Monday, June 9, 2008

Passing Wind

I've taken off from the Canadian prairies and am heading south. My take-off

was six minutes after filed, which will affect my arrival time at customs. They

told me on the phone, rather fiercely, that I had a fifteen minute window. More

than seven minutes early or more than seven minutes late and I'm in trouble.

Customs officers have families the man on the phone said, and they want

to spend time with them, not waiting for me. I'm not worried about the six

minutes though, because, knowing I could always slow down if I needed to, I told

them I'd be a little longer than I though I would. I can always slow down a

little as I approach, or just taxi really slowly, if there are no delays. And

maybe I'll luck out and get a customs officer with a new baby at home, who is

glad of the opportunity to escape the associated smells and sounds.

I'm VFR today, flying at only a few thousand feet above flat terrain, and

radar coverage is sparse in this part of the world, so ATC decide they don't

want to talk to me anymore. Theoretically I'm supposed to have ATC contact

during the border crossing, so I call up an American ATC unit. They don't want

to talk to me either, but I have at least fulfilled the letter of the law as the

brown flat bits beneath switch from Canadian to American.

Once I'm established on the faintly red, white and blue striped side of the

border, probably in a red state, I'm navigating to just miss the corner of a

Military Operations Area. It's marked on the chart, and outlined on the GPS, but

that's not what I'm navigating by. This part of this state is basically flat,

but every once in a while there's a mountainous part. And this particular

mountain exactly coincides with the MOA, almost as though the mountains

themselves were some sort of secret military project. Maybe they aren't

mountains at all, but an illusion of mountains, created by the people with the

black helicopters to hide their secret base. At my out-of-the-wind altitude, I

choose to go around the peaks of the mountains, rather than testing their

solidity and defenses.

Other than that slight deviation, my trip is a couple of hours of straight

travel. The engines gauges all sit happily at their expected values and the

engines sound fine on either side of me. There are a lot of bugs on the

windshield, though. I guess it's that time of year on the prairies again.

As I approach my destination, and I pick up the ATIS to find out the current

conditions, the GPS says my arrival time will be to-the-minute as planned, I've

made up the six minutes. Okay, maybe I cheated a tiny bit with power, not just

the winds.

Speaking of winds, there is a bit of a crosswind at destination. I think it

was 22 knots about 15 degrees off the runway. This airplane is pretty solid in a

crosswind. That's not even enough to be fun. I call the tower and am sequenced

for landing, almost straight in from my direction of travel. The aircraft in

front of me are being passed the winds. (As I type this, a Beavis and Butthead

voice in my head says "passed wind, heh heh," but giving someone information by

radio is called "passing" and information about wind strength and direction is

"winds" so what else can I say?) The winds are increasing and diverging from the

runway by the minute. When I am on two-mile final, the wind is 42 knots, I

remember that figure, but not the angle. It was over thirty, so more than twenty

knots of direct crosswind. There is another runway I can ask for, which by this

time is more aligned with the runway, and I'm thinking I will probably overshoot

and land on it, but crosswinds are such fun. It won't take any more time now to

try and then turn for another runway than it would be to ask for the other

runway right away, so I continue, somewhat sideways, for this one. On short

final I start to straighten the airplane out. This is where I could discover I

don't have enough rudder to land the airplane in this direction. I have been

approaching with the wings level and the nose pointed into the wind to keep my

direction of travel aligned with the runway centreline. Now I'm rolling my into

wind wing down at the same time as I press down the away-from-wind rudder pedal.

I have to decrease my bank momentarily to get the nose aligned with the runway,

but then I put the bank back in and everything holds.

I don't really have enough rudder left over to cope with any sudden gusts,

but so far the wind has been very steady. I keep asking myself, "Should I reject

this?" I need to leave room for something unanticipated to go wrong. I'm also

carrying enough power that I can keep the airplane airborne in ground effect,

and I'm ready to go around. But the wind is from the right, and I expect it to

continue to decrease and also back, become more from the left as I descend the

last bit to the runway. I overfly the beginning of the runway. I'm straight and

on the centreline. I reduce the power and put the airplane down, first the into

wind wheel and then the other. Yah, triumph!

Using power that way isn't really the right way to land. By the textbook I

should have done a firm, solid landing with no float, so as to get the airplane

firmly on the ground before a gust could carry me sideways. I took advantage of

the fact that I had much more runway than I needed, so I didn't have to make my

decision right at the runway. There's also no problem making the away-from-wind

turn to exit the runway onto the taxiway. I expected it would be harder because

the airplane would act as a weather vane and try to point towards the wind. I

think the surface wind must be less than they are calling it.

I taxi to customs, right down at the end of the runway. There's a little

building behind a black helicopter with "Homeland Security" stencilled along it

in serious letters. As I shut down the engines a customs officer comes around

the nose towards my boarding door. I set the parking brake and come back to open

the door. The wind tears it out of my hands and it slams open. Fortunately the

customs officer wasn't standing in a position that made me liable for

decapitating a federal officer. I'm sure there's a serious penalty for that. I

stick my head outside and wow yes, I believe it's 42 knots now. Easily. The

officer yells over the wind for me to bring my passport, licence and aircraft

documents inside. He'll meet me there. He flees.

I collect my documents, borrow and set chocks and come inside, probably

looking like a troll doll from the wind. The customs clearance is painless. He

inspects my licence, my passport, the airplane registration, my proof of

purchase of a customs decal and consults the computer a bit then tells me I'm

all done. He's much friendlier than the guy on the phone. Maybe he doesn't

actually have a family. I ask him if there's one FBO on the field that is more

appropriate for my size airplane than another. Sometimes one FBO caters mainly

to jets, or one has parking gauged to small singles. He isn't supposed to give

recommendations, but manages to let me know which one everyone goes to.

When I get back to the plane I see that the wind has blown the chocks right

out from under the wheels! The chocks are two wedge-shaped blocks of wood

connected by a rope. That's normal for wheel chocks, so you can pick them up

both at once, and hang them on a hook. The wind in this case caught the rope

like a flag and that was enough force to pull the chocks out. Fortunately the

brakes held. I restart the airplane and get taxi clearance to the FBO, past the

Homeland Security helicopter. I don't know helicopters, so I can't tell you what

sort it was, but it was big. I wouldn't be surprised if it could seat ten

well-armed people. It definitely cost a lot of money. I was going to take a

picture of the helicopter for you, but you know, Homeland Security.

I taxi up to the FBO and more troll-haired people marshall me into parking

and scurry to tie down the airplane. I laugh, climbing out of the airplane,

about how strong the wind is, and how it came up just as I was landing. "We saw

you land," they tell me, "you did a good job." I suppose I would sit and watch

and laugh pilots trying to land in that, too. Maybe take some video.

I stayed at a hotel the FBO called for me, and ate next door in a truck stop

diner. And the food was excellent. I seem to have discovered a pattern lately of

unexpectedly good food in diners and airport restaurants in the northern states.

Either the baseline standard for restaurant cuisine is higher here, or good

restaurants just have lousy decor.

Also there's an e-mail from a company I've applied to, inviting me for an interview for a jet job. I can't come because their week of interviews occurs while I am out of the country, but I tell them to keep me in mind for future opportunities. Perhaps my unwillingness to screw over my current employer will reflect well on me.

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