Another flight, another (mild) misadventure. It started off looking like a great day. I had an awesome little Cessna 152 reserved and the plan was a short cross-country to build hours. The clouds were at 11,000 ft AGL (12,000 ft MSL) with a forecast to come down to 7,000 ft AGL (8,000 ft MSL) in a few hours. I would be back on the ground at my home airport by then. Airports in the direction that the lower clouds were coming from were already reporting the lower clouds but even at 8,000 ft MSL it would be no problem as I would be flying at 5,500 ft MSL out and 4,500 ft MSL on the way back.
But this isn’t the “everything goes according to plan” blog. This is the MissAdventures blog. Five minutes before heading over to the airport I got a call from the FBO (who I rent airplanes through) stating that someone squawked an oil leak with the airplane I had reserved. Not to worry, another Cessna 152 was available. Of course from the hours I’ve put in both of those 152s I knew that they had different magnetic variances in the on-board magnetic compasses and that would mean I’d need to do a quick update to my written flight plan.
When I showed up at the airport the original airplane I had scheduled had been cleared to fly and I was good to go with the original flight plan. However the sheet of paper used to squawk the maintenance issue with the airplane was still attached to it’s paperwork and so someone snagged it from me and tore it up right in front of me with the statement, “just make sure it has enough oil.”
Off to pre-flight the airplane. Airplane looked good. Time to climb in and start her up. She started easy and, even though the oil level had been fine, because of the previous conversation I kept an eye on the oil pressure. It took about 15 seconds longer than normal to come into the green but once it was in the green it never waivered. I rolled through the standard start-up procedure – throttle to 1,000 RPMs, ground lean, flaps up, ammeter check, etc.
All seamed good but as I started to the next task on the check list the engine started to sputter. I wasn’t quick enough in reaching for the throttle and the engine sputtered to a stop. Great! There’s no way I’m not going to flood this engine when I try to restart. Reset everything, cleared the area, and started her again. Fortunately she caught and I didn’t flood her. I decided to run her RPMs a little high as I’d run into the sputtering to a stop issue with another airplane and was now sure that 1,000 really meant 1,200.
I received clearance for my flight and taxied out for run up. Off in the distance those 8,000 ft MSL clouds could be seen rolling in. Run up complete and taxi to the runway. As I hit the flip-flop button on the radio to switch over to tower and get departure clearance I had my eyes on the gauges making sure the oil pressure and temperature were looking good. I keyed the mike and radioed that I was ready to depart, unfortunately, when I hit the flip-flop button the radio didn’t flip the frequencies and I was still on ground. Honest mistake.
Not that many hours back in my logbook I would have been ready to call it quits at this moment. All of these little things would have added up to make me uncomfortable with the flight. But with enough hours I now knew to leave each of those small moment in the past and focus on the flight ahead.
Over to tower, cleared for departure, and off I went. That amazing feeling when the airplane lifts off the runway and you start to see the roofs of the buildings below you.
As I climbed through the airspace I passed through a layer of very thin clouds just below 3,000 ft MSL. Unexpected but nothing to be concerned about.
The air was smooth and departure cleared me quickly on my way. The clouds were really cool looking but there was a layer below me that wasn’t noticeable from the ground and wasn’t on any of the weather reports which made me a little nervous.
As I flew along, I noticed the 8,000 ft MSL layer was moving in and there was a lot going on within the clouds. At least the three layers and maybe more. They were all moving at different speeds and as I looked out through them, all of the different movement in different directions suddenly made me a little sick – a sensation I never enjoy while flying. With all VFR training and flying I wasn’t used to that much cloud movement around me. Sure, I was technically well within the rules of VFR flight but I was encased in more cloud structure than I was used to flying in.
It was time for some aeronautical decision making. Would that layer below me stay open or would it close up? Were there more layers coming with that 8,000 ft MSL layer that was currently behind me? I would be flying towards it on my way back. If I continued on my planned flight, what would be the cloud situation on my way back? Would it be VFR conditions? And even if it was VFR conditions would it be conditions that I would be comfortable flying in?
There were definitely too many unknowns for me and I made the decision to turn around and head home.
It was one of those moments that helps you to realize what you’ve accomplished in your aviation journey. Even though there were more cloud layers than I had been in before and even though I hadn’t flown above a layer like that before and even though I knew I’d be pretty close to my home airport before I’d be able to make it out, I was comfortable flying along on the way back home.
As I neared my home airport and was within a few miles of starting the decent, approach gave me instructions to hold altitude for crossing traffic. Not an unusual request. Out of the corner of my eye I saw what looked like a black jet streaking toward me. Surely this was the crossing traffic but it looked like it was coming straight at me. It must be descending into the airport from my left to get to the runway that was to my right. As the small passenger jet continued it’s decent it crossed nearly directly under my little airplane and was an amazing sight to see.
Once the traffic was through, approach cleared me for VFR decent. This was the first time a controller had ever told me to maintain VFR in a decent which meant that on the ground they were now clearly aware of the lower layer of clouds. A straight in decent, a nice touchdown in a slight crosswind, and I was back at the FBO.
Could I have continued the cross-country flight instead of turning around? Probably. But the weather was pushing my minimums and it’s better to not push too hard. I did get some great experience and am more than ever looking forward to starting IFR training in a couple of weeks.
And about that oil leak? When I landed, she was still leaking oil.
Here’s to the next adventure.