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We Go West But Not Viral

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If there ever was an understatement for the year 2020, it is "The COVID-19 virus is affecting our lives." Yeah, like staying home almost continuously for weeks and weeks.

So, we decided to do something about it: A flight to visit daughter Ingrid in Albuquerque, NM.

We called the FBO in Plainview, TX to inquire how they handled refueling. Then contacted Albuquerque about refueling and hangar storage. Both answers satisfactory: Masks in use, a promise to keep distance.

But that really isn't good enough. What happens when we enter the FBO building? The air in the building, surfaces in the office, and restrooms?

So we decided to work out a system that eliminates potential virus transmission as much as possible.

The key is: Do not enter the FBO building during refueling. That requires some care.

Fuel Input

As we were about to land in Plainview, we requested refueling with the fuel truck, as opposed to self service.

Sure enough, as soon as we had taxied to the terminal and stopped the…

Two Airport Gems of the East Coast: Florala, AL (0J4) and Marianna, FL (MAI)

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We are on a two-day trip from Dallas to the Tampa, FL area. For day 1, we have planned to reach Marianna, FL.

Starting at the Aero Country airport at 8 am, the first leg brings us to Vicksburg, MS around noon. We refuel, take off, climb to our cruising altitude of 5,500 ft, open the Garmin Pilot on the iPad to look at the weather ahead, and are in for a surprise.

Minor thunderstorms northeast of Marianna have begun to blossom and start to form a thunderstorm cluster. The intense lightning and heavy rain is moving southwest and will engulf the airport before we get there.

We use the Garmin Pilot to check out alternate airports along our route: We go to the airport page, bring up the airports one by one and look for runway conditions, available fuel, and NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen), which tell about special facts and conditions affecting landing and takeoff.

The autopilot takes over navigation during that checking process, and the ADS-B system informs us about any airplanes near us. Thus we …

"Big Tree" Alligator Juniper

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At sunrise, we have taken off from Aero Country Airport north of Dallas toward Deming, NM, 600 nm away to the west. The AOPA radar has shown intense thunderstorms north of the center portion of the route near Abilene, TX, and we have changed the refueling stop from the originally selected Andrews, TX, which is covered by thunderstorms, to Odessa, TX, south of Andrews. We expect to be in that portion of the route in another 3½ hours.
But 10 minutes after liftoff, an unexpected thunderstorm pops up northwest of us, with heavy rain and dark clouds illuminated by lightning flashes. The thunderstorm does not move toward us due to the high pressure system to the south of us. So we just maneuver around the thunderstorm and continue westward.
Approaching Abilene, the cluster of thunderstorms seen four hours earlier on AOPA radar is still active. We contact Flight Watch to get an assessment of the coverage of the storms. The specialist confirms that the cluster is still north of A…

MAI, the Friendly Marianna, FL Airport

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The dramatic reduction of personal flying has caused many small airports to scale back services. Often refueling can only be accomplished with self-service equipment that relies on those blasted hard-to-read LCD displays, and there is just one person, or even no one, manning the FBO. 

We refuel, say “hi” to the attendant if there is one, use the facilities for input and output of liquids (i.e., water cooler and restroom), and then take off again.

But there are still old-style airports. “Old-style” here means that the airport is well-equipped and that there are plenty of people around. It is a pleasure to land there.

Such is the airport in Marianna, FL. We had visited a few years ago, when the airport was undergoing a major renovation process. On a recent visit we saw the impressive results. 

The entire airport building has been remodeled, and the facilities — reception area, lounge, snack area, restrooms — are first-rate. And then there are plenty of people around, including the helpful p…

Safe VFR Flight Over the Top of Clouds

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Our Zenith 601HDS plane, N314LB, is not equipped for flight under instrument flight rules (IFR). Nor do we have the appropriate rating for that kind of flight. Hence, we are restricted to visual flight rules (VFR). They demand that we cannot fly into clouds, let alone fly while embedded in clouds.

VFR Cloud Conditions

Below 10,000 ft MSL, VFR flight must be at least 500 ft below clouds or 1,000 ft above clouds, and horizontally must be at least 2,000 ft away from clouds.

Above 10,000 ft MSL, two of the conditions are stricter: The 500 ft condition for flight below clouds is increased to 1,000 ft, and the horizontal distance condition becomes 1 mile.

The conditions are relaxed close to the ground: Up to 1,200 ft above ground level (AGL), VFR flight only needs to stay clear of clouds. Near airports, indicated by magenta shading on maps, that limit is lowered to 700 ft AGL. 

The above summary is incomplete since it ignores conditions for night flight, which we never dare to do, and since it s…

Flying the Snake River

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At 1,078 miles, the Snake River of the Pacific Northwest is one of the longest rivers of the US.
The river starts in western Wyoming. Southbound, the river flows along the eastern part of the Teton mountain range, swings around the southern edge of that range, and then proceeds northwest into Idaho. From there, it flows westerly in a long arc through that state. Finally, the river turns north, forming the border of Idaho and Oregon, and empties into the Columbia River at Pasco, WA.

Over the years, we have seen parts of the river on various trips. This year, we decided to fly along all of it save a small portion at the beginning and end. 

This was a solo flight, since we have found that long flights over difficult terrain with a passenger entail too much distraction and thus impinge on safety.

Getting There

Solo flight has the advantage that with max fuel and camping gear, gross weight of our Zenith 601HDS, N314LB, is below 950 lbs. As a result, the plane requires less than 3,000 ft of runw…