Our Journey Up and Down the Eastern Seaboard in a Cessna 172
by Steve Hallett
Two core tenets I live life by are as follows: “seize the day” and “don’t have any regrets at the end of it.” When Annabel and I both earned our instrument ratings in mid-October, the next logical thing to do for the both of us was build time towards our commercial pilot certificates. While Florida offers much to see from the air, it’s nice to expand both our real and artificial horizons away from the Sunshine State on occasion. One meticulously planned itinerary, scheduling meeting with Meredith, and a few packed suitcases later we were on the roll departing from Runway 23. Eager to exercise our newly granted privilege of filing instrument flight plans, we filed the first leg of our trip along the coast to Hilton Head. By formal degree, I’m a meteorologist, so it was quite a nice experience to surf and dip in and out of these warm-weather clouds.
One food & fuel stop at an authentic Mexican restaurant walking distance from HXD later, Annabel took the second leg up to Wilmington, North Carolina, as she noted the MVFR conditions along the route of flight. This leg started off by featuring the same weather conditions as the first, but eventually gave way to an overcast layer about 700 feet thick. Vectored in from the southeast, she found herself solidly in the soup for approximately 10 minutes but emerged at about 2,000 feet AGL to clear air below.
While originally planned as just an overnight stop, Wilmington pleasantly surprised both of us. We were greeted by friendly staff at the Aero Center FBO and walked along the banks of the Cape Fear riverfront on the way to a hearty dinner.
The next day we awoke to broken skies with moderately lower ceilings. A cold front was slowly traipsing offshore, leaving low clouds behind. Rather than play on a common theme of “dodge the clouds” following VFR cloud separation requirements, I decided to file for simplicity’s sake. We were treated to a pleasant surprise by the weather gods, clocking about 145 knots on the ground thanks to a 50-knot tailwind!
We would both be remiss if we didn’t stop at KFFA, which is a rare fly-in national park. After an hour and a half of walking the grounds of the first flight, paying homage to aviation in its infancy, and what felt like summiting a large mountain to view the monument dedicated to Orville and Wilbur Wright, we decided to depart while the sun was still up.
Annabel and I are originally from the northeast, but after a summer in Florida, our cold weather tolerance was severely depleted. The gusty winds out of the northeast at about 20 knots, air temperature in the mid-40s, and slightly lower sun angle relative to the time of day served as a reminder of the looming colder conditions and earlier sunsets of the Northeast to come. As day turned to night, Annabel flew along the eastern shore of North Carolina to a small airport south of Norfolk (KONX). After a brief stop for fuel at Currituck, we departed for Ocean City, New Jersey.
The changing airmass brought continuous light chop and gusty conditions that night during flight, especially emphasized as we descended across the Delaware Bay towards Ocean City (26N), which presented a landing challenge of its own.
The dimly-lit sub-3,000 foot runway was flanked by the Great Egg Harbor Bay on the left side, and a stiff near 20-knot direct crosswind component brought me close to my personal minimums for landing here given the unfamiliar environment, the nighttime conditions, and the relatively short runway.
Extending downwind an extra nautical mile or so allows one to get a “feel” for what the atmosphere is dishing up and played a critical component in how I executed this landing. I knew that under normal conditions, the crosswind component decreases markedly as some of the wind near the runway would be rapidly dissipated due to surface friction. Due to the close proximity of the runway to the open water, there would be none of that. Combining some meteorological knowledge gathered from college classes (hey, maybe some of that comes in handy someday), I knew the conditions at about 500 feet AGL would very closely resemble the conditions at the surface in this setup, less ground effect. Knowing a go around could easily be executed, and that Atlantic City featured runways with no crosswind about 15 miles away gave me solace that even if this landing couldn’t be completed, KACY was a short flight and a slightly longer drive away.
With a higher approach speed than normal, I crabbed the plane about 20 to 30 degrees into the relative wind, cut the power to idle once I was confident the runway was made, and then simultaneously switched techniques to a sideslip approach when I was a few hundred feet above the threshold. I wanted authoritative rudder control especially close to the ground to facilitate as close to zero-motion along the longitudinal axis as possible. I bled off speed while applying an adequate amount of rudder to offset the wind within ground effect, and let the plane do the flying for me, applying only deviations in rudder pressure. It wanted to land and so did I. With a gentle plop of the right wheel on pavement and a gradual lessening of countervailing rudder a few hundred feet along the runway, the plane was brought to a stop. This was definitely one of the more rewarding moments of my flying career, and while the same crosswind chilled both of us to the bone tying the plane down on the ramp, I silently thanked the instructors who taught me how to land under those conditions.
Day three brought breezy, cold, but “severe clear” flying conditions at altitude. We were headed to Brookhaven (KHVW), to pick up Annabel’s father and fly out to Block Island. Annabel filed the flight plan and took this leg as it would only be appropriate for her to fly into her home airport. Additionally, this would bring the excitement of transiting through the NYC Class Bravo. As we flew from the relatively quiet Atlantic City sector to the busier McGuire sector, we became more cognizant of the amount of traffic appearing on the G650 and our ForeFlight displays. We were vectored directly over JFK, and remarked at the diversity of the airplanes below us on the ground and above. The airliners ascending via their SIDs appeared to be metal sharks arcing towards us, but only getting close enough to do “inspection passes” on our small Cessna before going on to transit countries and oceans. We got excited when New York Approach instructed a “heavy” aircraft to keep an eye out for us, and knew with certainty that if there was ever a place to have an engine out, over JFK would be it.
When descending towards Brookhaven crossing over millions of people going about their daily lives unencumbered and unphased that we were a few thousand feet above, the concrete jungle of western Long Island gradually transitioned into a smaller-town environment. A smooth landing and one father-up-front later, we were on our way to Block Island (KBID).
It’s one thing to have a coastline and a plethora of golf courses always at one’s disposal in Florida to serve as an emergency landing spot, but flying over water with only a spit of land or two below you is a completely different ballgame. Although we were always within gliding distance of land, it’s a good time to remember to climb to an appropriate altitude when you can, and to check engine instruments often. At altitude, houses interspersed in the dense forest of East Long Island resembled small craters found on the surface of the Moon. As we descended into Block Island, the rugged, rocky, and cliff-laden appearance seemed to be in perfect harmony with the oh-so-blue water below.
After eating lunch at the single open restaurant on the island, we returned back to the mainland to a busy Brookhaven pattern and spent the night discussing aviation in the past, present, and future. Annabel’s dad earned his commercial certificate when he was about our age but hasn’t flown in many years, and he was eager to talk about the many technological advances that have redefined the aviation environment over the years.
Day four of flying brought an overcast layer, and to fly under the layer would mean crossing the Long Island Sound too low to glide to shore as we headed north to Provincetown. After climbing to altitude, and performing all climb and cruise checks, we noticed a little twinge in the normal purr of the Lycoming at cruise. First, it was a tiny drop and an immediate return to normal just like a magneto check in-range. The drop repeated again, but this time brought a noticeable decrease in engine power, the tachometer registered a drop of more than 100 RPM. We immediately turned the carburetor heat on and waited a few tense minutes as we scanned for airports and places to land. Fortunately, the engine power did not experience greater drops, and gradually restored itself to a nominal power setting within three minutes. At this point, we were comfortably over land, but for caution’s sake, decided to cancel IFR so we could descend to a lower altitude and follow the land on our way to Provincetown.
On a post-flight investigation, I decided to do some research on carburetor icing. There were no AIRMETS for icing at the time, nor any PIREPs of icing within a few hundred miles. We were a few-thousand feet above the clouds at the time when the icing occurred, and applied carburetor heat while ascending through the shallow, above-freezing overcast deck below. However, it’s not too hard to go from zero icing conditions to “serious” icing if a pocket of moisture is interspersed within drier conditions, see the figure below:
The rest of the flight was uneventful, save for an airport fox trying to gather whatever heat it could near the airport asphalt when we were waiting to be refueled. As a large storm system was heading our way from the southwest, we decided to stick a fork in touring Provincetown and get a head start on the flight to Bar Harbor (KBHB) before we were stuck on the Cape. The earlier sunset was definitely noticeable now, as we were crossing Boston at 4:30, pilots were saying “goodnight” to ATC as the sun was already below the horizon. We arrived at Bar Harbor around 7 p.m., and put N99725 in the hangar, where it would stay for the next three nights as the aforementioned storm system brought a wintry mix and an incredibly cold rain to the region the next day after landing.
After the rain was done, we had to kill time in the coastal Maine area in an effort to wait for the atmosphere to dry out. If you ever want to visit Bar Harbor, please do so in the summer. The town was a ghost town, and save for a few coffee shops and restaurants open, the only activity is a cold drive around Acadia National Park.
After carefully analyzing the icing forecasts from both the Aviation Weather Center, applying my meteorological knowledge of relative humidity cross-section forecasts, and factoring in forecasts from the high-resolution icing tab within ForeFlight (forecast data provided by IBM), I concluded that we had a window to depart early Friday morning.
We departed Bar Harbor early Friday morning and flew VFR low and slow (by way of a 30-knot headwind), to Providence, Rhode Island, dodging any kind of visible moisture in an effort to avoid structural icing. Not taking any chances, the carburetor heat was on for the entirety of the flight. As Annabel landed outside of Providence, we were ready to seek out warmer weather.
The final two days of trip were largely confined to the immediate coast. Icing AIRMETS were ubiquitous throughout the Eastern Seaboard as the system that stranded us in Bar Harbor was slow to relent its grip on the area. We filed through the NYC Bravo again, and landed at Ocean County Airport (KMJX) in Central New Jersey for lunch. If you’re ever in the area, visit Luigi’s in Toms River, you’ll get to experience all the New Jersey personas in ten minutes.
As we droned on south, the headwind ever-so-slowly relented by the time we reached Savannah. Walking the city streets, we noted the diverse architecture of the city. As the locals shivered in the mid-50 degree weather, we started to develop a newfound appreciation for flying in the south. After a quick hour long flight virtually direct from KSAV to KCRG, we bid farewell to N99725 and logged the total time: 32.9 hours, 2,752 nm. Glad to be back in Jacksonville and forever grateful for the opportunity to conduct this flight, we thank the Holladay’s, our past and current instructors, and everyone behind the scenes that made this trip possible.
Route of flight (via ForeFlight), all routes are approximate.