Pittsburgh to Palo Alto, Day Zero

“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries”

– Brutus, in Julius Caesar, by Wm. Shakespeare

Of course, there shouldn’t be any such thing as “day zero” of a trip, but this particular odyssey wasn’t scheduled to get off the ground until tomorrow. I was half packed, and not nearly done with the things I needed to do for tomorrow’s departure. The Skyranger wasn’t even ready – I’d asked Steve, my trusty A&P to give it an early annual to ensure that it would be in good shape for its attempted continental crossing, and he’d assured me that it would be done by the night before my departure.

But there was a tide…

Dawn this morning brought glorious blue skies, and a weather forecast that would, as weather tends to do, change all my plans. Something, a dreadful wet low pressure system, was crawling its way up the east coast, and was due to hit Pittsburgh by nightfall. According to the forecast, once it arrived, it would engulf the entire northeast and stew in place for several days, blessing its reach with low stratus and rain. The loophole was that its reach looked to spread just to the Pennsylvania-Ohio line, about 70 miles west of Pittsburgh. If I could get west of that line by nightfall, I could (in theory) continue on my way in good weather. If not, I was stuck in Pittsburgh until at least the weekend.

A quick call to Steve confirmed that, with a bit of hasty work, the Skyranger could be made flight ready by, oh, 3 p.m. today. Devon, ever able to completely rearrange her life on a moment’s notice, agreed to drop my off at the airport, and I set to madly packing everything I could into the nylon duffel that was serving as luggage on this trip. Spare socks, hat, toiletries – almost forgot the razor, the shopping bag of in-flight munchies, and the all-important bag of sectional charts showing the way from here (Pittsburgh) to there (Palo Alto).

On the way to the airport, Devon pointed out that just about 120 miles west of Pittsburgh lay Heath Field (VTA) and Granville, OH, a quaint town where an old college roommate and his wife lived. The weather was still going to be a roll of the dice, and if you’re going to be stuck somewhere for a few days, there’s a lot to be said for a place with friends and a rent-free place to sleep.

Showing up at Steve’s hangar around 2:30 revealed a beehive of activity – a few more checks, a few more tweaks. I piled my things in while Dave and Bill buttoned panels and cowling up. Yes, I know it’s a bad idea to set off on a significant trip immediately after work has been done on a plane, but the annual hadn’t actually required much work other than verifying that the plane was indeed airworthy. Am I rationalizing? Probably just a little.

In any case, we had a bit of a problem getting the brakes to come up to pressure – the infernal Scott-Cleveland combination of calipers and cylinders in the Skyranger is practically impossible to bleed out properly, but we eventually got them up to snuff. Full run-up, and I was finally ready to go at 4 p.m.

By this time, the damp gray of the approaching storm had already blocked out the sun, and temperatures were dropping. Nothing to do but flee westward. Once more through the preflight, then start her up and taxi to the active runway. A call to Tower: “Commonwealth 33395, holding short at Alpha 1, west departure.” Nothing about this probably being the last time Allegheny Tower would ever hear from ‘395, nothing about this being the first leg in a low-and-slow odyssey across this wide land to its new home in California. Nothing more than what was strictly necessary: “holding short at Alpha 1, west departure.”

Normal climbout, direct to the VOR, then due west. I decided to stay low – 2500 feet – to minimize the crosswind I’d be fighting if I went higher. Besides, “low” is what the Skyranger’s all about: farms, fields, cows, and quaint little towns like “Adena” and “Dillonvale” with one road leading in, and one road leading out. You don’t notice any of these things if you climb up to the flight levels, and for me, flying is all about noticing things. So westward I went, as the sky to the south grew darker and darker.

Arrival at Heath was uneventful – standard pattern of a left 45 entry to runway 9. Unicom gave me the choice of parking on the ramp or taxiing out to the grass where tie-downs were available. I always like to tie down, so off I went to the grass. As it turns out, the grass tie-downs were directly in front of the local EAA office, where the local EAA chapter was getting ready for their monthly meeting and BBQ. The EAA is, of course, the Experimental Aircraft Association, and they generally live and breathe antique airplanes. I didn’t even have the ropes on the plane before I was taken in, welcomed to the meeting and invited to dinner. No one has ever been given a finer welcome than these folks gave a fellow antiquer, literally in from out of the blue.

But Keith was already on his way to pick me up at the airport (ah, the wonder of cell phones) and I needed to sit down somewhere quiet, dry and flat to plan what I was going to do next. Of course, “next” always depends on the weather, and the weather, well, the weather does whatever it damn well pleases. And we’ll find out what that is tomorrow morning!


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