Sunday, August 26, 2007

MERFI - Not.

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The forecast for Mansfield and the MERFI fly-in called for 3500 scattered, light winds, and good visibility. One out of three ain't enough, as it turns out. I called their automated weather observation system when I got to the hangar this morning, and its beady little electronic eyes peeked out the window and told me to expect 10 miles vis, clear skies, but only 2.5 miles visibility. 3 miles is required for VFR, but the FAA gives you a little wiggle room there: you can request a special VFR, which only requires 1 mile and the self-preserving ability to stay out of the clouds. Mansfield is a good sized airport, and it has radar services to keep the airplanes separated, so 2.5 would be plenty to find one of those huge, inviting runways. With the GPS in the plane there was no doubt as to being able to find the airport, so I decided to go ahead and have a look. There was a good chance that the conditions would improve to meet the forecast by the time I got there anyway.

To give the sun a chance to contribute its fog clearing abilities to the situation by the time I got there, I reduced RPM to a miserly 2000 rpm, garnering a gratifying 115 knots across the ground. At 5500', we were well above the cloud layer, but there were plenty of holes that I could use to descend through. I informed the approach controller that we would accept a special VFR clearance (they aren't allowed to offer it - you have to ask) and she told me that there might be a little wait. Sure enough, I spent a few minutes loitering in big lazy circles 15 miles outside of their airspace, mostly assessing the chances of getting below the clouds. The odds favored the house, as usual, but having come this far it was worth going the last few miles to look for a miracle hole right over the airport. Really, I should have known that the ground fog wasn't going to "burn off," but that it was actually going to simply rise up and become under-achieving, ground-hugging clouds.

We were eventually cleared to head into the airport, but it appeared that the special clearance wouldn't be required after all as they were now reporting VFR conditions. I was coming from the southwest, so they had me enter a left downwind to runway 23. While still 5 miles out from the airport, it became clear that there was no way we were getting down through the clouds while maintaining a reasonable altitude. We were swerving around the taller peaks at pattern altitude, while there was a solid undercast below. The tower controller, apparently unable to pull his eyes away from his radar display long enough to look at the scuddy mess outside his window, actually asked if I could see the airport. Well, not just no, but hell no!

I asked for a turn back towards Bolton and he gave me a vector of 230 degrees, which was pretty much a direct line towards Urbana, not Bolton. That gave me an idea: I dialed I74 into the GPS and decided that we might as well get something out of all the $5.05/gal gas I was burning. Urbana was pretty crowded, and there was at least one other pilot that was there because he couldn't get into Mansfield. By the time we had our coffee and food, Mansfield was reporting 300' and 2 miles, which is actually getting pretty close to the ILS minimums. Yowza, was that forecast ever off! Or, to be fair, did I ever try to get there too soon!

The landings at Urbana and back at Bolton were both pretty good, and dealing with the uglier than imagined by the overly optimistic weather-guessers conditions was good experience. It's also both fun and pretty to fly in the smooth air over the tops of the clouds, particularly when you have 158 knots on the clock - it gives a great sense of how fast you're going. So, it wasn't a complete waste, but that damn omelet had a long way to go to be worth the $100 it took to get there! Oh, and being VFR on top while cruising at only 3500' is something a little out of the ordinary, too.

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