This past week, I took a cross country flight from Thomson, Georgia to Nashville, Tennessee. You might wonder how one state over qualifies as a “cross country,” but just like running cross country in high school doesn’t mean coast to coast, so it is with aviation. In our case, landing at a point more than 50 nautical miles away from where you started can be logged as cross country time. This flight was more than a training flight, though. It had a mission. My bride’s parents live in Nashville, and we coordinated a plan with her dad to fly up and surprise her mom on her birthday. We got to spend some quality time with family, enjoy some great meals, and settle an unfinished game of Mexican Train Dominoes. I’ve never taken a flight that didn’t have both highlights and takeaways, so fly along with me on this debrief to explore them both.
Always Have Plan B
When this idea first came up, we had planned on flying up on a Saturday. Starting about a week out, I watched the weather daily, looking at the forecast and observing the general surface trends. The closer we got, the more I realized that a cold front with storms was due to pass through Nashville on Saturday afternoon. Two days out, I was able to make the call to switch to plan B. This involved leaving Friday afternoon and returning Saturday before the storms came in. My bride would be at a conference in Atlanta on the new day of departure, so I now had a secondary mission of picking her up in Atlanta on the way. I love a mission. Plan B activated.
Once we coordinated timing and made sure it all jived with sunset in Nashville (factoring in the time change), I planned the route. Starting from Thomson-McDuffie (KHQU – near Augusta), I would fly 106 miles northwest to Cherokee County Airport (KCNI – just north of Atlanta) to pick up my bride. This only added about three miles to the otherwise direct trip. At an elevation of 1219 feet, it’s no Rocky Mountain airstrip, but it’s tucked in by hills and mountains and has a hilltop feel to it, with elevation falling away from the field on all sides. Having my passenger/copilot/better half on board, we proceeded 145 miles northwest to Smyrna Airport (KMQY – just outside of Nashville).
Our decision to move the flight up to Friday was all about the weather. Had I simply waited until I woke up on Saturday morning and checked the current weather, the route would have been fine to fly. The problem was the forecast of storms in the afternoon. I’ve learned not to rely on a forecast as law. They are vital for making decisions and predicting performance, but are very subject to change. I’m sure I’ve read in a book how many times per day a terminal area forecast (TAF) is released, but reading that there are four a day it is just a passing fact to memorize until times like these when I am eagerly awaiting the next update. Seeing a five hour old TAF, I looked at my watch and made a mental note to check back in an hour for the new one. The cold front was to start pushing through and making storms around 3pm on our day of departure. To allow a good margin for forecast error, we planned on being at the airport by 11am to start the preflight process. We had about a 10 knot crosswind to deal with, but we got out well ahead of any storms.
Fixed Base Operators
I don’t recall any of my textbooks discussing the finer points of the FBO. It’s the business on the airport that usually handles things like fueling, parking, aircraft rental, etc. Every one is different, but understanding a few common threads can not only help your experience, but also save you a few dollars if you work it into your flight planning. I advise that you call ahead before your flight and gather some basic information about their location on the airfield, hours of operation, availability of fuel, and the big one – ramp fees. I called ahead to the Smyrna Air Center before the flight, and aside from having my basic questions answered, I hung up the phone with them confident I would have a positive experience when I got there just from the pleasant and professional conversation. They even asked when I planned on arriving so they could expect me. It’s nice to know you have someone looking out for you when you fly to a new place. Shutting down the airplane in Tennessee, I was greeted and offered help with the bags. I ordered fuel right away to save time on the departure and avoid condensation on the inside of the tanks from sitting overnight. This is where the ramp fees come in. While policies and prices vary, expect to pay around $20 for parking the airplane unless you buy around 20 gallons of fuel. Knowing the ramp fee could influence where you choose to stop, or where you choose to fuel. Oh, and don’t forget to tip the line crew when they help you out.
Use It Or Lose It
The airplane that I fly just got some sweet new avionics – a Garmin GTN 650 to be exact. Like with any technology, it takes both some study and time to play around with a new system to gain proficiency. I got ample time on this trip to explore some of the uses of this new unit. Once you learn it, navigating with it is simple enough that it feels like cheating. “When I was your age,” I didn’t have a magenta line to follow on a color moving map. So I varied it up on this trip and navigated home using VORs. There is something satisfying about correcting for wind, keeping the needle centered and seeing the TO/FROM flag flip when crossing a good old VOR. Besides, using the Athens VOR gave me a glance of the University of Georgia stadium on game day as I flew over.
Flight training is mentally taxing. Not like “Cougar trying to land on the carrier in Top Gun” taxing, but every mental cylinder is constantly firing. It’s challenging, rewarding, fun and exhausting all at the same time. When I first started up the plane for this trip, after having passed so many factors through the go/no go decision filter, the feeling of freedom and excitement was overwhelming. “Thomson-McDuffie traffic, Cessna niner x-ray foxtrot taxiing to runway two eight, Thomson.” Adding a little throttle, checking the brakes, and then rolling out towards the runway, an emotion brewed. It felt like a mix of the freedom of the first day of high school, the bliss of the first day of vacation, the nervous anticipation of lining up for a race, and the joy of school being out for summer. As the warmth of the sun was cooled by the slipstream of the propeller as I made my way down the long stretch of taxiway, I spoke out loud to myself. “I’m going flying. This is what Clayviation is about.”
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