This past week, America celebrated Independence Day. Our nation has enjoyed 242 years of independence and freedom. Not all chapters in American history are positive, and we still struggle with many divisions. But, America remains a people living in a free society with vast opportunity.
Flying for me is an expression of the freedom I enjoy as an American. The freedom to travel and to enjoy the beautiful scenery of this vast country from above. The fun of exploring new places, meeting new people and becoming part of a community of aviators. Pilots, in general, are an independent lot. You have to have a sense of independence to pilot an airplane. We are responsible for conducting our flights in a safe manner. We owe that to our passengers, those flying around us and indeed those on the ground. We have to manage that responsibility on our own as the pilot in command. As they teach us in our flight lessons and ground school you, as the pilot, are the final authority for each flight.
Last weekend my wife and I had the chance to exercise that independence with an impromptu trip to the Unclaimed Baggage Store. We originally planned to take a weekend trip to visit our family but had to cancel those plans because the forecast weather for our return leg didn’t look promising.
I still had a reservation for my flying club’s Cessna 172, so I released the reservation for the second day of our planned trip and began searching for a short day trip for us to enjoy together. I recently stumbled on a website called Fun Places to Fly (you can visit it here). The site allows you to search for various fun things to see and do with a general aviation airplane. I stumbled on the Unclaimed Baggage Store which was only an hour flight from home base and realized this was the perfect union of flying and shopping! I love to fly, and my wife, an avid bargain hunter, loves to shop for great deals.
I put together a flight plan, called for a weather briefing and soon we were off to the airport. I was very excited for Kimberly to fly with me again. This would be her first trip in one of the club’s airplanes. She had only flown with me once before. That trip was in the aircraft I did a lot of my training in and ultimately used for my check ride. While it is a solidly maintained airplane from a mechanical standpoint, it shows the wear and tear of a training aircraft. In other words, it isn’t pretty to look at. For this trip, I would get to show off a handsome airplane that is well-appointed and free of the tired, worn look of a training airplane.
On our way to the airport we stopped to acquire some “flight fuel” . . .
(Honestly, if our family ever stops eating at Chick-Fil-A, I’m confident that our local franchise will go out of business!)
We arrived at the airport, I pulled the airplane from the hangar and completed my pre-flight inspection. We departed from our home airport in Lebanon, Tennessee (M54) and began our journey toward the Scottsboro, Alabama airport (4A6). I decided to fly at a lower altitude than I originally planned. The skies were dotted with scattered cumulus clouds and while there were opportunities to get above them, I didn’t want to risk getting stuck on top and unable to descend, or having to plunge through an available gap in the clouds. In addition to being an unnecessary risk, a rapid descent would probably not endear my wife to my new flying habit.
The lower altitude gave us the opportunity to enjoy the scenery and I pointed out various landmarks along the way. My wife snapped this photo as we climbed out of Lebanon. If you look closely you’ll see that she captured our shadow on the ground.
I contacted ATC and asked for flight following soon after our departure. As we closed in on Scottsboro, Memphis Center handed us off to Huntsville Approach. I was having difficulty hearing them clearly so I canceled flight following and switched over to the common frequency for Scottsboro’s airport. There was no one else in the pattern so I executed a mid-field overflight and made the 270-degree turn into a left downwind for Runway 22. My downwind leg was a little closer to the airport than I was accustomed, so I extended that leg slightly to give me more room to set up for final approach. The proximity to the airport made my base leg short and I was quickly turning from base to final. I lined up my final approach and continued my descent. But, it just didn’t feel right. I was little high and a little fast since and my base leg had been shorter than normal. I just wasn’t feeling good about this approach. The little voice in my head said what I’ve heard my instructors and many others say over and over again “You can always go around.” But would I listen?
I try to consume as much continuing aviation education as I can. One resource I really like and enjoy is the Aviation Newstalk Podcast. If you are a pilot or interested in general aviation you must have this podcast in your rotation. I have learned a great deal from it. In addition to the voices of my instructors and fellow flight club members, the host of this show, Max Trescott’s, voice was also ringing in my ears. In a recent episode discussing the “go around” decision, Max said the first moment you think “maybe I should go around” . . . you should go around.
With that sage advice surging through my brain, and to my wife’s surprise, I was suddenly adding full power, turning off carb heat, beginning to climb and retracting the flaps. After all of this activity, I announced on the UNICOM that I was “going around.” My wife asked in a slightly stressed voice, “What’s wrong?” I told her nothing was wrong, we’re not in peril, I just wasn’t comfortable with the approach and we were going to give it another shot. To her credit she simply said “okay.”
I don’t want to over sell this event. It wasn’t a horrible approach. I probably could have chopped the power to idle, slipped the airplane and made the landing. But why? We were on a leisurely trip to rummage through people’s lost luggage for what we hoped would be valuable treasure. It could wait ten more minutes. The second approach was much better and we made a nice, smooth landing into Scottsboro. We taxied to the terminal and called for fuel. After refueling, we were in the FBO’s loaner van for the 2-mile journey to lost luggage heaven.
We spent a couple of hours shopping for whatever we might stumble upon. I was stunned at the size of the Unclaimed Baggage Store. After taking in the sheer magnitude of it, I thought “Just how much luggage do the airlines lose every day?!?” Naturally there is a very large selection of clothing including mens’, womens’, childrens’, formal wear, uniforms, suits, shoes and shockingly, lingerie (does anyone every buy it?!? Egad!). They have electronics, computers, sporting goods, tools, home goods, jewelry and more that I could list but I’ll spare you. You get the idea. Go see it for yourself, it’s a fun journey through commercial air travel. Some of the items were quite humorous. I wondered why someone might have been packing a dry heat rotisserie oven in their luggage? Who was the person who packed the sledge-hammer and Karaoke machine and why? I jokingly asked one of the clerks where the gun section was and she replied with a polite smile “we don’t have one”, clearly vexed at having heard this joke one too many times.
We both found some great bargains, ate a snack and headed back to the airport. I called for a weather briefing and was advised that there was a small thunderstorm East of home base and that we should delay our departure. The storm was moving North-Northwest very slowly but appeared to be dissipating. I loaded the airplane, completed my pre-flight inspection and walked back into the FBO to check the weather again. The storm had run its course and we prepared for departure.
We climbed out of Scottsboro and turned North into similar conditions we had experienced that morning, but the cloud bases were higher allowing me to add some altitude to our flight home. I contacted Atlanta Center and asked for flight following and was handed off to Memphis Center a few minutes later.
Pilots are always worried about weather and the small storm that had delayed our departure kept that concern fresh in my mind. It is summer in Tennessee which means afternoon thunderstorms occur frequently and are often very violent. Prior to departing I picked two alternate airports to land short of home base if any more storms began to emerge. I was also closely watching the weather head on my ForeFlight App mindful that there is a 10-15 minute delay in what appears in the app and the actual weather ahead. We were twenty-five miles out of Scottsboro and I began to notice some precipitation directly in our flight path, but it was clear to the West. So I turned toward the Shelbyville airport (KSYI) and advised ATC that I was diverting to the West to take a more circuitous route to Lebanon to avoid some precipitation. As we approached Tullahoma (KTHA) I was handed off to Nashville approach. We had successfully circumnavigated the small rain shower now far to our East and I turned toward home base.
I had been having great difficulty hearing ATC during this leg of our journey and reached up to adjust the volume thinking that I had inadvertently turned it down. I immediately realized that I had depressed the volume knob and squelched the radio, so I spent the next few moments resetting it to remove the mind-numbing static in my ears. Then I discovered the reason I was having a hard time hearing ATC. I forgot to activate the ANR (active noise reduction) on my headset. For those of you unfamiliar with ANR it is a technology that was first developed by the Bose Corporation. It consists of small microphones in your headset that listen to the sound you are hearing. A microprocessor analyzes the sound and calculates the inverse wave of those sounds which it then plays through a set speakers in the headphones. These “counter sound waves” result in a dramatic reduction in engine noise and other sounds that drone on and on in a small airplane cockpit, that the person wearing the headset hears. Upon realizing my mistake, I quickly switched on the ANR, and a magical peace and quiet washed over my ears once again. I made a mental note to update my startup checklist to add “Turn on ANR, you dummy” as the last item on that list.
The remainder of our flight was uneventful and I made a nice, soft landing at home base. My wife’s compliment on my landing capped off my day as we taxied back to the hangar. I called for fuel, cleaned and stowed the plane and we drove home with the air conditioning on full blast.
While this trip may seem routine or even mundane to more seasoned pilots, it meant a great deal to me. After years of hopes and dreams about flying, many trips planned and cancelled due to bad weather or unforseen circumstances, I was finally doing it for nothing more than the sheer pleasure and joy of spending a day with my wife on a leisurely flight. Kimberly and I enjoyed a beautiful day together doing things we both love. It doesn’t get much better than that, and I’m looking forward to our next great adventure . . . .
Copyright 2018 – Miller Hogan