Stranded in Vigan, one of the prettiest towns in the Philippines. It was too rainy for the beach, but I could have puttered around the pottery kiln, explored the Crisologo museum, or hopped on a bus to Laoag or Abra province. Instead . . . .
I hunkered down in the Salcedo Hotel, moping over the weather. Thunder woke me up the next morning. It was still raining.
I prowled accuweather.com, PAGASA and METAR reports via wireless internet. I had to get home.
Finally I did go outdoors. To the airport by tricycle.
A pilot stricken with “get-home-itis” works himself into a curious mental paradox — convinced that he can see some blue sky, and confident that his instrument training lets him fly in solid clouds. So he neither reconciles himself to fly IFR in weather nor commits to stay visual.
He is setting himself up for a blind date with aviation’s serial killer. Literally.
That was blue sky, wasn’t it, out west?
But west was the South China Sea. The next landfall was Vietnam.
No, I needed to go south, to La Union for fuel and then home to Omni.
South didn’t look good. But I was trained to fly through that, right?
Then I got an SMS from Ralph, the tower controller at the La Union airport, my refueling point. He had to close his airport! The tower was flooded.
The tower flooded? How bad was this weather? Do I need to build an Ark?
The tower’s roof had leaked rain all night. Radios wet, water on the floor, power outlets fried, they were probably collecting animals two-by-two.
La Union was 57 nautical miles — 106 kilometers — south of me. This was not a small weather system.
Did I really need to refuel at La Union?
How about flying direct to Omni, my home base, 145 miles away?
Two-hour climb, cruise and descent. The airplane burns 7 gallons of fuel per hour. My tanks had 15 usable gallons. There was no fuel for sale here in Vigan.
“Tight” isn’t tight enough to describe it. They invented the word “Infinitesimal” for this kind of fuel margin. With any headwind, I’d run out of fuel short of Omni’s runway. A mile short, 20 miles short — it didn’t matter. I’d be looking for an emergency landing spot in rain and poor visibility, with a dry and dead engine.
The airport guys — FSS, security, CAAP — scrounged up concrete-filled pails. But we had no tie-down ropes.
A security guard ran to the flagpole. The flag wasn’t flying in the rain anyway. So we had our rope!
After a few minutes with a WWII bayonet and some knotty work, the airplane was secured.
I didn’t really make a decision about not flying in this weather. The airport guys made it for me.
Another rainy night then, in waterlogged Vigan. I now knew why the walls have moss.
The next morning, my hotel room was bathed in brilliant sunshine! The cold front was gone! Yup, that’s the moon in daylight!
One last problem — La Union airport, where my fuel was stashed, was still closed. Ralph and his crew had worked all night, but I hadn’t heard from him yet.
I worked my GPS, RPUQ-Omni direct, recomputing fuel burn at maximum lean. I knew I could get it down to 6 gallons per hour.
Then, in a moment of sanity, I texted Kevin. Asked him what he thought.
Sounds tight. What are the winds like?
Forecast calm. I need to get back to Bangkok
[Expletive deleted] Bangkok. You’ll get there eventually
Because Kevin is normally subtle and polite, I snapped out of my hypnotic trance. Kevin has a trizillion hours flying his Cessna 182 and 206 on over-water flights out of Cebu. Such a tiny space between right and wrong, but Kevin filled that gap to bursting.
Then a new SMS message came in.
It was from Ralph. He was opening La Union. My refueling stop was assured.
With my new-found lucidity, I held the airplane tail down during pre-flight inspection. Liters of rainwater poured out. Would have been an interesting takeoff with a fluid center of gravity sloshing around.
I leaned to peak EGT at 2,500 feet to La Union. Just to see if my flight plan was grounded in reality.
Then I leaned to 25 degrees rich of peak at 7,500 feet on the leg to Omni.
The interesting result? The airplane sipped 4.5 gallons per hour. I could have flown direct from Vigan to Omni, and back, without refueling!
With a new data point for my range and endurance charts, I’m now slightly smarter.
But I didn’t know that before takeoff.
So who’s the smartest pilot in this tale?
The dear friend who gave me a wake up call with a [expletive deleted].
Other smart guys: the dedicated controllers who worked all night to open my fuel stop.
And rural airport workers who tied down my airplane before I could make a stupid decision to fly in what was really god-awful bad weather.
They sure made better ‘pilot’ decisions than I did.
The smartest pilot in the world is the one who stays in this world.
Posted from Guangzhou, July 27, 2009.
About this post:
Kevin is in Beijing as I type this in Guangzhou. Wordpress blogs are still blocked in the People’s Republic, along with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. But we did find a VPN work-around on the internet! The worldwide web rules!