Delayed Take-off Was Delayed for a Reason
As anyone who has ever flown can tell you: "there can be no predictability when it comes to flying." Whether you are flying on a large commercial jet, a powered parachute, or a private single engine aircraft, there are elements that are always present which are naturally prone to keeping you on the ground. Mechanical concerns, the physical or mental condition of the pilot, and even operations at the airport all take a back seat to the number one reason why flights are cancelled or delayed: weather. It is weather that determines so many things when it comes to flight, from cruising altitude, to route, to flight speed, and especially whether you'll even fly or not.
Flying by Visual Flight Rules as we do in Hope One means that the ground must be in constant view from the aircraft which precludes us from flying into or through the clouds. This also is the reason why we can't take off in fog or when low cloud ceilings are present. This method of flying is adhered to so that in the event that a pilot needs to make an emergency landing, he or she will have a strong chance of finding a suitable place to set down. Likewise and more commonly, it is far easier to land at your destination airport when you can see it from ten or more miles away.
Picking a time and date for this Coast to Coast flight was easy due to the extended daylight hours that occur during early summer. Longer summer days means longer flight time before it gets dark, and longer flight time means greater distances that can be flown from dawn until dusk. Unfortunately, the date on the calendar may be perfect for time...but the weather usually requires patience in the essence of safety. Making a decision to fly into unsafe weather conditions rarely brings positive results, and the risk to so many for making such a dangerous choice outweighs whatever benefits would be left if the wheels did manage to touch down on the destination runway.
For those who have followed The Flight for the Human Spirit, you know that we certainly have had our share of weather delays while flying into 49 states and Canada. This is just a simple element of taking any aircraft into the sky; and since Hope One only weighs 800 pounds, caution and safety have been our primary concern to make sure that we keep this beautiful aircraft in pristine condition so future generations can enjoy her as well as those wishing to see her at an airport or air show in the months and years to come.
During our planning and coordinating operations we discuss the risks of flying onward from one point to another, and I make sure that I'm fully aware of the conditions that range from topography, flight restriction zones, and the wide variety of weather systems that can quickly change within the scope of 350 miles. My son Steve in mission control has been amazing in his ability to read and understand weather and further translate how it will affect Hope One in the sky. Ultimately, it comes down to my decision in choosing whether it is wise to fly onward or not, and I'm glad to say that whatever the pressures have been that were waiting on the other end have never been a factor in my final determination. Of course, this has meant many extra nights in hotels as we best try to guess what the sky will look like three days from now, but it is a system that our team functions within very easily without question. To us the words "weather delay" are common and are translated as "we'll live to see each other once again."
Despite our best plans and preparations, we know that picking a date for a flight is just (and only) that...a date on the calendar. It is a line in the sand that determines when our operations begin, and we know that from that moment onward we will continue to stay prepared and ready for when the skies turn blue enough to fly and allow us to light up some more hearts.
Such is the case with the Transcontinental World Record flight that we had hoped to accomplish this weekend. How I sincerely wish that I was writing this article to tell you how fantastic it was to fly Coast to Coast in a Light Sport Aircraft in less than two days. But, weather prevailed from many different angles that ultimately prevented us from flying Hope One to Carlsbad, CA and staging her for flight, and in the end...it was those events that kept us from experiencing a great deal of disappointment in falling just 200 miles short from completing our overall mission.
On Thursday, my son Daniel and I had Hope One loaded and ready to fly from our home base at US Aviation in Denton, TX to Chandler, AZ. We had nine hours of flight time and roughly an eleven hour journey in front of us. Scott Severen of US Aviation was going to fly with us for a few miles to send us off and wish us well. Unfortunately, there were low clouds at our first fuel stop in Amarillo that weren't expected to clear for another two hours, there were also low clouds and drizzle in the mountains east of Albuquerque which as time unfolded...ushered in a thunderstorm that blocked our flight path and eventually caused me to make the decision to scrub the flight. We decided that if all looked good, then we would leave Denton early on Friday morning, fly to California...get some rest, then turn around and fly Coast to Coast over the following two days. It was certainly going to be a rough few days, but not much different than flying The Flight for the Human Spirit. Our comfort was that by the end of the weekend, we would have completed The Flight, and would rest well knowing that this mission had been accomplished.
During the late night hours however, the forecast conditions worsened for the San Diego area and it seemed very obvious that we would spend the day racing there only to end up sitting in a hotel possibly for a week or more as we looked for a high pressure system to fill the area and hold the low morning clouds out at sea. Sadly I e-mailed our contacts there and informed them that indeed we would not be anticipating a take-off on the 23rd, and as each new forecast was released...our flight would not happen in the immediate future. The weather had won once again, but yet we live to tell the story and await the day when this adventure will be granted its proper time in the sky.
In order to satisfy my own level of curiosity, I always check the conditions at the moment of the scheduled flight to see if I made the right decision or not. Only once in over forty delays have I been wrong, so I usually feel pretty good with my choices. Never the less, I still always have to see if this was the right move or not. After all, we have news agencies and people around the world from across the United States, Europe, China, and South America watching and waiting to see if this little airplane and its determined pilot can make this journey, especially under Sport Pilot rules. So when I pull the plug on a predetermined flight day, I am hoping with all my heart that I have made the right choice.
My relief came at 5:40 AM when at the moment that we would be climbing toward the east California desert that the cloud ceiling in Carlsbad was only at 1,000 feet - too low to fly. I watched the weather carefully as I followed where we were projected to be throughout the day and monitored what conditions were prevailing at the time and place of landing. Flight Day One would have been easy with the exception of high gusting winds in Amarillo, TX. Fortunately, they were almost in the direction of the runway, so Daniel and I would have been safe back in Denton after twelve flight hours and a 14-15 hour day in or around Hope One. A few hours of rest, charge our camera and back-up system batteries and then back in the sky by 6:10 the next morning.
The weather for Flight Day Two looked good several days prior, and the team had all agreed that it would be a good weekend of flying; however by Saturday night, tropical storm Debby was moving toward Florida and was projected to send storm clouds into our flight path. By 3:30 PM, our flight leg from Columbia, SC to Wilmington, NC was blocked and we would have spent the next two hours on the ground in Columbia waiting for a chance for the storm to move onward allowing us to finish this journey before nightfall. The only available flight path would be to travel southeast from Columbia and avoid a few smaller cells until we reached the Atlantic coast, then fly east out over the ocean and approach Wilmington from the South. This certainly would not have been an option that I would have entertained...not even for a World Record. In the end, had we been able to take off Saturday morning, then we would have had to make a long flight back to California for another attempt within the next few weeks awaiting a flyable window when the weather looked favorable enough to try once again.
At this point, I feel comfortable about the decision to wait for more favorable conditions. We will remain on weather hold until it looks better both in the west, and now as we monitor the path of this ever growing storm system in the east. For the first time since planning this flight over two years ago, I feel at peace knowing that I am truly not alone in this world, and I've done my absolute best in planning and moving this project to this point of flight readiness.
We're safe, Hope One is safe, and we'll light up some hearts in the very near future.
This truly is an adventure in which we will all share in the outcome, and gather some good stories to tell in the meantime. We'll continue to monitor the weather and post when the next window for The Flight will be.