Maiden Mooney trip: lessons learned but fun too
I just bought a Mooney J. All my planes have had names, so we’re calling her MJ for Mary Jane. I’d flown her on a demo and then from Aurora, Illinois, where I needed an annual immediately, to my little hidden field in Grays Lake, Illinois. Now, it was onto our first cross country from northern Illinois to Venice, Florida.
Looking back at the fun details, I think the most significant part of this trip was the fact I flew over the path of the Mayfield, Tennessee, tornado area 30 hours before the tornado hit. When I returned home to Illinois and saw the news and devastation of that part of the country, I realized how weather can strike so suddenly and with such power. I felt lucky and of course humbled.
Back to the Venice trip. I was a bit rusty in the air, not having flown much in the past two years because of grandchildren duty. So perhaps these near mishaps can be contributed to less-than-adequate planning. I’ll share them with you as a fellow pilot to reinforce the ever-present need to prepare and be aware. We all aim for perfect flights and when they are perfect we can be proud. When they are not perfect, we chalk them up as lessons learned.
Not yet having access to my home base (C81) and its self-serve fuel tank, I started out a bit low on gas and therefore my first stop would be Kentucky. I thought Fort Knox sounded good. Flight following didn’t comment on my choice of destination. When they handed me off to Fort Knox, I gave my location and ended with the words, “full stop.”
The controller’s voice indicated his surprise: “Did you say full stop?”
“Affirmative,” I said.
He replied quickly, “You can’t stop here. It’s restricted.”
I apologized and said something like I would read my map more accurately next time. He didn’t reply. You can imagine my embarrassment. I looked at the map again and sure enough it read Godman Field AAF (Army Air Field). And in AIRNAV I read Private, used entirely by the US Army. Note to self: prepare.
On to Elizabethtown (EKX). Note to self number two… I called Unicom, announcing my arrival, and asked for the active runway. No one answered, so I chose 23 based on wind. I announced my landing and full stop. No replies.
The landing was uneventful. Upon walking into the FBO, I asked for fuel but learned no one was working that day and I’d be doing self-serve. I was sort of in a hurry (does a pilot ever want to say that?). “Oh,” I mentioned, “wish I’d known.”
“Well,” she returned happily, “I was sort of busy with Merle landing that taildragger. We all thought he was in trouble.” So the story went like this: Merle was learning a new airplane, Merle was up there in age, and he just couldn’t land worth a darn. “But,” she added, “he was off the runway before you landed. By about three minutes.”
I wondered why he hadn’t called in. I learned Merle didn’t have a radio. So, I realized that if I’d been two minutes earlier I would have been running over Merle’s tail, or most likely doing an unplanned go-around. Moral of this story: small airports sometimes have pilots practicing without radios, and perhaps no one on the ground to answer for various reasons. Advice to self next time (because I do land at many small airports): radios only answer you if pilots use them. Scan all airspace and runways. Be aware.
LaGrange, Georgia (LGC), was an overnight. The picture at right shows the dense fog in the morning. I didn’t depart until 10am. After the fog we noticed a lone deer who wanted to hug the runway. The line guy did his best to remove the deer but I was off the runway before the deer moseyed on through. LGC was friendly and pilot-accommodating, complete with a courtesy car, hot coffee, full kitchen, and clean bathroom.
On to my second controller conversation. Tampa Approach handed me off to Sarasota Tower on my way to Venice. I wanted to stay over land (I’m uneasy over water, especially ocean), but it was too late to ask for land-only flight. Sarasota directed me to follow the shoreline, which I had been doing for 15 minutes, wishing all the time Venice would come in sight.
The controller said, “Follow the shore.”
All I saw was a big bay, shoreline to the north and east, and a long bridge in front of me. I came back. “Which shoreline? You want me to go north?” This was the closest shoreline in my view. I knew I had spoken too soon.
The controller chuckled and came back: “Noooo, that would take you into Sarasota,” he said slowly. “Let’s make this easy: head 180.”
Oh. Another example of me not really knowing my map. I was headed south to Venice. Why would I go north? Anyway, thank you controllers for your sense of humor.
Venice is uncontrolled and was busy with students. It seemed like it catered to the private jets: variable hours with no open FBO, few pilot amenities such as a pilot bathroom or refreshment area, and no private pilot lounge. Next time, Sarasota stop. Plus, Venice’s gas price of $6/gal was the highest I’d seen on this trip.
On the flight home, I was reminded of using flight following sooner than later. As soon as I announced my position leaving Venice, I was directed 30 degrees to the east for jumpers ahead, just east of Sarasota.
My overnight on the return trip included two stops: Albany, Georgia, and Tullahoma, Tennessee. I should mention, my total flight in the Mooney would be five hours, but I managed to stretch both the down and return flights into six hours, and with late departures from fog and early sunsets (it being winter), I had overnights. The last picture is at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport (ABY), showing the Waco who was grounded like me because of fog. He was returning to Battle Creek, Michigan, from the Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida.
ABY was more than generous to both of us: storms were predicted and they offered us hangar space for the night. Another great perk of flying to small airports is the people you meet. The Waco pilot gave me a short ground lesson on the airplane, starting with its pronunciation: Waco (long A) is in Texas; Waco (short a) is the plane, and wackos are those who fly.
Fuel prices to mention varied from $4.15/gal (LGC) to Venice at $6/gal.
To end on a great note, my first time to Florida was just like old times—flying in a new direction and yet not knowing exactly where we’d be spending the night. MJ will take me to the last 9 US states I need to experience since I started flying 40 years ago. And my Mooney stats include: 9 gal/hr at 75%. Joyous.