Race to the Sunshine State
Nothing about flying is certain. Until I am in the air, I am never sure if I will be flying that day. Even then things could change. Especially in the northeast.
Two months ago, I had told my boss, “I might take the first week of February off, if the weather is good”. I know funny way to plan a vacation. But who knew if a blizzard was going to blow through. After all it is still February. After all it is the northeast. Just three years ago we had the back to back blizzards in early February aptly named Snowmageddon that dumped more than 2 feet of snow not once but twice in a span of 7 days.
Weather is a major factor in the flight planning step as always, but other factors can also come into play. Aircraft issues. Airspace issues (after all this was DC). Health issues are usually not so much of a concern. But the flu season has been worse this year. There were one or two times I was sneezing so much, I hoped I wasn’t going to come down with the flu.
We hoped to make it to Fort Pierce (FPR), FL on the first day of the journey. All the pilots doing the trip would congregate there on February 1st and depart in a gaggle the next day for the Bahamas. The schedule was tight. We had to make at least one pit stop for gas en route to FPR. With only 11 hours of daylight and 687 nm greater circle distance to cover, it was going to be hit or miss. Adding a stopover for gas and considering headwinds (worst case) made it pretty stiff schedule. Still we had hope to accomplish this in a day.
The first jolt arrived, the day before departure. The aircraft we were scheduled to fly was going to be at Leesburg (JYO). It had just gotten a new engine. Strong winds, all week prevented moving the aircraft back to it’s home base. This would add another 30 minutes to the trip. Also, JYO was further north, more prone to colder temperatures and precipitation than HEF. With lows dipping below freezing to the 20’s and winds gusting all week, our prospects looked grim. But, by now I was used to these last minute changes (Oops! I think I am headed for Dulles or Welcome to North Carolina).
The forecast for Friday, the day of departure was poor. Snow in the morning until mid morning and winds gusting to 30-40 mph. Still, I was hopeful we would find a tiny window after the snow stopped and before the winds picked up we could still depart as planned. The more south we went the warmer the weather. For good measure, we had the aircraft hangered, so we could depart as early as possible without worrying about preheating the engine. Waking up at 4:30 am I saw it was snowing outside and the winds were already raging at JYO, there was no way we could depart. The winds raged all day.
Saturday dawned bright, and chilly but with clear skies. Promptly a little after 8:15, Linda and I embarked on the most exciting adventure in my flying career. Four aircraft had already arrived at FPR the previous night and were ready to depart for The Bahamas. Since we were departing from JYO instead of HEF, and we had stiff headwinds all the way south, it meant we had to make two pit stops instead of one!
The race was on. That is to get to the sunshine state before dark. We hoped to cover 827 nm with two stops and get to FPR before dark!
The first leg of the journey was uneventful. Unlike California where most airports have restaurants on the field, it seems not too many airports in the northeast cater to GA pilots by conveniently providing those $100 hamburgers on the field. Linda and I had packed plenty of snacks and sandwiches for lunch, as there would be no time to head out to town to grab a lunch if we hoped to reach our destination before night falls.
As we fled south, the weather grew warmer, and the skies clear and blue. To avoid unnecessary pitfalls of encroaching into airspace we filed and flew IFR the next two legs. Gone where the days, when we had to carry innumerable charts and pore over them to find the best route to fly. We input origin and destination airport into Foreflight, selected routes and lo and behold we had the list of possible routes and altitudes to fly. We could even pick an altitude that provided the best winds for the intended direction of flight. We were fully armed in triplets this time around: The G1000 with traffic and NEXRAD weather, my iPad with Stratus and Linda’s iPad with 3G and verizon 4G hotspot for additional backup.
Our paths had crossed with another airplane in the group at FLO and we heard yet another pilot from our group on the radio, so we knew we were not alone. There were at least two other aircraft making their way down to FPR. The flight south from FLO to OMN and from OMN to FPR provided some beautiful vistas of the eastern shore as we flew past Charleston, Savannah and the intra-coastal waters off the Florida coast. We flew almost direct from OMN to FPR with Cape Canaveral to the left, over the Daytona race track and finally into FPR just as the sun sank down bringing a glorious February day to close.
We had made it! A total of 8.5 hours flight time covering almost 860 miles in one day.
It seems there were 3 other airplanes that had departed Saturday like us. So half the group met up at Red Lobster for dinner as we had originally planned. The other half had met the previous night and were already at Stella Maris Resort awaiting our arrival.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this incredible adventure.