Saturday, July 03, 2010

Orcas Island [ Part 1 ]

Through school and through work, I've always found that learning comes in bursts, forcing one to drink from the firehose for a short time and absorb as much as possible, while trying to perform one's best, and then (in the best of circumstances) allowing one a little bit of time to try to digest and absorb all that may have been missed in the fury of the moment.

This flight, especially the journey outbound to Orcas Island, was a firehose moment.

We departed at 9:30am on Friday, July 2, with the plan to fly to somewhere in the middle of Oregon, probably Roseburg. Originally we'd thought Salem, but no, the winds were against us. Then Eugene, but no, the winds were pretty strong. So, I planned for Roseburg, filed IFR at 10,000 (the weather was overcast at around 4000' across the state of Oregon, it seemed), and departed once we had our clearance. It was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) as we left Palo Alto, and we climbed easily to 3000' and then 5000' as we climbed over Sunol and Livermore and headed toward Sacramento. Eventually we were given a clearance to 10,000', which, in a Cessna 172 (even the SP) is not a quick destination. We did eventually climb to 10,000, dropping down to a 300 foot per minute climb, then 200, then finally arriving at our assigned altitude.

We coasted across the bright, sunny state of California at what seemed like a snail's pace, in what was luckily an extremely comfortable 172. As we cruised north, we approached the Mount Shasta area, and were treated to an extraordinary view of Shasta, both the mountain and the lake.

Then we crossed into Oregon, and immediately, we were skimming just on top of a thick cloud layer. There were several uncomfortable elements of the trip at this point, one being the state of our bladders, another being the clouds, and another being the state of the right fuel tank, which was indicating .. all over the place, really. It actually looked like it was indicating full, most of the time, but the fuel valve was on "both" so theoretically it should've been emptying like the other tank. So the worry was, what if it's not able to draw from the right tank; when the left tank runs out, are we out of luck? So we eventually asked for and received 11,000, which I wasn't sure we could successfully climb to, but we made it without much trouble. And shortly thereafter, we were at about 3:30 flight time, and the left tank was indicating about 5 gallons to go, so I made the call to divert to Medford instead of going to Roseburg.

In retrospect, by the time I got vectored all over the damn place for the ILS at Medford, I probably could've shot an approach into Roseburg, or close. But, knowing what I knew at the time, this was absolutely the right call. We were in and out of the clouds through the approach, but everything went smoothly, and we circled to land and were presented with a choice of FBOs to dock with. I went with MillionAir, since I'd dealt with them before in Burbank and felt there was value in a sure thing, even though I'm pretty sure it was the most expensive option, because I was feeling a bit overwhelmed at that point. They were awesome; they filled up 30 gallons, and lent us a crew car to go get lunch.

After a tasty veggie burger, we came back to our fueled up plane, hopped in, turned the ignition, and ... nothing. Drat. I'd left the standby power switch on and the G1000 had drained the battery. So, the MillionAir folks came out and jumped us, and we were on our way. Destination: Kelso, Washington (KKLS)!

We departed IFR with a departure procedure, so we followed the procedure and luckily got high enough before the assigned holding pattern that we never had to enter it before proceeding direct RBG and onward. I tried asking for 6000, but got bumped up to 8000 (and 6000 was in the clouds anyway, as was 8000). I was feeling uncomfortable about being at 10,000 and above, especially so close to the clouds, because the plane didn't have much power to spare at that altitude, and what if I hit an updraft? But now, at 8000, the outside temperature was approaching freezing, and we had ourselves a quandary. We could potentially ask to go down to warmer air, but then we'd definitely be in the clouds and we'd have ourselves a bumpy 3 hours ahead. Or, we could go up to 10,000 and hope it put us above the clouds.

I opted for the latter. Interestingly, while trying to make this decision, I heard my friend Tim check in on the frequency! Small world. Anyway, so we climbed to 10,000, and only picked up a tiny chunk of ice on the right wing spar on the way up. That did indeed put us above the clouds, so we coasted along for the next two and a half hours, pretty much uneventfully.

As we neared Portland, approach asked whether we wanted to shoot the approach at Kelso, or get under the clouds and go in VFR. I opted for the latter; it sounded fun, and shorter. So shortly after we got handed off to the next controller, we were cleared for 7000. OK, here's a problem...the outside temp indicator read 30 degrees F. We should theoretically gain 2 degrees C per 1000 feet we descend, but it'll also be colder in the clouds (at least, that's what I'd noticed earlier on the trip). So I told Kay to keep an eye out for ice, and I descended at 500fpm. As soon as we entered the clouds, we started picking up ice. It collected in a thin sheet on the wing spars, and presumably the wings. I knew that I wasn't much below freezing, and that a couple of thousand feet would put me above freezing, so I dived for it. No idea what my descent rate was, but it was a decisive descent. As we got below 8500, we saw the ice start to melt off, and by 7000 it was gone, just like that.

The controller gave us 5000, then 4000, and asked if we were visual. Not yet. 3500, how about now? I was technically visual, but surrounded by clouds and there appeared to be hills below my present location,, I'm staying IFR, thanks very much. OK, 3000, she said, but that's all I can give you. Suddenly I was out of the clouds and over a river! Before I could chime in, the controller, eager to get rid of this particular speck on her radar, asked me: How are you seeing? "We're visual, cancel IFR," I told her. We followed the river and found the airport, and made left traffic and landed.

At the Kelso Airport, Denny Wise greeted us, helped me fill the fuel, recommended a hotel and called a cab. It was an awesome stop, and we got a great night of sleep as I thought about all I'd learned on this day. Diverting while IFR, dealing with icing conditions, even self-fueling the aircraft, were all new experiences, aside from having a plane this far from home in the first place. And, tomorrow, we'd go even further.


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