Wednesday, June 20, 2007

News from Hartford, CT

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In my last post, I mentioned I wouldn't be blogging for two weeks. Well, that was before I knew a laptop would be available throughout my trip so here I am.

Today I will simply give you an update on the "Flight to Hartford."

On the date of departure (two days ago), we were delayed due to early morning fog and the possibility of pop-up thunderstorms throughout our route. After a few nail-biting hours, most of the fog had burned off and the chance of encountering thunderstorms greatly was greatly diminished. We took-off at 9:30 am and went about our merry way.

The first leg (from Wadsworth, OH to Lockhaven, PA) was super smooth with nary a bump. Visibility was somewhat hampered by the thick haze but was sufficient enough to continue the flight. I would say we had between 4 to 5 miles of forward and side visibility. As a pilot, I was responsible for watching for what we call "back door options" which meant looking for an "out" if we needed to abort the flight for any reason.

While flying through hazy conditions, it can be difficult to distinguish between the haze and clouds. If a pilot was not paying attention through these conditions, he/she could suddenly be taken by surprise, which is never a good thing for the unalert pilot. Therefore, I kept an eye out for alternate airports along the way as well as making sure that the visibility behind our flight path remained open in case we had to turn around and land. As you can imagine, I was one very busy, alert pilot.

Two hours later, we came upon our first stop (Piper Memorial airport) in Lockhaven, PA. The approach to this airport was rather interesting because on one side of it was a huge 2,000 foot mountain! The procedure for landing required what we call in aviation a "right based approach" which means approaching the airport from the right side, making right turns to the runway (instead of the standard left-based approach).

After shutting down the engine, we called the ground crew chief, Joni, to get an update on their whereabouts. Earlier that morning (around 4 am) Joni and her crew mate, Larry, had taken Ryan's personal wheelchair van on the road (with his 300 lb wheelchair on board) only to discover it was wildly unstable, swerving left and right, almost flipping them over at one point. This forced them to come back to Akron, OH (after an hour of driving) and transfer over to the church's wheelchair van. Of course, this set them back significantly. The idea was to give them at least 3 hours ahead of our flight departure so that they could greet us in Hartford with Ryan's wheelchair on the tarmac. Needless to say, it didn't quite work out that way.

When we landed in PA to refuel, we put in a call to Joni to get a status report on their whereabouts. They were only 45 minutes past our refueling stop with at least another 3 hours of driving left! That meant if we wanted them to greet us in Hartford, we'd have to hang out at Piper Memorial airport for a least two hours or so to give them more leeway.

It fell upon me to make a decision whether or not to wait that long. My main concern was for us to arrive at our final destination before the ever-changing weather could stop us. After checking weather reports repeatedly, I discovered to my satisfaction that the weather was forecasted to get better throughout the rest of the day with visibility improving significantly. I decided it wouldn't hurt to wait at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half but no longer. The last thing I wanted was to wait too long only to end up being stuck in PA because the weather suddenly decided to take a turn for the worst. It was better to be safe on the ground in Hartford, CT waiting for the ground crew versus being stuck back in PA.

Despite giving them a little bit of a head start, I knew it would be a close call. After an hour and a half, we took off at 12 30 pm and climbed to 5,500 feet. While the first leg of the trip was super smooth in hazy conditions, the second half was crystal clear yet bumpy. That was because the heat was rising up from the ground, creating air pockets. Apparently that didn't seem to bother Ryan or Sam for they were both lulled to sleep by the rhythmic bumpiness.

Two hours later, the city of Hartford, CT came into view and I began our descend, not knowing I was in for a surprise.

As I began my approach to the final destination, I was shocked to see a car in the middle of the runway! This forced me to abort the landing and make an urgent radio call.

As I was climbing back up to altitude (2,000 feet), I took advantage of the fact that I had two hearing people on board with me. They say in aviation books that a pilot should make use of all available resources whenever needed. This was one of those times. Despite the fact that neither of my passengers were pilots, I asked Sam (who was sitting in the back seat) to listen for responses to my radio calls, asking him to write down what they were saying. They were sending someone from the office to tell the man with the mysterious car to get off the runway right away. Had I been alone in the airplane, I would have simply made one-way radio calls while circling above the airport at a safe altitude, waiting and watching.

While we were waiting for them to remove the car, it was discovered that a few other airplanes were also trying to come in for a landing as well. That made for one very busy airport! Maintaining a sense of awareness became critical at this point. This is where accidents happen - in the area of the airport - where traffic can be hectic - if the pilots are not vigilant.

After several minutes, the mysterious car finally cleared the runway and I was eventually able to make a safe landing. We later found out that the car belonged to a man from the FAA who was taking photos of what was apparently the scene of an accident where a plane ran off the runway earlier in the day!

After landing, we waited approximately an hour and a half for the ground crew to arrive. Since the airport did not have a wheelchair available, Ryan was forced to remain inside the plane until then. When Joni finally pulled alongside the airplane, it was a sweet moment for all of us to be a part of history. We all realized the gravity of the situation for we had just made history within the United Church of Christ. Never before had a deaf pilot along with a disabled passenger flown themselves 550 miles in the name of the First Grace United Church of Christ to attend a large spiritual/religious gathering!

Ladies and gentlemen, that's my report on "Flight to Hartford"! I certainly hope you enjoyed reading this update. A video was taken during certain portions of the flight so I expect to have that up on YouTube at some point. Stay tuned!
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