Spring, 2016. On the last week of my vacation, I did my favorite activity for any vacation: I traveled to the United States to fly. As usual, I would visit some Brazilian friends that were doing their training in Stuart, Florida, half-way between Miami and Orlando, and also do my flight review. Since my last FAA checkride (Commercial Multiengine) had been over two years before, I was required to do this in order to act as pilot in command of an American registered aircraft again. But there was another guy to do an arrangement with: Colin.
I arrived in Miami on Saturday evening, and Sunday nobody flew because President Obama was visiting the region and a TFR was restricting KSUA. Then, Monday, when we finally could take off… well, the storm Colin got stronger, bringing wind and rain to southeastern Florida. After a couple of gray and boring days, finally on Wednesday the weather improved and we got airborne. Ground, flight, and Thursday morning I was ready to go.
In the afternoon, the forecast was for another rainy and windy load, but Friday arrived sunny in Stuart. My friend Bruno and I decided that was our cue to fly. As Nick, another friend of mine that back then was flying for a regional and living in Tampa, was on his day off, we thought of grabbing a Cessna 172 and meeting him in the scenic Albert Whitted airport (KSPG) for lunch.
We ran to the airport and got there just in time to meet a dense layer of stratus at 500ft: the airport was obviously closed for VFR departures. Another hour spent in front of the computer over the NOAA weather resources and, on an exercise of patience and anxiety, we found a gap, filed a flight plan and departed. The outbound leg was pretty easy; we spent most of the time out of the clouds. The air was smooth crossing 130 miles from one Florida coast to another, and it was only on the arrival at St. Pete itself that things got a bit complicated. Although all Tampa Bay was under high ceilings and even sun patches, exactly over our destination airport a cell was releasing all its wet fury.
As soon as we were cleared by Albert Whitted tower to enter the left downwind for runway 18, heavy rain drops begun to pop onto our fuselage, and the airport vanished below the whitish curtain. Back to Tampa Approach, we were vectored for a nice panoramic flight over the city while that cloud moved away.
Minutes later, we were cleared to try again. Remember, I was on my third single-engine piston hour in years, and as I tried to escape the shower still one mile from the final course, I ended up turning my base leg too high and close to the threshold, and had to go around.
Instructed by the tower, I did another right pattern and with more flaps and less power, got the brave 1979 Skyhawk on the glide path once more. It was not the best landing of the week – too fast and flat – but it worked out and half an hour later we were having a delicious burger and pilot talk with Nick. Nevertheless, while we were drinking our sweet teas, Saint Pete weather was preparing a new puzzle.
With uncertain winds over the whole Florida peninsula due to another big low taking shape in the Caribbean, 30,000 ft. cumulonimbus started to build up on a string that went from Tampa to Melbourne, and was moving nowhere. Our CRJ captain friend suggested crossing the wall going north, and then, heading to Orlando, take a southeast track back to Stuart, a two-hour detour in the small Cessna.
We topped the C172 tank with 50 gallons and, cold-blooded, headed to the airplane. Bruno would fly the return leg, and just as it happened earlier, we had again to file an instrument flight plan. Low ceilings and rain over the destination field were even requiring us to select an alternate. Every two or three minutes, we checked the radar images, while a wall was rising up on the horizon.
“Not even in a Boeing could we cross it. We would have to deviate anyway,” I said, mentioning my airline-calibrated parameter for weather analysis, where only near catastrophic weather can prevent a departure. On the other hand, in a slow, light piston airplane, without weather radar or sophisticated anti-ice and de-ice systems, the perspective changes completely.
We weren’t exactly in a rush, but would be good if we got the Cessna back to the school that evening. Bruno noticed that some hard cells that were previously over Naples were now weakening. It is known as the cumulonimbus life cycle: after developing and getting mature, it dissipates, and having watched the weather trends that whole day, we came up with some plausible scenarios.
To the north, the only gap in the rain cloud belt we were considering to use could close at any time and swallow us, I pondered. Bruno filed the flight plan: from KSPG, heading south, then over the La Belle VOR west of the great Lake Okechobee, crossing a whole convective SIGMET, and from there, to Stuart – under +RA at that very moment by the way.
We started and I asked Albert Whitted Ground for the clearance: “Niner Papa Golf, you’re cleared to Sierra Uniform Alpha via radar vectors to La Belle, then direct. On departure, right turn heading two seven zero, climb and maintain one thousand six hundred, expect seven thousand one zero minutes after departure. Departure frequency will be one one eight point eight, and the squawk is four five three four.”
Since on the flight from Stuart I flew and Bruno handled the communications, now it was my turn to read back. On the taxi to the short runway 18 of KSPG, Bruno asked how I felt – none of us were really confident to face those almost summer skies in a Cessna 172. I thought for a couple seconds and, considering how likely it was for us to actually get to Stuart and land, with all the information we had, I answered, “fifty/fifty.”
He laughed, “Me too.” What pilot would be stupid enough to take off with such low odds? But there is the magic, and the big difference among flying in the US and in other parts of the globe. We had an excellent airplane, a totally IFR-equipped six pack and a nice Garmin 430, five hours of endurance, and at the palm of our hands, up-to-date radar echoes of the whole Florida on our smartphones. And last but not least, we had one of the world’s best air traffic control systems.
Yet, more than that or our experience – back then, almost an ATP if put together – we would be overflying a remarkable sequence of airfields, never getting more than 20 minutes from any of them. Which means that, if at any moment the adventure lost its fun, we would stop everything and land.
We took off under fair weather, but the first Tampa area controller already asked while huge cumulus rose to our left, “Is your aircraft equipped with weather radar?” My answer was kind of buried in shame: “Negative, sir.” And he replied, with the best calm and optimistic ATC voice “Ok, I’ll keep you out of the strongest echoes.” And that he did, keeping us safe and on the way home. We flew southbound for 40 minutes, and after leaving Punta Gorda at our right, already with Miami Center, we headed to La Belle.
From there, we flew most of the time VMC and were cleared direct PETNE, the intermediate fix of the RNAV approach for runway 12 at KSUA. Since the runway was closed by NOTAM, Bruno would do a circle-to-land for runway 7. In the end, we arrived at Stuart with comfortable 4000 ft ceilings and 7SM of visibility, and the RNAV was more a formality than a necessity. Bruno flew it beautifully down to a, different from me, nice and greased landing.
At the end of those 3.9 logged hours, 1.9 on the last leg, we accomplished our mission with ease, and an important lesson was learned: it is not every day and every airspace that allows us to take off with a 50 percent margin to arrive at the destination.