The Snowmageddon trip… or how to deliver an Alpha Trainer on a 2000 nautical miles flight in extreme weather.
Text and photos by Michael Coates
At the start of the 2nd week of December I ended up in the USA for a couple of weeks to deliver 2 aircraft to different locations. The first of these trips was in a Virus SW. This aircraft was flown from Novato just north of the San Francisco area down the main valley to Palmdale and Victorville, around the South of Edwards Air Force Base and then across the lower US to Moriarty New Mexico. This was a great trip and the speed and performance of the Virus SW with the fuel injected engine continues to amaze me every time I fly in these aircraft.
Delivering this aircraft was fairly straight-forward with great conditions and then it was straight on a commercial flight that same afternoon to head to Sacramento to get a Pipistrel ALPHA Trainer issued with a certificate of airworthiness and flown to a happy new owner in Indiana.
The registration and certificate of airworthiness went without any problems, the big problem that was coming was the weather.
The first winter weather of the year was about to smash into the West Coast and like most of the weather media services the lead up to this event was very interesting with the storm given names like Snowmageddon, Snow-cember, Big White, the Big Freeze and so on. Basically it was a very wet system coming in from the southern part of Alaska and Canada and rolling in off the ocean bringing with it a large amount of moisture which was about to be deposited as snow. This bad weather with the associated lack of visibility delayed my departure for 2 days then there was just one single day of reasonable weather and then the 2nd and bigger wave of Snowmageddon was to hit the West Coast and supposedly wipe out everything for weeks.
This small window gave me an opportunity to do a test flight in the ALPHA Trainer, confirm that everything was fine and then head off trying to remain between the 2 storms heading off to Indiana, well that was the plan!
Towing the plane out onto the runway because the mud was so deep was a challenge in itself, Vance Turner our retired dealer for CA did a great job hooking me up to his 4×4 with a tow rope and ever so gently trying to avoid the worst of it make our way to the runway. We spent a brisk 20 minutes scraping the now frozen mud off the tires a small section at a time and then pulling the plane forward and repeat until all the mud was gone ensuring that brand new propeller would not pick up any stone/mud damage.
A soft taxi lead to a normal take-off with short ground roll, why? Because the ALPHA Trainer is so light (and the take-off direction was downhill). Away I flew and adjusted the first heading to aim direct at Lake Tahoe Airport. Climbing to 13,000 feet was required to clear this first part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and overflying the Lake Tahoe area was really enjoyable. The air was crystal clear but very turbulent, the sky was blue in patches but there were still some low cloud hanging around dumping snow on the windward side of the mountains. Speaking of snow there was a good 6 feet of snow on the ground from the preceding days of bad weather and there were snowplows out clearing most of the minor roads as I flew past. Passing Lake Tahoe 5 miles to the south course was then adjusted to head out towards Hawthorn just south of Walker Lake.
You see a lot of strange things in the US desert and Hawthorn is one of these, jumping onto my iPad with Google in the cockpit I found out that Hawthorn is the largest ammunition storage facility in the world covering 147,000 acres and nearly 3000 above ground bunkers as well as an undisclosed quantity of underground storage. Makes you really wonder what else is there, I bet these places could tell some stories.
First stop from departure was Tonopah, the facility was well past its use by date and had shells of old dilapidated hangers scattered around, thousands of footings from buildings now long gone and a sole caretaker and owner of the maintenance facility who quite happily topped up the ALPHA Trainer with fuel. During our conversations he went on to tell me some of the stories of the place and when he finished with topping up the tank knowing I had flown from just outside of Sacramento he wanted to know where the 2nd tank was located. I told him that there was only one tank and that was all the fuel I had used and he simply could not believe it. He tells me I was his only customer of the day and the smallest purchase he can ever remember because Tonopah is a long way from anywhere. Leaving Tonopah I was heading basically due east scooting the edges of various restricted zones and military installations. With the weather so clear in the desert it was possible to see almost forever and again without elaborating there were lots of strange things going on in that desert especially looking down towards Groom Lake and Area 51.
Zooming in with the iPhone was the best i could do. These bizarre smoke columns must have been some type of laser testing. The ground would glow bright white like magnesium burning then a column of smoke would slowly rise. These 4 columns happened over about a 30 second period with the 3 of the left happening very quickly. Couldn’t see any visible lasers or aircraft overhead ? Behind this hill is Groom Lake.
Flying through this area I was being followed very closely as I skirted the very edge of the restricted zones. What happened over the next hour was a little bit like a cat and mouse game, I was flying along with a ground speed of about 115 kn then a military aircraft that looked like a smaller version of the globe master kept circling to my right-hand side inside the restricted zone area. Every time he would pass by me approximately 5 miles away he would change direction for the next orbit so he was basically shadowing my flight to make sure I didn’t end up in the restricted area. For a bit of fun when I had seen he was turning again for another orbit I would also do a 90° turn and hold the heading going straight towards the restricted zone for about 10 seconds and then straighten up to my original heading again. I was just about wetting my pants every time I got sight of him doing 90° banking turns trying to come around quickly to see if I had actually started a run for the restricted areas. The enjoyment of doing this became even better the 2nd time but my games were quickly halted when contacted by Nellis approach asking if I had enough fun yet then shortly afterwards having a King Air looking something 100 feet off my right wing. I then proceeded by the straightest route possible giving the restricted areas a good 10 miles clearance as they requested until I finally left the Desert MOA areas after passing over the Escalante Desert. As much fun as it was for those 45 minutes the lesson was again reinforced… don’t mess around within 10 miles of an active Restricted Area.
Climbing in to 13,000 feet was necessary to clear the next mountain range and my descent started into what is probably one of the most picturesque airports I have ever seen which is Bryce Canyon. The airport looked something like a postcard, when I arrived mid-late afternoon the runway had only just been cleared after earlier snow in the area, the embankments each side of the runway were approximately 5 feet high. I taxied into the main terminal area for fuel and had a great conversation with the local airport worker. I was thinking about staying there the night but he quickly advised that the storm system that was chasing me was expected to arrive overnight and dump another 4 or 5 feet of snow and I could be stuck there for days. Taking his advice I topped the tank and headed for lower ground at around 4500 feet flying downhill as quickly as I could to Page Municipal Airport in Arizona.
After just being spoiled with the beautiful scenery at Bryce Canyon heading down into Page and over Lake Powell was again some of the most beautiful scenery I had seen. Page is in Arizona and is only a few miles from the start of the Grand Canyon, this area was just like out of the old Western movies you would watch on a Saturday afternoon as a kid. Tying down for the night the wind had already increased to 30 kn, temps were below zero and snow clouds were on the horizon so I knew that I was caught and about to be overtaken by the inclement weather those CA meteorologists had called Snowmageddon!
The following day was spent looking from my motel room window at the snow flurries rolling in and catching up on some office work. The next day I broke camp early and headed to the airport where I could see some sunshine filtering through the thick clouds on the horizon in the direction I was heading. That was enough to get me excited and airborne again but after stooging around for just over 2 hours I ended up exactly where I’d taken off from and spent another night in Page. This short trip was however not without some benefits because I learned a lot about mountain flying, flying in snow, seeing how snow on the ground and cloud on the ground gives no horizon at all, making good flying decisions and so on.
Leaving Page after 2 days on the ground with snow covering the windward side of Monument Valley, snow flurries and low cloud on the top of the mountains. Lower elevations in Monument Valley indicated that the area was snow free.
The next day started off much better but there was no way I could maintain my East-North-East direction heading for Indiana because cloud was on the ground everywhere north of me in the Rockies so a diversion was necessary. The only way clear was to the South East and back to Moriarty where I’d been only days earlier. The closer I got to Albuquerque, the worse the weather became and it took a bit of effort to transit through the Sandia mountains just to the north of Albuquerque before landing 30 minutes later in Moriarty. Fortunately, our Pipistrel dealer Robert Mudd had a hangar and a pellet heater waiting for me and it was a great opportunity to do the aircraft’s first service and check everything over.
The next day dawned, cold and windy but it was flyable so back to Moriarty airport and setting course with an initial 20 knots of tailwind that sadly only lasted about 30 minutes I was off to Hugoton in Kansas, then Ottawa Kansas for fuel and with the short winter days and sunset coming it was a quick hop to Marshall Memorial in Missouri covering 737 nm in just over 8 hours flying time for a total fuel burn of 30.75 Gallons (116 litres). This calculates out to burning approx. 3.75 gph (14.5 lph) at the indicated 108 knot cruise speed, not too bad in my opinion!
The people at Marshall Memorial kindly lent me the “airport car” to travel into town for the night and it looked like it was a retired police cruiser with the spotlight in the door still mounted. The short trip to town was filled with frustration because every time I came up behind someone they slowed down fearing the police were behind them. I could have had some fun but after a full days flying it was time to feed and sleep.
My final day of delivery again had me flying around and through some heavy airspace around St Louis, MOA’s, Restricted areas then weaving through Indianapolis, around Grissom AFB, Perdue University and finally arriving around lunchtime to my destination Wabash Indiana which now has a nice new Pipistrel ALPHA Trainer sitting in the new owner’s hanger.
This trip was a great opportunity to further extend my flying skills and abilities in weather which I don’t often get to see. The trip was a fantastic opportunity to become really familiar with the Pipistrel ALPHA Trainer aircraft. Having already flown it on a number of shorter trips this trip which was just over 2000 nautical miles was a great opportunity to see just how well this basic aircraft design for the training market actually works in cross-country flying. A number of people comment that the fuel capacity is simply not large enough for serious touring. After this trip I have to disagree because realistically you have 3 hours plus around 45 minutes reserve at fast cruise settings. To put it simplistically if you take off at 9 AM you are landing around midday for lunch 3 hours later. Back into the air at 1 PM you are landing at around 4 PM and there you have 6 hours of flying, you have covered nearly 700 miles and for most people that is enough for a single day. The smaller fuel volume in the Pipistrel ALPHA Trainer did not offer any issues at all, in fact it performed so well that I could not ever imagine any owner ever being unhappy with this aircraft. Flying a touring motor glider like the Pipistrel range is without doubt some of the best flying I have ever done, it is just so enjoyable.