This year I decided make my annual pilgrimmage to Tucson in my own plane rather than get sick from a nasty pathogen in an airliner cabin. One can pay up front by flying bugsmasher, or pay later suffering in bed.
As with my epic trip to Oshkosh, I planned a variety of possible routes with a range of launch dates to avoid bad flying weather. Christmas week Mother Nature decided to tantalize Portlanders with the possibility of a white Christmas. Good flying weather was forecast for the next day, so I drove out to the airport. Shortly after taking this picture my Canon Shureshot stopped working. (Sorry about the color balance in this picture. It was less than VFR that day.)
I brushed the snow off Romeo. This turned out to be a mistake. Overnight the bare wings picked up a gritty thin layer of corn snow. Any roughness can interfere with airflow, decreasing lift and increasing stall speed. While a heater warmed up the engine, the Hillsboro Aviation ground crew and I tried to de-ice the airplane. The de-ice fluid froze. I asked around and was told to try real antifreeze from a gas station. By now the heater had been running for a while, so I started the engine, warmed it up, shut it down and buttoned it up.
I spread antifreeze concentrate on the wings with a wet rag. This made a royal mess but the wings were nearly free of ice. During preflight I noticed the taxi light was dead. When I restarted the engine, the GPS refused to lock onto the satellites. The very small amount of gritty snow remaining on the wings caused a noticeable drop in takeoff and climb performance.
After activating my flight plan I tried to activate the autopilot for the long flight ahead. Alas, George was numb with cold. Several attempts at various points in the flight failed to get George's juices flowing. I hand flew the airplane all the way to Tucson.
The Cascade Mountains were spectacular as usual.
I had filled the back seat with a sleeping bag,
tarp, and warm clothes for use in case of a forced landing.
Skies were clear during the first part of the trip,
but low clouds persisted in places.
Left: Pyramid Lake in Northern California, 25 miles north of Reno.
Note the overcast on the southern horizon,
which is easier to see in the picture below ...
I had planned a fuel stop at Hawthorne Nevada (HTH) based on a reported low price. As I approached Hawthorne I tried in vain to contact anyone at the airport. It didn't look like I would be able to get fuel there, so I decided to get fuel at the next opportunity along my route. After passing Hawthorne the ceiling began to lower. This was not indicated in the forecast. I was not familiar with the terrain and did not wish to chance mountain flying in marginal weather. I saw blue sky to the east and headed for Tonopah (TPH). As I let down on approach to Tonopah, the turbulence picked up. The pass between the town of Tonopah and the airport concentrated the wind, giving me a rock-and-roll approach.
The winds decreased as I descended, but there was plenty of gusting left as I passed over the numbers. I fussed with the airplane, straightening it up every time the wind set it askance. I was beginning to wonder if I might run out of runway before getting it down, forcing a go around. I managed a gentle dental landing about halfway down the 5464 foot runway.
Perhaps I should have landed longer, because I had to ground taxi the rest of the way down the runway. Tonopah was an old military base with long runways, used for Air Force survival training. Most of the old base has been dug up, with a modest pair of paved runways in their place. Maybe Tonopah will get taxiways in the next century.
I closed my flight plan and topped off my tanks with 52 gallons. I'd landed with 27 gallons remaining, more than two hours' worth. While I was attending to matters, a pair of Nevada troopers were preparing to transport a handcuffed client to headquarters in a Cessna 210 Centurion. The troopers joked about not having to stop at Coaldale.
I called flight service again, this time to get an update
on the weather. The briefer thought the low ceiling in the
area was a local thing.
I talked with a local pilot who suggested I follow Highway 95
towards Las Vegas until the ceiling lifted.
Sure enough, the sky cleared up as I flew south,
and I was back up to altitude well before reaching Las Vegas Class B airspace.
The sun was setting as I passed over the west end of Las Vegas airspace. I had recently examined several years worth of winter accidents in 180 and 182 aircraft, and found only one instance of an engine related forced landing from cruise. The one such accident involved an engine that had previous damage which might have been detected with careful oil analysis. I decided a modest amount of careful night flying in my 182 would not have a significant effect on my life expectancy.
The last two hours of flight constituted my first serious foray into night flying. Previous night flights had been close to the airport, rather brief, or under benign lighting conditions. This time I could not depend on spotting "cumulo granite" visually, so I stayed at or above the Minimum Enroute Safe Altitude (MESA). I flew over Kingman, Prescott, and Phoenix on the way to Tucson.
I discovered I prefer the soft red light from the overhead lights for serious night flying. Unfortunately, the glare shield prevented the overhead lights from properly illuminating some of the gauges, the directional gyro (DG) in particular.. I made do with the GPS set to a custom page that displayed both track and bearing.
Phoenix approach was gracious, allowing me the option of descending to 10500 when the ceiling lowered. I only descended to 11500 because that was the MESA displayed on the GPS. I wasn't willing to bet I knew exactly where Mt. Lemmon was just yet. I suspected the lights I saw in the distance were the Tucson area, but I wasn't certain. The only way to keep this flight safe was to stay at or above the indicated safe altitudes until the destination airport and its environment were visible with no dark spots which might be intervening mountains.
The beacon light at Tucson International is bright enough to pick it out of the massive Tucson light pollution some 50 miles away. On the way in I passed Avra Valley airport. Later I saw Ryan field off to the right. On approach to 21 the runway lights were so bright I forgot to turn on my landing light. Not that my dinky little landing light would have made much difference anyway. The landing was adequate. Once on the ground I was lost.
I parked N2469R at the Executive Air Terminal.
This is a first class operation, staffed 24 hours a day.
The day after Christmas I went up for a bit of sightseeing south and east of Tucson. I also checked the autopilot. George had thawed out and was functioning normally, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened on the way down.
Observatory south of Tucson.
Desert east of Tucson.
About this time I was treated to a free IFR lesson
thanks to a stuck microphone.
Their conversation was funny to hear.
Funnier yet were ground control's attempts to contact the plane
while the plane's radio was still stuck in transmit.
Eventually someone on the plane realized the radio had been
quiet ... too quiet.
Reddington Road area northeast of Tucson.
A few dozen ringneck ducks were wintering
at the large pond in the lower part of the picture.
My sister's place is two houses to the right of the pond.
The driveway has two entrances, and the residence appears
as two adjacent houses.
They are connected by an atrium which does not show in this picture.
The picture was taken in failing light from several thousand feet.
I flew over Phoenix at 10500 feet. I had requested VFR flight following to Reno, but was dumped without a handoff, without an explanation, as soon as I reached the northern boundary of Phoenix airspace. Traffic in the sector was light that morning, and I had good radar coverage and radio reception for some time afterwards. Normally I get a handoff to the next sector, or an explanation why flight following was being terminated, but not today.
As I passed over Prescott I listened to a pilot declare an emergency as he was approaching Prescott with a rough running engine. Fortunately his engine held out long enough to land and taxi to a maintenance shop.
I descended to 8500 feet as I approached the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon special flight rules area. Environmentalists and commercial tour operators have managed to put the best flying areas in the Grand Canyon area off limits to taxpaying pilots. One pilot told me the radars in the area can't detect primary targets, so I could sneak by with my transponder turned off. The large tail numbers on N2469R nixed that idea. Nonetheless, one can get a bit of a buzz by looking down while legally flying over outlying parts of the Grand Canyon.
As soon as I cleared Las Vegas Class B airspace I descended to duck under headwinds. I followed roads at fairly low altitudes to aviod headwinds. Many roads in Nevada and Arizona have powerlines located away from the pavement, improving the safety of possible forced landings.
I refueled at Yerrington, a sleepy airport with a card operated gas pump. Yerrington is not surrounded by high hills, so I was able to get in and out without wasting time.
Based on the weather forecast, I had expected to follow highways on the east side of the Cascades to avoid mountains obscured by clouds. I could turn left at The Dalles and scud run down the Columbia. As it turned out, the mountains were visible in all their glory. I changed course to Eugene. A scattered layer of clouds became thicker towards the northern end of the valley, so I had to overnight at Eugene. By next morning the ceiling was up to 2000 feet, good enough for a scud run to Hillsboro.