Mark R. Twombly is a commercial pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings.
Early December is not the ideal time of year to undertake a 4,000-miles-plus trans-continental flight from Southwest Florida to Las Vegas and back in a light airplane. The time and distance involved introduce the potential for inhospitable winter weather. But our window of opportunity meant launching when the days are short and chilly and the nights long and cold. As for the weather, we’d just have to deal with whatever came up.
Our stay in Vegas was just two nights and one day, but even that was one day too long. A strong cold front was forecast to cascade down from Canada, deliver a glancing blow to southern Nevada, and spread to the south and east. If we’d left the day after we arrived we would have had the jump on an approaching front instead of chasing a receding one. But hightailing it out of Vegas the morning after we breezed into town was not an available option.
It was fair but cold with a fresh wind blowing the morning of our departure. The fast-moving front was kicking up weather in the high country of Arizona and New Mexico—the direct route home—so I planned a flanking maneuver. It began with a southbound leg to Needles and Blythe, California, and then a turn to the east on Victor 94. The airway would take us south of Phoenix to Gila Bend, Arizona, then on to Deming, New Mexico, and finally El Paso, where I planned to stop for fuel.
The first part of the 627-nm trip was spectacular. At 11,000 feet the air was smooth and flowing our way. My passengers, Scott and Rex, were delighted that we were in California (barely), the tenth or eleventh state whose atmosphere we had penetrated on our sojourn. It’s a big country, and nowhere does it appear as big as when flying over the chiseled landscapes of the Southwest. Physical evidence of human encroachment—roads, farms, towns, industry—is scant. I surveyed the vastness and imagined one of those cheesy new-development billboards proclaiming, “If you lived here you’d be home now,” but it would have to end with “and you’d be the only one.”
All was well until approaching El Paso. I could see from the Nexrad depiction on the Garmin 496 that pre-frontal precip had moved into the El Paso area. The airport was not in the worst of it, but I didn’t want to take a chance of landing and getting stuck while waiting for icy weather to move out, so we pressed on.
The new objective was Midland, but as the minutes passed it looked like we would arrive at about the same time as the weather ahead of that pesky cold front. My flanking maneuver was not working out quite as planned.
Airports are scarce in west Texas, and I didn’t want to face the possibility of reaching Midland only to divert to a distant alternate with a dwindling fuel supply. I queried air traffic control about conditions at the nearest instrument airport, Cavern City Air Terminal in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The answer was good enough for me, and we were cleared direct.
By the time we came calling, Carlsbad was shrouded in a driving snowstorm. I had to shoot the full approach and land in a muscle-bound crosswind. The stop in Carlsbad lasted long enough for the snowstorm to subside, and the late afternoon flight to Arlington Municipal, just south of Dallas/Fort Worth International, was refreshingly uneventful. Or so I thought.
It was dark by the time we entered the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. We had been flying above a thin undercast, and the outside air temperature was just above freezing. Arlington’s ASOS was reporting a temperature of just below freezing. Shortly after vectoring me to the final approach course, the controller noted that there was an area of moderate precip ahead. I asked if anyone had encountered icing on the approach, and the controller answered that I was his first KGKY customer of the evening. I asked for vectors to an airport clear of weather. “Where are you trying to get to?” the controller asked. “Just somewhere to spend the night,” I said. “Would you like Love Field or Addison?” “I’ll take Addison,” I said.
The next controller descended us through the clouds to the final approach course, and a few moments later rain began to splatter the windshield and freeze. I flipped on the ice light and could see rough ice collecting on the wings. Just then the controller said there was an area of precipitation ahead. I asked if anyone had picked up ice, and the answer was not what I wanted to hear. I reached up to the Garmin 430 and twisted the knob to the Nearest Airports page. KHQZ, Mesquite Metro, was at the top of the list, about five miles to the east. Better yet, there was no weather showing that direction on the Nexrad display. “Uh, Dallas, I’m breaking off the approach and landing Mesquite,” I said to the controller.
It wasn’t my best landing, but with no forward visibility I was happy to just get it down with all the parts, pieces, and people intact. Bill Landgrover, a local pilot, helped us find a hotel.
The next morning, a Wednesday, we discovered an oil leak needing repair. Meanwhile, a low-pressure area popped up in southern Mississippi and Alabama and joined forces with that same cold front we had been battling to produce some seriously nasty weather, including tornados. Our route home was blocked, and the only flanking maneuver was to fly out over the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
We got home Friday. The weather was great.
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