UNDER THE WX. Bill Cox flew a Columbia 400 from Maine to North Carolina under low ceilings.
What had begun as a simple, 4,500 nm, late-winter ferry flight in a capable airplane had deteriorated to an ignominious retreat. The initial mission had been to fly a 2007 Columbia 400 from the U.S. East Coast to Geneva, Switzerland, in March, during some of the coldest early-spring weather anyone could remember.
Goose Bay was running about -30 degrees C when I launched from Bangor, Maine, on the second day of the trip. Not a problem. I had dealt with worse temperatures many times. With a proper preheat, anything was possible. Or so it seemed.
Trouble was, even if I thought I was ready for the cold, the airplane wasn't. The Columbia's sophisticated, thermostatic climate-control system, so effective at combating the heat of the Southwest desert, couldn't contend with the severe, cold temperatures several thousand feet above the frozen tundra, and the airplane's oil temp wasn't happy with them, either.
In fairness, few general aviation airplanes that aren't specifically prepared for the extreme cold of northeast Canada in winter can handle the job.
Considering that I'd need to fly even higher across the Greenland ice cap, operating in even colder temperatures, there was little choice but to return the airplane for a winterization kit.
This meant flying back to Bangor, then 750 nm down the East Coast to the dealer. Trouble was, New England was beginning to feel the influence of spring, a series of warm fronts marching across upstate New York and Massachusetts, and that meant icing.
The day of my flight south saw gnarly weather move into the area. Much of the Northeast was blotto, from Portland, Maine, to Atlantic City, N. J., with forecast icing from 2,000 to 20,000 feet, not a day to be filing IFR with nothing more exotic than pitot heat for protection. There also was a convective SIGMET for moderate to severe turbulence from 4,000 to 20,000 feet.
Equally bad, the flow at 6,000 feet was ferocious, pretty much on the nose at 40 knots. A higher altitude wasn't even worth considering, as winds would have effectively had me flying in place.
The northern segment of the route was forecast for intermittent freezing conditions from the surface to 20,000 feet, but I reasoned that wouldn't be the case at low level out over the water.
Bangor was still good VFR, however, well north of all the meteorological misery. When I awoke on the 15th, I called weather for an update, then opted to take a look. The plan was to fly over the Atlantic abeam Portland, Maine, and track down the coast to Atlantic City, refuel, and reconsider my options. Ceilings over the water figured to allow a reasonable margin.
Granted that I probably could, the next question was whether I should. I'm certainly not the smartest chimp in the sky, but one reason I've survived 35 years of international delivery flying is that I try never to push the weather. True, I do sometimes get paid to deliver airplanes to the opposite side of the world, and clients expect their airplanes to arrive on time, but I have no reluctance to wait it out if the weather is marginal or downright unflyable. Explaining a delay from a warm hotel room is far preferable to struggling with a load of ice in the hinterlands of Canada.
In this case, the forecast for conditions below the weather wasn't all that bad, so I elected to go. I've spent my share of hours cruising above the ocean at heights between 500 and 2,000 feet to stay out of the ice or away from thunderstorms. At certain times of year, there's little choice but to give it your best shot unless you're willing to get an apartment and wait for summer.
On the long legs over the Pacific, for example, nasty weather occasionally forces me down to low level, sometimes 1,000 feet or less, but there's no choice. Halfway out on a 2,000 nm leg, you have only two choices: continue to your destination or return to your point of departure.
I launched from Bangor, headed southwest, and zigged off the coast north of Portland. Sure enough, the OAT was +1 degree C a few miles off the coast, headwinds were only moderate (about 15-20 knots), and precip was easily manageable, consistently wet at 2,000 feet. Visibility was easily five miles, and the airplane's Garmin G1000 system made tracking down the coast simple, avoiding the prohibited area at Kennebunkport, Maine, and all the restricted airspace around Boston and New York City.
The ceiling varied from about 1,500 to 2,000 feet, and visibility remained decent as I flew south, watching the OAT increase to +2 degrees, then +4 degrees, and finally +6 degrees C south of New York City. I'd rather have been cruising in blue skies at 12,000 feet, but my low-level route was a viable alternative (is there any other kind?) to get the job done. Groundspeed hovered around 150 knots, nothing like the airplane's normal 180 knots at two-mile heights, but adequate for my purposes.
As I drifted south, guiding the Columbia outside the Class B and C airspace (remember when special-use airspace was labeled, more telegraphically, TCA and ARSA?), making certain I wasn't irritating the feds or anyone else. The NEXRAD showed the yellow and orange weather depictions blotting out the map over Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, then abruptly dissipating as I passed south of the New York City area.
I talked to Flight Watch several times during the trip down the coast to verify that Atlantic City was still up and flyable, and it remained a consistent 1,200-1,400-foot ceiling and 6-10 miles' visibility. Monmouth and Cape May, N.J., remained marginal IFR, but ACY stayed stubbornly VFR.
After my refueling stop at Midlantic Jet Aviation in Atlantic City, the rest of the flight south was almost silly simple. The weather picked up right after liftoff, and I climbed to a more civilized 6,500 feet for the short flight to North Carolina.
When I shut down for the last time, the Hobbs suggested just over five hours for the day's travel. I had avoided all the ice and most of the headwinds and turbulence, the route had been fairly simple and uncomplicated, and I had accomplished the mission without scaring myself or anyone else.
Best of all, I had used a general aviation airplane to maximum advantage, accomplishing a trip in a little over half a day, that would have required two days by car, and would have been laborious and inconvenient on the airlines.
No, it wasn't cheap. The big Continental TSIO-550C burned an average of 17.5 gph running lean of peak, and the total trip consumed about 90 gallons, roughly $500 worth of fuel at today's prices. Had I tried to do the same trip by airline without notice, I'd have had at least one connection, and the price would have been nearly the same. Despite the airline jets' speed, the time would have been the same or longer, counting the connection and the need to arrive two hours early for security.
In my case, I arrived at the airport 15 minutes before takeoff, kept my shoes on, was first to board, sat in first class, and flew with the sure knowledge that my baggage (including my raft, utility knife and emergency flares) would arrive at the same time and place I did.