Sunday, July 18, 2004

Oops, I flew too far!

I've been flying all around my new base station at Little Texas, Alabama and familiarizing myself with the area. I've got about ten hours on the engine now, and she seems to be running reliably. This particular morning, I set out in an easterly direction with the intention of flying to a nearby private airstrip listed on the charts. It's a beautiful July morning. The winds are not completely calm. Since I've only a flown a few hours since my 8+ year hiatus, I'm still uncomfortable when the wind and thermals shove the airplane around. Remember, my airplane only weighs about 250 pounds empty. I get real tense in the seat every time a gust lifts a wing and as quickly as possible I correct with the rudder (I don't have any ailerons), only to be blown awry again, but still, I'm flying and it's a beautiful day, and I want to keep flying!

I'm using my handheld GPS to navigate. I keep it secured to my left leg with an elastic strap that has velcro on it. It says I'm within a mile of the strip, but since I had to transcribe the coordinates from the aviation chart, I could be off a bit. I search all in front of me, and finally I see it. I've only been in the air for 30 minutes at this point, and I don't want to turn back yet! I decide to head to another private strip, about 6 miles east of where I'm at now. I go through the same navigation method using the GPS, and shortly I see the strip in front of me. It only took about 6 more minutes to reach this spot. It is a beautiful estate with a large house, a perfectly manicured field and an equipment shelter with open sides, full of farm equipment and such. At 23 miles, this is the farthest I've been from my base hangar since I've started flying again. I'm still not ready to quit. There's a strip in Phenix City, Alabama that has a bunch of light planes and ultralights. This is about 18 miles from where I'm at now. I've been there by car before, but never by air. I decide to fly there!

Since I haven't flown this far at one time in years, and never with this engine, I'm concerned that I won't have enough fuel to get back. Surely, if I have a problem, there will be somebody at the airstrip that will be preparing to fly. They could take me to get some fuel and oil (it's a 2-cycle engine) if they didn't have any on-hand. I'll probably have enough need to worry.

So, I follow the GPS map to the general vacinity of the airstrip. It right on the edge of Smith's Station, Alabama, which has grown up considerably since I was there by car about 10 years ago. I'm trying my hardest not to directly fly over peoples houses and stay over what remains of farm fields, but it's getting increasingly difficult. Add in the fact that it's Sunday morning, about 10 o'clock and there are a few churches that I really want to stay away from. One complaint from a congregation is bad news for us who fly ultralights. It invites prying from the FAA to see if we are really compliant with the very few rules that govern ultralights. I certainly don't want any trouble, so I stay far away from the churches and try to be as considerate as I can of other people and their property.

According to the GPS, I should be right on top of this airstrip, but I can't seem to find it. I don't panic, because as I said, I've driven to it before and I could follow the roads to find it if I had to, but each additional unnecessary moment in the air at this point means one less minute I'll have to get back home. I finally spot the airstrip. It's got 25 foot pine trees that have grown up all around it. No wonder I had a hard time finding it. I land without incident and taxi up to the hangars.

Well, first things first. I have to go to the bathroom badly, and there just happens to be a nice, dedicated one room building constructed for that purpose. There is all sorts of aviation literature in the bathroom, on tables and attached to the walls. I peruse a few magazines as I take care of my business, then I exit the facility and look for other people. Guess what....there's not a soul there. No biggie, I'm sure I have enough fuel to get home, let me go look. When I get back to my airplane, it appears that I have less than a half tank of fuel. It's difficult to tell because of the shape of the fuel tank and I haven't had any chances yet to mark the halfway point. Hmmm...what do I do now?


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