The Natural State

‘You know, in my hometown of Hope, Arkansas, the three sacred heroes were Jesus, Elvis, and FDR, not necessarily in that order.’ – Mike Huckabee

Left base: Runway 19, Searcy, AR

Stopping in Branson last night was kind of a dream come true. You know the dream. You’re surrounded by well meaning people who are trying to help you but, as hard as you might try, it’s impossible to understand a word they are saying. That’s Branson. We’re talking about a town with a massive electronic American flag welcoming you to town, Yakov Smirnof as the multiple winner of “Branson’s Funniest Comic” and a 220 foot viewing platform named Inspiration Tower. For us blue staters it was a reminder of the differences that lead other parts of the country to vote red.

Austin, again, wasn’t an option. We launched, only to make it ten minutes blasting through the sky before finding unreported low clouds that sent us 180 back to Branson West. Instead of living another 36 hours of our own personal version of Lost in Translation, we started looking around for other options. Luckily, it didn’t take much searching.

Beth got out the maps and we realized that we were only an hour flight away from my Dad’s place outside Little Rock.

When the clouds are low all the visual traffic is compressed into the remaining airspace. We scooted along at 140mph and scanned the skies eagerly for other traffic. The good news is that low clouds also keep most people on the ground. During our skip from Branson West to Searcy we saw only one other plane, a Cessna 172 like ours a couple hundred feet below and a thousand or so feet to our right.

As we flew we consistently reached out ahead of our path listening to weather reports from airports in our flight path. With some assurance that conditions at our 12 remained safe, and not just legal, we bored holes in the sky and soon found ourselves near Searcy.

We approached the airport from the north and wanted to land on runway 19. This is essentially a southbound runway. The standard practice is to descend to pattern altitude and enter 45 degrees to the downwind. This is a good idea in general, but especially in Searcy. The town is directly north of the airport so trying to flying straight in would put the plane a thousand feet above the ground while flying over downtown. That’s just being a bad neighbor. With that in mind we stayed high over the town, overflew the airport and then descended to pattern over the farms to the east of the airport.

A couple quick left turns later and we were back on the third rock and ready to spend a couple days with family.

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Branson West

‘Again, your challenge is not just to improve. It is to break the service paradigm in your industry or market so that customers aren’t just satisfied, they’re so shocked that they tell strangers on the street how good you are.’ – Jack Welch

Left base: Runway 21, Branson West, MO

The plane is running excellently in the cold winter air. We’re three and a half hours from Chicago, after having to wait most of the day watching the clouds go by. We had a very nice view of them given how low they were. Eventually we got our window and launched west toward the setting sun. Flying this way allowed us to get out from under the low stuff and allowed a climb to more civilized altitudes.

Turning to the south we cruised through the sunset and winter-clear starlight until we arrived in the neighborhood of Branson West. Thanks to our high altitude we were able to be on flight following the entire trip down. Having big brother keeping an eye on the sky and giving a heads up if anyone gets close is a welcome reassurance when the entire field of view is covered with a maze of lights. Stars, streets, signs, radio towers. It’s easy to miss another plane.

Our goal for the day was to get to Austin, but that isn’t going to happen. It’s 19:30, we’re four hours away and the fog and low clouds are due to come around midnight. That’s a bit too much for this VFR pilot.

Though I’m not yet IFR rated, my flying is definitely better as a result of the training my instructor has been giving me. I’m way ahead of the flight and feeling good as I turn final into KFWB. It’s definitely a shame to be leaving the smooth air and diamonds in the sky behind, but there is only so far this little friend can take us in one leap.

I land. Sort of…

Let’s just say it wasn’t one for the highlight reel. Didn’t bend the plane though and my navigator didn’t judge it nearly as harshly as I.

We pulled onto the taxiway, started to head toward the flight office and were pleasantly surprised to hear, “3SP, Branson West Unicom, just head down the taxiway to the end and pull off to the lit up building, we’ll be waiting for you”.

Normally this wouldn’t come as a surprise, but we were over seven hours late and I knew that operations were advertised as closing at five. We turned off the taxiway and saw the familiar orange vest and glowing wands of a rampy guiding our ship those last few meters to a safe resting place.

Tired from the long day I ran the shutdown checklist and smiled watching the rampy scurry around the plane throwing down a couple wheel chocks. Then came surprise number two.

“Hi, welcome to Branson West. Are you Rich?”

“Why, yes I am! I’m surprised you guys are still here.”

“Yup, we’re here. We aren’t those other airports! I’m Jamie, glad you made it in, I’ve been waiting for you and another plane.”

Jamie, the airport manager and not just a rampy, had stuck around well after the nominal closing time to make sure his customers got the service they needed. He and I had exchanged a couple emails as I enquired about the costs of stopping there (in short: much less than anywhere else in the area) and how we might be able to get some food quickly (he offered to have someone run to a nearby restaurant to get us some eats that we could inhale during our fuel stop).

Our original plans having been chucked overboard, we now imposed on him to help us find a hotel and a sit down dinner. He, of course, succeeded in that task easily and even had the bulk of the paperwork for a rental car pre-filled out and waiting for us in anticipation of our need. While we finished making arrangements he ran back out to the ramp and gassed up the plane so it would be ready the next morning.

Compared to any other airport we’ve been to, the level of service was the best. Taking into account that he stuck around after hours to deliver it made it just that much more notable. We’re looking forward to stopping back for another load of fuel on that way home.

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Instrument Training

‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit’ – Aristotle

It is bitterly cold and dark as a cave when I get to the airport. The ground and the air are both bone dry. I’m trying to get some training done before the snows come later this week.

The mission tonight is to avoid losing a fingertip to frostbite while flying my first instrument approaches.

The first part is accomplished with my lobster claws. These gloves were first introduced to me years ago for skiing. They have three fingers on each hand. My index and middle finger share a mini-mitten as do the pinky and ring finger. The opposable thumb sits alone as usual. This configuration allows most of the flexibility of a glove as well as most of the warmth of a mitten.

On my head I have a thick fur hat with ear flaps. It is much better at keeping my head warm than helping me look cool. Guess I’ll have to rely on my pilot license for that part.

Flying the approach

Leaving the world behind I get under the hood. Without any visual references I fly south on instruments, following the virtual road beamed out from a VOR at the destination.

As I prepare to descend my instructor tells me that the airport is closed and I need to enter a hold.

Holding patterns in aviation is the equivalent of getting out a deck of cards and playing war. At end of day you’re bored and have lost an hour of your life you’ll never get back. Further, holds are very rarely used in day to day flying.

Still, it’s a skill you need to have when the time arises. There are three ways of entering a hold. But before talking about that it would help to have a mental image of what a holding pattern looks like.

Imagine a racetrack in the sky. The long flat sides are flown for a minute at a time. The round ends are flown as one minute 180 degree turns. All of instrument flight is built around the notion of a “standard rate turn”. That is, one that will turn you around 360 degrees in two minutes. From that it becomes obvious that a 180 degree turn is a one minute turn. A holding pattern then becomes four one minute legs. One minute straight. One minute turn. One minute straight. One minute turn. Do it again and again until someone tells you it’s ok to stop.

It’s boring stuff.

Luckily, after a couple laps, my instructor has pity on my and clears me for the approach. I finish the hold I’m currently flying and rejoin the beam to the mothership. Next is descending to decision altitude. Since I’m flying a non-precision approach I’m going to fly at the decision altitude and look for the airport until either I see it or my hunting license expires. Since this is a training exercise under completely clear skies, all I have to do is look up and I’ll see the airport. That’s not allowed. My instructor tells me that we’re still in the clouds and I begin the missed approach procedure. This consists of a climbing right hand turn and a return to the holding pattern.

After a few more laps we declare the mission a success and head for home and warmth.

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