An ideal flight: helping a stranger on Christmas

My 80th Angel Flight was supposed to be on December 23rd— an easy hop from Martha’s Vineyard (KMVY) to Boston’s Logan Airport (KBOS). That day was generally rainy and misty with low ceilings.
It was freezing rain at my home airport in Nashua, NH (KASH). Above, it was warm. In-between was a forecast for supercooled liquid drops.

Yah… didn’t fly that one.

Instead, number 80 happened late on Christmas Day. The plan was to take a 73-year old patient named Giovanna, and her pal Cristal, from Nantucket (KACK) to Boston. She needed to be in Boston early on the 26th for chemotherapy.

I spoke to Giovanna’s daughter on Christmas Eve day. She handled all of her Mom’s travel arrangements. At that point, everything looked good, but I promised to call again after supper (1900, when the TAFs would be updated).

ForeFlight reindeer METAR
Read those airport notes carefully…

Briefing later in the evening was good for a laugh. The folks at ForeFlight set their system to sprinkle in “weather” like “Santa in VC of airport,” “flying reindeer in traffic pattern,” and “Happy Holidays.” It was very well done. The statuses changed and didn’t hang around for long. The (actual) forecasts indicated an absolute milk run.

After a frantic gift exchange early on Christmas morning, I checked the weather again. Hmm. The Cape Cod area could be MVFR. Warmish, and no icing, so it was all good.

My wife, daughters, and I went to my sister’s house for the Mayotte family Christmas at noon. You know how you’re never supposed to discuss religion or politics? We did. It was all fun and games until a racist and homophobic rant wrapped it up. Aw geez. There’s nothing like the holidays with your own family. <sigh>

I had called Bob at Nashua Jet Aviation (one of the FBOs at Nashua) earlier in the day. He was holding down the fort solo. He planned to bail early, but promised me full fuel before he ran off. I arrived at the plane at about 1530. The OAT was 20, so I started preheating at once. Predictably, the airport was completely and absolutely dead— except for me and whoever was in the tower. The wind had died, so while cold, it wasn’t like the surface of Mars. (The normal state of affairs at the airport in winter.)

It turned out that the clock at my sister’s house was slow, so I was behind schedule even before I started.
I hate that. I always want to arrive early. Rushing invariably causes problems. Runway 32 was active, but with no traffic and no wind, I asked to depart off 14. (That end is a mile closer to my tie-down.) With a density altitude of minus 2000 feet, and just me aboard, performance was lively. I climbed and got pointed at 1B6 (Hopedale) in less than a minute.

It’s funny how time flies. I got down to Hopedale in what seemed like hardly any time at all. Shortly after turning southeast at Hopedale, I dialed up the ATIS for Nantucket. Nothing. I tried their VOR as well. Nothing. Oh wait, both were still over 70 miles away! I guess I was mentally prepared for MVY (the previous destination). Nantucket is 24 miles further on.

Speaking of Martha’s Vineyard, you can get there without much risk. The distance off shore isn’t that far.
Nantucket, on the other hand, is surrounded by quite a lot of cold water. The normal plan would be to fly high to be able to glide long.

The MVFR forecast turned into reality, but out over the water, it was even lower than advertised. I was in the clear at 1500 feet, but “clear” was all relative. There was nothing to see. No horizon. No water. Nothing at all, really. “JFK, Jr.” type conditions.

I got one of those “Am I headed for Spain?” feelings. I had 121.5 dialed in. The Garmin 530 was displaying a continuous readout of radial and distance from the Nantucket VOR. If I had to go in, I wanted to be able to transmit a good location before I got wet.

ACK runways
That big, long runway would be nice – but it’s not available today.

Out of the gloom came a lighthouse beacon, and then, finally, the lights of the island. Nantucket was landing on Runway 33, and curiously, that was the only runway they had lit. The VASI for 33 was NOTAMed out of action. I had been hoping for 6 or 24. The big runway has approach lights at both ends, and centerline lighting down the middle.

I got on to the left downwind, and experienced the old “runway on black velvet” routine. I had to go out over the water for a proper final. Didn’t really want to. (You know… “Spain”) Between the shore and the runway, there’s nothing. I kinda figured I might end up high, and that’s exactly what happened. Luckily, I had 4500 ft. of runway to scrub off my airspeed and altitude.

So… geo-referenced airport diagrams… I used to pooh-pooh them. Mark me down as an absolute believer now. I got a fast “Echo Bravo to the ramp. Remain this frequency.” In the old days, I would have been scrambling for the approach plate book. Now? The computers make it easy.

With the iPad Mini and ForeFlight guiding me, I got to the ramp. It was dark and deserted. I remember looking around and trying to make out where to park. No – wait – a fellow frantically waving his arms… perhaps over there. Obviously, I had been expected. Almost immediately, the patient, her friend, her travel agent daughter, and (I think) her son swarmed the plane. We got the Angel Flight release paperwork squared away by flashlight.

Giovanna wanted the back seat. She was quite impressed with the blankie and little pillow back there,
but mentioned something about “like a Model T” that I didn’t find very amusing. Cristal claimed to be the adventurous one, so she sat up front.

Sometimes I wish “surprise me” was a choice on the flight plan forms. Usually, you file what YOU want, and get what THEY want. I filed “FREDO” at 4000. It seemed sensible. It was TEC Route approved.
I actually got it!

I’m not sure what my passengers expected for a takeoff roll (something horrible, I guess). We were up and off in a flash. Both of them expressed surprise. Speaking of surprise, I got a “proceed direct Boston” almost immediately.

Climbing to 4000 should have been a snap, but I struggled with a minor bout of vertigo. I needed “right;” the plane wanted “left” or at least that’s what it felt like. Climbing and accelerating into darkness. Vestibular/somatogravic illusions. Oh my. I was probably gritting my teeth and leaning oddly, but I’m sure my passengers didn’t notice anything. We were over an undercast, and under an overcast. Until we got north of about Plymouth (KPYM), it was absolutely black.

Logan lights 33L
Those long lights will guide you in for runway 33L at BOS.

We got a delaying vector (“turn right, heading 080”). Oh no. Ice cold water. Spain! It didn’t last long. Actually, we jinked over to the final approach course for Boston’s 33L. I expected the ALSF-2, centerline lighting, and touchdown zone lighting to be awesome, and they didn’t disappoint. All of the red and green lighting was appropriated. Have you ever noticed that approach lights have a cross shape?

Giovanna asked if I liked landings. I burst out laughing. They’re the only things that passengers remember. I came over the lights at 120 knots, reconfigured, and got a perfect (and I mean PERFECT) tip-toe landing out of it. I got a big burst of “I can’t believe I’m allowed to do this!” feeling.

I hustled down to Lima. (The left turn at the end of the 10,000 foot runway.) At Nashua, if a controller named Lenny tells you to “hustle,” that’s code for “Someone is on short final. Move it!” The Boston controller asked if I was still squawking. Sure I was. Maybe ASDE (Airport Surface Detection Equipment) can’t register objects moving that fast!

Signature was quiet, but not completely dead. They parked us right out front. Because it was Christmas, the patient had somehow earned a free limo ride. Sweet! Before she was whisked away, I received a little gift bag (organic chocolates), and a hug.

As for me, the security lady wasn’t too concerned with security, and got me right out of there. My clearance home was “VFR, direct, at 2000.” For blast off, I was sent to 4R at Charlie, via Bravo Charlie, OK to cross 4L. And yes, geo-referencing made that really easy even in a dark sea of multicolored lights.

As is the custom at Boston, they wanted me “on course” almost immediately. In practice, that means “wheels off the ground, and turn.” That’s the way they move airplanes. Having a Skyhawk climb out on the centerline takes an eternity in “Logan Time.”

The tower was talkative. “How is it up there, tonight?” Get out a Sharpie and write “STUNNED” on my forehead! Logan is normally 100 percent all-business.

“Great. Clear and calm,” I answered. He said something about it looking great. I offered, “The 33 left approach lights put on quite a show for my patient.” (They probably don’t look like anything from the tower.)

“Nice night for it”, he said.

I came back with, “Ideal is the word I’d use. Yes, sir. Absolutely ideal.” (Hat tip to Danny Kaye in White Christmas.)

Hanscom (KBED) passed off the left wing, and once near Cross Point (the old Wang Computer headquarters at the intersection of Routes 3 and 495 in Lowell, Massachusetts), I squawked VFR.
I flew over a tall chimney in Lowell covered in lights. It looked like a giant Christmas tree. It’s impressive from the ground. It’s even better from the air.

The Nashua runway 32 edge lights, PAPI, and REIL, twinkled brightly. At eight miles, I was cleared to land. I asked the tower if there had been any action at all. “Just you,” came the reply. What a great day: 3.0 hours total, 0.6 day, 2.4 night, 0.8 night IMC. Didn’t get wet. Didn’t go to Spain. Helped a stranger on Christmas. Ideal.

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