Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Those Lazy, Hazy Days Of Summer (flight school style)

When it is freezing cold and snow is on the ground, or when there are storms every day, a stable high pressure system sounds like heaven. Well, our weather has been dominated by a strong, slow-moving high for over a week now. The result is that our region is almost swimming in thick, stagnant, stale air. Humidity continues to climb every day, and life is generally miserable. There isn't (and hasn't been) any wind to speak of, and between atmospheric stability, heat, and lots of water content in the air, visibility is very poor. Today I think its up to 5 or perhaps 6 miles, which isn't anything in the air. I'd fly in it, obviously (visual flight requires a minimum of 3 miles), but it isn't good for students wanting to fly solo cross-country trips (they either aren't allowed to go, or they might get lost), and it isn't even good for teaching basic flying, because there is no horizon to see, most of the sky is a big white blur, especially when headed into the sun.

One of our students found this out the hard way this past Saturday. I was asked by his primary instructor to fly with him to Hazard, KY and back. If the guy's performance was up to par, I agreed to sign him off to fly there and back solo - it was to be his first cross-country flight by himself. We got up early, reviewed the flight plan, and were wheels-up by 8:30am or so. At that point, the high had just moved in, and the weather wasn't as bad as it is now, but it was starting to haze up all along the route. I snapped a few pictures on my way to Hazard. Here you can see the haze forming, along with some cloud at our cruising altitude of 6,500 feet. We eventually decided to go down to 4,500. There is a lot of mountain-and-hill-top removal coal mining in eastern KY and southern West Virginia. This is what it looks like when they are restoring a site, it looks much worse while they are mining, but the tops seem to recover fairly well. Modern mining seems much better than older methods. Flying in this area, I have seen shear rock walls and odd-looking holes in the sides of hills that are obviously older, pre-regulation mines. These are the ones that leech crazy chemicals and such. Much of the landscape of Kentucky is beautiful, despite the mining. Here is a pretty typical scene, just a country abode nestled in the hills. These pictures look blue-ish or blurry, partly because of the plexiglass window and partly because of the haze that was starting to build even then (almost a week ago).

Unfortunately for him, I didn't give Greg a chance to enjoy the scenery - that comes after the coveted pilot's certificate is earned. I had him busy keeping track of our course, using several navigational techniques (but not GPS), talking to ATC and Flight Service, updating his flight plan and getting weather updates while enroute, and recalculating groundspeed, time of arrival, and fuel usage at each checkpoint. We got off-course once, and I was happy to see that he had the situational awareness to figure out his location with landmarks out the window, correlate them to what is on the chart, and get back on course and determine the new fuel requirements. Overall, it was a top-notch performance, and we soon found ourselves on arrival to Runway 14 at Hazard, KY. The visibility looks OK here, but it has gotten worse and worse all week.

I got out of the plane while Greg went around the traffic pattern a couple times by himself. I mentioned that I was hungry, and the guy in the FBO told be to go in the kitchen and make a ham and cheese sandwich. They had ham, turkey, roast beef, and all the condiments and bread, plus mac and cheese, soup, ramen, and lots of other things that amounted to the most well-stocked kitchen I have ever seen at an airport. I took my sandwich outside and watched the plane go around the pattern.

We turned around and came home, arriving back at the flight school around noon. The weather had been stable, and with the high pressure system, we knew it would stay the same throughout the day (at least). I signed his book and turned him loose, then headed home. Little did I know that visibility would continue to degrade throughout the week. At this point, flights have pretty much stopped, since there isn't enough of a horizon to really fly by. That isn't a problem for a more experienced pilot, but for the newbies it is often a deal breaker. Even if they aren't nervous about the visibility, I can tell that they have some trouble flying in 5 miles of visibility in haze. Other than showing them what marginal visibility looks like, and telling them to think how bad the legal minimum of 3 miles would be, there is not a lot we can get done with the primary students.

Oh well, it is supposed to storm this weekend. That means unstable air, (temporarily) cooler temperatures, and good visibility for a few days. If we have to dodge a storm or two, it will be a nice change at least.

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