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Sun 'N Fun - Flying to the EAA spring gathering

by John Quarteman

In 20 plus years of flying around Ottawa, the region, a few trips to Oshkosh and Washington and a couple of wonderful trips to the Maritimes, I had never been on a long trip in the United States, nor even a short one in the south. When COPA president Kevin Psutka mentioned to me the idea of a trip together to Sun ’n Fun, the Florida EAA fly-in convention, I was hooked. I mentioned the idea to my other partners in our Cessna Cardinal and there was a chorus of "me-too". Early in the year, Kevin, myself and my newly-licensed flying partner, Ron Pepper planned to travel together for a break from the snow and ice on this 3,000 mile round-trip.
Early on Kevin found out he would have to drop out because of schedule conflicts. Too bad, but Ron and I figured that we could at least pack more luggage now. As it turned out, the idea of taking more luggage didn’t pan out. Ron’s visiting second-cousin, "somewhat-removed", Jill, showed up just days before the flight. She along with Sally (Ron’s daughter), ended up in the back seat. This meant that the full-gross configuration for our aircraft ended up including half fuel of 30 gallons (U.S.) and some 85 pounds (only) of baggage. After the tents, ground sheets, sleeping bags, emergency-kit, flight bags and tiedowns were loaded, we had about five pounds of personal luggage each. This explains why in every picture we took on the trip, we are wearing the same clothing.
Flight planning our trip was easy because of two things: I have been using Destination Direct flight planning software for quite a while. This program makes planning any trip a matter of 15 minutes work or less. Secondly, with two GPSs, a fresh set of continental U.S. charts and a freshly-minted Instrument Rating, we didn’t have to work too hard to produce a good IFR flight plan that would double as a VFR routing when the weather was kind. Unfortunately or fortunately (depending how you look at it), the aircraft (and passenger) range was limited to maximum 2.5 hour legs. This meant a total of seven stops to reach Lakeland, Florida, the site of Sun ‘n Fun.
 

FIRST DAY- APRIL 7

The first wrinkle was that, 12 hours before departure, we discovered that we could not take Jill into the United States. She is British without a valid visa. Apparently it is fine for Brits to visit the U.S. via a commercial aircraft or by car, but not by private aircraft from Canada. We solved that by having Sally and Jill drive across the border to Ogdensburg, N.Y. Ron and I flew down and picked them up along the way.
After a short flight and pleasant stop in Syracuse, N.Y. to refuel, we were on our way to University Park. We never got there! Flying VFR we ran into a line of showers and cloud and we decided to turn right. (Talking to FSS a while later, we discovered left would have been better.) After a while (having traveled west along the front until close to Cleveland), we decided to call it a day. We pushed "GPS-nearest" to see what would show up. Up popped the airport of Wellsville, a pleasant New York town. We set down, refueled and checked the weather.
It turned out that IFR to Winchester, Virginia was the best plan, the weather being a narrow band of rain and cloud (no CU or TCU or CBs). So at about four p.m. we set off (rushing to meet our 15-minute clearance limit). After an uneventful climb through stratus and occasional moderate rain showers, we were well on our way at 6,000 ft. With my lowly 1.6 hours of actual instrument conditions flying, I was pleased to see the ground from time to time. Our Cardinal does not have an autopilot (except for Ron in the right seat – who worked just as well).
After about 45 minutes or so, the promised blue sky started to appear and we flew into the high-pressure dominating the lower eastern states. At this point I (and Ron I suspect) breathed a sigh of relief, good weather again! Then came the second wrinkle. In the rush to leave Wellsville, I had left my flight bag containing our instrument plates, Sun ’n Fun NOTAM instructions etc. all back in the flight planning room in Wellsville. There ensued a frantic search to see whether we had enough resources (maps, plans, licenses, etc.) to continue legally onward – and we determined that by good fortune all the instrument charts, VFR charts, licenses, and a second copy of the flight plan (Ron’s) were on board. Upon reaching Winchester we phoned Wellsville’s FBO and they reassured us that they would keep the bag until we came back a week later.
So chagrined, but happy, we continued onward. Leaving Winchester for Roxboro, North Carolina we set off VFR at 19:30 into the evening. Meandering along at 7,500 or so (or was it 8,500?), we noticed that the wind had picked up a lot at altitude. The high was on our left so we were slowing down to a crawl. Despite a perfectly calm ride, our groundspeed showed up as 54 knots. This in an aircraft doing 117 knots TAS.
Ron and I discussed the options. Basically we could carry on to Roxboro, but we would have to pitch our tents on the field in darkness – the late arrival meaning the FBO being long closed. The most attractive option being Raleigh Durham, NC, the question was would we run out of fuel before we got there?
After some calculations we decided that if we could get the groundspeed up to 85 knots or so, we would still arrive with the legal 45 minutes of reserve, so down we went. First we tried 5,500 ft, then 4,500, then 3,500 and finally 2,000. Ah Success! (94 knots).
We touched down at RDU (Raleigh-Durham) at 21:20 with about 10 gallons or so (1 hour and 10 minutes) remaining. We gratefully accepted a ride to the Holiday-Inn Express hotel. Jill got to taste the southern delicacy of "Grits" at the local Waffle House.
A successful first day!

APRIL 8

The next day (Saturday), a somewhat bleary-eyed set of travelers, assembled at the airport after a good breakfast at about 10:30. With Ron in command, we headed out for a good VFR flight to Charleston, South Carolina. There we determined that providing we left quickly – the weather would be good all the way to Lakeland, Florida. (The afternoon thunderstorms and turbulence that are often a feature of flying in the southern U.S., make many US pilots put their aircraft away at noon in these parts).
Now came the fickle finger of fate again! On preflighting the aircraft, we discovered that a rather inexperienced but well-meaning lineman had overfilled the aircraft by 120 pounds. After a short discussion with the FBO manager, the fuel was deducted from our bill. This unfortunately did not fix our weight problem! We decided to stay the night.
After installing ourselves at the Sheraton hotel, we took the tour to the downtown – which offers a fabulous array of market life, eateries, fantastic centuries-old architecture and atmosphere. Moored in the harbour among other ocean-going ships is the aircraft carrier Yorktown. We had a terrific seafood dinner, a good walk to stretch our legs. Eventually we all hit the hay, thoroughly satisfied with our diversion to Charleston.

April 9

On Sunday we took steps to solve our overloading problem with a brilliant, unorthodox plan (of mine) that nearly worked! We had established that AMTRAK had a very convenient train leaving at 8:13 a.m. for Jacksonville, Florida, our next stop. So we roused the ladies out of bed. Off they went by shuttle to the train station. Ron and I figured on a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, then a flight together to Jacksonville (burning off excess fuel), then a reunion of the four of us for the flight to Lakeland.
A few minutes later an urgent phone call came from the train station – ladies on the way back – the train is three hours late (derailed or something).
So we all went to the airport. Ron and I went for a flying lesson and a trip around the city of Charleston. After Ron had practiced a few landings and we had enjoyed a long tour of the beautiful harbour, we came back, flight-planned for Jacksonville and off we went.
It was a wonderful VFR flight with Ron flying! After an uneventful landing at Jacksonville we ran into a scheduling problem. The Sun ’n Fun fly-in is closed during the afternoon for a daily airshow. This meant a wait of three hours. So we went for lunch in Jacksonville, sampled the cuisine and southern hospitality there and enjoyed the 70 degree temperatures. We left Jacksonville well fed and rested.

LAKELAND

At Jacksonville I had done my best to replace my (left-behind) info package on the Sun ’n Fun procedures. Landing at Lakeland during the fly-in is according special important procedures. I received (I thought) a pretty good briefing from the FSS and we flight planned to reach Lakeland just after 18:00 local time, (the time the briefer told me the airspace would open for arrivals).
After an exhilarating flight through the various Class B airspace of Orlando and seeing the beaches on the way down, we ended up some 40 miles from the airport where we dutifully tuned in the automatic terminal information service the Lakeland Airport. The recording informed us that the airspace was closed until 19:00. It turned out (having broken the requested radio silence to query the tower), that Lakeland would open at 19:00 after they let off some 1,000 or so aircraft departures. We held.
After a while, the Orlando Class B airspace controller informed me that his radar had, "turned completely white in the vicinity of Lakeland. There are no gaps between several hundred aircraft". He suggested that we try entering at this point.
Lakeland Tower cheerfully told me to "go in at 1,200 and hold around Lake Parker". We did just that. Sally, Ron and Jill sang out, "bandit two o’clock", "aircraft four o’clock low." We picked out way (on the second attempt) into the congested holding pattern around the 1.5-mile wide Lake Parker. This holding pattern was made up – like a wedding cake – of towed hang-gliders flying at 100 ft or so; a layer of ultralights at 500 ft or so; 25 Pipers, Cessnas and Beeches flying around at 1,200; and another faster layer (of a dozen or so) at 1,800 ft.
Flying by, around and sometime through the middle of this were dozens of aircraft departing Lakeland. After about 40 minutes, Lakeland tower advised, "Okaay you guys, whoever is over the Northern Powerplant right now, you lead everybody in – 500 ft spacing". We (counting ourselves lucky to be following, not leading), followed the "Pied Piper " into Runway 09-left at Lakeland.
After setting down on the runway we taxied for about 20 minutes until we reached our camping spot – the second last one not taken. We had arrived. About 40 minutes later I remembered to close our flight plan!

Sun ’n Fun

For those who have visited the big EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Sun ’n Fun is a slightly smaller, more intimate version of the same thing. It is a superbly organized, highly enjoyable aviation frenzy. There were thousands of aircraft, airshows, vendors, manufacturers, lecturers, forums, and loads and loads of friendly, happy pilots everywhere. You have to see it to understand the sheer joy of being involved in hundreds of activities, with thousands of people who speak the same language. I was sorry to leave when we did – three days later.

Titusville

After leaving Lakeland, Ron flew us to Titusville on the Florida east coast near the Kennedy space centre. This is the town that space built and it has a grand little airport. We stayed for two days. Kennedy Spaceport was a blast. Ron and I did the spaceport, Jill and Sally did nearby Cocoa Beach

The flight back

I won’t go into it in too much detail on the return flight. The flying was demanding with ILS approaches on the first four legs and a total of seven hours of instrument time.
I wrestled with the decision of departing Raleigh-Durham with the weather hanging at 300 feet and two miles. (We did). It was a bit nerve-wracking for a low-time IFR pilot but good experience nevertheless. We finally broke out of the IFR weather at Wellsville. (Yes, they had kept my flight-bag). At that point Ron took over the flying. We flew to Odgensburg NY to drop the ladies off to pick up their car. We arrived at Ottawa 21:45 at the end of the second day.

Lessons learned

1/ Keep duplicates of everything vital. We did and it turned out to be a Godsend.
2/ Plan on three days for each day of flying to get anywhere – this may be optimistic.
3/ Four is a wonderful traveling number. We never tired of each other and enjoyed every minute.
4/ Close your flight plans. The U.S. towered airports won’t do it automatically for you.
5/ We would all do it again in a second.

The EAA Sun ’n Fun Fly-in this year runs from April 8 to 14. For more information, check out: www.sun-n-fun.org, or Tel.: 863-644-2431.