Last week, Dana and I flew one of our Cessna 172s to Milwaukee to visit family and attend EAA AirVenture. When we started planning the trip earlier this summer, the first thing we had to figure out was the best way to get there: drive, airline, or fly ourselves. Since the airlines (as of now) don’t require passengers to wear masks or show proof of the jab, I figured I’d check to see how much it would cost for three round-trip tickets from Jacksonville to Chicago or Milwaukee. The average price when I checked was over $2,000 for three non-refundable round-trip tickets for flights with one or more stops, arriving and departing at times of day that were not ideal for us. Driving 20-plus hours each way was a last resort, so we chose to fly our Cessna 172.
We estimated our one-way flight time in the Cessna 172 to be about 8 hours (broken up into four, 2-hour legs), so even if avgas went up to $10 a gallon, we figured we’d spend about $1,500 in fuel round-trip, saving us at least $500 compared to flying on the airlines. We planned on stopping overnight after two legs, to break up the flying and spend some time with friends. But we also knew from experience that when you travel by small airplane you have to be flexible, always ready and willing to change the plan based on multiple factors including weather, maintenance, and pilot fatigue.
Here are some stats from the trip:
- Total flight time: 17.8 hours
- Total fuel bill: $1,068.06 (does not include top-off at CRG after we returned)
- Total enroute stops: 11
Planning long trips like this is fairly routine for us now, especially with the help of ForeFlight. What’s not always so easy is making good time when there’s adverse weather along the route. This is what the radar looked like as we headed north out of Jacksonville on Tuesday, July 26. A stationary front was parked over the central states, spawning a line of IFR conditions and embedded thunderstorms hundreds of miles wide. We’d planned on spending the night with friends near Indianapolis, but by the time we left our first fuel stop it was looking like we wouldn’t get through. So we landed in Nashville, hopped into a crew car, and headed downtown to enjoy some lunch and country music fun while we waited to see if the weather would improve.
By the time we returned to the FBO with my souvenir cowgirl hat in hand, the radar still looked ugly. We unloaded the plane, booked a hotel room, and settled in for the night. The staff at the FBO was extremely helpful and patient with us, and even arranged for an Uber driver to pick us up and take us to the hotel.
We woke Wednesday morning to clear skies in Nashville, but the weather still looked iffy to the north. We waited for about an hour to see if it would improve, and when it didn’t, we decided to get a rental car and drive the rest of the way to Milwaukee. Our primary objective for the trip was to spend the weekend with Dana’s daughter, Nikki, and her husband, and while driving wasn’t as fast or as much fun as flying, we were prepared to travel by whatever means necessary to make it there safe and on time. As Dana was unloading the plane and I was sitting in the FBO waiting for the rental car to be delivered, I checked the radar again and noticed that a signifiant gap had opened up just west of our route, with the heavy precipitation dissipating and low IFR ceilings lifting. I showed Dana and we agreed it was a good bet to continue, so we loaded the plane back up, canceled the rental car and departed under VFR toward our next fuel stop, Terre Haute, Indiana.
The weather between Nashville and Terre Haute was not much of a challenge. We encountered a few rain showers but were able to navigate between them easily with a wide berth, in smooth air. One of the things I enjoy the most about traveling in our airplane is visiting airports I’ve never been to before. Hoosier Aviation in Terre Haute was one of the cleanest, friendliest, and most beautifully furnished FBOs I’ve ever visited. The young woman working at the counter told our daughter, Alex, to help herself to a free ice cream after we’d finished lunch at The Corsair Cafe, located right down the hall. We even got a discount on fuel because we were headed to Oshkosh for the air show.
We enjoyed an easy VFR flight to the Chicago area, where we stopped for fuel and a stretch break before our final leg to Milwaukee’s Timmerman Airport. We didn’t get to fly the Lake Michigan shoreline past downtown Chicago due to a large thunderstorm just east of O’Hare, so we took the slightly less scenic tour over the northwest suburbs, flying past all of the little airports and towns that Dana called home for more than 20 years before we met in 2010.
The weather in Milwaukee was perfect all weekend, with highs in the mid 70s to low 80s and low humidity. It was so nice to spend three days outdoors in the sun without sweating! On Thursday we drove an hour north to Oshkosh to enjoy the air show and catch up with friends.
We planned to begin our return trip to Jacksonville on Sunday afternoon, spend the night with friends or at a hotel somewhere, and finish the trip on Monday. As much as we were enjoying our midwest vacation, all three of us — especially our daughter — were ready to get home. We never “push it” on long trips, even when driving, because we are well aware that fatigue can lead to poor decision making and unsafe situations. Still, 11 years of marriage and hundreds of hours of flying together have made us a good traveling team, a well oiled machine in the sky or on the road.
Dana and I have learned from our extensive experience that the best strategy for approaching a long cross-country trip in a small airplane is to expect the worst but hope for the best; to take it one leg at a time; carry plenty of snacks and water; remain in VMC as much as possible; and always land with at least one hour’s worth of fuel in the tanks. After we departed our first fuel stop near Indianapolis, we noticed on ForeFlight that there was a large area of IMC and precipitation just north of the Smokey Mountains, in Kentucky. We chose Clark County Airport (KJVY) just north of Louisville as our next stop, since the weather south of there looked rough at the time and we thought Louisville would be a fun place to spend the night if needed.
We finished lunch at around 2:30 p.m., and by then the radar picture to the south had changed to show higher ceilings and more widely scattered cells. The ceiling at Clark County was only about 3,000 feet and ForeFlight showed bases between 1,500′ and 2,000′ between us and Atlanta, but pilot reports indicated that the tops along the route were fairly low. We filed an IFR flight plan from Clark County direct to Habersham County (KAJR), a non-towered airport just east of the Smokies, at 7,000′ hoping we could get on top of the clouds, and if we couldn’t, we’d return to Louisville and spend the night there.
Dana wanted some IFR experience, so he flew this leg. We departed and climbed up to 7,000′ and were on top of the clouds for a while, but as we approached the mountains the tops began to rise and we found ourselves in IMC once again. Dana requested a climb up to 9,000′ and we were just barely above the clouds at that altitude, with higher tops rapidly approaching. It was not feasible or prudent to attempt to climb any higher, especially since we do not carry supplemental oxygen onboard (nor do I have any desire to fly that high in an unpressurized single engine airplane, even if we did have the oxygen onboard). We could see the ground straight down through some breaks in the clouds, and felt the best thing to do at that point was to get below the clouds, land, and reassess the situation. We diverted to nearby Crossville, Tennessee (KCSV) which at the time was reporting good visibility and only scattered clouds, so we were able to cancel IFR in the descent and make a visual approach under VFR.
People often ask me and Dana how we decide who is PIC when we are flying together. That’s a great question but also a tricky one to answer when you are married to the pilot occupying the other seat. Dana earned his CFI the same year I started flying, and has logged more than twice my total flight time. Even though I have a great deal of experience in my own right, he’s got tons more, so when we are flying together the unstated assumption is that Dana is PIC no matter which one of us is handling the flight controls. However, when we’re flying IFR — which is rare — I’m the one with more experience in that department, so Dana tends to defer to my decisions. Regardless, we always talk through the plan of action and agree on what we’re going to do. If one of us is uncomfortable with something, we don’t do it and figure out an alternative.
Crossville was a really nice break after dealing with challenging weather. The lady running the FBO had just earned her private pilot certificate a week ago and was so excited to chat with us about flying. I could tell that she had a hand in keeping the place up, with a well stocked and tastefully designed coffee bar and restroom. We relaxed there for about 30 minutes, then loaded back up for what would be our second to last leg of the day. It was about 5 p.m. when we departed Crossville, and the weather was clear all the way to Jacksonville. With a late lunch still in our bellies and plenty of snacks to sustain us for the evening, we decided we could handle two more easy VFR legs, and looked forward to spending the night in our own beds back at home.
We landed at Craig at around 9:45 p.m., greeted by a friendly tower controller and two of our renter pilots in the traffic pattern. It was an incredible trip and even with all of our experience, we still managed to learn a few things about flying:
- Always double check the Chart Supplement and ForeFlight for self-serve fuel availability, and call ahead just to make sure. I made a mistake when choosing our last planned fuel stop, Macon Downtown (KMAC), which as it turns out does not have self-serve fuel, only full serve from the FBO. It’s obvious to me now as I write this, but I missed that detail as I was checking ForeFlight over lunch that day. It was Sunday evening when we landed there and everyone had already gone home, but because we had at least an hour’s worth of fuel still in the tanks, we took off and flew 15 minutes further to Cochran, GA (48A), which did offer self serve fuel.
- Stationary fronts are not necessarily road blocks, and the prog charts are not always right. When we looked at the prog charts the day before we departed Craig, we thought we might end up driving to Milwaukee. But as it turned out, while the stationary front did make a mess of central plains, it was not a solid wall of weather for long, and we were able to find holes in the weather by flying close enough to it to get a good look without getting stuck in the thick of it.
- Always remember to use the “pack” feature in ForeFlight and download all charts to both your phone and iPad before a flight, while on the ground with a good internet connection.
- USB battery packs and ADS-B In receivers are the next best things since sliced bread.