Flight: NC: Outer Banks – Oregon Inlet, Roanoke Sound

About a week after moving to the coast, it was time to see it from the air. For the first time in years, I will have beautiful scenery without having to worry about smacking into the side of a mountain, or being eaten by a bear after an emergency landing in a national forest. Believe it or not, I thought I’d get relief with the NC Mountains book projects over the summer, with peaks maxing out below 7,000 feet. How wrong I was! The terrain had plenty of wind, turbulence, clouds, and desolation to worry about. In fact, with no timberline or desert valleys, my emergency landing options were big, old trees. It is a bit exhausting to track the lowest chance of death at all times, so this winter at the coast will be fantastic with a permanent emergency landing fixture available at all times: the beach!

Ironically, the weather was a high of 38 on the day I took off, which felt more like Colorado than the South. I chose the day as the wind was out of the northwest, being sunny and dry (also the source of the aforementioned cold). Southwest, south, southeast, northeast, and even north all comes off water somewhere (such is life sticking out on the Outer Banks), and that carries varying levels of haze from ocean humidity and/or human defilement. Northwest is usually a shot of air out of Canada that also has a Chinook/Föhn effect coming off of the Appalachian mountains a few hundred miles northwest, drying the air out and making it clearer.

My calculations for the day were correct. The air was wonderful, with 50-mile visibility. My purpose was to take a more leisurely stroll in the air, scoping out what the scene is like, and gathering data so as to plot my photographic attack of the OBX for the next few months.

I cruised over Jockey’s Ridge (big sand dunes), down over Roanoke sound, over Oregon Inlet, and back. Roanoke Sound featured amazing sculpted sand under the water line, courtesy of a polarizer and exquisite photography skills. Oregon Inlet revealed a tidal flow heading out to sea, so I climbed to 5,000 feet to photograph the whole thing and show it. One of these days, I’ll head up to 10,000 to get as many of the islands as I can see from the air, even though it makes my stomach churn, as though I will just get blown out to sea. Irrational, yes. I don’t like flying over water after this story.

1-Jockeys Ridge
Jockeys Ridge State Park
2-Sand patterns
Sand Patterns – There are lots of these
3-Oregon Inlet
Oregon Inlet
5-Atlantic Ocean
Atlantic Ocean – I do not like flying over water.
6-Oregon Inlet Tidal Flow
Oregon Inlet Tidal Flow
7-Nags Head Beach
Beach, Nags Head in Distance
“Seafood Industrial Park” – Wanchese
9-Manteo Mainland Bridge
Manteo to Mainland Bridge
4-Oregon Inlet - From a Mile Up
Oregon Inlet – From a Mile up

Flying in Lake Effect Snow

In honor of those who have recently been pummeled in my hometown near Buffalo, NY, and in consideration of the amazing photographs and videos of the lake effect snow coming off the lake, I thought I would write about the occasions I have found myself flying in that stuff.

For starters, yes, I have flown in lake effect snow. Stupid as it sounds, it can be done, though it is through a much lighter variety, and not the apocalyptic, civilization-destroying Snowmaggedon that Buffalo recently experienced. The only aircraft that could theoretically blast into the worst of the snow are large commercial airliners, and that would only be under circumstances that they find absolutely necessary. If they can avoid the snow band, they will.

My first experience was while I was a student pilot in 1997. I was flying the aircraft I now own, based out of my grandfather’s little grass private airport in Wyoming County, NY. It was a cloudy, cold, gray November day, and the forecast called for a few flurries and maybe a snow shower. I was flying very local to the field and saw a tiny snow shower coming out of a cloud, definitely coming off the lake. Getting closer, it was a very small, very light shaft of snow. I aimed for the center of it and, upon arriving in the middle, found that it was denser than I thought. Still legal, and ultimately safe, the snow looked a lot like giant flakes do when driving through them. Slightly surprised at the density of the precipitation, I flew through it a few times. Upon landing, the little snow shower was remarkably close to the airport and when I got out of the airplane, it was a simple flurry. The weather nerd in me loved knowing that flurries were really tiny snow showers where the flakes spread out over a distance, starting at one concise point and covering a large area.

The second experience involved a solid lake effect snow event striking the Southern Tier. Winds were characteristically out of the northwest, so the southtowns and metro area basically had a mostly cloudy day. I flew straight west over toward Hamburg, out over Lake Erie, then climbed up to 7,500 feet over the clouds. The clouds form over the lake and blew inland, at a relatively fixed point, so it is possible to fly out over the water, climb up, and then back over the clouds. It was an odd experience, partially surreal, as downtown appeared below and in front of me, and a FedEx cargo jet flew below my little airplane, with black clouds to the south.

The next one was a bit more brazen, though turned out just fine. Lake effect snow showers were streaming off Lake Huron and strengthening over Lake Ontario, coming in on a north/northwesterly wind. Rarely does the snow do much of anything significant in central Erie County when coming from that direction, a few inches of accumulation at best. There already was a snowpack on the ground that I took off on, and my route of flight was to Buffalo Airfield in West Seneca/Cheektowaga area to get fuel. The flight is usually 20 minutes. Snow showers were IFR (meaning “Instrument Flight Regulations” – poor visibility and only for certified aircraft with proper instruments), so I flew around them, dodging them left and right, particularly over Elma. It was like a maze of sorts, as I would creep around one snow shower, only to find out where the rest were. Although some pilots would find the act risqué, it was a lot of fun. Refueling happened without a problem and I repeated it heading home.

The coup de grace of lake effect flying happened fourteen years after my third experience. After moving south, and having a seven year hiatus from flying, I was back in the saddle and happened to be in NY in early November of 2012 with the airplane. There was a saga about a failed move, and the airplane had to go back down South, before a long business trip to Seattle, and preferably before a snowpack entombed Wyoming County into its annual permafrost. The forecast called for sunny skies on Sunday, so I bought a one-way ticket from NC on Saturday and flew to NY. I awoke at my grandparents’ place on Sunday morning only to see an inch of snow, low visibility, and moderate snowfall. What the heck is this?

Turning on the weather on TV, it was evident that relatively intact bands were streaming north to south off Lakes Erie and Ontario. The band off Ontario was coming down sporadically into Wyoming County, and the Erie bands started west of East Aurora, streaming down toward Springville, though not as strong. Visibility was low when they passed over, and temperatures were marginally around freezing, an ideal situation for icing on the airplane.

My grandfather was insistent that the flight not happen; I was insistent that it did, as if it did not happen that day, it would not happen possibly until Spring. Watching the radar, it was evident that the bands were cyclical, and it appeared I could head west toward Hamburg, follow the lakeshore down, and hopefully squeeze through western Chautauqua County. If I could get past there, I was scot-free, except for bad weather in West Virginia. I’ll deal with that when it comes.

The snow continued to be on and off, various blasts of moderate snowfall impeding visibility, and then disappearing. When it would snow, my grandfather would look at it with a raised eyebrow, almost happy that it was bad enough to deny the flight altogether. Undeterred, I advised that I would be flying after the next shower blew through. When I take off, if there is nowhere to go, I will land. If it’s clear, I’ll be gone.

Upon takeoff, it was clear in sections, and snow and bad visibility in others. I ran into a little bit of precipitation, and it appeared to freeze to the airframe, which is not good. After flying in snow over 20 times, this was a first that icing started. I turned SW of Strykersville to get away from it, then north of East Aurora, south of Orchard Park, north of Hamburg – dodging the snow showers and most of the icing. The ice sublimated between snow showers, thankfully. If the icing were to be a problem, the lake was 43 degrees, so the plan was to get down near the water and let the ambient warmth melt it off.

I got to the lakeshore and headed toward Dunkirk, dodging zero visibility showers as they came in off the water. As I got nearer the Dunkirk, the main Erie band was present: a wall of zero visibility, with a tiny opening. As I zeroed in toward it, it closed. Fiddlesticks. I followed the band southeast inland a bit, and the hole opened a bit, so I turned southwest to head through it. Conditions changed during the crossing and, needless to say, it was a bit harrowing. On the other side, it was fine visibility where I was, but filled with zero visibility weather just about everywhere. I scanned for landing opportunities in a field if needed and thought to myself “This has the hallmarks of ending up in one of those post-mortem NTSB reports about how stupid the pilot is.” Very close to turning back, I decided to proceed a little bit further, and rounding a snow shower, I saw a clear shot to the Chautauqua ridge. I turned south to beeline away from the lake, with the intent to avoid a second band near Erie, PA.

Ceilings were 1000ft and visibility about 3 miles. I was flying by memory, as I had been too lazy to get the map out, and finally had to turn the GPS on at this point with opaque skies and progressively more unfamiliar terrain. I crossed Chautauqua Lake, PeekNPeak Ski Resort, and then the moisture and visibility cleared up, resulting in a cloudy day in Pennsylvania. At this point, I was turning into a human ice cube, and landed north of Pittsburgh for hot cocoa. West Virginia cleared up, and that flight ended with seeing the massive snowfall in Appalachia from Hurricane Sandy, a fascinating sight for the weather nerd in me.

While that is it for actual lake effect flying, I had one experience that was pretty close to flying in lake effect in North Carolina, and I got photos. The following February, snow was forecast in Charlotte, and as the front approached, the forecasters noted that it was a “band of snowfall with convective properties”, with snowfall rates of one inch per hour. As lake effect snow is a mesoscale system with convective properties, I dropped everything and drove to the airport as I knew it would be worth seeing. I took off and headed NW toward the snow as it approached the airport. It was basically a wall.  I flew along it to enjoy, and then landed in just enough time to taxi to the hangar before getting dumped on. It snowed 2 to 3 inches in two hours, half of the annual snowfall for Charlotte in one afternoon.1-Wall of Snow 2-Wall of Snow (Close) 3-Snow Approaching on Final 4-Snow on teh Airplane After Landing
Wall of Snow in NC – Similar to Lake Effect Events – February 2013

So that is it for lake effect style events in an airplane. The weather nerd in me loved every one of the experiences, as like the photos that started coming out of the snowpocalypse in Buffalo, it truly is majestic to see it from the air.

Flight: NC: Charlotte to the Outer Banks

The time finally came to take the plane to the coast. Unlike photography flights, the trip to the coast is primarily to move the airplane, and any photographs that I get are icing on the cake. It is amazing how few times the weather is good for photography, despite the fact that 80% of the time in the Southeast, it is safe for flight. Fortunately, this Monday flight had nice weather all around, despite a slight headwind going east.

I was greeted with some low clouds and fog while driving to the airport, something that was not forecast, and was a present reality. The flight briefers advised that the eastern half of the state was socked in, though all of it was forecast to burn off quickly. It is quite normal that the weather is like a moving set of puzzle pieces, where things change and hopefully line up to come into place. A person could literally be driving to the airport in terrible conditions, prepare the aircraft, and have it all change in time to go, while the puzzle pieces move around along the route of flight. This time was no different.

The fog was mostly gone upon takeoff, and my route of flight over Lake Norman took me over some residual fog that was burning off. Quite a beautiful sight, I also was able to see a seaplane take off on the lake. This particular airplane was tied down at Lincoln County airport for a good portion of the summer, for reasons unknown.

1-LKN, Clouds
Lake Norman with Low Clouds
2-LKN Seaplane Takeoff
Lake Norman Seaplane Takeoff

Continuing on and past High Rock Lake, a large fire of manmade origin created some interesting smoke layers in the lower atmosphere. This was followed by Jordan Lake south of Raleigh, a rather pretty lake, although being unfortunately manmade like the bulk of them in the South. After growing up on the Great Lakes and visiting the Finger Lakes in NY, the concept of fake lakes will never be the same as a real one.

3-Smoke Layers
Smoke Layers
4-Jordan Lake
Jordan Lake

After Raleigh, the Piedmont gives way to the coastal plain, an obviously flat region, which hosts a variety of differing field textures. The soil is heavily laden with sand, and makes for some agricultural techniques that are not found elsewhere. South of Plymouth, NC is nothing but flat fields with absolutely nothing in between, which makes for some amazing low altitude flying (that happens to be legal, too). There were some interesting sights, including cotton fields, harvesters out working, and some form of gelatinous pond filled with what looked like glowing substances. One thing that is true any time I fly somewhere is that there is always something odd and interesting to see, always.

Harvesters – Does not look fun
8-Cotton Field
Cotton Field
11-Primordial Soup
Primordial Soup
13-Manteo, Dare County Regional Airport
Manteo, Dare County Regional Airport, Atlantic Ocean (horizon)

Flight: NC, TN: South Mountains, Linville Gorge, Black Mountains, Roan Mountain, Grandfather Mountain

After nearly a month of exhausting mechanical aggravations, it was time to get into the air again. Aside from some maintenance cycles and part replacements, it was discovered that a highly expensive brand new part of the engine that was installed earlier this year had failed, in a really bad and expensive way. Thankfully, it did not impair the functioning of the engine in flight, so it was a matter of time and money.

Before our move to the coast, I had one last flight on my to do list. While I had gotten a number of photos of the Black Mountains and the 3 peaks around Roan Mountain, I only had them on cloudy days. The clouds create texture, something difficult to get, yet I had nothing of this range that was free of clouds. It is one of three features in the Southeast that mimic terrain in the Rockies, something that can only be seen on a clear day, taking the entire range into view. Thus, an additional flight was needed to get it.

It was a cold morning upon takeoff from Lincoln County Airport, even though I was wearing two coats. The airplane is quite drafty, and the heat is about as useful as a candle in the breeze, so it’s a matter of endurance. There was a dampness to the air that made it much worse. I couldn’t help but ask myself: I flew the Rockies in Colorado, in winter, and I am cold when its 38 degrees out? This makes no sense. I later found an explanation, as I cleared what I call the “skank layer,” which is the layer of haze and human pollutants, to clear air above. That layer is of varying depths and today it was at 5,500 feet. Above 5,500, it actually felt warmer, which is an indication that moisture was trapped down in the skank layer, making it feel exceptionally cold. The first thing in flight of note was that South Mountains was in peak fall color, at about 2,200’ elevation. Slightly ahead of Charlotte, yet lagging behind the mountains themselves.

1-South Mountains
South Mountains

Next up was Linville Gorge, which surprisingly had some remaining color in it. We went up to Wiseman’s view the day after the flight, getting a ground view of the gorge on a clearer day. It had been intended to visit Table Rock and, alas, it was closed for repairs.

Linville Gorge 

The Black Mountains worked better than I thought. I expected more turbulence due to the speed of the upper level westerly winds and, again, there was only light wobbling near the peaks, which defies the loud warning on the navigation map. I suspect that turbulence is actually worse at higher altitudes and higher speeds. When I get near terrain, I slow it down to 65mph, to prevent damage to the airframe in case of getting whacked around by sudden winds. While the wind was blowing, it allowed almost a hovering maneuver, where I could slowly creep along the ridgeline, getting pictures as I go and flying slowly into the strong upper level wind, holding the plane in place relative to the ridge, allowing progressive photography of each mountain peak with good backlight. There was rime ice from two nights prior, and still some snow either from the storm a week prior, or from some snow showers two nights ago.

4-Black Mountains
5-Black Mountains Summit
Black Mountains

Roan Mountain was next, a quick 10 to 15 minute hop north. Again, rime ice was evident in the shadows, as well as some lingering snow from last week and a lighter dusting from recently. Hikers were out in abundance at Roan High Knob, a beautiful section where there are no trees, some rocks, and sweeping views of Tennessee and into the North Carolina Mountains.

6-Roan Mountain
Roan High Knob
7-Grandfather Mountain

Grandfather Mountain, Linn Cove Viaduct, Black Mountains in Background 

Passing Beech Mountain and coming up to Sugar Mountain, I saw that ski season was already going, with fake snow gracing the hill at Sugar, and people having a good time. From our year in Colorado, I must say that the shoulder seasons are the most fun, where one can ski with snow when there shouldn’t be any, or long after the temps have risen and it doesn’t feel right. Arapahoe Basin even has summer skiing, a truly awesome experience. Being the first this year in Colorado, A Basin opened Oct 17th, and here Sugar was operating on Nov 9th, in North Carolina! Pretty cool if you ask me. Stupidly, I don’t have a photograph of the fake snow. Grandfather was next, and afforded some excellent views of McRae Peak with the Black Mountains in the background. The entire flight lasted two hours and fifteen minutes, which is nearly a miracle, as I expected 3 and a half hours. There was a southerly wind at low altitudes, and a westerly wind and 6,000 feet, so I stayed low heading up and high coming back, effectively making the entire trip have a tailwind of some sort or another.

On getting back to the airport, I saw what looked like another PA-11 hanging out on the taxiway. Being that they are quite rare (1300 manufactured, 600 registered in the US now, likely 300 or less flying), seeing another has only happened once, and that one was in a different paint, electronics, and engine scheme than mine. This one had the same paint job, and looked the same otherwise. In a conversation with the individual that owned it, it’s an original from 1948: original Irish linen fabric, original paint, original engine. I must say, it is probably the only one out there like it, having never been restored or overhauled given its age. The fact that it is still flying is a miracle.

Two Piper PA-11s