A Thanksgiving cross-country adventure

The chirp of the Skyhawk’s tires kissed the runway in the still, central Florida air. I was finally home. This was a quiet end to a relatively long general aviation flight that exercised my abilities and decision-making skills as pilot-in-command.

I was excited at the opportunity to complete a real cross-country trip with my wife to visit family in Tennessee for the Thanksgiving holiday. For weeks prior to the trip, I passed the time planning the flight and picking out the best fuel stops. The plan was finally set. Preflight inspection now complete, we were ready to fly!

Cessna flight to TN
The perfect trip for a Cessna – assuming the weather and the airplane cooperate.

The first planned fuel stop was Harris County airport in Pine Mountain, Georgia (KPIM). This was the perfect stop as the fuel was inexpensive and it was practically on a direct line between my origin, Orlando Executive Airport (KORL), and my destination, Humphreys County airport (0M5) in Tennessee.

After fueling, we took a break at the airport to check the weather and stretch our legs. Weather moved in quicker than anticipated, so we began to look at places to stay to wait the weather out for the night. It turns out that there was a private pilot special at nearby accommodations that provided two nights’ lodging at a nice chalet, a courtesy car to use throughout the stay, and a gift card to the on-site restaurant.

We ended up staying both nights and planned on leaving the day before Thanksgiving to complete the second (and final) leg of our trip. Of course, the weather had different plans. We were going to have to stay another night. After talking to the leasing office, we were in luck. Ours was the only chalet available that night. However, there was a catch: there were no housekeeping personnel available to prepare the house for the next guest.

Discouraged, but not defeated, we began calling rental car companies to see what we could do. No cars were available and no lodging had vacancy. At that moment, the lead housekeeper came by and said she had heard about our predicament and was willing to delay her Thanksgiving trip for a few hours so that we could stay another night. How great people can be! No sleeping at the airport for us that night. Maybe next time.

After staying Wednesday night, we headed to the airport early Thanksgiving morning to complete the trip. The winds were calm, dew point below freezing, and outside air temperature below freezing.  This meant that the plane was covered in layer of frost. We weren’t going to leave as easily as I thought we were on this crisp, cool, severe clear Thanksgiving morning. After trying to melt the frost with plastic bags filled with hot water only to have it re-freeze before drying, we decided to wait until the sun came up to melt the frost. With the frost finally melted and the cold soaked engine reluctantly roaring to life, we departed for 0M5. The flight was uneventful, which was quite the appropriate precursor for what would happen next on this adventure.

We cancelled our IFR flight plan with the airport in sight and entered a left downwind for a full stop landing on Runway 21 at 0M5. The flare was beautiful and the touchdown nice. Once we slowed to taxi speed to prepare for the turn off on the taxiway, I felt a strong right turn. At first, I thought it might have been a gust of wind, but that seemed odd for the calm weather that morning. After coming to a stop on the runway and unable to apply any amount of power to move, I realized my right main tire was flat.

I left the aircraft on the runway. Knowing that the FBO was closed, I wasn’t sure what to do. A nice local pilot helped us find an air compressor, which allowed us to inflate the tire for just long enough to taxi to the tie down spots. I was finally there. I decided that I had enough so far, so I headed to my in-laws’ house and waited until the next day to notify the aircraft owner and find a mechanic to fix the issue.

Several days later, the parts arrived and I found a mechanic to help us out. With this problem behind us, we were ready to depart. The plan for the return trip was to stop in Albany, Georgia (KABY) for fuel and a break and depart Albany for Orlando a short while later. The first leg was again uneventful once we got to our cruising altitude of 9000 feet to get to acceptable winds. The descent into Albany put us in IMC for about a half hour, where I finally felt I was able to put my instrument ticket to good use. After sunset, we departed for Orlando on a calm, clear night. Crossing into Florida, a bright red light illuminated the cockpit. Our vacuum pump had failed.

Vacuum gauge
What else could go wrong?

I understand I could have cancelled IFR and proceeded VFR to my destination, but it was a dark night over quite featureless terrain, so I found diverting to Lake City, FL (KLCQ) to be a prudent decision. That way, I could stay with family, rest, and return day VFR the next day. I loaded the GPS Runway 10 approach into the GPS for situational awareness and turned on the pilot-controlled runway lights. The landing was uneventful. Although I was not quite home, it felt good to at least be in the correct state.

Believe it or not the final leg from Lake City to Orlando was uneventful. The only abnormality was having to ignore the sideways attitude indicator. I do think it is a good idea to get instrument covers (such as those used for partial panel training) to minimize this distraction. During a day VFR trip, this isn’t as big of a deal. However, the vacuum pump could have given up while I was descending in IMC just a few hours earlier.

After 12.1 hours as pilot-in-command and 0.7 hours in the clouds, this trip expanded my abilities and allowed me to put to use the great training I received. One great lesson learned is that part of the flight planning process should include alternate plans and enough buffer time to help combat “get-there-itis.” There is no substitute for a great plan, but as pilot in command, you have to be flexible enough to handle the challenges that aviation can, and will, throw your way. I had a blast on this trip and I can’t wait for the next trip! Maybe the tire and vacuum pump will remain intact for the duration next time.

6 Comments

  • Kudos for not getting in a hurry with the airplane when things started going wrong, and I especially liked your decision to spend the night after the vacuum pump failed. Be careful, however, with commencing another leg of the trip with an inoperative vacuum pump, even on a VFR flight! If memory serves, it is a required component and without it, the plane may not be airworthy and therefore operating illegally.

    The type of failures you experienced are all too common on non-owned airplanes. You generally don’t have a complete picture of the maintenance status of such things (age and condition of the tires, time in service of the vacuum pump, etc.) and it seems like such things have a tendency to fail when put into prolonged use on a long cross country flight on airplanes that typically are used for shorter local flights.

    That said, you were able to deal with the equipment issues because you weren’t in a big hurrican y to get somewhere and had allowed extra time on both ends of the trip, just in case. Unfortunately, that’s the name of the game when flying non-owned aircraft.

    • Thanks for the comment. Fortunately, a vacuum pump isn’t required for day or night VFR flight, just IFR. See FAR 91.205 for details. At any rate, just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. It is a club aircraft and I do help during annuals and 100 hour inspections on occasion. It is used quite a bit for local training, but does, at times, see a longer trip within Florida. Taking my time and not worrying about things out of my control was key here. I know I could have driven it in much less overall time, but that wouldn’t have allowed me to gain this valuable experience!

  • I can only add that the next time a small amount of frost must be removed from the airplane, try it with COLD water. Warm or hot water evaporates more quickly than cold water, and evaporation is a COOLING PROCESS !!! We all observed this during our decades of Alaska flying . . .

    • Thanks for the tip. After I returned home, I started thinking about that. These sorts of things definitely slip one’s memory after living well above freezing for so many years. It’s a balmy 52 degrees as I write this, so we’ll be in the 40s in the morning! It was refreshing to experience the challenge of varying weather across a longer distance. As I close in on my Commercial certificate, this trip will no doubt remain one of my top experiences for some time to come.

  • Patrick! I took my first flying lessons in Orlando and did a substantial amount of flying into and out of KPIM on the way to my private! Next time you make that trip, stop at KCSG in Columbus, Georgia. The Flightways Columbus FBO is the best (no, not the cheapest) and the airport is surrounded by EAA Chapter members who would lend you a car or get you in a hangar (no frost) or otherwise welcome you. It’s almost worth paying a bit more for fuel, but a chalet near Callaway Gardens is a pretty good deal!

    • Thank you for the information and comment. It’ll probably be quite some time before I make that trip again, but I’ll keep it in mind. I’ve found that in aviation most everyone is willing to lend a hand. I’m proud to belong to such a great community and I’m not sure why I didn’t start earlier!

      Callaway Gardens is a nice area and my wife and I are already planning on returning in the future and hopefully putting on a family get-together. It’s amazing the gems you can find when traveling, even if by somewhat of a coincidence.

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