New Years' Flight

Posted January 2005

My local EAA Chapter has an annual fly-out/drive-out breakfast on the morning of New Year's Day at a nearby airport cafe.  Its dual transportation mode recognizes the reality of living and flying in Seattle:  The weather is usually pretty bad at that time of the year.  Even when it's not raining, the classic weather pattern is fog until about 2 PM in the afternoon, then just enough burn-off for a quick local flight.

Here's an example.....this was taken from my den window, at dawn on a typically foggy morning.  The fog layer in the picture is about 250 feet deep.  The airport is under the fog, at 400 feet lower than my house, about 2 miles away.

So when I came home at 2 AM from a New Year's eve party the night before, I was't too worried.  The weather pattern had featured heavy fog all week, and it was actually raining when I went to bed.  I figured I'd skip the 10:30 breakfast meeting, since I always hate to drive to the darn things.

But when I awoke the next morning at 9:45, the bedroom seemed uncommonly bright.  I peeked out the window.  It was still cloudy, and there seemed to be a few patches of scattered fog about.  But I could clearly *see* the fact, I could see the foothills of the Cascade mountains, twenty five miles away.

I logged on to check the local weather picture...surely it *couldn't be that nice everywhere.

The nearest airports were listing 7-10 mile visibility, though one just 25 miles off was showing light rain.  But I only had fifteen miles to fly. "What the heck...can't hurt to go look."  On went a pair of jeans and a Fly Baby denim shirt.  The temperature was in the low 40s, so I grabbed the new B-3 jacket and headed for the airport.

Driving over the freeway overpass on the way, I thought I saw a bit of a fog bank further south, in the direction of my destination.  I preflighted, then mounted up.  The sun seemed to be trying to break through a moderately high layer of clouds.  When I called "Fly Baby 484 departing 3-4 at Auburn, southbound," a voice came back, saying, 'It's a LOT better to the north."

Climbing out towards the North, the horizon indeed seemed clear of fog.  But when I turned crosswind and got a good look towards the south, my heart sank. It looked like a massive bank of clouds just three miles south of the home drome.

I scanned the horizon.  Wind from the North, so the fog bank shouldn't close in the home field.  I looked further south.  My destination was at a higher elevation, and it looked clear around where the airport was.

I headed south, ready to turn back if things turned out too tough.  The new B-3 worked's basically the entire *outside* of a sheep...the thick skin, with the wool turned inward for warmth.  The collar around the neck was completely wool-lined, and I could tuck my chin into it and warm up most of my face while still keeping my eyes clear.  Thick gloves kept my hands toasty, and the aircraft heater seemed just enough for my denim-clad legs.

As I proceeded South, the fog proved to be a trickster.  It wasn't a solid bank. It was merely a partly-cloudy coverage...When viewed at low angle it looked solid, but was actually ragged in coverage.  I could still see my destination airport as I got closer.

Into the pattern.  I turned base too close, ending up too high and too fast.  A slip shrugged off the altitude, but I ended up rolling it on a bit fast.  No way to make the center turnoff.  I went past where cafe was, turning off out of sight behind a row of hangars.

When I taxied back, the cafe came slowly back into sight.  I realized it was *packed*.  There were even people outside, waiting in line, hunched into their thin jackets in the icy wind.

I did what ANY self-respecting Fly Baby jockey would do at a time like this: Surreptitiously remove the gloves.  Unzip the flying jacket partway.  Slip the goggles atop the forehead.  And taxi right by that shivering mass, spinning the tail around towards a parking spot and killing the engine.  I stood up and unzipped the coat the rest of the way, fanning the flaps ever so slightly, like it was a tropic afternoon.

(Note to those who don't know me:  I grew up in North Dakota.  45 degrees is a balmy spring day.  To most who live in Western Washington, it's parka weather.)

My EAA Chapter president met me at the door...they'd grabbed a table early.  On the way in, one guy in line blurted out, "Don't you get COLD in that thing?"

"Nahhhh," I said.  I whipped off my leather jacket and held it towards him. "This thing weighs twelve pounds, NOTHING gets through it."  He hefted it. "Ohhhh," he said, uncertainly.  Other hands reached out, weighing the jacket.

I slung the B-3 over one shoulder and followed the chapter president all the way through the cafe, to our table in a back room.  When I sat down, I realized I was still wearing my silk scarf.  Normally, I unwrap it on the flight line and stuff it a coat pocket.  I'd forgotten to, this time.  Nor had I switched my single-vision sunglasses with my normal bifocals.   I'd walked through the entire restaurant in my sunglasses, with the jacket slung over my shoulder and my silk scarf uncoiled across my Fly Baby embroidered shirt.  Ah, I hate it when that happens.... :-)

My table had a view of the flight line, with Moonraker sitting with a couple other homebuilts and a few Cessnas.  But it seemed that the Fly Baby was the ONLY plane getting ramp-checked that day.  People trickled out to the flight line to examine it.

"Excuse me," said a voice, as I sat watching.  "But is that a Dehavilland you're flying?"

Turned out to be a longtime aerospace engineer with no homebuilt background.  He didn't did have a good idea what the plane was, and the closest thing he could come up with was a Dehavilland Chipmunk.  I told him the Fly Baby tale.

So far, Moonraker has been mistaken for a Chipmunk and a T-6 Texan.  Guess we're in good company.

After breakfast, it was time to mount up and get out of there.  As I prepared to start the plane, a Piper Colt taxied into the visitor tiedown area.  I ignored him as I started up, but just before I taxied out, a voice said, "I should have brought mine."

Turns out it was Fly Baby builder Al Lau of Enumclaw, Washington.  I had inspected a project for sale several years earlier, giving the non-flying owners an idea of its worth (they'd got it for payment on a debt).  Al had bought the project, and is just about in the cover stage.  In few months, I'll have a nearby Fly Baby to play with.

Before leaving the cafe, I'd called my wife and got a "clear" weather report for the home drome.  As I climbed out and turned homeward, I noticed the sun now shone clear and most of the fog in the valleys was gone.

Except for one long, puffy cloud.  Just a few degrees off my course.  With the top only slightly lower than my cruise altitude.

FARs raced through my mind.  "Class B, C, D airspace ...above 1200 feet, below 1200 feet, 2000 feet horizontal, clear of clouds, uncontrolled airspace..."

"Oh, NUTS!"  I turned towards the cloud and dived.

A momentary urge to center-punch the thing and fly blind through it was suppressed.  A bit of back pressure brought the wheels skimming across the top ("Clear of clouds" my mind babbled").  Moonraker and I shot past gleaming battlements, weaving among fairy towers with sunlight-silvered wings and rending gossamer with the mighty Continental's battle cry.

Then we were away and climbing.  And laughing.

Most Fly Baby daydreams are of warm sunny days, and the tickle of the slipstream against a light summer shirt.  But you know...winter ain't so bad, when you come down to it....

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja .

Return to The Stories Page