On Friday morning, November 2, about 8 am, Tom and I returned to Midwest Aviation. Midwest is located on Barkley Field in Paducah, KY and it?s where I?d left N257SW after they offered a hanger at a very good rate. They treated us well. After returning the rental car, topping off the tank, and warming the engine up, I called the tower and was cleared to depart runway 04.
I am a firm believer in flight planning - and I don?t mean having just one plan. Usually, the primary flight plan works but in addition to a primary flight plan, I like to be aware of the weather patterns in the area, the terrain, and predicted weather for several hundred miles either side of the the intended route. Sometimes the weatherman is wrong and this give me options. I find it makes flying less stressful when I have options and don?t have to develop them under less than ideal conditions.
Our general plan was fly east, cross the Blue Ridge Mountains then turn generally northeast to Tappahannock, VA (KXSA). Thursday evening the tentative plan was to fly from Paducah, KY to Mountain Empire (KMKJ), refuel, and switch pilots and fly to KXSA. Friday morning the predicted low ceilings made KMKJ look less inviting. Higher ceilings were predicted further south so changed our stop from KMKJ to KUKF (Wilkes County, NC). The weather man predicted clear skies within a hundred miles of our flight path and that was our plan B.
The first part of the trip had us flying under blue skies and light haze. While the METARS we heard said 10 mile visibility, from 7,500? I?d estimate we could see at least 20 miles. The angle of the sun (we were flying into the sun) made forward visibility a bit worse than to the side, but by east coast standards, we had excellent weather; and we had a tail wind. We were seeing cruising speeds running 170-175 knots at 65% power, or maybe a bit less. Frankly, I wasn?t missing my Cherokee 140 a bit.
Three things happened as we approached the mountains. First, the haze increased, but not enough to stop us. Second, the weather to the south of our track to Wilkes County looked worse than predicted, so heading further south to clear skies seemed to be ruled out. The weather to the north though looked better than predicted. Third, and perhaps most important, we were getting anomalous fuel remaining readings on the VM1000C. For most of the trip, the fuel readings showed 14 or 18 gallons after fueling. The number would seem to change back and forth. When it dropped below 14 gallons, the reading accurately reflected what was in the tank. That was odd, probably due to operator error, but not disconcerting. About 45 minutes after leaving Paducah, it *appeared* that fuel was being used from both tanks and fuel pressure had dropped from 4-5 psi to 3 psi.
We initially decided to keep on heading to Wilkes County. The engine was running fine and even with the declining readings there would have been fuel to make it. We did however decide that we?d land when we got down to 6 gallons per side. I like having a decision point in advance rather than continuing to evaluate and possibly running out of options. As we pressed on it became questionable if we?d make Wilkes with our predetermined reserve so we decided to find a convenient airport, land, check the fuel situation out, update our weather, and make a decision about continuing.
We picked Williamsburg-Whitley (KBYL) field in southwestern Kentucky to land. It was a bit north of our route and well short of Wilkes County. Topping the tanks off took 12.5 gallons of fuel, which seemed about right for a 1.7 hour flight. Clearly the VM1000c was giving us erroneous fuel remaining values. The only anomaly we could find was a slow drip on the fuel drain on the right wing, which might have amounted to a few ounces of lost fuel (if that). It was easy to stop the drip by just pressing the valve a time or two. After refueling, I reset the fuel totalizer and we checked the weather again. It appeared we could head home on a reasonably direct route, diverting from a straight line by just a few miles to cross where the mountains were the lowest. There was no obscuration of the mountain tops but we wanted to maintain 2,000? or more over the mountains.
Tom flew this leg and it was likely the most challenging of the day. After departing Kentucky we initially flew southeast into Tennessee. This gave us the best clearance over the mountains, we then turned north past Kingsport, TN and up to Roanoke, VA, and then on to KXSA. Visibility, while reported as 10 miles, was far from what I?d call good. It was hazy and while we could always see two ridges away, and sometimes even three ridges, it was difficult to see much detail in the distance beyond just seeing the ridge tops. In terms of ceilings, at times there was only 2,500? between the mountain tops and the cloud base.
We would always fly as high over the mountains as we legally could and cross the ridges at a 45 degree angle, so we could turn back if necessary. Most of the flight was in light turbulence with occasional stronger bumps. We didn?t encounter anything to stop us so we continued on. The shoulder harnesses kept my head (and maybe Tom?s too) from hitting the canopy. I?m sure they also stopped a lot of smaller head knocks but the one ?bump? was memorable. After the flight, when I reached in my back pocket for my comb, I discovered it was broken. That was a first for me but of all the things that could brake, a comb is inconsequential. The plane was readily controllable, handled everything grace and without damage. The bumpy ride was simply a matter of comfort, not safety.
After filling the tanks with Tappahannock's "cheap" fuel I moved my Cherokee to the ramp and tucked N257SW into her new home; hanger 18, KXSA. After doing a "real" cross country flight in a really sweet flying and economical plane, my RV grin went from ear-to-ear.
I took her out for a ride today - my first solo RV time and introduced her to Tidewater Virginia, but that?s another story.