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Time to Spare? Go By Air!

"Wind 320 at 12. Peak gusts 18," intoned the automated weather broadcast at Little River airport on the North coast of California. I was flying with my wife Janet and Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator in our club's Cessna 172, and we were approaching from the Southeast, intending to land on runway 29. The wind and the surrounding terrain at Little River always make the approach a bit squirrely, but it's usually blowing pretty much straight down the runway. I thought about the Airmet for strong surface winds in effect for Northern California coastal waters and did the math out loud.

"That's 30 degrees off runway heading, so the crosswind component is about 6 gusting to 9. I'm OK with that. I'll just limit flaps to 20 degrees and be prepared to go around if it doesn't feel right."

"OK," Janet answered. As we got closer, I checked the automated weather again.

"Wind 340 at 14. Peak gusts 22. Crosswind," it said.

"Hmm…," I said. "Well, let's see how it goes."

As we got lower, we started to feel some bumps. I checked the weather again.

"Wind variable between 310 and 350 at 18. Peak gusts 26. Crosswind. Caution: wind shear." I noted our large crab angle as we approached the airport more or less on runway heading. We were heavily loaded, so go-around performance would be limited. My spidey sense was seriously tingling.

Janet saw the look of concentration on my face. "Are you thinking Boonville?" she asked.

"Yep," I replied. "I think that's the better part of valor at this point." I started a climb and a 180-degree turn back towards the inland airport we'd passed about 15 miles back. Boonville is our usual alternate when visiting the North Coast because Little River is often socked in with fog.

"Thanks for not succumbing to get-there-itis!" Janet said as we entered the pattern at Boonville.

I smiled. "You're welcome!" I replied. While I was tying the airplane down, Janet called my parents letting them know where we were, and we settled in to wait for them. I sat on a fresh bale of hay next to my wife with the furball dog on my lap. It was a gorgeous day in a beautiful place. The sun was warm and the breeze was cool. The surrounding hills, with their golden grasses, oak trees, and grapevines, were vivid in the clear air. We watched a blackbird watching us from its perch on a nearby hay bale. Janet, a rock hound, picked through the variety of colorful rocks on the ground in front of us.

"Hey, this is jasper!" she said, handing me a small, red stone. I was reminded of the old aviation adage, "Time to spare? Go by air!" I chuckled to myself as I realized that our door-to-door travel time would be about the same as if we had gone by car. But it wouldn't have been flying!

Finally, my parents picked us up and we made the hour-long drive to their house in Fort Bragg. We spent a relaxing and very enjoyable Fourth of July weekend visiting with them and my childhood friend Molly. As we were getting ready to leave on Monday morning I checked the weather and saw that the forecast high temperature for Boonville was 94 degrees Fahrenheit.

"That's well over 30 degrees Celsius," I thought to myself. We would be heavily loaded and the terrain surrounding Boonville rises steeply all around. Our Cessna is an elderly M model with a 150 horsepower engine.

"We might have a problem with the heat," I told Janet. We started talking about contingency plans. I thought about flying the airplane by myself from Boonville to Little River, where the cool temperatures and 5,000 foot runway would allow us to load up and take off safely, but it turned out Little River was fogged in. "We could go to Ukiah instead. It'll be just as hot, but it has 5,000 feet of runway and friendlier terrain."

"If worse comes to worst, I can just stay behind with all my stuff," Janet offered. "The weather's supposed to cool off later in the week. You can come pick me up then."

"It might come to that," I told her. "Let's pack everything up anyway, just in case."

As it happened, by the time we got to Boonville, the sea breeze had pushed well onshore and the temperature had dropped considerably, so we were able to take off safely with me, Janet, the furball, and all our baggage. The contingency planning had been good practice, though.

In bed that evening, I reflected on the weekend's flying. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I was struck by an insight: the old "time to spare" adage isn't just a wry joke. It's a checklist item! What can prevent me from carelessly rushing through my flight planning? What can keep me from trying to land in dangerous winds? What can minimize the temptation to launch from too short a runway in a heavy airplane in hot conditions? Time to spare! From now on, I'm adding it to my pre-flight checklist.

"Time to spare? Check. Let's consider going by air."

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