A few days after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston (September 2017), I got an email from the Colorado Pilots Association looking for pilots to fly badly needed supplies (diapers, formula, toiletries and sleeping bags) to either Rockport or Houston, Texas. The request came from Operation Airdrop, working closely with The Salvation Army. The catch was: it was all being run from Facebook, and I don’t do Facebook. I guess the time had finally arrived for me to join the real world, and play along – with Facebook. So I did. I started my new account, and it was off to the races.
When I checked into the Operation Airlift page, I found out that I needed to call up my friends, neighbors and relatives to donate the needed items and then fly them to Texas from my hangar at Denver Metro Airport (KBJC). So I got the word out, and in two days I had enough donations to fill two Cessna 172s. This was going a lot better than I expected. After breakfast with the guys at the airport on Saturday, a few of us went over to the hangar and packed up all we could fit onto one plane and got it ready to leave just after sunrise the next day.
I lifted off a little before 7 am. The first leg to Panhandle Carson County, Texas (T45) went great. The haze was not too bad, even though the fires in most of the Western states from California to Colorado lit up the sectional with TFRs to make the country look as if it had chicken pox.
After a quick refuel at this really nice, little, out-in-the-cornfields, airpark with great accommodations (crew car, snacks and a clean restroom), I went out to chat for a moment with the manager, who was busy moving AgCats around on the ramp preparing for a busy day dusting the Texas panhandle crops.
Then, it was off to Waco (KACT) Regional. The further south and west I got, the better the visibility was. I needed to stop a little short of Houston, as I had been advised that I should not expect fuel near the flooding area, and not to plan to stay long, as they wanted planes in and out as quickly as possible – no lingering near the hangars where they were loading and unloading donations. Between fuel price and travel distance, Waco would be a good choice for refueling, the round trip for the offload, and then returning to overnight, before going on to Denver the next day.
Upon landing, I went inside Texas Aero, the FBO just east of the tower, at the center of the airfield, for a soda. I found a young lady at the desk anxious to help me find a place to stay when I returned from Houston in a few hours. Then off again; I head for Houston.
By the time I got to Hooks (KDWH), it was a little after 5 pm. I used the 7000 x 150 ft. runway, but it was the first time I got the option of a 2,500 ft. waterway to land on if I needed. Tower helped me find the right hangar. The airport was pretty quiet, and I was a little concerned that the workers might be gone, but a group of volunteers came pouring out of a hangar as soon as they heard me coming. I pulled up, killed the engine, and they said I should take a break while they unloaded the plane. A couple of minutes later and I was ready to head back out. They were so prepared – it was almost anti-climatic. We all took a few photos and then I headed back for runway 17R.
A bit over an hour later, and I was cleared back into Waco Class D. They already had the runway lights on, as the sun was setting, for my southbound landing. With the smoke in the air, though fairly thin here, it made for a radiant pink sky over the city.
Back inside Texas Aero, I picked up a map to the hotel, made an order for a top-off, and let them know that I’d be leaving at first light in the morning. They said “great,” and that they would be putting my plane inside their hangar overnight at no extra charge, and I was welcome to use their crew car, which was actually a Ford 150 pickup truck, to get to the hotel about five miles away. Needless to say, I have a new special place in Waco next time I go back.
After a long day of flying, it was time for a shower, a meal, and a good night’s rest. Check, check, and check.
The next morning arrived, just after I had shut my eyes. I saw a clear, bright and cool day, with only a slight haze in the air. No problems anticipated… yet.
Runway 19 was the active. With a much lighter load, we climbed out easily at 800 ft/min, up and over Lake Waco and a right turn back up to the northwest. We left the home of 500 ft elevation airports and headed for the 5,000 ft elevations. Our next refuel was Borger, Texas (KBGD) at an elevation of about 3,000 ft. So, I planned to fly at about 4,500 ft. (MSL) over a lot of Class G, avoiding the Dallas/Fort Worth Class B and the Amarillo Class C. As the smoke got worse, I remembered that one mile and clear of clouds was still legal. “This should be fine,” I thought. There were no clouds, and the visibility was at least 10 miles. I was tempted to call it CAVU. But not just yet.
With my mission accomplished, and now heading home in an almost empty airplane, let me tell you what I have in my box of crayons.
I’m a fairly low-time pilot, who just (four years ago) decided to reactivate my single-engine land license after 33 years that I first got back in 1978. Re-licensing was a bigger job than I had anticipated, considering how much the rules and regs and charts have changed. And then there are the new avionics that have come along. I bought a new FAR/AIM, bought an iPad, found some new friends at my local airport, and went to visit both Denver Center and Denver Tracon.
Next, I bought and updated a ’74 Cessna 172M, 180 hp. PennYann powerplant and prop, with a Garmin 530W and a new integrated GPS glideslope CDI, high intensity strobes, and landing/taxi lights.
Whenever I fly out past the general hometown area, I contact flight following, as I did on each leg of this mission. I also now take a second iPad along so that I can use the yoke mounted one for sectionals with WingX Pro, while the other tracks my course on low level IFR maps. This way I can fly the pink line on the GPS, and use the second CDI to stay in touch with local VORs in the event we lose our GPS signal, and we certainly have in the past. There seems to be a lot of GPS testing out of White Sands and Fort Carson that affects us occasionally in and around the Colorado area.
That’s the setup, here was the rub – I was sensing the tip of the iceberg was just starting to rise up out of the fog/smoke.
The haze I was seeing was beginning to get worse the further north and west I got. Those California wildfires were starting to send a lot of smoke out my way. I was now seeing that the horizon was less defined than it was earlier. I found myself checking more frequently on my artificial horizon than usual. I was studying for my instrument ticket, but I wasn’t there yet. This was my first flirt with the possibility that we might not get home.
Landing in Borger, the viz was still being reported as 10+, but I was seeing 5, 6, and 7 in the Denver area up ahead, and I really didn’t know what that “actually” looked like from the air. I just knew it still appeared to be “legal” VFR.
I refueled and chatted briefly with the FBO attendant, grabbed a nut-bar, and headed for the plane.
As I climbed out of Borger, I planned to stay a little lower, about 1,500 ft AGL, to begin with. It seemed that the higher I went, the worse the visibility of the horizon got. I checked in, per usual, with flight following, got a squawk, and almost immediately I was told that they would probably lose me on radar shortly (due to the radar coverage in this area and the nearby mountains). I should check back in about 20 minutes to reconfirm radar contact. Well, I didn’t like the sound of that at all. I wanted to be in radar contact all the way. In this haze, I wanted somebody else watching out for other planes around me. So, I checked my IFR route map and saw that the local MEA should be about 7100 ft. I informed ATC that I was going up to 8,500, heading 320. “That should keep me on his radar all the way.”
The further I went, the worse it is got, and I was beginning to see why I really needed to get my instrument rating. It isn’t just about flying through the clouds, instead of over or under them. I’ve been uncomfortable in turbulence, and near thunderstorms, but never because of visibility.
It was time to get on the ground. My charts showed that I was just a few miles from La Junta, Colorado. It’s a pretty small town, with a lot of history, just east of Pueblo, and douth of Colorado Springs. Back during World War II, there was an Army airfield just outside of La Junta for training pilots on the B-25s. They had three runways, of which two are still active – one 6,800 ft and the other 5,800 ft in length. If you look at KLHX on Google Earth, from the air you can still see all three runways, and a heliport.
This looked just fine for an alternate. Even if it’s only two runways these days.
I called flight following, and told them I was diverting to La Junta. As I began my descent to about 1500 AGL, ATC canceled following, told me to remain VFR, and squawk 1200. I was on my own now, which normally is just fine, but that day, with the viz down low, it just didn’t feel right/safe.
Legal, in Class G, is one mile and clear of clouds. The airport is in a Class E extension from Pueblo, which was three miles with standard cloud separation, and clouds were no issue – what exactly does one mile vs. three miles really look like? It’s hard to say, when smoke is so diffused and variable. I’m used to setting up on an airport that I can see four, five, six miles or more away. That was not what I was seeing there.
I continued to follow my new pink line, and estimated an approach for about a one-mile final. When I got there, I was a little high, because I didn’t want to be running into a tower at an airport I had never seen before, while I still didn’t see the runway. When the runway did appear, I was off to the side just enough that I was not going to be able to land safely, so I moved out a bit and ran upwind where I could turn around and, trying to keep the airport in sight, in the smoke, made a landing the other way, with a slight tailwind. It was less than five knots, but the runway is 5,800 ft long, and I didn’t want to fly back around and risk losing sight again.
Still watching for towers, a little high, a little fast, not as “stable” as I’d prefer, I lined up on the center line, probably a half-mile out, pulled the power, set up a forward slip, descended to the runway and pitched to get back to my touchdown speed. We used up about half the runway, but this was the right runway for a longer-than-usual landing.
Perfect landing, with a higher than usual ground speed, and I was really glad to be back on the ground.
When I got to the FBO, the manager asked how it went. Said he heard me reporting, and that he had two other planes outside who also decided to postpone their flights today.
Once again I was offered a crew car, and directions to Boss Hogg, for some great BBQ ribs, and a beer, that I was ready for now. I knew I was not going to be flying for a while; maybe tomorrow.
I can also tell you that smoke looks a whole lot crummier from the air than it does from the ground.
I learned a lot that day. I now know how important those visibility reports are – a lot more important than I previously understood.
My additional takeaway: next time I see my arrival plan going south, I’ll set up for a GPS or ILS arrival, and then fly it VFR, access the safety parameters of the instrument arrival chart, while flying it with my VFR minimums.
Now I know that one mile, clear of clouds is something I don’t want to see again when I’m flying VFR. As a matter of fact: three miles with cloud clearances – FORGETABOUTIT!