I'm driving back to Massachusetts from Minnesota starting tomorrow but my currency for renting at Thunderbird Aviation runs out at the end of the month. So today was my last chance to get in the air.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere was extremely unstable, as befits flyover country in the spring. There was rain showers, lows clouds (1400 above ground level --AGL, I'd guess) and wind. Lots of wind. About 19 miles per hour gusting to 30.
In my younger flying days, I'd probably have canceled, but these days I want to be sure I'm up for challenging weather. This isn't a stupid decision, mind you. I remain a conservative pilot. But I also know that flying cross country -- as I hope to do in my RV-7A someday -- means being ready for short bursts of crappy weather, while I head for the safe harbor at a nearby airport.
So I launched from Flying Cloud in a Piper Warrior. They apparently didn't think anyone would be flying today because they were all in the hangar. On climb-out, I realized why. It was a rollercoaster of turbulent air and wind sheer.
With wind out of the northwest at 330, I headed for Airlake in Farmington, around the Minneapolis-St. Paul Class B airspace, with a thought to heading up to Fleming Field, with its runway oriented 340 for some mild crosswind practice on a relatively short field.
Approaching Airlake, I flew a midfield crosswind to check the windsock -- which I couldn't find -- saw a Sundowner in the runup area and considered turning a left downwind to try a more severe crosswind. But a KingAir announcing he was on the ILS approach (note to IFR pilots: This tells the VFR pilot NOTHING. Would it kill you to say how far you are from the airport?), so I decided to continue heading south, gain some altitude and then head northeast to South St. Paul.
As I headed in that direction, however, I saw a raincloud ahead and knew there was no going around it. I'd have to turn. Before I knew it, however, I was in the cloud with no reference outside. I knew what had to be done -- a 180 degree turn while I flew by instruments (no, I'm not instrument rated, but I'm well trained for these sorts of unintentional flights into instrument meteorological conditions). The attitude indicator indicated a right turn of about 30 degrees and when I emerged from the cloud, I was a little steeper than I would've liked. But I was in control, not panicked, and ready for a long straight-in to runway 30 at Airlake.
The problem with the Warrior is their rudders aren't big enough for serious crosswind, and it took all I had to stay lined up with the runway, with all of its lights blazing. The landing wasn't bad at all for someone who hasn't flown since January, so I returned to try another one around the pattern. This time the more stabilized approach yielded a better result. And the gusty conditions abated about a 1/2 mile short of the runway. My airspeed said about 70 knots, the GPS said my groundspeed was around 50. It took me forever to get to the threshold of the runway.
On the second-climb-out, I noticed a bird heading toward my window about 5 seconds before it quickly veered off to my left. He missed me -- or did I miss him -- by about 15 feet. Now I remember why I don't like flying in Minnesota in the spring -- unstable air and lots of birds.
The third takeoff was my mistake. I should've been making sure I was ready for takeoff while I waited for a State Police helicopter to depart. If I had, I would've noticed I hadn't set two notches of flaps for takeoff. And when I bounced off the runway and assumed my normal attitude, the stall horn went off. Again, I knew what to do: push the nose down and then figure out the problem., which made itself apparent pretty quickly.
The subsequent landing had a decent approach, but I bounced back into the air on landing. In gusty winds, getting the airspeed just right is a tricky proposition. Although it wasn't a good landing -- heck, it wasn't any landing at all -- I was proud of what I did next. I firewalled the throttle and retracted a notch of flaps , the tires touched the ground briefly and I was back in the air for a go-around. The decision-making was sound, the execution was good. We pilots tell ourselves we're not supposed to try to save a bounced landing, but we do and there are plenty of accident reports to prove it.
After an uneventful landing, I tried heading up to South St. Paul again. I had to snake between some rainstorms and heavy clouds, and I was right up against the Class B as I made my way to the Mississippi and then a long final for runway 34. I stayed high because there are neighborhoods all around KSGS, and the landing was relatively uneventful. With the headwind I had, flying the glideslope would be a disaster if the engine quit.
I considered stopping in at my hangar to mess with the RV-7A project a bit, but I didn't want to waste a lot of money taxiing around airports, so I headed back and took off for the trip back to Flying Cloud.
The tower said winds were 350 (NNW) for runway 36, but I think it was farther off the nose than that because I again needed quite a bit of rudder. If I hadn't carried extra speed to account for the gusty conditions, I wouldn't have floated quite so far down the runway, perhaps, but since Thunderbird is located off the departure end anyway.
And it's not like there was much traffic around any of theairports I visited today. It's Monday, and some pilots just don't like a good workout that leaves you tired.
Rain, clouds, winds, gusts, birds, stall horns, airspace: $196.