Written by Alan Hoffler
Early rise even before the alarm, a quick shower and a quick check of weather. IFR all over the place, but forecast to lift starting at 8 am. Plan the trip, file a flight plan, eat breakfast, and watch for the morning crises. Seems we’re low on cereal, and there is a small fight for the funnies section of the paper. Kid #2 notes that the dishes were not done last night and says “somebody’s in trouble”. From inside information, I know that that somebody is him, unless he cut a deal for dishes duty. Later, he is heard arguing that kid #4 was in line for next duty and not he. I leave before that was settled.
Had hoped for wheels up at 8 a.m., but we didn’t get clearance from Family Center until a quarter after, arriving at Bonifay International at 8:30+. Clouds are billowing and low, but we drag the plane out and fuel it up. Added excitement this morning was the crop duster coming in for new loads of fertilizer every 30 minutes. 2800 pounds per trip. Turbine beast has no trouble roaring out with that load. Finally get ready and call for final check of weather. Not happy with result — “VFR not recommended. Tallahassee reporting 100 overcast, and that has been amended to go through 10 a.m.” Bummer. Clint urges departure since the Skipper can’t be at TLH before then and the low layer is just fog. I’m hesitant, but we decide for me to do a few patterns since I still have yet to solo in the Skipper, and he’ll take pictures. Two laps and an astonishing 700 fpm with two centerlines, no bounces or tail strikes, several VERY good pics, and I pull off all smiles. In the 10 minutes it took to get the circuits in, the sky has gone completely clear, and I can’t imagine things could get much better. High fives, and I’m off for my first REAL cross country, complete with a one-way destination, a reason to go, and SOLO. Butterflies give way to the business at hand, and I climb out to 3500 and a GPS direct heading to MAI. Gainesville Flight Service takes my amended flight plan and still tells of VFR horrors at TLH, but advises that it should be easy to get on top. I’m at 3500 and see clouds to the north, but none to speak of east. In a matter of 15 minutes, TLH approach changes advisories from 100 overcast to 5000 few, and I smile and give Clint mental credit for knowing his local weather. Then another crisis pops up. I realize my solo cross country is in danger, as I have a passenger. On the third try, I dispose of the flying pest and even hold altitude, and I am again solo. TLH gives me slight vectors around Class C, and right over Doak field. I am forced to take a picture since my beloved Wolfpack’s recent visit was so successful — I managed to hold myself to 100 photos today between Clint and myself. I discover that N. Florida has perhaps the most desolate stretches of checkpointless terrain you can imagine. Perhaps 50 nm at a clip with nary a power line, pond, or road. The GPS is indeed a modern marvel. Getting 78 kts groundspeed, so trying for TIX in one jump is out of the question, even if the Skipper was burning fuel symmetrically, which it doesn’t. Finally see a straight highway into Perry, I think, which must be 50 miles long, no turns. Nice checkpoint, and I’m IFR the old way. Earlier, JAX center was too busy for flight following, but they squeeze me in. Only other traffic is “Lethal 48” — I don’t want to be near him (or her). Get a scattered layer at 3500 and learn a valuable lesson. When you are at the level of the clouds, they look like they are one cloud deep. You skirt the first to see another. I climb to 5500 and discover my “one cloud deep” is really about 100 nm of scattered, but there are plenty of holes and I’m not worried about being On Top, since I’ve been there every day of the PTAOAL. Nary a ripple in the air all the way to Perry, but I pick the last hole I can see and descend to 3000 for last 50 miles into Gainesville. Right bumpy, and I practice VFR pilotage with many waypoints now available. First time I’ve ever flown to the back of a sectional map — big day.
Land at GNV behind a Dash-8 — they swap active runways less than 10 minutes before I touch down making it a little easier. The FBO literally gives me a red carpet to walk out on. Plane gets fuel and I get a Butterfinger bar. Forgot my water bottle — learning how to survive without water, and it makes for a more comfortable ride. File with GNV FSS and they advise I need a squawk code prior to departure for the newly active Restricted Area 2935 off Cape Canaveral due to the Shuttle (launching Thursday), but a phone call to Daytona Approach reveals the FSS guy didn’t know what he’s talking about — I’ll pick up my code from approach in the air. Can’t rouse FSS so I bag the flight plan. If you can’t find your way VFR in central Florida, you can’t fly. Lakes of every size & shape, rivers, power lines & plants, cities — all distinguishable and it’s easy flying, though choppy. JAX center has a guy who loves to hear himself talk, and he repeats everything twice and cuts everyone off. He tells one VFR pilot “cleared direct somewhere” (literally), which I couldn’t find on the map. Clear a MOA about the time I get my first view of the ocean, and I turn south and pick up Daytona approach at the same time. Get my precious squawk code (5532) and have to go through 4 different DAY controllers on the way south. The third is VERY busy and a little irritated. Two attempts to tell him I’m aboard fail, he finally acknowledges me with a curt “welcome to the frequency”. Tells one poor obviously foreign guy who stepped on an IFR clearance “one-zero-india, let me finish the business I’ve already started, and I’ll get back to you”. Guess he’s still eating leftover turkey. Get a nice view of Daytona International and Speedway, and each airport on the way down. Last approach seems anxious to cut me loose. I verify that my precious 5532 won’t get me shot down, and finally spot TIX from 21 miles out. Also get a nice view of X68 — Space Shuttle landing strip — and the VAB. Now I’m in the old stomping grounds, level at 2500 and bouncing all over the place, miss a bird by no more than 100 feet, and get turned over to the TIX tower for the most unusual directive of the trip. “19Romeo, descend at your discretion and advise when over Walmart and enter left base for runway 9”. I’m busy snapping pictures of my familiar hometown, but respond “I’ll let you know when I’m over Wally World”. She responds a little later with a reminder about “wally”, and my final call on the slow frequency is “attention shoppers, watch for falling prices — one-niner-Romeo is over wally turning inbound to runway 9.” Do get a Mooney inbound, cleared for number two, they announce traffic (me) in sight and request a 360 for spacing. I spot them just off my right wing VERY close as the tower asks me to swing wide and let them pass. Unable, but offer a right 270. She seems appreciative and I get another 5 minutes and a nice steep turn practice in the process. Hometown folks are friendly and we joke all the way to the FBO.
Gateway Aviation must be the R-22 helicopter capital of the world. There are at least 10 airborne and probably another 15 on the ground. But the FBO doesn’t have the line guys I’ve become used to meeting me, and I have to park myself. Guy on the inside asks me if I come here a lot, and I laugh and say it’s my first time, but the plane comes a lot. Mom pulls up 30 seconds after I get settled, and we get home lickety split. She promptly takes care of the dirty laundry I’ve brought along (and must have done or it’s double duty time tomorrow) and breaks out the cookie mix. Ah, it’s good to be home. I download today’s pics and am really glad Clint takes 40 of my taking off and landing. At least a dozen are great. Dad comes home and we go out for Dixie Crossroads and Rock Shrimp like nowhere else. Back home for the PTAOAL entry and a weather check. Forecast is for fog to lift by 9 am, so I’ll likely make JES and back to 1J0 tomorrow and avoid Plan C which is an auto trade with Clint and I drive home for transfer Wed to PNS and on back to RDU. Might be able to swing some Arrow time early Wednesday on the way to PNS. That would be sweet icing to an already delicious cake this week. I find myself over and over saying that I don’t know how I could have any more fun than I’ve had this week. And the experience is truly the PTAOAL.
Doubt I’ll get a ton of sleep tonite — these old folks like to stay up — but the 4.4 behind the yoke today in bright sunshine has my eyes aching and my setter sore. If I can talk dad into a haircut, the day would truly be complete.