I love flying cross-country. It's almost the best part of my work because there's nothing like the freedom of flying a small airplane from coast to coast. As another air show season begins, I start thinking about travel logistics. Weather plays a big part in our team's ability to get to the air show, and it seems to be getting weirder and uglier, making fronts harder to cross. Aerobatic airplanes have gotten more reliable in recent years, so it's more likely that weather, not a mechanical problem, will come between me and my next show. I have no doubt I'll be spending at least part of my season at an FBO.
I don't have another "day job" like some air show pilots. I've always had the luxury of being able to leave as early as I need to get to the next event. I can leave Tuesday for a weekend show, or stay out on the road if I need to. In my 20-plus years of air show flying, I've always made it to the show and have only missed a day here and there.
But, even leaving early, weather can still be an issue and keep us grounded for days at a time. And, you know what they say—no show-up, no paycheck. For example, I'm writing this at Montgomery Aviation at KMGM in Alabama, trying to get to St. Louis for the Spirit of St. Louis Air Show. I left this morning from KSGJ and had to divert north of my direct route to cross a front before it turned into thunderstorms. After landing at Falcon Field, KFFC, south of Atlanta, I waited in the terminal for weather to improve to the west. I took off again but had to fly south to skirt the eastern boundary of a second front that I hoped to cross, but ran into low ceilings and rain. I landed at KMGM—a great fuel stop with easy hangar space. If the front doesn't pass pretty soon, I'll give up for the evening and find a hotel for the night and start out again tomorrow.
If a third of your life is sleeping, a third of your life is at work and a third is in other pursuits, then a third of my life is spent at small airports, where FBOs are like new-world stagecoach outposts for pilots. Even though I might only buy 10 gallons of 100LL, I get a warm greeting wherever I stop, and am pretty sure that I'll find a safe haven for myself and my airplane.
FBOs come in all shapes and sizes—from a single-wide trailer in West Texas to the upscale Million Air in Tallahassee—made from wood and stone, metal and marble, and may even offer a pool room for after you get bored catching up on email. You can always expect a cup of hot coffee, if not fresh-baked cookies or popcorn, a comfortable place to sit, a computer to check weather and often a courtesy car to use to get something to eat.
I don't plan my fuel stops in great detail ahead of time. Before a long cross-country, I draw a line on a wall chart, find the most direct route to my destination and then plan a stop about every 300 nm. There are a lot of airports east of the Mississippi, but in the west, logistics are more challenging with airports fewer and farther between. In the interest of getting to my destination, the fewer fuel stops I have to make, the better, so I usually go as far as the wind will take me before I land, refuel and take off again.
Early in the day, I try to land at small, uncontrolled airports, so I can get in and out quickly and not deal with the hassles of approach control. If it looks like I'll have to spend the night, I'll head for a medium- or large-size airport because it's easier to get a hangar and a quick ride to a hotel. A lot of airports these days have self-serve fuel, so you can get a better fuel price using that than using the fuel truck, but sometimes it's worth it to pay a little more for the convenience. Sometimes, there are two FBOs on the field, and it's always a conundrum trying to pick one, especially if they're both trying to wave you in at the same time. If you're going to spend the night, you can tell a lot about a fuel stop from a sectional chart. If the yellow spot marking a town is close to the airport, it's probably convenient to a hotel and restaurants. If it's not, then you might be in for a longer drive or no hotel shuttle.
I'd rather be in the air getting to my next destination, but when I have to land and wait it out, it's not really so bad hanging out at the FBO. You can read, write, think, plan and sometimes wonder where the other pilots who are flying to your air show are. It gets really frustrating when you call ahead to find that someone else has gotten through the weather and to the show while you're still sitting on the ground. You tend to question your judgment and wonder if you could have gotten through or around the weather, but that's where things like experience, type of airplane and knowledge of the local area come into play.
I've flown for days trying to get to air shows, and I've flown all night trying to get home from one. Sometimes, it makes sense to take a detour around a front or higher terrain so you can get around the weather, but sometimes it's just too far, and you're better off waiting it out. It all depends on the distance and the situation. There are a lot of decisions to make in the art of trying to get somewhere.
It's hard to be grounded when the weather prevents you from continuing your flight. As long as there's daylight left, I don't give up. I check weather every hour and watch for improving trends. I stay close to my airplane in case the weather breaks, and only put the airplane to bed and find a hotel when I know I'm going to run out of daylight and have to spend the night.
Sometimes, when flying in remote areas or in other countries with fewer weather-reporting stations, you can only find out about weather by taking off and taking a peek.
You poke your nose into the weather as far as you can, and when ceilings get below your comfort level, you do a 180 and head back to the airport. I've turned back many times. As much as you like an airport, you can only sit so long before you become restless. And after all, you're on your way to somewhere important—either to a show or heading home.
A number of years ago, I got stuck in Baker City, Ore., while trying to get to the Portland Rose Festival air show. I had been there three days and had taken off a few times and had to turn back when I ran into low ceilings and fog in the wilderness area to the west. Baker City is on a plateau, and it was only a few miles to lower terrain and good weather, so close and yet so far. On the third day, a local pilot pulled out a sectional chart and showed me a trick locals used to get out. He pointed to the west, where several canyons run off the mountains, and said if I flew down one specific canyon, the weather would be better in it and would take me right into flat land. It seemed edgy, but I thought, why not take a look. I'm good at navigating with sectional charts, and I knew I could find the right canyon. Circling under an 800-foot AGL ceiling, I looked down into a narrow wedge of light. I knew if I flew down into the canyon, it would be impossible to turn around. But it somehow felt right, so I pushed the nose over and ducked down into it, turned a corner, and there it was—a shaft of light calling my name. I followed it to the end, shot out into clear skies a couple of thousand feet below and made it to Portland for the air show.
I've thought about that trip a few times since then and wondered if I'd do it again. There may have been some risk, but I didn't think I was being reckless. I was prepared, motivated, had good advice and was at the top of my game.
I decided to continue on that day, but there have been many more times I've landed and stayed on the ground due to bad weather. I believe our incredible airports and FBOs have helped make aviation safer for the general aviation pilot by giving us a choice. If we didn't have certainty of help, hospitality and good facilities on the ground, we might not be so apt to land or turn back when the weather is bad. I really appreciate our amazing FBOs, airports and easily available fuel. They're a big part of what makes flying in the USA so fun, safe, enjoyable and just overall great.