Monday, January 16, 2012

Getting to the Croom Zoom 50k: Plane maked unplanned stop...

 "Plane makes unplanned stop at Atlantic City International Airport"

A few months ago, Sid wanted to plan a trip to see his mom before the Air National Guard ships him somewhere overseas for a few month later in 2012.   He took it upon himself to find me a 50k to run in Croom Park (called something else, but we call it Croom) as part of this trip. Sid knew this park as he used to race motocross races there back when Fox sponsored his racing.

We planned to start in Summerville SC (to see V.),  then to Brooksville, Fl (to race Croom), then head over to Deltona (to see Marcelo), then to Boca Raton (to see Sid's mom), then to Key West (to race a half and see Kati) and then home.  Leaving Enzo is not an option, so Sid rented a Mooney and we packed up our gear, bought Enzo his own kid sized Ferrari suitcase from the Ferrari store (seriously the dog is spoiled!) and loaded up 10 days of dog food, toys, and other dog things, and got ready to go.

We departed Sid's Aero-club airport on Thursday January 12 at 3:48 in Instrument (IFR) flight conditions with a low ceiling of 400 feet (meaning the clouds and weather prevented us from seeing where we were going).  Due to some winds high up, we ascended only to 4000 ft and planned to stay there until we got to air with less turbulence higher up.  Generally we fly over 8000 feet when traveling.

Because there was rain on the ground when we departed, but in the air as we ascended would get colder, our biggest concern was possible icing on our winds, which can be dangerous.  As we flew up through the clouds I was asked to watch the wings.  I was happy to see the rain running over the wings and not freezing to them. Sid asked "How are the wings?"  I said "Great" as we broke through the clouds into the bright rainless sky. I felt that we had begun out trip and were on our way! 

Sid attempted to engage the Autopilot, could not get it to engage and mumbled something about working that out later.  He continued to plug in all the way-points to Summerville, SC into the navigation system. I did the same on my GPS.   Like a good boy, Enzo was curled up in his doggie sleeping position in his seat in the back.  He travels well, either sleeps or looks out the window.  We stuff his ears with cotton to help him not experience the painful annoyance of the prop noise. 

However, even with his ears stuffed with cotton it seems he heard something that caused him to react like he does at home when I set the firealarms off during my regular toast-burning episodes.   He started yelping, whining, and getting antsy in his seat, like he wanted to get out of the plane.   I tried to tell Sid that Enzo is acting crazy, and discovered my headset had failed and I could not communicate. I looked at the panel and all the digital readouts were scrambled and then went blank.  Sid attempted to communicate with me and he could not.  He tried to communicate with the tower and had nothing. 

Anything that was controlled by electric inside our plane was out.  We had our prop so we could fly, but we could not advise anyone of our location, our plans to deviate from our IFR course or get feedback about whether any planes were around us in the clouds. Our transponder was still running on battery power and able to let others know we were in the air, but that would last only so long. We were not going to descend blindly in to the clouds below because we could not make an IFR landing at any airport since you  need to see the ground to attempt to land on it. 

Without Sid's ability to remain calm as he dug out his back-up hand-held radio, this situation could have easily escalated to panic mode (for me).   With no autopilot set, the ride was bumpy. Sid and I searched the horizon, but all that we saw were clouds that eventually cleared.  Sid was able to make intermittent verbal contact on his handheld and asked ACY where the nearest airport with VFR (visual) condition was so we could land. 

Because we could fly a while if necessary to any airport that was clear, he advised that we were having "some equipment failure" and needed to land at the nearest airport that did not require us to use our instruments.   ACY advised that they were the closest airport with no weather issues.  Sid was not sure they understood, since we just left and were clearly in IFR weather.  He repeated, they confirmed and then we could see that the cloud shelf broke just before Atlantic City.

As Sid made a hard turn towards Atlantic City, I used the Garmin he lets me play with to plug in a direct route to ACY as a backup navigation devise to Sid's compass-based navigation.  As long as the Garmin had battery power, we could see the map and confirm in general where we were headed.  ACY  gave Sid a compass heading and he used the GPS to confirm his compass heading was correct.

Because we were close to ACY and needed to drop altitude to land, Sid had to descend as rapidly but as safely as possible.  At this point alarms were intermittently blasting inside the plane and Enzo had shaken out his cotton balls.  He was miserable and scared.  I had more cotton next to me and he sat still while I repacked his ears.   He began to bark and whine at the alarms.

Because the landing gear was electric, Sid had to crank it down by hand.  Although he could have delegated this task to me, it is more Sid's nature to just take care of business and ask for help only as needed.  I was busy trying to calm down Enzo whose barking was adding to the intensity of the situation.  Sid was busy holding the plane level while quickly descending with one hand, while cranking down the gear with the other, while intermittently talking to ACY when able to hear them since even the emergency radio was not working perfect.  I dont think I have ever seen Sid move so smoothly with such purpose.  He was not thinking, just acting and I did not interrupt.  It was clear he knew exactly what needed to be done.

As we were parallel to the runway, we were still too high and too fast.  The stall alarm was now constant and incessant. I wondered if that meant Sid was doing this on purpose or if the plane was stalling out because of some issue with power to the prop.  I was not about to ask any questions but rather just waited for him to instruct me.  

After he secured the gear, he gave a bit more power and he lined us up with the runway.  The firetrucks were coming from all directions.  Sid called out to me "They shut down the airspace.  Those Spirit pilots are going to be pissed  LOL".   He then more seriously, he said "The gear appears to be down and locked but I dont trust anything right now, so tighten your belt and be ready".

It seemed to take forever as he gently lowered the plane over the runway and as soon as felt the impact and did not hear grinding metal or see any sparks, I knew we were ok.  We cruised to a stop and were greated by three firetrucks.  We advised that we could park it and once directed to our spot, we exited the plane.   Enzo was like a bullet out the door, still barking and panicked. I may have even seen him kiss the ground, but I cant be certain. He jumped up to greet the emergency crew who noted "We thought we heard a dog barking in there!" 

It was 4:15, and only less than a half hour since take-off and we hadn't even made it out of NJ.  With my parents living 45 minutes north of ACY,  I gave them a call explaining "Sid noticed something odd about the plane and he wants to get his checked out" :)    I came back in and Sid asked "What did your parents say"  I told him, "My mom says I am not allowed to play with you anymore" :)  Then I advised that I told them the plan had an issue but he could explain what he wanted once they got here.
A hour later, Enzo had made friends with the entire general aviation airport staff.  My parents came to get us, Sid gave them the details, and we drove off leaving the plane for maintenance to assess in the morning.

Friday morning came and we were advised that alternator failed and parts could not be shipped for a few days.  We tried to find another available airplane that Sid was checked out in and able to fly. Our regular planes were all rented or in service.  After a 4 mile run at Enzo's favorite park by my parents house, my dad drove sid to our initial airport to retrieve his car and off we went to drive the 17 hours to Tampa, unfortunately skipping our first planned destination of Summerville so that I could make it to the Croom 50k race scheduled for Sunday morning.

Croom Report will follow...