Mountains, so down we went again, at Bennington, where there were NO people and NO services. At least we could get inside the terminal building, though, and it had internet. I pity anyone who is forced down at Claremont or Springfield, for example, because they’ll find NOTHING – transients can’t even get inside the building at Springfield if it’s after-hours.
Anyway, after careful review of the terrain and the weather for half an hour or so, and not wanting to be stuck another night, especially in a place with no services, I decided that we could probably fly west, pick up the valley north to Castleton, then southeast through the pass to Rutland, then east through the pass at Okemo to Springfield. My WingX was a huge help in visualizing terrain levels. It seems ironic that I felt OK with scud running in the mountains of Vermont, but not as OK with it in the flatlands of Indiana. Of course, there’s also a big difference between 2500-3000’ ceilings and 1100’ ceilings, too.
So we took off from Bennington and headed west to get the valley north to Castleton. As soon as we were airborne, it was immediately obvious that this plan was going to be bad news. To the north and northeast, it had become nothing but solid white all the way to the ground over the Green Mountains, and appeared to be zero visibility and raining hard where we wanted to go. But in every other direction, it looked just fine; more like broken or even scattered, and at higher levels. So we instead turned south and flew down the valley and through the pass to North Adams, MA, staying halfway between the OVC and the ground, then followed Route 2 east over to the Connecticut River. Then we followed the river up to Springfield, and landed there without further incident.
As it turned out, we could have stayed on top of the OVC and just come down through what was by then just Scattered over NH, but at the time we were over Albany, it was the first hole I’d seen in a long time, and I felt I’d better take the hole I had, to make sure I wasn’t stuck on top of a cloud layer, especially when OAT was mid to low 30s.
It was quite a trip! It was lots of fun, despite the setbacks and the fact that we didn’t make our goal. But we’d left with the specific intention of just doing the best we could and understanding that we might not make it.
After going through that, I decided that I was definitely going to get my Instrument Rating. I immediately signed up for the King online ground school and one of those 10-day intensive instrument rating programs at a place called PIC . But then I found out it was going to cost $12K, plus the $5500 for the 10-day program, to equip the RV with what I’d need for it to be IFR-legal. Karla argued that, for someone who only takes a trip like this a couple times a year, it wasn’t very cost-effective. Plus it would have been a big financial stretch right now. So, I cancelled the IFR training. If I come into a chunk of money sometime, I might put what I need (a Garmin 430 and upgrades to my autopilot) into the RV and go for it at a later date.
We’d like to try it again sometime – we’d probably add an extra travel day to each end, to help make sure we can make it all the way without running out of time. It sounded like this year’s Copperstate was great. If only we could have made it a bit further west, it would have been clear VFR all the rest of the way.
Other trip reports HERE
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