Thursday, December 13, 2007

Weather: it's all relative

In the summer, when the average daily high temperatures tend towards the 80s and 90s, 40 degrees would be considered downright frigid. We'd be cowering in our houses, bedecked in thick blankets and poking fun at Al Gore and his Chicken Little get-richer-quick speeches about the imminent doomsday we all face from Global Warming unless we all go back to living in stick-and-leaf lean-tos and foraging for our food. But in December, when we've all had an empirical reminder of just how COLD 10 degrees is, 40 degrees is considered balmy. 40 degrees in December, combined with cloud ceilings that are actually higher than Danny DeVito's chin, is considered positively flyable!

I've been stewing for awhile about only having a few gallons of gas left in each tank of the plane, still concerned about getting condensation in the tanks from the exposed interior aluminum sides despite having been told by a fella at the A&P school that this is just a pilot myth. He won't be there in the plane with me should he ever be proven wrong, though, so I decided to hedge my bets and take a quick hop over to MadCo to tank up. MadCo managed to avoid replenishing their fuel inventory during the recent price hike, so they still have a somewhat reasonable price. I was afraid they'd get stuck with a few thousand gallons at a $5-plus rate, but they're still at the $4.42 level they were at last time I filled up. Good news, that.

I was in a bit of a rush, knowing that a 5:08pm sunset didn't leave me a lot of time to get out there and back before dark, but I forced myself to take my time on the pre-flight. This would be the first flight in 18 days, which is three full weeks if you don't count the Sundays, and that's getting to the point where I start to get nervous. I drained a bit more fuel from the sumps than normal to make sure there was no water in it, and I spent a little more time than usual peering, poking, and prodding at the pieces-parts that make a plane fly controllably.

The engine popped to life after just two blades, exhibiting an enthusiasm for flight that I always find contagious. A strong running engine calms the nerves and focuses the attention significantly, so by the time I keyed the mike to request taxi permission from Bolton Ground I was more or less back in the saddle. That's not to say that the events of the ensuing takeoff didn't seem to occur at a faster pace than they do when I've been flying regularly, of course, because they did. Before I knew it, we were off of runway 4 and headed west towards MadCo. Even the short trip out there seemed shorted than usual, but that might have been due to the tailwind that had us clipping along at 172 knots.

That tailwind became a headwind as we turned final for runway 9 at MadCo, and that suited me just fine. It had the effect of slowing things down to the pace of a Robert Redford directed movie, and with the rustiness of 18 days without flying to consider, that was a good thing. I made a greaser of a landing, marred only by a last minute swerve to the right as I diverted my attention to looking for the flap switch, a switch that falls readily to hand without even a sideways glance when I've been more regular in my flying schedule.

As I was standing on the ramp having the plane fueled, I was forced to acknowledge that while 40 degrees is not 10 degrees, it ain't 75 either. 40 degrees is cold when you're standing around in a light jacket on an open airport ramp, and that's all there is to it. Once the tanks were topped up and Visa had its say, it was nice to get back into the confines of the cockpit and get the heat generator hanging on the front of the plane back into operation.

The ride back to Bolton took a little longer than the trip out without the help from a tailwind, but by this time it was clear that I'd make it back before dark so I was able to relax and enjoy it. The only traffic in the pattern was a Cessna doing touch & goes, with another Cessna at the end of the runway just about ready for takeoff. The tower controller, just as I knew he would, had tasked me with reporting a two mile left base to runway 4. At the three mile point, my internal clock told me that the Cessna on downwind was only moments away from reporting midfield and getting cleared to land. Rather than get stuck behind him, I juiced up the throttle a tad and reported the two mile left base just a wee bit before a more honest and ethical guy would have. The tower controller couldn't see me, of course, because I had fibbed a titch about my position, but a couple of steep wing rocks got his attention and he cleared me to land. Because I had bumped up the power a bit and I deliberately land long on 4 anyway, I was positioned to get down and off the runway without any undue negative influence on the T&G Cessna. No harm no foul, one could say.

And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids. The Cessna waiting to take off on runway 4 was the airborne traffic guy, and the tower guy is fully aware that he has a schedule to keep. In order to fit him into the flow without delay, the T&G Cessna would have to extend his downwind for a mile to let the traffic bird takeoff behind me but in front of the T&G Cessna. Technically, I don't think the extra $1.25 on the T&G guy's rental bill for his slightly extended flight is completely my fault, but I suppose an argument could be made that I owe him 65 cents or so. I'm good for it, and the check is in the mail.

With all of that going on around me, and with a bit of a crosswind thrown in besides, I could be forgiven for having a less-than-stellar landing, but that absolution won't be necessary. I greased it. As I was rolling out towards taxiway Alpha 4, the tower asked if I'd be able to make that turnoff, almost as if he had some doubts.

"Of course, my good man," I wanted to say, but didn't. "That was my plan all along."

And it was.

And I did.

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