Summer to Winter in 5 Hours

Sun n Fun was blessed with darn nice weather this year. Temps were in the mid 80s, but by central Florida standards, humidity wasn’t bad, and a breeze kept it comfortable. Perfect summer weather.

It was a different story at home on the shore of Lake Michigan. Spring still hasn’t shown up. The snow—except the huge piles plowed up during March—has melted, but there have been flurries in the air almost every day during the first two weeks of April.

So, for our trip home from Sun n Fun to the Muskegon Airport in western Michigan, Stancie and I were going to traverse the seasons from summer to winter. The distance is nearly 1,000 miles and somewhere in between we had to transition from one air mass to a very different atmosphere.

When warm moist air collides with cold dry air we all know the result is usually thunderstorm formation. And that is what was happening for this trip. A cold front was advancing across the country and had produced killer tornados in Arkansas and Mississippi the day before our departure.

We all worry about weather fronts and their location, but when it comes to strong cold fronts the action is well ahead of  the actual frontal boundary. It’s interesting to look at the surface maps and see where the front is depicted, but pay more attention to what’s going on ahead of the front.

On this day as we prepared to depart from Tampa where we had left our Baron the big cold front was well north across Georgia and stretching into the Carolinas. And there were storms near the front, but it was also kicking up big storms just north and west of Tampa. As we climbed out we were below the bases and in light rain, the lightning and heavy rain were to our west, but the air felt like it had been attacked by a giant egg beater. Turbulence was never more than occasionally moderate, but it was continuous. As bad as it was, I know when moist warm air is that rough, big storms will be growing soon so we were glad to be through it when we did.

The Nexrad images sent down by satellite showed a line of storms across our route, with at least a few breaks. Nearing Valdosta I deviated west of our route to London, Kentucky, for a fuel stop to miss much of what Nexrad was showing.

But it was a day for eyeballs and onboard weather radar more than Nexrad. The cells were apparently collapsing faster than the time it takes for the Nexrad mosaic image to be created on the ground and sent to the satellite. Areas where Nexrad showed level three red returns had nothing but puffy clouds I could see and go around. But I could also see new buildups forming in areas that Nexrad showed as clear. And our Garmin GWX 68 radar in the nose showed returns building where Nexrad had nothing. It was one of those days when the onboard radar would show a cell go from all level one green, to some level two yellow, to areas of level three red in just a few sweeps. Just one more reminder that satellite Nexrad is the best thing ever for avoiding areas of thunderstorms, but has limitations when trying to pick your way between cells or find gaps in a line.

On the northwest side of the cold front the air was clear and unexpectedly smooth given the winds at 8,000 feet were blowing at 50 knots and more from the west. The wind was about 100 degrees to the left of our course which, you would think, would be at least a little tailwind. But the reality is the airplane must crab into the wind to maintain course so the wind that is slightly behind you becomes slightly ahead and creates at least a little headwind. But I can’t complain about a 10 knot headwind component on a day like this.

By the time we flew over Cincinnati the sky had become solid overcast. The satellite picture sent down by XM Weather showed the cloud cover extending for hundreds of miles and covering more than half a dozen states. The tops soon chased us up to 10,000 feet, but cruising along in the sunshine with a blue sky above and nothing but solid cloud below is one of the most satisfying things about flying your own airplane.

There was a trace of ice—not enough to cycle the boots—on descent. I flew the LPV approach to runway 24 with the runway showing clearly on the synthetic vision while snow flakes blew past the windshield. With just over a mile to go to the threshold the real runway appeared directly ahead and the cold, gusty wind had the decency to blow pretty much down the centerline.

Personal aviation is all about flying what you want, when you want, and where you want. Many pilots think you can’t beat a sunny day for fun flying. For me, going where and when we want in almost any kind of weather is the challenge, and being able to do it is the fun. It is the freedom to choose what, how and when we fly that matters. Being able to change summer into winter on our schedule is amazing. Now, if mother nature would just look at the calendar everything would be perfect.

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13 Responses to Summer to Winter in 5 Hours

  1. William McIntosh says:

    Thanks so much for bringing us along on this flight! To me, the entire article strengthens the argument that “these are the good old days” in General Aviation, with avionics that offer unprecedented situational, terrain, and weather information available to the pilot.

    An intriguing question that I would like to pose to the writer is, “If this were 1985, and you had available only the Baron and the avionics available at that time, would you have made a decision to attempt the same flight to Michigan?” and, if so, “would that flight have been as safe to conduct as was this one?”

  2. Mac says:

    That is a good question, William. I did make similar flights in 1985. There was a radar in the nose, but of course, no satellite weather. The pucker factor was huge back then because you could only see relatively short distances with the radar or eyeballs. The satellite Nexrad gives us an entire continental view so we can plan deviations hundreds of miles in advance. Or, can decide to avoid the whole area and wait for another day. And flat glass PFDs such as the Garmin G600/500 or Aspen can show us synthetic views of terrain and the runway so we have a double check that we are flying the procedure properly on approach. The new avionics are certainly safer, but they really bring peace of mind and comfort to trips that used to be a lot more scary.
    Mac Mc

    • William McIntosh says:

      Totally agree, Mac. I learned to fly in “the good old days’ back in the ’70′s. My flight instructor advised me never to get an instrument rating because then “the feds would know what you were up to.” Other pilots told me, a newly minted private pilot, that they would refuse to turn on their newly required transponders for the same reason.

      I’m frankly glad that a lot of those pilots are no longer in the air, and stopped flying when the commitment -required curve rose steeply. I saw all too often the results of their thinking.

      General Aviation has never been more healthy than it is today. Mere units sold and operations conducted do not measure the vitality of an activity that is more vital in terms of committed people, improved airframes and avionics, and a better national airspace environment, than ever before.

      Today’s $375k Skyhawk is a tremendous bargain in terms of the value and safety it offers, and also the lifestyle it makes possible. And if you don’t want to part with your old bird, vendors like Aspen and Garmin can upgrade a panel and make that old one ever so much more useful.

      Glass panels do not and cannot overcome the weather, but they sure make the playing field more even.

  3. Craig Salley says:

    I was at Sun’n Fun all day Thursday and you’re right – it was a good day – much better than some years past. This was the first time in about 10 years I didn’t fly my Bonanza in – around Lake Parker etc. It was nice to see what is possible with a well equipped Baron and enjoyed the

    For years I flew up to RDU from GNV to see grand kids, but fuel is so expensive now I find I am driving for 9 hours instead of flying for 3. I still have round guages and a Garmin 696, so I go strictly VFR anymore, Can’t keep current for safe IFR.

  4. Thomas Boyle says:

    I barely made it through William McIntosh’s comments, which were simply breathtaking.

    Mr. McIntosh, in case you are not in fact any of these things, please know that you come across as arrogant, out of touch, and generally clueless when you a) welcome a higher barrier to entry into flying b) say that GA, much of which has now entered its death throes (there’s no other way to put it), has never been more healthy, and c) describe a $375k Skyhawk as a tremendous bargain (its pure utility is barely better – arguably worse – than that of a car costing 10% as much).

    At least, to me you do.

    I apologize for any hurt feelings, but someone ought to tell you.

    • William McIntosh says:

      Hi, Mr. Boyle. I’ll have you know that I won the “Mr. Congeniality” contest in kindergarten, sfter I beat up my closest rival.

      Yes, you’re right–flying is expensive! But what is the biggest expense of all? The money? …No, I would argue that the greatest expense involved in flying is the lifelong committment required to constantly learn and adapt to changing circumstances in order to become a better and better airman.

      Flying was never for the marginally committed, and yes, I am glad that some marginally committed folks I’ve met along the way are gone, now, before they killed themselves and/or others. Some of them did kill themselves with their marginal commitment, and I’m so sorry for them and their families, and so sorry it was in an airplane. If those that left needed to use the excuse that flying was too expensive for them, then that’s fine. The first requirement of airmanship is to know thyself and understand why thou wantest to fly.

      ….My heading was about 350, altitude 6500, over the San Joaquin. Visibility 10 in haze, on a Victor Airway. Center called with a skin target, opposite direction, altitude unknown, less than a mile. Two seconds later the windshields of 2 Vari-Eze’s were filled with my PA-28, and I sincerely hope that those pilots landed with some kind of commitment to learn the customary altiudes versus heading that we all should abide by.

      …And if not, I sincerely hope they have left general aviation. Miss distance was less than 50 feet.

      Perhaps general aviation as you once knew it is dying (in fact, I would agree with that), but I would say that to declare its permanent demise is rather premature, as Mark Twain would say. Rather, it is changing, metamorphisizing into something better and more vital.

      I’ll address cost and utility in my reply to Rodney, because i’ve taken enoughh of your time. But feel free to write me at justbill@live.com ( I don’t want to hog mac’s blog), and we can yak some more…best wishes, WM

  5. Rodney says:

    Sadly, in some respects I have to agree with Mr. Boyle. A 375,000 dollar airplane that offers little more than the 30,000, 50 year old used model except for the avionics is hardly a bargain. A new skyhawk is not appreciably, faster, easier to service, less expensive to own, or more capable than the used model with upgraded avionics and an iPad in the cockpit. People are shut out of aviation by the cost and beginners by the flight school interested in dollars over cultivating flyers. The wonderful thing about flying, and even other sports, isn’t in the doing but in the sharing of experiences and knowledge, trying out someone elses equipment to see how it works, sharing ideas. What is wrong with people hanging around the airport or hangars and showing interest in the planes yet today that is not tolerated for liability or security reasons. How many of us got our first exposure to airplanes in such an informal way. I doubt any of us just woke up one day and said “I want to learn to fly an airplane” without even seeing one up close before. Aviation just isn’t as friendly to outsiders as it used to be and is getting to be just an insiders rich mens club.

    • William McIntosh says:

      Hello, Rodney, I believe that you and others are limiting yourself in your assessment of General Aviation today as simply being too expensive.

      The financial bar to involvement in General Aviation has never lower. When I was a kid I had to pedal my bike a long way to the airport, only to be told to “beat it, kid!”when I dared to walk into a hangar occupied by a V-tailed Bonanza. But I persisted , and my grandmother was kind enough to drive me out to the local airbase to let me watch B-52s and KC-135′s take off.

      Today any kid that has accesss to a computer can join the world of aviation for about $50, and that includes access to very well-thought out flying lessons. The commited kid can do as I do, which is to fly a variety of airplanes all over the world, and interact in real time with others doing the same. At some point many of them go on to fly the real thing, as I did when I learned to fly.

      Home simulators were not available at any price when I was a kid. I’ve described the basic one, but today Red Bird makes a very good one for about 2500 that does one hell of a lot.

      Space does not permit a description of the RC community, which has so much more capability today than before, that there is simply no comparison.

      In addressing the matter of airplane ownership, I would first point out that any comparison of automobile utility vs airplane utility is fallacious. Automobiles are a useful necessity to our daily lives as we now live them.

      By contrast, airplanes enable a lifestyle that could make our fondest dreams come true. How much is that worth? Is airplane ownership worth the idea of a life-long commitment, or is it to be another toy along the way? If the latter, I would advise anyone to forget airplane ownership.

      Today, one must view airplane ownership as a portal to a broader and more enriching lifestyle which should also include the generation of a far greater income than was the case prior to the ownership. In short, the airplane can be the master link in a business plan, allowing you to bring enhanced value to the table. You should be willing to sell both a tangible product and the flying lifestyle itself to justify airplane ownership these days…and if you’re not willing to learn to sell these 2 items, then by all means go back to your hangar and moan about how much your bird costs, and make plans to sell the damned thing.

      I plan to buy a used PA-28-200R next year for about 125k. We used to have this American thing called “saving money,” which I did. I have a lot of time in that airplane, and it is a sturdy bird that makes perfect sense for my sales needs when I launch my company.

      I figure I will spend about $200 an hour on the Piper. I plan to make a hell of a lot more using it.

      The 375 k Skyhawk is a bargain, in terms of the intrinsic value it offers as a new portal to the flying lifestyle. Sorry, but you simply cannot compare a new airframe to an old one, a new engine to an older one, or the fantastic situational, traffic, and terrain awareness that the Garmin 1000/GFC 700 panel and control system to an I-Pad.

      I just prefer retrac Pipers over Cessnas. But I ‘ll always love the ‘Hawk, too.

      So, if you want to fly, fly, fly, you gotta sell, sell, sell…. airplanes only make money when they are used to sell something else.

      Right now, I am retired and I live well on $813 a month. …but, I’m looking forward to coming out of retirement next year with my new company, and of course, my new Piper.

  6. Jay says:

    Mac, loved your story. I’m a sport pilot and fly a lot of hours each year. Would love to be able to fly as you described but cannot. The flying you described is the utility that really sells the aviation story to me. Thanks for sharing.

  7. SkyGuy says:

    I remember a Cessna dealer taking delivery of a new Cessna 172 in 1970.

    His comment was “nobody is going to buy this at $16K.”

    What are you asked to pay for the same Cessna 172 airplane today ?

  8. Brett Hawkins says:

    Mac, no need to defend yourself. Light twins with radar, deicing etc. have always been priced, marketed, financed, and taxed as business tools. If I took a peek at your 1040 this year, I assume I would find Schedule C attached with a pretty large number plugged in the “business travel expense” window.

    OTOH, after WWII basic single engine birds were heavily promoted to the middle class as 3-D capable family cars. My father earned a very modest income but was able to co-own a used T-Craft and Luscombe in post-war Boise logging about 500 “uncommitted” (read: fun-filled VFR) hours before family pressures ended his hobby. Despite being “uncommitted” he never had an accident or ATC infringement.

    Frankly, the problem today is that AOPA has chosen to focus on the monied personal-airliner crowd (and advertisers who want to reach them) while still soliciting memberships and donations from every pilot in the FAA database.

    An example of this was the recent, misguided efforts of AOPA (with EAA riding along) to exempt many of us from the 3rd class medical rules. This caused a huge response (16,000 pilot comments) from ageing, potential AOPA members, but is going nowhere. How much AOPA dues went to the lobbyists who dreamed up this one? And where are the Senators and other politicians who might actually influence FAA policy?

    According to a cantankerous but well-known Senior AME, the smart thing to do would have been to push for something like the new Australian system based on a CDL, but nooooo, have to submit a dream petition similar to a dozen the FAA has rejected over the years.

    Next time someone accuses you of being elitist, just say “so what?” After all, if you want to fly fly fly, you have to sell sell sell!

  9. Thomas Boyle says:

    Brett,

    I just asked a lot of the same questions in late posts to Mac’s week-old post on medicals.

    AOPA and EAA have done nothing to capitalize on that huge base of support for the petition: we should have been making calls and emails to key Senators and Congressmen, in an organized campaign, to ensure that the FAA knew what the right answer was on this one.

    My guess is that AOPA spent not a dime lobbying on this one. It’s pretty clear, from reports of the Fuller/Pelton/Huerta meeting, that Mr. Huerta was basically unaware of the petition, and it isn’t even remotely on his to-do list. If that’s the case, what do you think are the odds that some poor FAA staffer is going to push that noodle through the system? The petition is DOA unless a Senator or two decide to weigh in on the issue.

    It’s almost as if AOPA wants to have FAA deny the petition: that would require years of lobbying to change, requiring lots of donations from members, whereas getting a “yes” would help the pilot community but… well, why actually solve a problem when you can lobby about it forever? I’d be hard on EAA too, but Jack Pelton is a recent arrival.

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