Leaving for Mexico, Part 1

Today it’s 25 degrees with a light wind. Tomorrow it’s forecast to gust up to 35mph.

So off we go to Mexico a day ahead of schedule. Once again everything gets packed up and piled up. Weight and balance is checked and comes up way over, so we trim down. Jason gives us a ride to the airport and we move everything from car to airplane. For the first time we are flying in our own plane, but otherwise everything is the same.

It’s a cold morning at 753 feet above sea level. Lots of thick air with which to burn fuel. We push 2TF out of its temporary home in a Fox Flying Club hanger and into the bright sunlight just as the airport truck shows up to blow a stream of hot air into the engine to warm it up.

After 20 minutes or so we start up the engine and the ground slips quickly away as we move toward a warmer destination.

After a few hours we stop for fuel in Harrison, Arkansas. While fueling up Beth calls ahead to Austin and finds there is no room at the inn. Apparently some big conference is in town and consuming all the hotel rooms. Harrison has a Hampton Inn and Boone County Regional Airport has a super helpful guy working that offers to drop us off and pick us up since the courtesy car is already gone for the evening.

We arrive at the Hampton and decide to try the bowling alley across the street for a couple beers. It’s a typical redneck hang out in a low budget town. Unmonitored children are loudly trashing the pool table, but the beer is cheap and cold regardless of whether you want Bud or Bud Light. The sign on the cash register makes me wish I had my Jefferson dollars with me. Jefferson is one of my favorite presidents, so when the mint issued the Jefferson one dollar coins I bought a few rolls and carry them around much of the time. I give them to random people who practice acts of kindness.

Imagine my amusement upon reading the sign on the cash register saying “We do not accept the one dollar coins that do not say In God We Trust”. First, what a dumb issue to take a stand on. I’m sure they would feel differently if they were in a Christian minority nation and the expression said “In Allah We Trust”, even though the first amendment states clearly that the government should not take a stand on religion. Worse though, is that they don’t know what they are talking about. There is no coin missing that inscription, the one dollar coins simply have it on the edge (along with the more nobel “E pluribus unum”) instead of the face.

In any case, we head for the door and back to the hotel to get some sleep before pushing on in the morning.

Morning comes and kindly airport dude fetches us back to the airport. The same cold weather front that forced us out of Chicago caused a frost here in Arkansas last night, so we’re stuck until the plane thaws out. I push the plane into the sun and we hunker down in front of our iPads waiting for the warmth to set in.

After 20 minutes or so I wander back out on the ramp and find puddles of drip water under the wings and tail. I flip the plane around to defrost the windshield and we resume getting the plane ready to go.

We taxi to the threshold of 18, run-up and takeoff.

We make it a few miles down the road and find that the winds aloft are well in excess of forecast. Instead of making 110kt over the ground, we’re at more like 95. Given our weight limitations this poses a big issue. The problem is that fuel has weight just like everything else in the plane. Given the amount of baggage that we have, we had to make a compromise between the amount of fuel that we can carry and the amount of stuff to be brought to Mexico. With the headwind that we’re currently facing, we won’t have enough fuel to make it all the way to Austin so we have to go to Plan B.

Winnsboro Muni Airport is our new destination. It’s about halfway between Boone County and Austin. This is good for us as it will allow me to get the fuel I need to arrive safely in Austin, but still burn enough off to buy fuel in Austin.

Why does this matter? Flight planning is a multi-variable problem. Time and money being two of the main variables. Money quickly sub-divides into fuel, landing fees, parking fees and ground transportion. It turns out to be cheaper for us to land at Austin-Bergstrom and pay the high fuel price there than to land at one of the other airports in the area and pay higher ground transportation costs to get downtown. Austin also has Atlantic as one of their FBOs and I like them. They cater to the jet crowd and make me feel like an adult when I come visit in my toy plane.

Back to the fuel. The reason getting fuel in Austin makes sense is that Atlantic will waive parking fees if I buy fuel there. To simplify the math: If I’m going to spend $100 in Austin one way or the other, I may as well spend it on fuel since they will bring out the shiny truck and do it for me. If I spend it on parking then I have to pump my own gas somewhere else. By getting only the fuel I need in Winnsboro I optimize time and money at the same time. It’s a minor victory for the day.

Thanks to ForeFlight we are able to determine that Winnsboro has a courtesy car and a nearby BBQ place called Bodacious BBQ. Living in Chicago we don’t often enough get Texas BBQ so this makes Winnsboro an easy choice for our fuel.

I’m still quite new to this plane and getting used to how it handles. It’s a tailwheel aircraft which makes the landings a lot more difficult than tri-gear airplanes. The reason for this is pretty easy to explain. Imagine you are pushing a shopping cart at the grocery store. It’s pretty easy to keep it going the direction you want, right? Now flip it around and try to steer it by pushing it from the front of the cart. It takes a lot more attention as the cart wants to flip around. This is what a tailwheel airplane wants to do.

One of the things we’re taught as tailwheel pilots is that if you get into a bad spot, apply full throttle, go around and try again. I’m about 50 feet above the runway and the winds shift. There is a row of trees next to the runway and the winds feel like they shift 180 degrees at the tree line. I’m not happy with this surprise and decide to go around. This is actually the first time I’ve gone around in this plane, but it’s not a complicated procedure.

I reach down to release the flaps as my airspeed increases and am unhappily surprised to find that I cannot retract them. Now things are interesting. “First, fly the airplane” I say to myself as I sit back up and keep the flight stabilized before again turning my attention to the flaps.

I grab the flap handle and push the release button as hard as I can while I wiggle the handle to release tension on the lock. My problem seems to be that the release is already stuck open. The flaps should be free and moveable, in fact they should have slammed up, but they are stuck down and I cannot make them move.

I continue to fly the plane.

Flying a plane with three notches of flaps feels quite different than in a more typical configuration. The only real danger today is from lack of pilot attention, but it does feel different. I turn to make another attempt at landing, but find that I’m again unhappy as the winds shift. This time it’s simply because the landing isn’t a stable approach due to differences thanks to the flaps. Around we go again.

I continue to fly the plane.

I still have no idea what’s up with the flaps, but have convinced myself that Winnsboro probably won’t be that bad a place to spend a few days while it gets fixed and that I’m getting used to flying the plane in this configuration enough that I know what to do to get a stabilized approach on the next attempt.

On short final I’m right on my speed as I descend below the tree line and feel the, now expected, kick from the opposite direction. I correct for the change and allow the plane to settle onto the runway.

We taxi over to the ramp and I finally have a chance to really analyse what’s going on. The flaps are still stuck and the release button is wedged below the handle. Without the vibration of the aircraft and the stress of the flight I notice that as I pull on the handle the plastic grip rotates a small amount. I start to pull it off to see if it’s covering anything interesting at the same time that I realize that maybe it just slid up and is hiding the release button. Sliding it down does indeed uncover the button and restores everything to proper function.

Crisis averted we call the airport manager who comes to let us use the courtesy car. This guy has an absolutely awesome look to him. Deeply sun-wrinkled tan skin, jeans and a tobacco pouch in his shirt pocket. His voice is one that keeps Sam Elliott up at night wondering, “why, lord, can’t I have a voice that cool”. He confirms that Bodacious is a good choice and we head on over.

Arriving at the BBQ joint we find a pretty low-rent place with absolutely delicious BBQ. Like many, this place makes and bottles their own sauce. We decompress from the exciting landing and enjoy the heart attack on a plate as well as the additional heart attacks in styrofoam cups in the form of potato salad and mac and cheese.

Back at the airport we deposit the car, leave a note for the manager thanking him for the hospitality and take off once again.

We arrive in Austin, but they clearly don’t have things stacked up properly for a plane of our, ahem, modest speed. Approach vectors us all over the place and finally gets us on a ten mile final for runway 17L with frequent admonitions to keep our speed up. Eight miles out we are switched to tower and given a clearance to land. There are three jets waiting to takeoff. At about five miles out tower requests a 90 degree turn to the left and passes me back to approach. We are vectored through a 360 degree turn and pass back to tower, at which point we notice the jets are now gone. Tower acknowledges use with “welcome back” and we land in front of another two jets that queue up while we’re making our final approach. Upon landing we are taxiing by the time we get to the 500ft mark that the jets use as a landing target and tower asks us to do a 160 degree turn onto the high speed taxiway going the opposite direction along with a pleasant “thanks for the help” before passing us to a ground frequency.

We sort out the handling instructions and soon find ourselves in one of our favorite places, downtown Austin, with nothing to do but kill time.

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