Never Again Online: No shortage of challenges

May 2, 2008

For days it had been sunny and clear, and we’d waited five months to use our Piper Archer, N56607, which had been grounded for a long repair after being bumped in the tail. My wife and I departed Northampton, Massachusetts, for Worcester, to pick up our son and a friend for a weekend trip to Maine. Our planned departure was delayed, but I still hoped to get in a sunset paddle on a lake near our destination.

With four people seated and Snoozer, our 90-pound Giant Schnauzer, in the baggage compartment, I knew we’d be heavy. So the plane was fueled only halfway, and we’d made a point to pack lightly. What little baggage we did have was stowed under the front seats or in our laps. My weight and balance calculations put us near, but still inside, the upper and aft limits.

The density altitude was high but also safely within limits, and I made a point to ask the weather briefer if any adverse conditions were in the forecast. The only one was fog, he said, and this was expected after 4 a.m.—long after our expected arrival time.

Despite the careful planning, the departure from ORH certainly got my attention. The airplane normally needs only about 1,500 feet of runway on takeoff and climbs out at about 800 feet per minute—this time it took about 4,000 feet and climbed at barely 400 fpm. After several minutes we were scraping along the top of a haze layer at 4,500 feet; climbing higher wouldn’t have changed the situation much, and besides, we weren’t looking to break any speed records.

Then, about a half an hour later as we neared Portland, I heard an air traffic controller tell another pilot that PWM was closed due to rapidly deteriorating conditions. I called ATC and asked about Wiscasset, our final destination; the report was three-quarter-mile visibility in fog and drizzle, with ceilings estimated at 200 feet. Portland was better—700 and three—so they immediately set me up on an instrument flight plan. At the time, I remember being impressed with the controller’s efficiency and helpfulness.

After the handoff to Portland Approach, I learned that conditions were deteriorating rapidly as the fog rolled in off the ocean. I asked if flights were still landing. Yes, the controller said, but they were all corporate and commercial jets. Not fair! Those folks have two pilots, two engines, advanced avionics, and power to spare.

On the radio, the controller referred to us in typical fashion, as ’607, but then I heard her talking to another flight with the same number. Confusion reigned until she started calling us Cherokee 607; the other plane turned out to be JetBlue 607—an airliner holding short for our arrival. Cleared for the ILS, I trusted the instruments and searched for the runway in the dense fog. Finally, the lights popped out of the gray at 400 feet and three miles, followed by a friendly “welcome to Portland” from the control tower.

Once inside the terminal I requested fuel, specifying that it should only be filled up to the tabs as full tanks would put us well over gross. We rented a car and proceeded on our weekend activities; Saturday’s weather stayed foggy, windy, and chilly, but Sunday, the day of our return flight, dawned sunny and clear.

I called the FBO to make sure they’d fueled the plane, so we wouldn’t have to wait once we got there. “Sure,” the woman on the phone said. “They topped it off both sides.” I groaned, telling her we’d never be able to lift off with our load and full fuel. Many phone calls and three hours later, they’d removed the excess fuel.

As we departed, I was glad to have that long Portland runway. Again, we climbed out at an abysmal 400 fpm, and again, JetBlue 607 was sharing the radio frequency. No confusion this time. It was a beautiful night with a moonlit ocean, ORH airport was easy to find, and we hugged our passengers goodbye. Departing Worcester with just the dog, the light fuel, and us was like dancing, with a 1,500-foot ground roll and 900-fpm climb.

Lessons learned on this trip? Respect the unpredictability of coastal weather. Never underestimate density altitude. Keep a careful watch on fueling. Stay current on instruments. Listen carefully to aircraft call signs. And respect the ability—and agility—of ATC.

Bill Feinstein, AOPA 597222, has been flying for more than 30 years. He is a clinical psychologist as well as a private, multiengine, instrument-rated pilot.