Editor’s note: This article is the latest in our series called “My Adventure,” where ordinary pilots share a memorable flight. If you’d like to share your flying adventure, email us: [email protected]
Dawn lit the eastern sky as the Skyhawk’s engine came to life. I was about to begin a journey that would be as epic for me as the flight across the Atlantic had been for Lindbergh.
At age 61, I was flying from Galion, Ohio (GQQ) to Winter Haven, Florida (GIF). Although I’m instrument rated, I wasn’t current, so I was flying the entire trip VFR using flight following. 1742 Victor doesn’t have an autopilot so I was also hand-flying the entire 1,750 nautical miles.
After departing Galion, I made contact with Mansfield Approach who put me in the system so I would get handed off to Columbus Approach, Indianapolis Center, and Charleston Approach without having to change my transponder code.
Referred to as Raleigh County on the sectional but as Beckley by everyone else, BKW is a non-towered airport with scheduled air carrier flights, a terminal, restaurant, TSA, car rental, and FAA offices. The airport sits at 2,504 msl amid mountains (yeah, I know they’re small by western U.S. standards) and deep gorges at the ends of runway 10/28.
“Beckley traffic, Four-Two-Victor, turning final for One-Zero.”
With winds gusting to 20 mph and my inexperience with flying low and slow near mountains and over gorges, I held the yoke tightly with both hands, waiting for sudden mountain-induced updrafts, downdrafts, and all manner of sideways drafts. But 42 Victor and I easily glided over the deep trench and the Skyhawk’s tires chirped with delight at 9:13 a.m.
42 Victor and I departed Beckley, West Virginia at 10:14 a.m. and banked toward the Pulaski (PSK) VOR in Virginia while climbing to 7,500 msl to get over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
From PSK we headed direct to Barretts Mountain (BZM) VOR under the watchful eyes at Atlanta Center. Soon, the majestic Blue Ridge chain was behind us and we were over North Carolina talking to Charlotte Approach. After crossing BZM, I aimed the Skyhawk toward the Spartanburg (SPA) VOR in South Carolina and eventually Charlotte instructed me to contact Greer (Spartanburg) Approach.
A slight course correction after reaching SPA put us on course for the Greenwood VOR and Greenwood County airport (GRD), the final destination for this leg, Its 631 MSL field elevation is more like what this flatlander is used to.
Runway 27 greeted us at 12:13 p.m.
Rick, the friendly airport manager at Greenwood, filled the tanks, cleaned the windscreen, and wished me a safe flight. I thanked him and told him I’d see him on the return trip in a few days.
I pushed the 42 Victor’s throttle full forward at 1:07 p.m. and on the climb, we turned to intercept V185.
“Greer Approach, 1742 Victor is off Greenwood, VFR, climbing to 4,500, and would like Flight Following to Bacon County Airport (Alma), Alpha-Mike-Golf. I’ll be flying to the Colliers VOR, to HADOC Intersection, and then to the Dublin VOR to avoid Bulldog.”
The Bulldog MOA (Military Operations Area) was the reason I couldn’t fly direct to Bacon County Airport.
Eventually, Greer handed me off to Atlanta who handed me off to Augusta. After reaching Colliers (IRQ), I kept the Skyhawk on V56 to parallel the north border of Bulldog.
“Augusta Approach, Four-Two-Victor requesting status of Bulldog.”
“Four-Two-Victor, Augusta. Bulldog is hot.”
We droned on as planned but a few minutes later, ATC spoke again.
“Four-Two-Victor, Augusta. Bulldog is now cold.”
“Four-Two-Victor copies and turning to the south to go direct to Alpha-Mike-Golf.”
I cancelled the active flight plan in the Garmin, punched up direct to Bacon County, and made my turn.
A few minutes later, Augusta radioed again.
“Four-Two-Victor, be advised, Bulldog went hot again.”
I know it’s unlikely (I hope), but for an instant I pictured the Augusta and Bulldog controllers looking at their screens and smiling, “Hey look, a Cessna 172! Want to have some fun?”
Anyway, Augusta was waiting for acknowledgement and intentions.
“Four-Two-Victor copies. Returning to original course.”
In a multitasking flurry, I cancelled the direct-to course in the Garmin, re-activated the Leg 3 flight plan, and steered back to Victor 56 toward HADOC. I also made up my mind that regardless if the MOA went cold again, I wasn’t falling for the same gag twice.
When the OBS needles and the Garmin both agreed we’d reached HADOC, I turned the Skyhawk southeast to track Victor 51, to parallel the west border of Bulldog on the way to Dublin (DBN). After DBN, we continued on V51 toward Bacon County, Georgia.
Flying the pattern at AMG, I observed wetlands and lots of birds close to the airport. I also noticed there were no aircraft parked anywhere visible. There were no Xs on the runway indicating the airport was closed and nothing in my preflight planning indicated the airport was closed.
With heightened awareness, I made my third touchdown at 2:40 p.m. with another nice squeaker that no one was around to witness.
Feeling like a character in a Steven King novel, I taxied to the self-serve fuel pump and then walked toward the only building on the airport. The door was open and a television was on but the place was deserted. I didn’t see a computer anywhere; however I found a telephone to call flight service.
We escaped Bacon County at 3:22 p.m.
Tracking V157 toward Waycross (AYS) VOR on our way to the Taylor (TAY) VOR, I contacted JAX (Jacksonville) Center for Flight Following.
For more than three-quarters of the total flight, skies had been clear, I had consistently found my visual checkpoints, and my VOR tracking had agreed with my GPS flight plan.
Then, I crossed into the Sunshine State.
After crossing TAY but before I could receive Ocala’s (OCF) VOR, I lost Taylor’s navigation signal.
No problem. I still had ground references and the Garmin to rely on.
Then, finally close enough to receive OCF, a scattered layer of clouds appeared below. JAX Center handed me off to JAX Approach as the scattered layer thickened into a broken layer. I checked ATIS, ASOS, and AWOS systems ahead of me. Winter Haven was reporting a scattered layer.
Only 30 minutes from my destination, I was now above a solid undercast relying on VOR and GPS tracking. I could turn back, land, and wait for the clouds to clear or I could legally continue VFR over the top of the clouds, assuming my destination remained clear enough for landing.
I decided to continue for fifteen minutes. If the clouds didn’t begin to part, as the airports were reporting 30 miles ahead, I’d turn back north or west where skies were reported to be scattered to clear.
About 10 minutes into my 15 minute limit, the clouds parted.
As I closed in on Winter Haven, Orlando handed me off to Tampa. Both had been extremely friendly and helpful after I told them this was my first flight to Florida.
I made my fourth and final landing of the day (also my worst one) at 5:42 p.m. The Hobbs read 8.1 total engine hours for the day. I had flown more miles (875) and more hours today than I ever had. I was a tired but happy pilot.