The alarm is set for 0510. I awaken 15 minutes before that, which is good because I can secure the alarm and let Patricia continue to sleep. Walking down the hall, I check the most recent Terminal Area Forecast (TAF) and the latest METARs for nearby airports. I find no surprises the weather picture is consistent with the last forecast I'd seen before turning in. Good to go.
By 0540 I'm showered, dressed and breakfasted. A sleepy kiss goodbye and I'm off for the 20 minute drive across the Potomac River to Maryland. I arrive at Potomac Airfield (KVKX) just about 0600. To the east, the sky is getting a bit lighter, but there's a solid overcast not very far up. Probably no VFR departure this morning. The good news is that it's not raining yet. There's just a fine mist in the air.
I drive around to the hangar, unlock it and slide the doors open. Then I collect suitcase, briefcase and flight bag from the trunk of the car and stow them in the airplane. I run through the cabin portion of the checklist open the cowl flaps, check alternate static source closed, remove the gust lock, remove and stow the throttle lock, pencil the tach time on my kneeboard, check that the plate for the RNAV Rwy 6 approach procedure at KVKX is clipped to the yoke. Check avionics power off, 'MASTER' switch 'ON'. Landing light 'ON', strobes 'ON', beacon 'ON', nav lights 'ON', pitot heat 'ON'. Verify that all of those (and the stall warning) are working, then turn it all 'OFF'. Extend the flaps fully, then master switch 'OFF'.
Time for a walk-around. I circumnavigate N631S, casting a skeptical eye on everything. Touching, flexing, wiggling, checking for binding or obstruction of things that are supposed to move and for rigidity and stability of things that are not. Pull out the nose plugs, sump the fuel tanks (finding only 100LL aviation gasoline) and check the oil (finding a sufficient number of quarts of Aeroshell 100W). Returning to where I started I stow the fuel sampler and say, "Yup, it's an airplane."
I pull N631S out of the hangar into the falling mist and then pull the car inside, closing and locking the hangar doors behind it. It's 0620. Time to start the airplane.
Settling into N631S's left seat, I open the side window, pull the door shut, fasten the shoulder harness, and slide the seat forward. Set the parking brake, check cowl flaps open, fuel selector to "both", check avionics power off, mixture full rich, prop full forward, throttle forward about a half-inch, carburetor heat off, rotating beacon on, ignition key in place. I pull the primer plunger out and listen to the sound of fuel filling the cylinder. When the sound stops I push the plunger in. Repeat three more times. Look forward to see (as best as I can) that the propeller arc remains unobstructed and call out "CLEAR!" to warn anyone foolish enough to be hiding from me behind the cowl that the prop is about to come to life. I click the 'BATTERY' side of the 'MASTER' switch to 'ON' and turn the key.
The starter engages and spins the prop. One blade passes before me, then a second and a third and then with a snarl and a shake the big Continental engine awakens. Quickly, now, the mnemonic is 'ROAR'. RPM to 1,000; Oil pressure coming up nicely; Ammeter showing a modest discharge (a huge discharge would mean the starter is still engaged after engine start, which is bad); Radio Master (a.k.a. avionics master) to 'ON'. Now, the 'ALT' (i.e., 'alternator') side of the split 'MASTER' switch goes to 'ON' and the battery starts to recharge. I lean the fuel mixture so that the spark plugs won't load up during ground operations due to excess fuel.
Usually when I land on Friday, I fill the fuel tanks before putting N631S to bed...but this week I didn't. So now I get to taxi to the fuel island and top off the tanks in the rain. I release the parking brake and taxi through the wet grass to the paved taxiway and then to the fuel pumps. I park and shut down avionics master 'OFF"; magnetos checked by turning the key to the 'OFF' position momentarily (if the engine begins to die it proves that the mags are indeed "cold" when the key is off); mixture to the 'CUTOFF' position; 'MASTER' switch to 'OFF' after the engine stops, and ignition to 'OFF'.
I set the parking brake, get out of the airplane and zip up my jacket against the dampness. I pull the grounding cable from its reel next to the pumps and clip it to N631S's tie-down ring so that there will be no difference in electrical potential between pumps and aircraft. (A spark while fueling can ruin your day.) I position a ladder in front of the right wing and then go through the ritual involving cards and keypads that will let me start the gas pump.
Pick up the nozzle, turn on the pump, drag out about 25 feet of hose. Climb the ladder, remove the cap from the tank, and dispense fuel into the wing (while always keeping the nozzle in contact with the edge of the tank inlet again, no sparks wanted). As the tank fills, I can hear the tone of the escaping air changing. I slow the rate of flow and fill until the fuel is less than an inch below the opening. Put the cap back in place, closing it carefully and firmly. Climb down and repeat the entire procedure for the left side. Then walk the nozzle back to the pump, turn it off, rack the nozzle and let the spring-loaded reel haul the hose back in. Tell the pump I'm finished, collect my receipt.
Friday's trip was 2.5 hours long and I just pumped 27.84 gallons of AvGas. That's an average of 11.14 gallons per hour which is good. Also, today's price for fuel is $4.98 per gallon. It's below $5.00 for the first time in weeks. This is also good.
My watch says about 0635. The mist is turning to drizzle and I'm glad to be done fueling. I leave N631S parked at the pumps (at this hour I'm not going to get in anyone's way) and go into the office to take care of business. The first piece of business is to visit the restroom. A wise old pelican advised me that there are two things you never pass up a chance to put gas in the airplane and a chance to go to the 'head'. I intend to do both.
The next item of business is to sit down at the computer and check the latest pertinent weather forecasts and observations. For departure conditions, I check the METARs at National (KDCA) and Andrews AFB (KADW):
SPECI KDCA 141019Z 19011KT 3SM -RA BR FEW009 SCT014 OVC048 17/16 A3012 SPECI KADW 141025Z AUTO 18008KT 10SM BKN009 BKN044 OVC055 17/15 A3012 RMK CIG 008V011Washington National is reporting visibility of 3 miles in light rain, light southerly winds and few clouds at 900 feet. But Andrews reports a broken layer at 900 with ceiling variable from 800 to 1,100 feet. There will be no VFR departure today.
The TAF for Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut indicates that things will probably be better on arrival:
KBDR 140838Z 1409/1506 22007KT P6SM BKN060 BKN100 FM141900 20010KT P6SM BKN050 BKN080 FM150000 19009KT P6SM SCT015 SCT050 BKN080 FM150400 16008KT 5SM BR BKN015=The TAF predicts good visibility, a broken ceiling at 6,000 feet, light winds favoring Runway 24 and no significant weather. Nothing wrong with that.
Next piece of business: a call to Leesburg Flight Service (FSS). There's a reason I need to be timely today. It seems that POTUS is going to New York and so, commencing at 1415Z (at last word) there will be a 10 mile radius "no fly zone" centered on Kennedy Airport (KJFK). My filed route takes me directly over the JFK VOR. If all proceeds according to plan, I should be past JFK and on the ground in Bridgeport over an hour before that Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is in effect. But I need to make certain that nothing has changed overnight.
So I call FSS and tell the specialist that I've self-briefed the weather but I'd appreciate confirmation from him that the TFR in New York is still scheduled to be in effect from 1415Z. He kindly confirms that for me and so I can move on.
I look out the window. It is no longer drizzling. It is raining.
My next call is to Potomac Consolidated Tracon (PCT), Mt. Vernon Sector:
PCT: "Mt. Vernon Data."
Me: "This is the pilot of November 631 Sierra for clearance, IFR to Bravo Delta Romeo. I'd like a "Hold for Release" and I'll call you again from the hold-short line."
PCT: "OK, we can do that, stand by."
PCT: "Skylane 631 Sierra is cleared to the Bravo Delta Romeo airport via radar vectors to POLLA, Victor 312, GOLDA, Victor 268, Smyrna, Victor 16, JFK, Victor 229, Bridgeport. Climb and maintain 2,000, expect 7,000 after 10 minutes. Departure frequency...let's see...125.65, squawk 7160. Enter controlled airspace heading 180°, hold for release."
Me: (Read all of that back.)
PCT: "631 Sierra, read-back correct."
Me: "I'll call you from the hold-short for Runway 6 at VKX in about 10 minutes."
PCT: "Roger. Have a good flight."
This is not quite the route for which I filed. If I actually fly this clearance, Potomac Approach will have me climb to 7,000 and then hand me off to Dover Approach. Dover is not allowed to let me continue on V16 past the Smyrna VOR (ENO) higher than 5,000 feet because of interference with Philadelphia arrivals. So they will have me descend to 5,000, and since I've expended the fuel needed to climb to 7,000 I won't be happy about this. My alternative is to request a re-route after ENO along the continuation of V268 to the LEEAH intersection, thence V1 to JFK, remainder of route unchanged. This will add just a few miles to the route but will allow me to stay longer at 7,000 where (I expect) I'll have a more favorable tailwind. That's what I filed for in the first place.
I could have the discussion with Mt. Vernon right now and probably, after an unpredictable interval, get the route that I want. But I won't do that. I accept the routing offered and plan to request what I really want from Dover Approach. Experience tells me that's the path of least resistance.
I zip up my jacket, tucking in the kneeboard with my clearance written thereon, and walk out through the rain to N631S.
Back in the airplane, I open my book of checklists to "Start Procedure" and get down to business. Back over the things I'd checked before. Cowl flaps. Fuel selector. Trim. Mixture rich, prop forward, throttle in just a bit, carb heat off. Beacon on, key in place. This time, with the engine recently run, no priming needed. Master on. "Clear!", and start. The engine starts immediately and I settle it in at 1,000 RPM and lean the mixture. Avionics on. Set the Shadin fuel totalizer to 75 gallons, full fuel, and enter my assigned 'squawk' code into the transponder.
I load and activate the stored VKX BDR flight plan in the Garmin 530W, pausing to delete 'LEEAH' and insert the Cedar Lake VOR (VCN), in accordance with the clearance I've accepted. Presumably, I'll change it back later. I set the comm and nav radios to the right frequencies and set the OBS's (Omni-bearing Selectors, if you must know) to 068°, the course to ENO. I set the autopilot heading bug to 180°, my initial heading after takeoff.
I key the mike three times and listen to the automatic weather station (AWOS) tell me the wind ('calm'), altimeter setting and preferred runway ("Runway 6 is the preferred calm wind runway"). I dial the setting into the altimeter and observe that the result actually approximates the known field elevation. A good thing.
I key the mike four times and the automatic radio lets me transmit a radio check: "631 Sierra Comm 2". It echoes back to me and says, "Power 10 of 10." Repeat for Comm 1.
Onward. I release the parking brake and steer N631S onto the taxiway. Along the way I step on the brakes and verify that they are willing to perform their intended function. I observe the flight instruments and note that the readings are as expected. Approaching the end of the runway, I pull N631S toward the right edge of the taxiway and turn left to a 45° angle. Time for the "run-up", and it's polite to direct your prop-wash off to the side.
Set the parking brake. Verify flight controls are free and correct in their operation. Strobe lights to 'ON', flaps extended 10°. Mixture to full rich. Throttle forward until RPM is about 1,700. I turn the ignition key two clicks left to turn off one magneto, and observe the RPM drop. I expect about 50 RPM and that's what I get. Back to 'BOTH' then repeat for the other mag. Same result. Back to 'BOTH' and pull the propeller pitch control back until I get about a 300 RPM decrease. Observe the change in manifold pressure. Repeat and observe the change in oil pressure. Carb heat on, and observe about a 100 RPM drop, then pull the throttle to idle. Observe a steady idle with carb heat on. Carb heat off and observe recovery of RPM. Throttle back up to 1,000 RPM. All very nice. This is a happy engine.
I steer back into the center of the taxiway and up to the 'hold short' line for Runway 6. I set the parking brake and take out my mobile phone. Moving my headset aside so that I can use the telephone, I call the Mt. Vernon Sector of PCT again:
PCT: "Mt. Vernon."I end the call, put the telephone into "Airplane Mode", and drop it into my shirt pocket. Time for a last check of the "killer items". This time the mnemonic is, "Can I Go Flying Today, Peter Rabbit?" (Yeah, I know...) The corresponding actions are: Controls verified free and correct; Instruments checked (HSI and compass aligned, and the 'CDI' switch on the GPS set correctly); Gas supply assured (set to "both", mixture full rich); Flaps as required (here, extended 10°); Trim set for takeoff; Prop fully forward; Run-up completed. Anything else that I've forgotten is unlikely to result in a smoking hole in the ground.
Me: "Skylane 631 Sierra, ready to go at VKX. Holding short of Runway 6."
PCT: "631 Sierra, stand by one."
PCT: "Skylane 631 Sierra, you are released. Time now is 1056 Zulu. Clearance void if not off by 1100 Zulu. If not off, contact Potomac Approach at this number by 1105 to advise intentions."
Me: "31 Sierra is released. Void if not off by the top of the hour, call to advise intentions."
PCT: "631 Sierra, read-back correct. Have a nice flight."
Me: "Roger, 31 Sierra. Thanks and so long."
Press the push-to-talk switch and transmit, "Potomac Field traffic, Skylane 631 Sierra is taking runway 6 for an immediate departure. Will depart the area to the south, Potomac Field traffic." I release the parking brake.
N631S and I move onto the runway. Line up with the center-line, then a quick glance up at the compass to see that it is settling down in agreement with the big white number painted on the ground. Press firmly on the toe brakes and push the throttle all the way forward. A look at the tachometer to see that the Continental is developing full static RPM, then release the brakes. Let's go flying!
N631S surges forward and within a few hundred feet the air-speed indicator's needle starts to move. "Air-speed is live," I say to myself. Passing the half-way point (abeam the gas pumps), we're up to 55 knots indicated and I pull back a bit on the yoke. With no crosswind to deal with, N631S rotates and un-sticks nicely from the runway. We rise 15 or 20 feet and I push forward to arrest the climb. I want to use the rest of the runway length to gain speed.
Crossing the far threshold, 80 knots indicated and the trees are beginning to look rather tall. I pull back on the yoke and N631S rewards me with a 500 foot per minute rate of climb and continues to accelerate. We clear the trees handily. I hold runway heading to about 600 feet then begin a turn to the south. At about 800 feet, the wisps of cloud begin and very quickly the obscuration of the outside world is complete. It's very gray out there...but of course, N631S doesn't know that. I reach over for the flap control and pull up the 10° used for takeoff. There's a slight change in pitch as the flaps retract, then the airplane is clean and climbing.
I switch radios and listen for a few seconds to be sure I won't "step on" anyone, then give Potomac Approach (PCT) a call:
N631S: "Potomac Approach, Skylane 631 Sierra, 1,400 climbing 2,000."
PCT: "631 Sierra, Potomac Approach, climb and maintain 3,000 and Ident."
N631S: "631 Sierra, climb and maintain 3 (hits 'Ident' button).
PCT: "Skylane 631 Sierra, radar contact 2 miles south of VKX. You're cleared to Bravo Delta Romeo as previously issued. Climb and maintain 5,000, heading 150 for now, I'll have on course for you shortly."
N631S: "631 Sierra, continue climb to 5,000 and 150 on the heading."
...and after a normal IFR departure, N631S and I are on our way.