My Flight of Gold


One week in the fall of 1992 Linda and I decided to take the airplane we had use of (Cessna 182) and fly down to North Carolina for a few days. We planned a stopover in MDH (Carbondale, Illinois), where our daughter was attending school at Southern Illinois University, and we spent the night with her.

The next day we took off on an IFR leg from MDH, over CNG (Paducah, KY) towards CHA (Chattanooga, TN) and on to 46A (Blairsville, GA), not too far from where the North Carolina property we owned was located. It was a beautiful October day; hardly a cloud in the sky, but some haze, so it wasn't crystal clear, although visibility was still 40 miles or more. However the air was smooth, the traffic light, and generally we had an uneventful flight.

I had filed for and got 9000' (assigned altitude) and after a couple of hours of flying and a nice chat with the controller in CHA (professional courtesy), we cancelled IFR as we got into the mountains and out of radio range of CHA TRACON. Because of the mountains, and my lack of experience flying in them, I decided to keep as much altitude as I could until we found Blairsville and were confident of making the field.

Since we had stayed around Carbondale for lunch and more visiting, it was late afternoon as we progressed over eastern Tennessee comparing landmarks with the sectional (aviation maps for this kind of flying are called sectional charts because they cover various sections of the country). Finally up in the distance, maybe 20 miles away, we could see the single runway that made up the Blairsville airport and I started letting down.

It was a wondrous Fall day. There was color in the mountains; not striking reds and oranges such as one might see in more northerly forests, but enough to marvel over. It was around 1800 local time, so the sun was getting low in the West, but it was casting a golden glow on the terrain from the haze in the air. The resulting rich Smoky Mountain palette was mouthwatering.

As we went over the airport we were still at about 6000' (4000' above the airport) and descending. Looking down as we went over, I checked the windsock and saw that landing east-northeast would be preferred and I made my first radio call, “Blairsville traffic, Cessna 97178 overhead at 5000 for Runway 7.”

I continued southeast for a couple of miles to continue letting down. The golden glow on the mountains was breathtaking, and about this time I noticed that the air was just as smooth as glass. I was surprised, because although I figured any afternoon thermals would certainly have dissipated, I also expected some burbles from the effect of the mountains on the wind. In fact, however, the airplane was tracking as if it were on rails.

I made my turn back to the northwest (I would be entering left downwind for Runway 7 from over the airport), continuing to let down, but I wasn't satisfied with the rate of descent. The owner of the airplane had asked me to always keep the engine RPMs in the green to avoid shock cooling the cylinders, but that made it more difficult to get down. Fortunately, with the smooth air, I was able to run the airspeed up into the yellow arc of the indicator, but at some point I was going to have to slow down for the traffic pattern. The voice of my instructor who checked me out in a 182 years before still resonated, “get this airplane slowed down. You can't come roaring into the traffic pattern at 140 knots.”

At this point I should tell you that both Linda and I were wearing headsets, which were connected through an intercom. The intercom was voice operated. Also, over the years of flying in commercial cockpits on familiarization flights, I had developed the habit of making verbal calls at pertinent points in the flight profile, even if I was flying alone. For example, I call, “positive rate,” on takeoff whenever the vertical speed indicator shows a positive rate of climb; that's an effective clue to a good departure flight profile, and a good point at which to raise the landing gear. The verbal callout technique makes for a great memory crosscheck, especially when I fly retractable gear airplanes, although this one wasn't.

Anyway, I made an offhand remark that I was still too high and dropped 5 of flaps (permitted at any speed in this aircraft). After a moment or so, I decided that wasn't going to be enough, so I started to drop another 5 of flaps. Just as I did, I recalled that I was still carrying airspeed well into the yellow (and far beyond the white arc; Max Flap Extension speed), so I pulled the flap lever back to 5 and mentioned something about, “oops, a little too fast, there.” About this time I also made my downwind entry and called, “Blairsville traffic, Cessna 97178 entering left downwind for Runway 7.”

As we went by the airport on downwind I noticed that the runway apparently had been resurfaced during the summer because it was a crisp deep black with no visible seams or any other blemishes. Contrasted against that golden glow of the mountains it was stunning. Factor in the glass smooth air, and the flight was approaching mythical.

Meanwhile, I wrestled the altitude down by extending the downwind a little, and I finally got slowed down to pattern speed and got the flaps down. We turned base with another call, “Blairsville traffic, Cessna 97178 turning left base for Runway 7.”

By that time I had the airplane nicely within all the parameters; 30 of flaps, 80 knots on the airspeed, 2600' altitude (700' above the ground), and elevator trim just right. The air was still glass smooth, the glow on the mountains was still golden, the runway was still starkly black against them, and I now noticed that the runway had been freshly painted and all the numbers and other markings were a blinding white and in painfully sharp contrast with the deep black asphalt.

I turned final, reporting, “Blairsville traffic, Cessna 97178 turning final for Runway 7.” My lineup was just right, and I reduced power and started slowing down. Over the fence at 55 knots and as the runway started coming up, I gently flared and greased the airplane on so smoothly you couldn't even feel the main gear touch. The 182 is easy to do that in, so it's not that I'm such a great pilot, but it just capped off what was essentially a perfect arrival, discounting my possibly too conservative, yet nevertheless defensible, surplus of altitude in the initial phase.

As I got the airplane stopped, then turned around to back-taxi to the ramp, I looked around to drink in one last dollop of that dizzying elixir of golden glow on the mountains and freshly trimmed airport; a once in a lifetime combination; and I said to Linda, “wasn't that the most beautiful sight you've ever seen?”

She said, “I don't know, I've had my head down and my eyes closed ever since you said we were too high.”

I really must learn to watch what I say.


Last updated: 27 January 2009

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