Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rain and Other Challenges

I roll over and look at my alarm clock.  It's still dark and a steady rain falls on the tin roof--4:25am.  I hear the Muslim call to prayer through the din of the rain and fall asleep again.  My alarm goes off at 6am.  It's still raining, and darker than usual.  As I go through my morning routine, the rain continues on, and as I eat my breakfast I pull out the computer to check the satellite and radar overlayed on google earth.  Doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime soon, but I head out to the airport anyway.  The rain gets harder as I pull up to the office at the airport.  I can't see any of the hills surrounding Bunia and guesstimate less than 2 miles visibility.  Nothing to do but wait.  30 minutes later the rain is still steady, but I can start to make out the hills to the South and East.  I want to go West, but I figure I will get the airplane ready and just maybe I could make it around the storm--but which way to go?

It seems to be moving straight towards my destination of Mambasa, 30 minutes away.  I can't wait too long because I want to get there and get out before the weather closes in, but I want to wait long enough for the visibility to improve a little.  I end up waiting for an hour, but things are improving, and if I wait any longer, I won't be able to land in Mambasa.  Time to go! 

My passenger is from Holland, so naturally I have to tell him all about my gorgeous wife and how she's 100% Dutch, and how she grew up on a dairy in Chino, California.  We play a little dutch bingo and I ask him if he knows of the game sjoelbak, kind of a dutch version of shuffleboard.  I tell him that I am planning on making my own board and playing with friends and family.  He gets a big kick out of that.

It's still raining, but just like a car can drive through rain, an airplane can fly through it.  I take off to the east and as I bank the airplane to the right, I look out the window and spot our house, where just a few seconds ago, Joy was probably sleeping soundly--not anymore!

The weather still looks better further south, so I steer a little south of course, picking my way around the heavier showers and keeping an eye on the clouds.  The further west I go, the worse it seems to get, and I turn around several times to keep from going "IMC" (in the clouds where mountains could be hiding).  It feels claustrophobic with the rain and the clouds all around me.  This weather reminds me a lot of the weather I dealt with in Portland ALL the time.  Sometimes I made it to my destination, sometimes I diverted to another airport or turned back for home, but I ALWAYS left myself a way out of danger.

I'm still relatively new to the area and I don't want to push the boundaries too far, but eventually I find a bit of relief from the rain and spot the bright red clay of the road that cuts through the jungle to Mambasa.  I fly parallel to it, keeping it just outside my left hand window.  If I can see that and follow it, it will take me right into Mambasa.  I fly through a heavier shower, keeping the road in my sights and suddenly I break out of the rain into the best visibility I've ever seen.  The air was crystal clear, but my mouth literally drops open at what lies before me.

I'm staring face to face with the ugliest looking gust front I've ever seen.  There's no way I would ever think about trying to fly through that.  I'd end up like the thousands of other unlucky pilots who's airplanes literally came out the bottom of the cloud in pieces.  Not a comforting thought!  It's incredibly smooth where I am at 6,500 feet, but I need to descend a few thousand feet in order to see what's on the other side.  So I slow the plane down a little and circle, evaluating everything I possibly can.

There's no wind or turbulence, great visibility, I can go back the way I came if I need to, but wait.  There are a few little puffy clouds just above the canopy, and boy are they hauling west bound!  I turn around and motion to my passenger to put his camera down (apparently it's the most incredible thing he's ever seen too) and snug up his seatbelt; it could get a little bumpy.

Approaching the base of the front, I can see, of all things, blue sky and abundant sunshine.  I can't really tell you exactly what goes on in a pilot's mind when he sees that.  If you just flew through half an hour of rain, clouds, and terrible visibility, and saw the most beautiful weather 5 miles ahead of you, you'd want to go for it.  I like to call them suckers.  They sometimes give you a false sense of security and can severely cloud your judgment.

I decide then and there that if things don't go exactly like I want them to, I'm turning around and flying straight back to Bunia, even if that means another half an hour through really crummy weather.

I fully expect moderate turbulence at the least when I descend down into the surface winds that are still really blowing.  But with one ripple and a few seconds of acceleration, I'm through the layer.  I still need to circle and descend lower to clear the clouds, but now it's incredibly difficult.  I glance and the GPS as I turn facing east and my groundspeed reads 40 knots!  Wow, that means the wind is blowing almost 60 knots to the west.  And as I bring the airplane around and start heading west again, I quickly accelerate to 160 knots.  My senses are heightened and I am alert as I ever have been.  There's enough room between rain showers for me to approach the front at a 45 degree angle, much like we do when we cross ridges.  This allows me to turn away quickly if things get ugly or I don't like what I see on the other side.

So far so good, not even a ripple of turbulence, things still look good on the other side, and all of a sudden, my ground speed drops away and I break out in front of the storm, 15 miles from Mambasa.  I breathe a sigh of relief to be done with that...for now.

The problem now is getting in and out of Mambasa before this thing hits.  The prospects of another overnight aren't too appealing right now.  But again, I make a decision ahead of time while I'm still thinking clearly about it.  I decide that if there's any wind at all when I'm about to takeoff, I will sit on the ground and wait it out.  Better to stay on the ground and wait it out, than never fly again.

Things in Mambasa look wonderful as I fly over and make my approach.  On final I check my ground speed compared to my airspeed indicator--they agree.  I'm aiming for a spot on the airstrip 200 meters from the end where it slopes up for 100 meters and then levels off again.  If I haven't landed and started braking on this hill I will go around and give it another try.

I'm still getting used to this airplane; it feels quite a bit different at slow airspeeds.  I keep a little extra speed in to help me meet the slope I'll be landing on and plunk down right where I want to.  I glance at the wheel out the window and check if it's wet, but it actually looks pretty nice.  I shut down and turn around, trying to read my passenger and how he's feeling.  He turns to me with a big smile on his face and says, "I haven't had that much fun in years!  So when do we get to do that again?!?"  I love these dutch folks!

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