Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Weather And FBOs

The art of trying to get to the next air show

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.


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