Escaping the Heat


Summertime, or more specifically the 4th of July, is vacation time. And there is no better vacation than leaving the heat and humidity of Florida and heading a thousand miles north for the cool, dry air of Michigan.  

We departed Leesburg in our Bonanza A-36, towards Holland, for a planned 5.5 hour trip (plus a fuel stop). But as usual, the winds aloft at 8,000 feet were not as forecast. Are they ever? We fought a constant 20 knot headwind component the entire trip. The flight was smooth, but seeing ground speed readouts of just 150 knots (173 mph) instead of 170 knots (196 mph) was a bit frustrating.

Three and a half hours after our Leesburg departure, we touched down at our planned fuel stop in beautiful, historic Frankfort, KY. The Capital City Airport sits on a plateau overlooking the gold-domed State Capitol and the downtown area. The central Kentucky landscape, where much of my family is from, is dominated by verdant green horse farms and rolling hills. We taxied to the ramp with just over an hour’s reserve, and topped off the fuel tanks with some 100LL.

After a DUATS briefing for the second leg of our trip, we departed Frankfort and flew up the spine of Indiana. The entire state looks like one huge farm.

Deviating around some late day pop-up thunderstorms in southwest Michigan, I set up the Garmin 430 GPS and flew the GPS/RNAV 26 instrument approach into the Tulip City Airport, KBIV. A few minutes later, we touched down after a very long day of flying. Despite the headwinds, it still beats a 23 hour drive, or the hassles of flying commercial and dealing with the TSA.

Holland, Zeeland and Saugatuck are quaint towns located southwest of Grand Rapids. Quiet, tree lined streets shade lots of art galleries and ice cream stores. The entire area has a historic New England feel to it. Victorian mansions, called “cottages” by their owners, perch along 150 foot high dunes overlooking Lake Michigan, and each are uniquely stunning.  

In southwest Michigan, a traditional 4th of July means patriotism, sparklers, fireflies and restored vintage John Deere tractors, chugging along in the main street parade. It reminds me of Norman Rockwell’s “small town” America in many ways.

Ottawa Beach, on the shores of Lake Michigan, is a great place to hang out. The jetty is one of the best venues to watch sail and power boats alike pass through the Holland Channel, silently guarded by the lighthouse known as “Big Red”.

After a relaxing week of hanging out on crystal clear Lake Michigan, and taking in the local sights, it was time to return home. Departing Tulip City, the first third of the flight was in clear blue skies. But over Cincinnati, Lexington and Knoxville, the clouds started to fill in, and towering cumulus was ahead.

Approaching the Smoky Mountains, Knoxville Approach Control allowed us to dodge between some cumuli buildups. Later, Atlanta Approach vectored us for the ILS 27 approach into Athens, GA, due to clouds and haze.

Once on the ramp at Athens (KAHN) the weather radar in the flight planning room showed lines and clusters of thunderstorms between us and Florida. So, I took a nap in the large overstuffed leather recliners in the crew lounge. Finally about 6 pm, we decided to depart Athens, headed more or less towards home.

On climb out from Athens, the Georgia skies were murky and hazy. Thunderstorms that showed up on the XM weather display just a few miles away from our position could not be seen visually. It was just a dark, grey mass, with no horizon, even though flight visibility was at least 3 miles.

For this leg of the trip, I made the decision to stay low and fly VFR, to remain clear of any embedded storms. I cannot imagine attempting flying in these conditions either IFR or VFR without XM and a Stormscope in the panel.

So, at 3000 feet MSL, with the assistance from Augusta Approach, we bobbed and weaved our way around showers, heading ESE towards Augusta, GA. From that location, the XM weather radar indicated a clear path back to Florida. All the deviations came at a price, adding an hour to our planned two hour leg, but at least we stayed dry.

South of Jacksonville, the weather finally started to clear. At dusk, the twinkling lights of Leesburg came into view. After a long day of flying, we touched down on runway 21.

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