Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Saga of 02P, Part IV

Halfway home
Uploaded by AviatorDave.
I left this story with Karen and I landed at the Parkersburg, WV airport. We parked 02P among the sleek white airplanes on the private ramp, her exhaust pipes pinging as they cooled. The sun was setting, the weather was just easing out of hot and muggy into a damp evening cool, and we were at a good-sized and modern little airport - one that was completely deserted. The snack counter was closed, the big waiting areas and gate were devoid of people; we began to wonder if there was a soul around besides us. We did come across a line guy in the FBO, chatting with a woman who turned out to be the only other person on the premises - apparently, they fold Parkersburg up and put it away early!

We asked about cheap hotels nearby, and began to skim the phone book and call around. Karen, having lived the airport-hopping life for so long (as both flight attendant and co-pilot) has a mania for finding THE cheapest hotel, and took to the task with relish. I found one for $44.00, but she dug up another that was only $38.00! We were still far enough south for Southern Hospitality, and the line guy offered to drive us out to the hotel, even though it was almost 20 minutes away - 20 long minutes, weaving up into quiet West Virginia foothills.

The motel was a shambles, well-worn and sunbaked, with cracked pavement and broken glass everywhere; the kind of place where everything was bolted down. As we walked to the office, some of the room doors hung open, and the sounds of small celebrations and domestic arguments drifted around. We checked in and picked up some cold sodas, and back at Karen's room we giggled over the sheer awfulness of the place. (And Karen advised me to peel back the slipcover from my bed as she did, and shared some other sanitary advice fitting for No-Tell Motels.) In my room, I stretched out and tried to shake off the day's adventures and worries. I was concerned about the condition of the plane, for one thing; the overheating problem, and the high oil consumption could indicate expensive problems. And I hoped that the weather would improve; the next day's forecast was iffy, with low ceilings and a chance of rain. I didn't want to have Karen miss any of her flights - she and Sal both work for the airlines, and with two toddlers their weekly schedule is carefully planned.

The next morning we called a cab to take us back to the airport, but it looked like we were going to have to wait for the weather anyway. Fog and haze, and not a breath of wind; nothing to do but wait to see if it burned off in the sun. Finally after 10:30 or so we decided that we had the mandatory 1,000 feet (maybe 950) and boarded the plane. We climbed up until we bumped our heads on the ceiling, and skimmed along that way for a while, just managing to keep good visibility - where there weren't clouds, there was thick summer haze, and navigation would have been a challenge if we hadn't had the little GPS unit. Things went well until we got into Pennsylvania again, and the clouds started to get lower and more uneven. I began looking for an alternate, and we decided to land for a while at Allegheny County airport near Pittsburgh; I'd been there many times, they have a big C.A.P. squadron and a nice old terminal.

As we neared the airport, we were in communication with the tower, and we were truly "scud-running" - weaving around the clouds, trying to stay visual, since we weren't filed or equipped for blind flight. A Bad Idea. We actually had to make use of a river valley to make the airport area, figuring that if I kept over the river I wouldn't clip a mountaintop. Then we got a traffic report from Allegheny County, it seemed that another aircraft was using the same dodge I was...

"Tri-Pacer 02P, traffic at your 1:00 and two miles, blimp."

"Ahhh, roger, Tri-Pacer looking..."

And sure enough, there drifted into view the ample hindquarters of the Goodyear Blimp, dead ahead! I passed around the big ellipsoid (at least I can outrun some things in the air!) and beat them to the airport; the crew of the blimp was seeking refuge from the weather too. We taxied to the ramp, and the controller paid me the first compliment I was to get on the merry paint scheme of my plane; the first of many since then. We parked near the flight school, and had an audience of grounded students. They were marveling at the odd collection of refugees brought to earth by the fading weather: first a crazy little blue-and-yellow Tri-Pacer, then the mooring crew racing out to meet the Goodyear blimp, then a local TV helicopter. While we waited out the weather for 90 minutes or so, I chatted with a little boy and his grandmother who had come out to watch airplanes, and I couldn't resist taking him out onto the ramp and letting him climb into 02P; the first of many tours since then.

We staked out the weather station at the flight school and waited for acceptable conditions, and eventually decided we could try the next leg; I would bend our course to the north and try to make use of Pennsylvania's corduroy geography, flying parallel up the glacial valleys to get us back to the northeast. Central Pennsylvania was referred to as the "Hell Stretch" by the airmail pilots of the 1920s, just for this reason; lowering clouds and mountains can combine to make a deadly maze. But as we crossed the state, conditions were improving, and the plane was running better too; oil temp and use went back to normal, and we were able to climb a bit for better fuel consumption. Our northernly course took us over Lock Haven, the ancestral home of the Tri-Pacer and thousands of other little ragwing Pipers; so I flew directly over the old Piper factory, today only a rural airport and the neat little Piper Museum.

Finally we were back in our home radar service, and I contacted the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton controller. We had made the last two legs into one, thanks to the reduced fuel burn, and we headed across Scranton and up to Cherry Ridge. Karen was able to contact Sal on the way in, and he and their little twin boys were there to meet us - "We want to see the circus plane!" The day was sunny by now, and we took some pictures, and let out a huge sigh of relief. I wasn't done flying for the day, though; I had to collect my car from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport. So I arranged for my mother and my squadron CO Les to meet me down there; Les would drive my car back for me, and Mom got her first ride in the plane, back to Cherry Ridge.

It had been a long, hot, challenging journey across 850 miles... but here finally was my plane, in my hangar. Whew!